Woolly Mammoth flips us the bird

A few days ago, Michael Palmer posted this logo, commenting “I was unaware that Arnold Zwicky was in the theatah”. It’s the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, with its logo in rainbow for Pride Month, and the woolly mammoth is my totem animal. Oh yes, and I’m gay, so it all fits.


Then I recalled having written about the theatre company and one of its productions, with fuck in the title, so that it presented an issue for publicity and for publications reviewing the production — notably, the ostentatiously modest (no fuck for us, please, we’re a family newspaper) New York Times.

But apparently I never actually wrote the story up; memory is a fickle, fickle thing. In any case, the play is Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, which had its world premiere at the Woolly Mammoth in 2013, and I’ll write about it now. Even better, the Times‘s handling of the situation when the show came to NYC last year is truly wonderful.

Now: some bits on the Woolly Mammoth, on experimental theatre companies, and on Posner’s play. Then on the play in the media, with the the NYT as the capper.

(Note: in thi posting, some of my sources use the spelling theatre, some the spelling theater, and some might be trying to make a motivated choice between the spellings, but I’ve given up and, at least for this posting, will treat the two spellings as free variants, using one or the other as my whimsy takes me.)

The theatre company. From Wikipedia:

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is a non-profit theatre company located at 641 D Street NW in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Founded in 1980, it produces new plays which it believes to be edgy, challenging, and thought-provoking. Performances are in a 265-seat courtyard-style theater.

Woolly Mammoth is pretty much an “all experimental theater, all the time” company. It generates some of its own plays (like Stupid Fucking Bird) and mounts productions of plays developed by other companies. It’s not specifically an LGBT enterprise, but it welcomes plays on LGBT themes; that’s part of being edgy, challenging, and thought-provoking.

Experimental theater. Experimental works aremounted in a huge range of settings. Some companies started as small and very edgy operations but have evolved into cultural institutions, though still with some edge. That’s the history of La MaMa. From Wikipedia:

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (La MaMa E.T.C.) is an off-off Broadway theatre founded in 1961 by Ellen Stewart, and named in reference to her. Located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the theatre grew out of Stewart’s tiny basement boutique for her fashion designs; the boutique’s space acted as a theatre for fledgling playwrights at night. La MaMa has evolved during its over fifty-year history into a world-renowned cultural institution.

Some companies started as improvisational comedy troupes and then expanded their operations. That’s the history of Second City. From Wikipedia:

The Second City is an improvisational comedy enterprise, best known as the first ever on-going improvisational theater troupe based in Chicago. It also has programs that run out of Toronto and Los Angeles. The Second City Theatre opened on December 16, 1959 and has since become one of the most influential and prolific comedy theatres in the world.

Some theater companies especially favor certain social, cultural, or political themes. Here’s Wikipedia on a San Francisco institution:

Theatre Rhinoceros or Theatre Rhino is a gay and lesbian theatre based in San Francisco. It was founded in the spring of 1977 by Lanny Baugniet (who became the theater’s General Manager) and his partner Allan B. Estes, Jr. (who became the theater’s Artistic Director). It is a non-profit theater company dedicated to the production of plays by and about gay and lesbian people.

Then there are repertory companies that try to achieve some balance between standard repertory and fresh works. For example, another Bay Area institution:

Berkeley Repertory Theatre [founded in 1968] is a regional theater company located in Berkeley, California. It runs seven productions each season from its two stages in Downtown Berkeley.

… Productions are a mix of classic modern plays such as Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and Terrence McNally’s Master Class, the latter featuring Rita Moreno as opera diva Maria Callas, significant recent plays with many West Coast premieres such as Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project and Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul and even world premieres such as Kushner’s Hydriotaphia and Charles Mee’s Fetes De La Nuit. (Wikipedia link)

Even large traditional theater companies, like the Guthrie in Minneapolis, now branch out into innovative works. From Wikipedia:

The Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963, is a center for theater performance, production, education, and professional training in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The concept of the theater was born in 1959 in a series of discussions between Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea and Peter Zeisler. Disenchanted with Broadway, they intended to form a theater with a resident acting company, to perform classic plays in rotating repertory, while maintaining the highest professional standards.

