Seated with her hands folded on a small circular table in a room filled with books and photos and a window facing Princeton University, director and playwright Emily Mann says, “I feel like I’m finishing up my second act and in preparation for the next.”
Mann, 67, is talking about the start of the final months of her tenure as artistic director of McCarter Theater, something she calls a “gratifying and moving transition time.”
The gratification includes seeing how her 30 years of work at the Princeton theater was appreciated — including her 2019 induction into the American Theater Hall of Fame, a New York City institution founded in 1970 to honor lifetime achievements in American theater.
It also goes to Tony Award-winning McCarter Theater and the opportunity she found here. “I was able to do my own work and support artists I deeply admired — from the new to the legendary. I wrote 15 works and produced 175 others and directed 50. I was able to develop new plays and works in repertory. It is an enormous amount of work. It was a rich, rich time,” she says.
It was also one that “hit every part of who I am: The community, the home building, the youth, and the working with all kinds of people — ethnicities, races, ages, and all different stories. It was a great privilege.”
Then, looking forward, she says she doesn’t want to feel like something posthumous and that, “I have a third act.”
One, she says, that will allow her to devote more time to her writing and family.
Remaining in her seat, Mann takes flight when she previews the plot points of her future.
“I am writing a musical with Lucy and Carly Simon,” she says. “It is based on a novel by Kent Haruf, ‘Our Souls at Night.’”
Lucy Simon is the Broadway composer for “Dr. Zhivago” and “My Secret Garden.” Carly is the Grammy Award-winning composer and singer of the popular songs “Anticipation” and “You’re So Vain” as well as an Academy Award recipient for music for the film “Working Girl.”
“Lucy is writing is music and lyrics. Carly is writing additional lyrics. And I’m writing the book,” Mann says.
She says she also has a “deeply satisfying” commission to write a stage adaptation of “The Pianist,” based solely on the memoir by Polish-Jewish pianist, composer, and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman and not the 2002 film version.
There is also talk about reviving several of her plays in New York City. That includes the potential of “Having Our Say,” Mann’s stage treatment of the autobiography of the two African American Delany sisters, being produced in Harlem for the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance. Also in discussion is a production of her adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard,” with the COOP — an offshoot of Bedlam Theater
“I’m just letting the universe guide me,” she says. “’Love and work… work and love, that’s all there is,’ said Freud — with whom I don’t always agree. But that is what he said.”
That love includes a family of mainly lawyers who, she says, “support and defend me.” That includes her husband, retired Princeton-area lawyer Gary Mailman.
Her son from an earlier marriage, Nicholas Bamman, and daughter-in-law, June Lee, live in Washington, D.C., where he works for the Federal Election Commission and she for the Legal Aid Society. Her young grandson is Oliver Arthur.
The “Arthur” is in honor of the playwright’s late father, Arthur Mann, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Chicago history professor from Brooklyn. Her mother, Paterson native Sylvia Mann, was a New Jersey Teachers College-trained remedial reading instructor.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but raised in Chicago, Mann says her involvement with theater came from the heart. As she says in a past U.S. 1 story, “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.’”
Others, however, had other thoughts. Her parents initially were not supportive and wanted her “to make a difference.” However after some consideration her father realized that working in theater could have some social impact and had a change of heart and even influenced her writing.
As Mann told one interviewer after studying theater at Harvard, she got interested in a specific and imaginative story her father had collected during an oral history project and wanted to use. His reply was that the story belonged to the person who told it and that if she wanted to create a work she should “go out and find your own.”
That led to the first of her testimony or documentary plays, “Annulla.” Others include “Greensboro (A Requiem)” and “Gloria,” recently seen at McCarter.
The era also had a different opinion, and the term “woman director” was an oxymoron. As she tells it, when she told one of her Harvard mentors she wanted to direct, he replied, “‘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.’”
A short time later she became the first woman to get a Bush Artist Fellowship to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. Then, after earning her MFA in 1976, she started her professional directing career in small theater houses in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. Three years later she became the first woman to direct a play the Guthrie.
Two years later the playwright and freelance director was working as an associated director at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then began to see her work appear on New York stages, first the off-Broadway production of “Still Life” and then Broadway production of “Execution of Justice” in 1986.
She had also married actor Gerry Bamman and became a mother in 1983. When the marriage ended in 1989 she 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 says she started interviewing for artistic directorships and applied to McCarter, becoming its artistic director in 1990.
