Farewell Remarks from Howard Shalwitz

June 4, 2018

Thank you Maria. Well, I have to say, I’m overwhelmed to see so many of you here tonight for this celebration. I want to thank all those who stood on this stage and said so many nice things about me. And I want to categorically reject all the embarrassing and ridiculous things that have been said. They’re all lies.

I’ll confess that I was embarrassed a couple of months ago when I first heard the title of this event, Celebrating Shalwitz — because this really isn’t about me, it’s about all of us. I may be the longest tenured person at Woolly Mammoth, but not for a moment have I been alone in this undertaking. The theatre was born out of the friendship between myself and Roger Brady when we were just beginning our careers. And the two of us spent so much time talking about starting a theatre that eventually we had to do it. And then we met Linda Reinisch at a party, and she said: how can I help. And then, because Linda was such a brilliant recruiter, many others did the same — Brian Nelson and Teresa Eyring and Nancy Hensley and Madge Minor and Steve Siegel, and a bunch of amazing actors who showed up to audition outdoors in Glover Park, and Reverend Steve Klingelhoffer who invited us to perform at the Church of the Epiphany, and people who wrote us checks at cocktail parties, and on and on it went — more artists, volunteers, staff and Board members, audiences and supporters, each of them contributing and often sacrificing in their own way to push Woolly forward. And tonight we can see that Woolly Mammoth has become a part of so many people’s lives and careers and relationships. We’re a very big family.

And I loved coming in every day and talking with all of you, and at you, thinking together and struggling together. And ultimately you gave me an incredible gift, and it’s something that not everyone gets in life — the chance to discover what one really loves to do. And sure, for me, acting and directing are a part of it. But the main thing that I love to do is to find actors, directors, designers, and playwrights who I believe in, who have a special spark of originality, and pull them together around projects that I hope will engage and challenge our community. I love to encourage and push artists, and I love talking with everyone else who will listen about why I believe in this work, how essential it is for our lives, and how we could do it even better if we had more money. That’s generally called fundraising, but I try to think of it as making friends.

It all comes together when I stand in the back of the house at a performance and feel the way the energy flows back and forth between the people on the stage and the people in the seats, and it’s a great satisfaction to know that you’ve had something to do with making that happen. So I’m grateful to all of you for allowing me to have that experience, over and over again, and to build my life around you.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

As much as it’s been a privilege to help lead this theatre for 40 years, it’s also a privilege to step down and know that Woolly Mammoth will continue under new leadership, especially with an artistic leader as inspiring as Maria Manuela Goyanes. It’s never a foregone conclusion that a theatre company will or even should outlast its founders. But in the search for my successor, it’s been inspiring to see so many people come together around a commitment to Woolly’s future. In essence, you are all re-founding the theatre without me and Roger and Linda, the ones who cooked it up in the first place. You’re putting your own talent and time and resources into it, and each of you may have your own hopes and dreams for its future.

So at this complex moment in Woolly’s history, I want to offer two short reflections on what this milestone represents — and then I have a few more thank you’s.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

First, I think we need to ask just what it is that we’re trying to perpetuate in this transition. You know, you start a theatre company with lofty ideals and no money, and you think — if we can just find a place to perform, and raise some money to pay a few actors and a couple of staff, we’ll change the world. And then if you’re lucky you get those things, and then more of them, and you start to accumulate some impressive assets as an institution — a beautiful theatre in which to perform, money in the bank to meet the next payroll, maybe a strategic plan for the next 3 or 4 years.

But as wonderful as these things are, none of them is the essential thing that we need to perpetuate. What we need to perpetuate is that core conviction that we can change the world. This conviction needs to be expressed in a clear mission and a set of values that we live by every single day. In Woolly’s case we’ve used lots of different words to describe this over the years — edginess, challenge, provocation, outrageousness, risk-taking, relevance, dialogue, inclusiveness. What they all come down to is the idea that theatre doesn’t have to come at you wrapped up in a tidy and comfortable story in the way you’ve come to expect, because there are new and different theatre artists who want to shake you up and make you think about things in new ways, and there are new audiences out there who will respond.

