Like many of life’s big decisions, it started with a crush. As a child growing up, first in Northampton, Massachusetts, and then Chicago, Emily Mann, who is starting her 20th season as artistic director of McCarter Theater, says, “I loved stories. I was very visual and into art and music and literature and writing. And then I got a crush on a boy in high school who was in the theater. I went to see him in a play, and suddenly I said, ‘That looks good, I want to do that.’ And I wanted to go to the cast party because that’s where the fun was. So I started sweeping floors, then doing props and then makeup and then eventually I took an acting class. When I had become completely involved in theater — and the boy was history — I was doing a play and one of the drama teachers said to me, ‘You know, you think like a director. You might want to try directing.’ And that put it all together for me. My love of music, of literature, of acting. I said, ‘Oh, that’s who I am.’”

Mann will be honored at a one-day conference, “Women in Theater: Issues for the 21st Century,” at Princeton University on Saturday, September 26 (see sidebar page 39).

A revival of Mann’s play, “Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years,” starring Yvette Freeman (nurse Haleh Adams from “ER”) and Lizan Mitchell, is opening McCarter’s new season and runs through Sunday, October 18 (see review page 23). The play, which premiered at McCarter in 1995 and enjoyed an award-winning Broadway run (with three Tony nominations), is based on the book of the same name, the memoirs of two African-American sisters who lived to be over 100. The Delaneys first appeared on the national radar when journalist Amy Hill Hearth wrote a feature article about them for the New York Times in 1991. (Hearth later co-wrote the book with the sisters, Sadie and Bessie). “Having Our Say” was the most produced play in America during the 1997-’98 season and is on American Theater magazine’s 10 most frequently produced play list from 1996 to 1999.

Mann, 57, says she shares a trait with Bessie. “I was ‘the feeling child,’ I felt everything immensely, like Bessie. I remember when I was a little girl, when we lived in Northampton and my father [historian and biographer Arthur Mann] was teaching at Smith — he believed in the education of women and was an early feminist. He took me one Sunday morning — we would always spend Sundays together — to the greenhouse at the college. There was a plant that you could touch and it would fold up. My father called it the sensitive plant, and I remember my father saying, ‘Just like you.’”

Ever since then, Mann says, “I worked on finding a way to not be hurt too easily, not to feel things so enormously that it overwhelmed me from being able to go on.”

What developed with that effort was a tremendous capacity for empathy. “I would always put myself in other people’s shoes. I remember Miss Murphy, my second grade teacher, said, ‘The important thing is that you should be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes.’ And I literally in my mind would pick out the boy with big, smelly feet, who everyone hated and would bully and pick on. I would put myself in his shoes and I would become him. I would write about it. I would talk about it. Empathy is a blessing and a curse, and I made it a blessing. I had to learn not to, what was called in the ’70s, somatize — I would internalize those feelings in my body and it would make me ill. I had to learn to let it flow through.

“But I use that in my work all the time. Watching me watch one of my plays, I mean, I’m living it through with them. I don’t really know how not to. When I’m not feeling that, it means that something is not real or alive.”

That empathy has proven integral, even essential, to Mann’s work as a director. Christopher Durang, whose play “Miss Witherspoon” was first workshopped and then produced at McCarter in 2005 (the title was inspired by Witherspoon Street), is among several playwrights who have written tribute statements to Mann on the occasion of her 20th anniversary at McCarter. He wrote: “There’s an extra component to Emily that I so adore because not all creative people have it — she is empathetic, kind, and calm. I think empathy is a major quality that many creative people have (and that the world needs more of). Emily has it in spades, and it’s one of the reasons she’s such a joy to be around.”

Mann’s choice to go into the theater did not at first please her father nor her mother, Sylvia Mann, a remedial reading teacher. The Manns had the highest expectations for their two daughters, Emily and Carol (now a literary agent in New York). Mann says her father “raised the bar as high as it could go. He wanted his daughters to make a difference. That’s one of the reasons I understand the Delaney sisters so well — their Poppy said to them, you have to make a difference. Family, education, and the values that you must make a difference for others. And you had to stay human.”

Mann acknowledges that while there was certainly a theatrical bent to her family, no one ever took it seriously. When her mother was attending New Jersey State Teachers College, a talent scout saw her in a school play at age 20 and wanted to make her an actress. “My father’s family were all sort of amateur stand-up comics and musicians, and they would go to the mountains every summer and have their own skits. I think that at the end of the day what my father did, because of the historian he was, was research, and he found out about Hallie Flanagan [WPA theater proponent and head of the theater department at Smith College]. Suddenly there were people who could have an important and serious understanding of the national and global issues of the day and be in the theater and make a difference; it wasn’t just show biz. So he encouraged me.”

