We are at a dynamic moment in D.C. theatre history, a changing of the guards. During the last five years, many long-serving artistic directors took their final bows. New leaders emerged during an especially tumultuous time to begin their tenure. Many of these new artistic directors, including Karen Ann Daniels at the Folger Theatre, Matthew Gardiner at Signature Theatre and Maria Manuela Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, are opening a second act by taking over for a founding artistic director.
No Longer Waiting in the Wings
“It’s exciting so many leadership positions are changing over at the same time,” states Gardiner, who became Signature Theatre’s new artistic director last July after a national search led to a unanimous vote to hire Gardiner.
He served as Signature’s associate artistic director for more than a decade, directing and choreographing 25+ productions. He received more than a dozen Helen Hayes nominations and three awards for his works, overseeing the development of new plays and staging several world premieres.
Gardiner is also a self-described product of the D.C. arts environment. He studied at The Washington Ballet and performed in productions at the Washington National Opera, as well as in the holiday classic “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre before joining Signature Theatre 16 years ago.
Goyanes and Daniels are both newer to D.C. but know each other from their time at The Public Theater in New York City. Goyanes joined Woolly Mammoth in September 2018 after serving as director of producing and artistic planning at The Public Theater, overseeing the production of plays and musicals at the Public’s five-theater venue at Astor Place and The Delacorte Theater for Shakespeare in the Park. Daniels served as director of the mobile unit at The Public Theater, bringing live theatre to neighborhoods and boroughs across New York City and working with incarcerated peoples. She was named Folger Shakespeare Library’s director of programming and artistic director of Folger Theatre last August.
For Daniels, the current multi-year building renovation at Folger Shakespeare Library was a major incentive to accept the leadership role. While the historic Elizabethan theater’s upgrades may not be as drastic as the rest of the complex’s renovation — new HVAC, lighting and sound updates, accessible restrooms on the same level as the theater — the overall renovation moves the Folger from a staid archive for serious scholars to a living monument for Shakespeare, arts and humanities. With new access and publicly designed spaces, Daniels envisions new programming, including poetry readings, concerts, talks and film screenings that welcome all.
“There’s something here to invest in, to grow and develop. The renovation is at the core of cracking open the institution in a way that is more welcoming and inviting — and announcing we are a beautiful resource for all of D.C.”
Theatre with a Renewed Purpose
“One of the reasons I wanted to come to Washington, D.C. is because it has such a vibrant theater ecology, not just in terms of the number of theaters but the different types of work that happen onstage,” Goyanes shares.
Goyanes’ first season in 2018-19 signaled an even more innovative and experimental era for Woolly Mammoth. A first-generation Latinx woman, Goyanes makes space for playwrights, directors and actors of color, especially women of color. The programming, as well as a new mission statement during the 2021 season, demonstrated the theatre’s guiding principles are rooted in bold artistry, radical inclusion and social justice.
“To come to a place like Woolly and be only the second person to have that job, moving on from a founder is a big deal,” Goyanes says. “There’s no question about it. I’m really excited to see how these theatres grow and evolve under Gardiner and Daniels. To me, it’s less about somebody coming in and doing a 180, but actually putting a new spin on it from a different perspective. We get to build on foundations that were created by so many brilliant leaders.”
The last three years have been marked by the pandemic, doors shuttering, pivoting to streaming programming and preparing for a safe return to the performing arts. From theaters collaborating on a mask mandates to ensure a safe reopening to joining efforts in lobbying for the shuttered venues grant, regional artistic directors and managing directors meet regularly to discuss challenges and work together toward solutions.
“When I started working at Signature, the theatre community was going through this huge boom of moving into new spaces with major renovations — but that has shifted, first with the recession and then Covid,” Gardiner says. “That led to a reframing of what it means to create art in this community.”
The ecosystem of D.C.’s theaters thrive on collaboration, transparency, communication and trust.