The remarkable thing about Woolly’s history is that it gives us example after example of how we were ultimately rewarded, not punished, for delving more deeply into our mission, and for figuring out how to live by our values more fully.

When we shifted from European to American plays in 1984 to make our work more relevant, when we formed our first permanent company in 1986 to lift our work to a higher level, when we made a commitment to developing new plays in 1990, when we launched “Free the Beast” in 2012 to deepen our artistic process — each of these was a response to a moment of financial crisis, but the solution was to re-connect with our fundamental purpose in order to find the right step forward. We didn’t continue doing the things we already knew how to do so we could protect the institutional assets we already had. And each one of these decisions led to new levels of success and acclaim for our theatre.

Theatre people know what it means to dream something up out of thin air and then make it a reality— that’s what we do with every single show. That’s what we did when we started Woolly Mammoth, and that’s what we’ve done throughout our history. We learned that our future doesn’t come from avoiding risk but from rushing headlong into the risks that we most deeply believe in, risks that we hope will help us fulfill our mission and change the world. That, I believe, is the spirit that we’re trying to preserve in this transition. I believe it’s a spirit that is ingrained in all of you. And I know it is in the DNA of Maria Manuela Goyanes, and I can’t wait to see the as-yet-unknown places her leadership will take Woolly Mammoth.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Second, neither Roger, Linda, not I had any theatre management training when we started out, so we had to learn as we went along. We learned from books and seminars, from our artists and staff and board members. We networked with our colleagues at theatres across the city and around the country.

But the biggest way we’ve learned over the years was by engaging with the people and the communities around us, right here in Washington, DC.

There are at least three striking examples from our history — In the early 1990s, Molly White started walking up and down 14th Street to get to know our neighbors, including homeless shelters, after school programs, aids clinics, churches, and these relationships blossomed into our “Outside Woolly” program which served hundreds of kids and adults over 15 years. In 2009, we hosted a conference called “Who’s In Your Circle” in which over two hundred friends and colleagues shared ideas for how Woolly could engage most meaningfully with our community, now that we had moved downtown. Their ideas grew into our “Connectivity” program which builds partnerships and dialogue around every Woolly production. Most recently, in 2016, we opened our building as a gathering place for over 5,000 participants in the Women’s March on Washington, one of the most thrilling days in our theatre’s history.

It’s always been our personality to reach out, to listen to many voices, to build bridges. And the real impact has shown up on Woolly’s stage and in our audience. In the beginning, we were producing mostly plays by straight white men for mostly white audiences. Quickly we became a launching pad for LGBTQ artists, for more women playwrights, for new works by African, African-American, and other writers of color. Today we aim for the widest possible representation of artists throughout every season, and our audience is among the most diverse and energized in the city.

This has never been a strategy. A strategy would be to stick your finger in the air to determine which plays will help you build which audiences. This is the opposite. It’s simply embedding ourselves in our community, and embedding our community in ourselves, and letting that connection influence the art we make. It’s acknowledging, quite simply, that art can’t exist in a vacuum.

We have so much further to go. Today we are asking hard questions about artist recruitment, staff hiring practices, the evolution of our Board and our team of community ambassadors. We are working to eliminate all forms of systemic and unconscious bias so we can be a welcoming environment for all people. We are asking how we can be oriented toward social justice, and at the same time continue to challenge our audiences with work that is prickly, uncomfortable, or politically incorrect — in an environment where people don’t necessarily want to be challenged by views that are different from their own. So none of this is easy.

