Molotov Theatre Group looks to class up its gory act

June 11, 2013

“To be honest with you, a year ago at this time, I was not sure that there was going to be a Molotov Theatre much longer,” Alex Zavistovich said. His co-founders, with whom he started Molotov in 2007, had left to pursue new careers. Molotov was “facing some fairly heavy debts.” And as dedicated as Zavistovich wanted to be to the ideals of Grand Guignol, the French Theater of Horror, he thought that the company had some branding problems.

Zavistovich describes their “somewhat unfortunate reputation” of being the go-to spot for gore in D.C. “I’m not sure that people came as much to see the shows that we were doing as they were to possibly get blood on them.”

I wasn’t aware there was such a big “get blood on me” community here in the District.

“Surprisingly, there were a lot of people who were exactly in that position! They’d want to sit in the front row and get blood on them,” Zavistovich said. “And we were happy to oblige, but it wasn’t doing much for our brand reputation. We decided it was time to grow up a bit and to become more sophisticated in what it was we were trying to do.”

Just in time for the announcement of its 2013-14 season, Molotov Theatre Group is getting a makeover.

Step 1: a new catchphrase. “Our slogan, for the first four or five years of our existence, was, ‘[Expletive] it, wimps.’ Which, if you’re looking for funding, is probably not the best idea,” Zavistovich said. Now their one-liner is “art imitates death.” “And that still speaks directly to what we do,” he said. “But . . . it speaks more directly to what it is that we hope to become, which is a fully invested part of the theater scene in D.C.”

Step 2: new management. Zavistovich brought Michael Wright on board as a co-artistic director in September 2012. The local playwright, director and actor (funding artistic director of SeeNoSun OnStage; writer, producer and director of a handful of Capital Fringe Festival shows) had worked with Zavistovich in “Rock n Roll” at Studio Theatre in 2009.

Zavistovich says he’s ready “to distance myself a little bit from the behind-the-scenes stuff, which was starting to absorb all my time.” He’d been doing all the fight choreography, effects and promotion for Molotov productions; now he plans to act in all three of the 2013-14 shows and delegate some of his old responsibilities. “It turns us into more of a legitimate theater company if we’re not doing it all ourselves,” Zavistovich said.

And Step 3: more money. The two are looking into unconventional methods of raising money for the show, drawing on their experiences outside of the arts — Wright worked in sales at Xerox, Zavistovich has a PR and branding background — to attract corporate sponsorships.

One initiative that’s already up and running is the Molotov Literacy Project. Molotov records “theatrically enhanced” (actors performing voices, sound effects for gunshots, etc.) audiobooks of classic English-language horror stories such as “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” that are sold as a package deal with the text of the stories on an e-reader. The project is aimed at improving adult literacy. “It keeps with our educational charter,” Zavistovich said, and corporations can sponsor an audiobook or a certain number of downloads.

“Every small theater company in the area uses the same model,” said Wright, a cycle of “put on a show, lose money” that repeats ad infinitum “until you finally run out of money and close. . . . We’ve tried to create the new business of theater.”

Though it’s been difficult in the past to get Washington companies to throw money into horror theater, Wright cited a cultural shift “where horror is really hot right now: ‘American Horror Story,’ ‘The Following,’ what happened on ‘Game of Thrones’ with the Red Wedding.”

Devoted lovers of horror don’t need to worry that Molotov is turning into a squeaky-clean theater company. Just know you can leave your raincoats at home.

“Blood will flow,” Zavistovich said. “It will not spray.”

Down with YPT

After an academic year spent writing, rewriting and rehearsing, the students of the Young Playwrights’ Workshop are ready to present their original work, “Behind the Mask.”

Young Playwrights Theater, founded in 1995 by Karen Zacarías (before she became one of the most prolific and popular playwrights in Washington), is the only professional theater in the District that is solely dedicated to arts education. This year, the YPT is serving about 1,800 students from the District and Montgomery and Arlington counties between the ages of 5 and 21, according to artistic director Nicole Jost.

“The workshop is a different beast” from the rest of the YPT’s offerings, Jost said. “There is an application. There is an audition. What we’re looking for are students who are willing to collaborate with others, who have ideas to share. It’s not necessarily students who are already really experienced or are the best writers or actors. It’s more about the willingness to engage with other individuals.”

Nine students are participating in the performance (drawn from a pool of “about 20 to 25 applications,” Jost said), and they constitute “the only students out of those 1,800 that we have who both write the play and perform in it themselves. They are their own student theater company.”

Each student comes up with an idea for a character to write and portray. The play puts all nine characters in some situation that could feasibly bring them all together.

This year’s production “is centered on the lens of New Year’s Eve as a time of change in these characters’ lives,” said Jost, which beat out, among other contenders, the “Lost”-themed ideas of stranding everyone on an island or having everyone survive a plane crash.

Students meet once a week for 90 minutes starting in September, writing individually and through improvisation as a group. The characters range from an immigrant working the New Year’s Eve party as a cater-waiter to support his family abroad to a guy who “is trying to get to White Castle,” Jost said. “That’s his biggest ambition.”

Morena Amaya, a 17-year-old senior from Columbia Heights Educational Campus, wrote a character with a split personality: Lilly, who’s “all happy and joyful,” she said, and Marissa, who “got to be the mad, angry one. . . . And the twist is, they don’t know that they’re in the same body.”

“Before coming to this program, I did not like writing,” Amaya said. “I felt like I couldn’t, like ‘it’s too much work and I can’t express myself.’ But ever since I came to YPT, I realize that I can. And writing my own plays and acting them out, it’s not someone else’s work. It’s ours.”

June 17 at the Source, 1825 14th St. NW, 202-387-9173, www.youngplaywrightstheater.org.

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