Howard Shalwitz of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
In the House is a feature interview series about the theater-makers that keep our most precious institutions up and running. We want to know what artistic and executive directors love about their jobs, how they see their work affecting the city’s theater culture, and what they hope for the future of the craft.
Howard Shalwitz is the co-founder and artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which is currently in its 34th season of producing and developing contemporary new plays that “defy convention.”
Joanna Castle Miller: What does your job as an artistic director involve, and what is its purpose?
Howard Shalwitz: I used to say that my job was the guardian of the soul of the institution – and now I hate the word “institution” so I don’t say that anymore. You would think you’d define the job according to what plays we select, and the artists who work here, and the character of the work, and that’s all true; but I actually think more of my time goes into the long-term vision of the organization: What is the mission? How are we expressing our mission right now? I think I have an important role – because I’ve been here so long – as a kind of guardian of the institutional memory of the organization.
It’s really those long-term mission and vision parts of the job that I think are most important; and if you neglect that, then the theater’s really in trouble.
Mia Chung / Courtesy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Playwright Mia Chung is a member of New Dramatists and the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. She is a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA) playwriting fellow and a Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Global Connections grantee.
Her work has appeared on many stages, but most recently can be seen at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s You for Me for You—a magical realism play about two North Korean sisters separated from each other against their wills. You for Me for You is the first show of Woolly Mammoth’s Free the Beast initiative, which aims to produce 25 new plays over a ten-year period (2013-2022).
Mia recently spoke with me about playwriting, Asian-American representation in theater, and what the DC theater world has done to encourage her continued success.
A Loving Father and His Children / courtesy of Sandbrush, Inc.
Formerly an Official State Propaganda Artist of North Korea, Song Byeok was disillusioned after famine struck his home country in the 1990s. He lost his parents and sister and was brutally tortured after attempting to find food in China. He ultimately defected and now works as a satirist, using paintings to depict oppressive regimes and the people trapped within them—including many images of the dictatorship in North Korea.
After showing in DC last spring, both the artist and his paintings have returned, this time to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. During the run of You For Me for You, Song’s work will appear in full force throughout the Woolly lobby. Song will also contribute to events around the city as part of the theater’s House Lights Up program.
Joanna: When did you first decide to start creating satirical work? Was it difficult to make that transition?
You For Me For You / (left to right) Jo Mei, Ruibo Qian (photo by Scott Suchman)
Rarely does any show depict North Korea, let alone without jokes about the crazy Kim family or nuclear missiles. The people who struggle there, and who risk everything to flee, remain somewhat mysterious to most Americans. But they take center stage in the innovative and provocatively told You for Me for You at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
The show centers around two sisters who bargain with a smuggler after facing starvation at home—bargaining that spans the globe and requires everything they have. Told through magical realism, the production uses music, poetry, and very thoughtful set design to guide the story. A revolving stage accentuates the element of running away. A nearly impenetrable wall represents the closed-off North Korea.
On the surface, the show might sound rather dreary; but playwright Mia Chung and director Yury Urnov avoid being overly didactic or political, and as a result the setting never weighs down the piece. Instead, the storytelling feels well-balanced between comedy and tragedy, between light and darkness.
Mike Daisey in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Photo credit: Stan Barouh
Mike Daisey, the famous-turned-infamous creator and star of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, has returned to Woolly Mammoth with his controversial production. The show – a monologue about all things Apple, including geekery, gadgets, and Chinese factories – inspired a national inquiry into Apple’s manufacturing process. It also caused a public outcry as his “work of nonfiction” was later revealed to be partly fiction.
I didn’t want to bore you with the ugly details, because you’ve heard them already from former staffers at Woolly Mammoth, from NPR’s This American Life (TAL), and from Daisey himself.
Instead, I headed over to Woolly Mammoth last week to see the show for a second time. Then I spoke with Mr. Daisey about coming back to our fair city and what he thinks of our very favorite thing: us.
Eric Hissom and Katie deBuys in “In the Next Room or the vibrator play.” Photo credit: Stan Barouh.
