Tag Archives: Rachel Grossman

Neighborhood Spotlight: Anacostia

The Source

“In 1608 Captain John Smith became the first European to see these forested hills, teeming with wildlife, and to visit the centuries-old, Algonquin-speaking American Indian trading village Nacotchtank, located on the east side of the Eastern Branch. The people were called ‘Nacostines’ by the Europeans, the source of the word Anacostia.

Anacostia became associated with the land that had been occupied by the Nacostines and has been sometimes used to mean the entire area of the District east of the Anacostia River.  It correctly applies to only two communities, one white, one black.

The Anacostia historic district at the end of the 11th Street Bridge, laid out in 1854 as Uniontown and in 1886 renamed Anacostia, was a majority white community for most of its history. Immediately south of it was a historically black community laid out as Barry Farm in 1876, renamed Hillsdale by the territorial government of the District as a request of the local people in 1874.”

Washington at Home, Edited by Kathryn Schneider Smith

Probably in the 2200 block of Nichols Ave, S.E. Combination (5 – 10 – 25 cent) Store and Ice Cream Parlor decorated for the Fourth of July around the year 1919. [Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress online]

The Population

Until the 1950s, Anacostia was predominantly White (approximately 85% of the population). The 2000 Census noted Anacostia’s population was 5% Non-Hispanic White and the 2010 Census listed 3.3% of the approximate 71,000 residents were Non-Hispanic White.

“’That number [the 3.3%] is growing as more white professionals move in’, Davis said.

He said many ‘For Sale’ signs in historic Anacostia are tagged with the graffiti, ‘No Whites,’ which ‘means that a small minority fear being pushed out of their homes’ by gentrification.

‘We have come across many of our posts defaced with the words ‘No Whites,’ Davis said. ‘We have had to fix them. But I think it’s just as wrong to discriminate against black people as it is to discriminate against whites.’

Many longtime residents said some of the investment flowing into Anacostia seems intimidating and unnecessary. They said they need jobs and better low-income housing, not luxury housing or office space.

‘The new owners — both black and white professionals — who are moving in are demanding regular police patrols, and now we have policeman on bicycles,’ said Davis, who is black and has been working in the area for 10 years. ‘You know the area is changing, the city is changing. It’s just going to happen.’

Butch Hopkins, president of the nonprofit Anacostia Economic Development Corp., said he is hopeful that the renovation of St.Elizabeths Hospital— slated to become headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security — will bring even more new faces to Anacostia.

More than 14,000 federal workers are expected to come to the new complex, and a 281,000-square-foot office and retail development is planned for across the street.

‘We hope that, over time, a lot of the folks who commute here will begin to see how lovely the neighborhood is, get sick of that long commute and realize that Anacostia is actually a nice place to live,’ Hopkins said.”

– Emily Wax, “‘Gentrification’ covers black and white middle-class home buyers in the District” Washington Post, July 28, 2011

The historic Anacostia Block Association: http://www.habadc.org/index.htm

The Freeway

The Anacostia Freeway (I-295) is a 8.05 mile interstate connecting I/95/I-495 and MD Route 210 to I-695 and downtown DC. It was opened in 1964 at 7.8 miles and extended another 1.7 miles in 1990. The freeway ostensibly separated Anacostia the neighborhood from the waterfront of theAnacostia River. Now, the traffic count on I-295 averages 85,100 vehicles on weekdays.

The Web Series

Now its second season: ANACOSTA – The Web Series! This episodic dramatic web series “follows the lives of the residents of ANACOSTIA, a small residential community in Washington, DC as they navigate through love, betrayal, deception, sex, and murder.”

What’s next?

The Washington City paper reported on Monday about plans to build a homeless shelter in the heart of Anacostia’s business district. According to the article, plans have been underway for months, but most residents just found out about it last week in an email blast from City Council Chairman Kwame Brown. Blogger Veronica Davis and others in the neighborhood are concerned that social service organizations such as a homeless shelter will impede development and revitalization efforts in the area (being as it’s a prime location for a new restaurant or retail shop).

