Jim Gaffigan doesn’t need to go far to find material: He and his wife share a two-bedroom apartment in New York City with their five children—a situation that inspired his new TV Land sitcom, The Jim Gaffigan Show. Here’s a conversation with the comedian (and Georgetown grad), who brings his act to Wolf Trap this month.
Ari Roth may have more to say, in private, about the unpleasantness that accompanied his firing late last year from Theater J, the company based at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center on 16th Street where Roth, 54, spent nearly two decades as artistic director. Under Roth, the group was known for drama that was politically charged, intellectually curious, and above all controversial—too controversial, in the end, for the JCC: Roth’s insistence on presenting plays critical of Israel provoked years-long, increasingly nasty, and ultimately terminal quarreling.
His loudest retort has been a nearly instantaneous rebound. In December, he founded a new company, Mosaic, housed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Northeast DC’s H Street. Its board of directors includes five members he shares with Theater J, and the producing director is longtime Studio Theatre stalwart Serge Seiden.
Roth sat down for a conversation about what his rebirth says about the state of theater in Washington.
After a year with no full-time director, AFI Docs hired Michael Lumpkin, who arrives at a key time: The festival recently shifted most screenings from Silver Spring to DC, with more documentaries chosen for their potential impact on policymakers. But it’s not just about targeting wonks. “You have to know your audience,” he says.
Hip-replacement surgery wasn’t enough to slow down legendary rocker Nils Lofgren. “I still jump around, tap-dance—all of that was approved by my surgeon,” he says. In his 46-year career, the musician, who grew up in Montgomery County, has played with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Rod Stewart, and Ringo Starr, among others. We spoke to him about his memories of living—and rocking out—in Washington.
Podcasts may be experiencing a renaissance of late thanks to a certain wildly popular true-crime narrative, but for Washingtonian Brandon Wetherbee, their appeal is nothing new. Since 2009 he’s been hosting his live talk show, You, Me, Them, Everybody, in several cities including DC, Chicago, and New York, and has been celebrating its fifth birthday with a special anniversary tour.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, think the traditional late-night talk show format—comedy, sketches, music—with a less-primetime-friendly twist. “It’s one of the few things I started doing in my twenties that I don’t have to feel ashamed of continuing in my thirties,” says Wetherbee, who is the managing editor of Brightest Young Things. “Plus, as a married man you don’t have a lot of opportunity to meet random people—I like the show because it gives me the chance to meet complete strangers.”
He kicked off the anniversary tour November 22 in Baltimore, then headed to the Windy City for a final appearance at its longtime venue the Hungry Brain, which is closing, and stopped by the Library of Congress for a private event. Before Wednesday evening’s show at Wonderland Ballroom Wetherbee shared a few more things he’s discovered in his five years with YMTE.
On the importance of vetting guests: “I had one guy that I didn’t do a good job researching him as I should have—he wrote a book about horror movies, and it turned out he worked for a website that is blatantly sexist. On the same show I had a competitive eater, a guy who won the Nathan’s hot-dog-eating challenge. Turns out when competitive eaters aren’t eating, they just drink; he got so drunk that I ended up cutting down a 12-minute interview to 90 seconds.”
On the Washington scene: “I came from Chicago four years ago, and the scene there is four to five times bigger—always has been, always will be. There are only so many people who can afford to live here and do anything artistic, and no one comes here to be funny. On the plus side, it’s definitely easier to get a foothold, it’s a solid, supportive scene, and for a city this small, there are a lot of great venues for comedy.”
On how audience expectations change from city to city: “DC audiences are not rambunctious—they’re very polite. You can’t really pander to a DC crowd, because there’s not a lot of hometown pride—unlike New York, where there are lifers. I had Wyatt Cenac on one of my shows in New York, but you can see Wyatt perform every night for free, so no one cares.”
On the anniversary tour so far: “The first three shows were absolutely fantastic; the final Chicago show at the Hungry Brain nearly had me in tears many times. The Library of Congress show was incredibly weird but surprisingly fun—interviewing experts about the Civil Rights movement, the role the Library plays in preserving baseball and football lore, the National Jukebox Registry and Folklife exposed the audience to areas I tend to just mention in passing.
“The Baltimore show was in a packed house. DDM gave the performance of the night—and thus far in the run, it’s hard to top Baltimore hip-hop—and the owners were so happy they ordered pizza for everyone. In my five years of doing this, no one has ever turned an after-party into a pizza party.”
On what to expect from Wednesday’s show: “My DC show will be great because it’s gonna go super-long and will be really music-heavy, with performances by Furniteur and the house band, Typefighter. The ultimate goal is to be like Mr. Rogers, although I have no desire to work with children. At the end of the day, I just think everyone’s cool and I wanna hang out with them—it makes your world and their world smaller.”
See You, Me, Them, Everybody at Wonderland Ballroom Wednesday, December 3, at 7:30 PM. Check the show’s Facebook page for more information.
If Katherine Heigl can convince us she’s a CIA analyst on NBC’s new political drama, State of Affairs, that’s going to be largely due to Rodney Faraon. The Arlington resident’s 14-year Agency career began the summer before his 1992 graduation from Georgetown; he wrote his first presidential daily briefing as a college senior. An executive producer and a model for the series—which premieres Monday, November 17, at 10—Faraon advises the show’s writers and director on Langley lore.
How true to life is the show?
All the plots are things that could happen in the real world. What we’re doing may seem ripped from the headlines by the time we air, but actually we had the [similar] story for the pilot done long before ISIS was even on the map. The caveat is: Look, we’re not doing a documentary. But there’s a core of authenticity, with the chemistry of the team and the dilemmas that briefers and analysts face.
What do the writers want to know?
At the beginning, I shared stories, atmospherics—all unclassified, because I have a security-clearance obligation. Now they come back and ask me, “Is this plausible? What jargon would they use?”
What did they think analysts do?
Like a lot of people, they had the impression that CIA officers infiltrate terrorist cells like the FBI or that the DEA infiltrates crime gangs. That’s simply not the way we do things. I’ve had to teach about minutiae but also about the big picture.
Why show business?
My first private-sector job was at Walt Disney after 9/11—they advertised for a director of threat-and-vulnerability assessment. On the studio lot, you couldn’t help but absorb the energy. [Alias and Lost creator] J.J. Abrams had his office right above mine, so I got to know some of the writers and producers, and I became intrigued with the entire art of it.
What CIA skills translate to Hollywood?
Washington and LA are very similar. You need to be aware of who you are and have great allies.
How do you explain the popularity of national-security shows?
Since 9/11, I think people want to understand these issues, and storytelling is a great way to learn about the process and really absorb it. It can be dangerous if you’re telling the wrong stories, or inaccurate stories, but they’ve made people more politically aware.
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.
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 shakespearetheatre.org.
This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
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.”
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.”