He froze for a moment, broke into a self-effacing laugh and then attempted a serious reply. "Up until I was 40, I was living hand to mouth," he recalls, "sometimes having to live off of a credit card to pay my bills. I was never good at marketing myself. I always believed that the work would speak for itself. But it doesn't work that way.
"I think there was a turning point nine years ago when I hit 40. I asked myself: Am I going to continue as a director, or am I going to shift to something else? Am I getting back enough for what I'm giving? I remember going through this struggle. Then I did a production in Hartford of The Laramie Project, a play that was very powerful for me. And I realized that I had no choice. My career was a vocation; it's what I am. After I had that epiphany, things started to turn for me. I took a stand, in terms of my own self-worth. I started reaching out and telling people, 'I'd really love to work for you.'
"As you work more, it begins to ripple. I did a show with Leslie Denniston, who told Paul Blake that he needed to bring me to the Muny. Then when I did The Music Man at the Muny in 2004, an actor named Jeremy Webb said that Steve Woolf and I would get along. Steve and I met for dinner. A few months later, Take Me Out [Ruggiero's first Rep production, which earned him the first of his four Kevin Kline Awards] came up.
"The next turning point occurred in 2007. I'm a cancer survivor. That peak in the curve helped me to learn to live for today. I took a different approach in terms of gratitude and of being in the moment. In large measure because of that, I try hard not to take for granted any opportunities I get. You don't always hit a home run out of the ballpark, but I'm always grateful."
Ruggiero grew up in Milford, Massachusetts, and attended regional theaters in Boston. Now he is expanding the regional theater concept in new directions. A production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill (about Billie Holiday) played eight regional theaters. His production of Ella (about Ella Fitzgerald) has toured to 23 regional theaters. Ruggiero personally shepherded every staging. "It makes money," he says with a touch of embarrassment, as if regional theaters and profit should not go hand in hand. "What I'm most proud of is that it has saved a few theaters that were getting down to that thin, thin ice. They did Ella and got a much-needed infusion."
Now with High, Ruggiero is using regional theaters to fill the void that was created when moderate-size touring theaters like the American downtown ceased to book plays. Today, new Broadway plays have little opportunity to tour prior to their openings. Ruggiero's approach benefits both the play and the regional theaters where High has appeared.
The in-demand director has not taken a vacation in three years; his calendar is currently booked into next July. In future months he'll be comebacking to Pittsburgh and Goodspeed.
What does Ruggiero expect from a theater when he arrives? No hesitation is needed to answer that question. "I want everyone to be as committed as I am," he says. "To care that this glass is the right glass and not just say that its good enough. The phrase 'good enough' triggers me into [a kind of fury]. But if everybodys doing their best, I have a blast."