Review: A Lively and Meticulous Biography of Rebel Theater Artist Emily Mann, by Alexis Greene

Emily Mann: Rebel Artist of the American Theater
By Alexis Greene
Applause Theatre and Cinema Books

If B for Biography equals B for Boring to you, I suggest you adjust your opinion for this excellent biography. Alexis Greene has written a lively and fascinating book about an important theater artist—artistic director, director, and playwright Emily Mann. Mann, who developed a serious interest in theater while a student at the University of Chicago Lab School, has been a theater pioneer, a feminist, and a strong advocate for women’s roles in theater. Her inventive work as a playwright has established her “theater of testimony” as a vibrant genre.

Mann was born in Boston, earned her undergrad degree at Harvard (Radcliffe College), and spent 30 years as artistic director at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ. But she has strong midwestern roots. She grew up in Chicago (Arthur Mann, her historian father, was on the U of C faculty), earned her MFA in directing at the University of Minnesota, and spent six difficult but formative years at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Her work has been staged by several Chicago theaters over the years.

The Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963 by the famed English director Tyrone Guthrie and designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, was a highly patriarchal organization. Very few plays by female playwrights had ever been produced and Mann was the first woman to direct a play on the Guthrie main stage. Mann found it difficult to establish herself as a director when she arrived in 1974. Greene reports what happened after a difficult dress rehearsal of one of Mann’s first plays at Guthrie 2, the experimental stage. Artistic director Eugene Lion called her out and said “That’s a piece of shit.” When she protested emotionally that she could fix it, he pushed her up against a wall and said, “No woman director can cry. Do you want to be a housewife or do you want to be a director, because clearly what you’re showing me is you’re really a housewife.” Mann told Greene later that she thanked Lion for “toughening her up” but “it was horrible.”

Emily Mann portrait courtesy of McCarter Theatre Center. Photo by Matt Pilsner.

Theater of Testimony

Mann wrote her first testimonial play during her Guthrie years. Annulla, an Autobiography of a Survivor, is the story of a Holocaust survivor who was the aunt of a Radcliffe friend. As Mann and her friend recorded the memories of Annulla Allen, Mann realized that the bits and pieces of her disordered life could be a compelling portrait to be preserved as a theater piece. The themes of violence, horror, and hatred of “the other” were themes that Mann has used in her other works over the years.

Annulla was produced at Guthrie 2 in 1977, with mixed reviews for the script. The play is a monologue by a single performer, which becomes a conversation with the audience as Annulla busies herself around her kitchen.

Mann was in Chicago in fall 1977, directing a play for the (late, great) St. Nicholas Theatre Company, and discussed Annulla with Gregory Mosher, who was assistant AD for the Goodman Theatre. Annulla was staged by the Goodman in March 1978. The Goodman’s Stage 2 was the Latin School of Chicago, which had a proscenium theater with a raised stage. (The Goodman Theatre at that time was located on the east side of the Art Institute.) Goodman also produced Mann’s play Still Life, the story of a Vietnam veteran, in 1980, and Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, in 2018. That work was adapted from the book by the two sisters.

Another Mann script has been produced twice in Chicago. Greensboro: A Requiem was staged by Steep Theatre in 2008, and by the American Theater Company (also a departed theater) in 2015. As my review of the ATC production said, the play tells the story of the demonstration by mostly Black textile mill workers in Greensboro, NC, to protest the Ku Klux Klan. The march was to take place on November 3, 1979, and the marchers had a police permit. When the protest started, carloads of KKK and American Nazis arrived and attacked the marchers, killing five of them. The police, however, who had been there earlier, took an early lunch.

One of Mann’s most praised works was what she called the Dan White Project, until it became the play, Execution of Justice. She created the script for Execution of Justice primarily as a trial—of the man who assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in November 1978. White was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of premeditated murder, which brought about the White Night riots by San Francisco’s gay community. The Eureka Theatre in San Francisco commissioned Mann to write the play three years later. Tony Taccone was artistic director and Oskar Eustis, now artistic director of the Public Theater In New York, was dramaturg at the Eureka.

