A Director With No Direction

By Mona Malacane

Have you ever met someone who you find terribly intimidating because they are so experienced and well-known in your field but come to discover that they are just as human as you are (well a slightly better human than you are, but still human)? That is Robby Benson. Considering he has written two books, taught for 24 years, executive produced and directed umpteen movies and television shows, starred on Broadway, composed soundtracks, he was the voice of the Beast … (I could keep going but you get the point), he would have every right to be a “pompous asshole” (his words, not mine) if he wanted to. But that could not be further from the truth.

Not Robby.

Robby

Robby

If I had to use one word to describe Robby, it would be passionate. A trait he considers essential to working in the creative field. “That’s a responsibility that we have in the arts. So there better be passion, or else it’s really irresponsible.” He has worked in the creative arts industry since he was very young, at one point likening himself to a “circus animal” during our interview. “I think of myself as a circus animal. I have been trained since I was so young; I only really know how to do one thing really well. And that’s the arts. And within the arts I have been trained to do many many many things in front of and behind the camera. My thirst for knowledge is unquenchable … because we can just never know enough. We can never learn enough. We learn until the day we die. Especially if you’re a story teller, especially if you are in the arts.”

Robby's collage of student pictures

Robby’s collage of student pictures

Robby’s enthusiasm permeates into all aspects of his life. “I have passion when I mow the lawn, I have passion when I do the dishes, I have passion when I direct a feature film … I have passion when I teach and when I talk to people … I just really don’t know any other way to live.” He also deeply enjoys teaching and keeps a collage of pictures above his desk of his students from the two classes he is teaching this semester. A practice he has kept at every university he has taught at. He said that every time he looks up at them it reminds him of why he is here.

Despite being very congenial during our interview, Robby describes himself as “painfully shy.” Kind of ironic for a Broadway actor … But his shyness stems from working so much throughout his entire life, which left him very little time for socializing. “I never had a social life, I was always working. And I really know how to work … but if you were to say ‘after this interview, a bunch of us are getting together,’ I would close off because I do not know how to behave in those situations. And I’ve also come to realize that I make people uncomfortable when I am in those situations because I end up quiet and alone and in many times that is interpreted in the wrong way.”

However, after moving to Bloomington and meeting some of our faculty he has started to open up little by little, a feeling that is very unfamiliar to Robby. “I have reinvented myself professionally so many times, this is the first time I’ve actually looked deeper and have tried to reinvent myself as a person. So far it has been a very wonderful experience.”

In fact, people who interacted with him when he was considering the possibilities in our department were a significant part in Robby and his wife’s decision to move here. He received emails from a few of the faculty here and he described to me the feeling he had when reading each of those emails: “There was this whimsy, this whimsical sense mixed with intelligence, which is math I’m always seeking. That’s an equation you hardly ever find. And then when we came here, I found it in just about everyone I met.” From that point, “there was absolutely no competition in [his] mind.”

Like other new faculty members, he and his wife have fallen in love with Bloomington. Similar to Julien Mailland, Robby is surprised by how nice and open-minded people are here. As a nature photographer he also greatly enjoys the scenery and deer, who he described as Disney-like.

Here are a few other things I learned about Robby over the course of our interview

  1. He has a treadmill desk.

    Robby 3

    Robby’s treadmill desk

  2. Dr. Strangelove & the Wizard of OZ are the two movies he has seen the most number of times.
  3. He has done all of his own stunts.
  4. He describes himself as “annoyingly” early.
  5. He is directionally challenged (hence the title of this blog post).
  6. Interestingly, you could drop him anywhere in New York City and he would be able to navigate his way home.
  7. He has had four open heart surgeries.
  8. His sister, Shelli Segal, is a clothing designer who has her own clothing line, Laundry by Shelli Segal.
  9. He is a huge football fan.
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