This is just one example of the recent developments and controversies in the neighborhood. We’ll be on the lookout for more, and as always send us your thoughts!

~ Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director and Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager


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I can be a little defensive.

No, really.

It’s true.

Certainly if you’ve talked to me over the past month about why Woolly is remounting Clybourne Park, that semi-insistent tone has likely underscored my answer to you. The reason we’re remounting this show, to a great extent, has become personal for me; it has everything to do with my job and department at Woolly… and what I want for the future of American theatre. Yes: Clybourne Park was a wildly successful show for Woolly Mammoth in 2010. And yes: we continue to face a gap in our budget. But no: that’s not why we decided to do the remount. That’s not why this show matters.

The Washington, DC area is undergoing a mind-bogglingly rapid economic growth and development, and is simultaneously experiencing a striking shift in population (both as result of and in response to the former). Right on their coattails is a significant, potentially seismic, cultural shift in the city which is heard foreshadowed in phrases like “Chocolate City is going vanilla” and “Chocolate City is melting.” As the face of our city changes—architecturally, economically, and, quite literally, of the faces of the people who live here—a charge is building up with few ways to productively release it widely and publically. I would argue that this is because we lack a shared experience, common ground and neutral territory on which to meet and engage in open dialogue. For many, Clybourne Park is that shared experience and provides us perspective from which to begin conversation.

In 13 years of leading discussions following theatrical performances, I have yet to see a show that primes people to talk intimately in a room of strangers about heated topics like race and gentrification as Clybourne Park.  It is the “perfect storm” of connectivity: linking audience members with one another and the artists through the work of art. During the initial run in March and April 2010, I was humbled by the willingness of audiences to speak from the heart sharing deeply personal stories and beliefs of the “way the world works” which were suddenly questioned. The outpouring of conversation led to the decision to create opportunity for dialogue after every performance of the remount.

15 months after the initial run, the landscape in DC has shifted—from the change in DC’s mayoral seat to the shifting racial makeup of the city’s citizenry. We’ll be engaging with Clybourne Park this time from a different starting point. What shape will the conversation take in the theatre? Only the next four weeks will tell. Can it have an impact on the city’s larger capacity to dialogue about race and gentrification? We hope so.

So if you ask me why this show matters, to me or to Woolly…. Sure, it is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Of course, the production is hilarious and poignant. Yes, we expect many people to purchase tickets. But it matters because it models as a function that theatre could play in this city and in American society. It unites citizens in the pleasurable act of collective imagining, while also challenging us to examine innermost portions of ourselves as individuals, a community, a nation.

When we ask “Is your neighborhood Clybourne Park?” we want to know, and we want to explore what we’re going to do about it.

~Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director

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Lobby Design and Woolly’s “Total Audience Experience”

If you’ve heard Woolly staff members talking about “Connectivity” recently, you might have asked yourself hm, what’s that? Connectivity is a department of our theatre that bridges the traditionally pretty separate “marketing,” “development,” and “artistic” sides of the theatre, attempting to connect to new audiences, build relationships, create linkages between Woolly and our community, and enrich and enliven the theatergoing experience. Connectivity works cross-departmentally and collaboratively on all these goals… particularly the last one. You may have noticed this year that we experimented with unique lobby designs that match the artistic themes of our productions, such as with the “Apple Orchard” for The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Recently I spoke with our Connectivity Director Rachel Grossman who gives us some insight into the lobby design for our current production of Bootycandy:

Brooke Miller: How did the idea of lobby designs for our shows come about? How does it fit in with Connectivity programming?

Rachel Grossman: One of the four areas of focus for the Connectivity Department is what we call “total audience experience.” This is, of course, an incredibly collaborative process that all grows from the play we’re working on, the playwright’s intent, the director’s vision for the play in production, and the audiences’ reaction to the play. The Marketing and Communications staff, Literary staff, and Connectivity, in consultation with the design team and Claque members develop a vision for the playbill, lobby, and programming (discussions or special events) that draws audiences into the world of the play and then expands it to overlap venn diagram-like with “the real world.” Connectivity ends up carrying the vision of the lobby forward with heavy collaboration from the Props Department and front of house.

