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The artistic director talks about his current production and the upcoming “Gigi” with Vanessa Hudgens. By Emma Foehringer Merchant

Photograph by Christopher Mueller.

Eric Schaeffer is having quite the busy fall. Signature Theatre’s cofounder and artistic director is a week into the run of the musical Elmer Gantry, which he first directed in Chicago 16 years ago. He’s also prepping to direct a production of Gigi at the Kennedy Center in January, starring High School Musical and Spring Breakers actress Vanessa Hudgens. In between, he’s somehow finding time to celebrate Signature’s 25th anniversary. We caught up with him to find out how he’s juggling his multiple projects and all the packing, script changes, and weenie roasts they entail.

Elmer Gantry opened last week. How was the first show?

It went great. It was kind of a bit of a crazy day because we ended up putting a lot of changes into the show. I cut part of a song, we cut some scene stuff, we put in two additional reprises, we restaged a whole section of it, and we put all new lyrics in one song, as well. So the poor actors were all going into overdrive. They all had a change sheet by their dressing station, and they were like, “Oh, my god, what’s next, what’s next?” But they did great—they got it all in there.

So it went smoothly?

It did. I think the stage manager said it best: “On the surface it was smooth as a duck; underneath, everyone was paddling crazy.” That’s what makes it exciting, though—it’s never the same.

How is this production different from your 1998 production of Elmer Gantry in Chicago?

There are six new songs in the show, so that’s a huge thing. It’s a lot shorter. I like to say it’s the lean, mean version of Elmer, because we probably cut about 20 minutes out of the running length of the show from keeping more focus on Sister Sharon and Elmer. It’s really quite different from what it was. It’s the same story, but there are so many subtle differences throughout.

What’s it like to put this show on at your home theater?

It’s great, because I love the show so much. It’s like visiting an old friend. The show is so good, and I’ve always loved it; I’ve just never felt like it got a to-do. That was one of the big reasons I wanted to do it again and do it here in Washington. People who worked on the show, the actors, they didn’t know the show at all, so when they came in and started hearing and learning the music, they were all like, “Oh, my god, this show is really good!” That’s always invigorating as a director, because they’re getting what you got about the piece.

When do you begin rehearsals for Gigi?

We start rehearsals in December in New York, and we start performances at the Kennedy Center on January 16. I’m really excited about it; I didn’t know the show that well when I started working on it more than two years ago. Heidi Thomas is the book writer [for Gigi], and she also wrote Call the Midwife and is the executive producer and creator of that series. She’s so fantastic and understands this world like none other. Her book for the musical is so good, and it just makes the show feel so fresh and relevant today. It’s exciting because it’s the great [Alan Jay] Lerner and [Frederick] Loewe score with a whole new book and a whole new approach to the material. I think people are going to be really, really surprised. And Vanessa Hudgens is fantastic as Gigi. She’s really a special performer—she just has this great energy and is a terrific actress, and she sounds fantastic singing these songs. It’s great to have her leading the charge on it.

Does the dynamic change when you’re working with someone who’s famous for TV and movies as opposed to well-known theater actors?

I find that with Vanessa, or with huge stars like Carol Burnett and Bernadette Peters, everyone is doing it for the same reason. They’re doing it for the work, and they’re really professional about it. They really are in the trenches doing the work. I find it invigorating because they just want to be in the sandbox with everyone else—they just want to be one more player on the team—and that’s what’s fantastic. Vanessa is exactly like that. I think people don’t understand that; I think they underestimate the stars. Theater is difficult, and it’s demanding. Anyone who makes the commitment to do that is doing it because they love it and they really want to work hard.

Preparing for Gigi has you rehearsing in New York, traveling back to DC for Signature performances, then heading back to New York. Have you developed any strategies for working under the stress of traveling?

You just have to have a lot of extra laundry on the side ready to go. I’m fortunate, because for me it’s just like flipping switches: “Now it’s Gigi; okay, now I’ve got to work on Elmer.” The thing is, even though I’m in the throes of Elmer, not a day goes by that I’m not dealing with Gigi stuff. You end up juggling all of these different projects at once, so it’s really about staying organized and on top of it.

Signature also has its anniversary coming up. How are you planning to celebrate?

