Washington People: Charlie Robin

Edison Theatre’s Renaissance man seeks ‘creativity, fully expressed’

Charlie Robin (right), executive director of Edison Theatre, with Pete Winfrey, a junior in Arts & Sciences. Robin has a real eye for “talent and innovation,” says Robert Wiltenburg, PhD, dean of University College in Arts & Sciences. “The whole point of Ovations is to bring new things to campus. He’s taking chances on all of our behalves, and he has a very good sense of what we’d like to see and what we should be seeing.”

Charlie Robin, the affable, red-haired, 6-foot-6 executive director of Edison Theatre, knits.

He knits on planes, in cinemas and in his office. He knits waiting for performances to start. He knits during meetings, and he knits on those rare nights at home watching television.

Knitting, Robin says, is “the perfect stress relief.”

“It takes up all the extra space in my brain so I can focus on an idea or concept,” he says. “Plus, when your feet are as big as mine, it’s cheaper to knit your own socks.”

So he knits whenever and wherever he can, teaching himself new patterns and stitches and experimenting in “technique and texture.”

Exactly what I do for the Edison!” Robin, a WUSTL alumnus, says.

Since 2000, Robin has been responsible for the slate of shows that make up the annual Edison Ovations and ovations for young people series. It’s a challenge, each year, to come up with a schedule that is intellectually stimulating and fits the mission of Washington University in St. Louis.

“What we’re more known for at the Edison is ‘skirting the edge,’ ” Robin says. “It’s that ‘how do you take a familiar title’ and make it distinct for the Edison? We often are doing things that no one else in the region will do.

“A lot of my job is curating a season that is not only about finding good work, but one that will develop the openness and interest of the audience to be more expansive, more adventurous and willing to have fun.

“I get giddy when I talk about this stuff,” Robin says. “People will say the search is half the fun. The search is a lot of fun, and the sale of it, from year to year, is what I trained here to do.”

“He brings a financial hard-headedness to the operation, along with a real eye for talent and innovation,” says Robert Wiltenburg, PhD, dean of University College in Arts & Sciences and one of the people Robin reports to on a regular basis.

“The whole point of Ovations is to bring new things to campus. He’s taking chances on all of our behalves, and he has a very good sense of what we’d like to see and what we should be seeing.”

Robin, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the Olin Business School with a minor in music in Arts & Sciences, didn’t set out for a career in theater, but just about everything he has done in his life has prepared him for his very visible role at Edison.

Getting noticed

Growing up in north St. Louis County — the fifth of six children — Robin learned the value of hard work and becoming a “presence.” His dad died when he was 10, and by that point, he says, he was mowing lawns and shoveling snow to help his mom pay the bills.

“My father made it clear to me early on that it’s better to be the boss, so I had a manager’s mindset from a very early age,” he says.

Robin, blessed with blazing red hair, also realized that since hiding wasn’t an option, he might as well embrace the spotlight. “So I started living my life,” he says, “as ‘What am I offering?’ If I’m going to be noticed, I better start delivering the goods.”

The “goods” came in the form of a deep baritone voice and a part in a junior high school barbershop quartet. High school, then WUSTL followed, but, true to his blue-collar background, he went for the business degree instead of fine arts — and worked his way through school delivering singing telegrams.

“I often had to arrive in class in costume running from an early-morning gig, to a class, back to another telegram,” he says.

Along the way, he developed a lust for learning. “I have always immersed myself in a wide range of topics,” he says. “Spanish, sign language, a variety of things. I don’t feel the need to be the best at any of those, but to be as proficient as I can and connected so I have an appreciation and an understanding for various topics.

“I think people say that’s multifaceted, a Renaissance man, whatever,” he laughs. “When I first heard the term ‘Renaissance man’ I thought, ‘Well, that sounds like a goal!’”

Finding his people

Robin, 46, is in his second stint with the university and Edison; he first was hired as operations manager right out of WUSTL, after participating in Olin’s first London internship program. His internship assignment: the classic theater, the Old Vic, in Bristol, England.

Robin (right) with his partner of 19 years, Al Fischer, and Al’s niece. Courtesy photo.The experience was life-altering.

“I got this phenomenal theater management internship in England — total immersion in the industry. And they took me under their wing and to conferences and meetings, and I said, ‘OK, I found my people!’

“The program didn’t just open up doors to a new path, it knocked down the walls and laid the asphalt for the road,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today had it not been for this extraordinary opportunity.”

Robin was Edison’s operations manager for six years, a tremendous learning experience. But other opportunities lay ahead.

Robin was a baritone in the emerging a cappella group Pieces of 8, and the group needed a manager. The artistic director also was starting a software development company, so Robin, with his business background, wore two hats, managing a startup and a singing group from one desk with a two-line phone.

“Running two companies at one time? Foolish move,” he says. “I would say, ‘In this room I have singers’ and ‘In this room I have programmers’ and let’s see which ones are vying to be the biggest diva.”

He laughs, but again, it was experience tailor-made for the constantly-spinning-plate-existence in which he thrives today.

Robin also worked as entertainment coordinator at Laumeier Sculpture Park and executive director of Circus Flora, which is where he was in 2000 when a national search for a new Edison director found him in WUSTL’s backyard.

Creative fulfillment

Since then, Robin has worked tirelessly to create an annual schedule that will challenge, educate and inspire its audience.

“I’m not going to satisfy everyone every time they come to the Edison,” he says. “It is not my goal. If it were, it would become fluff.

“To cater to the least common denominator is not ever what WUSTL is about. Excellence underscores every aspect of what Washington University’s commitment is — its commitment to the community and its commitment to the students — and excellence is my goal at Edison.”

Robin, who works out of an overstuffed Daytimer, has to do it in a way that fits in with the all the other groups and organizations vying for space on the Edison stage and at the 560 Music Center, including eight weeks of Performing Arts Department shows and five major student cultural organizations — four of which perform in the spring semester.

With all that juggling, Robin rarely finds leisure time. When he does, it involves music, theater and dance with his partner of 19 years, musician Al Fischer.

“We are passionate about the arts,” he says. “When we have free time, we enjoy game nights at home. I’m a knitter, he’s a cross-stitcher.”

But the academic year has started, and Robin and Fischer’s game nights will have to wait. This week, Robin is back in his Mallinckrodt Center office after a late-summer trip to the 2011 International Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he scouted acts for the 2013-14 season and beyond.

“I never tire of my job,” he says. “That’s a gift. I’m constantly on the lookout for creativity, fully expressed. All that I do, all that I surround myself with, is to ensure that I — and everyone around me — reaches their creative fulfillment.

“Creativity, fully expressed, is my entire life.”

Fast facts about Charlie Robin

Partner: Al Fischer, musician and artistic director of the Gateway Men’s Chorus
Degree: BSBA, 1987, Washington University; working on a master’s degree in arts management at Webster University
Where you can find him: At 6-6, he’s hard to miss. Robin is on stage before an Ovations performance; sitting in the back row, center during each performance; and afterward in the Edison lobby, greeting and meeting patrons and gauging audience reaction.
What you might not know about an Ovations season: Robin chooses a book or novel for each performance to go along with the multidisciplinary aspect of the Ovations season. A list of this year’s selections is available at edison.wustl.edu.