An interview with director/writer/choreographer and Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre Michael J. Bobbitt
Michael J. Bobbitt is a dreamer and he dreams not impossible but big, good, do-able dreams. Bobbitt is no pie-in-the sky kind of dreamer. He’s the kind that makes dreams happen.
The last time we talked to him, the go-go-on-the-go Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre, he had every reason to be pleased. In spite of a spate of bad weather, Mirandy and Brother Wind, his ground-breaking in more ways than one new show at Adventure Theatre was a critical success, marred only by a winter snow storm which had forced some cancellations.
He was a little breathless, per usual, as we shared a post five-o’clock-coffee at the DuPont Circle version of Cosi. After, he would be on his way to a function at the nearby National Geographic Museum.
Mirandy, a fabulous African American musical cum fable, was a stretch for Bobbitt and the theater, but it was also the end game in the pursuit of one of his dreams — to produce and stage African American plays for children at Adventure Theatre as an addition to such fare as Rudolf… and Stuart Little.
“I always wanted to be part of a theater that makes plays for all the residents of the city,” he said. Mirandy fits that bill to the core — it’s a tale about African-American, post-Civil War life around the turn of the 19th Century. It’s a musical set in the South, about a little girl who wants to win the annual cake walk contest with the help of Brother Wind.
For Bobbitt, Mirandy is the first of five plays in the works based on African American books, stories and themes, making Adventure Theatre more complete in terms of subject and audiences. “There’s always been a lack of children’s plays and material for African Americans.” he said. “Children’s theater is growing, and we’ve been a part of that here, certainly, but it’s like there’s always been something missing. Our goals with Mirandy were to persevere and re-enliven highly ignored parts of American history and express the universality of experience to the African-American culture through great theater.”
Just as importantly, Mirandy continues Bobbitt’s efforts to reach out to the whole community and beyond through partnerships. For this play, he had a logical choice in the African Continuum Theatre,” the city’s only African American theatre company. Mirandy has transferred from Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo to the Intersections Festival at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in DC for the remainder of its run through March 13th.
Both veteran Washington director and playwright Jennifer Nelson and African Continuum Theater Executive Director JoAnn M. Williams were enthusiastic in their response to the project. In a statement, Williams said that the show “features authentic dances—choreographed by the Dance Institute of Washington, an African American production team, and a partnership with Adventure Theatre. “ For both companies, the partnership meant expanding each other’s regular audiences.
Bobbitt had already shown what partnering—something you now see a lot of in the Washington theater community and nationally—could accomplish by joining with Montgomery County Community College for Adventure’s production of The Happy Elf, for which Harry Connick Jr, the fabulous jazz star, not only wrote the songs and music, but showed up in person opening night.
“Sometimes, you have to move out of your comfort zone, go out into the rest of the city, reach out and make a leap or two,” Bobbitt said. “On Mirandy, we had an opportunity to do something that seemed logical for everyone involved,” he said. “It’s a great piece for African Continuum Theater which usually does very adult and serious work,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to build our audience, spread it out, get people to come who don’t normally have the chance to come out to Glen Echo, for instance.”
“In addition, the Atlas is a different sort of space than what we’re used to, a little bigger and configured differently,” he said.
Mirandy evolved out of a variety of different connections, but probably the most important was the partnership with Bobbitt and John Cornelius, the composer with whom he’s worked on numerous productions, most notably The Stephen Schwartz Project at Metro Stage in 2009, done with the collaboration of the noted Broadway hit-maker (Wicked, Godspell) himself.
“We had to come up with a combination of things, the music of the time, gospel, ragtime, so that this felt real and authentic to the period, but also original,” Bobbitt said.
He also had the good fortune and perseverance to snag an NEA grant for the project, Adventure Theatre’s first ever. And he had the good luck and sense to cast three-time Helen Hayes Award nominee Felicia Curry in the title role. Plus, there’s the fact that a good chunk of the run took place during Black History Month, another magnet for the city’s African American audience.
Bobbitt seems to be on the go all of the time, depending on the hat he might be wearing: artistic director, director, writer, collaborationist, administrator, performer, marketer, promoter, grants writer,and family man and father.
Not yet forty, he’s living what others might see as a kind of wish fulfillment. It’s a life that somehow manages to be a high-wire act, a high-energy trip, complete with both the trappings and substance of steadfast normalcy. He simply calls it “a great life.”
