Backstage: Woolly Mammoth seeks to connect with audience; Open Circle on hiatus
At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the goal of building more audience diversity -- something nonprofit theaters have striven for since the 1990s -- has evolved into a subtler concept. In addition to seeking to fill its seats with a richer mix of races and age groups, Woolly will tailor its marketing very specifically for each play.
"Connectivity" and "audience design" are words they use at Woolly now, in an effort to make sure particular plays are seen by the people for whom they'll have the most resonance.
Explains the company's artistic director, Howard Shalwitz, it's all about "audience composition . . . the question of who do we want to have in our seats in order to give meaning to the work that we're doing?" An example, he adds, "would be if you're doing a play about economic justice and you have an audience of all rich people and no poor people. . . . Then you can't have a very interesting conversation."
Another way to keep the audience varied, he says, is to offer a range of ticket prices. (Woolly's prices, according to the theater's Web site, range from a low of $27 during a preview week to a high of $62 during a regular run.)
Woolly began trying new audience-building methods last season (for example, reaching out to neighborhood bloggers for "Clybourne Park," a raucous comedy about gentrification and race). The company will expand these ideas in the coming season, in part with a $40,000 grant funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and administered by EmcArts.
Part of the process will be internal, Shalwitz says. Woolly has already hired a director of connectivity, Rachel Grossman, to start bridging not only the gap between Woolly and new audiences, but between people and departments at the theater involved with putting on a play. Shalwitz says it's "a cross-disciplinary way of thinking."
This new concept of audience building doesn't mean he'll start choosing different sorts of plays that don't mesh with Woolly's long-standing taste for outrageous tragicomedies. His artistic philosophy hasn't changed, Shalwitz says: "I really want plays that audiences can dig into."
Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann says that last season -- Woolly's 30th -- they "did a lot of talking about ancient Greece. When theater culture was invented, it really was a part of republican civic theater. . . . There's this thesis that theater and democracy grew up together. . . . We started asking ourselves, has the theater relegated itself to a marginal place of entertainment in our cuture and what could we do to nudge Woolly closer to the center?"
Herrmann calls the changes to Woolly's marketing process "a subtle adjustment as opposed to a radical tack." In case you're thinking this means Woolly's offerings will now be more consistently political, Shalwitz notes that the coming season is all about sex.
Open Circle takes a break
Open Circle Theatre, which hasn't produced a show since its cabaret in last year's Capital Fringe Festival, is now on official hiatus, spurred by financial issues and Artistic Director Suzanne Richard's health.
Founded in 2003 on a shoestring, Open Circle broke barriers by using both disabled and able-bodied actors and casting them in roles without regard to their physical capabilities. The diminutive Richard herself has a disability, osteogenesis imperfecta, which impeded her bone growth. Although she often uses crutches or a wheelchair, her fragility has not kept the 39-year-old actor/director from making splashy aerial entrances at Ford's Theatre as the Ghost of Christmas Past or appearing on other area stages, and working in the past at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Open Circle made a name for itself faster than many new theater companies. "We went from doing a show in the back of Playbill Cafe ["Laughing Wild" in 2003] to a show with Helen Hayes nominations ["Jesus Christ Superstar" in 2004 ] as our second show," Richard says proudly. "We gave artists with a disability the courage to join the mainstream. . . . We've opened up the minds of [other] theater companies. . . . The critics have gotten used to seeing disability onstage, so they don't have to talk about the disability, they can talk about the artist who's doing whatever they're doing."
Richard and her company haven't shied from difficult work, such as Jason Robert Brown's song cycle "Songs For a New World," which Open Circle dramatized in 2007 with an eye to American soldiers in Iraq and their families.
But Open Circle, like many theater companies recently, has seen expected grant money disappear and private donations shrink. And since Richard has been having serious stomach trouble for a while (specialists aren't sure whether it's related to the osteogenesis), she decided it was time for a break.
"I realized I've got to take some time and get this in hand," Richard says. "We're taking it easy for this year and . . . next year we'll do something, probably in the summer like we usually do. But we won't have the administrative help we were hoping for." The lost grant was supposed to enable Richard to hire a staff.
Meanwhile, singer/actor Joe Peck, a frequent Open Circle cast member also familiar to audiences at Olney, Ford's and Signature, is doing an evening of music, along with singer/songwriter Tom Nichols, to benefit Open Circle's coffers, Friday at the Potter's House (http:/
Taffety Punk will do its annual free Bootleg Shakespeare performance Monday at the Folger Theatre. The play is "Two Noble Kinsmen," which Shakespeare wrote with John Fletcher. The "bootleg" concept involves Taffety Punk's classically trained cast hurling themselves into a one-time performance after only a morning of rehearsal. The cast includes Kimberly Gilbert, Tonya Beckmann Ross and Artistic Director Marcus Kyd. Founding company member Lise Bruneau will direct. Visit http:/