Woolly’s Founder: On the Brink of Second Act

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Back in early June, the announcement came that Howard Shalwitz would be stepping down as artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which has given Washington consistently fresh, ahead-of-the-curve, cutting-edge theater for the past 37 — 37! — years.

The announcement came as a surprise to many D.C. theatergoers, if not to Woolly regulars — and certainly not to Shalwitz himself. “I and we at the theater have been thinking about it for a number of years, and preparing for just such an occasion. And I feel this appears to be the right time to do this.”

By the right time, Shalwitz means that he will give up the reins not now but at the end of the coming season, which he will kick off by starring as Biedermann in Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s “The Arsonists.” “It’s been a while,” Shalwitz said, “but I love acting and this seems to be a particularly right time to do that again.”

Shalwitz’s performance in 2004’s “Lenny & Lou” by Ian Cohen still remains risibly in the mind.

Both Shalwitz and Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who announced his retirement — set for the end of the 2018-19 season — in February, are part of a remarkable cohort of founders/artistic directors/survivors/institutional leaders in Washington that also includes Studio Theatre founder Joy Zinoman, who retired in 2010.

Still, Woolly Mammoth is unique. Shalwitz and his friend and cofounder Roger Brady moved to Washington “to create new plays, to challenge audiences, to provoke.” Their new company “would have actors that loved challenges and taking risks.”

After more than 200 plays, including 78 world and U.S. premieres, 45 Helen Hayes Awards, several moves and a “rich” period of nomadism, followed by its secure arrival at its current downtown location at 641 D St. NW, Woolly remains something new — as loud as an angry protest, often as deep as an unexpected meditation, as funny as a pratfall in church, urgent and unexpected as a desperate and sometimes deliriously incoherent outburst. There is no walking slow, no dearth of fresh ideas and ways of doing things. 

“It’s been a while, but I love acting and this seems to be a particularly right time to do that again.”
– Howard Shalwitz

The announcement of Shalwitz’s retirement came just as “An Octoroon” (reprised from the 2015-16 season) returned, running through Aug. 6. The knife-sharp, wounding, funny play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins hits just about every note on race in America ever imagined, and some never imagined.

In that way, it’s an entirely characteristic Woolly play — an unexpected parting gift, a new arrival in a long line of new arrivals at the theater.

“It’s a Woolly play, sure, that’s what we do. We explore, in ways that move forward,” Shalwitz said. “It’s a remarkable play, a real play since it’s actually based on plays done just before the Civil War. It poses questions about identity — we see a man, a black man, putting on white paint because he didn’t have enough white actors.

“And it’s shocking. Just when you’re laughing and it feels contemporary, it forces you to face your own thoughts about race and identity.”

This writer can think back 30 years or so to a play called “The Vienna Notes,” about which Shalwitz remembers little. But it led to a decade’s worth of plays that featured an array of talented and unforgettable playwrights, as well as a roster of actors equally talented and unforgettable: Jennifer Mendenhall, Grover Gardner, the late Grainne Cassidy, Michael Willis, Rick Foucheaux, Sarah Marshall, Kimberly Gilbert, the always confounding and affecting Nancy Robinette and a host of others.

Woolly landed at the Church Street location just off 14th Street for a number of years, then performed at various theaters. Early plays there included “Christmas on Mars” by Harry Kondeleon, plays by Nicky Silver, even a production of “Harvey,” the seeming chestnut about a man whose best friend is an invisible rabbit.

“I think it was a unique production. We didn’t send it up, it was fresh as it was,” said Shalwitz.

Howard Shalwitz in “The Arsonists.” Photo by Cade Martin. Courtesy Woolly Mammoth.
Howard Shalwitz in “The Arsonists.” Photo by Cade Martin. Courtesy Woolly Mammoth.

While the theater waited to move into its current location, it had an astonishing stretch of plays, including “Recent Tragic Events” by Craig Wright, which Shalwitz called “the best play about 9/11.” Woolly followed that with “Grace,” a small and powerful play done at the Warehouse Theater, and Tony Kushner’s powerful “Homebody/Kabul,” when nobody wrote about Afghanistan.

Shalwitz, a golfer and gardener who lives in Alexandria with his wife, plans to pursue teaching and “expand my horizons as a teacher, director and advocate for the theater.”

He believes in a second act, for himself and for the theater, the kind that is just around the corner, in the next new play by the next new playwright who’s dreamed something incredibly new, about something that lies deep in our memories or in our most immediate future.

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