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Emily Mann.
Emily Mann.

Emily Mann: The Quiet Radical

In 1990, the theatre’s board gambled on a young writer/director with an agenda. It’s paid off: Mann built a team around her vision, attracted new audiences, and steered the company through both crisis and triumph.

It’s April 1991, and Emily Mann is in her first season as artistic director of the McCarter Theatre, in Princeton, N.J. On the company’s massive stage, situated along the edge of the university campus, the new rhythm-and-blues musical Betsey Brown, which Mann has written with Ntozake Shange and also directed, is about to go up. Soon, Raquel Herring, playing 13-year-old Betsey, will sing about coming of age during the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. Soon, black actors playing white students in Betsey’s desegregated St. Louis school will appear, taunting the African Americans in their midst.

By intermission, many in the audience are responding wholeheartedly and vocally—to the story and the characters, and especially to jazz trumpeter Baikida Carroll’s buoyant score.

For African Americans in the crowd, the production is a signal that the new artistic director is inviting them into her house—or, as Princeton historian Shirley Satterfield likes to say, putting “people who look like me” onstage. For the larger, mostly white contingent of longtime McCarter subscribers, the production is also a signal: This new, 38-year-old a.d. wants to stir things up—to introduce the academics and moneyed conservatives of Princeton to politically edgy work, the sort she has been creating all over the world as an independent playwright and director.

A quarter-century has passed since Mann set out to challenge the McCarter’s audiences with Betsey Brown. Her leadership has been rewarded in a number of ways—most immediately by the thousands who have entered the McCarter’s gray stone neo-Gothic building to see the more than 100 new plays and reimagined classics she has produced, close to half of them written or directed by women and people of color. That leadership has also been recognized nationally, most recently this past May, when Mann received the prestigious Margo Jones Award honoring a “citizen of the theatre.”

In her program note for Betsey Brown, Mann wrote, “By opening herself to political, social and emotional influences, however painful, [Betsey] is able to go forward to the positive, creative side of life and the possibility of contributing creatively to the world.” Mann could have been writing about herself.

The cast of "Betsey Brown," directed by Emily Mann, at the McCarter in 1991. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
The cast of “Betsey Brown,” directed by Emily Mann, at the McCarter in 1991. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The career that brought Emily Mann to McCarter began unofficially in the Windy City, where her family had moved from Massachusetts in 1966. Emily’s father, Arthur Mann, had been hired away from Smith College to teach American history at the University of Chicago, and Emily and her older sister, Carol, attended the progressive University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. There, an imaginative educator named Robert Keil encouraged Mann’s growing passion for theatre. In the summer of 1967, this skinny girl with long, dark, curly hair signed on to be a props intern at the then amateur Court Theatre, outdoors on the university campus, where she spent many an hour fashioning swords and daggers for the Scottish play.

Later, studying at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., Mann could be seen striding through Harvard Square in her boots and tights, heading for the Loeb Drama Center to take acting and directing classes and William Alfred’s legendary playwriting seminar. One of her fellow young dramatists was a Harvard senior named Christopher Durang.

For Mann, the late ’60s and early ’70s were years of political radicalization, particularly in opposition to the Vietnam War. She loathed the U.S. government’s escalating conflict and called out American corporations for profiting on the backs of American soldiers. She had been raised to embrace civil rights—her father, whose intellect she both loved and admired, had marched peacefully with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery—but in the angry Chicago of the late ’60s, black nationalists were rejecting King’s pacifism. Mann knew some of them and was not unsympathetic.

Her rising political consciousness commingled with her upward professional journey. Indeed, in 1974, when Mann, 22, received a directing fellowship at the Guthrie, simply being a woman forging a career as a director and playwright in the American theatre was itself a political statement. Five years later, Mann’s revival of The Glass Menagerie made her the first woman to direct on the Guthrie’s mainstage since that august theatre opened in 1963; it was an overdue recognition of women on the Guthrie’s part, and a validation of Mann as artist and feminist.

By the time she was being considered to head the McCarter, Mann had staged classics and new plays at major regional theatres around the country. She had also achieved an international reputation for writing documentary plays: about the brutalizing effects of the Holocaust (Annulla, an Autobiography); the Vietnam War (Still Life); and homophobia run amok (Execution of Justice). In 1986 she staged Execution on Broadway, one of only three women who directed on Broadway during the 1985–86 season (the others were Twyla Tharp for Singin’ in the Rain and Jane Wagner, appropriately enough for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe).

