Q and A: Robb Woulfe discusses his background and the upcoming Ann Arbor Summer Festival
photo by Myra Klarman | for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival
In addition to main-stage shows, the festival is bringing back the popular Top of the Park series of concerts and films to Ingalls Mall, including Ann Arbor faves the Ragbirds, the Macpodz, Dick Siegel, Chris Bathgate, George Bedard & the Kingpins, and a host of others.
The always-affable Robb Woulfe has boundless enthusiasm and passion for the arts, and recently spoke to me about his theater background, this year’s ultra-cool lineup, and how the heck he keeps his sense of humor in the midst of such a marathon event.
Q: Where are you from originally and how long have you been the festival’s executive director?
A: I’m originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, and this year is my 8th season as director; my first was in 2005. I got a degree in theater at Hamline University in St. Paul, moved to New York and was out there for a number of years getting jobs in musical theater. Between gigs I fell into this great temp agency that was comprised of all actors, particularly actors from the Midwest, and we would get sent out to these great companies where they wanted people with a Midwest work ethic, not flaky artist types. I ended up temping at all these fantastic places in New York, all along thinking, “I’m going to be an actor, this is just paying the rent.”
But I started making great contacts in the film and television world and realized I enjoyed the production end of things. Ultimately that was where my passion was. I ended up going back to the Twin Cities where there was an opportunity at the Ordway Center (for the Performing Arts). The Ordway gig was about 15 years ago, and I first came to Michigan in 2002 for a managing director job at the Midland Center for the Arts. I spent a couple of years there, and when the job opened up down here in Ann Arbor I threw my name in the hat and the rest is history.
Q: Besides Bonnie Raitt, who are some other acts making their Ann Arbor Summer Festival debut this year?
A: I have a wish list that sits on my desktop, and depending on what an artist’s schedule is—if an artist is in the studio or in Europe—more often than not you don’t end up getting those on your season. For me I’ve wanted to get Rufus Wainwright (June 30 at Power Center) and Ira Glass (June 23 at Power Center) for a number of years, and we’re just thrilled to have them. A lot of people may not know about Nellie McKay (June 27 at Power Center). I love her story, as she’s all over the board: she’s a film actress, she’s a jazz singer, she’s a political activist, she plays the ukulele, she sort of does everything. She’s a very quirky, colorful artist. I’ve had my eyes on her for a number of years, and it was always the case of just trying to find the right time to bring her to the market.
She’s in that category of a number of artists we’ve done over the years—Pink Martini, Caravan Palace—where people will hopefully take a chance and will be thrilled to have discovered her. I also have a fascination with the spectacle of the circus, it’s probably the kid inside of me, and we do have this beautiful contemporary circus coming from Australia called Circa (July 6 and 7 at Power Center). It is stripped-down circus—literally—where the artists become the apparatus, so it’s not all the bells and whistles, the smoke and mirrors like you have at Cirque du Soleil. It’s more the artistry of the body and the physical beauty of that art form, and I think families are going to love it and dance aficionados are going to love it. They’re very, very popular on the international festival circuit.
Q: And what else do you have booked that kids will really enjoy?
A: The big talk-of-the-town attraction will be the dinosaurs from Australia, a delightful production called the Dinosaur Petting Zoo, from an Australian company call Erth (June 29 through July 1 on the Lawn at Power Center). It’s magnificent and features life-size dinosaur puppets kids can interact with. Master puppeteers animate these beautiful creatures which look startlingly real. I think kids are going to lose their minds with this one, and we’re delighted to have them coming to our festival. People have been asking for more of that outdoor spectacle we’ve been doing these past few years, so it’s fun to have that kind of special attraction on the season and offer it admission-free.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com file photo
A:You must be seeing someone else (laughs)! Thank you for saying that. The whole festival team has a great perspective on what we do. The business of show is loaded with drama—it comes with it—especially the outdoor component and the possibility of rain being a part of it. We have this team mentality of ‘you do what you can do, but you just move through it.’ You don’t over-think it and you don’t take it personally; you realize stuff is going to happen. I have the best production team around me, they do make all the crazy ideas I come up with happen. They’re the ones on the front lines: the ticket office, the ushers, the production staff. All I have to is show up at a party and smile, so I’ve totally got it easy. We try not to have the drama impact what we’re doing.
Q: And how pumped are you to have Bonnie Raitt making her festival debut this Friday?
A: She’s been another one of those people on my wish list, and I was particularly excited by the fact that her appearance is in support of this new album. The timing worked well, and besides being an amazing musician she’s also a good person, guided be her passions and her causes. I admire all of that so much. We are humbled that she is going to be here and the community is so excited to have her back. It’s a great way to launch into this 29th season.
For a chance to win free tickets to the Bonnie Raitt concert, see the Ann Arbor Entertainment page on Facebook. Full details on the Ann Arbor Summer Festival can be found at www.annarborsummerfestival.org. Martin Bandyke is the 6-10am morning drive host at Ann Arbor’s 107one, WQKL-FM. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at wwwmartinbandyke.com.