Woolly Mammoth’s theater Tweet Up causes drama with director


Louise Schlegel rehearses for “The Gallerist” from Rorschach Theatre. The play explores the otherworldly and supernatural. (Courtesy of Rorschach Theatre/Wolly)
January 17, 2012

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company announced its first “Tweet Up” last week. Three of its Twitter followers will be selected to attend the first, technical and final dress rehearsals of Jason Grote’s new play, “Civilization (all you can eat).”

Brooke Miller, Woolly’s press and digital content manager, said Woolly’s goals are to integrate Twitter into the theater experience and provide “more transparency in our rehearsal and artistic process.”

The only problem was Grote didn’t know there would be a Tweet Up until he read about it online, like everybody else. And he wasn’t thrilled with the plan, as he expressed on Twitter: “I am frankly not crazy about this idea,” he wrote, followed by a link to the DCist post on the Tweet Up. He later added: “I understand both theater and Twitter pretty well, and I’m not comfortable with the idea. I should probably take it up with them.”

Which he did. “They were very apologetic,” he said. “And I was very forthcoming that I was unhappy with the way it had come out. I also made it clear that I wasn’t going to put a stop to it; that wasn’t my intention. But I also said, ‘I have to be honest that I’m not on board with this, and I’m not going to be silent about the fact that I don’t think it’s such a great idea.’ ”

Grote, an avid Twitter user (he has more than 1,500 followers), said he is not “categorically opposed to a live-tweeting theater,” rather that Woolly’s project “posed a fundamental misunderstanding of how Twitter works.” Tacking live-tweeting on as a component of a show at the end of the process doesn’t make sense, he said. “It needs to be integrated right from the conception. . . . [“Civilization”] is written in a style [that] requires a certain degree of listening and concentration.”


Writer Jason Grote says he doesn’t want live-­tweeting at his play. (Lisa Jane Persky/Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

The potential problems with integrating Twitter and theater are obvious: It’s distracting and arguably unnecessary, and if one were to make a list of “incredibly annoying things,” people who use their phones in theaters would rank slightly above babies who cry on airplanes.

Miller said: “If we were to do the process over, we just would have brought him into the planning process earlier than we did. But what’s done is done. We take his reservations to heart, and at the same time, this is totally an experiment. . . . We definitely know it’s sort of a divided issue.”

Grote also tweeted that the Tweet Up didn’t bother him “as long as I don’t have to look at it. I might have to unfollow [Woolly] while it’s happening.”

“My initial impulse . . . was ‘I don’t want to know,’ ” he explained. “The relationship to the audience is very important to me. But sometimes I don’t really want to know people’s immediate impulses. Sometimes a good play will make you feel bad, and that’s okay. I wasn’t saying that I was going to unfollow Woolly out of spite.”

Woolly “has assured” him that they’ll moderate everything, though he’s skeptical of that, too: “The whole strength of something like Twitter is that it can’t be controlled, and I don’t think it should be.”

With Twitter, he said, “You get quick, shallow impressions from a large sample of people. In the context of a new play, that can be a bit delicate.

“I love Woolly’s spirit of experimentation. I think that’s why they’re doing my play,” he said. “You’ve got to take the good with the bad. It’s that same spirit of experimentation that’s leading them to do this.”

Make ’em laugh

Keegan Theatre’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” a Neil Simon play based on Simon’s experiences as a joke writer for 1950s NBC variety show “Your Show of Shows,” opens Saturday.

For the uninitiated, “Your Show of Shows” “would have been one of the earliest predecessors of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and sketch comedy,” director Colin Smith said.

Though the play is a comedy about comedy, Smith described the show as focusing less on sketches than on a kind of pressure-induced panic. “They’re faced with the possibility of their show ending,” he said. “Shorter time frames, lower budgets, all these things that put pressure on them.”

Not to mention the ’50s wasn’t America’s edgiest, most open-minded decade. “Especially for the time, coming after World War II,” Smith said, the play “commented on politics in a time when people were less apt to question the government.”

Bradley Smith, a self-proclaimed “comedy aficionado,” plays Val, a character based on Mel Tolkin, who was the head writer for NBC’s sketch-comedy show “Caesar’s Hour” and “Your Show of Shows.”

Tolkin sounds, for the more modern comedy consumer, a little Liz Lemon-y. “He’s trying to herd all these cats in one room, to harness all this anarchic comedic talent and focus it, in a way,” Bradley Smith said, “to come up with a show every week.”

Bradley Smith said he’d been studying up on “30 Rock” because the themes of the shows are so similar, but, “I’m not sure what it really did, except foster my crush on Tina Fey.”

Saturday to Feb. 18; Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW; www.keegantheatre.com; 703-892-0202.

Beauty (and a beast)

“The Gallerist,” which Rorschach Theatre opens Friday with a pay-what-you-can preview, keeps in the theatre’s tradition of plays that explore the supernatural, otherworldly side of things.

“It’s about art and how art affects us,” director Catherine Tripp said. “And it’s about how feeling trapped affects us, whether it’s trapped by our roles in society or the world around us or our opportunities.”

The play travels back and forth between post-World War I London and present-day New York. “I love that it’s got such an interesting sort of dual-time storytelling,” Tripp said.

“It’s this wonderful combination of spooky and otherworldly,” Tripp said. “It’s got some humor and love and passion. And a scary monkey.”

Oh, right, a scary monkey. In addition to defying the laws of time and space, “The Gallerist” features a woman who gets possessed by a monkey.

The monkey was a big part of the appeal for producer Jenny McConnell Frederick. It was alluring to her, she said: “The idea of a woman in a period piece, in ladylike garb, being anything but ladylike because she’s possessed by a monkey. [She’s] fulfilling the monkey inside her.”

Tripp cited the monkey possession as addressing a question of liberation. “Is it freeing to have the beast within us set free? Are we freer when we don’t have to belong in society, or are we less free because we lose some of our humanity? . . . I think there’s something exciting about this idea of freedom and strength and the balance therein.”

Thursday to Feb. 19; Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE; www.rorschachtheatre.com; 202-399-7993.

The headline of this story previously referred to Grote as the director. He is the playwright.

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