Michael J. Bobbitt: ‘We can go further by being genuine and building relationships that matter’

The former Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre talks about what he learned on his way to becoming the highest-ranking arts and culture official in Massachusetts.

Michael J. Bobbitt finds a way to live his best life no matter which life he’s living at the moment. In the early days as a sought-after dancer, choreographer, and director in the DC area, he worked with up-and-coming performers who later filled his productions when he became artistic director at Adventure Theatre.

Over his 12 years there, Bobbitt transformed the theater from a volunteer-run local children’s stage to national prominence as a world-class theater experience. The numbers speak for themselves: attendance jumped from 15,000 annual attendees to as many as 100,000; the budget skyrocketed from $400,000 to over $3 million. Tony Award–winning artists and designers were finding their way to the theater to work with him. And the hits kept coming. Obviously, something was going on. I caught up with Michael when he popped into town to see his latest and final work at Adventure — a co-adaptation with Sandra B. Eskin and Composer/Lyricist Bill Yanesh of the beloved Make Way for Ducklings, based on the book by Robert M. McCloskey — and asked him how he got there and how’d he do it.

Michael Bobbitt: Well, early in my career, I was getting lots of work freelancing as a performer, director, choreographer working evenings and weekends — a great life. But when I became a new dad, I was missing too much of my young son’s life, including precious bedtime rituals to the point that I didn’t want to be an actor anymore. I took courses and seminars to learn about theater management and shifted to a “normal” routine day while staying in the arts, which I love.

Michael J. Bobbitt, former artistic director of Adventure Theatre and now executive director of Mass Cultural Council, Massachusetts. Craig Bailey | Perspective Photo.

You pivoted to theater administration at Adventure Theatre?

That’s right. When they found out about my interests, they approached me to join their board, liked my ideas, and offered me the artistic director position. My son grew up on programs and the arts at Adventure.

And in a way, Adventure Theatre grew with you!

[Laughing] That’s a funny way of looking at it but that’s kind of what happened. They were just starting new growth including a capital campaign to professionalize the theater. Once I got the position in 2007, one of the first things I promoted at Adventure was diversity in all aspects of production — performers, designers, everything. Antiracism, equity, inclusion — these issues are all about love, for groups who have been underloved by this country. I indicated that anyone not aligned with these principles of inclusion needed to find a new environment because we’re operating out of this framework now.

The difference was immediate and electric. I remember the early days before MB and after. The awards and acclaim speak for themselves.

Thanks for acknowledging that — it was truly a group/team effort. I think Adventure Theatre has contributed to the artistic culture of the theater scene in the entire metro region. I’m really proud of our accomplishments. We took two Broadway shows and turned them into Theater for Young Adults — Big and Big River — that was a big deal. For the living Tony-winning writers to give us permission and allow us to adapt their material took a lot of faith and trust — that was huge! We wanted to make sure we were entertaining the adults as much as the kids. Keep everybody engaged and having fun.

I truly enjoyed the fun factor for the whole family when you came on board — who needed to hunt down any youngsters to join me for a show that was laugh-out-loud funny for all?

That’s exactly what I wanted. I orchestrated a major structural change to include the ATMTC Academy, which expanded our revenue sources, with a region-wide impact and educational base. Also, my DC theater family came through big time. Thanks to the connections I made back when I was directing and choreographing, well-known local artist designers and performers came out to support my efforts — Nova Payton and Deidra LaWan Starnes were among the many who elevated the professional caliber of the shows, a huge benefit to all involved. Even Holly Twyford took a turn as a dancing pig and was featured on the cover of American Theater.

Who would have believed? You can’t make this stuff up! Your ability to pivot and embrace change has been enormously tested these last years not only producing through a pandemic but making a life move to Boston. Last February you were selected to serve as executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, making you the highest-ranking government official in arts and culture for the state of Massachusetts. I’m trying to let that sink in. How were you able to take this on?

Yet again, I learned from previous experiences — preparing budgets, increasing revenue, testifying at state hearings, running New Repertory Theater in Massachusetts — everything prepared me to serve in this highly regarded state agency making funding choices, shaping policy, and advancing cultural projects statewide. It’s been deeply satisfying being where I can make a difference.

Sounds like a perfect fit for you.

It really is. As much as I loved choreographing and directing, I discovered I enjoyed being outside the performance space, making those spaces happen for artists, just as much or maybe even more so than being in the room working on the art.

Same thing with the pandemic — adapt, embrace change, and keep moving. That seems to be your mantra.

[Laughing] Maybe so. Pivoting and embracing change are traits I had 12 years of practice with. Change is ever constant. I’ve learned you have to embrace and use your own talent as creators, take those opportunities to imagine the world differently. That’s what’s going to allow this form of expression to be able to grow and even evolve, and take on new life. It’s also important to treat one’s constituents as people, not transactions — we can go further by being genuine and building relationships that matter.

How does this apply to your work in the theater?

The theater art form has been around for millennia in expressing the human spirit. Theater is kind of at a crossroads to recreate itself. The only thing that has changed in recent history has been the technological advances, which admittedly are significant. Still, we’re at a place and time where we need to embrace the digital world — there are awesome possibilities that can exist with the interconnection of live and digital theater. Yes, lots are struggling, but some are actually thriving out there. There’s no going back, we need to keep going forward.

Graciela Rey, Ben Ribler, Joshua Street, Alice Squeglia, Taylor Witt, and Rebecca Ballinger in ‘Make Way for Ducklings.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Your current venture of co-adapting a classic work, Make Way for Ducklings, stemmed from a successful partnership you had with Sandra B. Eskin and Bill Yanesh for a previous work project. What was so special about the piece that got your attention?

Yes, Sandy, Bill, and I acquired permission from the Robert McCloskey estate and adapted Blueberries for Sal, and with that success, we continued on to Ducklings. The time harkens back to the 1950s golden age of musical theater. It’s a good fit for today when the country is so divided and under vicious attack. The show highlights that even though sometimes it’s hard to get along, it’s better to get along. We had big fun showing how the power of family sticking together and appreciating each others’ differences is sorely needed now. My message is we shouldn’t just tolerate our differences but we need to accept and embrace them. It all comes down to love.

We are stronger together.

Yes, we are stronger together. We can solve all of our problems and get through any challenge if we could just love each other. What keeps me going is the reminder from my Bob Marley musical that Adventure did, Three Little Birds: “Don’t worry about a ting, cuz every little ting’s gonna be all right.” And it is, it truly is.

Make Way for Ducklings — based on the book by Robert McCloskey, adapted by Sandra B. Eskin and Michael J. Bobbitt — plays Saturdays and Sundays, morning and matinee, through March 27, 2022, at Adventure Theatre & ATMTC Academy – 7300 MacArthur Blvd, Glen Echo, MD. For tickets ($25), call 301-634-2270 or purchase them online.

Running Time: 65 minutes, without an intermission.

COVID Safety: Adventure Theatre requires everyone over the age of two years old attending its shows to wear a mask and remain masked while in its facility. Proof of vaccination will be required for admission for all individuals ages 12 and up.

Catchy and fun ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ premieres at Adventure Theatre
(review by Julia Amis)


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