For a fellow who landed in Washington only six years ago, Howard Shalwitz has made quite a name for himself, albeit in the somewhat narrow world of the theater community. At the moment he is exercising three of his titles -- as artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which he cofounded, as head of the League of Washington Theaters and as an actor, playing the part of Khlebnikov in the New Playwrights' Theatre's "The Beautiful Lady."
Washington was a conscious choice for Shalwitz, 32, who is from Buffalo. He and Roger Brady, looking for the right town in which to start a company devoted to new plays, spent more than a year doing research on the populations, theaters and fund-raising possibilities of various cities before settling on Washington. Although Brady left the partnership a couple of years ago, Woolly Mammoth has, in its small but serious way, prospered. It has survived five years, doubling its meager budget annually and slowly building a reputation for innovative work.
One sign of progress is that Shalwitz and managing director Linda Reinisch are now receiving small salaries, which enabled them to give up their "day jobs." Shalwitz, who has a BA in philosophy and a master's in education, worked his first year here for a consulting firm on a project about child welfare systems. His second year he lived on unemployment, and then went into free-lance typesetting and graphic design.
"We Shalwitz and Brady both had a frustration with the commercial pressures in New York," says Shalwitz, who lived there for several years, working as an actor. "When you cast actors in a play you were fighting against not just other theaters, but television and movies and what their agents would let them do. We thought it would be possible to take the work more seriously outside of New York."
One aspect of that "serious" work is the rehearsal process Woolly Mammoth uses. Rather than cast actors for individual shows, Shalwitz casts a company for the season, and it meets weekly for "laboratory" work. Generally the lab consists of a warm-up, a lesson (recently the company has been studying Alexander technique) and a reading of a play under consideration for production. Occasionally Shalwitz or a prospective director will stage a scene from the play.
"In New York, you go to auditions and people can be very cold to you," he says. "Actors are not treated well, directors are not treated well. I want to create an atmosphere that people like and that is productive. We want to be one of the theaters of choice in Washington."
Shalwitz has been president of the League of Washington Theaters for two years, although he was not one of the founding members. It too is busy with projects, including a study of its future and a search for theater space in Washington. LOWT now represents all major nonprofit theaters in the city.
"It's a power base, and we need to think about what kind of influence we want to have," Shalwitz says. "Whether we want a staff, and how to raise money without competing with the member theaters."
He is also not unaware of the local exposure he gets as LOWT chairman and the contacts he makes through its activities. "I'm concerned about getting too insulated at Woolly Mammoth," he says. "Woolly Mammoth is my career, but I want to get some exposure to broaden my own horizons in the theater to continue this work."