The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is taking another bold step: moving downtown to a new home in the symbolic core of Washington close to other arts organizations as well as institutions -- such as the FBI -- that Woolly has enjoyed roasting for nearly a quarter century.
The heart of Woolly's building, which will be unveiled today, is an unusual courtyard theater -- a concept borrowed from the days of Shakespeare. The building will also feature teaching space, a rehearsal hall and public spaces with exposed building materials, bold colors and industrial walkways. A shimmering blue wall will run the length of the interior.
The 265-seat theater is more than double the size of Woolly Mammoth's old performance space on Church Street NW. The company's new quarters are part of a huge complex being developed on Seventh Street NW, between D and E streets. Woolly's building will face D Street and look south toward Pennsylvania Avenue. The theater's board selected Bethesda architect Mark McInturff, an award-winning modernist, to be the lead designer on the three-story, 30,000-square-foot project.
When the new Woolly Mammoth opens in fall of 2004, it will bring another entertainment destination to the bustling Penn Quarter district. It is within walking distance of MCI Center, the Shakespeare Theatre and the International Spy Museum, as well as the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, both of which are undergoing renovation.
"We think it's delicious that we are so close to the Mall and what that means," said Howard Shalwitz, the theater's artistic director. "We want to plunk the theater down in that space and be an inspiration to smaller projects. The question for us is how do you make a move like this and keep it edgy."
The design, while respectful to its historic neighborhood, breaks the mold for most local theaters.
To support the plan, Shalwitz is announcing a $7.5 million capital campaign. Supported by a lead gift of $1 million from playwright Patricia Smith Melton and businessman William Melton, the campaign has already raised $4.3 million. Other major donors include arts patrons Arlene and Robert Kogod, the Bank of America and the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. The developer is also helping by charging rent of $1 a year for the next 30 years, Shalwitz said.
Sitting in a temporary office near the new Convention Center, Shalwitz said the the team dreamed of creating a "transparent theatrical laboratory." Few activities of theater life and work will be hidden. The long lobby will be visible from the street. The box office will be an open counter. You'll be able to peek into the rehearsal and class rooms. The designer even plans peepholes so visitors can see the lighting and sound control booth from the lobby.
"It is transparent because we wanted the audience to have a feel for the whole operation," said Shalwitz.
The front of the theater is actually an old facade the government saved from a previous demolition and put in storage by the General Services Administration. The GSA gave the wall to the developer.
Patrons will enter the complex via a staircase leading to a courtyard that Woolly will share with other tenants of the development.
The lobby has picture windows that look onto the street. Once inside, the theater-goer will be in a two-tier space dominated by one open staircase leading up to the theater and another going down to the rehearsal hall and classroom.
The seating layout is a little like the theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The stage is 30 feet deep, 54 feet wide and 35 feet high. The audience chamber is crossed by three exposed lighting catwalks.
Shalwitz and McInturff wanted height and intimacy.
"I wanted the scope to allow the work to breathe. The courtyard theater concept is much more exciting than a bland black box or standard thrust stage," Shalwitz said. There is orchestra seating with rows of seats on three sides. Above them is a second level of seating. "It is a way of creating energy," said Shalwitz, and of providing choices. "Especially for a theater that does new plays, we wanted some flexibility."
Woolly was founded in 1978 by Shalwitz and Roger Brady and presented its first season in 1980 in a church hall. Woolly has won nearly two dozen Helen Hayes Awards and received more than 100 Hayes nominations. More than 20 of its plays have been produced outside Washington. Its artistic expansion includes a school and literacy program.
It has had a nomadic existence. The theater was first in a warehouse on 14th Street. For 13 years it worked in a cramped space at 14th and Church streets. Plans for a permanent home were discussed in the early 1990s but the opportunity to move downtown opened up in 1998. Meanwhile, Woolly's lease on Church Street expired. Since January 2001 the troupe has performed at the American Film Institute theater in the Kennedy Center and at the D.C. Jewish Community Center on 16th Street.
The downtown project, on the last of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. parcels, is being developed by JPI Development Corp. of Dallas with architect Philip Esocoff. The GSA required an arts component as part of the deal.
Other members of the design team for Woolly Mammoth include Theatre Projects Consultants, Acoustic Dimensions and Davis Construction.