 

Mann’s style differed considerably from that of McCarter’s outgoing artistic director, Nagle Jackson, who was leaving after 11 seasons to pursue new projects. McCarter honorary trustee and former board member Liz Fillo, a performer and Princeton resident, was on the search committee.

“The big discussion,” Fillo recalls, “was whether to take this leap of faith and go with, No. 1, a woman, and, No. 2, a woman who had a real agenda and was going to be controversial, and we knew it. I guess we felt that, after a safe 11 years with Nagle, we needed to shake things up a bit. And Emily was the one to do that for us.”

Emily Mann directing "Betsey Brown" at the McCarter in 1991.
Emily Mann directing “Betsey Brown” at the McCarter in 1991.

Mann had her own reservations. If she ran a theatre, would she have time to write plays and direct? Could she still be a real artist? Or would she spend precious creative time attending to the nitty-gritty of producing and marketing and raising money? The McCarter’s theatre season of four or five plays plus A Christmas Carol was just one program among many that made use of what was then McCarter Theatre Center’s only stage—a LORT B+ house—during the course of each year. And while she would not be responsible for the dozens of concerts, dance performances and other entertainments that drew New Jersey audiences to the venue, she would have to coordinate her theatre series schedule with the center’s other programs, share production, marketing and management personnel, and report to the board of trustees.

But Mann knew college towns and liked them. Warned that the town and the university were politically conservative, even regressive, she remembered her father pushing her to venture outside her comfort zone: “Why,” Arthur Mann asked her, “do you want to preach to the choir?”

Mann also had one no-nonsense consideration. Her marriage to the actor Gerry Bamman had fallen apart, and their son, Nicholas, was six years old. “I realized I was going to be a single mom,” says Mann, as we talked last winter at her home in Princeton, “and that I would have to figure out how to set up a very stable place for my son and continue my work.”

She consulted with friends, notably Sir Peter Hall, former head of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, who advised her to hire a right-hand person who would essentially be a line producer—who would free Mann to make the big artistic decisions, have the big vision for the theatre, and remain a working playwright and director. Though it would be some time before she found that partner, Mann took over at the McCarter in July 1990—and headed full steam into a perfect storm.

The newly elected governor of New Jersey, James Florio, a Democrat, had cut the budget of the state’s Council on the Arts by 47 percent. The council’s operating support for the McCarter plummeted from $1 million to $500,000.

Renovations to the theatre building, begun during Jackson’s tenure, were behind schedule and over budget. Mann learned that she would not be able to open her first show, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, until January ’91. Worse news: The capital campaign to pay for construction was $2.5 million in the red.

The season had hardly begun and already Mann was looking at a $900,000 deficit and a huge capital debt, none of it of her making. Subscribers were taking a wait-and-see attitude, and Mann, dissatisfied with most of the staff she had inherited and urgently needing to reduce expenses, cleaned house. Subscriptions dropped. Staff grumbled.

“Looking back on it now,” says Fillo, “why did she stay? Why didn’t she just throw up her hands and say, ‘I’m not going to get involved in this’? But she didn’t.”

“My first two years here,” Mann says ruefully, “I think the Lord was testing me: If I could live through it, then I would have what I needed to go on. That’s how I looked at it. I needed to have a place for my child. I wanted to make this theatre work. I didn’t know where else it might happen, and if I failed, I was afraid I might never get another offer as a woman, right? Women don’t get second chances. I don’t think I slept more than four hours a night for the first two years.”

Shirley Knight in "The Glass Menagerie" at the McCarter Theatre in 1991. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Shirley Knight in “The Glass Menagerie” at the McCarter Theatre in 1991. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Directing Menagerie and Betsey Brown raised Mann’s spirits. Mel Gussow of the New York Times called Shirley Knight’s Amanda “radiant,” and Alvin Klein, reviewing for the Times’s New Jersey edition, dubbed Mann’s Menagerie “exceptional.” Critics were less enthusiastic about Betsey Brown, but Mann was nonetheless rewarded by the African-American audiences who filled many of the theatre’s 1,000-plus seats. Ntozake Shange had grown up in Lawrenceville, N.J., about six miles from Princeton, and her mother, Eloise Williams, still lived there and helped get the word out.

