Tag Archives: Howard Shalwitz

Working to the Future

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

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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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