June 2007 - August 2007: Issue 23

People

Emily Mann Playwright, Director And Artistic Director

Interviewed by Paul Kahn
Kahn:
Let me start by asking you a little bit about your background. Was there anybody in your family involved in theatre or the arts?
Mann:
Oh, no, as a matter of fact. My father was an American historian. He died in '93. He was a professor of American History. He went to Harvard on the GI Bill and got his PhD and went to Brooklyn College undergraduate. And then he taught at MIT and then Smith College. He believed in the education of women, so I was very lucky. My mother is a reading teacher who is still alive, and my sister is a literary agent.
Kahn:
I read that you grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Mann:
I grew up in Northampton until high school, then moved to Chicago. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate.
Kahn:

I've certainly been to Northampton; we have some friends there.
Mann:
Well, it's much nicer since I've lived there, so fashionable and hip. There was one good restaurant, the Florence Diner in Florence. I wonder if it's still there. It was kind of a crummy town, and I loved it. I have a feeling if I weren't in Princeton and in the theatre, if I were doing the other sorts of things I saw myself doing as a child, I would be living there.
Kahn:
It is very nice, and you're right it has become quite fashionable.
Mann:
Well, I'm happy to talk with you. But I feel a little funny about it, because I feel so lucky. I'm in remission at the moment (from multiple sclerosis). I went through a very, very, very rough time, and I'm in a very rare and blessed state, and I have been for the past four years. I got the right medication at just the right time. If it had gone any longer, I may not have been able to stop the progression. But, I got to the right doctor at the right moment.
Kahn:
I wouldn't feel funny about talking, because you certainly have had the experience of living with a disability.
Mann:
Yes, we don't know if it's the ending, but a happy midpoint here.
Kahn:
So, if people in your family weren't involved in theatre and the arts, how did you get interested in theatre?
Mann:
Well, I was one of these arty kids, who just played instruments, played music. I was writing, oh, from the time I could hold a pencil. Mostly short stories and poetry, fairy tales and all kinds of things like that. But I didn't grow up seeing theatre, so it wasn't really anything I knew much about. Then my Jewish Sunday school took us to New York, and we went to see "The Dybuk" in the Yiddish Theatre. And that stunned me. That was my first play. But still, it didn't seem like anything I could do. I didn't make that connection until we moved to Chicago and in high school I just I had a rather major crush on a boy. He was in the school play. I wanted to see if I could get to know him. I was told if I worked on the production I could go to the cast party, so I worked on the production. I started out designing and doing make up, because I was very interested in painting and sculpture at the time. Then I tried acting and fell in love with that. Then I had a wonderful drama teacher who said, you think like a director, you understand the story, you understand literature, you understand psychology, and you should try directing. I was seventeen years old, and I will be forever grateful to him. Well. I directed a play, and that was it. I was hooked. But I didn't actually start writing a play until I was in college.
My mother actually had enormous talent in theatre. But she was the daughter of immigrants. When she was in a play in college -- she went to college in New Jersey -- my grandmother basically had a conniption fit. She wasn't allowed to do that. But she had that, and I think I get it from her.
Kahn:
So, it is in your family somewhere.
Mann:
Yes, but not allowed to come out. Although, I was also told on my father's side, when they used to go up to the Catskills, my uncles would sing in their hotel plays. But no one else did it professionally.
Kahn:
Did you study theatre in college?
Mann:
At Harvard they didn't have an undergraduate degree or courses. I really learned by doing it and apprenticing to the people I respected. And reading a lot. After I graduated college, there was a fellowship at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis where you could go to the University of Minnesota for a year of drama school, then go and apprentice at the Guthrie for a year. And at the end of that, you had your union card, and you had no debt, because you were a teaching assistant for a year. It seemed right for me: I didn't really want to go to drama school; I wanted to be in a professional atmosphere and learn from great people. At that point, too, I was told women don't direct plays: I should maybe think about children's theatre. And I didn't want to think about children's theatre: I wanted to direct plays. This fellowship, when it took me on, I was the first woman they had given it to. I decided to go my own way, and I'm glad I did. I stayed there and worked very hard, and I was also writing by then. I got my first play produced there that I directed. I stayed on until I got a directing job on the main stage. And I thought, okay, I'm ready to move back East. Family and friends were there, and I'm more of an easterner. So I moved to New York. And it went from there. That's it in a nutshell.
Kahn:
So, you learned by doing.
Mann:
Yes. I look at all the young interns we have at the theatre, and they are all thinking about whether they're going to go on to graduate school. And, you know, they'll be in debt the rest of their lives. They're not going to law school, where they'll make the money. I'm very supportive of those who want to apprentice. It's very hard to go from student to professional. That was the hardest thing I ever had to go through.