Oh, lord, we’ve already started! We had this big celebration in August, and we’re getting ready later this month [on October 20] to do this 25th-anniversary concert with highlights from all of the musicals we’ve done over the past 25 years. In the spring, we’re going to get all the designers and cast and crew and orchestras that have worked at Signature, and we’re going to have a big picnic, a weenie roast, to celebrate, as well.

Posted at 02:10 PM/ET, 10/14/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Shakespeare Theatre artistic director helms repertory productions of “Henry IV Parts I and II” this month. By Sophie Gilbert

Stacy Keach plays Falstaff in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

A quarter century ago, Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn led a production of Richard III starring Stacy Keach when the company was at Folger Shakespeare Library. Though Keach has returned to act in King Lear and Macbeth, he hasn’t worked with Kahn since 1991, making his turn as Falstaff in the company’s repertory productions of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2—March 25 through June 8—all the more notable. Kahn directs both, with a cast including Edward Gero as Henry IV and Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal. Here’s a chat with Kahn.

How is everything going?

It’s been an exciting process of discovery with what’s going on in the scenes and how emotional and funny it is. Stacy put on his fat suit today, and the character really came alive. The young actor playing Hal uses the language beautifully and really connects with the character’s adolescent and grown-up problems. It’s been a lot of work—normally when I do a play in repertory, I do just one, but because in this case it’s the same play really, I’m doing both. Most people know Part 1 and very few know Part 2, so I’m hoping they’ll see both because together they’re one extraordinary play about what happens to human beings—family, sickness, growing up—in the most profound way.

Was there anything in particular you wanted to explore?

It’s a wonderful opportunity to get deep into human problems and emotions with a play that also has this much comedy, drama, and music. The variety of people and experiences means you have a huge amount of color to explore.

Can you talk about your design decisions?

Because it’s about the world, I wanted a circular set. And because there are so many scenes in so many places, I wanted a surround that was neutral but with enough entrances and exits, and with an elevator that could bring furniture up and down. Hopefully, everything keeps it like the big movie that Shakespeare, in a way, wrote—very cinematic in how it goes from one scene to another without stopping.

I don’t know if you’ve seen House of Cards, but a lot of people have been talking about . . .

How Shakespearean it is? All stories about people who are larger than life and immensely charismatic schemers are Shakespearean. He started it. I’m not surprised that when you get an actor like Kevin Spacey—who’s done Richard III—it seems Shakespearean.

Have you watched the show?

Some of it. I love Kevin, and I’m a great admirer of Robin Wright’s. But by the time I get home at 10 o’clock at night, the only thing I feel like streaming is a glass of wine.

Tickets ($20 to $115) at

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 11:18 AM/ET, 03/25/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The outgoing president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has fostered community engagement, educational programs, and “a culture of listening” among musicians and audiences alike. By Kevin Nance

Deborah Rutter. Photograph by Todd Rosenberg.

When Deborah Rutter takes over as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts next summer, she’ll bring with her a sterling reputation. Over the past decade in the same position at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, widely viewed as one of the two best-run major orchestras in America (along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic), Rutter, 57, has impressed the Windy City as a straight-talking manager, consensus-builder, and tireless fundraiser with excellent people skills and a heartfelt populist streak.

While it’s unclear how those skills will translate at the Kennedy Center—with its bigger budget, its more varied array of programs and tenants, and the greater prominence of political and society types among its funders and constituents—the feeling in Chicago is that if anyone is up to the task, it’s Rutter.

“She’s absolutely straightforward in a buoyant, positive way—she’s not any kind of a game player,” says Andrew Patner, longtime classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago’s classical radio station, WFMT. “The day she was announced here, she told me, ‘My job is to listen, and once I get to know people and see what they need, I go from there.’ Of course, people in her position always say things like that, but in her case it was true. Ten years later, the main thing she leaves here is a culture of listening. There’s a connection between management, staff, trustees, and musicians at the CSO that’s very, very unusual at orchestras around the country, and that’s largely because of Deborah.”

