Art Talk with Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz

By Rebecca Sutton
Man with glasses and blue shirt smiling
Howard Shalwitz. Photo courtesy of Mr. Shalwitz

In 1978, Howard Shalwitz came to Washington with his acting buddy Roger Brady to co-found Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which they envisioned would advance the art form through innovation, provocation, and a healthy embrace of artistic risk. The company’s first home was a rented church hall, and its dream budget was $200,000. Today, Woolly Mammoth is frequent NEA grantee and a Washington fixture, one that has received 45 Helen Hayes Awards and built a 265-seat theater of its own—all while continuing to push the boundaries of what theater can be.

Now, after 40 years at Woolly’s helm as artistic director, Shalwitz will be starting a new chapter at the close of this season, one that he hopes will involve more acting, teaching, and directing. “We need to make room for new ideas, new leadership, new directions,” Shalwitz said of his departure. “Woolly has never been a theater that’s been afraid of change. We are always asking how do we reinvent ourselves? How do move to the next place? So to me this is a really exciting step.”

We recently spoke with Shalwitz about his career at Woolly, how the theater has maintained its artistic spark, and how he has balanced risk with success.

NEA: What were you hoping to accomplish when you founded Woolly?

HOWARD SHALWITZ: We were incredibly mission-driven. I think part of Woolly’s success over the years has been that we have always believed in having an idea we wanted to accomplish. It was always about the work, what kind of plays we wanted to do, what kind of impact we wanted to have on audiences, or what kind of exploration we wanted to do artistically. We didn’t really have any specific kind of institutional dreams, like Woolly would get to be a certain-sized theater, or anything like that. We had a dream budget at the beginning of $200,000 that [would allow us to] accomplish everything that we wanted to accomplish.

But of course, times change. So I think in some ways Woolly has exceeded any expectations we might have had for it at the beginning, with the exception of artistic ones, because you always feel like you haven’t reached the artistic goals you’re trying to reach. You want to do work that will completely change the world, and everyone will say is the greatest and newest and freshest and most original and most provocative work that’s ever been done. We’ve done our share of that. But that’s the thing you’re always looking for: how does the work become greater and greater?

NEA: What was the theater scene like in DC when you founded Woolly? How has it changed?

SHALWITZ: We cooked up the idea for Woolly Mammoth in New York, and then we actually selected DC. We were drawn here because it was the nation’s capital, but also because we felt it had some interesting assets. We knew there was enough wealth in the area to support theater. There was already Arena Stage here. And we thought, okay, you have a more mainstream regional theater, so there might be room and an audience for more provocative work around the edges.

We also came at a time when a whole bunch of theaters were just getting started. Joy Zinoman was just getting started with Studio Theatre. Bart Whiteman had just recently gotten started with the Source Theatre. There was a women’s company called Earth Onion. Gala Hispanic Theatre had recently gotten started. There was the DC Black Repertory that had an important history. So there was a bunch of stuff that was nascent at the time, and we felt it was fertile territory. There was a lot of great energy.

I think part of the success of Washington as a theater town has been that a lot of those companies had very distinct identities. Woolly is certainly looked at as one of the leading, edgy new play producers in the country. The Shakespeare Theatre is looked at as one of the leading classical companies in the country. Signature is one of the leading producers of new musicals in America. Gala Hispanic is one of the oldest and most respected bilingual theaters in the country. So you can look at almost any category and you can find a leading example of it in Washington, DC.

Another factor I would say though is that a lot of other big cities have more big foundations that are doing very big grants for theater. I think that in Washington, the real story is raising money from individuals. Any theater that wants to survive in Washington has to learn how to do that really successfully. I think there’s something healthy about that—we haven’t been reliant on a single big source. I’ve speculated about this. It could be that some of the limitations of the way funding is organized here have actually induced a certain kind of strength in the sort of skillset that we all have of reaching out to our community, to our audiences, and to donors and making the case. That’s not to say it’s ever easy. It’s hard.

NEA: Part of Woolly’s founding manifesto was that you’ll “resist the ossification which often accompanies institutionalization.”

SHALWITZ: Exactly. If you’re not trying to push the envelope in some way or another, then you’re really just getting stuck. Another way I often talk about it is that the art form is like a river that’s constantly flowing and constantly in motion. You’re not just trying to plug into it; you’re trying to actually steer it and lead it in new directions.

NEA: In working to achieve that goal, did you have any tangible steps or philosophies in place, or was it more a matter of gut in terms of what to produce?

SHALWITZ: It’s both. It’s a lot of instinct and a lot of dialogue and developing of language. Part of our success I think has been being able to articulate long-term goals and then trying to find support for those goals from funders and from audiences and stuff like that. So as the theater grows, you actually become more and more future-oriented. In the early years, you’re just going, “We want to do this play! It’s so exciting. Let’s figure out how to scrounge together the money and the artists to just get it out on the stage.”

