People always seem to say that the success of a marriage lies in a couple’s ability to compromise. But for Neil Pepe and Mary McCann, who are Atlantic Theater Company’s artistic director and executive school director, the key to their partnership in and out of the theatre is summed up by another word that starts with C.
“The culture at the Atlantic is modeled by Neil and Mary’s personalities, which are collaborative,” says Atlantic managing director Jeffory Lawson. “I know you don’t usually describe a personality as collaborative, but Neil and Mary are caring people, and the company reflects that. They are committed to maintaining the uniqueness of the Atlantic, which I think is an outgrowth of the company being an ensemble from the very beginning.”
Pepe and McCann may share collaborative spirits, but each brings to the table distinctive skills.
“They are very different people,” says Atlantic founding member Karen Kohlhaas, who teaches at the acting school and has directed several Atlantic productions over the years. “Mary is a phenomenal businesswoman and manager of people; she’s incredible behind the scenes and doesn’t try to claim the limelight.” Meanwhile Pepe, Kohlhaas continues, “creates an environment that is friendly. He creates an atmosphere where people feel like they can take risks artistically and where it feels like a family. He has to please company members, subscribers, the aesthetic of the company—it’s not an easy job.”
Running a theatre, and for that matter a theatre school, only gets trickier over time, as real estate in New York City becomes pricier, board members become fussier, ensemble members grow in and out of roles and phases in their careers, relationships with writers deepen, and the demands of theatrical education get thornier.
“In some ways these jobs were thrust upon Neil and Mary,” says Kohlhaas. “I don’t think either of them envisioned it going on as long as it has. But they have become their positions, and the positions have become them.”
The story of how this unassuming power couple came to occupy their current roles is wrapped up, perhaps not surprisingly, in the story of how they met and fell in love. “It’s most embarrassing to me, so I’ll tell it first,” says McCann with a laugh over lunch at Bocca di Bacco, a few blocks north of the Atlantic school and offices in Chelsea, on an unseasonably warm November day.
But before we get to the story, a word about McCann and Pepe’s rapport: For fans of the television show “Friday Night Lights,” there’s something of Coach and Tami Taylor in these two, not only because they are attractive individuals who lead groups of people in incredible feats of teamwork. It also has something to do with their chemistry, which feels real but never cloying. They are hip but not intimidatingly so. They have a sense of humor about themselves and about each other, but a strong undercurrent of respect and shared purpose runs through their words and body language, so that when they joke and tease it feels safe and from a place of love. For an outsider, there’s no awkward third-wheel feeling.
“I want to compare them to the Brady Bunch, but they are too cool for that,” offers managing director Lawson. “There is something Cleaver-esque about them, because they have strong morals and are committed to their family. Maybe throw in a bit of the Partridge Family,” he says, describing how Pepe and McCann have managed to balance raising a family—their daughters are 14 and 5—while also growing a successful theatre ensemble and school.
The Pepe/McCann story begins with McCann, who grew up on Put-in-Bay, a tiny island on Lake Erie, and attended NYU in the early 1980s. She was immediately immersed in the work of David Mamet and William H. Macy, who had convinced NYU to start a new studio at first called “The Practical Aesthetics Workshop,” which later became Atlantic Theater Company. In 1985, her classmates elected McCann to be the company’s first artistic director. “I quickly learned that that was not a good job,” she quips at lunch.
Two years into its new life, the fledgling company repared to travel to Vermont to do a slew of summer shows. When Clark Gregg, another Atlantic founding member, told McCann he’d invited one of his fellow valets from the East Village’s Water Club, a guy named Neil, to join them in Vermont, McCann describes how she’d spotted him before, and “told everyone, ‘If anyone is interested, I’ve got my eye on that one.’”
Exclaiming, at this point in the story Pepe chimes in, “I was stalked!” with a well-practiced grin and a shrug.
“Even though Neil is older, he was technically my intern that summer,” McCann continues. “He built a lot of sets and became the technical director, and I’d show up with my little tool belt to help him build.”
The two began dating, and it wasn’t long after that that Neil, who had grown up in Vermont and studied at Kenyon College in Ohio, was invited to join the Atlantic ensemble. He soon became its artistic director, and Mary stepped into her other role.
If the collaborative rapport between Pepe and McCann in some ways reflects Atlantic, and vice versa, the ethos that Mamet and Macy instilled with the ensemble years ago—to produce great plays simply and truthfully—continues to inform the company’s mission.
“Many people don’t realize that the school came first and the company came out of that,” says McCann. “The technique Macy and Mamet taught, the practical aesthetics approach, is really as practical as it sounds. It’s highly sophisticated in its simplicity.”
Creating character through objective and existing in the truth of the moment are at the core of the acting approach. “It’s an action-based technique,” explains Pepe. “Emotions are the byproduct of action. Some people have called it a reaction to the Method.”
“It’s heavily influenced by Meisner,” McCann adds, admitting that while there are many action- and objective-based techniques today, at the time they learned the practical aesthetics approach, it was unique. “There are different steps to creating the illusion of character,” she says, switching into a teacherly mode. “What is the character literally doing, what do they want, and what is the ‘as if’? This is where we have an Aristotelian influence, because certain behaviors lead to your choices.”
In addition to being influenced by Meisner, the practical aesthetic technique can trace its lineage back to the Group Theatre (which had briefly considered the name “Atlantic Theater”) and its forebear, the Moscow Art Theatre.
