What do Adventure Theatre MTC’s Artistic Director Michael J. Bobbitt and the Cat in the Hat have in common? Both are geniuses at using creativity and imagination to turn boring days into exciting adventures for kids. And now, just as “Dr. Seuss’s the Cat in the Hat” starts its summer run at Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Bobbitt has announced his move to the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Massachusetts.
“I had been at Adventure Theatre for 12 years, accomplished everything that I wanted to accomplish, and was looking for a new challenge,” explained Bobbitt, who faces an empty nest as his son heads off to college in the fall. “As much as I love Adventure Theatre, it was time for a new person to come in and sprinkle their own fairy dust on it.”
Before he leaves on July 1 for his new job in New England, Bobbitt will get to see audiences enjoying the final production of his tenure, a puppet-infused version of Dr. Seuss’s classic tale he put together with Theatre J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr at the helm.
“The creativity in this production is over-the-top fantastic,” Bobbitt enthused. “Lots of puppetry, super interactive, with a cool theatricality that lets the audience see how things work and still be blown away by it.
“I think it’s gonna knock their socks off!”
And not all those socks will be kid-sized. Part of the secret to Adventure Theatre MTC’s success, according to Bobbitt, is that “we like to make theater for kids age 0 to 99.” Using increasingly popular interaction techniques to remove the barriers between stage and audience, this production jumps off from a book that is traditionally shared between grandparents, parents and children to take storytelling to the next level — without changing a word that Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) wrote in 1957. With a creative team led by longtime props and puppet designer Andrea “Dre” Moore — in “a tour de force” according to Bobbitt — Director Immerwahr’s vision of “big cat, little people” comes brilliantly to life onstage.
Also part of Immerwahr’s vision: use a familiar voice to represent the narrator, since “The Cat in the Hat” is so ubiquitous.
“Last time we used Guy Raz, who’s from NPR,” said Bobbitt, referring to Adventure Theatre’s 2013 production. “Then Adam mentioned Ari, who everyone loves, and I just emailed him, and he said ‘Yes!’ within five minutes!”
Ari, of course, is Ari Shapiro, the “All Things Considered” host and NPR journalist who sings with the band Pink Martini and seems game for anything fun. “I was delighted that they would think of me!” said Shapiro. “I thought it would be such a fun way to be part of this production — with the added benefit that I wouldn’t have to be there for every performance, every night!”
He laughed as he said this, but it’s true: Shapiro has a tight schedule, between his day job at NPR, summer stints with Pink Martini (in Aspen, at Red Rocks in Denver and on a West Coast mini-tour that includes three nights at the Hollywood Bowl) and a still-being-planned performance with Alan Cumming at the end of summer.
Recording his narrator role for Adventure Theatre allowed the singer-journalist to revisit the role children’s theater played in his own life. “As a kid, my family took me to see theater all the time,” said Shapiro. “And as soon as I was old enough, I started auditioning and doing local productions in Portland, Oregon. I still vividly remember going to theater camp, doing shows with the Ladybug Theatre, down by the Willamette River.”
And just as children’s theater shaped Shapiro’s childhood, it had a huge impact on the upbringing of “Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat’s” director. “I often say I grew up in the theater — like, literally,” said Adam Immerwahr. “My mother was a choreographer and director, so I grew up backstage. My father’s best friend was a theater director, and whenever he needed a kid in one of the shows, he would cast me, so I got a lot of experience, as the playwright Paula Vogel says, ‘inhaling the stage dust.’
“Early on, I got hooked.”
Primarily a director and a producer, Immerwahr took over as artistic director of Theatre J in 2015, but he likes to stay active as an artist in the greater D.C. theater community. “It’s kind of professional development,” he said. “Michael’s been artistic director at Adventure Theatre, he’s choreographed shows at Ford’s Theatre and directed shows at Olney. It’s not that uncommon.”
As an artistic director, he knows that artistic directors appreciate having another artistic director directing. “They know how the theater works, and how budgets work,” he said. “They have a bigger sense of it all. And as an artistic director, it’s great to do: You get to pick up best practices from other theaters, you get to meet other artists you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and of course, you grow as an artist, which is so critical.”
Immerwahr grew up in Swarthmore, just outside Philadelphia. He knew from the start that he wanted to direct; while attending Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, he decided to “look for a college where I could have as much student directing as possible and the best mentoring.” Brown University fit the bill; he graduated with dual concentrations in Renaissance and early modern studies, and theater, speech and dance, and took a path of apprenticeship into the director’s chair. After 10 years at the Carter Theatre in Princeton as associate artistic director, he came to Theatre J, which was struggling to find its footing and reinvent itself after the acrimonious and very public departure of its former artistic director.
“It was a fascinating challenge,” Immerwahr said. “A fascinating opportunity to see the theater grow and thrive — not just rebuild, but to grow even stronger and healthier than it ever has been.”
He met Bobbitt shortly after he arrived; they discussed potential artistic projects, and Immerwahr leapt at the opportunity to direct “Cat in the Hat.” “It’s a wonderful story, of course, and I could figure out how to do it, see my way into it,” he said. “That’s important for a director, to make sure you find a path as an artist.”
It’s a challenging project, Immerwahr noted, creating a full play out of “a book that takes three minutes to read.” But he was interested in scale — the way the cat towers over the children — and score, using the talents of sound designer Evan Cook to create a world of sound.
And early on, he became determined to find creative ways to showcase the cat’s balancing talents and the flying antics of Thing 1 and Thing 2. “I was interested in the question of, how could we do this in a puppet world? Every object could become a puppet.” There’s no “trick” to it, he insisted. “You can see exactly how they’re doing it, and it’s lovely to watch — charming and surprising.”
What is not surprising is that Michael Bobbitt’s final production at Adventure Theatre MTC reflects the outgoing artistic director’s vision. “It’s such a celebration of all the things Adventure Theatre is,” he said. “We are trying to give memorable, entertaining experiences so that the kids who come will want to be artists, will want to grow up and see theater for all their lives.
“I’m super-proud that the whole company of artists on this production is diverse, representing the community. It’s just a culmination of all the things I’ve been working on for the last 12 years.”
And, as any fan of Dr. Seuss knows, there’s a 1958 sequel to “The Cat in the Hat” called “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.” Could this be something else Bobbitt and the cat have in common?
“I hope that I will be back,” the artistic director said, noting that he’s still an associate artist at Ford’s Theatre and still connected to lots of theaters in D.C., including Olney Theatre Center. “It will be nice to be back!”
“Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat” runs through Aug.18 at Adventure Theatre MTC, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. Performances start at 7 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. An American Sign Language Interpreted and Sensory/Autism Friendly Performance is at 4:30 p.m. July 6. Tickets are $20. Call 301-634-2270 or visit www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.