Most of Rutter’s major accomplishments at the CSO are familiar in arts administration circles: record-breaking ticket sales and fundraising the past three years running; lowering the average age of CSO concert-goers by about 10 years in a time when most orchestras are fretting about graying audiences; and luring the Italian maestro Riccardo Muti to Chicago as music director to replace the departing Daniel Barenboim. The last was no mean feat; Muti was famously skittish about returning to another music-director post after the collapse of his relationship with La Scala in Milan. (Following health issues that forced him to cancel dozens of appearances during his first year on the job in Chicago, Muti has bounced back in the past two seasons and is enjoying a prolonged honeymoon with CSO players and audiences alike.)

Less well-known is Rutter’s impressive track record as an impresario. When the frosty Barenboim gave two years’ notice as music director in 2004, he relinquished involvement with all concerts other than his own; Rutter and her staff filled the gap seamlessly, handling the bulk of the artistic side of the CSO season to an unusual degree. At the same time, Rutter continued to function as the principal presenter or co-presenter of performances at Symphony Center and other venues in Chicago, including festivals and other collaborations with theater, dance, classical, jazz, and pop music ensembles around the city.

In an interview with Washingtonian, Rutter emphasizes that interdisciplinary diversity of her experience in Chicago as preparation for the dizzyingly varied mission of the Kennedy Center. She also shrugs off a question about the political nature of the Washington and the Kennedy Center’s funding structure. “It’s true that in Chicago, I haven’t had the opportunity to deal with government funding because we get so little of it,” she says with a laugh. “But a huge aspect of our work at the CSO involves regular interactions with the mayor’s office and the governor here. When I was in Seattle [at the Seattle Symphony prior to coming to Chicago], we had a long-term relationship with the city that led to our raising $30 million a year to build a brand-new concert hall. So the experience of working with government is not new to me.”

Perhaps the least heralded but arguably most significant aspect of Rutter’s career in Chicago is her commitment to community outreach, in particular partnerships with arts organizations, schools, prisons, and other entities. Well before the widely publicized community engagement efforts of Muti and the CSO’s creative consultant, Yo-Yo Ma, Rutter was beefing up the orchestra’s outreach efforts and forging relationships with arts-education groups around town.

“Deborah really upped their game in terms of community outreach, the result of which is that the CSO is a lot of places now that they never used to be,” says Nancy McCarty, executive director of Storycatchers Theatre, a group that works with young women and girls in Illinois prisons and detention centers to create original musical theater based on their personal stories. During Rutter’s tenure, the group now works with Muti, who gives regular lecture-demonstrations for the inmates; CSO players, who perform as part of the group’s orchestra in their annual musicals; and members of the CSO chorus, who serve as teaching artists and mentors.

“It’s not just showing up for a one-hour assembly in high school and you never see them again,” McCarty says. “They’re embedding themselves in community organizations to make it a deep, committed, worthwhile experience. Our kids get to know the musicians who work with them, and our young composers form valuable peer relations with the CSO people. And it wouldn’t be happening if Deborah weren’t making those resources available.”

Rutter seems likely to build on that legacy at the Kennedy Center, where community outreach is a top priority. “I think this will be a way for Deborah to go national with her ideas, including notions about community engagement,” Patner says. “There are people who find their niche and want to stay in it, and then there are people who want to go on to bigger challenges every ten years or so. Deborah is in the second group; she wants to spend the last decade of her career riding that beast. She’ll be missed here, but it’s certainly good for the Kennedy Center.”

Posted at 12:19 PM/ET, 12/16/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Georgetown grad and star of FX’s “The League” and Comedy Central’s “Kroll Show” talks to us ahead of this weekend’s Bentzen Ball. By Will Grunewald
See comedian Nick Kroll at Lincoln Theatre Saturday night. Photograph by Mandee Johnson.

Nick Kroll is excited to be back in DC for this year’s Bentzen Ball comedy festival. The Georgetown University graduate, star of FX’s The League and Comedy Central’s Kroll Show, thinks Washingtonians are a “smart, comedy-literate audience.” The multi-venue festival runs Thursday through Sunday, and the complete lineup, curated by Tig Notaro, includes other headliners such as Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show), Megan Mullally (Will & Grace/Parks and Recreation), Kate Flannery (The Office), and even Ira Glass (This American Life). Kroll takes the stage Saturday night; we talked with him about DC, his characters, and, of course, fantasy football.