“Creating an ensemble that’s in service to the writer served us well, because it got the attention off ourselves and onto the story,” says Pepe. “The other side of the technique is respecting the art form and storytelling. It’s about making sure everything is in service of the play,” he says, adding that embedded in the technique is a humble attitude—here he throws in another Mamet reference about wiping one’s feet at the back door of the theatre—that eschews hierarchy and places emphasis on the ensemble serving the art.
Along with humility comes discipline.
“If a class starts at 3, we close the doors at 3 and you can’t come in after,” says McCann. “That may seem harsh on the surface, but it’s there to foster professional habits and show respect. It’s how we trained.”
Housed within NYU’s drama department, the Atlantic Acting School offers a two-and-a-half-year program: The first focuses on the fundamentals of acting and the practical aesthetics approach, the second on applying these to genre and media-specific work such as Shakespeare and acting for film. Final-semester students are mentored through the path Mamet and Macy paved three decades ago: creating their own company.
Talk about practical aesthetics. Explains McCann, “While they are working on writing a mission statement and electing leadership, they choose a play and cast it, then we give them a budget and they produce the play. They either leave here with a company of their own or they have a solid community of people with which to make work.”
Groups that have emerged from the program to date include the sketch comedy group Harvard Sailing Team, who The New York Times has hailed as breathing “new life into sketch comedy,” and Pipeline Theatre Company.
In addition to the two-and-a-half-year conservatory, Atlantic also offers a three-semester evening conservatory, part-time adult acting classes, and a variety of acting programs for ages children ages 4–18. “We are bursting at the seams,” effuses McCann, who adds that the training for young people follows the same principles as their adult training. “How can we apply truth and storytelling to theatre for children?”
If the troupe started with the impulse to put its ensemble actors to work in new plays, it soon became equally important to commit to writers over the long term.
“It’s really all about balancing between investing in actors and writers, and making sure you give people opportunities but also making sure that you reinvigorate the ensemble,” says Pepe. Balancing writers’ priorities with the company’s can mean casting outside the ensemble and hiring new directors and designers.
McCann, an accomplished actor in her own right, admits that such “freshening” of the ensemble can prompt complicated feelings. This was especially true in the early years of the group.
“When you’re young you think you’re right for everything,” she says. But with time, as careers and personal lives grow, perspectives shift.
“It’s kind of like a sports team,” says Pepe, again calling to mind Coach Taylor. “You want to keep the team great. The moment you try to lock down what you’re doing, you start to atrophy and calcify.”
Using another apt analogy, Pepe compares Atlantic to a family.
“Everyone is so different, but there’s a strength in that no matter where anyone goes there’s a huge amount of belief in each other,” he says. “You stand by them and you catch them because they’ve caught you.” Pepe and McCann go on to speak with overlapping enthusiasm about loyalty and the ways in which many ensemble members are responsible for each other’s successes, citing various projects that led to productions, casting coups, film work. “If it hadn’t been for Mamet, I wouldn’t have directed on Broadway,” Pepe notes.
Still, for all the devotion to their founders, the company has had to shrug off being seen as mere Mamet-and-Macy acolytes. At this point in the conversation, Pepe and McCann become increasingly reflective as they begin to consider shifts in the ensemble over the decades.
“In our 20s there were big fights in the company,” McCann says, as Pepe chuckles knowingly. “It had to be this way! It had to be that way! Then in our 30s, we wanted the parts the most—before we had kids. Sometimes you might put too much pressure on being in a play at Atlantic. As people have had kids and gone on to work in film and television, it puts you in a healthier place. I don’t know—talk to me next decade!”
We shift back to their relationship and the mechanics of working together professionally for nearly 30 years while also maintaining a healthy relationship and raising children.
Says Pepe, “We have a core understanding, whether we talk about it or not, about what we like to do in our lives and where we’re headed. We kind of have a common mission.” Also, he adds, “Over the years we have learned to get methodical about when we talk about work and when we don’t.”
With a wink, McCann says, “Our offices are at opposite ends of the hallway.”
I ask them what Kohlhaas means when she says they’re very different people. “Mary’s very practical; she gets it done,” explains Pepe. “I’m better with emotions and calming people down.”
“You’ve got Ohio and Vermont!” McCann declares.
It’s not just a matter of geography; as Pepe puts it, “My parents were Beats and hippies. Mary’s were incredible small business owners.”
Though disagreements at work do flare up—they jokingly refer to managing director Lawson as their “referee”—they’re serious about the work/life division. When I inadvertently leave my iPhone on to use the bathroom at Bocca di Bacco, I secretly look forward to hearing what they might blurt out in my absence: Something sneaky amid the ambient noise of the restaurant? Some gossip? A budget worry? Instead the tape will later reveal them groaning about an email from their co-op board.
Lawson corroborates the unofficial no-work-talk policy, and credits it with the warm working atmosphere at Atlantic. “There are times when I wish they would have mentioned something to the other,” he says with a laugh. “But they have programmed themselves to not create any friction in their relationship.
“Their warmth and kindness isn’t fake, it’s real,” Lawson continues, adding that “the mission statement for Atlantic, ‘producing great plays simply and truthfully,’ is a reflection of them as people. Simple and truthful. That’s the basis of it.”
Or, as McCann put it at one point, quoting Mamet: “Always tell the truth; it’s the easiest thing to remember.”
Eliza Bent is a former senior editor of this magazine.