Boundless Theatre: An Interview with Emily Mann

This interview formerly appeared in Wild River Review  as part of the Quark Park Column

By Kimberly Nagy

Emily Mann Mrs Packard

In the sixth century BC, legend has it that a wickedly playful character named Thespis of Icarius was born. According to some, Thespis’s life and work ushered in a new realm of Greek theater — individuals who acted out written plays in original performances.

Thespis delighted audiences by depicting gods, monsters, and, of course, heroes outside the usual boundaries of traditional theater. In fact, the world proved a portable stage for Thespis, one that he concocted directly from his traveling cart, and the first “thespian” won numerous awards for his swiftly changed masks and colorful performances. Today, the ghostly Thespis still haunts many theaters, an impish spirit to which “strange happenings” (like when a prop doesn’t work) are affectionately attributed: a mischievous energy best described as, well, play.

Playfulness is but one of the many creative forces that fuels multi award-winning playwright, director, and producer, Emily Mann, Artistic Director and Resident Playwright at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. But Mann doesn’t shy away from more serious and difficult subjects for the stage either, presenting issues as controversial as racism and the Holocaust. So, when Mann was approached with a different kind of idea — to join and collaborate with architects in a park called Writer’s Block, celebrating writers with “follies,” her curiosity was decidedly piqued.

“It was a wonderful play on words to call the park Writer’s Block,” says Mann. “Because it was in fact an unblocking of anything that would get in the way of a live and exciting event. It was the opposite of a writer’s block. It was what happens when channels of creativity are absolutely opened, a complete charge.”

While others may have quickly dismissed the idea of investing their time (let alone money) into a temporary park, Mann was more than used to the peculiar, but thrilling world of temporary creation. “That temporary charge,” she says. “All of the energy put into just constructing a play, and then creating an extraordinary event is what the theater is all about. And then it’s gone.”

But, like good theater, the award-winning Writer’s Block, brainchild of Peter Soderman and Kevin Wilkes, quickly generated plans for another performance — a park called Quark Park, celebrating science just two years later.

At the end of 2006, as Quark Park was dismantled and the demolition trucks were unleashed, the collaboration had already received two major planning awards from The American Planning Association (New Jersey Chapter), and The American Institute of Architects (New Jersey Chapter). Soderman and Wilkes were lauded for their creative use of a vacant lot and for making high density living more attractive, but the question on everyone’s mind much like closing night after a riveting play is, “What comes next?”

Mann knows this question well. In the theater she has made her home, Mann talks about the ways in which Writer’s Block and Quark Park resemble theater, the qualities of a good audience, and the varied places where she finds inspiration. Mann shines with a creative charge even as she admits she’s had very little sleep (during a week when two of her plays overlap in production.) In the empty sunlit theater, hammers bang, drills occasionally interrupt the conversation, and beam by beam, the set for Mann’s next play is built in front of us.

Some of Mann’s directing credits include the world premiere of Miss Witherspoon by Christopher Durang, the world premier of The Bells by Theresa Rebeck, the world premiere of Last of the Boys by Steven Diets, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya(adapted) with Amanda Plummer, Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics at McCarter and on Broadway (2003 Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Award nominations) among many others.

WRR: How did you get involved with Writer’s Block?

Well, I got involved through the producing director here at McCarter Theatre, Mara Isaacs. She was redoing her house and Kevin Wilkes was the architect. Kevin told Mara about the Writer’s Block project and she got very excited about it because she’s also a great producer. She saw enormous potential for the idea, and when Kevin asked, “Do you think we could get to Emily Mann?” she said, “Yeah, I see her about twelve times a day. Of course we can.” So she told me about it, and mentioned some of my other friends who were taking part in it. Joyce Carol Oates, Cornel West, and Peter Benchley among others. I then got very involved. And I went to all the different events as it was unfolding. I just thought it was a wonderful community project.

WRR: When did you meet Peter Soderman?

I feel like I’ve known Peter for years and years, but I can’t remember the first time I met him. Knowing that Peter was involved in Writer’s Block, however, gave me even more enthusiasm for the project. It is a brilliant concept for a town, especially a town like Princeton that is teeming with extraordinary writers and architects. To partner an architect with a writer — I don’t know if that’s ever been done as a project before in quite this way. What an idea! And this year, to connect scientists and architects in the same way… Terrific.

WRR: Can you talk about your folly and collaboration at Writer’s Block a little bit?