But what an exciting time to be engaged in this work! Woolly Mammoth came in with Reagan, and I am heading out with Trump. Do you detect a thread? When we started, we were the inheritors of a generation of civil rights and feminist and anti-war and gay rights activism that grew from the turbulent sixties, and our plays reflected the struggles of that period. But today there is a new generation of American activists, with a new sense of urgency, and I can’t wait to see what Maria does to invite their voices onto the Woolly stage.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Tonight’s celebration is slightly premature because I’ll be continuing full-time at Woolly through the end of August, and Maria arrives officially on Labor Day. But the transition has been underway for many weeks. Even as she’s winding up her intense job at the Public Theatre, Maria has been absorbing reams of Woolly history and strategic plans and budgets, considering projects for the future, meeting with me and Meghan and with Woolly artists and Board members. She just spent a great week with 18 of us seeing some mind-bending theatre in Berlin.

My focus this summer, in addition to getting next season launched — and it’s an amazing season by the way — will be on completing the Mammoth Legacy Campaign. This is a critically important effort to secure Woolly’s beautiful home for the long-term and launch Maria’s tenure and plans for the future. If you haven’t heard from me already, you will. And if you’ve already commitment to support this milestone effort, I’m so grateful.

Starting in the fall, I will be focusing on a couple of writing projects intended to spread the Woolly gospel even further. I’ll be doing some teaching as well, and planning for some directing opportunities in the future, maybe even some acting, who knows.

There are so many people I’d like to thank tonight, but it would take many hours. But I want to mention the roughly 50 members of the Woolly company and associate artists over the years who inspired me and educated me and built a distinctive Woolly identity. I want to thank our seven amazing Managing Directors, all of whom were great partners, kept more balls in the air than I could imagine, and worked tirelessly to build this organization. I want to thank the hundreds of dedicated staff members who devoted not only a portion of their careers but also a lot of their souls to Woolly, creating a culture of friendship and excellence.

I want to thank our dedicated and generous Board members, as well as our dozen selfless Board Presidents over the years, most of whom had other full-time jobs but often made it seem as if they were working full-time for Woolly. I want to thank the best and smartest audiences in the world, who bring so much intelligence into our theatre, and who always allow Woolly to be Woolly, even when they’re mystified by the current show. I want to thank my close colleagues at many theatres across the country, and especially at other theatres in our city — we actually work together and support one another, and this helps make DC the best theatre town in the world.

Finally, there are so many supporters who I wish I could thank by name, your generosity amazes me and gives me courage and hope. But I would be remiss not to mention the extraordinary support we’ve had from the DC City Council, the Mayor’s office, and the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities; from the Cafritz, Meyer, Graham, Weissberg, Marpat, Share Fund, and other stalwart DC foundations that provided bedrock funding year after year; from pioneering national funders including Doris Duke, Andrew Mellon, Lila Wallace, Shubert, Roy Cockrum, and TCG, who helped us make major strategic advances over the past decade. I want to thank the National Endowment for the Arts and the DC Capital Arts Fund for their consistent support, and for fighting the good fight to keep arts funding on the national agenda. And finally, along with hundreds of generous individual donor who are the bedrock of our success, I want to thank Arlene and Robert Kogod, without whose loving care and foresight the progress of our entire DC arts community would be unthinkable.

I want to give a special shout out to Colin K. Bills, Sarah Dovere, Amelia Stanley, Jenn Harris, and the entire Woolly development and production staff for their incredible and very sneaky work in planning this weekend’s events, and to Scott & Evelyn Schreiber, Pete Miller & Sarah Cormeny, and Sunny & Bill Alsup for making it possible.

A big debt of gratitude, also, to all the people who stepped up to take charge of this transition since I first said I would be stepping down nearly two years ago. It’s too long a list to name, but we’ve had astonishing leadership from Linette Hwu, Michael Fitzpatrick, Scott Schreiber, Liz Friedman, and Greg Kandel.