You juggle a lot of different projects at once, including shooting two shows. What motivates you to set aside time for things like Bentzen Ball?

First and foremost, Tig Notaro asked me to do it, and she’s one of my oldest and best friends in comedy. She did it three or four years ago; I was unable to go because of work, and was really jealous because it sounded like a great festival with a lot of fun comedians. And second, I went to Georgetown so I still have a lot of friends who live in the DC area, and I love being able to come back. It’s like being able to go back and sleep with a girlfriend whom things ended amicably with.

When you come back to the area is there anything in particular you like to do?

It’s fun and sort of weird, but I enjoy walking around Georgetown back on campus and just walking down Prospect and Wisconsin. DC has really evolved and become a more lively and interesting place since I was there.

Is there anyone else performing at Bentzen Ball that audiences should be particularly excited about?

Each show has folks that I know, or know of, and love and admire. On my show, there are a lot of funny comedians. Moshe Kasher is a guy I think is super funny and who in the next year or two is really going to pop off in a big way. The Ira Glass show I’m sure is going to be amazing. Each show that I saw lineups for just looked like a show that I would love to watch. And that’s the ideal scenario: that you get to go to these festivals and be surrounded by shows that you’re like, “I want to go see that show—as a fan.”

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Posted at 10:30 AM/ET, 10/10/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The French-Canadian chef of “Chuck’s Eat the Street” talks about his 14th Street-centric episode, airing Thursday. By Tanya Pai

Photograph of Chuck Hughes courtesy of the Cooking Channel.

Chuck Hughes has a pretty sweet gig. As the star of the Cooking Channel show Chuck’s Eat the Street, the Montreal-based chef and restaurateur tasked with traveling around the US and Canada to explore the culinary scenes of various cities. For the current season of the show, its second, Hughes made his way to DC—for the first time—and ate his way down the 14th Street strip, on the way getting a lesson in tortilla española from Estadio’s Haidar Karoum and sampling the “world’s saltiest oysters” with Pearl Dive Oyster Bar’s Jeff Black.

We got in touch with Hughes on a rare day at home to talk about the rigors of shooting a cooking show, the Washington eateries he loved, and his advice for DC tourists.

Where am I catching you today?

I’m at home eating gluten-free Chex. The gluten-free thing I never even really noticed or talked about it, but I guess my girlfriend has another agenda, so we have gluten-free cereal. It’s in restaurants also. As a restaurant owner the gluten-free thing is . . . a bit of a pain in the ass, but you need to be aware of and work with it. A lot of people who are gluten-free are not educated on what gluten is and what is and isn’t gluten-free.

Your home is in Montreal, right?

Yes, I’m in Montreal, but I’ve been traveling quite a bit all summer for the show. It’s our second season, and there are 13 episodes, so I’ve traveled all over the country all summer. We wrapped a couple of weeks ago, and now I’m back home, but I don’t really stay put that long; even though the show’s over, I have a lot of traveling to do. It’s a little more settled-down; as much as I love traveling and discovering people and places, I have two restaurants [in Montreal], so I still have a lot of work to do here.

Where were you especially excited to visit during this season?

Washington, for one—I’d never been. I’m lucky I get to go a lot of places; Alaska was first season, but it was a place I really wanted to go. I went to Puerto Rico, Detroit—I really wanted to go and went there a month ago, and it was pretty amazing. Then in Washington, I had a couple of friends there, so I got to really discover the city. You see the statues and these beautiful buildings on TV, but being there is a totally different experience. I went to visit the memorials during the day and went back at night, and that’s what people in DC should do. The Lincoln Memorial at night is just insane, even more grandiose than usual. The actual physical buildings and the beauty of that city—it’s such a beautiful place. I hung out with guys from Rappahannock Oysters, and I was with Jeff Black—we featured Pearl Dive, which has a specific oyster called Black Salt that is supposed to be the saltiest, briniest oyster in the world. So we went in a boat, out in the water, and ate oysters—we pulled them right out of the water and ate them right there. As much as I love to do the show and I hope people enjoy it, ultimately on the selfish side I get to live these great experiences, and when cameras go off I’m still there, in the bay, eating fresh oysters. So on a personal note it’s just awesome, and gives me a really in-depth look at these cities. For the show hopefully it’ll translate so people can watch the show and be able to see a bit of every city through my eyes.

