Mammoth Shakeup


Edgy Woolly Comes’Full Circle,’ Looks to Another 30 Years

Ten years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a couple of actors in New York City were looking to break down cultural barriers in the United States. Their mission: to “shake up the nation” through innovative theater performances. This month, Howard Shalwitz and Roger Brady celebrate a milestone — the 30th season of their Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company — by commemorating another, the 20th anniversary of the wall’s demise.

One event was certainly more important than the other, jokes Shalwitz, Woolly’s artistic director, but the company has blended both celebrations in an effort to enhance people’s understanding of historical events and of theater’s role in them.

“We often in the United States think that theater is just kind of marginalized as another form of bourgeois entertainment,” Shalwitz said. “Those of us who are in the field are often looking for ways for the work that we do — especially when that work really is topical and is talking about important issues — to [be] … a springboard for conversation.”

Improving the dialogue with not only an audience but with the community at large is the goal for Woolly’s next 30 seasons, Shalwitz added. And the company is laying that foundation with “Full Circle,” a comedy by American playwright Charles L. Mee set in Berlin at the time of the wall’s fall in 1989. Amid the chaos of that historic moment, as students riot and profiteers swoop in, two women launch a madcap chase to save an orphaned baby while confronting the evils of both capitalism and communism.

Dealing with issues of economic justice and citizen responsibility in a period when authority is crumbling, the play is germane to events like the economic crisis and talk of a socialist regime under President Obama in the United States today, Shalwitz said.

“The play talks about a third way,” he explained. “It says, ‘Isn’t there a way to take care of each other like in the East and to get rich like in the West?’ It asks a serious political question, which is that is there a melding of these two systems that would be better than either one of them. That’s what I hope people will ultimately think about.”

About half of the play takes place onstage, while the rest happens throughout Woolly’s building. “The play is a sort of travel play where people are traveling place to place, and then our audience is essentially going to travel with them,” Shalwitz said, adding that it’s a way to engage the audience that the company has never tried before. (The theater recommends wearing comfortable shoes for this unconventional experience.)

Woolly, once lumped into a group known as alternative theater, thrives on setting itself apart while immersing itself in the community. To that end, Miriam Weisfeld, director of new play development, has been reaching out to the diplomatic and international community in D.C.

“We’ve been in conversation with the German Historical Institute and the Goethe-Institut to contribute some of their expertise as we put [‘Full Circle’] together and also to get the word out to the German community that this play is happening at the same time” as the German Embassy’s “Freedom Without Walls” initiative honoring the two decades since the wall separating East and West Germany came down, Weisfeld explained. “We’re also hoping to connect with folks who have interest in Cold War history — Russia, Hungary, Czech Republic — everybody for whom German reunification and the fall of the Iron Curtain is particularly significant.”

This is not the first collaboration Woolly has had with embassies, however. This year, Weisfeld has worked with the Polish Embassy on “Hell Meets Henry Halfway,” with the Liberian Embassy on “Eclipsed” about the captive wives of a Liberian rebel officer, and with the German Historical Institute on “Antebellum,” a play about an African American cabaret singer in Berlin in 1939, when the Nazis were rising to power.

And she hopes “Full Circle” won’t be the last team effort, either. “We’re really hoping to use this show as a way to crack open a larger conversation not only about the show and the subject matter of the show, but about how we can really leverage the theater space as a center for civic exchange and dialogue.”

“We approached our 30th anniversary thinking we didn’t really want to be looking backward and patting ourselves on the back,” Shalwitz said. “We wanted to be thinking about laying the foundation for the next 30 years.”

Not that he’s got little to celebrate. Since he and Brady launched their unconventional theater company in 1980 in Washington, D.C., “a burgeoning theater town at that time,” they have indeed shaken up the nation. The company shows mostly never-before-seen plays with the goal of setting the standard for how they will be performed in other theaters.

“I think most people would think of us as the most provocative theater in Washington in terms of the kinds of subject matter on our stages, in terms of the language, and a lack of sort of censorship and a willingness to do anything on stage if we think that the writing is really, really good,” Shalwitz said. “I’m a restless artistic director. Wherever we’ve been at any given point, I’ve always wanted to get better and better and better.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.