May 6, 2020

McCarter Honors Outgoing Artistic Director Emily Mann with Online Tribute

CELEBRATING 30 YEARS: Emily Mann, McCarter’s outgoing artistic director and resident playwright, delivered heartfelt remarks to conclude an online gala celebrating her 30-year tenure with the theatre. (Photo by Matt Pilsner)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The arts — and the theatre — are not a luxury,” asserts Emily Mann. “They are essential for the health of the soul.”

This comment was included in a segment of a video that was shown during a livestreamed tribute to Mann, who in 2019 announced her decision to step down from her dual position as McCarter Theatre’s artistic director and resident playwright. Because current restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 rendered a live gala impossible, McCarter hosted Saturday night’s heartfelt event via Zoom, as well as the theatre’s Facebook page.

A slideshow was presented before and after the event, featuring candid photos and production stills. Music by jazz trumpeter, composer, and arranger Baikida Carroll — who composed the score for the musical Betsey Brown (1991), one of Mann’s first McCarter productions — accompanied this montage.

The event served as a retrospective, featuring effusive plaudits from colleagues who have worked with Mann throughout her 30-year association with the theatre. Managing director Michael Rosenberg began the program by welcoming “over a thousand” viewers. He recalled meeting Mann in the mid-90s, when McCarter presented his West Village theatre company’s production of George Kaufman’ and Ring Lardner’s play June Moon.

President of the Board of Trustees Robert J. Caruso reminded the audience that when Mann arrived in 1990, the auditorium now called the Matthews Theatre was McCarter’s only performance space. (The smaller, more intimate Berlind opened, at Mann’s behest, in 2003.) Caruso also announced that a program Mann created — the McCarter LAB, a “creative incubator” which has provided artistic and financial support to new plays — will be renamed for her. Caruso ended his remarks by raising a cocktail-filled glass to Mann.

Honorary Trustee Peter J. Ventimiglia praised Mann’s “artistic vision” and “commitment to the arts, and arts education,” referring to McCarter’s in-school programs and student matinees. Joann Mitchell, another honorary trustee (and former board president), described Mann as an “unremitting champion” of “new voices and visions, especially those that historically have been marginalized, if not totally absent [from] the stage.”

Other speakers included playwright Stephen Wadsworth, playwright (translation and adaptation) and director of Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance (1997); Marina Carr, playwright of Phaedra Backwards (2011), the world premiere of which Mann directed; costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser; stage supervisor Stephen Howe; and producer Mara Isaacs, who served as McCarter’s producing director from 1995-2013.

Actor Blair Brown recalled Mann’s boldness in adapting The Tempest for McCarter’s 2003 production. Brown was cast as the protagonist Prospero (renamed “Prospera”). This gender-blind casting seemed risky at the time; a major American playwright told Brown, “You can’t do this.”

Former artist-in-residence Nilo Cruz is the playwright of Anna in the Tropics. Directed by Mann, the 2003 production opened the Berlind Theatre. Cruz recited a poem he had written to thank Mann. Cruz’s verse postulated “a circular stage, with the smell of wood” from which “characters emerge from the dark, like rays of sunlight.”

Ben Vereen, who appeared in McCarter’s world premiere of Fetch Clay, Make Man (2009), as well as An Evening with Ben Vereen (2010), serenaded Mann with an excerpt of “For Good” from the musical Wicked. Vereen augmented composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics: “I know I’m who I am today because I knew you, Emily Mann.”

Kecia Lewis, who performed in Betsey Brown, also adapted a song: “Thank You” by Ray Boltz. “You directed me in a play,” Lewis sang. “Every week you’d take time with me before rehearsals start, and one week when you helped me, passion for directing was birthed in my heart.”

A 10-minute video intercut production photos with comments by Mann and her colleagues. Former President of the Board of Trustees Liz Fillo, who was part of the search committee that appointed Mann, reflected that she was an unlikely, even risky, choice in 1990. “She was young; was a woman, when women were not leading a lot of theatres in this country,” Fillo observed. “She was political, and she was an activist. We thought, ‘Why not? Let’s take a risk.’ Well, the risk really paid off; four years later we won the Tony for the Best Regional Theatre in the country.”

The video also featured testimonials from playwrights Eleanor Burgess, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Regina Taylor, and Doug Wright; lighting designer Jane Cox (director of theatre at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts); actors Suzanne Bertish, Christine Lahti, David Hyde Pierce, and Jimmy Smits; and Edward Matthews, former president of McCarter’s Board of Trustees.

Mann’s sister, Carol, also spoke on the video. “You pushed the envelope — in writing politically important plays, and in directing and producing cutting-edge work by others,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what you do next.”

Visibly moved by the outpouring of praise, Mann delivered closing remarks that lasted a little over 12 minutes. Thanking all of the speakers for “this beautiful evening,” she described Princeton as her “artistic … personal, and spiritual home.” In addition to having been able to cultivate her dual passion for writing and directing, she is particularly grateful to have been “able to nurture and support the work of the artists I most admire, many of whom you heard from tonight.”

She also expressed appreciation for McCarter’s audience, who “believed in my vision” of “the classic repertoire seen as if new; and new work seen as if it were already a classic.”

Mann concluded her comments with a quote from Gloria Steinem, the subject of her play Gloria: A Life, with which McCarter opened this past season: “I’m not passing my torch, thank you. I’m using my torch to light the torches of other people.”

With this Mann welcomed incoming artistic director Sarah Rasmussen: “May she enjoy this extraordinary audience, community, and staff as much as I have. Long may she blaze.”

Asserting her intention to continue writing and directing, Mann — echoing Caruso earlier in the evening — raised a champagne-filled glass, “To the future. As uncertain as it may seem right now, theatres have been closed before by plague. Remember, they reopen!”