During a dress rehearsal for Woolly Mammoth’s Full Circle, actor Michael Willis nearly tripped headlong over an audience member. The audience member wasn’t up on stage; Willis, like the rest of the cast, was in the audience.
“Suddenly we’re mixing the environments,” said Willis, who managed to make it up a staircase in time for his next line. “So the space becomes a very real world.”
Full Circle, which comes out of previews this weekend, marks the next step in the company’s journey to push the limits of theatrical convention. Directed by Michael Rohd, the show occupies Woolly Mammoth’s entire theater facility. It is the actors’ task to guide the audience safely and logically through a dynamic and large-scale living sequence of events, housed in the lobby, corridors, rehearsal rooms, and the theater itself.
For the cast, managing some unusual moments of shared space has become part of the thrill of group storytelling. “It’s very funny, a sort of political vaudeville,” said Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, who plays the artistic director Heiner Muller in the show. “But the themes that percolate under all the scenes are about our economic justice.”
Full Circle has lived a number of past lives. The Chalk Circle, written during the Chinese Yuan dynasty became a piece by the same name by the German poet Klabund. In the 1940s, under the pen of Bertolt Brecht, it became The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Here, playwright and historian Charles L. Mee has set the story in Berlin in 1989, during the fall of the Berlin Wall. Theater artists, government officials, and rioters clash in a swirling series of comic encounters, leaving two women (played by Company Members Naomi Jacobson and Jessica Frances Dukes) running from pursuers carrying an abandoned baby.
“Even before we hired Michael Rohd, we had the idea to do this as a piece that moves through our space,” said Shalwtiz. “You just have to go in with certain ideas and then see if they work. There’s been a lot of experimentation throughout this week.”
The eight Company Members involved are, like Willis, finding Full Circle to be a unique challenge, even after decades of collective experience at Woolly Mammoth.
“It’s like an obstacle course, or a triathlon. You’re doing one thing, and then the entire space changes,” said Kate Eastwood Norris. “The audience is in a different place for each scene, so one thing I’ve learned is how to incorporate them and still be heard, and where to hit each part of the audience to make each person feel included.”
Norris added, “When you’re that close to people and you’re looking straight at them, you immediately need to be more honest. They can tell if you don’t believe it.”
The challenges suit the theater, now in its 30th season, says Shalwitz. “One of the things that’s happened at Woolly in our new space is that we feel, even more, that what we do must have sufficient political and intellectual scope. We’re not just doing a play that’s already written. We’re trying to craft an experience.”
Much of Full Circle is a study of how populations came together after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and of the complex ways in which capitalism came to fill an economic vacuum in Eastern Europe. Shalwitz was excited to take up such a vivid case study of competing economic systems, especially since the theater was organizing its season at the time of the Bush bailouts.
“It was exciting to me to see a sort of socialist response coming from a very right-wing administration. I thought it made a good historical case for being a little more open-minded about the line between capitalism and socialism,” he said.
Woolly Mammoth produced Big Love, another Charles L. Mee play, in 2002. Charles L. Mee’s Full Circle exemplified the type of conversation Shalwitz wanted to have. “He has a big enough mind to see and understand what a straightjacket we put on ourselves as a nation by over-celebrating words like ‘capitalism.’” Shalwitz said.
We do so, he explained, at risk of dismissing the value of public works. “The things we do together as a society are the things we’re remembered for. These are the issues that are embedded in the play. In a time of great change, what is the artist’s role? And part of the role of theater is a larger responsibility to foment dialogue,” he said.
Because the audience moves with the actors through the building, Rohd and the creative team decided to slowly add in audience through the final week of rehearsal. By Wednesday night, actors were playing among over two hundred visitors.
“It’s been really interesting looking people in the eye, said Norris. “And once people realize that we’re not going to drag them up and make them do something, it becomes something fun and rare.”
“I’m learning when I need to interact with them, but also when I need to not interact with them,” said Naomi Jacobson. “The audience helps clarify how the story gets told. They really are a component in finding the best way to tell the story. And if we lose them, then the play doesn’t work.”
Rehearsals haven’t all been fun and games, said Jacobson, laughing. “It’s really exhausting. We’re acting, climbing, dancing… there’s so much that’s physical. And my character, in particular, has to look quaffed and put together at all times. I think I’m using half a bottle of Aquanet hairspray every evening.”
Full Circle features the largest group of Woolly Company Members ever seen on stage together, which helps, said Jacobson. “There’s a communal vocabulary at Woolly. I think it has something to do with knowing and trusting the actors that you’re working with. You can bungee jump off the cliff, and you’re with people that aren’t going to let you crash. There’s a trust that you’ll find it together, and you will bounce back. The exploration is never tamped down.”
Willis agreed. “The nice thing about the company members is that you feel very comfortable around them. They bring the same attitude that you do, the same sort of freeness,” he said. “And hopefully, we can all be fearless on stage. We’re not always right, but we’re expected to try things that are way out there.”
So far, the company’s been rewarded with strong feedback. Jacobson described a moment for her character, Pamela, toward the end of the play. “She’s coming from nothing but good intentions, but there’s a moment where I can hear the audience gasp at the patriarchy of it, at the patronizing tone of what she’s saying. It’s why I love doing theater in DC. People here are so intelligent and so educated. They see things politically, internationally, with a cosmopolitan eye, and they get things on levels that aren’t just American.”
As hundreds of audience members pass through the building from night to night, it seems inevitable that Full Circle will continue to evolve.
“It’s been a just-dive-in kind of thing,” said Norris. “I try to be playful and open with all of the audience, and I’m having a great time.”
“Every night for me is a ride,” said Jacobson. “This is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.”
Full Circle runs through November 29th. For more details about the unconventional staging, Woolly has prepared a list of “Important Audience Information” here.