By Pam Hersh
An American Theatre Magazine article (June 26, 2015) described McCarter Theatre’s
longtime Artistic Director Emily Mann as a quiet radical.
A radical – unquestionably.
Quiet? When offstage, she may speak softly, but she is no shrinking violet. She carries
a big stick comprising powerful and passionate words on social justice issues related
especially to race and gender. Her compelling words combined with relentless energy
have made her a renowned theater director and playwright.
What people are speaking about right now is her critically acclaimed off-Broadway play: “Gloria: A Life” – Emily’s
current platform for broadcasting her message and talents.
I am too much of an unapologetic fan of Emily Mann to be an objective reviewer of her
play, so rather than explain why the play is spectacular, I prefer to explore how Emily
Mann’s own life brought her to a place where she was able to write “Gloria: A Life.”
According to the play’s website, the play “brings us a richly detailed tapestry about one
of the most inspiring and remarkable women of our time – Gloria Steinem. Five decades
after she began raising her voice for equality and championing those of others, her vision
is as urgent as ever. Gloria’s life’s work and philosophy on the necessity of conversation as a catalyst for change offer us all a path forward in a way that only live theater can.
Written by Tony Award-nominee Emily Mann and directed by visionary Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus, this production celebrates a dynamic all-women cast featuring Christine Lahti, [and a] creative and producing team led by Daryl Roth. The first act is Gloria’s story; the second is our own.” (www.gloriatheplay.com)
Although Emily with humility would deny it, the name “Emily Mann” could be substituted for Gloria Steinem in much of the above description of the play. Just referring to her three decades in Princeton, I can say with certainty that Emily Mann has been the master of theatrical conversation that certainly has changed the community – and my perspective on life – for the better.
I saw Emily – rather talkative and animated – a few weeks ago at a gathering that Wendy Benchley, former Princeton Borough Council member, arranged in order to reconnect with her Princeton friends. (Wendy moved to Washington, D.C., a few years ago – but still has gotten to NYC to see the play twice.)
Because Emily was eager to find out how everyone else was doing, it took some effort on my part to get her talking about her most recent writing project. But once she started, she was exuberant about the play and how she got to where she is today as a writer and artistic director.
“I was a real revolutionary in college (Radcliff College of Harvard University) in the early
’70s in all social justice areas, as well as in my professional goals. I was determined to be a theater director and writer at a time when my advisor at the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard made it very clear that directing and writing were not options for a woman in theater. He tried to encourage me to think about acting or pursuing writing and directing for children’s theater. ‘You are attractive, why not be an actress,’ I was told. ‘I don’t want to be an actress. I want to direct, I want to write,’ I would respond.”
Her response often would get her labeled as a “hysterical” female, said Emily.
Instead of being paralyzed or made “hysterical” by the “advice,” Emily Mann became angry and motivated to succeed in her career on her terms. “I was so angry – but that fueled my determination to shake up the field and succeed.”
It was not only her anger, but also the words of Gloria Steinem that pushed her forward.
“I never set out to be the ‘first woman’ at anything in particular. I just wanted to write and direct in theater. It turns out this was radical – I have been the first woman writer/director on any stage where I was hired,” including McCarter and the Guthrie (in Minneapolis).
In 1974, Emily, at the age of 22, received a directing fellowship at the Guthrie. She noted simply being a woman forging a career as a director and playwright in the American theatre was itself a political statement without having to say a word. Five years later, she directed the revival of “The Glass Menagerie” and became the first woman to direct on the Guthrie’s mainstage since the Guthrie opened in 1963.
By the time McCarter hired her, Emily Mann had staged classics and new plays at major
regional theaters around the country.
She also had achieved an international reputation for writing documentary plays on such topics as the brutalizing effects of the Holocaust(“Annulla, an Autobiography”); the Vietnam War (“Still Life”); and homophobia run amok (“Execution of Justice”). In 1986, she staged “Execution of Justice” on Broadway, and became one of only three women who directed on Broadway during the 1985–86 season.
Emily noted coming to McCarter was a leap of faith both on the part of the hiring board and on her part. She was a single mother, who made it very clear she wanted to direct and write, and was different in style and artistic goals from the prior artistic director, Nagle Jackson. Financially, the theater was entering a fragile time with drastic cuts in state funding for the arts and a capital campaign that was $2.5 million in the red. The new McCarter artistic director would have to be an aggressive marketer and fundraiser, in addition to being a playwright and director.
Like a good play, “ it all came together,” said Emily.
She is in her 29th season as artistic director and resident playwright. Her nearly 50 McCarter directing credits include productions by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen and Williams, plus several recent world premieres. Her own several original plays, including adaptations, tackle controversial social issues and have won her national critical acclaim, with “Gloria” now generating enormous buzz in the theater world.
The most recent act in Emily Mann’s career as a playwright came last year when she
was walking through Princeton University’s campus.
“I got the phone call asking me to be part of the team creating a play based on the life of Gloria Steinem – and Gloria, herself, wanted me to do the writing. My heart was beating so hard. It took me one second to say ‘yes.’”
The writing proceeded quickly.
“I went away for two weeks and had my first draft,” Emily said. “And before I knew it, we were in workshops. The rewriting and restructuring of the play was time consuming, partially because of the change in venue from Lincoln Center, which could only accommodate the play on Monday nights to Daryl’s theater (Daryl Roth Theatre) on East 15th Street, where the show could have a full production.”
The theatre, by the way, is named for the female producer who has produced more Pulitzer Prize–winning plays than any of her male peers. The show’s run has been extended through March, but there is a chance McCarter could host the show next year.
When I spoke to her, Emily was about to start her “vacation” in the Dominican Republic
– a few weeks of doing nothing other than working on her next writing project – the topic
being a closely held secret. For years, she has taken her vacations to write – “it is a way
of life and one that I love” – one might describe it as Glorious, a Life.
“Gloria: A Life” is being staged at the Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 E. 15th St., New York.
For tickets, call 1-800-982-2727 or 1-212-375-1110.