BM: Where did the idea for live & leave your label and the sexual euphemism alphabet come from?

RG: Both ideas were hatched in a brainstorm session we had with the entire Woolly staff after reading the first completed draft of Bootycandy in December 2010. Multiple staff members came up with variations on these ideas, which were then brought forward to the “Bootycandy Working Group” (a committee of staff, board, and Claque members as well as a few general community members interested in the show’s subject matter) who refined the ideas slightly. But the real shaping of both came from a meeting between me, Max Freedman, Connectivity Assistant, and Timmy Metzner, Box Office Manager. Timmy had worked with many different graphic socio-metric tools in college and was instrumental in shaping the final products.

BM: How do the themes of the lobby design tie into the themes present in Bootycandy? What did Robert O’Hara have to say about them?

RG: The lobby was meant to engage audiences right away in acts that ask them to publicly make choices about the language they use to identify or reveal and conceal. Bootycandy explores the dynamics around the language we use to label ourselves and others, particularly in relation to sex, sexuality, and race.  Robert O’Hara was brought into the conversation early in the conception process for both the labels and the alphabet, and strongly supported both. I then connected with him and the cast and crew to brainstorm the actual words we would but on the labels. I would say one-third to one-half of them came from that group. It was hilarious to watch Robert and the design team (let alone the Woolly staff) walk around the theatre during preview week with labels on themselves.

BM: How does the lobby design add to the play-going experience? Have we gotten any feedback from audience members about it?

RG: We are definitely seeing the lobby more as the truly transitional space it is—moving from the “real world” on the street into the world of the play in the theatre. My hope long-term is that part of the excitement of coming to Woolly is linked to how we break expectations for the entire theatre-going experience for every production. The experience of coming to Woolly is just as quirky, unexpected, and, dare I say “convention defying” as our productions are. Maybe this would then change the way theatre-going works in the country? Lofty goal…

We are just starting to get direct feedback via email and some of our surveying about the lobby. One of our first responses over email included: “Kudos… on making a very fun lobby experience! I found the whole labeling process to be interesting because what was being labeled (your self-definition, your identity within the context of the audience, etc.) was left slightly ambiguous. Typically I would not label myself as “gay,” as I don’t feel that’s what defines me. But in the context of the evening, I would say that I had a completely different experience with the show than a straight male and that that was significant. It was a fun activity that has kept me thinking.”

Bootycandy was the first time thus far that the pre-show or lobby experience has been incorporated into reviews (See: BYT). Yeah, I think that’s correct.

BM: Any ideas/thoughts for the future?

RG: In many ways we are in a perpetual state of experimentation at Woolly. Certainly with our plays and productions…. And so logically with everything else. I am looking forward to our audience being excited to attend Woolly because the entire experience, from their first point of contact with us or at least from when they walk through the front doors, is provocative and playful, allowing them to connect with the work and even one another.

~ Brooke Miller, Press and Digital Content Manager

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What Our Audience Had to Say: Mini-Survey Results

For the past two productions this year, Woolly’s engaged in some evaluative dialogue with its community as part of two separate but linked processes. The first, and more intensive, is the Intrinsic Impact project commissioned from WolfBrown by Theatre Bay Area. Woolly is one of 18 theatres across the country participating in this study, seeking to measure and understand the impact or effect of live performance on the people who watch it (the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and social impacts). Results will be available come summer.

The second, more compact, is through Woolly’s work in the EMCArts Innovation Lab evolving our thinking of the new area “Connectivity.” This “Audience Mini-Survey” correlates with its bigger sibling, the Intrinsic Impact Survey, but is being used to explore the impact of the performance depending on the composition of the audience. (See we are experimenting with “audience design”—an approach to cultivating new audiences linked to the artistic design of the show that acknowledges that who is in the house is equally important to the success of the production in performance as the lights or sound.)