Ah, the Victorians! Always keeping the naughty bits tightly corseted. Such control freaks. At least, that’s our view of them now. It might come as a shock to learn about such inventions as the “electric massager,” on the scene in the 1870’s to relieve the frayed nerves of delicate housewives suffering from mysterious bouts of anxiety. Even more of a shock to learn before the dawn of the electrical age, physicians alleviated such symptoms of their patients the um, old-fashioned way, through manual manipulation. Yet somehow the resulting “paroxysms” and the accompanying relief were seen as strictly therapeutic and not erotic. Masters of keeping the physical and the sexual realms separate, those Victorians. One side Health, the other Damnation.
MORE: The history of humans sexual fantasies and exploration is a rich subject. The use of sex toys has been recorded hundreds of years ago, which makes dildos and vibrators available today on local stores and even online from sex shops like Plug Lust is not surprising. Read more on the topic with articles published by Fiona Petree.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company‘s 2010-2011 season is titled “A Striptease for Your Subconscious” – and if the first play out of the gate is any indication, this is going to be one wild ride. In the Next Room, or the vibrator play explores this acutely private dance between the physical and the sexual, between control and release. Yes, it’s a play about a male scientist/physician using a primitive vibrator on his female patients (and one male) to bring them to orgasm in order to restore the bloom in their cheeks, and yes there are several scenes depicting this, but there’s a lot more going on. Playwright Sarah Ruhl dances on the edge of fairy tale, weaving the mythology of feminine awakening with just enough sweetness to win over any prudish audience member. The final moment of reveal and revelation might still shock some, but its daringness is rather beautiful.
In the Next Room or the vibrator play presents us with a seemingly ill-matched couple – the practical man of science Dr. Givings (a briskly authoritative Eric Hissom) and his wife, the charmingly impulsive Catherine (a radiant Katie deBuys). Sense and sensibility, these two. The doctor plies his trade in the next room, protecting his wife from his work and denying her the deeper affection she craves. The love they share is blocked, just as the unseen walls separate the doctor’s operating room from the drawing room, as the society separates the physical from the erotic. Into their circle weave other blocked lives, some comical, others heart-wrenching. Continue reading
Charles Ross in "one Man Lord of the Rings" Photo credit: Chris Mueller
Take three films totalling 11 hours and 23 minutes with some 42 characters, elaborate sound effects and music. Now compact all those elements into 65 minutes – performed by one man. Yes, One Man Lord of the Rings is exactly as titled. Written and performed by Charles Ross as a homage to the Peter Jackson films, it’s a manic mixture of both geek cred and skillful stage presence.
Ross is a Canadian actor and playwright also responsible for the wildly popular One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, which he first performed in DC as part of the 2006 Capital Fringe Festival. While at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in the winter of 2007 for a return engagement, he mentioned to Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann that he was working on an adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Herrmann, a fellow Tolkien fan, jumped at the chance to host him when next on tour. One Man Lord of the Rings is at Woolly now through August 1.
Certainly there’s no arguing that this is a riveting display of talent – guided by the direction of longtime collaborator TJ Dawe, Ross goes through a rapid array of transformations both vocal and physical. But is a knowledge of the films necessary to enjoy it? Has too much time passed since the films’ worldwide success? Ross asked those questions himself at the end of the performance I attended, with humble self-deprecation. The response, however, was overwhelmingly positive from both the hardcore LOTR fans and those who had managed to never see them or even read the books. It was a hypnotic and hilarious evening.
The Neo-Futurists in "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" at Woolly Mammoth. Photo credit: Colin Hovde
Thirty plays in sixty minutes. That’s the goal, anyway – a race against the onstage clock for five performers to present pieces based on their own life experiences. The catch? They have no idea what order the mini-plays will be performed. A long clothesline of hanging numbers lines the stage, and it’s up to the audience to determine the order by calling out the number on the spot. Frantically running into place, the actors launch into piece after piece as the clock ticks on. Some nights they make it, some they don’t. And at the end of every night, an audience member rolls a die to see how many plays get subbed out for new ones the next night.
A recipe for chaos? That’s the Neo-Futurists. Continue reading
Michael Russotto, Sarah Marshall, Daniel Escobar, Jessica Frances Dukes in Woolly Mammoth's "Full Circle." Photo credit: Stan Barouh
Twenty years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell. It seemed proof positive that an overwhelming force of people could make a change for good, a stand against government oppression, by sheer numbers and tenacity, forever dispelling the myth of public apathy. Still true?