Those the River Keeps, by David Rabe, and Jon Robin Baitz’s The Film Society filled out the short, chaotic season. The Times’s Klein, evaluating the 1990–91 seasons of four major New Jersey theatres, wrote: “It was Emily Mann who had the most sustained artistic vision in spite of a series of most daunting setbacks…and the tarnished and torpid image of a theatre in decline. Ms. Mann took immediate steps to turn decline into transition.

“Ms. Mann,” he concluded, “delivered the season’s singular creative spark, if only because she restored a sense of adventure to theatregoing.”

 

In Mann’s view, she began to right the McCarter’s ship in January 1992, with the second production of her second season: Lanford Wilson’s translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. A top-flight cast included Frances McDormand as Masha, Linda Hunt as Olga and Mary Stuart Masterson playing the youngest sister, Irina. Opposite them were some of the best men in the business: Mark Nelson, Josef Sommer, Peter Francis James, Edward Herrmann, Paul McCrane and John Christopher Jones.

The young director Loretta Greco, who was staff producer at the time, remembers that “Emily’s creative team”—which included designers Michael Yeargan, Jennifer von Mayrhauser and Pat Collins—“really understood the vast McCarter space and seized the depth of field, with drawing room followed by dining area followed by a never-ending field of bare trees in vertical succession, in a viscerally charged way. Emily passionately understood the depth of longing and the spectrum of emotions within the narrative, and gave the cast the freedom to live radiantly and desperately inside those voracious desires.”

Mary Stuart Masterson, Linda Hunt, and Frances McDormand in "Three Sisters" at the McCarter Theatre in ???. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Mary Stuart Masterson, Linda Hunt, and Frances McDormand in “Three Sisters” at the McCarter Theatre in ???. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Fortune smiled. During December and January, Universal Pictures released Fried Green Tomatoes, which starred Mary Stuart Masterson as the free-spirited owner of a café in 1920s Alabama. “Everyone wanted to see Mary Stuart,” Mann recalls, “and the place was just mobbed. It was a great show, but Mary Stuart did it. By playing to a capacity audience, we turned a corner.”

According to Jeffrey Woodward, whom Mann hired to be her new managing director, several years would pass before the company turned the financial corner—but in the interim, Mann’s combination of tenacity and high standards drove the McCarter’s increasing artistic success. “Metaphorically,” says Timothy J. Shields, general manager at the time, “she was lifting the organization by the scruff of the neck and saying, ‘Here, we’re moving up higher. And here’s what it’s going to take.’”

Mann repeated another piece of advice from Peter Hall to her staff—make each production an “event.” To Mann, that meant “building a sense of anticipation and excitement around each piece, whether it’s the actor, the writer or the point of view at this moment in time.” Stephen Wadsworth’s exquisite staging of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux’s comedies lent a contemporary edge to an 18th-century playwright most people had never heard of, and sparked a Marivaux craze. Mann brought Anna Deavere Smith and her unsettling documentary play about the Los Angeles riots, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Athol Fugard came from South Africa to direct his early drama Hello and Goodbye; he would make McCarter a theatrical home.

At the end of the 1993–94 season, Mann learned that the McCarter would receive the Regional Theatre Tony Award. There was joy in Princeton, but also anxiety. That spring Mann had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was having trouble walking. Backstage at Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre on June 12, when the award was announced, Woodward took one of Mann’s arms, and Fillo, now McCarter’s board president, held the other, and together they walked a beaming Mann to the center of the stage.

 

Talk with Emily Mann for any length of time and eventually you will hear her say that this person or that “is like family.” The phrase has a personal meaning for Mann that she doesn’t articulate. But the concept of family infuses her writing, the scripts she chooses to direct and the way she has led the McCarter.

“There’s a lot of overlap between directing a play and directing a theatre,” she says. “In a lot of ways, the best directors are those that have what are considered female qualities: communication, creating a safe space, collaboration. There’s a similar thing going on with running a theatre. Bringing out the best in everyone in the building, so that they’re in a safe space and they’re all contributing at their peak potential—there’s a lot of respect, and self-respect, involved in that. That, to me, is what marks the quality of my work as an artistic director at the McCarter.  Also making it a safe place to fail—up to a point.”

