Turning 30. A time to look back, take stock, grow up.
Or reinvent a theater.
When Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company hit the big 3-0 two years ago, artistic director Howard Shalwitz viewed the occasion as not just a reason to party and bust a move, but to bust out of the box.
“I didn’t want us to look back and pat ourselves on the back,” said Shalwitz. “For 25 years, we hadn’t changed our way of doing things. I felt stuck.”
He put together a Company Task Force to examine the theater’s past and future, talk to current and potential company members, and to sift through lessons learned. “What was interesting about the interviews with the company members was that they didn’t ask for more money or more roles,” he said. “They asked for a new way of working.”
After two years of rigorous introspection, Woolly Mammoth announced recently that it has evolved and expanded its Company, a core group of actors formed in 1986, to include playwrights, directors, and designers. “It is a deeper way of pulling together the process,” said Shalwitz. “A different way of thinking than ‘what plays can we get this season?’”
The new members include lighting designer Colin K. Bills, director Michael John Garces, set designer Misha Kachman, playwright and director Robert O’Hara, actor Emily Townley and director John Vreeke. They will join members Doug Brown, Jessica Frances Dukes, Daniel Escobar, Rick Foucheux, Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hebert, Naomi Jacobson, Sarah Marshall, Jennifer Mendenhall, Bruce Nelson, Kate Eastwood Norris, Michael Russotto, Dawn Ursula and Michael Willis.
In launching this new initiative, Shalwitz found inspiration in the past. “I read ‘The Fervent Years’ by Howard Clurman, about The Group Theatre in the 1930s. That book, and the whole process, helped me go through therapy in a sense.”
The Group Theatre was founded by Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg in the summer of 1931. Their passion and purpose was the transform American theater from a reliance on old-timey light entertainment to plays that addressed social and political issues. This new theater would mount original American plays that mirrored—or most idealistically—sought to change this turbulent time in the nation.
In its 10-year history and 20 productions, the Group Theatre transformed the way we looked at drama and American acting styles. They pioneered what has become known as a naturalistic, forceful American acting technique based on the teachings of Russian Konstantin Stanislavski. First seen in the work of the Moscow Art Theater, the ensemble approach proposed a highly personal and cooperative method. The focus was on a cast that was familiar, honest and believable as a whole.
The Group Theatre was named for this idea of the actors, directors, playwrights and producers as a pure ensemble. There were no stars, no divas. Famous alum from the troupe include playwright Clifford Odets, directors and teachers Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Sanford Meisner; and actors Marlon Brando, James Dean, Leo J. Cobb, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Gregory Peck, and John Randolph.
Playwright David Mamet counts The Group Theatre as a major influence on his work and vision for theater and acting.
So does Howard Shalwitz. “The Group Theatre model may be old, but it is not old-fashioned,” he said. “This way of working does not exist anymore in the United States, which is unfortunate because it seems to work with playwrights and also with actors who want a larger role in relationship to the production as a whole.”
He sees the expansion of the Company as a way to guard against what writer and monologuist Mike Daisey calls “freeze-dried theater.” “That’s when an actor is unfrozen by the stage manager and springs to life and does his four weeks rehearsal with the set and costumes done. They do their performances in the allotted time slot and then they leave,” Shalwitz said.
With the new Company, the actors are valued for the whole of who they are, not just as actors. “The actors are almost citizen-artists,” Shalwitz notes. “I think the best work comes out of company contexts, but the U.S. has made that difficult for theaters. It is a freelance society—out of economics and necessity.”
Woolly’s Group Theatre approach is out to change all that. “We want to foster a spirit of inquiry and collaboration,” said Shalwitz. “We are and have always been an experimental theater company and this evolution builds on very strong impulses we have had in our 32-year history for fuller collaborations within the production process.”