“If this were my story, it would be about how I survived.”
After a scene of roiling chaos at the Sadie Hawkins dance, this phrase ends a shocking and powerful monologue by the character Ann Margaret, scorned by the entire school as well as by Richard, who should have cared about her most, during her final moments. In utter stillness, the audience is left to look at an empty stage, take in everything that just happened—and sit with it. And the show is not even over yet.
Teenage Dick by Mike Lew is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic Richard III, told through the eyes of Richard Gloucester, a high school student with cerebral palsy who runs for class president and decides to take any means necessary to win the race. After premiering at the Public Theater in 2018, Lew’s play is now making its way to on a three-theatre tour across the country, all stop having its own distinctive connection to this dark comedy-turned-tragedy. The co-production, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, began in Washington, D.C., with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s production, which ran Sept. 20-Oct. 17, and will move on to the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston (Dec. 3-Jan. 9, 2022) before concluding at Pasadena Playhouse in California (Feb. 1-27, 2022).
According to many involved, this three-stop co-production is born of the pandemic, when artistic leaders connected amid difficult times. For Woolly artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes (she/her), it took several years for the play to finally open at Woolly. Initially planned for the 2019-20 season, her first year selecting Woolly’s season after joining the company in September 2018, the production was at first postponed by a month before rehearsals could begin.
“When I programmed it, Trump was still president, and so I feel like I’ve been through so many iterations with this piece over time,” Goyanes said. “When I first wanted to do it at Woolly, the toxic masculinity in the piece, the idea around stealing elections—it’s just so appropriate for the previous presidential administration that pointing to it in that way, indirectly, through this play felt really rich and exciting.”
But even beyond that level of meaning, the play continues to resonate, particularly in its representation of disability onstage. Goyanes hopes that Teenage Dick will allow artists with disabilities to bring depth and nuances and depth to this story, and to make disabled audiences feel less invisible.
“I am loyal to a fault, right?” Goyanes said of her decision to stick with the play despite setbacks. “It was hard for me to think about not following through on that commitment, especially because I feel like the show still had so many resonances to what’s happening in the world around us. It didn’t feel like I was shoehorning something in that I had programmed 18 months earlier, and then was just trying to get it in and get it done. It still felt really important and really exciting to do.”
Goyanes first worked on Teenage Dick when she was an associate artistic director at the Public Theater, where the play was co-produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company. Around that same time, director von Stuelpnagel, playwright Lew, and Huntington director of new works Charles Haugland (he/him) were working on Lew’s Tiger Style. Haugland, who was also part of the initial programming team for this season’s co-production, remembered when Lew first talked to the Huntington about Teenage Dick, originally commissioned and developed by Gregg Mozgala and his company the Apothetae.
“We were immediately interested in Gregg’s company and their mission to reexamine and illuminate the disabled experience in America and onstage, and we were intrigued about Mike’s take on that,” Haugland said. “It’s a play that investigates and deconstructs this Shakespearean play that most of us know really well, but maybe have not thought as deeply or as critically about the ways that it constructs that character.”
It was Von Stuelpnagel, who had a years-long connection to the Huntington, who put the theatre in touch with Goyanes when she first thought about producing Teenage Dick at Woolly and was looking for producing partners. Goyanes in turn brought Haugland and former Huntington associate producer Rebecca Bradshaw (she/her) into the fold. It was also von Stuelpnagel’s connection to Pasadena Playhouse producing artistic director Danny Feldman (he/him) that brought the California company on board, though Feldman had other connections to the show: He had previously worked with Woolly’s managing director, Emika Abe, during his first job at Reprise Theater Company, and had worked with Goyanes to co-produce The Motherfucker with the Hat, among other projects, during his time as executive director at LAByrinth Theatre Company. When Feldman heard that Woolly was moving forward with the show as their season reopener, he called Goyanes and said, “Should we talk about this?” The two leaders “very quickly looped in the Huntington, and we had a great call, and the rest is history. I hope in the future we will continue these kinds of collaborations. It’s the spirit of our show and the spirit of our three companies that collaboration has been very easy in a very hard time,” Feldman said.
Bradshaw first met Goyanes during the transition from Woolly to the Public in 2018. They think very similarly, Bradshaw said, which made jumping right to work with Lew and von Stuelpnagel easier. As line producer on the project, she was involved in a year of planning for the show, including casting and production preparation. When Pasadena was brought on, she said, the idea of working with one company and adding on another was not difficult.
“When it’s already building for one co-pro, it’s not too hard to then add a third as long as everyone is on a similar scale,” Bradshaw said. “A lot of it was about the order, making sure that it happened at Woolly first, because it’s hard to go backward in scale; it’s much easier to grow in scale.”
While Goyanes gives full credit to von Stuelpnagel’s connections opening many doors in this collaboration, she said that the theatre field in general runs on such connections.
“We talk about the theatre industry being about relationships, and sometimes that has a really negative connotation,” she said. “But in my experience, it has also meant the longer that I’ve stayed in the field, the more people I know. Those really long relationships were really easy to pick back up again, to talk about this incredible play and make it happen.”
But all the past relationships and cozy connections in the world don’t create any shortcuts for the logistical challenges of a co-production across three theatres, in three states, with different spaces and sizes.
The casting process was set, with original Public cast members Gregg Mozgala and Shannon DeVido as definite locks to reprise their roles. Some of the rest of the initial cast have since moved on to other projects, which led to recasts when the production was back on this year. Goyanes and Bradshaw were in the room during casting, along with casting director Judy Bowman.
