Emily Mann’s McCarter Magic

By Wendy Plump // Photography by Tom Grimes, Set Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre Center.

This is the setting recently encountered at Emily Mann’s Mercer Street home in Princeton: A warm kitchen on a cold winter morning; staffers from McCarter Theatre filling bowls with fruit and setting out muffins; the playwright herself over in a corner wrestling an espresso machine into submission.

All about are photographs from a life in theater–Emily with the Delaney sisters, Emily with Edward Albee, Emily with Derek Walcott, Emily with Winnie Mandela and Hillary Clinton. There are a few framed play posters and some photographs from South Africa that are precious to the playwright. Light floods through a large picture window and brightens the room. The soft clink of silverware and coffee mug provides a homey soundtrack.

Everyone gathers around the table and sits. It’s a comfortable setting. If it had a title it might be, “McCarter’s Artistic Director in Repose.” It would be appropriate but not complete.

There is a bit of a subtext here, something not obvious in the immediate setting. Which is really what theater is all about—watching the deeper story emerge. In this case it is the story of a tremendously busy artist who is momentarily becalmed.

Mann, who has run McCarter Theatre for 22 successful seasons, has a lot going on. She is the artistic director for five varied productions on McCarter’s stage this season, three of them world premieres. Her production of Streetcar Named Desire is running on Broadway this spring and needs to be staged and fully cast. Her adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba is running in London and has to be re-draft to a setting in rural Iran, of all places. There are lots and lots of theater details that do not attach to one project in particular. And she is in the teeth of writing a new play of her own, when there is time.

A kind of order surrounds Mann this morning but only because that is how she wants it. So even though a storm of activity awaits her at McCarter, for now, for this hour, this conversation is what Mann is doing. It is all she is doing. She is an object lesson in focus.

“This is a particularly full year for any human being, and certainly for me. I don’t think I’ve ever had three plays going on at once or that I’m involved in. It’s really been quite interesting,” says Mann, who lives here with her husband Gary Mailman, a lawyer. “I have to be incredibly disciplined. I’m compartmentalizing more than I ever have. And trying to find time for my family as well. So it’s big.

“I couldn’t do what I’m doing now if I hadn’t left for four weeks last summer. I had to get away from all the obligations here. It was survival. I was living in a little French village—population 31—but I wasn’t taking a break. I was writing, working about 12 or 14 hours a day.

“It was something about needing brain space,” Mann adds. “Suddenly things start swirling around because it’s all stored somewhere. It’s all in there. And then you need not to be worrying about giving a dinner party or doing this or doing that. If I go away I can work in the middle of the night if I want to. And then something just opens up.”

It’s hard to underestimate Mann’s role at McCarter—and by extension her contributions to Princeton’s cultural life—since she arrived here in 1990. Then, she was planning on staying just a couple of years. She rented the house on Mercer with the intention of putting down very short roots for herself and her young son Nicholas. But in 1994, McCarter Theatre received a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. Playwrights and actors with world-wide stature were coming in droves. Her play Having Our Say received three Tony Award nominations in 1995. Funding for McCarter rallied and so did subscriptions. And after that, well, Mann just stayed put.

Mann’s leadership has been characterized over the years by a fierce commitment to new writers and new plays. During this season, for instance, Mann nursed into production The Convert, by Danai Gurira, which looks at cultural divides through the eyes of a young Zimbabwean woman. Not the sort of fare you might find on any stage. That Mann welcomes such progressive new work is part of the magic of her McCarter.
“I think Emily is an innovator,” says Edward Matthews, a former Chairman of McCarter’s Board of Directors, and a longtime Princeton resident. “Many people would just do an endless repetition of Shaw and Molière and Noel Coward, but that’s not what the theater is all about.

“She’s not afraid to tackle new works,” Matthews adds, “and new works are often a reflection of the social issues of our time. I think she’s really at the cutting edge of what a theater ought to be. She has raised the stature of McCarter enormously.”

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