Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will be reopening its doors on September 20, 2021 with the production of “Teenage Dick” by Mike Lew, directed by Tony Award Nominee, Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Woolly Mammoth has long been viewed as one of the risk takers in Baltimore/Washington Area by maintaining a high level of quality in their productions. Woolly Mammoth is also one of the only theatres left who maintain a company of artists under the leadership of Artistic Director Maria Manuela Goyanes and Managing Director Emika Abe. Located between the White House and Capitol Building, it is no wonder they are actively working “towards and equitable, participatory and creative democracy. The theatre is acutely aware that it stands on the ancestral homeland of the Nacotchtank Indians. They also understand that the foundation of our nation’s capital was funded by the sale of slaves and built with their forced labor.
“Teenage Dick” was first presented in a workshop in 2016 but it premiered at The Public Theatre in New York City in June, 2018. Lew’s other works include “Tiger Style!” The play originated at the Ma-Yi Theatre Company in New York in association with The Public Theater. It was commissioned and developed by The Apothetae where “Teenage Dick” star Gregg Mozgala (Artistic Director) and von Stuelpnagel are leaders and produces work to “explore and illuminate disabled experiences.” “Teenage Dick” is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” relocated to a modern high school in the U.S. The protagonist in this updated story is a young man with cerebral palsy who is bullied by his classmates. What Richard is willing to do to become senior class president is the conflict and the theme is stronger — the need to be feared and powerful or loved? “Teenage Dick” was initially planned for 2020 but production was abruptly halted by the pandemic before its opening. This production is produced in association with Huntington Theatre Company (Boston, MA) and Pasadena Playhouse (Pasadena, CA).
The cast includes Gregg Mozgala in the title role with Shannon DeVido, Emily Townley, Louis Reyes McWilliams, Portland Thomas, Zurin Villanueva and Maya Loren Jackson. The artistic crew features work by Jennifer Weber (Choreography), Ashleigh King (Assistant Director and Choreographer), Wilson Chin (Scenic Designer), Amith Chandrashker (Lighting Designer), Kelsey Hunt (Costume Designer), and Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design),
I had a chance to interview the acclaimed Moritz von Stuelpnagel who directed not only this production but the one at The Public Theatre as well.
Moritz von Stuelpnagel credits include Broadway: “Bernhardt/Hamlet” (Roundabout), “Present Laughter” (three Tony nominations including Best Revival), “Hand to God” (five Tony nominations including Best Play and Best Director). West End: “Hand to God” (Olivier nomination). Off-Broadway: Seared (MCC Theatre), “The Thanksgiving Play” (Playwrights Horizons), “Teenage Dick” (Ma-Yi/Public Theater), “Important Hats of the Twentieth Century” (Manhattan Theatre Club), “Verité” (Lincoln Center Theatre/LCT3), “Bike America” (Ma-Yi), “Trevor” (Lesser America), “Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef” (Ensemble Studio Theatre), “Mel & El” (Ars Nova), “Spacebar” (Studio 42), and “My Base and Scurvy Heart” (Studio 42). Regional: Williamstown, Huntington, Alliance, Hudson Valley Shakes, and more. AudioPlays: Audible Originals, Playing on Air, and Huntington. Moritz is the former artistic director of Studio 42, NYC’s producer of “unproducible” plays.
What directors have most influenced your own directing style?
I direct a lot of comedy, along with theatrically wild plays, so in all honesty probably Jim Henson. The vaudevillian playfulness, unbounded creativity, musicality and wholeheartedness of his work are the culmination of so many American traditions. I’ve drawn from him quite a bit. As far as theater artists, I’ve been grateful to begin my career by assisting a lot of different directors with a whole variety of styles. And what I’ve tried to glean is how to take a light hand to let the play speak for itself, but also, when to take full advantage of the theatrical opportunities that a script asks of the director, performers, and designers.
How do you use blocking to tell the playwrights story, and when you block, do you use any modern technology, for instance, iPad, or a computer program or do you do it the “old-fashioned way” with a script and pencil?
