Across an enchanted bridge, past a fanciful carousel and inside a small arena at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo Park waits Michael J. Bobbitt, the show’s artistic director. The stage below him is dark only minutes after a sold-out matinee. Left behind at center stage is a plate of giant strawberry and chocolate cupcakes that, when the stage lights are on, entice the cat starring in the recent production of “If You Give a Cat a Cupcake.”
The next line goes: “If you give a cat a cupcake, he’ll ask for some sprinkles to go with it,” and on and on to bigger adventures. The cat is never quite satisfied.
A couple of the sprinkles have fallen onstage. With so many shows, the set has taken a beating. But the wear is to be expected. Under Bobbitt’s direction, the number of yearly patrons at this theater has grown from 18,000 in 2007, when Bobbitt took over, to more than 50,000. In his four years at its helm, Bobbitt has sought marquee children’s book titles for his stage, calling in Tony Award-winning directors and actors and breaking Adventure Theatre box office records.
Little people in his audiences cheer wildly in packed matinees. After racking up six nominations in four years, Adventure Theatre won its first Helen Hayes Award last week, for outstanding production for young audiences, for “If You Give a Pig a Pancake.”
On Monday, Bobbitt will be awarded the DAINTY (Distinguished Artists in Their Youth) Award, sponsored by the No Rules Theatre Company, based in Washington and Winston-Salem, N.C.
Adventure Theatre’s adaptation of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “If You Give a Pig a Pancake” broke box-office records. Last fall, Bobbitt made a deal with Montgomery College to co-produce the play “The Happy Elf” by Grammy Award winner Harry Connick Jr. The show was directed by Tony winner John Rando and starred Tony winner Michael Rupert. On opening night, Connick showed up.
“Michael has taken a small entity tucked into a corner of the county,” says acclaimed director Nick Olcott, who has directed adult theater at Arena Stage and children’s theater at the Kennedy Center, “and built a theater I think will establish a national reputation. . . . He doesn’t think small and he doesn’t shy away from challenges. . . . He has his eyes set on big things.”
The Kennedy Center’s Kim Peter Kovac says Bobbitt has done a “terrific job” of elevating the work at Adventure Theatre. “It’s been quite remarkable what he has done in moving it to a new level, while maintaining the integrity of the history of that theater,” says Kovac, producing director of Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences.
Such a rush of accolades could inflate the ego of another young artist. And yet Bobbitt, 38, will not take a bow. Even here in a quiet theater after the show, when no one else is looking. Like the cat in the play, nothing will satiate him. When someone praises his work, “the brain goes blank,” says Bobbitt, a hunk of a man in a red baseball cap and red suede shoes. “The brain goes to, ‘Don’t believe it.’ I don’t know how to respond. I say, ‘Thank you.’ It must be the gypsy in me from the time I tried to get the next job and the next job. . . . I felt not good enough.”
Dancers, actors, singers, choreographers, directors — all of which Bobbitt is or has been — carry an occupational burden, he says. At auditions, rehearsals, performances, in the media, people are analyzing what you have done, interpreting your intentions, judging the value of your work and, by extension, you, often in a very public way. The pedestal is often quick to crumble.
Some artists develop big egos to protect against the judgment. Bobbitt says his own confidence vacillates. Sometimes, he is keenly aware of his worth. At other times, “I’m very nervous when I’m doing something I haven’t exposed to the world yet.”
In January, Bobbitt wrote the stage adaptation of the children’s book “Mirandy and Brother Wind,” a story about a little girl who tries to dance with the wind.
“It was the first piece in which people could hear my writing,” Bobbitt said. Every time he came to watch the play, “I literally watched the audience to see their reaction more than I watched the play.”
It’s an actor’s burden, “to think about what the audience is thinking. It’s the weirdest thing because you can never know.” When Bobbitt taught university classes, he says his students worried: “ ‘They are going to hate me.’ I say, ‘You have no idea what they are thinking. They could love you.’ ”
In some ways, it’s comforting for Bobbitt to know “I’m not the only one who is insecure about my art. Some fabulous directors, I hear them all the time spouting out insecurities. I think, ‘You are the great powerful such and such! How can you be insecure?’ But it’s like the great powerful Oz” projecting wonders onstage. Behind the great curtain, they find Oz is just a man spinning fantasy into reality or reality into fantasy. Oz is a director.
The son of an auto mechanic and a financial manager, Bobbitt was born in D.C. and until he was 5, he lived in Northeast Washington, a few blocks from the Atlas Theatre. One afternoon, he walked there with his mother to see his first movie. “I remember the smells of the Atlas.” Bobbitt had four brothers who were more into sports than theater. “I was the only person in my family attracted to the arts. ”
The creativity, shaped by a fear of rejection, began early. In third grade, Bobbitt auditioned for the choir at Park View Elementary. The audition did not go well.
In fact, it was awful. That is what the teacher told him: “That was awful,” she said.
Other students might have crumbled. But Bobbitt was determined. For the next year, he practiced “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” over and over. He knew nothing about intonation or pitch. In the fourth grade, auditions came again. Bobbitt sang again.
“The teacher said . . . ” Bobbitt recalls.
There were pauses between her words. “I remember my heart clenching, thinking she will say it was awful again. Then she said, ‘Beautiful.’ But my body had prepped for rejection. When the accolade came, I didn’t know how to take it. I was overwhelmed by it. . . . I still see the room. I see the face. I see the piano.”
