WASHINGTON, D.C.: For the past 36 years, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has been bringing innovative and original plays to the local community. This coming fall, the company will bring the community into its plays with its new Appetizers Series, a three-night workshop gathering for three upcoming Woolly shows: Cherokee by Lisa D’Amour, Lights Rise on Grace by Chad Beckim and Zombie: The American by Robert O’Hara.
The series whets the appetite of theatregoers by allowing audiences to be part of the workshop each show. Attendees will be taken on a brief tour by the artists through their process so far—given a sampling of scenes in development, shown film clips or other sources of inspiration for the shows, and invited to participate in an activity that will help bring the show to life. Such activities may include Q&A sessions with the actors, or giving input about choreography.
The Appetizers series is an experiment to see how this earlier exchange ultimately shapes the conversation around each show and affects the work itself, according to Howard Shalwitz, Woolly’s cofounder and artistic director. And it’s through this new experiment that Shalwitz is hoping to start a new conversation between members of the community and artists at Woolly.
“A few years ago we initiated an engagement strategy called ‘connectivity,’ which seeks to shape a specific, relevant conversation around each play, and to ensure that the right mix of audience members and community stakeholders is in the room for that conversation,” Shalwitz says. “Until now, our connectivity programming has focused on the period when each production is up and running, but with ‘Appetizers,’ we’re attempting to start the conversation earlier by having artists and community members exchange ideas about plays that are still in process.”
The first Appetizer event took place on Oct. 28 and focused on Woolly’s production of Cherokee. The next Appetizer on Nov. 9 will focus on Zombie: The American, and the last event on Nov. 22 will feature Lights Rise On Grace.” Playwright Lisa D’Amour and the cast will screen clips from Indian Country Diaries: Spiral of Fire, a documentary film about the Eastern Band Cherokee tribe, present scenes from the play and ask audiences questions about humans’ relationship with the natural world.
This interactive process is a first for many of the artists participating. “Even before I worked as a designer at Woolly, I remember being a student and an audience member for a preview, and being asked by Howard for my opinion about the play. It sounds small, but it was an empowering experience,” says Ivania Stack, a designer for Woolly’s upcoming production of Zombie. ”I’ve designed staged readings, been a part of ensemble-devised work and designed for new plays. But this workshop and creation process is unique. It’s rewarding to be a part of it.”
Those behind the scenes of each show may have specific goals in mind about what they want to take away from the workshop sessions, but there is also a goal for the audience—to be inspired by the shows they see. And if the Appetizers series is a success, there may be similar programs to follow in the future.
“The whole goal of ‘connectivity’ is to find the hot point of intersection between the artists who are working on a play and the community where it is being produced,” says Shalwitz. “If ‘Appetizers’ is successful, it will help us identify and enlarge that hot point of intersection so that the dialogue around the production is even more explosive.”