As the assistant to Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth’s Artistic Director, I spend a lot of time talking with Howard about his work, theatre, politics… you name it! Howard directed Clybourne Park, so as the show’s run is finishing up, I thought I’d talk to him about the play, his process… and what comes next. Thanks to my trusty cell phone ‘Voice Memo’ feature, here are some of the highlights of the conversation:
Clybourne Park’s two acts take place in the past (the late 50’s) and then the present day. Where do we go next? What is Clybourne’s view of the future?
Clybourne Park looks back over the last 50 years and raises the question: has the actual situation with respect to race changed in America, or have just the terms of the conversation changed? And it certainly is a pessimistic play. It suggests a territorial worldview, suggesting that the terms have changed, but the underlying issues are a fundamental part of human nature. So the question for the future is… will it change?
Personally, I think there’s lots of reason for optimism. There is a generational shift happening: as more and more Americans grow up in diverse communities, then some of the impulse to go, ‘I have to live with people like me – and nobody else!’ is actually dropping away.
You often talk about Clybourne as a challenge: it demands that we have a better dialogue than the play’s characters do. How did that influence the production’s design?
I wanted to position the play as a public conversation where we, the audience, were voyeuristically looking into this home – where a private conversation was taking place, but we would be invited to interpret it as a conversation happening right here, in the theater where we are today. And that’s what led to the seats on stage, the reorganization of our auditorium, the thrust shape of the stage, and sinking our stage so that the characters would right on top of the audience – almost in our laps!
Did the countless difficult topics of Clybourne – race, class, urban transformation, war – come up in your rehearsals?
That was so exciting. You couldn’t help but have the conversation the play wants you to have while working on the play. In rehearsals, we would have debates about the honest representation of our characters like, ‘A black woman in the 1950’s wouldn’t do x – or would she?’ ‘How can each character have both positive and negative elements in their portrayal?’ ‘How can we give each character their due?’
By the time we opened, we almost felt like citizen artists. In trying to do their roles as skillfully and honestly as possible, and in the post-show exchanges, the actors were able to share the conversation that they had developed over the four weeks of rehearsal.
Clybourne was, of course, a remount. Does it have any relationship with the upcoming apocalyptic-flavored season?
Last season, we really started to ask: how can we let a play serve as a platform for conversation? And I think that Clybourne Park is one of the plays that made us bolder in plunging into that conversation with our community. This season we’ve decided to get even more direct, asking our audience at the outset, “Does our civilization have an expiration date? And if so… what comes next?” All of our plays reflect on that question in a huge variety of ways.
Now that I’m thinking about it, even Clybourne Park ties into that question. The play underscores one of the disturbing aspects of human nature: the tendency to draw boundaries that keep people like us in and people not like us out. It suggests that no matter how we pretend to get beyond that in our language, there’s something in our nature that tends to draw those boundaries. That’s true in our neighborhoods, and in the wars we fight overseas. In that respect, it leads right into the question of “Does our civilization have an expiration date?” Clybourne also starts to form a response, even, asking: Do we have other things in us that we can celebrate? That might help us move forward, towards a more positive and surviving vision of our future – rather than one that grinds to a halt? So I think it will be fun to keep Clybourne Park in the back of our minds as we move into our new season.
~ Doug Eacho, Assistant to the Artistic Director