Monthly Archives: September 2010

Kimberly Gilbert Shares her VIBRATOR Experience

So here I am entering the final week of the run of the show with already a feeling of mourning. Usually I get the sad-clown’s the week after a show closes, but with this one I am already getting misty. This show meant more to me than I possibly could have imagined, and I imagined it meaning quite a bit. Coming into it the play itself, on the page, is stunning and the challenges put upon me when cast in this role were immense: learning how to play the piano in under three months and then performing on stage with my newly pseudo-mastered skills; simulating seven orgasms within 2 ½ hours traffic on the stage; and finally, playing a character completely cut off from her body, emotions, desires, self-worth, self-awareness (I am typically cast as your nutty/goobery/sometimes chunky-with-a-paralyzed-elvis-impersonator-for-a-father/heart-on-sleeve kind of gal). These elements and challenges I had full knowledge of going into this and I had no-doubt I would be taken for quite a ride, as it were.

What I could not have foreseen was what transpired during the three weeks of rehearsal; a family was born. This crew, my fellow actors, my director, assistant director, stage manager, assistant stage managers, designers, even many of the admin staff, became the heartbeat of this production. It was, under the masterful direction of Aaron Posner, one of the more truly collaborative processes of my experiences as a theatre artist. We all could not believe how close we became in such a short process, and we hadn’t even opened yet!

And as the run has gone on and extended (twice!), that bond, though we have paired down the core of this new family and even added some newbies to the mix (Haylee our wardrobe lass is the BOMB, and I probably am spelling her name wrong) we have grown even closer and are still discovering things in the playing of this piece. I had an epiphany on stage about a line I give to Katie (Mrs. Givings) in our final scene, this past Sunday! To have a discovery this lovely so late in the game is one of the reasons why I do what I do. And as I told Katie about it after the show and as we sat crying and hugging about it, over one line, an interpretation of a line, and an inconsequential line compared to so many others, I knew that I will cherish and be humbled by this show for a long time.

I am entering the final week of the run with a spark in my soul, a swelling heart in my chest, and tears in my eyes. I will be ever grateful for this experience. Yahtzee.

~Kimberly Gilbert, Woolly Mammoth Company Member


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The New Ancient: On THEATER OF WAR and Audiences

Not to state the obvious, but… when Sophocles’ AJAX was performed in the fifth century B.C.E., it was a new play—just like the plays we do here at Woolly Mammoth. And just like at Woolly, the audience for that play was key. 

Sophocles was an Athenian General, and nearly everyone in his audience was a veteran of the Persian Wars. By writing about Ajax fighting the Trojan War—roughly six hundred years previously—Sophocles gave his audience a metaphor for their own combat experience. In Bryan Doerries’ radically contemporary translation, Ajax’s psychological struggle with trauma, shame, and rage echo the experiences of warriors in every era. We may believe our civilization has advanced beyond ancient times. But in the stress of armed conflict, our hearts and minds behave no differently from those of our ancestors.

The ancient Greeks gave us the building-blocks for our own democracy and the way that we defend it.  They also gave us the building-blocks for our own plays. Catharsis—the cleansing wave of pity and fear that washes over us and recedes at the end of a play—was invented by Sophocles and his comrades. It served a very practical purpose: to allow a nation of combat veterans examine their own experiences and heal together.

Bryan has taken his translation of Ajax to over 50 military sites around the world. I met him for a drink last season and asked what the next step in his mission would be. He said he wanted to bring this project to civilian audiences as well, in order to give the families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers of warriors a window into the reality of coming home after deployment. Bryan told me the Washington, DC community was the most important place to start this national dialogue. So I asked how Woolly could help.

In our 30th anniversary season, we pledged to connect our art more strongly with our community. This Tuesday, we will pilot an effort to unite civilian and military audiences that will be replicated in regions across the country. We look forward to welcoming many of our DC neighbors into our theatre for the first time. And we look forward to learning something new about playwriting, because some things come alive only when the right play is met by the right audience. And we look forward to discovering a way to serve our country as artists. It’s a modest kind of service, to be sure. But these past few weeks, as I’ve talked with folks from Walter Reed, Uniformed Services University, and the National Naval Medical Center, I’ve felt something stirring here at the theatre that I can only describe as very, very new…

~Miriam Weisfeld, Director of New Play Development

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Howard on Woolly’s Presentation of THEATER OF WAR

About two years ago, Miriam Weisfeld, Woolly’s Director of New Play Development, came into my office all excited about a conversation she had just had about a new project called Theater of War. At first I thought to myself, right Miriam, this is just what we need, the chance to do readings of ancient Greek plays about warriors and Gods! We do new plays at Woolly Mammoth, come on! But the more I learned, the more intrigued I became. 