A Gonzaga High School graduate, he roared out into the world in a big way, graduating from Susquehanna University with a degree in creative writing and music, and moving right on to study at the Washington Ballet, the Dance Theatre of Harlem , the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and NYU’s Tisch Shool of the Arts.
He directed Queen of the Bohemian Dream at the Capital Fringe Festival , and chreographed last year’s Helen Hayes Awards ceremony. He’s a working Artistic Associate at the Smithsonian Discovery Theatre, has taught theater and dance at George Washington University, Catholic University, Montgomery College, Howard University and Washington Ballet. On top of that, he is President of the League of Washington Theatres. The result is that he knows a lot of people in the Washington areas’ performance arts community, and its members know him.
Bobbitt fell seriously in love and has been with his partner, Craig Hannah, an actuary working with public policy lobbyists for about fifteen years now. They have an adopted son, Sang Christopher Bobbitt Hannah, from Viet Nam. who’s nine and a half.
“It’s quite a life, for sure,” he said recently. “I think we’ve covered all the bases—I’m African American, Craig’s Irish Catholic, our son is Vietnamese.” They live in nearby bucolic Glen Echo, in a house where he can and see the Potomac River behind them.
Taking over as artistic director of Adventure Theatre added to the dynamic changes in his life. “You know, when I first took this on, my first time at Glen Echo Park, I looked around, and I think everybody does this, I thought, what a perfect setting for a children’s theater—the history, the park, the playground, the old carousel. The place and the theater had a history, an old and long history.” It’s got sixty years worth of history, as a point in fact.
In 2007, Adventure Theatre completed a lengthy renovation which resulted in an up-to-date physical theater, more staff, space for administration, and generally an impressive professional working environment. And with the high-energy Bobbitt in the lead, the company experienced many leaps and bounds forward.
“When I started here, I looked around,” he said. “There was a pretty obvious kind of model for children’s theater at the time—Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Discovery Theater, the Kennedy Center. It was children’s theater for children that were a little older so I decided, in some ways, to go back a little further. “We wanted small children, the whole family audience, and there were all kinds of books that were perfect source materials.”
Producing such work as Good Night Moon in 2008 (in partnership with Tribute Productions), the theater snagged three Helen Hayes Award nominations, the most ever by a children’s theater. Other productions have included accessible productions like Spot’s Birthday Party (very interactive), If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and If You Give a Pig a Pancake, and an adaptation of the television version of Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer which was a huge hit, as well as The Secret Garden and Stuart Little. The tap dancing pig in If You Give a Pig was Holly Twyford. It also had former head of Round House Theater, Jerry Whiddon, directing.
“When you get people like that in your shows, it attracts media attention,” Bobbitt said. “That helps a lot. And Holly was truly fantastic, she was so much fun.”
Bobbitt is at the top of his game now, after being honored with the 2010 County Executive’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts—Emerging Leader. But the high visibility and success of all of his efforts at Adventure Theatre has pushed the company into a cross roads.
“We’re at a point where it’s very hard to grow the theater any further, in terms of finances, in terms of space and audience,” he said. “Sure, I can sell out Rudolf every year and that’s wonderful. But I think I want this to be a theater for the whole city. Glen Echo is idyllic, almost, and beautiful, but it’s also hard to find and get to transportation wise.
“I’d like to be in a position where we can get to doing work a little more appropriate for older audiences as well. We’ve changed the model from Community Theater to professional theater,” Bobbitt said. “We’ll have to see. There are choices to be made—grow the space, because we’ve outgrown it. Build something bigger. We’re waiting for a feasibility study. It’s just more to think about. Most people don’t have that kind of luxury, those kinds of options.”
Bobbitt’s productions have drawn attention from music publishers. He is working with David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr, developing the TYA version of their Broadway musical Big. The show, a partnership with Musical Theater Center, will make its world premiere here in November 2011.
And the hits keep on coming.
At this week’s Helen Hayes Awards nominations announcement, Adventure Theatre got three nominations, including two for outstanding production in the “Theatre for Young Audiences” category for If You Give a Pig a Pancake and The Red Balloon and Oustanding Ensemble in the Resident Musical Category for If You Give a Pig a Pancake.
Look what can happen if you give a theater to Michael Bobbitt.