How something is staged is critical for communicating the playwright’s story. Actors in motion draw our eye, but it’s ever so slightly more difficult to understand what they’re saying — which is why a laugh line tends to be delivered from stillness. And where on stage an actor stands changes their prominence in the visual composition. Lines spoken by an actor with greater stage prominence have greater value. This doesn’t even begin to deal with how an actor says a line, and yet, in all these ways, we are choreographing which lines are emphasized or de-emphasized through movement, composition, and gesture. This is especially critical in a comedy, which is about precision. I tend to stage a show collaboratively with the actors, rather than prescribing something in advance. That way, we can employ the natural impulses of the performers toward something that hopefully seems organic and spontaneous.
How is this production of “Teenage Dick” different from the one you directed at the Public Theatre in NYC and how is it the same?
“Teenage Dick” is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” set in a contemporary American high school. And as much as it’s about disability, it’s also about challenging who we take to be our heroes and who our underdogs. Who are our bullies and who are our bullied? And that bias is born, in part, out of a culture of toxic masculinity, which emphasizes strength and uncompromising conviction. And in emphasizing those qualities, leads some people to entitlement. That lens was already fascinating to dissect when the play was written pre-#metoo, and more so when we presented it in New York during the Trump administration. And now, after the January 6 insurrection and the ever-deepening partisan divide, it feels more poignant than ever. But aside from the socio-political context of this moment, what audiences will see is a host of performances and a script that has continued to sharpen as we’ve learned about it. The story is much the same, but it has deepened in an exciting way.
What have you found the most artistically satisfying about this production of “Teenage Dick” and the most challenging?
The thing about new plays is that you don’t really learn about them until you have an audience — they are the ultimate participants of the collaboration. But at that point in the process, there’s only so much you can do to refine a production. So, to return some years later, with fresh perspective and all the information you’ve learned from previous productions — is a gift. That’s especially true with a script as good as this, and with collaborators who I believe in so deeply. One of the most challenging aspects has been working on live performance at all during the pandemic. What we do requires being in a room with other people — the very thing we’ve avoided, or done remotely, for 18 months. So along with all the trust that collaboration requires is the trust that our coworkers are being safe outside of work. And then to build toward performance without quite knowing whether we’ll have an audience! So, I know for each and every person that’s out there in the house, we’ll be grateful.
You really began your professional career at NYC’s Studio 42. What advice would you give new directors just “cutting their teeth” today, again?
Well, what’s funny is that I’d already been working professionally for 10 years before taking over Studio 42 — assisting other directors, directing off-off-Broadway, and at summer stocks — but running Studio 42 is the first thing I really became known for. Specifically, producing what we called “unproducible” plays — plays that were too big, too irreverent, or too complicated, all on a shoestring budget. And I’m happy for that actually, because it takes a lot of experimentation and witnessing your work in front of an audience to really understand your craft. Although my youthful ambition would have claimed otherwise, I don’t think I’d actually have been ready for many of the things I’ve gotten to do in more recent years. So, my advice to younger directors is to worry less about impressing the gatekeepers who you might think dole out the opportunities, and focus more on finding like-minded artists who are shaping the medium to their values in a way that challenges you. Those are the collaborations that help spawn great work and the opportunities will follow. This is such a weird business that, looking back, it’s always surprising which opportunities lead to the next. I would never have been able to predict them! Take Teenage Dick, for example. How could I have known that my fellow intern at Playwrights Horizons would write a tremendous play for my college roommate to star in, and that the two would ask me to direct it?
“Teenage Dick” runs September 20 to October 17, 2021, with performances on Wednesday – Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 pm and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm and 7 pm; with two Pay-What-You-Will performances on Monday, September 20 and Tuesday, September 21 at 8 pm at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington D.C. 20004. Open Captioned, ASL Interpreted, and Audio Described performances are available for select performances throughout the run.