Profile: Emily Mann

Artistic Director of McCarter Theatre

By Maria LoBiondo

McCarter Theatre's artistic director and playwright Emily Mann, is the kind of intellectual the Princeton scene loves: personable but self-effacing, prestigious without being pretentious. Mann's career included numerous awards and plenty of celebrities famous for writing plays as well as acting in them. In five years here she's garnered Broadway's highest honor for McCarter, a 1994 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater, and followed that up with three nominations for work done in 1995.

So what will she do for an encore? Those who know Mann say she will continue doing what she has always done - build a "theater community" at McCarter, one in which audiences welcome a variety of new plays and classics. Additionally, as a playwright, she will continue to, in her words, "tell people's stories." She has a new play which will premiere in February.

"I was attracted to Princeton because it is an interestingly diverse town," Mann says. The attraction extends beyond the town's borders to the overall region McCarter serves. "I saw it as a place to build a challenging theater, a place that would thrive on challenging theater, a community that would go the distance."

Mann's vision for McCarter includes strong parallels to classical Greek and Elizabethan theater as a community center. "Community building - that's what theater's all about," she explains. "It's where a community comes together to share an event, a forum where significant ideas can be batted around. It's also a place to laugh together. There has to be a balance."

Judging from the jump in season subscribers since Mann took McCarter's helm, it appears that her community theater concept has paid off. There were 10,800 season ticket holders in the 1994-95 season, an 80 percent increase over 1990 when there were only 6,000 season subscribers, according to Jeffrey Woodward who serves as McCarter's managing director.

These same subscribers may get their biggest challenge yet in the upcoming season. For while the 1995- 1996 season includes comedy - "Private Lives" by Noel Coward and "The Misanthrope" by Moliere, both brought to life by visiting directors - Mann also plans to stage her own work, "Greensboro - A Requiem," a memorial to five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators who were murdered during a march in that North Carolina town in 1979. The play concerns an event that Mann says is "eerily present" in our own time, given the Oklahoma City bombing and the rise of the extreme right. She has been working on the play for almost as long as she has been at McCarter.

Mann's cubicle-like office reflects her friendly manner. Her desk faces a Gothic triptych of windows and is predictably covered in papers. Posters from plays dot the walls, as do photographs on a bulletin board near her desk. Two bookcases arranged in a corner, however, are neatly, almost reverently, arranged with theater books.

Sans makeup and comfortably dressed in a T-shirt, flowing flower-printed slacks and flat sandals, Mann settles in one of two caned chairs set up around a leather-topped occasional table that might have come out of McCarter's prop room. Her gaze is direct, interested, but not overly animated or "theatrical."

Hers is a face that attracts stories, she says. Wherever she goes - sitting on a plane, for example - people open up to her. Her gaze may be a large part of the reason; it is compassionate and nonjudgmental. Her dark eyes seem able to take all of a story in and hold it there.

It is that reverence for people's stories that has informed Mann's work as a playwright. She is a proponent of documentary theater, in which she does not write dialogue but uses people's own words arranged, shaped and offset with dramatic timing. She admits this form of theater, rooted in oral history and called the "theater of testimony" by South African theater artists, is not objective in the truest sense of the word, but, she contends, it is "reality-based."

"I feel the need to tell people's stories and reflect what I see and what I hear... I think it is important, in the end, for me, to be, in a way, invisible. I give voice to the voiceless, I give voice to the people who are often not heard of, or heard from. Their stories aren't famous enough, they didn't make the tabloids.

"I find out what I'm thinking by the stories I attract," she said. "People have a need to tell me their stories... But what I choose to write about, because I attract so many stories, often is what I feel the need to discuss or what I feel the need to figure out for myself that makes me take on a project. There's something about the event or the person involved in the event that will not leave me alone."

That feeling, and a gauntlet laid down by her father, historian Arthur Mann, led to her first play, "Anulla: An Autobiography." Emily was fascinated by a statement her father collected as part of a Holocaust oral history project, in which a Czech woman had interviewed her ballerina mother on how the mother survived the Treblinka concentration camp. "How she survived was remembering, in her mind, her favorite role... She just kept making perfect moments in her mind, perfect turns, the light hitting her tutu perfectly... She created something of such exquisite beauty, and refining it and refining it... And that's what she felt kept her alive when everyone else around her was dying," Mann recalled.

But Arthur Mann said the story belonged to the woman who told it, and if his daughter wanted to harvest such material she should "Go out and find your own."

After traveling to Poland and spending hours in the kitchen of her best friend's aunt - listening to that Holocaust survivor's tale while the aunt made chicken soup - Emily Mann decided "Others should hear this." "Anulla" is the result.