Mann chose Harvard, not because of its status, a school her father would most certainly approve of, but because when she was seven, her father taught summer school at Harvard and she fell in love with Cambridge. “It became my dream to become a ‘Cliffie’ [the nickname for the female students at Radcliffe]. I loved that they wore these great sandals, and I wanted to be smart like them. I wanted to be them.”

Those Cliffies took some getting used to for the legacy male students of Harvard. “I never experienced sexism until I went to Harvard,” Mann says. “I was sheltered from it all my life. I was told I could do anything. Then I found out at Harvard, oh maybe not. When I went to Harvard the ratio of men to women was still 10 to 1. You would get obliterated sometimes in these classes, where a lot of these guys didn’t want you there. I remember being in a Shakespeare class and they were reading ‘King Lear,’ my favorite play. I was the only woman, and the TA said, ‘OK, I suppose we have to hear from Radcliffe now.’ There are things that sting you that you never forget.”

As graduation approached, Mann says her peers, having spent four years doing nothing but theater, were deciding whether to go to the Yale School of Drama and become directors or to go to the west coast and do film. “I was thinking about it, and I talked to one of my mentor teachers there. I said, ‘I can’t decide which to do because I think film is a really interesting way to go.’ And he said, ‘Oh, Emily, you’re not really thinking of being a professional director of film or theater.’ I said, ‘Well, yes, I am.’ And he said, ‘No matter how talented you may be, women simply do not have professional careers in the theater.’ This was 1974. He said, ‘I think you should think about children’s theater.’ I said, ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ I was so angry. It was too late to tell me that. I’m used to being told I could do anything I want and that’s what I’m going to do. If my parents hadn’t set that foundation, I might have been crushed.”

After Harvard, Mann was the first woman to get a Bush Artist Fellowship to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. “There was a second stage being started at the Guthrie when I arrived. The people running that pulled me out of school, and I directed my first professional show at the age of 25.” After earning her MFA in 1976, she continued to direct professionally at small theaters around Minneapolis/St. Paul, which she calls “a fabulous theater town,” and in 1979 became the first woman to direct on the main stage at the Guthrie.

She moved to New York later that year. David Jones at Brooklyn Academy of Music hired her as associate director, and she had her debut in New York. In 1981 her second play, “Still Life,” was produced off-Broadway — starring John Spencer (known for his portrayal of chief of staff Leo McGarry on the television show “The West Wing”), who would become a close friend until his sudden death from a heart attack in 2005. “Still Life” swept the Obie Awards, including an award for Spencer’s performance. “Then I was there,” says Mann. From 1981 to 1990 she freelanced as both a playwright and director around the country and in New York. In 1986 she had her Broadway debut with her own play, “Execution of Justice,” again with John Spencer in the cast.

Her only child, Nicholas Bamman, was born in 1983, while she was living in Manhattan. When she and her husband split up in 1989, she says, “I realized I needed to make a strong home for Nick. I had to be in one place and do my work, so that either had to be teaching or I had to have my own theater.” She started interviewing for artistic directorships, and the McCarter opportunity came up. “It was perfect, you know,” Mann says. “I’m a faculty brat. When I was offered the position it just felt right. I remember talking to my father about it. He said, ‘Well, what is your goal?’ And I said, ‘I want to make it one of the best theaters.’ He asked, ‘Can it be done and is it worth doing?’ He was tough. And you know what? Those were the two best questions he could ask me.”

She also consulted her “dear friend,” Mark Lamos of Hartford Stage. “He said he thought it would be great for me to build a body of work in one place and build a body of work of the people I most respected in the theater.” She also spoke with Peter Hall, who was then the director of the National Theater of England, “the greatest artistic director in the world to me. He said, ‘Yes, do it, but you have to have someone who is your associate who is your right arm, who you can completely trust. That’s the first thing you have to do, and the second thing you have to do is never just choose to do a play. Every single play you put on that stage has to be an event.’ Fabulous advice. And that’s been our mantra. Every single production has to be an event.”

So what constitutes an “event?” Mann uses as an example McCarter’s January, 2008, world premiere of Edward Albee’s “Me, Myself, & I,” starring Tyne Daly and Brian Murray, which Mann directed. “This was Edward Albee on his 80th birthday, to many people the greatest living American playwright. We had commissioned this play, and he was back on his game. That’s an event.” (“Me, Myself, & I” is due on Broadway in 2010.)

Mann arrived at McCarter in 1990, and the high value of education her own educator parents had instilled in her as a child came to the fore. “I realized that part of me is a political person. I’m an activist at heart, as well as an artist. So the things that I cared most about could happen here. I wanted to make the education department really matter, that we were growing the next generation of theater professionals but also getting to kids in the inner city and helping them.