Well, in the end, Peter and Kevin decided to work with me and they constructed this fantastic little stage. They put up big black and white poster board photos of some of the plays I’ve written, wonderful blow-ups, photos of production shots of my plays. They then put a little stool in the center, which is where people could imagine the actors would be. I remember the stage was surrounded by cornstalks that represented a curtain. It was so simple and yet so beautiful. I went over one lunch time and there were some students on the stage performing, and I thought, “Well, now this is what it’s all about.” There were some little old ladies with their lunches, watching.

WRR: Let’s get to that. Writer’s Block, in a sense, was a theater of different ideas and performances. And, like a theater performance, it was all going to be dismantled after it was produced…

Yes, it was a form of public theater. Absolutely right. The follies were beautiful, quirky art installations on sets that reflected the writers and architects and there were also public events in and around the structures. There were readings and live performances, as well as people who just came to talk or have lunch on the stage and in the nooks and crannies around.

It was a place that had a charge to it for non-artists too, and I loved that about it. Of course, that it was eventually taken down is very much like theater. Right now, you hear the hammering in the background here and see the crew on the stage. They’re building something, but in three weeks it won’t be here anymore. It’ll only exist in the memory of those who came and saw the play. And that’s the other component of the park I like. The people who come are part of making that event, that day.

WRR: There’s something that’s so powerful about that. Can you discuss the temporary charge of all this investment of time and energy and emotion?

Well what you’re describing — that temporary charge — all of the energy put into just constructing something and then creating an extraordinary event is what the theater is all about. You may spend years on something. I’m in the middle of writing a new play. It will be three years of work before I actually see it up on its feet. And then for two and a half hours someone experiences it, and then it’s gone. And you will never have it again. You won’t ever have that particular performance again because every single performance in theater is different. It may be the same text, the same lighting, the same costumes, the same lighting, the same sound, the same actors, and they’re saying the same words and they may even be moving in the same places, but no two performances are exactly alike. And how the audience receives it absolutely feeds what transpires on stage and vice versa.

WRR: Tell me about some of the different hats you wear as a playwright and a director.

Creating a play and directing a play are both highly creative. Certainly the primary creativity is in the writing, and the director is more of the interpreter. But when you’re really in the zone directing, you are creating and helping others create around you. And then when you’re producing, you’re enabling others to work at their peak creativity. I don’t even make the distinction anymore because I do all of it. And so I say I’m a theater maker.

WRR: Like Quark Park and Writer’s Block, theater takes a lot of money to produce.

It takes a lot of money, but it also takes collaboration between all of the creative personnel and a lot of work that is not adequately paid for. It’s incredible how much people give of themselves. They work themselves ragged so that they can create this gift for the community. No one’s making a lot of money. All we hope is that people don’t lose their homes, or go completely into debt doing it (laugh). I love to make theater here just as I’m sure Kevin and Peter love to make these parks because this community gets it. They understand and appreciate it.

I don’t know how Peter and Kevin actually did it. I never asked them; I wish I knew the answer. I mean I know people looked at them at first as if they were crazy, but I understood them because what they envisioned is so much like what I do. And yet, many people thought they were mad and couldn’t understand why they would invest enormous amounts of money on something that wasn’t going to exist for very long.

They pulled it off brilliantly. And I think the gratitude in this town is huge. Peter and Kevin had this grand, mad idea. It’s visionary really. In the most sane of ways, they’re both quite mad! It’s an amazing thing they’ve done and I applaud them in every way. I would like to have a little more of their madness. It inspires me to be even more risky because that’s what they took — a huge risk, and only when you take huge risks do you have the opportunity to do something grand.

WRR: You could be anywhere in the world. Why Princeton?

Well, sometimes I think about that. And I keep coming back to Princeton. Why am I in my seventeenth season? Why do I keep coming back? I love this audience. This audience keeps goading me to do even more and challenge them further. We’ve just produced The Birthday Party. I don’t think I could have produced that play ten years ago. But now this audience is all over it. And they want more discussion on a very, very deep level. They get it. So I love that there is a generous, smart, and open audience here.

They also understand that what I make for them is not in any way covered by their ticket. I need to raise almost 50% over what they put down at the box office, and people are giving as much as they can.

WRR: What makes Princeton unique?