The director of the project, she explained, is a classics scholar and translator named Bryan Doerries who has been producing star-studded readings of ancient Greek plays at military bases and hospitals for a couple of years. He has managed to enlist the services of major actors like Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Lili Taylor, Charles Dutton, and Elizabeth Marvel. And he has attracted serious funding for this endeavor from the Department of Defense – for readings of plays that are over two thousand years old!  

It turns out that many of the plays written by Sophocles, Aeschylus and their Greek colleagues were intended for audiences of soldiers returning from the Peloponnesian Wars. And some of them—including Philoctetes and Ajax—deal with psychological issues that are surprisingly similar to what soldiers experience after combat today. The reason the Department of Defense is interested in this project is simple:  these old plays are very effective in getting soldiers and caregivers to open up about things that are difficult to talk about—like feelings of rage and responsibility, the challenges of re-adjusting to civilian life, coping with combat nightmares, etc. 

So why Woolly Mammoth? Well, after three years performing in military settings, Brian Doerries is now seeking to take Theater of War to another level. What could we learn, he wondered over coffee with me a year ago, if we brought military and civilian audiences together to experience and talk about these ancient plays?   

So, for two nights this season, September 28th and February 22nd, Woolly Mammoth will be the setting for an important pilot effort to do just that. Woolly actors will present a reading of Sophocles’ Ajax, followed by an expertly-moderated post-performance conversation. Attendees will include Woolly subscribers and friends, along with guests from the Department of Defense, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, House Committee on Veterans Affairs, the USO, and other soldiers and leaders involved in our nation’s defense.

I’ll be performing the role on Odysseus on September 28th, and I’m excited about the acting challenge, to be sure. But I’m especially excited about the chance to talk with this special audience about matters of importance to our nation and our lives. What can we learn from one another? And what can we glean from a play that was written about soldiers two millennia ago? 

Woolly just completed a season devoted to the theme of “Theatre and Democracy,” and we’ve been saying that the work on our stage can connect deeply with the civic discourse that takes place all around us in the nation’s capital. Theater of War gives us a chance to test this proposition in a very direct way.    
~Howard Shalwitz, Aristic Director

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Online and In-Person Audience Engagement: Secret Desires

This morning I returned from a quick trip to NYC during which I took several meetings with people who are using social media in the field. In a couple of those meetings people asked me about the engagement campaign we have going on for In the Next Room or the vibrator play called Secret Desires. The interesting thing about these conversations is that I was never the one to bring Secret Desires. The other people I met with brought it up, because half of the Secret Desires campaign is all about online engagement and evidently it is working. (yay!) What makes me most pleased is the fact that even though none of these people have been to Woolly to see the play they were still aware of the work we are doing… and by work I don’t just mean the play, I mean the connectivity programming as well.

Connectivity Assistant Max Freedman mentioned Secret Desires in his blog a while back, but if you missed it, here’s some background: Secret Desires was an idea conceived by Rachel Grossman (our Connectivity Director) and myself. It was inspired by last year’s Fortune Cookie initiative, and Post-Secret. The original intention was to ask provocative questions around the play in such a way that audiences could participate in the lobby when they came to see the show. Taking it a step further – posting Secret Desires in a photo album on our Facebook page, Tweeting the Desire of the day, and posting a list of desires on our website – fulfills our larger intention: even if you are not able to come to Woolly to see the show here, you can still engage with us in our conversations with us around our shows. This is my own personal mission within the organization and I apply it to everything I do: Just because you can’t be here physically doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of what we do.

In order to facilitate this online engagement, Rachel created a Google Form that explains the Secret Desires project, and that form is posted as a link (along with the Secret Desire “results”) on our website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. The cross-departmental collaboration for this campaign in particular really seems to demonstrate that any sort of audience engagement or audience development campaign can’t exist in one organizational silo, and that social media tools provide us with an incredible opportunity to develop and engage audiences and theatre fans no matter where they live.