As the McCarter stabilized financially and subscriptions rose, Mann drew around her a fresh administrative and artistic family, chief among them Woodward; Janice Paran, dramaturg (later director of play development); and Mara Isaacs, who joined in time for the 1995–96 season, after Greco left to be a freelance director. Isaacs would become the resident producer Mann needed.

Isaacs, Paran, Mann: The trio met every week they could, sitting at the round table in Mann’s miniature office, exchanging observations and gut reactions about scripts. Which two plays would Mann direct that season? Which African-American voices might be featured? Someone on the staff dubbed them “the art tarts.”

One of the most significant outcomes of their collaboration was an evolving approach to developing plays. “A huge transition for us,” says Paran, talking with me in Manhattan last winter, “was moving away from thinking that our job was to identify writers or plays and plug them into a play-development structure.” Nobody wanted a reading series that held out the carrot of a production and never delivered. No one wanted to commission more work than could possibly be mounted. “Our idea of play development,” Paran continues, “became much more tailored to the needs of the individual project. To sit down with the writer and say, ‘Where do you think you are with this piece? What’s helpful? How do you want to move forward?”

The team decided to limit commissions to two or three writers at any given time and to develop a work as slowly as possible—always with the aspiration of producing the play. Isaacs estimates that, during the 18 years she was at the McCarter, the theatre produced about 80 percent of the plays it commissioned. “We are an over-ambitious, under-capitalized theatre,” says Mann with characteristic directness, “so when we put money into a reading or workshop, it’s because we believe in this play, this writer, and want to produce it or at least see how far we can go with it.”

Playwrights responded positively. “My sense of my relationship with the McCarter was that it was a home for writers,” says Fugard, in New York City last spring to stage The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek at Signature Theatre. “Not for clever directors, but for writers. That was the first building block.” Fugard attributes this to Mann’s being a playwright herself.

The Irish dramatist Marina Carr, whose plays Mann has both directed and produced, agrees. “Emily understands completely the neuroses, the hit-and-miss, the devil-may-care, the fragility, the cantankerousness and fleetingness of the muse we all try to nail to the page, or the stage,” Carr wrote me in an e-mail. “Emily understands all of this because she deals with it herself every day of her life, and so we can talk to her, and she knows exactly where we are coming from.”

Mann extended her theatre family to include audiences from the African-American communities of Central New Jersey. Thirteen miles south is Trenton, where more than 50 percent of the residents are African-American. In 1995, Mann’s Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years was on the boards, and Mann and Camille O. Cosby, who would take the show to Broadway, often traveled to Trenton’s churches on Sundays to spread the story of the spirited, long-lived Delanys. Helping out was Edith Savage-Jennings, a pioneering civil rights worker who knew King and knew Mann’s father.

Gloria Foster and Mary Alice in "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" at the McCarter Theatre Center. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Gloria Foster and Mary Alice in “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” at the McCarter Theatre Center. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

“You have to be able to reach out to the community you’re based in, and that’s one of Emily’s skills,” Savage-Jennings (now 91) tells me on the phone. “Whenever actors and actresses were available before the show, I would invite people from Shiloh Baptist Church or Mount Zion to my home, and they would meet the actors and pledge to sell the house.”

Another highlight of the McCarter’s outreach involved Crowns, a 2002 coproduction with New York’s Second Stage Theatre, inspired by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry’s unique tribute to faith and fashion, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. The idea of transforming the book into a play with music and dance initially was offered to Mann. But, believing that someone who grew up in the black church would have a stronger connection with the material, she gave the project to Regina Taylor to adapt and direct.

“Emily gave me this gift, to explore this path,” Taylor told me. “I looked at the book and said, ‘I know these women. They are the women who helped raise me—these hat queens.’ I was home in Dallas with my mother, and she took me for a walk in her closet, telling me about her hats for the baptisms, weddings and funerals in her life.” The McCarter and the Trenton City Museum collaborated on an exhibit of photographs from the book, and one memorable weekend, women pictured in the book traveled from North Carolina to visit the exhibit, share the gospel of Crowns with members of the local churches, and go to the McCarter Theatre to see themselves and their extraordinary hats onstage.

 

On Sept. 8, 2003, the McCarter’s ability to produce plays and attract audiences took a fresh turn with the opening of the 373-seat Roger S. Berlind Theatre, named for the Broadway producer, a Princeton graduate, who contributed one-third of the cost. Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning Anna in the Tropics—in Mann’s words, “this glorious, shimmering piece”—inaugurated the house.

