In 1978, two young New York actors, Howard Shalwitz and Roger Brady, had an idea for a new kind of theater that would shake up the nation. They selected Washington, DC as the place to launch it, and in 1980, with the help of Linda Reinisch, they opened their first season in a church hall near Metro Center.
The idea was simple: pull together a group of exceptionally talented actors, mold them into a company, seek innovative scripts with something challenging to say, and find fresh approaches to acting, directing, and design. Above all, don’t be afraid to take risks. This simple idea proved revolutionary. At the time, most theaters outside of New York were producing only classics and recent New York hits. Woolly Mammoth was part of a wave of new theaters determined to change that—to forge the future of the art form rather than just preserving its past.
The new company caught on immediately with local audiences and critics, and within a few seasons, Woolly had outgrown its initial home and rented a warehouse along the 14th Street corridor, where it continued its explosive growth in artistry, audience, and impact for 13 years. Plays premiered on the Woolly stage began to be produced in New York and across the country, and Woolly’s company of actors emerged as stars of the Washington theater scene.
Responding to the neglect of its historic 14th Street neighborhood, Woolly Mammoth also launched an award-winning outreach program to make a difference in the lives of young people. It offered low-cost acting classes and pioneered the idea of “Pay What You Will” nights at the theater. People of all backgrounds and all ages responded to the exceptional creativity of Woolly’s plays and programs.
In May 2005, after more than four years of performing in other venues and a hugely successful capital campaign, Woolly Mammoth opened the doors of its first permanent home—a new 265-seat, courtyard-style theater in the heart of downtown Washington, DC, where the company pursues its long-range vision of becoming the epicenter of challenging new theater in America.
To mark its 30th anniversary, Woolly chose to look forward instead of back. It invited colleagues from around the country and neighbors from around the block to participate in a conference called “Who’s In Your Circle? Theatre, Democracy, and Engagement in the Twenty-First Century.” This inquiry refocused Woolly on the role of the theater in Washington, DC’s civic discourse and led to the development of our innovative Connectivity Department.
Woolly Mammoth has received more than 200 nominations and 48 Helen Hayes Awards for its productions. These include ten Charles MacArthur Awards for Outstanding New Play and an award for Outstanding Director, which was given to Woolly’s Artistic Director, Howard Shalwitz, for his production of Bruce Norris' 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winner Clybourne Park. Woolly Mammoth has twice received the Mayor’s Arts Award for Excellence, and the theater was awarded a 2005 Otto Réné Castillo Award for Political Theatre.
In 2018, Howard Shalwitz stepped down from his role as the theater’s Artistic Director, turning his leadership role over to newly-appointed Artistic Director Maria Manuela Goyanes.