Theater critic

Before a recent show of "The Arsonists," Howard Shalwitz, actor and director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, gets prop cigars from assistant stage manager Leigh Robinette. (Essdras M Suarez for The Washington Post)

As artistic neighbors go, Howard Shalwitz and Michael Kahn appear to be miles apart. Shalwitz runs the new-plays troupe Woolly Mammoth Theatre; Kahn heads the classical Shakespeare Theatre Company. Woolly seats 265; the STC’s two stages combined hold more than 1,200. Shalwitz, 65, keeps his romantic partner of 38 years out of the spotlight at her request; two years ago, Kahn, 80, was married to Charles Mitchem by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

What Shalwitz and Kahn share is more than three decades of transforming Washington theater, developing their own humble troupes — the STC formerly at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Woolly evolving through several small digs around town — into national leaders. For a decade, they’ve been cheek by jowl in Penn Quarter, and the STC’s Lansburgh stage on Seventh Street NW is even closer to Woolly (around the corner on D) than to its big brother on F, Harman Hall.

This year, Shalwitz announced retirement plans for the end of this season, and Kahn said he’ll step down a year later. Both men are putting creative stamps on season openers, with Kahn directing a pair of short Harold Pinter plays (“The Lover” and “The Collection”) and Shalwitz acting (in Max Frisch’s “The Arsonists”) for the first time in seven years.

Coffee first at a favorite cafe, where Kahn often runs into friends (here, Angelika Fuenrich). (Essdras M Suarez for The Washington Post)

Swinging up and down Seventh Street between the Lansburgh and Woolly from morning till night, these are glimpses of a day in the life as Shalwitz and Kahn gear up for their latest shows and power down their leadership roles.

11:30 a.m., Java House,
Q Street NW

Kahn’s favorite coffee shop is near his D.C. apartment; people know him here. Fundamentally a New Yorker, Kahn sips his iced coffee reading the print New York Times and toting Adam Gopnik’s new memoir, “At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York.”

Kahn selected the taut, romantically menacing, early-1960s Pinter plays with Washington actor Holly Twyford in mind; they clicked together during Pinter’s “Old Times” in 2011. But the project has hit bumps. Twyford instead accepted Signature Theatre’s offer to play Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music,” Patrick Kennedy replaced another actor only a week ago, and last night, the show’s leading lady, Lisa Dwan, injured her foot onstage during a blackout. Dwan ended up in the emergency room.

How bad is it?

“We’ll see,” Kahn says.

12:30 p.m., Lansburgh,
450 Seventh St. NW

The Lansburgh is a darkened warren of designers and technicians huddling over a half-dozen work tables scattered throughout the house. Onstage, a vintage red British phone booth is just visible. So is a collection of fine vases in a bright white box.

“How can the collection be dimmed?” Kahn asks, his voice commanding the room. “We don’t have enough light in the phone booth, either. I’m not crazy about that framing.” The lights behind the booth go out. “That’s more interesting,” Kahn says.

Kahn, listening to and watching Harold Pinter’s “The Collection” cue by cue. (Essdras M Suarez for The Washington Post)

The lights are somehow harder to dim in the collection box. Kahn does not hide his displeasure, but he quickly moves on.

Half an hour later, everyone is still timing “The Collection’s” opening sequence of lights and sound. Kahn watches, comments and waits for adjustments, sometimes impatiently tapping his ring on a wooden table until he can see it again.

In costume, Dwan walks onstage favoring her left foot. Good news: It’s sprained, not broken. Crisis averted, Kahn’s attention turns to Dwan’s wig. Huddling with his longtime friend costume designer Jane Greenwood, he says candidly, “Even Julie Christie wouldn’t look good in that wig.”

2 p.m., Woolly Mammoth,
641 D St. NW

Shalwitz returns to afternoon office duties for the first time in weeks. The routine has been on hold as he takes the central role of Betterman, an everyman whose attic gets overtaken by arsonists — Frisch’s metaphor for the risks of letting political extremists gain a toehold wherever you live.

Shalwitz meets about extending the show another week. Sales are going well, but putting another block of tickets up for sale is not a slam-dunk decision. (Days later, an extra week is announced.) Then comes “call time,” an hour touching base with supporters. He’s also picking scenes for the “Dinner on Stage” fundraiser next month.

“I’m enjoying it,” Shalwitz says an hour later about his return to acting. “The hardest thing has been turning off the director part of my brain. And my character is a dupe. You have to figure out how to identify with someone who’s making a lot of bad choices.”


Shalwitz gets back into the swing of office time, which has been cut back during his return to acting. (Essdras M Suarez for The Washington Post)

He’s still not coming into the office during the mornings. “I’ve reduced my footprint,” he says. Not that he’s checked out already as the board searches for his successor: “We can’t afford for me to be a lame duck artistic director for even one season.”

Shalwitz can picture himself acting more post-Woolly, and the oddity that he’s doing an older play than Kahn is, the 1950s “Arsonists,” leads him to ideas about acting and directing Shakespeare. It’s another post-retirement interest. “I might reach out a little bit,” he says.

4:25 p.m.,
Woolly dressing room

Wardrobe supervisor Andy Cutler trims Shalwitz’s hair, which peeks out from under his character’s wig, in the dressing room shared by the cast’s five men. “It’s not Woolly’s nature to have a star dressing room,” Shalwitz notes. “Not that I’m a star.”

4:50 p.m., Lansburgh

Midafternoon brought a fire drill that emptied the theater and cost Kahn more time. The company will postpone an upcoming invited dress rehearsal.

Greenwood and Kahn inspect costumes, and though everyone breaks for dinner, Kahn lingers at the edge of the stage to talk for 20 minutes with actor Patrick Ball.


Patrick Ball and Kahn burrow in during rehearsal of Pinter's "The Collection." (Essdras M Suarez for The Washington Post)

5:30 p.m., Lansburgh

Kahn gets an update from his assistant, David Olson. “These rehearsals are the most important for him to be focused on,” Olson says. “I have to prioritize.” Details include casting for the company’s upcoming “Twelfth Night” and organizing next month’s fundraising gala honoring former Kahn student Laura Linney.

Dwan? “She’s a trouper,” Kahn says. “It’s been hard. But we’re getting there.”

7:58 p.m., backstage at Woolly

Shalwitz, in costume, checks his props and places his briefcase by an entrance.


Afternoon into evening: Kahn continues to scrutinize the stage as “The Collection” gets its look. (Essdras M Suarez for The Washington Post)

8:07 p.m., Lansburgh

“Are you being good about your foot?” Kahn asks Dwan, who is barefoot as she prowls the stage in her character’s robe.

“I am,” the actress says. “I think it’s better not to rest it.” Dwan runs her lines while waiting. “Do you think he’s the only one I entertain?” she murmurs in an English accent, alone in the half-light.

Kennedy asks about having to change a sweater. “It’s slightly buggering up the wig, taking the jumper off,” he says.

“It’s often the wigs,” Kahn said earlier in the day about technical issues.

8:50 p.m., Woolly lobby

Shalwitz, in pajamas, sprints up a side hall from backstage and into the lobby. Cutler helps him with a fast costume change. Shalwitz dashes through the doors toward the stage.


Quick change: Shalwitz runs toward the lobby to switch costumes mid-performance. (Essdras M Suarez for The Washington Post)

10:04 p.m., Woolly lobby

“The Arsonists” is over. Shalwitz greets friends and family; his day is done. Around the corner, Kahn and company polish for another hour. Tomorrow, both men will do it all again.