“There are all of these moving pieces — things that have changed, or things we used to be able to depend on that are not there anymore,” Daniels says about some of her growing pains. “And then you add that I’m new to D.C., and it becomes a lot to learn. But it also has been nice because the situation has forced all of us to look to each other for guidance and support. The silver lining has been the chance to think about our work and relationships at the core of our work in new ways.”
“What I noticed in the new cohort is a new mentality,” Goyanes reflects. “Let’s stick together. Let’s work together. It’s a kind of feeling you get when you go through emergencies together. I think all
of us are cheering each other on. We can take theatre into the next decade, even amidst all the difficulties we’ve gone through.”
When the Show Doesn’t Need to Go On
While theaters were shuttered, many movements were calling for a revolution. Our county continues to fight against toxic practices by decrying systemic racism, low salaries and lack of transparency (#FairWageOnstage) and sexism and sexual harassment (#MeToo, whisper networks).
The new leadership at D.C.’s theaters is responding to the needs of their casts, staff and creative teams to create safer and more productive working environments, from ongoing anti-racist and diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) work to raising salaries, increasing benefits and supporting unionization efforts.
This isn’t just a response to a crisis in the theatre industry, but the fundamental DEIA work Daniels, Gardiner and Goyanes have been working toward for years in their previous roles and institutions.
“At Signature, what I’m proudest of is how the entire lens for viewing our work has changed,” Gardiner says. “Diversity is not just something we work on in this bucket. It’s part of everything we do on a daily basis.”
Goyanes notes this philosophy especially applies to how the D.C. theatre community approaches performers.
“What I love about our theatre scene,” Goyanes says, “is we’re working together to say DEIA is something important to have as a resource for our performers.”
She is referencing the hiring of Sara Mindel, a somatic therapist who is on retainer with a number of theaters in the area to work with actors during triggering scenes to help them feel safe, secure and confident.
One of Gardiner’s first hires as artistic director was Chelsea Pace, who serves as resident intimacy consultant and choreographer at Signature Theatre. In a play as emotionally difficult as “The Color Purple” — with its depictions of sexual, physical and emotional abuse — Pace’s consent-focused intimacy practices not only bolster authentic and safe practices among actors onstage, but extend to the larger theatre ecosystem. Like Mindel, Pace is consulted by other theaters and creates intimacy protocol manuals.
“Pace is in the rehearsal room handling the moments of intimacy,” Gardiner says. “But she’s also working with me to ask: ‘What is consent? What are consent-based practices throughout the organization?’”
“Covid-19 helped us understand the show doesn’t need to go on if people are sick and need to take care of themselves,” Goyanes shares.
Pre-Covid, actors earned bragging rights by staying on stage through curtain call, finally collapsing after the show. That is no longer the norm. By hiring understudies — not a common practice for many theaters pre-Covid — Goyanes points out actors may now also take time off to attend a friend’s wedding or a cousin’s graduation, for instance.
“I feel like we’re moving in the right direction by putting the people first,” Goyanes says. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”
The Curtain Opens on the 2022-23 Season
“We are coming back to life in new circumstances,” Daniels says of the upcoming season. “Last year was the first full, but rocky, season for many regional theaters. Some pushed back their opening. Others had to cancel shows as cast members became ill with the coronavirus.”
Swings and understudies became the heroes of the season. With the CDC relaxing guidelines and Broadway moving to mask-optional performances, the new normal for the upcoming D.C. theatre season remains in flux.
Local theaters have announced their seasons and are ready to welcome audiences back. The importance of live performance after years of social distancing and isolation — in a region where political furor can be felt on our very streets — cannot be overstated.
During the continued renovation at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the company is doing what was done in Shakespeare’s day: packing up and hitting the road. The National Building Museum designed “The Playhouse” in the museum’s grand Central Hall to host the Folger Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with related family-focused programming, such as sword fighting demonstrations and face paintings.
In this 90-minute production, Daniels points out the shorter script was tailored for the venue: “The National Building Museum normally attracts young families, so we built a show that removes the barriers for families to come and enjoy it.”