When she took the position, she says, “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.
“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.”
However, waiting ahead were two situations that brought unanticipated lessons.
“I didn’t know when I arrived that the theater was in financial peril, and I had to turn it around. I was surprised and the board was surprised,” she says.
Part of the problem was that one of the theater’s important funders, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, announced it was cutting its support in half.
Mann sums that news up with a wry, “Welcome to New Jersey!” She continues, “I had to really roll up my sleeves and save the theater — right from my arrival. But it brought the board together and got the right staff together. We got lucky, flourished, and got the Tony Award in in 1994 (for best regional theater).”
That was the same year she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
“When I was diagnosed I offered my resignation to the board and they laughed and said, ‘Don’t be silly and tell us how we can help you.’ I never missed a board meeting or a rehearsal because of that support.”
With the M.S. in remission, Mann says she is healthier now than she was in her 40s and forgets about it when she takes walks from her Mercer Street home.
“I’m one of those lucky ones. I’m very fortunate and I know it. I was able to have an extraordinary career while I was battling it for eight years. I found my way through my work, my family, and my wonderful staff. I feel if I didn’t have the support of McCarter I would have stopped.”
Reflecting on those unexpected lessons, Mann says, “I suppose I didn’t know how much adversity would make me a better artist, a better mother, and a better friend and spouse. Sometimes adversity is the silver lining.”
Then there are positive highlights. And looking back at her McCarter tenure, Mann lists several.
One, she says readily, was writing and directing the stage adaptation of Civil Rights pioneers Sarah and Elizabeth Delany’s memoir, “Having Our Say,” and seeing it go to Broadway, win awards, and generate income for the theater. “That was satisfying,” she says.
Another was “discovering some extraordinary artists” as well as “having the opportunity to work with Edward Albee and Athol Fugard.”
Then there were some off-stage highlights that include watching her son grow “into an extraordinary young man. And the marriage to my second husband is one of the great blessings in my life. And I had the privilege of spending the last years of my mother’s life with her in Princeton. One of the gifts that she gave me when I arrived here as a single mother was when I would be worried about going to a ballgame my son was in, my mother said, ‘A happy and fulfilled women makes a good mother.’” She adds that her mother was right because her son “wanted a woman who was passionate about work.”
She also says that as the months of her final season come to a close, she has been “sticking to what I most believe in.” The recent offerings have reflected her interest in developing women-driven works, such as her own play based on the life of Gloria Steinem, “Gloria,” and partnering with innovative theater companies and reexamining ways to use McCarter spaces, such as the Lookingglass Theater’s production of “Frankenstein.”
Then there is her work of “giving voice to people who are often not heard from.”
That includes Rachel Bonds, a 36-year-old Tennessee-raised dramatist Mann has been mentoring and who has received a commission from McCarter to create “Goodnight Nobody,” currently on the McCarter stage through February 9.
Mann says one of the aspects she loves in Bonds’ new work is that Bonds “understands the human spirit and has such an ear for what people say. I wanted her in my final season.”
After saying “I had this whole thing about mentorship in my career,” she says she asked another artist she supported, Adam Immerwahr, to be in her final season. A former McCarter associate artistic director and director of McCarter’s “Mousetrap” and “A Christmas Carol,” Immerwahr is directing “Sleuth.” It runs March 10 through 29.
Then there is the trilogy, “The Immigrant Plays” by Nathan Alan Davis. “This is his first major production,” says Mann. “I found it such a work of deep poetry and a deeply spiritual and loving play that is funny and moving and brings characters to the stage that I have never seen. It is not about race; it is about a particular group of people who happen to be black. It is a story I haven’t heard before. It is about a family that that has found refuge.”
Addressing the idea of running a successful theater, Mann says, “How do we measure success? For me it’s not the box office or the critics, although it is always nice to have sold out houses. But the matter of success is the work itself. Did it do what it meant to do? And did it find its ways into hearts and minds?”
Time will answer that question as well as that of Mann’s successor, one she says, “I can’t wait to light the torch of.”
For the rest of this final act she says has to live with “mixed emotions. Some days, I’m elated. Some days, I’m sad. I adore my staff. I adore this place. I adore the job.”
But, she says, it’s time to provide the space “for artists coming up.”
McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org.