Forget the Oscars, the Emmys, and the Tonys.
Here in the nation’s capital, there is only one award worth talking about. And that’s the Helen Hayes, honoring the best of DC’s theater professionals for more than three decades.
This year, when the ceremony begins—on May 14th at the Anthem, the newly-built concert venue on the Wharf—the spotlight will be on co-hosts Michael J. Bobbitt and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan.
These two luminaries—he’s the longtime Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre, while she’s the winner of last year’s award for outstanding lead actress for her role in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof— will preside over an event featuring live performances and awards in 47 categories.
It’s a tall order for both of them, but one they relish. Both love challenge. And both have built their careers, on and off stage, by daring to step into new roles.
The two, who have never performed together before, took a break from their busy schedules to join me and DCMTA publisher Nicole Hertvik for this interview in downtown Bethesda.
“What was your response when you found that you’d be expected to entertain more than 2,500 fans, all clamoring for the results?” I asked.
“I was surprised,” Michael admitted. “But not terribly so, since I’ve been involved with theatreWashington (the award sponsors) for years. I’ve been a member of their board of directors, as well as a judge, a presenter, and official choreographer.”
For Alyssa, on the other hand, the idea of hosting the District’s most prestigious theatrical event came as a shock. “When I got the call from Amy Austin, theatreWashington’s President, I was surprised,” she said. “But then I realized that it was a chance to try something new. So I said ‘yes!’”
“As hosts, our role is to keep the program lively and fun in between the awards,” said Michael, who added that they’ve already come up with a surprise opening number.
Knowing that they were not about to divulge that secret—readers will have to go to the ceremony to find that out—I asked them to talk about how they got to where they are today.
Interestingly, both started out in different corners of the arts before landing on the professional stage. And both attended parochial schools.
Michael Bobbitt was a music prodigy. A native Washingtonian, he began playing classical trumpet in the third grade and performed with the National Symphony Orchestra’s youth division while attending Gonzaga College High School, the leading Jesuit boys school in DC.
Awarded a scholarship to attend the University of Susquehanna, Bobbitt switched from music to theater and dance and joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem right after college. In 1996, he returned to DC, where he performed on just about every professional stage in the area.
Another career change came in 2003. “It was shortly after my son—who is now going-on-17—was adopted,” he explained. “I knew I wanted a more regular schedule, so I took courses in everything from business to ballet, and switched from performing to management.”
He settled at Adventure Theatre, the award-winning children’s playhouse in Glen Echo Park, where, as Artistic Director, he combines choreography, directing and playwriting.
“Playwriting?” I asked. “Yes,” he laughed, pointing out that he has been writing since college. His plays—including one commissioned by the Bob Marley Estate and two that garnered Helen Hayes nominations—have been produced at Adventure Theatre and at Howard University.
When I asked him how he could juggle so many things, his response was simple. “The secret,” he said, “is to keep tackling things that look hard.”
The five-time Helen Hayes Award nominee, who at one point understudied 12 different roles in Kiss of the Spider Woman, has been doing that all his life.
Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, his partner at the Helen Hayes Awards, has adopted the same strategy. Nominated three times last year (the others were for outstanding supporting actress and outstanding ensemble in Come From Away), she said that she, too, looks for projects that are difficult.
Growing up in rural Michigan, in a small town outside of Ann Arbor, Alyssa was mainly interested in the visual arts. However, she did participate in school plays. One of them was Fiddler on the Roof, where all the girls wore their school uniforms under the babushkas and cloaks. (It was a Catholic school, and Tevya was played by the priest.)
At college, she started out as an illustration major but quickly went from painting sets to performing on them. A year in, she transferred to Western Michigan University, where she majored in musical theater.
She met her future husband, actor Thomas Keegan, while working with his father, fellow actor James Keegan, at the American Shakespeare Center and relocated to DC when she and Thomas started dating several years later.
Since then, she’s appeared on Broadway and Off and at many theaters in and around Washington, DC. (One of the highlights of her career was playing Cordelia opposite her future father-in-law, James Keegan, in King Lear in 2009.)
Although 90 percent of her work is in adult theater, she has lately begun dabbling in plays for younger audiences. “Now that I have a son—age three-and-a-half—I’m more interested in children’s work, since I find that drama can really stretch young minds.”
Just a few months ago, she appeared in Digging Up Dessa at the Kennedy Center. It was part of the Women’s Voices Festival, and she delivered a lyrical performance as a songwriting mother, trying to protect her child from pain.
Asked whether childcare was an issue, both Alyssa and Michael said that they relied on family and other performers, as well as daycare.
Of course, Michael, whose son is a teenager, is long past that stage. “While he’s not currently keen on theater, he’s very savvy about it. I make him see everything I’m involved in. He’s a very good critic.”
Alyssa’s son has been involved in her acting career ever since he was born. “Actually, he was on stage even before that,” she said, adding that she was in two shows while she was pregnant. “Job and family overlap in my world. Thomas and I talk endlessly about our work and lives.”
For Michael, an interest in the arts, in general, is a nice point of connection. Steve Miller, his live-in boyfriend, is by profession a senior marketing executive. His hobbies are Japanese tattoos, contemporary art, and writing; he is also the author of two non-fiction books.
Right now, both stars are focused on the Helen Hayes Awards and the big show coming up in just a few weeks. Parts of the Anthem are already sold out.
Asked what people wear at an event like this, Michael shrugged. “Certainly cocktail attire,” he said, pointing out there will be lots of partying, complete with dancing, after the awards are presented. “They can even wear costumes if they want.”
The 2018 Helen Hayes Awards, presented by theatreWashington, will take place on Monday, May 14th at the Anthem – 901 Wharf Street, SW, in Washington, DC. Doors open at 5:30 pm for mingling and fun. The ceremony will run from 7:30 pm to 10:30 pm followed by a rollicking party open to all ticket-holders. For tickets, go online.
What goes into the Helen Hayes Awards?
Part of the challenge of this year’s Helen Hayes ceremony lies in the sheer number of categories. Each award is now split into a “Helen” and a “Hayes,” based on the number of Equity members in each production. As a result, there are now twice as many nominees to be judged as there were a few years ago.
This year’s finalists were drawn from more than 2,500 entries, including acting, directing, choreography, and design.
For a full list of this year’s 258 nominations, click here.
Click here for DCMTA’s story on the reaction of some of the nominees to finding that they were contenders in the race for Washington’s top theater honors.
What’s next for these intrepid hosts?
Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan has three plays coming up: Botticelli in the Fire at Woolly Mammoth Theater starting at the end of May; Gloria, at Woolly in September, and How I Learned to Drive at Round House Theatre in October.
“I will actually be pulling double duty on the last two,” she said. “I’ll be in rehearsals at one theater during the day and performing at the other at night.”
Michael J. Bobbitt will be just as busy at Adventure Theatre, where he will be overseeing the current production, called Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt.
At the same time, he’ll be continuing to deal with the aftermath of the recent fire that nearly destroyed the playhouse, which is located inside historic Glen Echo Park. (Click here for DCMTA’s report on the damage done.) “We estimate that expenses not covered by insurance will come to around $100,000,” he said. “So we’re still raising money. But the great news is that—thanks to The National Park Service and the construction company—renovation is now underway.”