Her plays also have explored the Vietnam war. She has tried her hand at musicals and screenplays. Perhaps her most successful play, in terms of name recognition, is the one currently playing on Broadway, "Having Our Say," a stage version of the book with the same name by black centenarians Sarah and Bessie Delaney, who, with Amy Hill Hearth, reflect on life before and after the civil rights movement, on becoming professionals and living independently, and on keeping family ties strong amid generations of upheaval. For the 1995 Tony (Antoinette Perry) Awards, "Having Our Say" was nominated for best play, Mann was up for best director, and actress Mary Alice was up for best performance by a leading actress.

The 43-year-old playwright is reluctant to expound further on her writing motivation, as if to articulate it might somehow weaken its power. "I'm a private person," she explains. "I'm also a superstitious person when it comes to creating things. Much like Native Americans say, 'You must not take my picture because the camera steals your soul,' I think there's a part of me that will not talk away the driving force that makes me feel the need do what I do."

She does credit her father as a deep influence in her life. Arthur Mann was the biographer of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. That association led to one of his daughter's earliest theatrical experiences, seeing the musical "Fiorello!" based on the mayor's life. The arts of all kinds fascinated her growing up in Northampton, Mass., Mann says; she wrote short stories, loved music, danced and sculpted. In her teens she made the connection that theater could combine all these interests and has followed that focus ever since.

Mann did her undergraduate work at Harvard and received her master's in fine arts from the University of Minnesota. "Anulla" premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and was produced at the New Theatre of Brooklyn with Academy Award-winner Linda Hunt. Mann made her Broadway debut as both playwright and director with her work on the life and times of Harvey Milk, "Execution of Justice," for which she received high praise, including an award from the Women's Committee of the Dramatists Guild, a Drama Desk nomination, and a Burns Mantle Yearbook Best Plays Citation.

"Still Life," about Vietnam from the viewpoints of a veteran, his wife and mistress, opened off-Broadway and garnered six Obie Awards; it has been presented at major theaters around this country, Europe and in South Africa. She also twice directed Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," about the riots in that city.

Mann also has directed stage classics and met with critical acclaim. These include "The Glass Menagerie" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," both by Tennessee Williams. She has spent time as resident director at the Guthrie and Brooklyn's BAM Theater Company, two of the country's leading regional theaters.

Just as Mann says she "attracts stories" that become her plays, so she may have been destined for McCarter; Mann hints she has somehow been preparing for her present job all her life. Naming Mann as artistic director was a risk on both sides - for McCarter's Board of Trustees and for the playwright - although in retrospect the leap of faith does not seem such a big one.

McCarter was a respectable theater, but one that had fallen into a comfortable rut. As a performing arts center for more than 60 years, music, dance and drama had filled the stage, but the Theater Series has been its cornerstone for some 35 years.

McCarter's history is star-studded and varied. The theater was originally built to present annual romps by Princeton University's Triangle Club. In the 1930s, pre-Broadway showings included the world premiere of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's "You Can't Take It With You." In the 1960s, no longer a pre-Broadway stop, McCarter began presenting the classics, and gave budding actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Reeve and John Lithgow (the latter two homegrown Princetonians) their start.

More productions were presented in the 1970s by names now recognizable both as writers and actors: Sam Shepard's "Tooth of Crime" starring Frank Langella; "A Grave Understanding" with Pat Hingle and Chris Sarandon; and "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Shirley Knight, Glenn Close and Eric Roberts are some examples.

In the 1980s, McCarter productions of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" became an annual holiday event. Cultural exchanges with theaters in Scandinavia and the former Soviet Union also were forged.

When then artistic director Nagle Jackson decided to move on, McCarter's Board decided it was time for change. Their hire as artistic director would have to be up to this task.

Mann let the board know she wanted each play's run to be an event, something people would talk about. Although she had some managing experience, Mann was untried as a full-time artistic director. It was known she had a political agenda, and as one theater insider explained, "the risk is while theater people may love it (a political play), the money people (who provide financial backing) may not."

The first year was disastrous. Subscribers dropped off, taking a wait-and-see attitude toward what the new artistic director might do and leaving McCarter in a precarious financial state. According to Liz Fillo, president of McCarter's Board, the possibility loomed that McCarter might close.

But Mann and McCarter rebounded. The turning point came with Mann's 1992 production of Chekhov's "Three Sisters." Not loved by all, it nonetheless attracted a record audience by bringing well-known actresses Mary Stuart Masterson, Linda Hunt and Frances McDormand together. Two years later came national recognition with the 1994 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater. It was a remarkable achievement and one most theater people and McCarter supporters say is directly due to Mann herself

Mann is more modest. In accepting the award, she thanked not only staff but also McCarter's audience for their adventurousness. That speech, she insists, was heartfelt. "You can't have a successful theater like McCarter unless everyone is willing to take risks together- the artistic director, the staff, the Board of Trustees, and the audience," she says. Mann was able - and continues - to mobilize the excitement for all these parties to continue taking risks.

In the following theater season came "Having Our Say," which broke the audience attendance record "Three Sisters" set. Mann personally visited Trenton's Shiloh Baptist Church and the New Jersey Federation of Colored Women's Clubs' Carver Center to promote the play and help turn the production into a regional community event.