With Huntington and Pasadena as larger LORT theatres and Woolly as a smaller SPT theatre, the set needed to adapt to different sizes and budget needs. In its original conception, the set moves and unfolds to reveal different areas of the high school, but it doesn’t necessarily need to, Bradshaw said.
“Shows that are built for many cities are built in a different capacity, because you need to take it apart more efficiently and usually the time period is a bit tighter,” she said. “But since it’s only two or three, it’s still built pretty traditionally. I think the biggest thing is, ‘Will it fit through the doors? Can it fit on the stage?’”
At the beginning of the process, the Huntington’s old space didn’t have a traditional loading dock, but now, thanks to renovations, they do. Typically, the Huntington’s sets are built off site and they need to be built in pieces. Bradshaw also said that they looked at highly technical moments to strategize how to adjust them for their space. For example: The Huntington space doesn’t have exits to the dressing room on both sides, and they always need to have a backstage cross.
Pasadena’s run is right after Boston closes, with a week for the set to traverse the country and for the theatre to do some adjustments to it. Because it is a larger space, Feldman is interested in how “the dark comedic portions” of the show would “change from a smaller house to a bigger house,” he said.
Representatives from all three theatres plan to watch each production to consider how the show plays in their iteration, and to support the show on each leg of the journey. Huntington staff—including Haugland, director of production Bethany Ford, and the Huntington stage management team of Sam Layco and Kevin Schlagle—and Feldman went to D.C. at the beginning of Woolly previews to share notes and thoughts.
Each theatre has its own stage manager running the show and local hires for the crew, according to Abe and Bradshaw. Abe says that she and her counterparts at Pasadena and the Huntington have worked to ensure that at each stop on the way, they know how many weeks of work the actors are going to have in order to cross the threshold for having Equity health insurance covered.
“It’s no small feat, you know—it’s kind of a big deal, especially during this time,” Abe said. “So that felt good too, but it really started from a place of, we really believe in the show and want to make sure that more people can experience it.”
These three companies are not the only ones with a connection to this tour of Teenage Dick. During the D.C. run, Woolly named Open Circle Theatre, a D.C.-based company focused on uplifting disabled artists, as an official partner. Woolly did a benefit with Open Circle for people to hear the play before it officially came, as a live online reading last winter.
It was gratifying, Goyanes said, to “provide some resources and a platform for a theatre company that has less resources than Woolly but does great work. I don’t super believe in competition among small nonprofit theatres, because somebody who gives $20 to Woolly Mammoth can probably give $20 to the Circle. Let’s have an abundance mentality around theatre and the art we’re trying to make, and help lift all of us up.”
Along the way it’s been a process of learning from each other and lifting each company up. As it was Woolly’s first show back in person, having partners was crucial.
“There were many times when we went to the Huntington and said, ‘Okay, what language are you using for vaccines?’ as we were developing our own,” Abe said. “Feeling like we could go through that together was really helpful—to not feel we were so on our own.”
According to Haugland, the Huntington has learned from the audience engagement that Woolly has been doing. He said the company is interested in hearing public conversations around the production, and is working on efforts to spotlight local companies that center performers who identify as having a disability or advocate for disability rights.
For Pasadena’s Feldman, one impactful and moving moment of the process that has stuck with him occurred after a preview. He’d been to see shows at a few other theatres, but this was the first time he was back at work in one (Pasadena Playhouse returns to the stage Nov. 9 with the show Head Over Heels). Feldman recalled sitting in Woolly’s lobby after the show with the whole team. The show was coming along well but “just wasn’t all the way there yet,” he said, and as they were working through problem spots in the show, it dawned on Feldman how much this collaboration meant to him.
“Even though we were dealing with problems with the show, it was like, ‘We got the gang back together, we’re doing something, we’re making a play again after so many months of drought,’” he said. “I was walking back to my hotel that night and it really hit me, just the impact of that, and the loss we’ve all suffered as a community and all the ways we’ve lost, particularly the loss of collaboration and that work together.”
Goyanes echoed Feldman, expressing such “gratitude for all of those artists who took the leap and said, ‘We’re going to come and do this, and be a part of this.’ It feels like a little bit of a big experiment, because, is anybody going to show up? It’s still COVID. It has felt so rewarding and it has been very moving to me—a great reminder of the spark that led me to the theatre in the first place, making plays together.”
Feldman said that he’s noticed a measurable change in the connectivity among the leaders of the American theatre during the past year and half of pandemic and protest, and he’s excited and curious to see what this will mean for the future.
“I now feel comfortable talking to theatres around the country about things, not that I wasn’t comfortable before, but we have networks now and we’ve been through something together,” he said. “We have access to each other and we’ve seen each other in pain and seen each other be vulnerable and seen each other navigate this time. We’re still in it, but I’m really excited about the bonds that have been created.”
If this were their story, it would be about how they survived.
Daniella Ignacio (she/her) is a writer, theatre artist, and musician based in Washington, D.C. She is a former editorial intern and current editorial assistant for American Theatre Magazine. www.daniellaignacio.wixsite.com/site
Creative credits for production photos: Direction by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, choreography by Jennifer Weber, scenic design by Wilson Chin, costume design by Kelsey Hunt, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, and fight choreography by Robb Hunter.
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