NEW YORK — Catapulting Washington to the forefront of a movement to open more seats at the performing arts power table to women and people of color, Woolly Mammoth Theatre has selected Maria Manuela Goyanes as its second-ever artistic director, succeeding founder Howard Shalwitz.
The 38-year-old Goyanes, a daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Spain who studied theater at Brown University under Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, is a longtime producer at off-Broadway’s creatively prolific Public Theater. Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, described the New York City native as his producing right hand, working on such major company projects as “Hamilton” and “Fun Home” and dozens of other plays and musicals over the entire course of Eustis’s tenure.
“This feels like an embarrassment of riches,” Goyanes, the Public’s director of producing and artistic planning, said during a wide-ranging interview in the East Village company’s five-theater complex. “Woolly is going into its 39th season, and I’m going into my 39th year. I told the [search] committee Woolly Mammoth is one of those places I’ve always looked to, to see what their seasons are. And I have championed many of their artists. I’m just thrilled at the possibilities.”
Woolly Mammoth, created in 1978 by Shalwitz and his friend and fellow actor Roger Brady, has only a $5 million budget, but its dramaturgical influence is mammoth. Within the walls of its $9 million, 250-seat theater in the Penn Quarter area and previous rented spaces in other parts of town, dozens of thematically provocative plays have been birthed and curated, their authors often going on to major careers and prizes. Because of the robust competitiveness among Washington’s large constellation of theater companies, Woolly may be even more commonly recognized as an innovator nationally than locally.
As a result, the choice made by Woolly’s 13-member search committee is likely to be regarded as a bellwether decision, especially by the two dozen or more other theater companies across the nation — Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company among them — that are engaged in searches for new leaders. And it occurs at a time when many arts organizations are searching their souls, too, over such issues as amplifying artistic voices of color, how women are treated in the workplace and what can be done to reinvigorate theater’s appeal for younger playgoers.
Goyanes, chosen from among 100 initial candidates, is expected to assume the job in September; the first full season of plays she will program will be for 2019-2020. The rigorous process undertaken by Woolly’s search committee led its chairman, Washington lawyer Michael Fitzpatrick, to point out that more candidates of Goyanes’s caliber from diverse backgrounds are out there. In fact, Woolly will be one of the few arts organizations with women in their three top positions, as Goyanes joins Managing Director Meghan Pressman and Board of Directors President Linette S. Hwu.
“In the afterglow of a sensational pick, who embodies the kind of diversity there should be more of in the American theater, we hope it sends a message to everyone that if you run a really open and inclusive, deliberative process that has the most meritorious candidates possible, that you can end up in this place,” Fitzpatrick said.
Woolly was looking for someone who would, in the words of Shalwitz, “come in with an idea of how Woolly would move forward and transform.” Hwu, who leads the 30-member board and also served on the search panel, said that Goyanes’s experience, the warmth of her personality and her alignment with the company’s values gave them confidence she was that person. “She has one of those wide-ranging minds that makes her a fun person to be around,” Hwu said. “She feels like somebody,” Hwu added, “who will get people to say ‘yes.’ ”
Goyanes, who has lived in New York most of her life, will be a newcomer to Washington and the first new head of a major local company to be plucked from outside the region since Ryan Rilette arrived at Round House Theatre from the Bay Area six years ago. Not knowing the lay of the land can pose some challenges. “There’s a part of me that goes, ‘I have a lot of learning to do,’ ” she said. But her boss and mentor, Eustis, doesn’t see that as an obstacle.
“Maria has got this incredibly rare combination of qualities: She’s incredibly bright, really learned and comes from a real working-class background, and she brings a double perspective to everything,” he said.
“Around here, she rose steadily through the ranks of the Public until now she’s my chief operating officer. That means she has to integrate the budgeting, the production work, the calendar. It’s going to be really hard to adjust to her leaving.”
Goyanes, whose father, Pedro, was a bus repairman for New York’s transit system, and mother, Violeta, was a public schoolteacher, first worked with Eustis at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., near the Brown campus. Having started with dreams of being a stage director, she eventually opted for the steadier employment available in arts administration. In the early 2000s, she moved on to the Public under then-artistic head George C. Wolfe and remained when Eustis took over. As she climbed the ladder there, Goyanes took on a side job in 2003, running 13P, a collective of 13 playwrights whose mission was to produce a play by each of them, including such young luminaries as Sarah Ruhl and Anne Washburn. Both are Woolly playwrights, too.
“I think it signals a big cultural and generational shift in the theater, where big companies are starting to trust this other 51 percent of the workforce,” Ruhl (“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play”) said of Goyanes’s appointment. “She’s brave, she’s quick-thinking and she’s always just really kind.”
“She sees the kind of theater that I want to be a part of,” said playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon”). Goyanes was the line producer on Jacobs-Jenkins’s controversial debut play at the Public, “Neighbors,” in 2010. “Woolly,” he added, “has made an interesting leap with her.”
The trajectory of that leap remains to be measured. Goyanes will be planning her own seasons for the first time in her career, and she says she is excited to work with artists already in the Woolly fold as well as explore others who might be enticed into the tent. Her job, she said, involves decisions “as simple as what is around us in the world: How do you connect dialogue and conversation with the art you are making, to the people who you want to see it?”
One who’ll be watching closely: Shalwitz, who was not on the search panel but talked to each finalist. “You want to be satisfied that there’s a big vision,” he said. “And Maria’s years at 13P and the Public have set her in good stead.”