Jay Patterson, John Spencer, and Kurt Schweickhardt in Execution of Justice, written and directed by Emily Mann, the Guthrie Theater, 1985. Photo by Joseph G. Giannetti/Guthrie Theater.

The first production of Execution of Justice came at the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville in spring 1984, co-directed by Taccone and Eustis. The play was staged by the Guthrie Theater in fall 1985 and finally at the Eureka Theatre in a coproduction with Berkeley Repertory and San Jose Repertory. Mann herself directed the play in its short Broadway run at the Virginia Theatre in March 1986. No doubt the political nature of the play, as well as its cast of 23, made it a tough script for many theaters to take on.

Mann’s Playwriting Process

Mann talked about her theater of testimony in regard to Still Life, built on the memories of a Vietnam veteran reliving his horrific wartime experiences as well as the women at home bearing witness to the effects of that war. Mann said, “I found a form. I found a way to work that thrilled me. I loved the idea of making plays from the words of real people and helping give voice to them.” And so she embraced the concept of testimony as a form of storytelling. Because testimony has a strong confessional component, Greene observes, the testifying person/actor often speaks directly to the audience, thus reaching them viscerally and generating emotion. Mann has avoided calling her work “documentary drama,” which she calls “a bad mix of fiction and truth.”

Theater of testimony is also a time-consuming process, Mann found, involving research, interviews, recordings, and transcriptions of participants’ memories. She would work and rework the elements into a coherent whole, often interweaving the voices of the various participants. Also the early decades of this work came before the era of the internet, portable computers, or thumb drives, so Mann regularly lugged around duffels of newspaper clippings, trial and interview transcripts, and photocopied court testimony.

Mann’s decades of persistence and creativity as director and playwright were rewarded when she was hired as artistic director and resident playwright by the McCarter Theatre Center in 1990. The growth and production highlights of her 30 years there are summarized in McCarter’s announcement of her retirement in January 2019.

Mann’s awards include the 2015 Margo Jones Award, the 2019 Visionary Leadership Award from Theatre Communications Group, and the 2020 Lilly Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2019, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement in the American Theater. She was able to achieve this level of work and recognition during an era when women were routinely discriminated against in theaters. Mann persisted in her work through two marriages, motherhood and a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1994.

Marie Thomas and Ella Joyce in Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years by Emily Mann, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy of Goodman Theatre.

How the Biographer Works

Greene’s meticulous reporting and documentation of a life came about through her access to letters, play production notes, and many other documents from Mann’s own files and family documents, even including minutiae like the 3×5 card on which Mann’s father, historian Arthur Mann, noted details about his daughter’s fiancé before meeting him. Greene had nearly 100 hours of interviews with Mann, plus interviews with friends, relatives, and theater colleagues. But Greene has not written an authorized biography, she makes clear. “No topic was off limits, and she’s had no approval of what I’ve written.”

Greene says, “My chief goal, however, has been to write the life of a woman who has created unique art and along the way has wrestled with, learned from, and overcome personal trauma and illness. For centuries, the lives of women have been hidden: buried in diaries, letters, and in the day-to-day tasks that women undertook but few observed. This biography of Emily Mann brings one more woman’s life into the light.”

Alexis Greene is the author and editor of numerous books about theater, including The Lion King: Pride Rock on Broadway, written with Julie Taymor, and the biography Lucille Lortel: The Queen of Off Broadway. In addition to writing and editing books about women and theater, Greene’s career spans acting, theater criticism and teaching. She holds a PhD from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Emily Mann: Rebel Artist of the American Theater is available from the publisher, from bookshop.org and your favorite bookseller.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

One comment

  1. I’ve heard of so many of her plays. I saw the Delaney Sisters, but not at the Goodman but the theater where Blue Man Group performed for so long. She sounds very interesting and thank you for sharing this.

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