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Posted at 01:58 PM/ET, 09/11/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The 2011 Pulitzer finalist discusses her critically acclaimed play about couples questioning their lifestyles, opening this week at Woolly Mammoth. By Sophie Gilbert
Photograph of D’Amour by Zack Smith.

Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, a Pulitzer finalist in 2011, comes to Woolly Mammoth September 9 through October 6, following a hit off-Broadway run. The play features two couples in an unspecified US city: white-collar professionals Mary and Ben—who has been laid off—and the more footloose Sharon and Kenny. Ultimately, the four collide in ways that shake their foundations. Here’s a conversation with D’Amour.

How did the idea for Detroit come about?

I wrote it in the summer of 2009, and a couple things came together. I’ve always had an obsession with two kinds of people, in this case two kinds of couples, who are drawn together at a certain point in their lives—part fate, part intuition. And underlying it was the fact that I was writing it during the economic crisis when a lot of people I knew were unemployed, as well as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was raised in New Orleans, and I had many family members who had to redo their homes after the storm, so these ideas of destruction and rebirth were very much on my mind.

How did those ideas of reinvention and resilience feed into the play?

I think of Mary and Ben as people who’ve gone down a certain track without really questioning it—that middle-class path where you go to college, then get a steady job, then get married and have kids. It’s not necessarily a bad track to go down, but it’s almost like a pre-written script. They’re in denial about the fact that the life they’ve chosen isn’t a good fit, but they haven’t had time to imagine something different, so they’re escaping through different ways, whether it’s via the internet or via alcohol. They’re at a point where things could still be reinvented but someone needs to shake them into it, and this odd, not entirely functional relationship with Sharon and Kenny gives them the opportunity to rethink things.

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Posted at 10:15 AM/ET, 09/04/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Ahead of her concert at Wolf Trap, she talks about avoiding band fatigue, being featured on a movie soundtrack, and more. By Tanya Pai
Photograph courtesy of Wolf Trap.

A Grace Potter and the Nocturnals concert is memorable thanks equally to their rootsy rock tunes and the seemingly indefatigable energy of Potter, its charismatic frontwoman. We talked with Potter, whose band comes to Wolf Trap August 15.

How did the Nocturnals end up with a song on the Lone Ranger soundtrack? 

Disney called me, and I love [director] Gore Verbinski’s work—and of course my boy, Johnny Depp. That experience has happened before, trying to create for a movie soundtrack—for Tangled, we had an original song. The Lone Ranger was different because they wanted that old, dusty railroad sound and we’re relatively electrified. I wrote six songs for the movie, but the one that wound up on there was a Roy Acuff song called “Devil’s Train.”

It seems like you’re basically touring all summer. 

It’s not nonstop, but it’s pretty close. Once we’re on the road, we have to harness that momentum, especially in the summer. People have been saving money all year for favorite bands, and the excitement grows—it’s hard to let them down and not do a summer tour. This one is particularly extensive. We’re opening for the Allman Brothers and Robert Plant [in other cities].

How do you keep from burning out? 

Usually I sleep till 11:30 or noon—that whole “nocturnals” thing is not a myth. I take my time to wake up and go slow. I save my energy up for evening, and then all bets are off—I just go for it.

What are you most excited about with this tour? 

It’s a relief to finally headline [on some dates]. As exciting as it is to open for people—we know how to compress what we’re capable of into 35 minutes—the thing that defines us is that every show is different. Something that’s lacking in so much live music now is they treat their show like a roller-coaster ride, where you turn the “on” button on and do the same moves over and over again. As exciting as it is to see once, if you see it six times you realize you’re getting the same show over and over. Live music is a conversation between fans and the band, and our job is to continue that conversation.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. August 15 at Wolf Trap. Tickets ($30 to $40) available at

Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 08/14/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Ahead of her Friday improv show at Arlington Drafthouse, the comedian talks creating characters, cheesy jokes, and how SNL is like summer camp. By Tanya Pai
Photograph of Strong courtesy of LEG Management.

