Before award-winning actor and director Mitchell Hébert agreed to direct Round House Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this spring, he asked himself, “Why?” Why take on one of the most iconic plays in American theater?
The answer, he says, can be found in one of the play’s central themes: the search for identity. “All the characters are asking that question,” he says. “Who are they today and who do they want to be? Am I the person who I want to be? Did I dream of being something else?”
In some ways, they are questions that Hébert is answering for himself. The Silver Spring resident wanted to be an actor since his childhood in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “I was drawn to it,” he says. “I was the typical kid running around the neighborhood dressed like Zorro, and I was the one directing everyone else. I didn’t see a professional play until college. I was just this oddity. It’s just what I wanted to do.”
Hébert studied theater at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and got his master’s degree in acting at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also performed in many productions while attending college and graduate school. He moved to Maryland in 1986 after landing a job teaching acting and directing at the University of Maryland, where he remains a faculty professor. It’s also where he started directing.
“I became a director by default when I took the job at the University of Maryland,” he says. “Part of the requirement was that you had to direct plays.”
A professional actor for 30 years, Hébert found a home in the Washington, D.C., theater community, where he’s also found support and inclusiveness, as opposed to the cutthroat competitiveness of a theater mecca such as New York City. “This was the right place for me,” he says. “I’ve never regretted it.”
Hébert has acted in more than 35 professional productions, winning a local Helen Hayes Award—The Robert Prosky Award for Outstanding Lead Actor—for his performance in a 2012 production of After the Fall at Theater J in Washington, D.C. He also has directed a half-dozen shows in the D.C. area, including Round House Theatre’s 2014 production of Glengarry Glen Ross, which earned him a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding director.
That production led to Hébert being tapped to direct Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Ryan Rilette, the producing artistic director at Round House, was so impressed with Hébert’s direction of Glengarry Glen Ross that he wanted to see more. “The quality that [Hébert] brings as a director is that he is a phenomenal actor as well as a great director. And Cat is the type of play where the acting is so important. It’s an actors’ play,” Rilette says.
For Hébert, directing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—a well-known Williams play that became even more famous thanks to the 1958 film starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor—is a challenge that is both daunting and inspiring. “It took me a long time to get over being intimidated by it,” he says. “I finally realized that playwrights do not write to intimidate, but to challenge both artists and audiences.”
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs March 30 through April 24 at Round House Theatre. Tickets are $41-$56. www.roundhousetheatre.org