Playwright and director Emily Mann has most recently written the off-Broadway hit Gloria: A Life, directed by Diane Paulus, about the life of feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Mann has also served as the Artistic Director and Resident Playwright of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, since 1990 and will be leaving those posts after the 2019/2020 season . “Three decades ago, McCarter took the brave and bold step of casting a young female artist as its Artistic Director, long before women writers and directors were widely embraced in American theater,” Mann said when she announced that she was embarking on a new phase in her life.
Mann has overseen more than 160 productions, including more than 40 world premieres. During her tenure, the McCarter won the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, and Mann was nominated for Tony Awards as a playwright and director of Having Our Say. Her other personal awards include The Peabody Award, the Hull Warriner Award from the Dramatists Guild, a Helen Merrill Distinguished Playwright award, awards from the NAACP, eight Obie awards, and a Guggenheim. She has also received an honorary Doctorate of Arts from Princeton University.
In addition to introducing and directing new works by new playwrights, she has directed plays by, among others, Albee, Williams Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shakespeare.
KEVIN SESSUMS: So you are not retiring when you leave the McCarter. I’ve read that you hate when someone says you’re retiring. You are instead embarking on a new challenge.
EMILY MANN: Yes. My third act.
KS: So what is that third act going to be – is it more Chekhov? O’Neill? Williams? Or … well … Mann?
EM: Oh, gosh. I hope it’s Mann. I have planned things so much all through my life and it’s going to be really exciting to let go of controlling it all. When I could in the last 30 years – I will have been at the McCarter for 30 years when I leave in July of 2020 – I freelanced out. I did things on Broadway. I wrote some movies. But now I think it would be so incredible to let go of the administrative part of the theatre and the fundraising and the Board work and all of the season planning and the producing of everyone else’s work. So now I’m thinking: If I have more of this time, then what will I be writing and what will I be directing? I just did Gloria: A Life.
KS: I saw it last week and was so moved by it – and your work – but I was also moved in my being the Daryl Roth Theatre that night for Gloria herself to be there at the end in your coup de theatre when she came out to lead the talking circle.
EM: She’s so amazing. Yes. I have also been commissioned by three fantastic Broadway producers who have the rights to The Pianist, the memoir on which the Polanski movie was based. I have written the stage adaptation of it. That’s exciting. It will be done an upcoming Broadway seasons. I also have some revivals of my plays going. And I’m thinking, okay, I want to write another movie, too. I also want to be directing just those things I feel as passionate about as I do Gloria or I do The Pianist or I do any other major piece of new work.
KS: You have two rather distinct lanes as an artist. You do things such as The Pianist, but then you also do these source-material, real-life pieces that are almost as if you are a documentarian configuring a play. These latter documentary-like plays are often also political. Do you consider yourself a citizen artist? Is it important to you to be an engaged citizen as well as an artist?
EM: Yes. Hugely. Not every time out, as you’ve mentioned. I have loved my directing gigs doing A Streetcar Named Desire or A Glass Menagerie. I love great works of art. But there is also that side of me that is a citizen artist and looks at what stories need to be told in this moment in time, whatever that moment is politically and socially.
KS: We are living in such a moment now. It has all the political and social markings to me of an American iteration of fascism.
EM: I have spent a lot of time studying what actually happened in Europe in the middle of the last century that culminated in the catastrophe of the Holocaust.
KS: That was your first documentary-like play – Annulla, An Autobiography.
EM: Yes. It was interesting to go back and work on The Pianist. My mother’s family were Polish Jews and some of them were all murdered in a small village outside of Warsaw. The others all died in either Treblinka or the ghetto in Warsaw. We don’t know. Going back to Warsaw with that knowledge and realizing that I am the descendent of Polish Jews and I am writing this story was mind-boggling. It is so important to look at that story again. I just lost my mother last week.
KS: I’m so sorry, Emily. I didn’t know that.
EM: It’s been quite a time. She and I used to talk about what is going on now. And she said about Trump: “I’ve seen him before.” So what we’re talking about is exactly mirroring the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. My mother was a very wise woman and lived through a lot in her life. Nearly 100 years. She was saying what you’re saying. This is the moment you cannot fall asleep at the wheel. This is the moment you have to stay very alert. Because it happened fast in Europe.