During its nearly four decades on the air, Saturday Night Live has brought us some indelible characters. Stefon. Mary Katherine Gallagher. Matt Foley. Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party.

Okay, the last might not yet have achieved icon status, but the ditz-with-a-faux-conscience character—a creation of new cast member and Oak Park, Illinois native Cecily Strong—made quite a splash with audiences. (Rolling Stone called it “flat-out brilliant.”) Strong, like current comedy queens Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, came up through Chicago’s Second City improv troupe before landing at SNL last year, and is at the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse this Friday and Saturday to perform a new comedy show she wrote with fellow Second City alum Sam Richardson.

We chatted with Strong by phone about the new show, our collective problem with navel-gazing, and wanting to be Amy Poehler.

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Posted at 10:09 AM/ET, 07/12/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Chicago-based director and playwright discusses her Tony-winning work, currently playing at Arena Stage. By Sophie Gilbert

Louise Lamson in <em>Metamorphoses</em> at Arena Stage. Photograph by Liz Lauren.

Metamorphoses—director/playwright Mary Zimmerman’s interpretation of Ovid’s myths—comes to Arena Stage February 8 through March 17, ten years after the show’s Broadway run earned her a Tony Award for directing. Zimmerman is a member of Lookingglass Theatre Company and a resident director at Goodman Theatre, both in Chicago, as well as a professor at Northwestern University. In Washington she’s directed productions of Candide, The Arabian Nights, and Argonautika. Zimmerman is currently at work on an adaptation of The Jungle Book, incorporating the Disney cartoon’s songs with elements from the original book by Rudyard Kipling. We talked to her by phone about reviving Metamorphoses, staging it in New York immediately after 9/11, and why she loves Washington.

What was the impetus for reviving Metamorphoses ?

It’s Lookingglass’s 25th anniversary and we’re this small, scrappy company—or now I suppose we’re midsize. But we wanted to celebrate by bringing back a signature piece here in Chicago. There were a few theaters that wanted to take it, but the only one I was interested in was Arena, because it’s something different for me—doing the show in the round is a new challenge.

What first interested you in Ovid’s tales?

At Northwestern, where I teach, I wanted to do a show about myths using water. It wasn’t until later that I realized all these myths were actually Ovid. All my life I’d had a tremendous interest in the stories. My mother had a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology on her bookshelf with these pen-and-ink drawings that are seared into my heart. After I finished with fairy tales in childhood I moved onto those. I think I sensed the psychological and the adult content.

Where did the idea for the water come from?

The myths have everything to do with water, and water has everything to do with change—in virtually every culture it’s a symbol of change. In Shakespeare everything goes through a sea change, and water is symbolic in terms of crossing a rubicon, and of transformation. In a lot of cultures it’s where you go to meet the gods, because they come out of water. It’s a very mutable and mutating element, and it can metamorphose, and be a solid or a liquid, so it works physically and emblematically.

Metamorphoses played in New York right after 9/11 and seemed to resonate with people there. What do you think it can say to contemporary Washington?

These stories have earned their keep because they’re consistently relevant. They’re not a conspiracy by English teachers to keep us interested in the classics; they’re around because they address the ongoing problems of being a person and going through life—that is to say, unwanted, unlooked for change. Metamorphosis is a wrenching thing that happens in our lives but that produces something new in each case. The archetypal nature of the myths seems to lend itself to whatever’s in the air.

That said, our first preview off-Broadway in New York was September 16, 2001. That night was one of only two times in my life where I experienced catharsis. You could feel the audience go through the pity and the terror in the show and then somehow be released from those feelings. About 15 minutes into the show a man says goodbye to his wife because he’s going to make a sea voyage. It’s a very beautiful day, and out of the blue this horrible storm comes and he’s killed. As he’s drowning he prays to the gods, “At least let her find my body.” The immediacy of that in Manhattan on that day was overwhelming, and as we approached those lines I pressed back in my chair, thinking, “I can’t believe we’re going to do this now.” But the ancient tales tell us it was ever thus, and life has survived and presses on in new and unrecognizable forms, but it persists.

You come to Washington a lot. What do you like about working here?