“Or in the privileged schools, but being what that drama teacher was to me — I found my life because of a teacher. If the arts are being cut in the schools, how are students going to be able to be touched by something that may be a life’s calling that would give them very exciting lives. So we went into the schools with that idea, regardless of economics — to go in and really reach youths — and that mattered to me. I also knew that I cared deeply about the work of people of color and women. And I was in a place where I could choose to do that.”

Mann is intensely interested in the work of other female playwrights and in giving women directors opportunities on the McCarter stage. But gender simply does not factor into her decisions about whether to produce a particular play or hire a particular director. This approach does not jive with the findings of an undergraduate economics thesis written earlier this year by Emily Glassberg Sands at Princeton. Sands, now a graduate student at Harvard, made headlines on June 24 when she revealed in a talk at New York’s 59E59 theater complex that she had sent scenes from four unpublished plays — two written by a male and two written by a female (the pseudonyms Michael Walker and Mary Walker were used) to artistic directors around the country, who were asked to assess the scripts. The New York Times reported, “It turned out that Mary’s scripts received significantly worse ratings in terms of quality, economic prospects, and audience response than Michael’s The biggest surprise? ‘These results are driven exclusively by the responses of female artistic directors and literary managers,’ Ms. Sands said.”

Mann begs to differ. “I don’t want to be negative about a young woman’s work, but this was all out of proportion. I mean, this was an undergraduate thesis, very flawed. And of course it became a huge publicity event because it could be interpreted as saying that women are to blame for other women not getting any work in the theater. That was what everyone jumped on. In reality, the questions she asked were not the questions we ask before we produce a play. She was right across the street and she never called me, an artistic director and playwright of national recognition. It’s so flawed. She never knew who read (the scripts). I mean it went sometimes just to the theater, not to the artistic director or even the literary manager. It was so poorly put together. When it came to our offices, we were in the middle of opening two plays by and about women. Our literary manager was in the midst of dramaturging a play by a woman, Danai Gurira [who is speaking on a panel at the September 26 Women in Theater conference]. It’s sad.”

Mann does not judge a playwright or a director by gender, but rather by merit. She acknowledges that “the playing field is still not level for women. There aren’t enough women running theaters. There aren’t enough working directors, not enough produced playwrights. The talent is there.” Doesn’t gender discrimination take place in all fields? Mann agrees but says, “if you look at the law, for example, they’ve done probably the best of any field.” (Mann’s husband, Gary Mailman, is a lawyer with Herrick, Feinstein in Carnegie Center, and her son is currently in law school.)

“The arts are very subjective,” she continues. “I do many plays by and about women or directed by women but I only make choices according to merit. You look at my staff and except for the managing director and the director of public and community relations, it’s heavily female. I didn’t notice it until someone brought it to my attention. (Those people were hired) because they were the best people for the job. Similarly, when you choose plays it is subjective — you have a gut response. Now, am I going to be more interested in a woman’s story? Maybe. I’ve written them. I’m a woman. You can’t separate your sexuality and your gender, and you shouldn’t.”

She gives as an example, Danai Gurira’s play “Eclipsed,” about Nigerian women, which was developed with the aid of McCarter and produced as part of the theater’s In Festival and will have productions this season at Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, LA’s Mark Taper Forum, and Yale Rep. Mann says “Eclipsed” taps directly into both her interest in plays by and about women and plays by and about African-Americans, an interest that goes back to the integrated Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park of Mann’s youth. The great African-American historian, John Hope Franklin, and his wife, Aurelia, were close family friends and lived close by. Both Mann’s father and John Hope Franklin taught at the University of Chicago and marched together in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Franklin, who died earlier this year, was like a second father to the young Emily Mann, and Mann was invited to speak at his memorial, where Bill Clinton also spoke. She told a writer for the blog after the service that Aurelia Franklin is the only person, other than her mother, she could confide in. “She taught me how to navigate,” Mann told the reporter. “Meanness, unfairness, rage, envy. There is still so much work to do. Hope outweighs fear. I get that from the Franklins.”

Merit — and the mantra to make every production an event — has driven Mann’s programming through 19 seasons at McCarter. “You make choices as an artistic director for a season of plays that are an event for you. Each one just hits you in the gut as being funny or tragic, and hopefully you get as much variety as possible. But will we put on a play by Danai Gurira, yes, and also a play by Edward Albee. Because they both have mind-blowingly high merit scores. Now, one of the young, young writers I know, she’s doing things that I haven’t seen anyone else attempt. Similarly Edward never repeats himself. He’s always trying to attempt what hasn’t been done. This theater embraces both. Whether it’s Athol Fugard or Edward Albee or John Guare, who’s coming with a new play, or Terell McCraney. That’s the joy of giving opportunities to people you most admire; I do it from the youngest to the giants.”