Bobbitt got his first lead acting role in sixth grade, and started to study dance. He won a scholarship to Gonzaga College High School, where there was no choir program. So Bobbitt threw himself into trumpet. He won a trumpet and academic scholarship to Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.
“But I missed theater. I missed singing and dancing. I realized toward the end of my freshman year, theater was my calling.” He left college and moved to New York, where he took classes at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. He kept auditioning. “I got a lot of callbacks for leading rolls in ‘Ragtime,’ ‘Rent,’ ‘All My Children.’ But several times the casting directors would say it’s not quite there.” In 1996, he decided to come back to D.C., where he modeled and taught dance and theater at Catholic University, George Washington University, Howard University and Montgomery College. He choreographed and performed at Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Kennedy Center and Signature Theatre; and directed a chamber piece for the Washington National Opera.
“I was fairly happy,” Bobbitt said. “Then my partner and I decided to adopt a child from Vietnam, which changed everything. . . . I was no longer interested in going to the theater every single night.”
In 2002, Lynn Sharp Spears, then Adventure Theatre’s artistic director, came to see “A Chorus Line,” which Bobbitt was directing at Catholic University. She asked Bobbitt to direct a show at Adventure Theatre, which was founded in 1951 and is considered the longest-running children’s theater in the D.C. area.
“I was like, ‘Adventure what?’ I came to see a show. The park was a little creepy. The park looked like the set of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ It’s been through many renovations since then.”
Bobbitt directed the show, “Walking the Winds.” A few years later, the president of Adventure’s board asked Bobbitt to direct again. Soon, he was asked to join the theater’s board.
In 2007, Bobbitt was hired as Adventure’s artistic director. From Day One, Bobbitt dreamed big. He wanted a national tour. He wanted Helen Hayes nominations. “I felt this could be great but at the same time, if I messed it up it would not be detrimental. It was not like going to the Shakespeare Theatre and messing that up. Everybody would know.”
The first season, he co-produced “Goodnight Moon,” which received three Helen Hayes nominations . The fact that Adventure Theatre, once considered a moribund theater in Glen Echo Park, received a Helen Hayes nomination was revolutionary. “This place could have hung for a long time doing average, middle-of-the-road children’s fare and everyone would say, ‘I need to take my children because it’s the thing to do.’ But Michael has spearheaded working with great titles and great people. So when people come, they see genuinely good theater,” says Tony-nominated writer Ken Ludwig, who is writing an original “The Night Before Christmas” play adaptation for Adventure.
In large part due to the Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences, which commissions original children’s theater and exports it to other cities across the country, Washington has a reputation as a a city where theater for young audiences thrives and is taken seriously. Other venues include Imagination Stage, Synetic Family Theater, Discovery Theater, Round House Theatre and the Puppet Company.
“Young people need to see shows made especially for them — in theater, dance, music, puppet shows,” Kovac says. “It’s a way for them to see themselves onstage. . . . In the same way live performances are important for all audiences, I think they are even more important for young audiences.”
Aside from creating original children’s theater at Adventure Theatre, Bobbitt says his goal is to bring cultural diversity to the stage. “I want patrons to see every face onstage. We try to make sure we cast the best actor for the part, regardless of race. . . . Diversity is a huge part of my life. I’m black, my partner is Irish, our son is Vietnamese and my partner and I are gay.”
Last month at Adventure, Bobbitt produced “Mirandy and Brother Wind,” a children’s tale written by Patricia McKissick. He wrote the stage adaptation and co-choreographed it. The play was directed by African American director Jennifer Nelson. “It is historic because it was the first black play for Adventure Theatre,” whose host, Glen Echo Park, opened in 1951 as a privately owned and racially segregated amusement park before protests forced its integration in 1961.
Bobbitt said he came across “Mirandy” in 2007 when he was walking through a bookstore with his son, Sang, then about 5. He read the synopsis about a little girl dancing in a cakewalk with Brother Wind, “and I thought those were perfect things to write a musical about.”
He sent the book to John L. Cornelius, a composer and lyricist, to get his thoughts. “He was charmed by it.” Then Bobbitt contacted the book’s publishers at Random House, who agreed to a stage adaptation.
Bobbitt said he loved “Mirandy” because the story was not about race but culture. “So much black theater is about race, where race is the major plot point and there is tension between blacks and whites.” The story of “Mirandy,” he said, celebrated black culture. “ ‘Mirandy’ celebrated the cakewalk, life in a small, rural community. It celebrated the things they did on an everyday basis. Race is never the issue. It is never white versus black.”
“Mirandy” was a hit. The show starred Felicia Curry, a Helen Hayes-nominated actress who also works in adult theater, who said as soon as she read Bobbitt’s script, she knew the show was special. “The range of Mirandy was amazing. This girl went through a lifetime of emotions in 55 minutes, and that was Bobbitt’s writing,” Curry says.
Next year, Bobbitt is preparing to bring in “Big, the Musical.”
“I’m still chasing a few things. ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ would be great. The Royal Theatre of London’s production of ‘Cat in the Hat’ would be brilliant. Perfect for our audiences.”
But Bobbitt worries aloud: After the awards and nominations, then what? What next? “What will people say then? It could be a lot of pressure to keep putting out quality stuff.” The actor and director in him wonders what the audience will think after the show is over and the lights go down.