Maria Manuela Goyanes - Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

‘Please take care of your spirit. Whatever that means to you. The world needs your imagination, and your creativity will dream us into the future.’

Our British Council team caught up with Maria Manuela Goyanes in the USA to see how she is coping during lockdown.

Tell us about your work and practice

I’m the Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC. I have the generative responsibility and pleasure of articulating a vision for our 41 year old theatre that fulfills both our artistic and social purpose. Woolly Mammoth is built on two equal pillars: aesthetic innovation and civic provocation. We lean into the unconventional, especially if a nontraditional and inventive approach will help us reach new understandings of our artform, our industry and our world. I started at Woolly a little less than two years ago. I am only the second person to ever have this job, as I followed the Founding Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, and I’m certainly the first Latina!

How has Covid-19 affected your daily working routine?

On March 17, 2020, we suspended rehearsals of Paola Lázaro’s world premiere play There’s Always The Hudson, and we have not been able to gather in-person to make theatre since. It’s not easy to be a theatre company unable to produce plays. Our whole industry is nearly out of work. Zoom has become our cyber gathering space - for meetings, play readings, and pop-up donor events. We are working to become as nimble as possible, especially because in-person indoor gatherings are still not in our near future. It all feels very high stakes, and I’m so thankful to work at an adaptive and resilient theatre company like Woolly Mammoth right now. At least I get to work in my pjs if I want to!

What has been most challenging?

2020 has brought so many challenges. Covid-19 itself, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Merci Mack, Brayla Stone and countless Black people due to extreme police violence, funerals forced to take place on video, small businesses closing one after the other, the cavalier attitude towards mask-wearing in much of the populace, and perhaps the most consequential Presidential election in my lifetime... and this isn’t even a list specific to the theatre industry! What a year.

What has been most surprising?

What’s been quite surprising has been how quickly companies (including theatres) are now purporting themselves to be “anti-racist” organisations. That doesn’t really happen overnight. In the past, I have had conversations with colleagues about adopting anti-racist practices and been rebuffed because that language was too divisive, or whatever excuse... And now that’s the only language I see! If the organisation’s top leadership is only white, then how is that anti-racist?  When there is only a homogenous group at the top of an organisation with all the decision-making power and access to resources?

What innovative ways have you seen artists and arts organisations adapt the way they work to cope with the pandemic in your country?

I feel energised by what we have been able to do - from participating in the Play At Home initiative to opening our lobby as a haven for Black Lives Matter protesters in Downtown DC. We just threw away our subscription model in favor of something we are calling ‘The Golden Ticket’, an all-access pass to Woolly experiences (digital and otherwise) whenever and however folks feel most comfortable. We announced our 41st season recently with no dates attached so that we could stay responsive to pandemic conditions on the ground in DC. We have never done that before. Most of my colleagues are turning into live streaming experts - Pasadena Playhouse is working on their own digital streaming app, for example. I love what Arena Stage started with their Artist’s Marketplace, which allows folks to commission or purchase a work of art safely, with no in-person contact. Anything that helps freelance artists earn an income right now is essential.

Have you learnt anything new about yourself and your country during this time?

I have learnt so much. It’s a little overwhelming. I will focus this answer, though, on the question of accountability. I participated in a seminar that the dream team of Eric Ting and Sarah Williams at California Shakespeare Theatre put together recently with fantastic restorative justice facilitator, Mia Mingus. In this seminar, Mia divided up accountability into four parts:  self-reflection, apologizing, repair, and behavior change. I found this workshop revelatory because it gave me guideposts for what to do when I mess something up. Because I will mess up! Part of messing up is knowing how to acknowledge it, how to move through it with authenticity, how to repair relationships that need repairing, and how to commit to the changes that will prevent the harm from happening again. So many of the systems and structures in place in my country do not place real value on the idea of self-reflection, let alone true accountability for harm done.

Could you recommend 3 artists in your country that we should check out?

Aleshea Harris, Whitney White, and The Movement Theatre Company - Especially their brilliant production of What To Send Up When It Goes Down - but really ANYTHING these artists make, together or independently.

Tina Satter & Half Straddle - I still think about Tina’s Is This A Room about a young whistleblower who is currently still serving time in prison for exposing our government.

Kareem Lucas - Kareem has a trilogy of pieces about being a Black Man in the US, and I am of course incredibly psyched for Black Is Beautiful But It Sure Ain’t Pretty to debut at Woolly Mammoth as soon as we are able to gather again. Especially because his actual real life mother is performing onstage with him!

What one piece of advice would you give other arts professionals in this difficult and uncertain time?

Please take care of your spirit. Whatever that means to you. The world needs your imagination, and your creativity will dream us into the future.

When everything returns to normal what will be the first cultural experience you will seek out?

I am not sure that I believe “normal” can exist anymore. There is no going back to what was before. In the new normal, I am sitting in the audience night after night of every single performance at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, thankful that we were able to weather the pandemic and come through stronger than ever.

Want to know more about Maria’s work? 

Worried about Covid-19 and your practice? We've pulled together the latest advice, funding, resources, and tips from across the sector for staying creative.