Kahn:
Well, you've certainly been successful and widely recognized. What are some of the honors that have meant the most to you?
Mann:
I would say there's an award from The Dramatic Guild. I keep forgetting the name of it. I try not to think of awards, but this one meant a lot to me, because it's fellow writers that give it to you. That and the Peabody Award. The Peabody Award is given to people who push for social justice. Edward Albee gave me a directing award, and that meant a great deal to me, because it was Edward, you know. That he chose me meant a great deal to me. Oh! The Hull Warriner Award! That's the one I couldn't think of. That's what playwrights give to other playwrights. And again, it's for work of political significance. So, I guess there is a theme. Oh, and there is one more -- the OBIE Award in 1981 for "Still Life." It got production of the year, and I wrote and directed the play. Playwright, director, all three performers, and the whole production team were up. It was the production of the year. That was early in my career, and it helped me believe in myself. I wanted to keep going. And this is a play had gotten some vicious reviews, as well as some wonderful reviews.
Kahn:
What did the vicious reviews say?
Mann:
It wasn't a play, and it was a disgusting, awful piece of work, and one would only hope I don't write again.
Kahn:
That must have felt terrible.
Mann:
I was devastated. So when the OBIE committee said, no, we think you're wonderful, that was huge. That's what I think is wonderful about rewards: not that people pat you on the back and you're cocky or smug. Often, they really matter when you're almost crushed, wondering if you should go on. When you feel a vote of approval from your peers or colleagues, you can pick yourself a lot easier and go forward.
Kahn:
Even just getting produced can do that.
Mann:
It's a very lonely profession. Or it can be. I've had a wonderful life in the theatre, and I know just how blessed I am. But at the same time I've gone through periods of just, complete despair.
Kahn:
I'm surprised to hear you say that: you've gotten so much recognition.
Mann:
I don't know anyone who hasn't gone through the long nights of the soul.
Kahn:
That disparity between getting vicious reviews and getting rewards shows how crazy making it can be to live by what other people think.
Mann:
Yes! Well, that's the thing -- to find a way not to allow yourself to be living by what other people think. But given that it's such a public condition and because so few people actually, relatively speaking see your work, the critics are sometimes the last word. And it's only when awards come in or other people read about you that your work can be saved and for you to know it's good.
Kahn:
With your work being subject to so many opinions, how do you keep on an even keel?
Mann:
Over the years I've developed a group of very close friends, and we've vowed to be honest with each other. I really care what they think. You expect your family to be, oh, you're wonderful, but I also want a reality check, because you don't get it from the critics.
Kahn:
One thing that really notable is you have a couple different careers going at the same time. You're a major playwright, you're the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre, you direct plays. What are the different challenges and rewards of these different careers?
Mann:
I can't think of those as three different things. I think, oh, I make theatre. So, I don't compartmentalize, otherwise I would get really lost. I try to get a balance between my making the theatre -- writing and directing, and my supporting of theatre -- my developmental and producing work. And it's tough to do, and rewarding when it's all working right. I was not writing enough there for a while to make me happy. And I had to go to my wonderful staff and say, this isn't working for me; I've got to do more writing. So, they've helped me carve out some unbroken writing time for myself. And that's the key, because you can't be writer and have a million meetings, and do it in the cracks. You need unbroken time.
It's important to keep a balance and learn to say no. That's been my hardest challenge, because I can easily just fill all my free time, and oops, I just lost track of what I've been trying to write. So, that's the real life mission. Right now, it's a kind of good balance.
Kahn:
But it tends to be a little unstable at times?
Mann:
Yes. And sometimes you have that time to yourself and nothing comes. It's tricky, but it's worth the effort, I find.
Kahn:
When did you get multiple sclerosis?
Mann:
Well, I'm sure I was diagnosed quite late, and I'm glad for that because there's nothing I could have done if I'd known. I was diagnosed in '93. Then I was put on an experimental drug. I went to an alternative healer, which may have been a big mistake. But at that time I thought she would help me through natural means. I kept going, and getting worse and worse and worse. And then I finally went into a slide. Even when I was in a wheelchair off and on and miserable I could still see people. I had a support team at the theatre, but then it got to a point in '99, 2000 where I couldn't go to work. So, I realized I had to make a change in plan. And I got to a very well-respected neurologist; He said I got there just in the nick of time. He could stop the progress of the disease. He put me on a very strong drug regimen. That started to slow down the decline, then stopped it. Through much hard work and rehab I got back on my feet. It was quite a miracle, and now I actually feel like I have my old life back. I look and feel younger in my 50's than I did in my 40's. I spent most of my 40's very ill.
Kahn:
I'm glad your therapy has worked.
Mann:
I'm very lucky. Thank you.
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