Susan Galbraith and Howard Shalwitz, longtime friends and colleagues, talk about Howard’s return to the stage for The Arsonists as he prepares to depart from the company he co-founded in 1980.
• Susan Galbraith: This is your last season as Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth, which could be interpreted as both your swan song and your break out of jail. Which would you call it?
Howard Shalwitz: (laughing) Maybe both. This just seemed like the right time. I was ready to give up the burden of the daily running of a theatre company. It just turned out to be a bit of a coincidence that it turned out I was going to act in the season’s opening show.
• It has been quite a while since you acted on stage, and you are a terrific actor. Was it something significant about this play and the role of George Betterman that lured you back?
I’d been thinking of returning to the stage for some time. I wouldn’t put any special significance on this choice for my return to acting. I suppose if I’d been hugely drawn to acting I wouldn’t have let seven years go by. But a big part of it is that acting needs such a big commitment of time and focus, and if you’re doing a major role, you can’t do anything else during rehearsals and performance. Directing takes a much smaller bite out of your schedule. The motivation for this role in this play is really about how this project came about.
• Yes, why Max Frisch’s The Arsonists? And why this play now?
When you were first working with us at Woolly on Strindberg in Hollywood, at that point Woolly was still doing a lot of European avant garde works from post-World War II period. It was really part of the early DNA of the company. When we moved into our new space, we tended to be associated with more new American plays. But it was always a great interest to hold the opportunity to return to those special, challenging and somewhat difficult plays.
Firebugs (another title for the translated play into English) was a play I must have read thirty-five years ago, and it’s been on my shelf at least that long. In the eighties, I think Round House did a version, and that might have been why I set it aside. But I was always drawn to it. In the summers, at Woolly, we always workshop a script or play with some directorial ideas. There’s no aim in itself. Last summer we pulled together about half a dozen actors, and Michael John Garcés was available. As a company director, he was asked what he might want to explore, and he expressed definite interest in The Arsonists. It had to do with the relationship to what was going on in America. The lab was in July, primary season for our national election. We were seeing the rise of the nationalist populist movement. So we spent a day on it, reading some of the scenes and doing some exercises, fooling around with it. I remember we spoke of the unlikelihood, or so we thought, if something happened with Trump…
• You are dangerous!
Literally the morning after the election, I got this email Michael sent me. And if he hadn’t sent me it at two in the morning, I would have shot him the same [one]. “Gee, do you think we should reconsider and reach into The Arsonists?”
I’d hoped we wouldn’t be in that position. But it seemed so to speak to where we are. And every single day it seems to get more relevant to what’s going on. About that time, we came across a new translation by Alistair Beaton that had been produced at London’s Royal Court in 2007. It was very, very good and imminently actable. So, Michael and I were in London together as part of a Woolly trip, and we had a chance to meet with Alistair and got his blessing to work from his text, but also Americanize it. Michael wanted to undo the super Englishness of Alistair’s translation. He wanted to make it feel that the script was happening right here right now. So with a lot of conversation back and forth and again with Alistair’s blessings, Michael made some adjustments in his version.
• Were you part of the conversations and the changes?
Well, even in rehearsal there have been some small continuing adjustments, but no, Michael is a playwright himself, so it was right he took the lead on that. And Kirsten Bowen, our Literary Director, she was very involved. You know, when I’m acting, I feel like I need to focus on that job.
• You are, in my mind, the ultimate script doctor in Washington.
Well, I’d say this was “light” but significant what Michael did. And who knows, maybe in the future, theaters across America will ask for our version of it. But it’s really Alistair’s translation, which is what drives this work. The play has had hundreds of productions around the world for many years. It’s a perennial classic —
• Is it fair to say that we re-examine the play when, as a society, we look around and feel these political and social quakings and rising danger?