That leaves out one person in particular who I want to mention — Meghan Pressman. When Meghan arrived at Woolly nearly four years ago, I told her there was a good chance that her tenure would continue beyond mine. She took that as a challenge, and she has spent every day since using her incredible skills to make sure the Woolly would be as strong and prepared as possible. In the process, she has emerged as one of the most gifted theatre leaders in America. When I think of the partnership between Meghan and Maria, I know that the future of Woolly is bright indeed.

With so much of the Woolly family here tonight, I think we might also take a moment to remember a few who made important contributions to our theatre but are now gone. These included wonderful artists: Jim Byrnes, David Rose, Grainne Cassidy, Rebecca Rice, Oni Faida Lampley, Keith Belli, Danny Escobar, David Marks, and Paula Gruskiewicz. They included dedicated board members: Tom Frank, Judith Morris, Rob Walton. And they included many good friends and supporters: Steve Ettridge, John Prignano, Bob Davis & Henry Schalitzky, Dick & Lucy Gomersall, John Ferrell, Gilbert & Jaylee Mead, John Morfit, Richard Anderson, Peggy Cooper-Cafritz, Paul Zimmerman, Joan Andrews, and Charlotte Hollister. I know there are others, but I want to conclude with the two people who were most responsible for my love of theatre, and Woolly’s first and longest supporters, and that’s my own mom and dad, Shirley and Fred Shalwitz.

I want to also thank my sister Janet, who is here with us tonight representing the extended Shalwitz family who have always encouraged me and taken tremendous pride in Woolly Mammoth. Janet and I memorized nearly every Broadway album of the 1950s and 1960s together, so she bears some personal responsibility for all this.

And finally I want to thank a person who has been bound up with the whole history of Woolly Mammoth, who hired me as a temp when I first moved to DC — and I flipped over her because she was the most captivating, smartest, cleverest person I had ever met, and that’s Jeanette. She served as Woolly’s first box office manager and playbill editor, and has seen every show we produced since the beginning, some of them three or four times. Jeanette has therefore earned the title: the Cal Ripken of Woolly Mammoth. I love you, I’m grateful for everything you do for me, especially helping me not to take myself too seriously — and I think it’s fair to say, Woolly Mammoth loves you too.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Finally I want to say that, having been with this theatre for quite a while, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. But looking back, I don’t experience this as discontinuity but as a miraculous kind of continuity. There’s something remarkable about the way certain artists contribute to the elevation of our standard of excellence, and then somehow those standards get embedded in the DNA of the theatre and other artists strive to live up to them. The same is true of our Board and staff: each new person stands on the shoulders of those who came before, and supports those who come after — just as I stand every day on the shoulders of Roger Brady, who, for the record, was Woolly Mammoth’s founding Artistic Director. My initial title was Producing Director.

I’ve said many times that Woolly Mammoth is not a set of plays or a building, but an idea, an inquiry, an experiment transmitted from person to person over time. Our company members and other artists are at the center of this inquiry, but the moment they step into our building, they absorb the mission and the values and the expectations that all of us have created, and this encourages them to stretch their skills and enlarge their sense of purpose. We all play a role in sustaining this virtuous cycle between artists and the community. Finding the resources is a big part, but resources only come from our collective act of will and belief.

My belief is that the highest calling of theatre as an art form, since the time of the ancient Greeks, has been to lift up and comfort the afflicted, to trouble and afflict the comfortable, and to speak truth to power. No one should ever leave the theatre feeling they have been congratulated for the good and moral things they already believe. They should be ruffled enough to want to become better human beings and better citizens. If theatre presents itself in a comfortable, simple-to-digest package, it asks little of us. If it comes with surprising shocks of language, action, or form, then it asks us to participate and respond.

So Woolly Mammoth offers you both an invitation and a warning. We welcome you with originality, excellence, and theatrical razzle dazzle, and we discombobble you enough that you’re forced to think about it in relation to your own life. Or, as Robert O’Hara said of Woolly: everyone is welcome, no one is safe.

We are all guardians of this vision, and I suspect there are enough possibilities packed inside it to last all our lifetimes. Thank you so much.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —