Metro Weekly

Adventure-MTC’s Michael Bobbitt: Hosting the Helen Hayes Awards is a “huge honor”

This year's co-host of the Helen Hayes Awards is committed to diversifying theater for both children and adults alike

Michael Bobbitt — Photo: Todd Franson

“It’s always the highlight of my year when I get to dwell in the Michael Bobbitt Experience,” says Peter Flynn. “I’m healthier, I’m smarter, I’m better at my job when I’m working with him.

“He starts outside of the box, and the box either becomes prettier or a sports car,” says the director. “It’s either the best version of what we were going for, or something completely unrecognizable that is even better.” Flynn cites their collaboration on Ragtime at Ford’s Theatre, nominated for seven awards at this year’s Helen Hayes ceremony. “Ragtime was really Michael’s canvas of innovation.”

Flynn is currently planning his fourth collaboration with Bobbitt: Into The Woods, set for next spring at Ford’s. “Michael walks in tall, powerful, very gentle, and not just with a smile on his face, just this constant aura of goodwill and kindness,” he says. “And then he’s this font of imagination, and joy-filled innovation, really smart collaboration, and a good day…. I hope that we continue to be collaborators for a very long time.”

Bobbitt, the artistic director of Adventure Theatre-MTC, is gearing up to expand his imprint next season by directing and choreographing shows at several theaters around town. Currently, however, his focus is on co-hosting the 2018 Helen Hayes Awards on Monday, May 14. Washington’s answer to the Tonys celebrates a thriving theater scene that, by some measures, is second only to Broadway, and this year will be held at The Anthem, the new entertainment anchor of the Southwest Waterfront.

“I’m so excited about it,” Bobbitt says. “To be asked to co-host is a huge, huge honor that I don’t take lightly.” He’ll share the spotlight with actress Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, who is “extremely honored to be representing my theater community alongside Michael.”

“He’s a beautiful human being,” she says. “He’s constantly striving to be a bigger and better person — for himself, for his family, and for his community. “The more I get to know him, the more and more I admire him.”

“Alyssa and I are gonna have a lot of fun,” Bobbitt says, as he settles in for an interview focused on his life, work, and health and wellness at the age of 45 — all from front-row seats in Adventure’s main theater space in Glen Echo Park. “I’m going to try my best to make people laugh. There’s nothing happier and healthier than laughing…. Even during the heavy part of my transition and life change, laughing helped.”

Michael Bobbitt — Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: Tell me about your upbringing. You’re from the area, right?

MICHAEL J. BOBBITT: I’m D.C.-born and raised. I grew up in lower Northwest D.C., near Howard University. Went to D.C. public schools until 8th grade, and then transferred to Gonzaga College Preparatory High School.

MW: Was coming out a struggle?

BOBBITT: I don’t know how much of a struggle it was. In high school, at Gonzaga, I had a black, gay counselor –

MW: Wait. Seriously?

BOBBITT: I know, at a Jesuit high school. I was going through a whole bunch of stuff with my family. I was pulled out of the culture that I knew and put into this new culture where I was one of the few black people. I didn’t identify with the black kids at my school. I’m in this new environment, with all these people that have different family situations and different cultures, and I was intrigued by that. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be part of my family, because we didn’t have money and we didn’t do things the way my white friends did it. So I was just confused and really struggling, and some of that brought on some depression, and some need for attention. Really weird things manifested in high school. And when I went to this counselor to talk about these things, he actually asked, “Do you think you’re gay?” I said, “No! No way! Never!” I don’t think I really knew what it meant.

MW: It’s kind of amazing that he was bold enough to broach the topic with a high schooler like that.

BOBBITT: Yeah, he could have gotten in a lot of trouble. As a kid, I was teased and called “sissy” all the time. And then in college, I was in theater and with dancers and the arts, so I knew lots of people that were also called “sissy” and “gay.” But when I came back to D.C., that’s when I realized that it was true. I found myself being drawn to Dupont Circle. I joined a men’s choir that wasn’t even a gay choir, but it rehearsed in Dupont Circle, the Washington Men’s Camerata. I remember walking past and seeing the bars, and grabbing the print publications, taking them home, being intrigued by them. This would have been in ’92, at 19. And then I remember my first encounter — when I had my first kiss with a guy. It was like an electric bolt, it was so visceral. “Oh! Oh! Yeah, that makes sense.”\

MW: How’s your family with it?

BOBBITT: They’re fine. I think initially, it was — this is circumspect — “Michael is doing his thing, he’s doing something different. We’re all into sports and he’s into the arts, so of course.” But I think it made sense for all of them. There was no big drama around it. My grandma had a bit of a hard time — she suggested that I just become a hermit — but then she was fine.

They had a close relationship with my ex, and even before I was with him, I brought a couple of guys that I was dating around, and there was no weirdness. They all adore my new partner, Steve, so it’s totally a non-issue.

MW: Speaking of family, tell me about your son, Sang.

BOBBITT: He was adopted from Vietnam when he was eight months old. In a month, he’ll be 17. Having so many teens in my life at [the Adventure-MTC] academy, and at the theater, I can say I have an easy, easy, easy kid. He’s always been very jovial and happy and fun, and we have a nice, intimate, fun relationship. We like to make fun of each other. But in the last couple of years, he has gotten even happier. And I see him growing into this really awesome, mature, kind, caring, thoughtful kid. Outside of his room getting a little messy, there are no problems. And with things like learning how to drive, and managing his schedule, and now we’re into college planning — to see him take the lead on that stuff and get excited about it, it makes me super proud.

MW: Is he interested in following you into theater?

BOBBITT: Sang does not aspire to be a theater artist. I was gonna say he hates theater, because that probably is somewhat of the truth. He grew up around it all the time.

Michael Bobbitt — Photo: Todd Franson

 

MW: Have you visited Vietnam since adopting him?

BOBBITT: When he graduates from high school next year, part of the celebration will be to go to Vietnam for a few weeks and then hopefully see if we can find some of his birth family. He hasn’t been to Vietnam yet, but he went to Japan for a month two summers ago. That’s his second obsession after marine biology, Japanese.

My partner Steve studied Japanese in college, and lived in Asia for many years, so they’ve bonded over Japan. In fact, the first day they met, Steve brought Sang bags and bags of Japanese food. They have a great relationship. And they make fun of me in Japanese. They point at me and laugh.

MW: How long have you been with Steve?

BOBBITT: About 19 months. We have an apartment in Bethesda.

MW: Before you met, you initiated a process that transformed you in more ways than just the physical, but that’s perhaps the most telltale sign. What inspired your weight loss?

BOBBITT: I was getting to a place where it was time to get healthy. One, my [previous] relationship was coming to an end. So it was time to really think about health and happiness, and what I wanted out of the rest of my life. I don’t know where the constitution to stick to it came from. I just knew that I wanted to be happy. And the good thing is that I was able to focus on not only the physical, but the spiritual, and the mental, and the emotional. I had to figure out why I was so unhappy, and what made me stay in a relationship for so long that was not happy.

It was a combination of seeing my doctor, and getting a list of all the things that were wrong, and taking care of those one at a time, going to a nutritionist and finding out more about food, and going to a therapist, and getting involved with Buddhism and yoga and mindfulness. And then really, really aggressively pursuing a lot of self-care.

Slowly but surely, the feelings of happiness kept growing and growing and growing and growing, and confidence came back.

MW: What kind of timespan are we talking about?

BOBBITT: Well, I lost 90 pounds in about six months. I did an extreme weight loss program called the HCG diet. It was medically monitored through the Nava Wellness Center. I worked with a nutritionist. Only about a third of the weight loss came from that. I also learned that I was allergic to gluten and dairy, so a lot of the weight came off from that.

From my research, no human should consume gluten. We’ve only been farming for about, what, 12,000 years? Before that, it was all hunter-gatherer stuff. The processing of grains is not something that the human body really should do and could do. But I got tested and learned that I was highly allergic to it.

MW: What do you mean by highly allergic?

BOBBITT: My body gets inflamed. Much of the weight was inflammation. I remember the doctor said, “We think you’re pre-arthritic.” I had tons of joint pain, I thought it was from all the years of dancing. And I couldn’t believe that after I got it out of my system, it all went away. I have no joint pain. The only soreness my body has is after I have a really intense workout. I have no physical pain.

MW: So now you can do moves that you weren’t able to do previously?

BOBBITT: Well, I’m still older. But yeah, I don’t have the physical ailments that I used to have. But I had severely low Vitamin D, I had high fat in my liver, I had an arrhythmia.

I went to my primary [doctor], I got a full, exhaustive physical, and then he sent me to a whole bunch of specialists that deal with all the pains. It was a lot of work, but the other thing that I did was really start focusing. When I learned I was allergic to gluten and dairy, I thought, “Shit, what can I eat?” And started really exploring and learning a lot about food.

MW: Were you eating poorly before, or is it that you just didn’t know you were allergic?

BOBBITT: I wasn’t eating a lot of food, but I was eating food that I was allergic to and didn’t know it. I was eating lots of ice cream, lots of breads and pastas and stuff like that. A lot of vegetables and meats, but I was also eating food that was actually making me sick. Apparently there’s a bacteria that helps you process the gluten in your body, and when you get gluten out of your system, the bacteria goes away. So, that made me even more allergic to it. And now within a minute of eating something that has gluten in it, I can feel it — the room starts spinning a little bit.

MW: The weight loss was all natural? No surgery?

BOBBITT: No. The HGC is probably the only unnatural thing I did.

MW: What was your maximum weight?

BOBBITT: The last time I got on the scale [at my heaviest] I can remember was 296. At the moment I’m hanging at about 210. With not a lot of effort, I’m 6’2″. I had lost an inch, but I’ve gotten it back from the yoga and working out again.

Michael Bobbitt — Photo: Todd Franson

 

MW: You mentioned Buddhism. Is that part of your spiritual renewal?

BOBBITT: I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, but the practices of Buddhism, the philosophies, I’ve found very, very useful as I’ve gone through so much change in my life. Everything from what forgiveness looks like, and why forgiveness is there. One of the beliefs is that everyone suffers, it just depends on what you do with it. I also feel like I’ve lost the emotion of anger, because of Buddhism.

MW: You don’t get angry?

BOBBITT: I don’t. When I am tested, or something is going wrong, even if the feelings get stirred up, if there’s a solution for the problem, why get angry? If there’s no solution for the problem, why get angry? It’s really a useless emotion. It’s hard to identify with anger. I see the benefit of not having it. But I really think mindfulness, too, has been especially great. To not think about the past, or not stress about the future.

I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, because I don’t sit and meditate, I don’t do all the teachings everyday, but I do find myself listening to a podcast now and then, or listening to the teachings, or occasionally going to a sitting. Last month I went to a weekend Buddhist retreat.

MW: Just you, or you and your partner?

BOBBITT: Myself. I can’t get the two of them into it. I really think my success, and the reason why the weight is staying off, is that I really went back and looked at all the reasons why I was unhealthy. And I worked through most of them, but I’m still working through a little bit of them. And all of that has given me a big sense of peace and quiet, and happiness and joy. It feels really genuine now. Some people, they pretend to be happy, but they’re still suffering and struggling. My suffering is minimal, and I know exactly what I have to work on, and I am working on it.

MW: How different do you think you are as a person? You seem pretty open, but is that how you’ve always been, or has that changed?

BOBBITT: Oh, I think I’ve always been fairly vulnerable about insecurities and problems. But the number of people I see that say, “You seem so different, and so happy and at peace,” and they’re seeing it, and it feels genuine. I can talk to my therapist now about the fact that it feels genuine, but I’m nervous that it’s not real, that I’m making it up, or I’m pretending, or kidding myself, making myself believe that I feel this way. But I do, I wake up feeling happy, I go to bed feeling happy. Really, really feeling happy.

MW: Your freelance work with area theaters is not primarily in children’s theater, is it?

BOBBITT: It is not. My background is in musical theater and dance, for the most part. I love musical theater, I love it, love it, love it. And I’ve always maintained a love of adult theater, especially musical theater.

Next season is kind of a crazy one for me. I have a lot coming up, and I’m excited about it, and nervous about managing it all, because I also have to get my kid in college. But I’ll be directing Aida at Constellation. We’ve cast all people of color. It’s a really good and talented cast.

Michael Bobbitt — Photo: Todd Franson

 

MW: Will you also be the choreographer for Aida?

BOBBITT: No. Tony Thomas, one of our instructors at the [Adventure Theatre-MTC] Academy, is. He’s very good. I think it’s gonna have a huge impact in their small space. I gotta figure out how to tell this intimate, pretty visceral story.

That’s in the fall. And then I’m directing Elf at Olney. It’s a big, winter, happy holiday/family show. And then I’m choreographing Into the Woods at Ford’s. And then after Into the Woods, I’ll have a tiny bit of a break, then I’ll be directing Legally Blonde at Keegan Theatre.

MW: You’re really branching out.

BOBBITT: Yeah, I had long talks with Leon [Seemann], my Managing Director at Adventure, and my board about this. I think the benefit of me working outside Adventure is that I bring ideas from other theaters in how they run their business, I bring artists, I bring new producers, and then the visibility of the company grows because Michael Bobbitt and Adventure Theatre are well associated with each other. So I don’t feel like it’s just me, I feel like it’s me and Adventure Theatre out there in the community. I think we’re seeing the benefit. Some of the artists that work here, I think work here because they are aware of the reputation of the theater, but also of my work and the quality of my work.

MW: When is Legally Blonde?

BOBBITT: Summer ’19. What I’m hoping to bring to these organizations is my desire to see more equity and diversity on the stage.

MW: Even with a show called Legally Blonde?

BOBBITT: Beyoncé is blonde. So there’s no reason why it has to be a Caucasian. My hope is to have a really diverse cast, and part of my own personal desire is to see at least fifty percent representation on stage.

I’ve committed Adventure to that, fifty percent representation in productions. So for the whole team — actors, designers, directors — next season, we’re making sure we have fifty percent representation.

MW: Is that a leap?

BOBBITT: It’s not much of a leap. My family is like a Benetton ad, so diversity is part of my DNA. We’ve always been very, very, very intentional about making sure we have representation at Adventure-MTC. I was criticized in the beginning when I [cast] families that had an Asian dad, a Latino kid, and a black mother. “Hey, that’s my family.”

There was a show we did at Adventure called Stuart Little, and if I remember, one of the mice moms was Latina, the mice dad was black, and the mouse kid was Asian. And we got some letters.

MW: I imagine: “That’s not genetically possible.”

BOBBITT: Well, first of all, they’re mice. And also, it’s theater. But when the kid looks at the mother and calls her “Mom,” there’s no confusion about the relationship. So to me, unless race is a plot point, you can cast whomever. I’m excited about the fact that Hamilton has broken down that barrier. So we can kind of explore. The next season, one of the shows we’re doing at Adventure-MTC is Big River. So we’ve got this full-length Broadway show with Huck Finn and Jim the slave, going down the Mississippi. We’ve actually pared that show down to one act with the original writers. And Huck and Jim are gonna be the same age — in a cast of eight. Jim will be African-American — as one of the roles in the show written to be African-American. But the other roles can be whomever is best for the part. I’m really going in with the intention to try to diversify that show. We have so much talent in the area among people of color, we need to showcase them.

I know that in my family, my kid loves experiencing other people’s cultures. And that’s why he’s got such a wonderful array of friendships, and a broad sense of the world. So another person from a different culture is not scary to him, therefore not a threat. And certainly maybe in utopia, race can become a good word, as opposed to a bad word. I think the way we get there is by celebrating each other, celebrating the diversities, and not saying that, because you’re different, you’d bad.

The 34th Annual Helen Hayes Awards are Monday, May 14, starting at 7:30 p.m., at The Anthem, 901 Wharf St. SW. Tickets are $100, including a post-show party. Call 202-888-0020 or visit theanthemdc.com.

Adventure Theatre MTC is located at 7300 MacArthur Blvd., in Glen Echo Park, Md. Call 301-634-2270 or visit adventuretheatre-mtc.org.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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