Woolly Mammoth’s production of Charles L. Mee’s rather chaotic “Full Circle” pushes and pulls the audience, moving around multiple physical settings in an attempt to put you in that head space of the crowd at the falling of the Berlin Wall. Are we meant to be spectators or participants? Maybe both.
The play is a riff on the original Chinese myth of the chalk circle, which in turn inspired Bertolt Brecht’s “Caucausian Chalk Circle.” There are certainly Brechtian moments in this production. Brecht’s own Berliner Ensemble features in the play, with its later director Heiner Muller even a character. He’s performed by Woolly’s Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz. How’s that for full circle? It’s a classic piece of Brechtian detachment.
Do you need to know any of this deeper theatrical knowledge to enjoy the play? I’m not sure, because as I have that knowledge, it completely informed my experience. I have a feeling just as a participant in a crowd experiences different aspects, so will audience members here. Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Artist – they’re all here. Every character is an archetype – we’ve even got Warren Buffet making a deus ex machina appearance!
Ayesha Ngaujah, Uzo Aduba and Liz Femi Wilson in "Eclipsed" at Woolly Mammoth, photo credit Stan Barouh
At what point does the abominable become mundane? At what point is a woman raped so much that she can shrug it off? At what point does she become so immune to violence against herself that she can turn around and become the perpetrator, the pimp and the executioner? And at what point does our isolation and ignorance of these events make us culpable?
These are pretty hard core questions. You wouldn’t expect it to be actually enjoyable to plumb these depths. But Woolly Mammoth’s production of “Eclipsed” succeeds.
Playwright Danai Gurira is a Zimbabwean-American whose interviews with Liberian women who had fought and survived its brutal civil war provide the intense realism of the play. It’s this informed backbone that drives the action beyond the sentimentalism that can poison pieces on women in war, and director Liesl Tommy finds the humor in those ugly depths as well, avoiding any pity party.
Five very different women – three tied to a warlord’s camp, a rebel soldier, and a peace negotiator – all share a common trait. Despite the horror of their lives, they adapt with a tenacious survival instinct. Continue reading
The full cast of Barack Stars
photo by Colin Hovde
Barack Stars isn’t a play or a musical – it’s almost two hours of sketch comedy that has a general but not terribly specific theme. I don’t say that as a judgment – I just want us to have our definitions in line. We can’t really talk about the script, overt or implied themes, or much of anything else we might use to rate a play. The performers aren’t really called upon to inhabit a character and make us empathize or connect with them; if anything, too much nuance is a detriment when you’re trying to do an impression. It’s called a sketch for a reason.
So when talking about this production I’m lifting from my beloved Filmspotting (which I believe they said they lifted from someone else) and making a determination about if it’s good or not based on only one thing: Did it make me laugh?
Most definitely Continue reading
KenYatta Rogers and Kate Eastwood Norris in "Fever/Dream" at Woolly Mammoth. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Battle of the sexes, generational conflict, and class warfare all tied up in a screwball comedy that re-imagines Calderon’s classic “Life is a Dream” – this is Woolly Mammoth‘s world premiere of Sheila Callaghan’s “Fever/Dream.” It’s a frolic, but with bite.
There’s something for everyone to relate to here. The generations are neatly drawn – Boomers worrying about relinquishing control, Gen Xers bitterly bemoaning the loss of their ideals to get ahead, Millennials seemingly disinterested but eager to be inspired. Witty references to the modern mania for celebrity culture abound.
Poor neglected Segis (an engaging Daniel Eichner) is chained up in the basement of a mega-corporation, doomed forever to serve in Customer Service. His crime? Being born on Black Monday, symbolizing the worst double losses of his corporate shark father Bill Basil – his money and his wife. But what if this hapless kid became head of the company? Would he be able to rise above revenge and pain to do what’s right for his employees? It’s really a King-for-a-Day morality play, peppered with hilarious moments – the accountant staff literally whipped into shape, the struggling temp (a heartbreaking Jessica Frances Dukes) grinding out meaningless tasks to perfection, the associates blogging on the job.
While Segis flounders in his new role, two rivals for the throne of CEO wage war against him and each other. “Coward,” hisses Kate Eastwood Norris as the chilly Stella Strong. “Cougar,” snaps KenYatta Rogers as the dapper Aston Martin. It’s a Hepburn/Tracy pairing for the 21st Century, and these two give what could have easily been cold caricatures a brilliant sheen. Love them. Continue reading