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It’s a handshake that threatens to turn into a judo throw: Burly Tim Getman, newly bearded and shaven-headed, yanks the older, slimmer Howard Shalwitz violently towards him. “Take care,” Getman says, quietly but with menace.
His voice softens. “Was that okay?” he asks Shalwitz. He means the handshake. Is he pulling too hard? Should he change the position of his feet before he extends his hand? He’s performed in this man’s playhouse many times, but never before with Shalwitz himself as a scene partner.
It’s a little past noon on a Wednesday, three-and-a-half weeks into rehearsals for The Arsonists, the play Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has chosen to open its 38th season. The first preview is six days away. Written by Swiss playwright/philosopher/architect Max Frisch in 1953, the absurdist comedy was first interpreted as an indictment of communism, but has also been read as a reflection on Hitler’s ascension to power. Director Michael John Garcés and Shalwitz sought and were granted the permission of the play’s latter-day translator, the Scottish satirist Alistair Beaton, to change the play’s setting to D.C. and to “Americanize” phrases and character names. While The Arsonists—more literally, The Fire Raisers, in its original German—resists facile synopsizing, its nonperishable payload would appear to be something about the way bourgeois values make us timid in the face of gathering extremism.
It’s the sort of play Woolly might’ve put on in its Reagan-era infancy, Shalwitz will reflect later, noshing on a salad during a rehearsal break: European, allegorical, epic—in the Brechtian sense. In the 21st century, Woolly has built a sterling reputation as an incubator for provocative new work. But in those first few seasons—Shalwitz founded the company with partners Linda Reinisch and Roger Brady in 1980—the troupe favored material that was geographically and stylistically remote; stuff that encouraged a performance style that went beyond mere naturalism. Before Brady left in the mid-’80s, he and Shalwitz would take turns directing one another in plays like this. Stuff by Sławomir Mrożek. Boris Vian. Harold Pinter.
There’s a certain symmetry in the fact that Woolly is returning to postwar absurdism now. Shalwitz announced in June that he will step down from his post as artistic director next year. He isn’t retiring. He’ll continue to direct. He intends to finish the book of essays he’s been working on in fits and starts. He may even consider acting work, depending on how the next month or so goes.
The Arsonists marks Shalwitz’s return to the stage, eight years after his most recent part. It was in Charles Mees’ Full Circle, where the veteran artistic director played German theater artist Heiner Müller—a role much closer to his own history and temperament than others in his oeuvre, it’s fair to say. He began his career as an actor, drifting into directing and running a company as those tasks became necessary. “I’m a theater person,” he says simply, calling his catholic way of thinking about his work “somewhat old-fashioned.”
Theater-making has grown professionalized and specialized during the span of his career. But Shalwitz, 65, never got an MFA. He learned on the job. He recognizes that whomever succeeds him as Woolly’s captain likely will not. Their task, he says, will be to avoid “Founder’s Syndrome”—a short, undistinguished tenure wherein the newbie struggles to step outside the shadow of their forebear. Who, in this case, is one of the most revered artistic directors in the country.But as an actor he is, by his own account, rusty.
“It has been too long,” he says. This interval between roles was nearly three times as long as the break before that, between Woolly’s remount of The Gigli Concert in 2006 and Full Circle in 2009. He’s had to make sure he’s exercising daily, to make sure he has the physical stamina for the show. Even just learning his lines feels like it’s taking longer than it used to. “I’m sure I’ll know them by the time we open,” he chuckles.
He’s confessed these jitters to some of his castmates, particularly three company members whose careers have flourished at the company he built: Getman, Kimberly Gilbert, Emily Townley—all actors who have appeared in the sorts of challenging new plays that in the 21st century have become Woolly’s signature. Gilbert, whom Shalwitz first hired in 2003 and made a company member in 2006, might be the company’s good luck charm, having performed in the second-ever production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park—the play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize—and the world premieres of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play and Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird. (Two of those three were directed by Shalwitz.)
“There is no difference between Howard-the-person and Howard-the-actor,” says Gilbert, who cites Shalwitz as a mentor. “There’s a big difference between Howard-the-director and Howard-the-actor.” In conversation, he’s airy and friendly, she says. When he’s directing, he’s the guy behind the table with a sheaf of handwritten notes.
Shalwitz had contemplated a return to the stage for a long while. Garcés staged a workshop of The Arsonists in the summer of 2016, but the two of them had put aside the idea of a full production.