Woolly invited six audiences for both Oedipus el Rey and The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to complete the survey. The questions were identical save an addition we made with Steve Jobs: we learned after Oedipus el Rey that we wanted to know if the responder was a single ticket buyer (STB) or subscriber (SUBS) and how long they had been a part of the Woolly community.

We asked to rate on a sale of 1 – 5:

1. Overall how strong was your emotional response to the performance?

2. How much did you feel a sense of connection to others in the audience?

3. Are any of the scenes or lines from the performance still bouncing around in your head?

4. Was the audience filled with a cross-section of different people?

Then we asked:

5. Circle the phrase that most closely describes the relationship between the audience and the art and artists at this performance: distanced investigation; explosive engagement; passive observation; direct confrontation; standard interaction.

6. After answering the above, if there is an additional word or phrase that even more accurately describes your perception of this relationship, please write it here:…..

We are still sifting through the Audience Mini-Survey responses in house and will be comparing these first two shows’ surveys with the ones we receive from Bootycandy. But we wanted to share a few findings with you.

  • 453 people completed the Oedipus el Rey mini-survey (42% response rate); 564 for Steve Jobs (38% response rate). Steve Jobs responses came 67% from STB and 23% from SUBS. Something to note: we surveyed Saturday matinees which are lightly subscribed shows, but where we are experimenting with designed audiences, so we believe this explains the lower SUBS percentage. 40% of STB responders identified as having been with the Woolly community for 0 years (!) while over 50% of SUBS have been with Woolly 1 – 4 years.
  • Respondents gave overall a slightly higher rating of their emotional response to Steve Jobs than Oedipus (4.5 and 4 respectively on a 1 – 5 scale) and about the same for lines bouncing around in the head after the show.
  • For Oedipus, in which our audience design efforts yielded more observable racially diverse audience composition, respondents overall gave a higher rating (3.5 for Oedipus, and 2.9 for Steve Jobs).
  • How would audiences describe Oedipus el Rey? They were torn. 27% noted “explosive engagement” was how they would describe the relationship between the audience and the art and artists and 26% noted “direct confrontation.”  For Steve Jobs: 51% said “explosive engagement.”
  • Additional words to describe audience relationship prompted many responses.  A nibble from both shows:
    • Oedipus el Rey included: cautious engagement; magnetic engagement; fascinated engagement; immersion; I think people were very interested and paying attention, absorbed in the play; so close, uncomfortable in a good way; penetrating; that shit was powerful; been there; culture conflict and religious threat.
    • Steve Jobs included: Mind-blowing, powerful, direct; Induced shame; a new form of journalism/anthropology in theatre form; passionately familial; pulled in with comedy; “What’s with all the screaming?”; empathetic agreement; art = revolution; insidious humor (and that is a compliment)

And this is just a taste. You can find the result of the Oedipus surveys here and the Steve Jobs surveys here. We will be posting files of all the collected survey data after the close of Bootycandy and asking you to draw conclusions with us. (Internally, we are already wrestling with potential lessons to learn from this about everything from show selection to seating configurations.) If you want to learn or talk more about this, please don’t hesitate to contact me by phone or email.

Lest I close without saying so: THANK YOU! Your investment in Woolly and willingness to speak your truth about your experience at the theatre is humbling. I know I am personally thankful to be a part of such an exciting, connected community.

~ Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director

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How ’bout Them Apples?

Apples, apples everywhere at Woolly Mammoth, though definitely of the Steve Jobs-generated variety. Supposedly, the origin of the company’s name is the convergence of two sources: Steve Jobs’ summer gigs at an apple farm and Apple Records, The Beatles’ label. The logo started with a slightly more, shall we say “regal,” look and quickly transitioned into the recognizable apple-with-a-bite-missing shape.