The 2016-17 season covered the territory from King Lear to Sunday in the Park with George to Refugia, a new work created by the experimental theatre ensemble The Moving Company.

Just a small sample of different types of companies, and restricted to the U.S. Experimental theatre is very much alive and well.

Aaron Posner and that goddam seagull. From Wikipedia:

Aaron Posner is an American playwright and theatre director. He was co-founder of the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. He has directed over 250 productions at major regional theatre companies across the country. He has won many awards including five Helen Hayes Awards, two Barrymore Awards, the Outer Circle Critics Award, The John Gassner Prize, a Bay Area Theatre Award, an Eliot Norton Award, and many more.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, and raised in Eugene, Oregon, Posner is married to actress Erin Weaver and has one daughter.

Among Posner’s best known adaptions are The Chosen (1999), based on Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel of the same name and My Name Is Asher Lev (2009), based on Potok’s 1972 novel. His 2013 adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play The Seagull under the title of Stupid Fucking Bird was premiered in 2013 by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and has since been produced by theatre companies and universities all across the country. He has adapted Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and “The Three Sisters” as well. The former is called “Life Sucks” and the later “No Sisters”. His re-imagining of “The Merchant of Venice” is called “District Merchants”.

A (very little) background on the Chekhov, from Wikipedia:

The Seagull is a play by Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, written in 1895 and first produced in 1896. The Seagull is generally considered to be the first of his four major plays. It dramatises the romantic and artistic conflicts between four characters: the famous middlebrow story writer Boris Trigorin, the ingenue Nina, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, and her son the symbolist playwright Konstantin Tréplev.

In Act II, Konstantin gives (a horrified) Nina a seagull that he has shot, and the bird then figures symbolically in the following action.

Coping with that fucking title. Some productions got publicity posters with the title unvarnished:


Similarly with many reviews of productions.

But other posters avoided fucking, sometimes via avoidance characters:


or by visual elements that conceal the offending UC — clouds, as here:


or, cleverly, bird droppings:

href=”http://arnoldzwicky.s3.amazonaws.com/StupidFuckingBird1.jpg”&gt; (#6)

Shit concealing fuck!

The seagull travels to NYC. Review by Charles Isherwood in the 3/29/16 NYT, under the heading:

“Review: ‘Stupid _____ Bird’ Is Chekhov for the 21st Century”

and beginning:

The expletive smack in the middle of the title of Aaron Posner’s “sort of” adaptation of “The Seagull” is not there for decoration, or even provocation. It is wholly emblematic of Mr. Posner’s raw, theatrically audacious version of this Chekhov classic, which is being presented in New York in a viscerally well-acted production from the Pearl Theater Company.

“Stupid _____ Bird,” like many adaptations of Chekhov, sets the play in the here and now, only more so. The drama follows the essential contours of the original, but Mr. Posner also crashes through the fourth wall at regular intervals and ultimately implies that the play that we are watching is not a fixed entity, but is being unleashed from the frantic mind of Constantin (Christopher Sears), or Con, as we are absorbing it.

Oh my. Isherwood argues that the choice of words is important in the context, but the paper won’t print the word, because it’s intrinsically and irrevocably dangerous, corrupting, damaging, and so on, no matter what the context.



2 Responses to “Woolly Mammoth flips us the bird”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    I really wonder when the New York Times is going to drop its faux shyness about the word “fuck” and just print the damn word. The newspapers here in London almost all print the word, or other “swear” words, in their entirety with no shyness. This can be jarring to someone raised in the US in the 1950’s, but I got used to it. Even the “New Yorker”, which was famously shy about such words under the editorship of William Shawn, no longer bothers to censor or avoid them.

  2. thnidu Says:

    Amanda Palmer — singer, stage performer, feminist, married to Neil Gaiman, and lots of other stuff — sometimes uses the name Amanda Fucking Palmer.*

    The official website of Amanda Fucking Palmer. Yes it is – Amanda Palmer (HTML title tag)

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