There are so many fascinating people living here! When I go to a dinner party, for example, it’s usually more exciting than when I went to dinner parties when I lived in New York. It’s really more like going to a dinner party in a European capital. In this tiny little town, you can sit down (and sometimes it is quite scary) but you can be sitting around a dinner table with a Nobel prize winning writer, and someone who has just won a Nobel prize in Science (laughs) and a few others who have won Pulitzers, and others who have just come back from consulting in Washington. Everyone, even if they’re not prizewinners, they’re all prize caliber minds. I think it was Einstein who said Princeton is a small town of experts. So you might be with a poet, a novelist, an economist, a biologist, a theater director, or a businessman, and yet all of you are living in this town because you want to be stimulated by each other.

When I’m in LA or New York, theater people tend to stay with other theater people, film people with other film people. You might say, “Oh I was with someone that’s a painter tonight.” But basically artists are with artists. Here you might share a meal with a lawyer, an economist, and a poet, just as in England, after a show in London, you’d go out with an MP whose wife is also a lawyer so there is a certain amount of interesting blending. I’ve experienced the same in Paris. I don’t have that in New York, but here I do.

WRR: What you’re describing — the intellectual wealth of Princeton — is also exactly what Quark Park and Writer’s Block, capitalized on.

Oh there’s no question.

WRR: But I am wondering: In the same way that a show can maybe hit the road and travel, could you see these parks taking place elsewhere?

For me, Quark Park and Writer’s Block represent a model for what should be happening all over the country, quite frankly. Yes, Princeton is an extraordinary place but my guess is much of America is extraordinary. All you really have to do is look around and see what people have inside of them and bring it out.

Many of our plays travel, and I think it’s important to try and find a bigger audience than the local audience. Theater is local and events that are local are live. In order then to have a wider reach, you have to pick up and move it around. Or have things modeled after it in your community. Now in the theater, I want our productions to move around. They move to New York and they travel across the country. We’re working now to expand that tour by crossing borders, going to Canada and looking to theaters to ally with in Dublin, as well as in the rest of Ireland and in London.

The parks you’re referring to could happen just as easily in a small town in Norfolk, England as in Iowa or Chicago. So yes, I think it’s an incredibly exportable idea and something that should be quite inspirational to other communities. I would love to see it happen all over. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a Kevin and Peter, you know, in another town, and they began to look at what’s extraordinary in their town?

WRR: And find new collaborations?

Well, the collaboration of different types of people in a town is what makes each town unique and wonderful. You know I spent half of my childhood in Northampton, Massachusetts and the other in Chicago on the South Side, which is a small town in a big city, and of course I lived in New York. I’ve lived all over. I think if you were to decide to do this in Northampton, Massachusetts, another college town, it would be a different kind of collaboration from what you would do in Princeton or Stanford or Swarthmore. Similarly the South Side of Chicago is fascinating. Each neighborhood could do something extraordinary and particular to its community of people. Or in New York — Harlem’s park would be different from one in the West Village, and so on.

I really hope it takes off. I think people are in sore need of positive community building. We’re getting more and more fractured and isolated behind our computer screens. I worry about the loss of the village. That’s what neighborhoods are in big cities — villages. And small towns are really just large villages in concept. I think that’s the scale most human beings want to live with.

WRR: In that arena, the theater serves the community, because as you say it’s local.

The theater is absolutely here to serve the community. We have an extraordinary outreach and education program. I love going out into the communities we serve, and connecting with people all over this area, from all different economic and ethnic backgrounds and of all different ages. I enjoy going to schools and senior centers.

We travel all the way up to Newark and down to South Jersey. We serve a huge number of people both in the state and the overall region and I love that. Although I’m Jewish, I spend as much time in the churches around our state as any good Christian! (laughs) New Jersey has an incredibly diverse population. There’s a burgeoning Indian population and Pakistani community here as well as African American, Latino, and people from many, many countries in Europe and Asia. And of course you have Princeton University, and all the different schools and colleges around this area. So it’s hard not to be stimulated.

WRR: Many artists and scientists describe how surprises, or even mistakes often lead them to their best work. I wonder if that’s true in theater, the mishaps, the sort of funny little things that bring you to an incredible new experience of a play.

That’s a really good point. We in theater often say, “Accidents are an artist’s best friend.” Often it’s the person who trips over the prop and lands up in the chair that makes you say, “Brilliant! The best move in the show…” It happens all the time. You pray for mistakes. Sometimes you work and work and you’re diligent and yet it’s that funny little accident that breaks it wide open for you.

WRR: Can you tell me who your favorite author is?