– Howard Shalwitz is Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Since 1987, he has been nominated 8 times for direction, and received the Award in 2011 for Clybourne Park. –
What’s striking to me about the list of nominees for Outstanding Direction this year is the range of stylistic territory it covers. Not just the range of stories, but some deeper questions about how to craft an experience in the theatre.
That’s one of the biggest things I’ve been thinking about lately — this idea of moving beyond simply storytelling. There’s nothing wrong with telling stories. But we have such possibilities to create more layers of experience for audiences, to fracture stories in interesting ways.
Paata’s work on King Lear with Synetic is an example of that, since they’re telling the story but they’re doing it with no words. That’s the kind of thing I pay attention to. What really perks me up is when I see shows that are trying to operate on levels above and beyond simply telling the story. This is also part of why going to fringe festivals is so fun. Fringe shows are often not primarily about the story! And it’s why Woolly has been taking companies like The Second City more seriously. They’re a sketch comedy troupe, but they succeed in stringing a bunch of important ideas together in really interesting and new ways.
It’s not like I don’t believe in storytelling. You can bring depth and layers to everything you do. But I want to see directors bring more aggressive approaches in general. There’s nothing wrong with doing a good production of a traditional show, a production that provides a supportive frame for the playwright’s story. But a richer experience is usually possible. The text does the storytelling, but the director has an opportunity to create a whole new lens on the story, and put it in a different perspective.
People sometimes ask me what’s distinctive about Washington theatre. We like to imagine there’s a sort of personality to the theatre here. Kind of like we imagine Chicago theatre has a personality. In Chicago, we tend to think of it as a sort of macho gritty realism. We don’t have a style so clear-cut over here.
But I think something exciting is happening in Washington right now, something that’s really part of our personality. It’s civic discourse. Here, you’re seeing shows that are asking you to talk about something. There’s a huge emphasis on that in Washington. Even to see Michael Kahn program an experimental show like Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude at Shakespeare Theatre this spring — that’s so aesthetically different. Theater J’s been doing this too, pushing us to talk and respond back. I think there’s a widespread growing emphasis on this. It’s what Woolly calls connectivity.
You kind of can’t fail when you do Shakespeare in Washington. Why so much Shakespeare? Well, often because Shakespeare plays are so civic. He was far beyond a storyteller. His plays are all about language and spectacle and psychology and history. And audiences here have intelligent responses to the scope and smarts of a Shakespeare play. And, to be sure, a lot of the well-known plays DC loves are civic plays. Keegan Theatre just did 12 Angry Men. It’s because Washingtonians get excited about something that’s not just a story, but a civic conversation.
Beertown, the dog&pony show from last year — now there’s a really great example of civic discourse. I loved that show, and I’m happy to see it nominated for Outstanding New Play. Beertown, I hope, turns out to be a trend-setting piece of theatre. It was created from scratch, with multiple points of inspiration. It wasn’t a story so much as a participatory event, a made-up communal experience.
It was at a kind of remove from Washington, but it also held a mirror up to the discourse that happens in Washington. It was very moving and thought-provoking. Everything about how it was created was quite unconventional. That’s the kind of show I’d love to see more in town. It’s one of the most important shows I saw in Washington in 2011, and very entertaining.
The work that really stands out for me is the work that cuts through the usual things we expect from the theatre. I can have a good time watching a reasonably good story told reasonably well, with some attractive staging and a good looking set. But I love a vision that goes beyond, that takes us to the next level of risk, where the audience is asked to participate in a more active way.
John Vreeke’s work on A Bright New Boise got some attention this year. That’s a wonderful show, and by our standards a pretty straightforward storytelling style. But the ending is so interesting. There was some confusion about the meaning of the show’s ending — what actually happens out in that parking lot in the final scene. Are we to believe that the Rapture has actually come? It was an intentional move on the part of John and the playwright to leave that ambiguous. But it’s a neat strategy — to have a sort of loose end to the story you’ve told, that leads the viewer deeper into the conversation.
A play like Civilization, which we ran this spring, took that idea much further, and served as a sort of puzzle for audiences to put together. That’s not a storytelling play, it’s a puzzle-play. And next season when we do Stupid Fucking Bird, Aaron Posner’s adaptation of The Seagull, it’ll be pretty far-out. Aaron’s a playwright, adaptor, and director all in one, but he doesn’t want to own the whole thing every moment. I’m excited to discover how that story gets shared, among us and with audiences.
Aaron’s taste and my taste can be different. But he has such talent. Like his nomination for Cyrano at Folger. He cut down that script, and reduced the number of characters. I mean, directors like Aaron who do classic plays a lot tend to carry a bigger toolbox than directors of contemporary plays.
I’ve hardly directed any classics, and getting on in my career now, I regret it. Directors of classic plays have to meet the play on its own terms at first, rather than presuming a contemporary context. They have to take ownership of the text much more, and that often leads to a stronger directorial concept.
There’s something a little unsatisfying to me that the primary purpose of a theatre production is often to support and honor the work that the playwright has done in isolation. So, we’re going to be exploring the role of the playwright at Woolly more closely in the coming years. I want to look at how we can think more in the mode of a devising ensemble. Like the Neo-Futurists, or the Rude Mechanicals, or even The Second City. Some arrangement where the actors are embedded in the process throughout. I want to find my way towards that, maybe in the design process or in the play development process.
An insistence by the director on exceptional performances that activate the role beyond your normal expectations — that’s a hard thing to achieve on a short rehearsal schedule. That’s part of why I’m excited when plays come back for a second time. In Europe, they do that all the time, which means you get to see performances that have developed over a longer period. And we’ve seen that a bit in town lately too, like with Clybourne Park at Woolly and New Jerusalem at Theater J.
In Europe, they often get to rehearse their plays for so much longer. We don’t work like that in the United States, but we have to make up for it. I want to see directors who use their short rehearsal periods to make their actors go to the mat, reach for the limit, and take risks. I don’t know if that’s something that’s rewarded by the Helen Hayes awards, necessarily. Sometimes, I’d think. But I know that this is part of the criteria I use when I go to the theatre.
Guess who'll receive the Helen Hayes Award for Direction of a Play
- Paata Tsikurishvili for King Lear (58%, 32 Votes)
- David Muse for Venus in Fur (20%, 11 Votes)
- John Vreeke for A Bright New Boise (13%, 7 Votes)
- Aaron Posner for Cyrano (7%, 4 Votes)
- Charles Randolph-Wright for Ruined (4%, 2 Votes)
- David Muse for The Habit of Art (2%, 1 Votes)
- Serge Seiden for Charlotte's Web (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 55