As Shalwitz remembers it, he got a text from Garcés mere moments after Hillary Clinton conceded the election to Donald Trump suggesting that they reconsider. But even aside from Frisch’s oblique topicality, the idea of opening the season with an oldie was appealing.
“Sometimes it’s nice not to have a playwright in the room,” he says. “Because we’re also a director’s company, where directors are asked to bring their own personalized and sometimes aggressive vision to a play.”
Jennifer Mendenhall is one of the few Woolly company members who’s has the experience of directing Shalwitz herself. They met when Todd London cast her opposite him in John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo in 1987. “Here was a man who would say yes to anything,” Mendenhall says, recalling that the role of barfly Tony Aronica required Shalwitz to put on leather pants, a toupee, and an outsized New Yawk Italian accent. “He had absolutely no fear of looking foolish,” she says. “He completely inhabited this creature he created. That made a huge impression on me, because so often people in leadership positions carefully guard their dignity. Howard threw his dignity out the window.”
Sometimes he threw his body out the window, too. When Tom Prewitt, who was Woolly’s associate artistic director at the time, directed Shalwitz in Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert in 1996 at the theatre’s cramped, low-ceilinged former home on Church Street NW, he needed him to take a suicidal leap, “supposedly over the Dublin skyline,” but in reality a belly flop from a comically low fake ledge onto a hidden mattress. Making the stunt work in such a tiny space required a lot of technical rehearsal that had nothing to do with the more interior work of acting. Still Shalwitz was trying to dig in and make sure he’d mined every portion of the text. “And at some point you have to say, ‘We need to move on here, to make sure we have time for the technical elements to gel,” Prewitt says.
You hear that a lot about Shalwitz-the-actor: He takes his time.
Mendenhall, whom Shalwitz invited to direct him in Wallace Shawn’s one-man-play The Fever in 1992, says his process is more analytical than that of many actors, who find their way into a role by instinct and experimentation. Shalwitz wants to talk through every choice, a process that at least sometimes will eventually bring him back around to the performance decision he made impulsively.
He responded enthusiastically to Mendenhall’s suggestion that they open The Fever by having him stagger on and pretend to vomit into a pink toilet in the center of the stage. It was both an example of the kind of outsized physical commitment Shalwitz likes to bring to a part, and the solution to a practical problem: Because The Fever was performed in rep with another show whose set was still standing. Mendenhall needed to direct the audience’s eyes.
“He didn’t really need me to direct him in that piece,” Mendenhall says now. “He needed a set of eyes and ears.”
That wilder side of Shalwitz is the one that those who haven’t seen him act just haven’t seen. His collaborators describe him as cerebral but still warm, calm, and even tempered, a far cry from some of his characters. “He has an unexpected volatility on stage,” says Garcés, who saw Shalwitz act only once, in Full Circle, before casting him in The Arsonists.
Townley—part of The Arsonists’ chorus—is familiar to Woolly audiences from her powerhouse performances in Taylor Mac’s Hir, The Totalitarians, and many others. She’s the rare company member who’s never been directed by Shalwitz, though she credits him with getting her back in the game. She did her first Woolly show in 1997, but by the time the company moved into its permanent space on D Street NW in 2005 she had decamped for Los Angeles and quit acting. It was 2008 when she stumbled upon Woolly’s striking new digs. She’d recently returned to the area and was looking for a place in Penn Quarter to take a friend for lunch. She asked for Shalwitz and was directed upstairs to his office.
“He stood up and said, ‘Where the hell have you been?’” she recalls. She was skeptical when he declared that he would put her back on stage, but three months later he cast her in Jason Grote’s Maria/Stuart. She joined the company the following year.
Acting with him is a whole new thing, she says, wondering aloud how witnessing him slowly finding his way into a role will affect how she receives direction from him in the future.
“He’s doing some really layered, interesting work in this show, and it’s coming together just now,” says Townley. “He’s needed all of this time to think about it, and he’s finding it in this last week before we go into the theater.”
As he wraps up his lunch and prepares to go back into rehearsal, Shalwitz concedes that while his method in analytical, his goal is something beyond craft, a quality of performance that people used to associate with Woolly: release.
“Some people might look at it and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s over the top,’” Shalwitz says. “But control is not what I think of as the Woolly style.”