From the beginning, Mann had pushed strenuously for another space, an alternative to what Fugard calls “that coffin of an auditorium.” The Berlind is not, perhaps, the second space Mann originally envisioned (which she says she is still waiting for)—it abuts the rear exterior wall of the original stage house and is really another mainstage (another proscenium) with a smaller auditorium. And again, the McCarter shares the Berlind with the university.

But the smaller house has released Mann to produce imaginative takes on well-known work, like director Gary Griffin’s My Fair Lady, performed on an essentially bare stage with a cast of 10 and 2 pianos. It has freed her to produce scripts that benefit from a more intimate actor-audience relationship, like next season’s All the Days, Sharyn Rothstein’s funny, touching drama about an unconventional mother and her grown daughter. Mann can now give opportunities to younger directors who might not yet have the skill to deal with a Broadway-size theatre. She herself hardly directs in the larger house anymore (now called the Matthews Theatre); when the 2015–16 season opens in September, with the American premiere of Pierre Laville and Mann’s adaptation of Baby Doll, Tennessee Williams’s comical, erotic and sometimes brutal love story, it will unfold in the Berlind.

And it is easier to fill 373 seats than 1,100, especially in an uncertain economy. The McCarter, like many regional theatres, suffered from the economic crisis of 2008, as well as the breakdown of the full-season subscription model and competition from our ubiquitous digital toys. “Through the end of 2011, it was about contraction,” reports Timothy J. Shields, who became managing director in 2009 after Woodward left. “The number of performances was cut; we had to terminate some people. Now we’ve turned again to ‘How do we get to being better and bigger?’ Right now our endowment is about $12 million. Our ambition is to double that.”

Emily Young, Noah Brody, and Paul L. Coffey in Fiasco Theater's version of “Into the Woods” at the McCarter Theatre. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Emily Young, Noah Brody, and Paul L. Coffey in Fiasco Theater’s version of “Into the Woods” at the McCarter Theatre. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

So once again, budgetary concerns are putting pressure on Mann. Despite recent, highly praised productions like Fiasco Theater’s rambunctious Into the Woods and Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a programming shift seems to be underway, aiming to boost ticket sales and bring new audiences in the door. Last season, Ken Ludwig’s clever Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a coproduction with Arena Stage, became the first thriller Mann ever produced; Adam Immerwahr, who holds the newly created title of associate artistic director but also functions as overall producer, reports that Baskerville “grossed more than any previous show in the Matthews since our ticketing system went online, in 2003.” This coming season will include (“Would you believe?” Mann quips) that Agatha Christie stalwart The Mousetrap.

“It is actually a great play,” Mann allows. “It is a perfect mystery. And we’re trying to put more comedy, mystery and thrillers in the Matthews and see what that does.” As Immerwahr notes, “There has been a real belief that the two spaces need to function in different ways in the marketplace. I think Emily is programming with more of an eye toward drawing people in than she has felt she had to do in the past.”

In the meantime, Mann is in very good health and says she feels “at the top of her game.” She makes time to write, and she is working on a project with feminist icon Gloria Steinem, commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater.

A generation has passed since Mann took over the artistic leadership of the McCarter. Most of her original family of administrators and artists has left, but Mann is gradually building a new family around her, many of them former McCarter interns: the 32-year-old Immerwahr; Paran’s daughter Emilia LaPenta, now the literary manager; Jade King Carroll, Baikida’s daughter, a McCarter teaching artist who will direct August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson next season and would like to revive Betsey Brown.

“Much of the work that I do is quietly radical,” Mann said in a recent interview with Rose Eichenbaum for the book The Director Within: Storytellers of Stage and Screen. It’s a description that might surprise those who know her plays or remember Betsey Brown or have watched her tenaciously lead a major LORT theatre. The director Stephen Wadsworth, who has known Mann since college, figures that the “quietly radical” label fits Mann in the sense that she “has gradually changed the landscape, as writer, artistic director and stage director.” But politically? “Emily has always lived next door to radicalism,” he wrote me. “It’s part of her worldview, to look at the essence and the barb, and to celebrate them.”

Alexis Greene is an author and arts journalist. She is writing a biography of Emily Mann.

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