Exactly, and there’s an atmosphere of fear. It holds the themes of complicity and of rising evil. It’s a play that has been done since the fifties. In fact, Frisch made sketches for the play in the forties. He made a radio play out of the material. He worked on it in bits and pieces for almost ten years. And during that period there was the rise of Nazism, then later the building of the wall in Berlin. Later he witnessed and wrote about the communists taking over Prague. In his diary, there are many entries and comments, including on Swiss neutrality, and always thinking about making the right choice in difficult times. It’s shown to be work of recurring relevance.
• Our company, Alliance for New Music-Theatre, had a similar experience of discovering renewed relevance this past spring producing Vaclav Havel’s Protest in the Dupont Underground space.
That’s so interesting. During this period of considering The Arsonists, I had also picked up a volume of Havel’s plays.
• I do think this is a time when Washington theaters and the plays produced seem to be in a special dialogue with each other. But let me come back to Michael’s direction. Because of his strong work with developing community through theatre in his work with Cornerstone Theater Company, what special talents did he bring to the process?
As you say, Michael Garcés works with Cornerstone Theatre. We were fortunate to apply for a grant for this and ultimately were awarded a very generous grant from the Roy Cochrum Foundation in Chicago. Because of this extra support, we were able to restore back to a chorus of five that Michael really wanted. This play is written in the style of Brecht but it also is a mock Greek tragedy, an ironic Greek tragedy. The function of the chorus members is important, and Michael has importantly cast a multi-cultural ensemble to look like America now.
September 5 – October 8, 2017
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We were also able to support a bigger engagement strategy. We were able to hire an “Organizer” assisting connectivity to community actions and draw people into dialog around the show, starting this engagement much earlier in the process – most of our connectivity work has happened during the run of a show. We conducted a walking tour in the city’s Shaw neighborhood, held conversations about violence, hosted meetings with scholars on the rise of Fascism and tracking fascist groups in the United State. There were actually four events that happened that week. So simultaneously to working on the play, we were also working with organizations. They filled in the substance thematically and brought angles you could bring to your thinking about the play. We were looking at themes of violence and complicity. This was so valuable for us. And it’s due to Michael’s comfort with this level of collaboration and community. This included two or three open rehearsals where people could come and watch and workshops with the lighting and also the costume designer. So it’s been part of the process all along.
• Can you say more about how the theatre experience continues to evolve and your commitment to involving audience – including the role of talkbacks?
We do talkbacks at almost every performance. Kristen Jackson, Connectivity Director, our community engagement program, has now invited facilitators from the partner organizations for this show. Maybe some of the artists will also be involved. We are trying not just to focus the conversation on complicity, but on the parallel question of intervention. Beyond what the play shows about complicity, the question the play begs is “what could you do?” It comes straight from the play, “What would you have done, and where were you?” So audience members are challenged to consider the central character of “Betterman,” a pointed Americanization of Biederman, and examine their own choices.
• Wasn’t “Biederman” also a little dig into that German school of art suggesting “small” and even superficially bourgeois? Are we “better men” (and women) likely to rest on the laurels of our moral and political convictions? And do you go so far as to see theatre as a place to push audiences into direct action? In this case, attempts at intervention?
The play shows attempts at intervention – Betterman tries one thing and then another – but they are unsuccessful. I think one of the commitments we have in doing this play and the facilitated discussions is to lift up partner organizations around the themes in the play. And we want to highlight these partner organizations that we think are doing really good work around issues of protection, security and intervention on the local and national levels.
• Is there a danger in over-interpreting or politicizing a play with one viewpoint?
That’s a good point. We want people to come and see the play through many angles. The strength of this play is its malleability. Now, many might see it through the lens of populist nationalism. In the London production of 2007, the director was seeing it as the rise of terrorism. So if we are doing our job right, there could be discussions on immigration and terrorism as well. But I think Washington’s audiences are predominantly liberal, and we also must challenge what that means, and are we simply sitting on the sideline. There are debates to be had. We are informed by where we are.