The nominations for three 1995 Tony Awards associated with "Having Our Say," even though the actual award eluded Mann and McCarter, were further stamps of approval from the theater world that the artistic director and the theater are on the right track.

"McCarter's now known throughout the country," says Woodward, Mann's partner at the theater. With the growth of theater subscriptions, there are fewer individual tickets to sell for particular shows, making getting in to some plays difficult. The subscription goal for the 1995-1996 series is 800 more than the previous year, and hopes are high the goal will be met. About 60 percent of McCarter's theater budget depends on subscriptions, with the remainder coming from contributions, Woodward adds.

Mann is optimistic. She has reason to be. Not only is McCarter attracting more of an audience, the theater is able to attract playwrights and actors of renown. The ceiling for paying actors is $700 a week, Woodward says, adding, "We're not attracting actors (to McCarter) through money, but through Emily Mann or other high quality directors." Additionally, Princeton's location comes in to play; many actors can commute to McCarter during their stints here. McCarter also maintains five apartments in Princeton for those who prefer to make Princeton a temporary home, as JoBeth Williams did while doing "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1992.

"Everything feeds on the next step," Board president Fillo points out. "Because of who Emily is, her success, she draws names."

Mann's Ivy League past (besides her own studies at Harvard, her father taught at Smith College) helps her understand Princeton and its concern with excellence; she also has expanded the theater's audiences beyond Princeton and helped make McCarter live up to its regional aspirations. Among her local friends are sculptor J. Seward Johnson, who Mann says is a great supporter of McCarter's new play forum; novelist Joyce Carol Oates, whose play, "The Perfectionist," Mann directed; and writer Kathryn Watterson, whose recent book, "Not By The Sword," delves into the same American underbelly Mann explores in her newest work.

"She has a large vision. I'm so glad others get a chance to experience her work," says Watterson, who adds she felt Mann to be "consumed with issues of justice" as both researched the American Nazi movement and the Ku Klux Klan for their respective works.

"She has courage," adds Oates, referring to the themes Mann takes on in her plays. "She's also loyal and thoughtful."

The woman who gave Mann her first theater job, an unpaid stint making props at the University of Chicago, remembers Mann as passionate about theater in her early teens as she is now. Princeton resident Louise Grafton, a prop maker, followed Mann's career and renewed their friendship when Mann moved to town. She describes Mann the artistic director as "a terrifically fair person. In theater there typically are a lot of temperaments, a lot of high emotions. Emily always seems to make the right decision."

Adventurous theater-goers will welcome the new season. Besides the Coward and Moliere plays, it opens with the world premiere of South African playwright Athol Fugard's first work since apartheid was abolished in his country, "Valley Song" (Oct. 24-Nov. 12), and includes the Henrik Ibsen classic "A Doll House."

And of course, the season promises Mann's own work on Greensboro, to premiere Feb. 6. Originally, Mann said she planned to follow the trial format she had used in "Execution of Justice." But, after attending the 15th anniversary of the Greensboro event, "I realized it had to be a memorial," she says, "a lens to understand our present."

Much of the play concerns how the rhetoric of the right has begun to infiltrate the mainstream. The right wing has "taken off the sheets and swastikas" and many of its old signs, Mann contends, and "learned how to appropriate the language of progressive people... to hide the politics of hate."

The racial divide in the United States, Mann says she believes, is "an obsession in our country... how to handle it, how to talk about it." "Greensboro - A Requiem" is her contribution to the conversation, in the hope of moving dialogue forward. "I do believe there are more good people than bad," she says, "and that most Americans believe in fairness and do believe in the basic precepts our country was founded on." The play, she says, has a message of hope.

It might seem that Emily Mann has it all at this time in her life. But just as every play has its climactic moments, Mann has had hers. Her father died in 1993. "She was a kindred spirit with her father," Grafton reveals. "She didn't suppress her sorrow, but she had work to do and she did it."

Within days of finding out about the 1994 Tony Award, Mann learned she has multiple sclerosis (MS). True to form, she has taken this challenge and molded it into something positive. "There's a blessing in the curse," she says. "In some ways it has been a rebirth. I've had to re-examine my priorities. It's very clear what matters to me now, and who matters to me now. With fewer hours in the day, my work has improved. I find that I value the goodness in people more, and I don't put up with less than the best... I believe I'll lick this. The support has been incredible."

As many of those free hours as she has are spent with her son Nicholas, now 12. Mann admits that beyond the career reasons for coming to McCarter, she was also attracted to Princeton as a good place to raise her son. Although her schedule keeps her out many nights, she says she makes sure there's a part of each day only for him.

McCarter isn't anxious to see Mann go anywhere else. She recently signed on for another three-year stint. Mann, her gaze direct and warm, admits Princeton is the kind of place in which to set down roots.

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