Across the nation, leaders in the theatre are grappling with what it means to make theatre in 2019. Is it entertainment or or a public service? Is it a luxury, or something with which citizens can engage in a way that enriches the community, allowing for a more connected, empathetic human race?
Maria Manuela Goyanes and David Muse, two artistic directors at the helm of long-running theatres in Washington, D.C. (Goyanes took on the artistic directorship of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company last fall, while Muse is in his ninth season at Studio Theatre), are contemplating those questions and more. Part of running a theatre means being responsive to what audiences hunger for; in the nation’s capital, this task has taken on new weight and meaning.
Playbill spoke to them about what it means to make “political theatre” in an age of increased political divisiveness, if they’ve seen a shift in how theatremakers approach stories, and whether theatres and playwrights should wear advocacy on their sleeves.
Playbill: Let's start by outlining the different identities of Woolly and Studio. How would you define the theatres you lead?
MMG: At Woolly, we want to create theatre experiences that galvanize artists and audiences alike to engage with our world in unexpected and challenging ways. What that turns into is: thought-provoking, boundary-pushing theatre. Woolly isn’t meant to be all things to all people. You have to be willing to potentially have a transformative experience in the theatre, and actually grapple with some of the issues and ideas that are happening around us.
DM: Our one-sentence mission statement is: We produce exceptional, contemporary theatre in deliberately intimate spaces, fostering a more thoughtful, more empathetic, and more connected community in Washington, D.C., and beyond. The mission statement is obviously a little bit vague, and somewhat purposefully so, because it lets us be eclectic. For us, intimacy is key to the experience and the architecture of the space; craft is also very important to us; and I’d say we’re a politically engaged theatre but not necessarily a politically driven one.
What do you perceive your audiences are really hungry for right now?
DM: How to get a sense of that is something that I think about a lot, and of all the things, it's maybe the hardest. I will say that my answer to that question has shifted a bit. I used to feel like, being in a city where people are engaged with a lot of the policy issues of the day in their everyday work, I felt that what audiences wanted was something different than that. Or something that rubbed up against it but was a reminder of their human side. In the last couple of years however, I've felt audiences leaning in and sitting forward when plays are dealing with things that they care about in the world. It feels like there’s a different kind of engagement and vibration in the audience, and I think it’s a reflection of how concerned and freaked out a lot of people are about the state of our nation.
MMG: I’m still learning the local landscape; meeting and getting a sense from different people while also still [navigating] what my gut is saying. I think David is right in saying that people can’t escape what’s happening. [My perception is] that the worry, the fear, the paranoia, and the un-mooring that has been happening, particularly under this administration, is felt acutely here in D.C. What I’m seeing, as we continue to put stories on our stage that are gritty and thorny, is that people want to wake up. [Because they can’t ignore what’s happening on The Hill], audiences want to deepen their analysis of what’s going on.
To me, it says something that a theatre like Woolly has been able to thrive in a place like this. However buttoned up Washington is or seems, it’s also the place where people in our nation come to leverage our power to assemble, exercise our freedom of speech, and speak truth to power. There’s a big symbolism there. I’m interested in the word “galvanize” from our mission statement, as in: actually transforming people. Helping make noise or lead people to take some action about what it is that they are actively doing in the world as a citizen. That kind of civic engagement is part of why I came to D.C.
Playbill: It’s definitely an interesting time, and space, to be making theatre in America.
MMG: There’s a part of me that thinks it’s almost more important now to wear our values on our sleeves. The fear that I have is that if we don’t wear those values out loud and in the open, that silence is actually hurting other people. I’m curious to know, David, if that’s also where you’re coming from?
DM: After Trump was elected, so many theatremakers felt shocked and hungry to take action, and it sounded as if theatre producing would change dramatically and overnight. I would say that [what’s happened is] it’s shifted, but maybe that the shift is a little less radical and immediate than I thought it might have been. One thing that’s happened is I think a lot of us gradually came to understand that there’s something inherently political and frankly somewhat anti-Trump about our art form no matter what we do—because it traffics in empathy.
[However] I do think that the content, and maybe the style of the plays, that a lot of places have been producing has begun to shift somewhat significantly. Looking at the past Studio season, the major topics were: college admissions and race, the decolonization movement in South Africa, cultural appropriation of Black artists, modern mothering, lobbyists, climate change, the fault lines of modern Judaism—there’s not a single play in the season that doesn’t vibrate with some hot political content, and I don’t think we would have said that five or ten years ago. But at least for us, I don’t feel like it’s “screaming Politics.” It’s [maybe just] a little more front and center than it was before.
Playbill: I think several leaders in the field are similarly perceiving a shift right now.
MMG: In the same way that our culture is going into a non-binary direction, I think the arts are also moving in a similar direction. Younger and seasoned artists alike are thinking about how to make work across different platforms and mediums and pushing the boundary of the form a lot more. It feels like we’re in an amazing moment in the American theatre, where stories by people of color are being centered in a way that they haven’t been before—or if they have, it was once a season.
DM: Particularly emerging American writers are hungry to grapple with and address issues of race and class onstage. I think that this election has made this great national stain more visible somehow and people want to say something about that.
Playbill: And they’re approaching it in different ways. “Political theatre” isn’t clearly definable either.
MMG: Sometimes I think the conversation about “what’s political” becomes a binary conversation, especially in Washington, D.C. But it’s hard, particularly when you’re talking about race, because just walking down the street can be a difficult thing for folks of color. I can’t help but think that they become politicized because of that and it's impossible to separate [a lot of the time]. Something I’m really grappling with is why it can suddenly feel so narrow when people talk about political theatre versus what David said, that just by virtue of the fact that we collaborate in the way that we do, our art form is a political act. It says something about what we believe our world should look like.
Playbill: Moving on to what it means to be an artistic director more generally. What’s something you wish more people knew about the job?
DM: One of the great tricks of being an artistic director is finding space for yourself to be imaginative and creative and responsive to artistic responses that are within yourself. I feel like the emotional capital that one has, as well as the time that one has to do those things, makes it a challenge. The work that’s done by the people who surround me—particularly if it gives me more of that room—is indispensable.
MMG: Part of the work of being an AD is having to toggle back and forth between the broader picture—having to be the public face of the organization, having to raise a lot of money—and the more reflective and introspective side. That time is needed to keep our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in our culture.
Playbill: There needs to be a retreat for artistic directors.
MMG: It would have to be a silent retreat, or else they’d all just complain! [But to what David was saying] I rely most on the people around me. I’m nothing without the artists, the staff, the audiences. This is an art form, a job, and a responsibility that you can’t do alone. Collaboration is at its heart and our currency is relationships.
DM: I would also say [that I rely on] good instinct. Often once things reach my desk, they’re difficult decisions. You learn both to trust your gut and to interrogate what your gut is saying. To try and reflect on whether your gut is appropriately aligned.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Studio Theatre's upcoming season includes Antoinette Nwandu's critically acclaimed Pass Over, the Tony-winning musical Fun Home, and the American premiere of White Pearl, a new dark comedy from Thai-Australian writer Anchuli Felicia King about toxic corporate culture, selling whiteness, and shame as both a cultural commodity and canny marketing strategy.
Highlights from Woolly Mammoth's 40th anniversary include Jackie Sibblies Drury's Pulitzer Prize–winning Fairview, a traveling production of Aleshea Harris' acclaimed What to Send Up When It Goes Down, Anne Washburn's Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017, and Paola Lázaro's There’s Always the Hudson.