Howard Shalwitz: We do a lot of world premieres at Woolly and a lot of second productions. In every play we do, we are engaging very deeply with the writer over a long period of time to help them finish the work and sometimes we’re commissioning a play from scratch. I'm a perennially restless artistic director, and I'm always looking at the work that we do and saying, "How can we go farther? How can we do better?" And for Woolly, it's about continuing to push the boundaries of our audience and of our artists, and not being afraid, never underestimating our audience. We are challenge junkies, and we have an audience which we think also wants to be challenged."
Jo Reed That is Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz talking about the Theater he leads, the Woolly Mammoth.
Welcome to Art Works that program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
Now in its 31st year, the Woolly Mammoth Theater has managed to become a Washington DC institution while presenting edgy and provocative work. The Woolly philosophy is that experimentation and artistic excellence must go hand-in-hand. And The Theater brings fresh challenging plays to DC that connect audiences with a particular issue in unexpected ways. For Woolly, the show continues long after the curtain comes down; it’s known for its community engagement, often presenting forums, and post-show talk-backs as well maintaining an active online presence. This focus on innovation and engagement has paid off throughout the years. Last season, for example, they presented a second production of Bruce Norris’s play Clybourne Park, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize as well as an Olivier and the Woolly production won two Helen Hayes Awards, one for best Drama and the other for best director, Howard Shalwitz.
I spoke to Howard about the Woolly Mammoth Theatre and Clybourne Park the week after the Helen Hayes Awards. Here’s our conversation.
Jo Reed: Well, first off congratulations.
Howard Shalwitz: Well, thank you Jo.
Jo Reed: You are not just the artistic director of Woolly mammoth, you’re also one of the founding members. When you began 31 years ago outside of NY, it was very difficult for new playwrights to get their work out there.
Howard Shalwitz: Yeah, you had what's called the regional theater scene, including the anchors, like Arena Stage here in Washington. And these bigger companies that were doing an eclectic season of stuff, a lot of classics and a little bit of new work. But that rise of the kind of smaller and mid-size theater scene was, as you said, later. And this explosion that we're seeing now of new work is really something relatively recent. Woolly was a sort of pioneering new play producer. New plays became the core of our mission in 1990 actually. And still, there were very few theaters doing new work regularly at that time. But now, almost every theater is sort of embracing new work in some way or another as part of its overall mission. Like at Arena Stage, you have a lot of classics, but you also have some new works in the mix, even Studio Theater, which up until the last couple of years, really didn’t do any kind of world premieres, I think under David Muse, is talking about doing some newer work. So it's gotten to be a bigger thing in the field.
Jo Reed: But that was your idea from the beginning, doing new work.
Howard Shalwitz: Yeah, our idea, more than anything, was challenging our audience. I think the key thing for Woolly, we always say we want to be one step ahead of our audience, but not two. So we want to talk about big themes, we increasingly want to connect with what it means to live in Washington and the kinds of themes that people in here in this city are interested in. We have one of the smartest audiences in America at Woolly Mammoth and I think in Washington in general. But I think at Woolly in particular, where the audience skews a little bit younger, it's diverse across many, many different dimensions in terms of age and background and ethnicity. And we have a big international community here, so all of those things, I think, influence our desire to kind of tee up a conversation with every show about something we think is worth talking about.
We're not looking to congratulate our wonderful liberal audience for the things they already think and feel nicely. But we're looking to comment them from an unusual and unexpected angle, to challenge them to think even harder about their own lives.
Jo Reed: Well Clybourne Park certainly does that; it raises issues of race and of gentrification. Woolly Mammoth has had a very long relationship with the playwright, Bruce Norris. Correct?
Howard Shalwitz: Yeah, actually, Bruce has had several key relationships. Obviously Steppenwolf, where he was sort of, I guess a resident playwright for a while, and his early work was done there. Playwrights Horizons and Woolly have been among his, kind of, key relationships, I think. We've just done one previous play, that was "The Unmentionables," which I think is just a brilliant work, and I hope that the Pulitzer for Clybourne actually leads people back to rediscovering "The Unmentionables," because I think it's an equally great work. Of course we're at the point now with our relationship, where we're trying to read every play of Bruce's as soon as he'll let us read it. I think he sent us Clybourne pretty early on. And I think we were probably the first theatre to commit to doing it, and then, we have a policy of not standing in the way of any other production. We don't have kind of premiere-itis at Woolly. I think we do so many new plays that we're comfortable doing the first production, the second production, we swap back and forth with other theatres all the time, so I think shortly after we committed, a couple of months later, Playwrights Horizons came along and had a slot earlier in their season, and we said fine. So they kind of were gestating at the same time, in a way.
Jo Reed: Can you talk about that process, that journey from page to stage?
Howard Shalwitz: Yeah, it's interesting to-- especially in the case of a play that turned out so well as "Clybourne Park," and ultimately has won all these awards, and gotten so much attention, it is interesting to look back and go, "Hmm, what did I think when I actually read it for the first time?" Because it wasn't without some controversy. The play is initially a riff on “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry. It's a play that obviously deals with issues of race and gentrification, and those are very pressing issues in our city. And so what I recall is that we had a robust internal conversation, as to whether the play, in the form we first read it, captured those issues in a way that we felt was just exactly current. And in fact, it was just shortly after the election of Obama, where these issues were transforming very, very quickly. So you know there was a process of going, okay, does this capture it, does it not capture it, where is it working, where is it not working? Some conversations back and forth with Bruce, because he was also expressing an interest in doing some further rewrites on the play, to reflect the new environment of the post-Obama election environment. And so, you know, it was a process of judging it. I knew that the writing was fantastic. I think my initial judgment of Clybourne was the first act was some of the best writing that Bruce had ever done. There was a depth and an emotionality, an emotional specificity to the characters, and the way that it riffed on "A Raisin in the Sun," was so powerful.
Jo Reed: You said Clybourne Park was a riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun.” Tell us how it departs from the original and what Bruce Norris does with that material.
Howard Shalwitz: I don’t know how well you remember that play, probably quite well. But in Hansberry’s play there’s a white man who comes and presents himself to the Younger family to try to convince them not to move out of the black neighborhood that they live in and not to move out into this white neighborhood where they purchased a house. And
in "Clybourne Park," in the 50s, in the setting of the A Raisin in the Sun, this guy Karl Lindner, having failed to convince the Youngers now arrives at the home of the white couple who is selling the house to them and tries to convince them not to sell the house to the Youngers. And it tees up a very heated conversation in which a group of characters, both black and white, get involved in the '50s, in the setting of Raisin in the Sun, in a very heated conversation, about fundamental values, about neighborhoods and gentrification and race. And then, we look at the same house 50 years later in the second act, and see the same actors play a whole new set of characters in a sort of hilarious and very provocative confrontation about the remodeling of a house in a neighborhood that doesn’t feel all that different from a lot of neighborhoods in Washington today where gentrification is going on all the time.
I think that I couldn't have predicted how successfully that 50 act-- that 50 year strategy that Bruce had in the writing would play out in the theatre, and it played out, I have to say, really brilliantly.
Jo Reed: Howard, you're the artistic director, but you also directed "Clybourne Park." What went into your decision to choose that play?
Howard Shalwitz: You know, it's-- we have a-- Woolly's a 31 year old, theatre company at this point. And we're always going through our own evolution about how we realize our very specific mission, in our own particular city. I would say, in the season that "Clybourne Park" was part of, we were especially-- it was our 30th anniversary season, and we had decided that we were especially keen on finding plays that gave us a chance to engage in civic discourse, and to draw our audience into dialogue about our city, our time, our place, and issues that we thought were really pressing. And "Clybourne Park" obviously, race is a major question, in Washington. So that was a major drawing-- a draw for us. I think that, stylistically, "Clybourne Park" is really on the realistic side for Woolly. Our raison d'être as a theatre, tends to be work which is less realistic, which is more stylistically innovative, and Bruce would, I think, readily say, that he's looking to talk to an audience stylistically in a way that they understand, and have a frame of reference for in other plays that they've seen, so that he can talk to them about issues in a fresh way and a new way, so he's not looking to invent both the style and the content with every play. I think he sells himself short, because I think, even as a stylistic innovator, Bruce can't be sold short. In plays like "The Pain and the Itch," and "We All Went Down To Amsterdam," I think he does some very innovative things, and even the idea of a play that has the same group of actors playing two sets of characters 50 years apart, is its own stylistic innovation, which I think is quite brilliant. But his major goal was to tee up these questions about race and gentrification in Chicago, where the play is set, in Washington, really, all over the country. He never names the city of Chicago in the play, and intentionally, he wanted it to be a play that was about, really a national conversation. So it happened to fit into a particular season. It was building on a relationship with a writer who I really believe in, and it was teeing up a conversation that was very, very germane to our city, so all of those things played a role in it. Plus, I loved it, and so I really fought to direct it. Bruce had a whole series of pre-existing director relationships and I had to fight through all of that, to get him to agree to work with me as a director for the first time. Fortunately he knew my work from some other productions of mine he'd seen, and so that helped.
Jo Reed: Did you work very closely with him?
Howard Shalwitz: Yeah, very closely. I mean, on these first two productions, and I think probably on the succeeding two or three, the London production and probably at least one more, Bruce was very, very involved, and he's a great collaborator. He's an actor, so he can-- he feels how the acting goes in the play, as a writer, I think he has a visualization of the world of the play, and so, I was certainly keen to hear his thoughts about all of those, and at the same time, it's a tricky process of, sort of carving out my own territory as a director. And there were places where we disagreed and butted heads, and I think that's healthy. I think he pushed me, and I think that I pushed him, and ultimately we both came to a place that we, I can't speak for him, but I think that we thought was absolutely a great, great representation of the play. On the actor front, Bruce was so helpful. And he really insisted, as I would insist as well, but he was helpful in this, on a scrupulous honesty to the approach and to never over-emotionalize anything beyond what's absolutely called for by the world of the play. I think that what we succeeded at at Woolly, is a very, very true, very emotionally rich and full world, but never histrionic, never emotional beyond just exactly what's there in the play, and making sure that the characters were always representing themselves from their own particular point of view, because the play thrives on representing multiple points of view about these issues of race and gentrification and you have to believe in every one of them for the audience to have the rich experience of that give and take.
Jo Reed: How do you work, Howard, do you put actors on their feet very quickly, do you have them rehearse for a long period of time, do you give them resources that you'd like them to draw on?
Howard Shalwitz: Yeah, all of the above. I actually, in the case of "Clybourne Park," made a strategic decision, which was different from what I usually do. I almost dispensed with table work completely, which is very rare. Table work, meaning sitting around, you know, with the actors, usually for three or four days, and researching, going through the script, learning what the key actions and objectives are, sort of talking about the basic back story, and then getting on our feet. I decided in this case, I had four company members who are super veteran Woolly actors, who I'd worked with many times before, and then some other fantastic newcomers, but whose work I knew fairly well, and I felt like, with the normal four week rehearsal period, which is basically what we have at Woolly, and which is about as much as most American theatres have, that it was better to get on their feet and physicalize it, and I think that I made that choice, because I felt that the house was a major character in the play, and it was one of my goals in the production and in the design, we really made the house feel like a character in the play, and that, to do too much conversation without having that engagement with the physical environment, didn't mean that much. So that was a change for the way I usually work, and it paid off a lot. It allowed everybody to feel that they got further faster. And what happened was, we just took the time as we need it to do the kind of table work analysis and back story analysis and emotional discussions and everything and in a way, it made me feel less rushed, ironically. So those are just choices you make with every show. There was a lot of research, obviously, that I had to do into the world of the 1950s part of the play in particular, having to do with the way, obviously researching "Raisin in the Sun," and the background of that play, but also the way in which these issues of race played out in neighborhoods in the '50s, the role that attorneys played, the role that neighborhood associations played, so there was a lot I had to learn. And then that you're encouraging the actors to learn as well. And Bruce was a great resource there, because he had researched the play very thoroughly when he wrote it, and so he could kind of jump start some of that conversation
Jo Reed: And a kind of Woolly component to it is that each production is surrounded by what you call "connectivity events." Explain that.
Howard Shalwitz: Yeah, connectivity is a new focus. It's a sort of innovation area here at Woolly over the last couple of years. I think in America, we tend to think of theater as being a form of entertainment that's sort of off in the corner of the culture for just a certain segment of the population. And our goal, situated where we are, downtown in the nation's capital, has been to say, "How do we break through that perception, and how do we start to think about a play as part of a larger dialogue that's happening throughout Washington everyday?" So what we are doing with every play is sort of saying, "What's the conversation the playwright wants to have? Who would need to be in the audience to make that conversation a meaningful conversation?" In other words, if the play is about racial issues, you can't have an audience that's all white or all black or all Latino. You need to mix those people up. If the play is about economic justice, you can't have an audience of all rich people. The dialogue doesn’t have any meaning if it doesn't have people from many classes represented. So being intentional about how we design an audience for a show, and then create points of entry for different audiences, some of whom may have never been to the theater before. And then, engage all sorts of audiences, our traditional subscription going audience, new audiences that we bring in around a particular topic or a particular show, to design a set of activities in our lobby, in our playbill, online, on our website, which is we have one of the most active theater blogs in America, and through special events like forums and post-show conversations with invited guests, so that the issues that are embedded in the plays really become part of the city's dialogue. It’s like we think "Oh, theater is this ivory tower thing that only certain theater-educated people understand." But in fact, theater is about real life. And when you work hard to say, "What's the real life in this play? And who are the people who share that life, or whose work gives them a special interest in that life?" And let them talk about the work and share their reflections with the regular theater going audience, you get a very, very powerful and exciting engagement for our artists, for our audiences and for the community at large.
Jo Reed: Now, do you think part of the reason there was this or has been this disconnect between real life and theater and the ivory tower has something to do with ticket prices?
Howard Shalwitz: I think ticket prices are a huge factor and I think they're really crippling the field in a lot of ways. And yet, the economics of theater are so marginal that there's always pressure to raise your ticket prices. So every theater has its own way of trying to address that. At Woolly, I think we were one of the national pioneers of what's called "Pay what you can" nights. And you probably know, we still do those. Our first two previews of every show are "Pay what you can." We don’t sell any tickets in advance. People come and line up around the block. They almost always sell out and people pay an average. I don’t want to say the average, but it's not very high <laughs> because we want to encourage some people to pay more and some people to pay less. But you can pay a penny or you can pay $20.00, whatever suits you. And that really has helped us by committing to that so consistently over so many years, to continue to maintain a very young audience, and an audience which is economically diverse. We have a million other programs that address that, as well. Any student can get a ticket for $20.00 at Woolly Mammoth. Anyone under 30 can get a ticket at Woolly any night for $20.00. And then, we do all sorts of other special promotions so that price isn't a barrier. But that's a message we have to keep working to get out there, because I think you're absolutely right. The general perception, when people see the regular ticket prices, which at Woolly are somewhere between $40 and $65. They go, "Oh, well, that's not for me." But in fact, there's almost always a way, at least at Woolly, to get an inexpensive ticket if you call and ask. And I think that's true of a lot of theaters, as well. People just need to investigate a little bit.
Jo Reed: I mean, you have to be patting yourself on the back, because …
Howard Shalwitz: Clybourne is coming back, yeah, which is exciting.
Jo Reed: To the Woolly Mammoth and you-- that was arranged before the Pulitzer, before the Helen Hayes Awards.
Howard Shalwitz: Even before we finished the run at Woolly, which was this enormous kind of success, we-- it wasn't-- and it wasn't even so much that we wanted to bring it back to make money. We'll lose money on the remount just as much as we lost doing it originally. You know, we lose money on every show we do, and in fact we ended up replacing a sort of fringe opportunity, where we usually do something inexpensive, with something that's quite expensive. Clybourne is very technically expensive, as well as having a good sized cast. But it's that the conversation around the show, about race and gentrification in our city, was so rich, because we surrounded the show with a lot of post-show activity, invited guests commenting on the play, forums dealing with issues about race in our city, reaching out to neighborhood bloggers and engaging them in online conversation about the play, we really made a big feature of that in the play, and in fact it became a model for a lot of our later productions. And we felt that was such a rich thing, that that's what we were really wanting to come back to. Plus, we were able to-- the cast loved doing the play, so they were able to all commit to doing it again. And it was a rare opportunity. Sure, at that point, we couldn't anticipate that it would win the Olivier Award, the Pulitzer Prize, these two Helen Hayes Awards, and who knows what other awards it might have already won in some other cities where it's been done.
Jo Reed: And finally, Woolly Mammoth, where did the name come from?
Howard Shalwitz: Well we were drunk, that's the only real explanation. You know, it was founded by myself and Roger Brady. It was an idea we cooked up in New York in the late '70s when we were both actors there, and we really, really, we drank an entire bottle of really bad red wine, and just made a list of all the names we could think of. That list is still in our archives, and sure enough, Woolly Mammoth is on it. You know, it was the same period when Steppenwolf was named. I think there was a tendency at the time, to do slightly kooky theatre names, to sort of identify your own unique niche, and Woolly Mammoth just stuck.
Jo Reed: What’s cool about it is, I love the idea of a Woolly production …
Howard Shalwitz: Well now it's become an adjective, the idea of woolly. To me, there's an irony in it, too, because of course the woolly mammoth is a very, very old animal that's now extinct, that goes back to the, I don't know, the 11 or 12,000 years, not the dinosaur age, but the ice age, and so there's an irony in that a company, which is really trying to position itself on the leading edge, and do almost all new work, and often very stylistically inventive new work, very provocative new work, in terms of the kinds of conversations we're trying to have, that the name is both, I think, backward looking and forward looking. So I think I've always found that a little bit ironic, but somehow it works.
Jo Reed: Howard, thank you so much and congratulations again.
Howard Shalwitz: Thanks.
Jo Reed: That was Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. You’ve been listening to Art You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from “Foreric: piano study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, Sean Wilentz discusses his biography of Bob Dylan.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.