Forbidden Fruit

A metaphorical name for the fruit which grew on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (also known as the Tree of Knowledge, or the Tree of Consciousness) in the Garden of Eden, according to The Book of Genesis. God forbade Adam from eating the fruit; Eve, under the suggestive influence of a serpent, convinces Adam they should bite into the fruit knowing full well it was a no-no. The act results in awakening the two to their nakedness and becoming put-out of the garden to face the harshness of reality. As a result, “forbidden fruit” is name for anything that is wanted or desired that can’t be had or despite knowing better.  Of course in western art, the forbidden fruit is often depicted as… an apple! (Bonus info: a man’s “Adam’s apple” is believed to be there because a piece of the fruit stuck in Adam’s throat.)

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)

American Icon

Apple pie was not invented by Americans but we certainly identify closely with it.  “It’s as American as apple pie” is a common saying meant to link whatever “it” is to wholesome all-Americanism. During World War II that was typified in the American home, hence the response from soldiers who said they were fighting “for Mom and apple pie.” Save a spice or two, today’s apple pies follow fairly closely a recipe found in Chaucer in 1361 “For To Make Tartys in Applis.” It seems fitting that apple pies are considered a dish typifying America, as apples are not indigenous to this area; early European explorers brought apple seeds with them. Audre Lorde turned the phrase back on the citizenry when she wrote that for African American women “oppression is American as apple pie.”

Teachers and Apples

The history behind giving an apple to your teacher links to teachers’ salaries in this country. In pioneer days, teachers were compensated extremely poorly and apples were frequently gifted to them because apples were a common and plentiful crop for many farmers. The nickname “apple polisher” grew out of this practice in the late 1920s, as it was believed giving an apple to the teacher would position a student as vying to be teacher’s pet. This is a traditional gift not only the United States but also in Sweden and Demark. Apples have also been used for centuries by teachers to instruct students in the alphabet: A is for Apple.

365 Apples

Does an apple a day keeps the doctor away? Apples certainly have vitamin C, fiber, flavonoids (antioxidant), phenols (reduce bad cholesterol, increase good); they clean teeth and reduce tooth decay. Americans consume around 20 pounds of apples a year, about an apple a week. This phrase has English and Welsh roots. The February 1866 edition of Notes and Queries magazine noted “A Pembrokeshire proverb. Eat an apple on going to bed, And you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” The version we know now, came into popular use in 1913’s Rustic Speech and Folk-lore: “Ait a happle avore gwain to bed, An’ you’ll make the doctor beg his bread; or as the more popular version runs: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” With apples available in so many different edible forms, we really don’t have an excuse for not trying this one out.

~ Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director

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More on our Mammoth Forums

One of the guest speakers at the final Mammoth Forum for Oedipus el Rey was Wilbert Avila, a former program participant with the Free Minds Bookclub & Writing Workshop. Mr. Avila reflected openly at the start of the Forum about his experience in prison and how the production, and the character of Oedipus, connected with him. Then at the end of his remarks, Mr. Avila referenced a poem he wrote that  incorporated eye-imagery, which Oedipus reminded him of.  He was kind enough to share the poem with us, and we wanted to share it with you as a coda to the production.

My Eyes

By Wilbert Avila

Mis ojos have suffered!
Each have seen the death of a brother
They saw anguish in his last breath
Mis ojos shed a tear, they didn’t pass the test.

Mis ojos have seen rejection!
Family turning there shoulders no exception
Society considered me a lost cause
My reaction to rejection, find a new family, new love, was that my fault.

