From the theater that prodded, poked, and provoked for nigh on forty years rose the unlikeliest of DC’s hallowed institutions and its leader – Howard Shalwitz. Many from the Woolly Mammoth herd gathered together Monday night to pay tribute to the man. The occasion of Shalwitz’ announced retirement had sparked the altogether curious affair. Though ‘looking back’ seems not to be found in the Woolly manual, for one night and one night only Shalwitz and Company allowed themselves to sit back and rest on their laurels.
There were also other artistic directors and producers in attendance, including colleagues Michael Kahn of Shakespeare Company, Ari Roth of Mosaic, and Carolyn Griffin of MetroStage. There were Board Members and family members, foundation representatives and private donors, DC Councilmen and city activists, and there were just plain ol’ fans. The faces in the auditorium reflected the typical Woolly audience: across the spectrum of age, skin color, and gender preference.
In fact, the happy folks gathered under one roof may be forgiven if they mistook all those red jerseys and yells spilling out across the street for the Capitols game for other Woollies run amok.
Close collaborator lighting designer Colin K. Bills with friends had created a spectacular splash with bold iconic Woolly-ish graphics on the proscenium walls and a cartoon of the lead character of the evening, whom we’ll call “Howie.” (A few squiggles had captured his dark glasses and ruff of hair flying out to the sides of his bald dome. How had I never seen the possibility before of “Howie” as a cartoon figure, half egg-head philosophy professor and half clown flying by the seat of his pants.)
The big central screen offered us glimpses into Howard’s journey with the Woolly Mammoth company through the years. Howard with staff. Howard with Board Members. Howard reading scripts with company members. Howard acting. Howard with Jennifer Mendenhall on a bed. Howard with a bandana. Howard with two slabs of steak over his eyes and a knife between his teeth. Howard in drag.
Some of the long-time company members took to the stage or flashed on the screen and gave him “what for.” It was, after all, a Mammoth occasion.
Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris stumbled onto the stage as a couple from, perhaps, West Virginia, who had wandered over unwittingly from the Caps extravaganza but, finding themselves in a thee-ay-ter, were willing to try their hand at a little acting. Appearing virtually and from the safety of a deck chair in what looked like a Jimmy Buffet paradise, Grover Gardiner reminded the crowd that the secret to the WM success seasons was that in fact there were no seasons, but that he had produced the same play over and over. Naomi Jacobson read through the not insubstantial list of sexual acts that had been brought from page to stage by Shalwitz. Nancy Robinette shared that Shalwitz always navigated a skillful balancing act, keeping his hand-picked neurotic actors and designers happy by reminding everyone, “It’s a process.”
And then there was what might be called a choreographed ballet of spit, smut and mayhem. You know, the kind of thing Shalwitz might have directed.
A few moments of genuine feeling slipped in here and there. Moments of affection and gratitude. Then Dawn Ursula delivered a juggernaut of a monologue from Zombie: An American by Robert O’Hara. It was one of those Woolly-style “let’s set fire to this place” pieces.
Okay, so no one in the whole evening said that they liked all of the plays Shalwitz has produced. A Woolly play, anyone will tell you, isn’t like that. Even admirers of Shalwitz admitted publically they don’t understand many of them. This truth-outing only made Shalwitz beam more throughout the proceedings. One actor put it this way, “He can be innocently mystified and jubilant at the same time about a “colossal failure.”
On the other hand, early in the evening, two Councilmen had come to the podium to congratulate him. Jack Evans read out a proclamation from the city “by unanimous vote,” endorsing the day officially as Howard Shalwitz Day. You can’t get more establishment.
Howard, you’ve come a long way, baby. From selling baked goods out in front of a church, setting up chairs, and hawking tickets to friends at $4.50 to put on that first play, you have steered a company and board through multi-million dollar campaigns and secured prime downtown real estate.
But more importantly, Howard Shalwitz still lives by his manifesto, always making space for people to risk grand theatrical failure. If it doesn’t work well or doesn’t work at all matters little to him. Although let’s be clear, he is tireless when he works on a play, and always, always tries to make the writing better.
Shalwitz lets a play come to life and find an audience, and his secret weapon is his commitment to bring writer and company of actors together through a gestation process. This lifework is fueled by his curiosity to see what happens and who will be engaged. And the man has the guts and readiness afterwards to say, “Let’s blow it up and start over.”
And that means new voices. And that means knowing when to take a bow and make a neat exit.
With great intentionality, Shalwitz has brought aboard incoming artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes. Woolly Mammoth will go into its next phase with the leadership of three women, as Goyanes is joined by Meghan Pressman as Managing Director and Woolly Board President Linette S. Hwu.
He has great confidence that in passing his baby into new hands he has made the right choices and he certainly has carved out an opportunity for exciting works and engagement ahead. It’s still Woolly Mammoth – “where everyone is welcome but no one is safe.”