But over time, you learn that your growth only comes from doing long-range planning and digging deeply into what would take your work to the next level. It’s that kind of restlessness. Part of Woolly’s success is feeling that whatever work we’re doing in a given moment is fine, but it's not good enough. There’s much greater work to do ahead of us and then how do you get to that next level? How do you attract artists who can help move you to the next level? How do you even articulate what it is? How do you find standards for excellence that keep raising your own standards?

NEA: So how did you choose which productions to show at Woolly?

SHALWITZ: That’s evolved over the years. From the beginning, there was this idea of continuous exploration with a company of artists on the frontiers of theater as an art form. It evolved into the idea of provocation, and work that really made audiences work or struggle or sit up and take notice. I think that provocation was along two lines. One is aesthetic: plays that are in different forms or that are introducing fresh ideas or language, structures, or styles. And then, on the other hand, plays that are provocative in terms of our lives, our society, our politics. I think that for Woolly, the real sweet spot has been when those two things come together: when you do a play that seems to be doing something very fresh aesthetically and at the same time it asks some very provocative questions. That’s the North Star for us—that meeting of aesthetic and moral-political provocation.

NEA: How did you know when you hit that sweet spot? How did you define a successful production?

SHALWITZ: You’re never happy. You always want everybody to love every play. Theater is a public art form that gathers hundreds of people together to experience something. If it doesn’t have an impact on them, and if it’s not something that they on some level or another appreciate, then I don't think you’ve succeeded.

So I’m pretty conventional that way. I think that the success you have in exciting and igniting audiences has to be aligned with the success you’re trying to have in terms of pursuing that particular mission we talked about. I’ve never been comfortable saying, “Oh, they don’t get it.” It’s your job to make them get it.

Over the years at Woolly, one of our mantras was how do we stay one step ahead of the audience, but not two? In other words, what’s that step ahead of the audience that makes them work and stretch and open their eyes to different ideas, but [doesn’t] leave the audience behind?

The no steps ahead of the audience [approach] has also never been satisfying for me. I would say our language for being no steps ahead of the audience is what I call spoon-feeding: work that doles out stories that might be interesting or new or worthwhile, but in a format that’s well-known that audiences have experienced many times before and it isn’t asking any particularly provocative questions. There’s nothing wrong with a satisfying new play. It’s just not what Woolly has aimed to do.

NEA: Something that we talk about a lot at the NEA is the importance of risk and failure in the arts. Since Woolly is known for taking risks, I’d like to hear your thoughts on risk and failure in the artistic process?

SHALWITZ: There are different areas you can take risks in, and other areas where you can control risk. We’re often taking big risks on a script that isn’t quite finished. Our writer might not be super experienced. You’re scheduling it, but there are a lot of unknowns. Then I’m saying, “Well, how do I pair a writer with a director who is very experienced who I know can really work with them successfully?” So sometimes you’re balancing risk across the different artists in a particular project to make sure that you don’t have a whole project of people who don’t have the experience to support one another. So you have to be smart about risk.

But honestly, every show is a risk. If you do My Fair Lady it’s a risk. Arena Stage can do My Fair Lady and the critics can say, “Well, this doesn’t contribute anything new to My Fair Lady.” Or they can say, “They tried to do something new with it, but it didn’t work.” So I think that even what seems like the safest kind of show is always a risk in the theater. There are so many elements between the acting, the directing, the design, the writing that can go wrong no matter what the project. When you’re doing new work, obviously, it’s adding this extra level of risk.

In a way, if you don’t see the potential for failure, I don’t see the potential for success. If you’re trying to nudge the art form forward, then failure and success go hand-in-hand. That line between success and failure is really thin and it can depend on the smallest factors. You’re going to make a thousand choices on any given production. You just have to hope that enough of them line up in the right way, and you have a vision that holds it all together so that audiences get it and respond to it. But you don’t really know.

NEA: What have been some of your proudest moments at Woolly?

SHALWITZ: When you start a theater company, you always feel you’re in the trenches. You always feel just a day away from extinction, to use a Woolly word. So sometimes you don’t even take in your successes. But I have to say there are so many things that I’m proud of. It’s mostly about particular plays. It’s easy to say, “Oh we built a wonderful theater.” I think we did that really well, and the space supports the work really well. But the space is just the space. It’s just the place where it happens.

But I think what I’m proudest of is not standing still. Woolly has never rested on its laurels. We have moved through a lot of different kinds of work. Early in the history of the theater, we were doing European avant-garde plays. Then we were moving into radical American writers from the post-‘60s generation. Then we were gradually starting to diversify and do more work by women and writers of color and looking for different stories and different protagonists that we could put on the stage.

Throughout all that time we continued to be excited by plays we believed in, that were really outside the box, and that were trying to do something that was radically fresh and new and challenging. I think there’s a tendency as you grow as a theater company to move towards more mainstream, centrist, comfortable work for the audience. I think Woolly has avoided that. I think that people who knew our work 25 and 30 and 35 years ago feel that there’s a commonality of inquiry and struggle and identity between the work we did a long time ago and the work we do now. There’s a kind of identity that I think we’ve held on to as a theater company and it can only be described by the word “Woolly.” I’m proud of that. There’s a magic somehow that has been sustained over 40 years, and that’s very gratifying.