A Decade of Dinner on Stage — Event Remarks from Howard Shalwitz

The very first Dinner on Stage took place on October 4, 2008. I thought it might be fun to remind ourselves of what was going on that day in Washington. This is from that morning’s Washington Post: “Bush Enacts Historic Financial Rescue; House Passes Plan by Wide Margin but Stocks Keep Falling”.

In some sense, the crisis atmosphere that has gripped Washington during its struggle to deal with the damage to world financial markets brought out the very worst in the city, precisely the chaotic, partisan atmosphere that voters seem so ready to punish next month at the polls.

And this is from today’s Washington Post, roughly ten years later: “Investors Giddy as Dow Tops 23,000 [but] Senate [budget plan] Chooses Fiscal Irresponsibility”. The Senate late Thursday narrowly approved a budget plan that could cost the nation dearly. The goal is a massive tax cut with uncertain benefits for most Americans, in an economy that does not require that sort of short-term jolt. The price tag is $1.5 trillion in new debt over 10 years.

So, as the French say, plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. Whether the state of our economy is good, bad, or indifferent, the state of our politics is always fucked up.

I hope something much more positive can be said of Woolly Mammoth over the past ten years. Much has certainly changed for our theatre. Ten years ago we were just starting our third full season in this award-winning space, but we hadn’t yet experimented with the many novel configurations of our stage that make each show at Woolly so surprising today. Ten years ago we were producing plenty of new plays, but we didn’t have the resources for the kinds of extended workshops or extra rehearsals that have pushed our work to a whole new level today, thanks to our innovative “Free the Beast” fund. And ten years ago we were certainly doing plays that provoked intense conversation, but we weren’t actively curating those conversations by reaching out directly to our community the way we do now through our renowned “Connectivity” program.

Still, I believe the basic character of our work is the same, and I hope it has provided an antidote of sorts to the state of our nation’s politics. We still look for the most creative and provocative new plays we can find — plays that are daring in their language and style, plays that speak to the diversity of people of our city and the issues that matter in our world — and we give them visionary productions featuring theatre artists of the highest caliber.

For those of you who don’t yet know Woolly’s work firsthand, you got a tiny taste in the three scenes we shared throughout the evening.

BOOM, which you heard a snippet from on the stage earlier, was an apocalyptic comedy about a meteor striking the earth, but it was narrated, as some of you may recall, by Sarah Marshall’s character from thousands of years in the future, after a new race of humans had evolved from fish.

ANTEBELLUM, which you heard in the scene shop, was an ambitious melodrama that drew provocative comparisons between the treatment of African-Americans in Nazi Germany and those in the American south.

And FEVER/DREAM, which you heard in the lobby, was an inventive comedy that took a famous Spanish play from the seventeenth century and transposed it to a modern office tower, commenting on the cut-throat nature of our corporate culture.

What unites all these plays, besides their originality and relevance, is something I’d like to call “self-awareness.” They are not simply immersing you in a story, but engaging you in a conversation. Many of them continually remind you that you’re watching a play, and implicitly ask what you think about what you’re seeing, even as you’re watching it. The plays themselves are self-aware, and they are asking you to be self-aware.

This quality of self-awareness was on full display in our most recent Woolly production, The Arsonists by Max Frisch. If you look around, you’ll see some of the two hundred barrels of gasoline that were revealed at the end of the play in a stunning theatrical moment that reminded us of the dangers we face from the dysfunctional state of our politics. Throughout the play, a chorus of firefighters kept interrupting the action to literally ask the audience to be aware, to pay attention, to wake up.

Even as the plays on our stage are self-aware, I believe our whole organization needs to continually seek self-awareness. The world is changing around us, and a theatre like Woolly — which is asking people to gather together to witness and feel and engage every night — has a responsibility to stay awake to the currents of culture and politics and morality that flow through our society. Right now, for example, Woolly Mammoth is in the midst of a 3-year initiative around themes of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. It has been an illuminating process, helping us pay attention to systemic imbalances of power and privilege, learn how to talk openly across our differences of race and gender, and understand how to authentically roll out a welcome mat for people of all backgrounds. It is making us better people, and making our work better as well.

As many of you know, after nearly 40 years I’ve decided that this will be my last season as Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth. We are in the midst of a historic search for a new leader — an incredibly important step for our future, which is being tackled by the Woolly family with our characteristic energy and thoughtfulness. We’ve had tremendous interest in the role of Artistic Director from brilliant artists and leaders across the country — and it’s only because of all of you, your love of the theatre, and the level of challenge and risk that you embrace. I know that our search will identify a leader who takes Woolly even further in the direction of being brave, of being self-aware, of being truly awake.

Once again, I want to congratulate Liz Freidman for her inspiring idea and her leadership of Dinner on Stage for a decade. I want to thank David Cohen for sharing the leadership burden this year. And I want to thank Hines/Qatari Diar, developers of City Centre DC for their generous lead sponsorship, and Well Dunn Catering for donating tonight’s delicious food.

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