I love Washington. I love walking down the street and seeing Supreme Court justices at the deli. I love that Supreme Court justices come to my shows, even if they’re not always the ones I would like to come, necessarily. I love that it’s small and monumental at the same time. And a very good friend, Natsu Onoda, who’s making a name for herself on the Washington drama scene, lives there.

The Chicago Tribune called this show your masterwork. Would you agree with that?

It’s the one I most identify with, but of course I’m always most in love with the thing I just did and the thing I’m currently doing, and I hope to always be challenging myself with the thing I’m doing next. I actually think Metamorphoses is quite quirky. It flips between a fancy translation and a more colloquial form of speaking. Often successes are full of odd flaws—a lot of operas are dramaturgically terrible. People respond to the spirit of a thing, I’ve learned.

Metamorphoses is at Arena Stage February 8 through March 17. Tickets ($40 and up) are available via Arena’s website.

This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Posted at 11:10 AM/ET, 02/07/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
We chat with the filmmaker before his performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this month. By Sophie Gilbert
Photograph of John Waters by Cory Donovan

Through his 40-year career, John Waters has stayed loyal to Baltimore. The 66-year-old filmmaker, writer, and artist joins the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this month for a semi-staged concert production of the musical Hairspray, based on his 1988 movie. Incorporating new narration from Waters, the show features former Monkee Mickey Dolenz as Wilbur Turnblad. Waters is also currently at work on a book, Carsick, about nine days spent hitchhiking across America. We caught up with him via phone to discuss why Baltimore still isn’t as integrated as it should be, his favorite professional achievements, and why he’d most like to collaborate with Justin Bieber.

Where did the idea for Hairspray come from?

It came from an article I wrote for Baltimore Magazine called “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Nicest Kids in Town,” about the reunion of The Buddy Deane Show, a TV show that had a huge following in Baltimore. Of course, as a teenager I watched it and exaggerated all the committee and turned them into characters in my own mind.

Mickey Dolenz is performing with you. Were you a Monkees fan?

Kind of. By then I was on LSD, so I had a different feeling. I like them more now.

How do you think the world has changed since 1988 when the original Hairspray movie came out?

I still think Baltimore is not as integrated as it should be. If teenagers still slow-danced, which they don’t, would there be a television show in Washington or Baltimore that showed 14-year-old black and white kids dancing together? I think there wouldn’t.

What did you think of the 2007 film?

I thought it was good—it worked because they reinvented it. What doesn’t work on Broadway shows when they make them into movies is when they do the exact same thing. I wrote a sequel called White Lipstick that I was paid Hollywood money for that never happened, and I wrote a pilot for a TV show that never happened, so I’m waiting for Hairspray on Ice as the final thing.

What out of all your professional achievements would you like to be remembered for?

Well, what I am most of all is a writer. I’ve written all my movies and five books—I’m writing a book right now. I have my 16-city Christmas tour, and the show I do called This Filthy World. I write something weird every morning and then every afternoon I sell it.

You’re inherently faithful to Baltimore. What do you love most about the city?

I think people here have the best sense of humor and they’re never pretentious. Some of the restaurants are starting to get that way and I avoid them because it doesn’t work here to be that fancy. I also love the fact that a neighborhood one street away can be alarming or beautiful—it switches so quickly. You can never be sure in Baltimore. I think that should be our bumper sticker.

What is an average day like for you?

Monday to Friday I get up at exactly six o’clock. I read six papers every day: the Baltimore Sun, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Post, the Washington Post, USA Today. Is that six? Then at exactly eight o’clock, not 7:59, not 8:01, I write. Then in the afternoon I run my business.

What were your hitchhiking adventures like?

I’m not going to tell you much because that’s the book. It was 21 rides in nine days. People thought I was homeless. But I would say that it’s generally a very optimistic book. Every person who picked me up was weirdly happy. So that’s why I think people should hitchhike again. It’s a new way to be green.

Is there any performer who you’d love to work with?

Oh, Justin Bieber. I love it especially when he’s black.

Hairspray in Concert featuring John Waters is at Strathmore January 24 and at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall January 25 through 27. Tickets ($28 to $63) are available via the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s website.

This article appears in the January 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

Posted at 03:50 PM/ET, 01/23/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()