Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Having Her Say: The Emily Mann Interview

When given the assignment to interview a professional, I wanted to give myself a challenge and see if I could do it. I choose to interview a professional playwright, who has achieved success in their career. I wanted to interview someone who could inspire me, relate to me, and who I could benefit from.  

Sarai, a friend of mine, has always spoken of one of her favorite playwrights named Emily Mann. Upon reading her play Annulla, An Autobiography,  it wasn't hard to understand. The work was lively, active, interesting, frightening, and out-of the box. I've only just begun to delve into the world of documentary theater and with this play, I became excited and intrigued. Ms. Mann writes testimonial theater, which relies on interviewing real people and telling their stories verbatim to the audience. This sense of being in touch with the larger world and people and their untold stories and history, struck a chord in me. As a playwright, I strive to do two things- tell stories that are truthful, honest, and find clever ways to combine my love of history into any play that I write. With this connection, I knew I had to interview Ms.Mann.

Ms. Mann is an award winning playwright, director, and artistic director of one of the most vibrant, risk-taking, and exciting regional theaters in America today. She has several plays including Execution of Justice, Still Life, Greensboro: Requiem, and her smash hit, Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters First 100 Years. Her artistic home for the past 20 years has been the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, New Jersey at Princeton University. The McCarter has seen many productions including the original production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Ruben Santiago Hudson's Lackawanna Blues, August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, and many others, just to name a few. She has often held world premiere plays at the McCarter of her new works to acclaim. 

As artistic director of the McCarter, Ms. Mann has many jobs to perform including commissioning new works, premiering the works of established playwrights, bring classic theater repertoire to the McCarter subscribers, and upholding the McCarter's mission statement.  Ms.Mann takes her job to a new level and raises the bar for other artistic directors to climb. She is active in bringing the stories of people of color and women to the stage, furthering arts education in schools, providing opportunities for young children and teens to be active in the theater and contributing largely to the national and international theater repertoire. 

To be where she is today as the artistic director wasn't an easy task. Upon accepting the position as artistic director, the McCarter theater was in the midst of renovating, in financial struggle, and not at its full potential. It is a known fact, that her first year as artistic director was challenging and saw the McCarter lose more than half its subscribers. However, under her leadership, she was able to turn it around within 5 years. When I asked Ms. Mann how she turned it around, her first answer was relatively simple. Without missing a beat she said "I called my friends in the theater community, who were experts. I called Peter Zeisler, who then called Bill Windgate." Ms. Mann had Mr. Windgate come in as an advisor and make recommendations to help her flourish in her new role. These recommendations include having someone oversee construction, having someone in marketing, and a complete overhaul of staff. Personally, for Ms. Mann, the hardest part of the process was letting go staff members who had been with the theater for 10 to 15 years. Ever resilient, Ms. Mann continued to lead and eventually brought in a staff that would best help her sustain her momentum and change the McCarter. After 5 years, her luck had changed. She credits a production of  Chekov's Three Sisters with Frances McDormand, Linda Hunt, and Mary Stuart, the McCarter winning the Tony Award for Best Regional Theater in 1995 and the production of her co-written work, Having Our Say: The Delaney's Sisters First 100 Years, for the helping turn the tide of bad luck at the McCarter Theater.

She describes her leadership style as responsible and inclusive. She takes all the credit and all the blame, once a decision is made. Also, she enforces the idea of consensus. She listens to every voice-from the youngest person to the oldest person. Furthermore, she has a staff that very risk-oriented in their choices and beliefs. With such a staff, she demands that her staff argue their points to her and persuade her to go with what they feel can best help the production. She finds that her leadership style of being inclusive is both her strength and weakness as a leader. At times, due to her inclusivity, she has felt that she should have lobbied harder for her staff but didn't.

When asked what makes a good leader, her answer was simple: vision and passion. Ms.Mann feels that her vision hasn't changed and her passion has grown. Sitting next to her during the interview, I can tell you that is true. She says, "My passion grows Through education, commissioning new works, supporting legends in the field , and bringing youth into the theater"

When asked how she decides who is a good artistic leader, her response reflects her mission and the responsibilities she has taken on as artistic director at McCarter. "I look at whats being produced on their stages and how well they are being produced on the stages. If I see plays that are consistently going up there that aren't ready, thats bad artistic leadership.…I look at what they produce, who they produce, how various, exciting risky and dynamic their seasons are, and how they are contributing to the growth and development of the national and international theater repertoire and their complete body of work. " She also looks at the staff at the theater. "If the staff is unhappy, they aren't doing their best work.You have to hire the right staff, trust them, and utilize them to the highest potential. If not, you have bad leadership." 

Ms.Mann, has grown as a person since her appointment. When asked how she has grown, she hesitated but confidently explained to me how she has grown."I came as a single mother with a six year old son, in a theater, that I didn't know, was hemorrhaging money and failing.  Two things had happened. First I had to work very hard to keep a home for us and stay a good mom. Two, my father was dying and I had to help myself through that, my mom through that, my sister through that and my son through that. Three, after my father died, I had been stricken with MS….I realize that my illness was a sign and was asking me to prioritize what was most important in life. …I learned who to cherish, appreciate what I have, and prioritize what was important." She has also learned how to take all of these situations and grow artistically, emotionally, and spiritually, through the rough times and use those feelings in a constructive way.

With such life in her voice and a warm smile, we concluded our interview. But the lessons that I keep referring back to, came from a question about her late father, Arthur Mann, who was a historian. Mr.Mann's work as a historian and parent has influenced Ms.Mann in positive ways. To listen to her speak about her father, touched my heart and gave me lessons and prospective, as his words had touched and guided her. Among the many lessons her father taught her was strength.

"He basically gave me the strength to know that no matter what the response is to the work at the moment, you must always take the long view as a historian. So, he said just do your work.  If you do your work for the right reasons because you love it, you need to do this work, and you need to tell this story, the money will follow and the recognition will follow. If you ever in anyway compromise your standards, you'll lose yourself and he's right. So I always kept my eye on doing the work I believe in….not working for fame or millions." My favorite quote from her father, that she passed on to me was, "In life there is love and work. If you have one, you're blessed. If you have both you have paradise."

Ms. Mann and I share similar views on leadership and collaborating. It was interesting finding out that she has the same writing process as I do: we don't write everyday but once we get in the zone, there is no stopping us. Her favorite moment in the directing process is opening night when the audience leaps to their feet at the curtain call and earlier on before the production 
when the light bulb goes off and she has her entrance into the play. Her favorite moment when she's writing is when the light bulb goes off and she hits the zone. Her favorite moment as a producer is when she tells a writer, composer, director, or any artist- "Yes. We'll produce you're work" and to see the look on their faces and then asking what they need between now and when their project goes into development. What I love most about Ms. Mann is that she is always learning and allowing people to affect her and inspiring them in the process.

Overall, the interview has inspired me to continue to move forward and explore being an artistic director and possibly producing. Also, this interview has motivated me to continue to make the right decisions for myself as an artist and a leader. I am thankful for having met Ms.Mann and for listening to what she had to say.

1 comment:

  1. Joshua, you really put alot of time in this interview and it shows. I appreciate you pursuing this interview and your thoughtful account with your experience with Ms. Mann. I would love to hear more about this experience and how you plan to apply it.