The fall production of “The Tempest” will be produced in collaboration with Round House Theatre and hosted at the Bethesda playhouse. Directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn and Teller illusionists’ fame) with music composed by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, Shakespeare’s island-bound romance is also designed to appeal to a wide audience.
“It’s always been about inviting more people into the things that I love,” Daniels says. “There are so many people who just never had access to theatre. It’s about making meaning. I can’t tell people what to like, but I can invite them into an experience where they can then share with me what they like.”
At Signature Theatre, the season is honoring the life and legacy of America’s most celebrated theatre composer: Stephen Sondheim.
“Sondheim’s passing last November had a huge impact on our community because he was so beloved and his work has so much importance in the history of Signature,” Gardiner shares. “All of a sudden, in that moment, everything sort of fell in place.”
Signature has produced more of Sondheim’s works than any other theater and will produce “Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and the rarely produced “Pacific Overtures,” with additional Sondheim-centric events and programming throughout the season.
Gardiner is committed to new takes on these lionized musicals.
“I’m trying to include as many voices and perspectives as possible,” he says. “Signature has done several Sweeney Todd productions, but have we seen a production [through] the lens of a female director? It’s exciting to have Sarna Lapine, one of the great investigators of Sondheim’s work, direct this play.”
Signature will also stage two more musicals: the D.C. area premiere of Ethan Lipton’s “No Place to Go” and Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s “Passing Strange.” And two plays: D.C. area premieres of Ana Nogueira’s “Which Way to the Stage” and Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul.”
On Woolly Mammoth’s new season, Goyanes says: “It’s a powerhouse of a season with artists who really push the boundaries and plays that spark dialogue around difficult topics that are easier to talk about when you watch them and dissect them afterwards.”
The season kicks off with “Ain’t No Mo’,” a hilarious social satire which will also find its way to Broadway (in a different production) later this fall. “Is This a Room” offers the incredibly timely and upsetting true story of 2016 election whistleblower Reality Winner, who was jailed for four years. “Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner” engages with celebrity and social media culture, while Aya Ogawa’s autobiographical “The Nosebleed” creates a eulogy for an absentee dad. In a collaboration with Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall will be transformed into a refugee camp for “The Jungle.” The season closes with a world-premiere of “Incendiary” by Dave Harris.
As much as the three theaters vary in the scope of their programming, they share this commonality: having innovative, dynamic leaders who are re-scripting the local theatre industry and finding ways to connect with the many communities throughout D.C.
Daniels compares entering as a new artistic director in a new city to stepping into someone’s home for the first time and not knowing whether or not to take off your shoes.
“It’s about listening to your new community, and showing hospitality and flexibility,” she says. “A little kindnesses and receptiveness go a long way to being extended a second invitation.”
It’s how she’s approaching programming and community-building at the Folger: with warmth, understanding and openness to meeting people where they are.
“Once somebody comes to your house, they might want to bring a dish, a dessert. And now they are bringing more friends and family to meet you, and that relationship keeps growing. It never stops until you’re grilling up a whole block party with the neighbors.”
The Folger Theatre’s co-production of “The Tempest” opens at Round House Theatre November 23. “The Color Purple” is onstage at Signature Theatre until October 9, and “No Place to Go” until October 16. Woolly Mammoth’s season begins with “Ain’t No Mo’” on September 11.
One of the many ways theatre considers accessibility is through discounted ticketing options, and providing performances and accessibility equipment for patrons with disabilities, such as hearing or vision impairments. Subscribing to a theater’s season or buying a package of tickets can equal cheaper cost per show, guaranteed seats and never worrying about a sold-out performance, but there are other options. The cost of a ticket should never hinder a potential theatergoer. Many theaters offer discounted ticket deals for students and patrons below 30, for those who serve as teachers or military personnel, first responders, frontline workers and fellow playwrights. Many local theatres team up with TodayTix and other vendors for discounted ticketing options and provide discounted rush tickets the day of performance or have special pay-what-you-can performances.