KS: We are talking right now in the midst of the government shutdown in a dispute over some made up racist shit about The Wall, but what we cannot lose sight of is that the moment a woman became Speaker of the House and the Democrats took control of that chamber, Trump shut down the government. That is what it is about. The Wall is the authoritarian excuse.
EM: That is correct.
KS: It is all part of the chaos he creates to assert control.
EM: Chaos is a tactic. Yes.
KS: Let’s bring this back to you. Art is the anti-chaos.
KS: It is trying to find order in some heightened way.
KS: When you work on a play as a writer – whether you’re adapting Scenes from a Marriage with director Ivo van Hove or your having written Gloria: A Life for director Diane Paulus – how do you suppress that director gene in yourself?
EM: One of the things is that when I’m working with a great, great director such as Ivo or such as Diane – maybe because I am both a director and an Artistic Director of a theatre – what I bring to the table is my having sat in lots of rooms and watched lots of people work and my having helped other people revise their visions, which is much of what I think a good Artistic Director does. When things are progressing properly, it is a great luxury to be able to sit back as the writer and watch new ideas come to the fore that maybe I wouldn’t have had. That, to me, is thrilling. I had that with both Ivo and Diane. Because I can judge moment-to-moment what is going on in a rehearsal room, I can easily step back because I know, too, that if there is a question I have or a thought that I have – say, with Diane – we can become like one mind at work. If I had a thought or concern, I only had to tap her arm and we would talk about it. A good collaboration of a playwright through a director is thrilling.
KS: Let’s talk about mentorship a bit since you are an important female theatre artist a generation removed now from the newest ones asserting themselves as artistic directors. There were Margo Jones and Nina Vance in Texas and Zelda Fichandler in D.C. and Ellen Stewart and Tisa Chang in New York. Then there was you in Princeton and Martha Lavey in Chicago and Carey Perloff in San Francisco Carey has been replaced with Pam MacKinnon. There is Molly Smith down in D.C. That’s just a few off the top of my head. There is also Loretta Greco at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. Loretta is a friend and she told me that she owes her career to your mentoring of her early on. She adores and admires you. Are you aware of paying it forward?
EM: It is one of the most important things in life – to pass it on, pay it forward. I have spent the last 30 years of my life running a theatre that is really dedicated to nurturing the next generation of theatre artists and leaders. When I think about the ways of celebrating those 30 years, I come back to mentorship. Loretta is a perfect example. She was part of my first year, I think. She was part of the internship in directing. She went from intern and assistant director to Associate Artistic Director before she became an Artistic Director herself. I have been supporting and nurturing and steering her on for 25 years. We’re very close. I can think of about ten people who came from me here at the McCarter and are now running theatres.
KS: You’re Mama Mann.
EM: Mama Mann! Yes! I have a set of administrators also. And those in marketing and development. Our stage managers are really running the American theatre from stage management booths all over the country. And then there are the playwrights and directors.
KS: Would there be some sort of incongruous success – at least an ironic one – if you passed your Artistic Director job onto a man after 30 years? From Mann to a man?
EM: That’s an interesting question. Well, I’m not passing my baton. That would be improper. The Board will be passing it on.
KS: Oh, you’re good at this. No wonder you’ve lasted 30 years.
EM: (Laughs) I have to say a woman or a person of color getting this job would make me very happy. It has been my core mission at this theatre to bring all of America onto our stage and to bring the finest work of those people who have not been heard from so that we can tell the full story of America – and the world – but certainly of our country and have our audience populated by all different kinds of people. Gender. Race. Class. Ethnicity. So it would make me very happy if a woman or person of color got the job and could build on that legacy. We are known for that at this theatre and I am known for that personally. So it would mean a great deal if that work goes on.
KS: I think the greatest play of the 20th Century was Our Town and it had its premiere at the McCarter. What do you think is the greatest play of the 20th Century? Do you even think in “greatest” terms?
EM: I don’t. I just don’t think that way. I really don’t. I have favorite plays. Oddly, here we are talking about so much that has to do with the American fabric, but I think A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest plays ever penned in the English language. It is a great work of art. It is a great work of poetry. And deep, deep down it is an interesting play for our time also because what happens if the brutes win? I knew Tennessee Williams. I adored him.
KS: I’m from Mississippi like Tennessee – an odd-sounding sentence.
EM: I know! Where in Mississippi are you from?
KS: Oh, honey, it’s all the same. It’s just one big ole trailer park. Some of us just have nicer hitches than others.