She believes that “women write differently than men, period. Now, if you are judging the merit of a work by saying it has to follow the rules of the male writer, then women fall short because they don’t write like men. They write from who they are. There are women who come through, and often they are women who are speaking from their hearts and their guts, so it’s the real thing, but they sometimes have given in to structural decisions that will work in a male world. Sometimes a woman will be allowed in.

“Women are talking about a different perspective on the personal, emotional, and political plane,” Mann continues. “If a play is produced at a first-rate artistic level — and that’s what we always do — it may or may not be your cup of tea, this particular play, but it will be superbly done. So as to the question of whether it has merit or not, whether it’s well done or not is usually not much of an issue; it’s whether the play speaks to you or not. And what I’ve found — and it may just be because we’re hearing from women more and more, by the way — is that sometimes it’s women’s voices that have a ring of sanity to them in a really crazy world. The men’s plays were all about abuse and violence. We are going to see a tidal wave (of women writers and directors), I think, in the next 10 years, if not sooner, both in film and theater. I mean the talent is out there.”

Mann says one need only look at the Middle East to see the damage of repressing women’s voices. “We know that a civilization that muzzles or silences its women, like the Middle East, is a sick society, and everyone, male and female, suffers. Well, even on a more subtle level, when women’s art is kept from being seen and heard, it’s not healthy for the art and the culture of that country. Women need to be heard from, and they are going to be undeniable. I’m mentoring a lot of them. They’re just astounding.”

Mann has reached one of the top rungs in the theater world — she is artistic director of a Tony Award-winning regional theater (McCarter won the Tony for Best Regional Theater in 1994), where she has overseen more than 90 productions, an award-winning playwright whose work has been produced on Broadway and around the country, and she has directed some of the most prominent actors working today. Does she considers herself successful?

“Well, Gary, my husband, is always yelling at me because I think I’m not. I am certainly not satisfied. I certainly don’t feel that I can rest easy. I haven’t done all that I need to do. I have more to write, I have more to direct, I have more people to nurture and produce. I have a great sense of accomplishment. If I wanted to take these 20 years and just take stock, I think, yes, we’ve done very, very well, but we can do better.”

Is she happy? Mann answers without a beat, yes. She says her work makes her happy and her family makes her happy, that happiness is more important to her than success. “I guess on a rational day I know I’m successful. But maybe I need to know there’s more to do. Any artist who just lets up, the work goes. You have to be reaching for the next way to challenge yourself.” On top of her work as artistic director Mann is in the middle of writing a movie, has a new play in mind, and is considering directing one play next season. And there is interest in a Broadway revival of “Execution of Justice.” “There’s a lot going on,” she says.

It is hard to believe that this energetic, slim, dynamic woman was diagnosed with MS in 1994. She is in remission and credits yoga for helping her feel well on a day-to-day basis. She says yoga helped her get through the worst part of her illness. “It became something I needed to do, and I realized that that’s a great way to work with actors because it will make them both mentally clear and physically grounded. You get out of yoga, and you don’t waste a second, you’re just crystal clear.”

She starts every rehearsal with yoga. “Actors come into rehearsal, and they’re talking to their agents on their cell phones or they just broke up with their boyfriend, they’re just a mess, and the first 20 minutes of every rehearsal are just a waste. But no, no, no, I’m over that. I need yoga to get clear. I was in so much pain for so many years and such distress physically. Yoga released my pain and cleared my mind. I practice every day.”

There is no question that Mann directs from a place that is distinctly, instinctively female. Actor John Spencer told her way back when they were doing “Still Life” — one of Spencer’s first experiences working with a female director — that he always felt that he could open himself up emotionally to women more easily than to men, and that suddenly, as an actor, with Mann directing, he was already on a higher level.

And if women are traditionally more nurturing and protective, those qualities, too, come through in her directing. “John revealed to me how I work. He said [during ‘Still Life’], ‘You never make an actor wrong.’ I always make a safe place for actors to go further than they ever thought they were capable of going. It has to be a safe environment. And if they’ve gone somewhere I will take what is good about what they attempted, what took a lot of courage to go there, and then take them to the next step and the next. I never say no. I learned from John that that’s what I do, and then I began to strengthen it. He also said another thing to me, which I treasure. He said, ‘You never let an actor lie.’ It’s the truth or it’s not enough. I learned that you have to be careful about how and when you spring the big questions but they have to be sprung, and that’s what I do. I ask the hard ones, the painful ones, at the right moment.”

Lastly, the simple fact that she is a mother reveals itself in every aspect of her work. “Being a mother definitely made me a better artist, no question about it. You understand the human race by having a child. And feeling that much love, it’s just astounding. It affects my writing and my mentoring and my giving to the education department and my raising money — all of it.”

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