In the mission statement for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, a $4.5 million company in Washington, D.C., one part stands out: “We are a supportive home for creative risk-taking.” They’ve done good by that mission; in their 40-year-history, the company has premiered such boundary-breaking works as Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn and Bootycandy by Robert O’Hara.
This reputation for artistic innovation is what attracted Maria Manuela Goyanes to the job of leading the organization after co-founder/artistic director Howard Shalwitz announced he would retire at the end of the 2017-18 season. Woolly and Goyanes feel like a perfect match: Goyanes has worked as the Public Theater in New York City for 14 years, most recently as an associate producer (over a season, she oversees production on 15-20 works in five spaces). She was also the executive producer of the now-defunct 13P playwrights collective, which world-premiered 13 plays from writers like Sarah Ruhl and Young Jean Lee.
Goyanes starts her new job in September. She spoke in June from her office at the Public.
DIEP TRAN: At the Public you’ve worked under artistic director Oskar Eustis, and before that George C. Wolfe. What have you learned about the kind of artistic director you want to be?
MARIA MANUELA GOYANES: The time with George, the time with 13P, with those  rotating artistic directors, and the time with Oskar—it was all so invaluable. The biggest lesson for me has been how everything ties back to being a citizen in this world and what culture is actually supposed to be doing in a community.
It’s fascinating that all these roads have led me to Woolly Mammoth, because when I think about Woolly, I think about two facets. First is aesthetic innovation—real artistic risk and experimentation in the work. Second is moral and civic provocation, challenging audiences to see the world around them in new ways. So it’s a really great confluence for me to be able to go to Woolly, given my time with both 13P and the Public. Woolly unites the two sides of me.
Because Woolly is known for being forward-thinking, where do you see the company going next?
The company of artists or the company in general? What’s interesting about Woolly is that it has an affiliated company of artists. It’s a cross-disciplinary group of actors, directors, designers, and a playwright. Part of my job is to cultivate and be in dialogue with that local community of artists. They’ve made a life and commitment to being in the D.C. area, and that means something.
In terms of the future of the company as a whole, there is so much possibility and appetite at Woolly! I am looking for the most daring voices in our field. How far can we challenge an audience and still feel like we can have a collective experience together? How can Woolly expand beyond the four walls of its theatre? Woolly was built to be radical, that’s in the DNA.
What does artistic innovation look like in 2018?
Innovation happens with experimentation, you know? The beauty of the theatre is that it’s ephemeral; it’s something that happens and impacts your memory and hopefully haunts you in a good way as you move through your life. So I think that is the exact question and conversation that I am going to be having with every artist who comes through Woolly’s doors. What’s the experiment? What are we trying?
For example, is there a place for VR [virtual reality] in the theatre? What does that experiment look like? Can this type of technology enhance our theatre experience?
With artistic risk comes failure, so being in a company like Woolly known for risk-taking, do you feel a sense of safety in being able to fail?
Coming from the Latinx identity, I definitely feel a lot of pressure in terms of not being allowed to fail, because it’s important that other Latinas get a chance to do a job like this in the future. And even though my personal skin experience in the world is different from my brothers and sisters of color who are darker than I am, there’s just not that many women of color running theatres, period. So yep, there is a lot of pressure.
That said, I feel like I have really great odds at Woolly. We have had such open, generous and forward-thinking conversations on every level—staff, board, with Meghan Pressman [Woolly’s managing director]. They embrace breaking the mold, so there is safety in that.
I am following a founder, and that can be tricky. What’s the hazing going to be like? We shall see!
They say it takes three years to really get acclimated when you’re a new artistic director.
Yes, this is what I hear. Part of that is because I don’t really know the audience in D.C. yet. My understanding is that the Woolly audience is younger than the average theatregoing audience, which is cool. I look forward to getting to know them.
I went down to go see Underground Railroad Game, the Ars Nova production [about race and history] that was at Woolly recently. I sat next to a woman and her husband who hardly go to the theatre because they have a two-year-old at home and they had chosen Woolly and this incredibly provocative show as their one date night to finally get out! And I thought to myself, “Oh my God, what an amazing thing that an audience is so interested in being pushed and propelled toward deeper conversations about the things that are going on in our culture.”
Did they like it?
They were totally into it! They stayed and chatted with me afterwards.
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