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How Howard Shalwitz Led DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre From Madcap Hole-In-The-Wall To New Play Powerhouse

Jun 13, 2017

Founding Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Howard Shalwitz. (Keith Lane/For The Washington Post)

Washington theater is a city of niches, and few brands are as indelible as Woolly Mammoth’s. A “Woolly play” is new, big, wild. The acting is hyper-real. The design might blow up. The whole thing can soar or splat.

Howard Shalwitz laid down those markers when he created Woolly in 1980 with actor Roger Brady and manager Linda Reinisch. With a nutty-sounding play called “The Kramer” — a sinister office comedy that might be playable today — Washington Post critic David Richards noticed something different about the new gang.

“Not all the actors are right for their roles, but all of them are attuned to the prevailing style, lean and succinct,” Richards wrote in 1981. “This is a provocative marriage of an off-beat play and a troupe that has set out to forge a distinctive ensemble style. Isn’t that what we are looking for in our ‘alternative’ theaters?”

For 37 years, Shalwitz — who announced his retirement Tuesday as of the end of the 2017-2018 season — has stuck to those guns, and the troupe’s reputation as a high-gloss venue for lowdown, dirty subversion and intellectual dares makes this a plum job for an ambitious leader. The pressure will be a fraction of that faced by the new head of the Shakespeare Theatre Company around the corner, the big two-theater enterprise where Michael Kahn recently announced his retirement as of 2019. (The STC job, with its Broadway-scaled Harman Hall and international accent, is also, arguably, the most glamorous theater position in town.) Woolly is a tight, mid-size ship with lots of ways to execute its outsider mandate. Plenty of directors with connections to hip playwrights will apply.

Shalwitz’s departure all but ends the line of artistic founders who arrived during (or before) the 1980s, pioneered a durable infrastructure and radically made over practically all the city’s major stages as of a decade or so ago. Navigating Woolly into a permanent home at 641 D St. NW was perhaps Shalwitz’s most artful act: The company gamely bounced around the city for four years (the Kennedy Center and Theater J were frequent hosts) while developing its “glorious nest,” as Marks initially greeted the spacious industrial-themed basement quarters that opened in 2005. By 2013, the troupe bought the space outright.