EM: (Laughs) So I imagine you relate to Tennessee on many levels.
KS: Yes, I do. Why do you, Emily? He is almost the opposite of a citizen artist – unless you have another way of looking at him.
EM: I do have another way of looking at him. When you look at, say, Orpheus Descending or you look at Baby Doll … ahhh … I did an adaptation of Baby Doll and I found that so much of what was cut out was all about ethnic and racial hatred. He understood being “the other.” He understood it being how it happened to black people or Italians, but he also understood it from the standpoint of his own sexuality. And he understood women like no other American playwright.
KS: You directed the African American version of Streetcar on Broadway.
EM: Yes, I did. Well, it was the Creole version, if you will. A New Orleans take. The estate was fine with it but he and I had talked about it. It was thrilling to see it with a black audience because all the humor was there. So often it’s done with such reverence that it become humorless. The southern humor came through with the black audience because of its coming from southern roots. To me it was much more the play that Tennessee had in mind – with the tragedy and the lacerating pain, but also the incredible humor and poetry.
KS: Another play that premiered at the McCarter was Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You. What will you take with you from your years at the McCarter? What can you take with you?
EM: I premiered seven of my plays and adaptations while I was here at the McCarter. So I will take those with me. I think about the people whom we launched. The 40 world premieres. We gave a home to Edward Albee. We gave a home to Chris Durang. Nilo Cruz. We discovered Tarell McCraney. Danai Gurira. We premiered Eclipsed. We also premiered Danai’s The Convert, which is now at the Young Vic. Dael Orlandersmith is one of our great success stories whom we nurtured all the way through here. We had Beth Henley here. It goes on and on and on. It is quite a long list of people and their work which has gone on and into the canon. I am really proud of all that.
KS: When one lives a peripatetic artistic life from theatre cast to theatre cast to movie set to movie set, there is a rather ersatz temporary family aspect to it. Very concentrated. Very intense. Then it’s over. But in the atmosphere of regional theatre working with staff for years as an Artistic Director there is the Mary Tyler Moore Show aspect of it: the office family. You have Mary and Murray and Ted and Sue Ann and Phyllis and Rhoda. You fall into your familial roles. I was going to ask if you’re going to miss being Mary. But more precisely: Will you miss being Mr. Grant?
EM: (Laughs) Ed Asner has been here, too, at the McCarter. What has been amazing has been to go to work every day and create theatre. I have the most fantastic staff. It is like a big family and the love is so deep. I’m so proud of our artists and technicians and to be able to sit in a room with them and witness their being at the top of their game. It is such a joy of being with professionals at that level. Designers who work here are always telling me that. So that is what I’ve built here and, oh boy, am I going to miss that.
KS: What are the important things on your own personal Emily’s List? I read that when you got your diagnosis of MS, it made you aware of the importance of goodness in people. I was very moved by that. The older I get, the most important thing to me is kindness.
EM: Yes, kindness. And I would add to that: love. I am a grandmother, so keeping an even closer bond with my grandson is important. That’s now on the list. Being able to be there more. Those things matter to me. It is kind of a balance between work and love and trying now to find that right one, that right balance. Leaving the administrative part of my life will mean that my writing and directing and viewing the work of others and creating my own work will have to find a new daily rhythm and, yes, a new balance.
KS: When I saw Gloria: A Life and Gloria Steinem herself walked out to lead that talking circle, I thought: That’s what fucking 82 is? Wow.
KS: Okay. Shit. 84. Did working with her now that you’re 66 inspire you to think you can have an amazing third act?
EM: Absolutely. Gloria is one of the greatest inspirations of my life from the time I was a teenager and I realized that if there is a Gloria Steinem in the world, then I can do what I want to do – and that’s especially true to this moment in time because she’s still kicking it at 84, almost 85. I’m thinking I have a good 20 years of hard work left in me, and maybe more. Gloria says she wants to live to 100. I only want to live to 100 if I have all my marbles. But I have good genes. I have to say, though, that I am very excited by what I now know. I love being this age. I feel like I am at the top of my game. I have a lot of years left in me and I want to use them really well. I have quite a few more plays left in me to write and many more plays left in me to direct. I think I have a lot more to give.
KS: I am thankful for all you’ve given so far and look forward to your third act. Thank you for your artistry, Emily, and for your citizenship. And hug your grandson for me.
EM: Oh, thank you, Kevin. I will.