OK, I get that this blog is online and that you’re totally down for clicking on that Google Link up there. But if you can’t make it to Woolly, here are some totally blurry iPhone photos of Secret Desires so you can see how it looks in person:

The question audiences are responding to is “What do you long for?” We landed on this question to highlight the intimacy angle of the play. However, a lot of the responses we’ve been getting are totally over-the-top sexual fantasies. We’re talking about why this might be (the art? People seeing what others wrote?), and plan to have a serious conversation about it in our post-mortem. The concept, however – of doing an in-person and online audience engagement activity – will continue through the season. We’ve been tossing around ideas already for House of Gold and I think it’s going to be pretty sweet.

~Alli Houseworth, Communications and New Media Manager

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Reflections from a Cast Member: Katie deBuys

I have loved Sarah Ruhl’s work for years, so when I was invited to audition (huge, lifelong thanks to Kristin Leahey for that) for Woolly’s production of In the Next Room or the vibrator play I was elated. Stunned. Thrilled. Terrified. Overjoyed. When I was cast as Mrs. Givings, and learned that I’d be working not only with the excellent Aaron Posner, but with a cast that blew my little Texas grad student mind away (hi Sarah Marshall, you are a phenomenal actress!), I was . . . So happy and thankful and felt so lucky and I was once again Terrified. With a capital T. I was sure I’d be out of my depth with these incredible people, sure that I’d make everyone regret the day that Kristin Leahey first breathed my name, sure I’d fall flat on my face.

And fall on my face I did. Literally. No, really, the second day of rehearsal I was making an exit at a run and I slipped and fell. Onto my face. Face and floor made contact. I’m not sure where my hands had gone on their sweet little vacation but they were not around to catch me. So down I went, with my face. Splat! Cue bleeding chin. Cue total humiliation. Cue Aaron Posner turning white, thinking I’d probably broken my jaw. Cue Cody Nickell assuring me that it would be fine as Jessica Frances Dukes shook her head and said “Now that’s a lot of blood” (it was). Cue Kimberly Gilbert, Eric Hissom, and James Konicek offering an assortment of tea, Advil, ice, kind words and hugs as I turned beet red. Cue Taryn Friend and Taryn Colberg-Staples and Kristin Leahey bandaging my face in the dressing room. May I remind you that this was THE SECOND DAY OF REHEARSAL?

But you know what is totally and completely awesome about falling on my face? 1) I was absolutely fine; 2) I have a teeny, tiny scar on the bottom of my chin that will always remind me of this experience, of which I have loved every single moment (except the moment when my face was on the floor); 3) It relieved me of the fear that I would metaphorically fall on my face, because I’d literally taken care of the face-falling; and 4) Right from the start, each and every member of our team treated me with kindness, generosity, humor, and (dare I say it?) a dash of love.

The vibrator play is about a lot of things, but it is largely about love and connection and intimacy, and from day one (but especially from day two) we dove into the explorations, many quite personal, that the play asked of us. Aaron was our fearless leader, and the other members of the cast quietly and movingly made room for me among them. Every day I was surprised and inspired by their bravery and talent and skill until I learned not to be surprised anymore and just to appreciate again how fortunate I was to walk into The Woolly Mammoth Theater Company and call it my job every day . . . . Notwithstanding the time I ran into one of the windows of the rehearsal hall. Again, with my face. That’s another blog post.

~Katie deBuys, Mrs. Givings, In the Next Room or the vibrator play

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It seems like many moons ago when we sat down to create our vibrator marketing/communications/social media campaign. When planning the blogs I take sort of an editorial point of view, charting out which “story” drops when. Today was slotted for vibrator puns… all the stuff we say around the office that makes us laugh out loud and even blush.

But LOOK! The lovely Maura Judkis beat us to the punch this week, and published this totally hilarious recap of the “Top ‘Vibrator’ puns by theatre critics” on the TBD website. We lurve it!

Although Maura may live in our brains, she doesn’t (sadly) live in our office, so here are a few non-critic puns and vibrator jokes she missed (Sorry, M! Wish you were here!):

“I guess we can’t say the vibrator is coming can we?” ~Managing Director, in preliminary meeting.