Mis ojos have seen hate.
A young soul lost in hells gates
Hate is looking in the mirror
No mercy for me, no mercy for them, my hearts love and affection cut
to peices by Gods scissors

Mis ojos have seen a new therapeutic god
But he deceived me, his name was alcohol
He eased my mind but only for a instant
Under his influence I couldnt make the right decision

Mis ojos tells you a story
Deep down inside I want to say I’m sorry
But not to show fear, not even to blink
My emotions I bear hug and let them sink

Mis ojos have smears of yellow
Insomnia and suicide all because of sorrow
In chains one behind the other
Walking with silence death we follow

Mis ojos want to go blind
They don’t want to see me waisting time
I don’t want to see pity
I don’t want to see the false preacher preach

Mis ojos I shut
I see my dreams dissolve like dust
I see my future if I didnt get a second chance

~ Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director

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Oedipus Connectivity Wrap Up

While not as widely broadcast as it once was, remember the saying “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach?” The implication of course is that teachers can’t cut it in the real world or workforce. I recently read an article that flipped this: “Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, do.” This implication was that applying knowledge, skills, and experience in practice is easy—what’s truly challenging is educating and empowering others to be able to do so.

Why bring this up? The tension residing in the dated piece of conventional wisdom resonated with me, and its remix captures the way Oedipus el Rey and the sweep of programming my fellow Mammoths and I shaped around it.

Connectivity programming around Oedipus el Rey intended to interrogate the personal and local resonance of the social issues embedded in the play by highlighting the work of organizations and individuals in our city. Essentially we expanded the Woolly community to include on-the-ground experts in fields of, among others: recidivism, re-entry, prison reform, juvenile justice, literacy, job readiness, mentoring, and homelessness in order to generate meaningful conversation inspired by the production. In the end the theatre made new friends, the dialogue created was rich and evocative, and audience members developed their understanding of the play within the context of themselves and their city.

Ok, but what about me and this “do vs. teach” tension?

For 11 years I worked through various theatres and arts organizations in the metro area in education and community programming: designing, administering, and facilitating or teaching. I also spent a year as a classroom teacher in the PG County school system. I worked to varying degrees of closeness with a significant number of DC and Maryland youth ensnared in a tangle of negative societal and social cycles. These young people seemed, like Oedipus, to be cursed; their fates driven by outside forces constantly thwarting their desire for self-determination and change. Among a handful of reasons I no longer work in education was the recognition that while I was good at direct delivery (teaching, mentoring) I was better at being an “enabler.” To enable – to provide resources, authority or opportunity to do something; to make something possible or feasible. My realization started within the arts-education context and my first step was to leave classroom teaching and become Director of Education & Outreach at Round House Theatre. There I was predominantly a theatre-arts-educator enabler. But eventually I realized I wanted to become a theatre-audience enabler, working directly with and between the people in the seats and the people on the stage. Working with Woolly last season on the early stages of what has become the Connectivity pillar of the organization and my position, I realized I wanted to be a theatre-community enabler in which the relationship was two-way: giving and receiving from one another. In other words, the relationship would be a constant dialogue or possess a high rate of connectivity.

However: as I met with Woolly’s various community collaborators for Oedipus el Rey, I questioned the value of my newfound enabler position. You can witness, assess, and measure the impact of direct service to youth and community. You know you are doing “the good work” and serving humanity on a very real, very immediate, and tangible level. You can metaphorically hack your way against the negative cycles that drive people’s fates.

After our final Mammoth Forum, which was particularly focused on youth development and programs in the juvenile justice system, I shared this tension with one of Woolly’s Claque members. She too holds an enabler position in her workplace (immigration and human rights law) and wrestles with the value this role. She told me she had been recently reminded that working for and in service to those on the ground and in the field was just as valuable. To support and enable made the direct-service possible and so was integral to its success. (And, yes, she gave me the word “enable.”) She looped the message back to me: in order for Woolly’s shows to land with its audiences, in order for Woolly to grow its community and stay connected to its city, the theatre needs you. Oh yeah, right.

I looked back through the connectivity work of the theatre (dialogues, blogs, playbills, podcasts, videos). I began processing data collected through our participation in the Intrinsic Impact Study, and I realized Oedipus el Rey was a turning point for me and Woolly Mammoth.

What drives my fate? The desire to change the world through art, through theatre.

Because: Those who can, do. Those who can also connect, encourage, and hopefully inspire change.

~ Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director

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