“I’ve never said ‘orgasm’ more to a woman I haven’t slept with.” Director, in rehearsal.

“Why do they care about humidity? It’s a vibrator. It goes in a vagina.” ~Friend of Production Dramaturg after her meeting with the Museum of Sex in NYC.

“That’s not a vibrator, that’s a hairbrush.” ~Production Dramaturg to yours truly while we were going through possible images for the program…

~Alli Houseworth, Communications and New Media Manager

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A Note from Sarah Ruhl

I have always wanted to write a costume drama. With corsets, bustles and gloves. After spending a good part of my youth reading Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte sick in bed while the other kids in my alley were playing ghost in the graveyard, I’ve always had a strange affinity for the nineteenth century. But I’ve also always been fascinated by what the nineteenth century novel did not dare show, what it pointedly left out. In the 19th century novel, no one has sex, no one goes to the bathroom, and certainly, no one uses a vibrator. But I was amazed to find, after reading Rachel Maines’ revelatory book, The Technology of Orgasm, that many women (and a few men) were treated with electric vibratory massage to ameliorate the symptoms of hysteria. What perhaps stunned me even more was that gynecologists and psychiatrists had used the “manual treatment” before this remarkable new invention came out, at the dawn of electricity.

The play In the Next Room takes this historical fact as a leaping off point—that many women (and a few men) were treated for hysteria with vibrators at the turn of the century—and moves into other terrain, as we follow the story of an enterprising and well-meaning doctor who treats hysterical women, his wife (who is terribly curious about the treatment), his patients, and the wet-nurse who cares for the couple’s new baby. Though the vibrator may have been the play’s starting point, ultimately I’m more interested in the relationships that expand around the device, and the whole notion of compartmentalization, of what goes on “in the next room”—literally, in the room next to the living room where the vibrations take place, but also in the next room of other people’s minds, and bodies. To what extent does marriage imply a “next room”? Or the relations between employers and employees—particularly, the very intimate and difficult relationship of a mother and her wet-nurse, who, tragically, lost her own child and is now nursing another’s? To what extent was there a mind/body split in the 19th century? And are we now really any better off? Now that pornography has gone mainstream, are our bodies and minds any more integrated, in any more radically intimate way? The emotional and bodily restraint that so inhibited our forbears, and that we shrugged off in the last century, is now perhaps somewhat desirable, in the age of no privacy. Perhaps restraint will be the new daring mode, now that so many sexual barriers have been broken down. After being numb to billboards in which everything from jeans to pharmaceutical drugs are sold with sex, I sometimes long for a time when an ankle was breathtaking, a well turned calf, or the touch of a hand across a teapot. But isn’t it still true that the shared look, the glance, across the lit room, is sometimes a more terrifying and thrilling intimacy than anything that goes on in the dark? (Depending on who the company is…)

People coming to the play expecting a sexual spectacle [appropriate to the old Times Square] might be either disappointed or relieved, depending on their predilections. As the 19th century doctors were discrete, so are we—and much of the action happens under a clean white sheet. In that sense, the play is very innocent. As I wrote the play and immersed myself in 19th century personages, I was interested in their radical or willful innocence about sexuality. Innocence on the part of both the doctors and the patients.  Vibrators were advertised right alongside electric kettles and irons in publications like The Ladies Home Journal. Henry James himself was said to have gotten the treatment; one vibrator designed specially for men was called the Chattanooga. The shudder that was produced by the vibrator was called a paroxysm, not an orgasm. Whereas the Greeks and the Chinese and even the Elizabethans seems to know a great deal about how to give women orgasms, after Queen Victoria took the throne, there seemed to be a collective cultural amnesia about such things for a hundred years. In the privacy of their own bedrooms, couples may have been even more inventive than we are today, without being inundated by images of what sexuality was supposed to have been. But other couples seem to have been under a dark shroud of silence.

 Ultimately it is the silence between people, and how they manage to shatter it, that draws me to these characters.  And I think as sophisticated as we moderns are, we certainly understand silence between people—and the comedy (or tragedy) that results when two people in adjacent rooms are unable or unwilling to speak.

~Sarah Ruhl, Playwright, In the Next Room or the vibrator play

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