June 3, 2020

McCarter Presents Emily Mann “In Conversation with Cynthia Nixon”; Political Candidate and “Sex and the City” Star Discusses Acting, Activism

MCCARTER LIVE: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann; and actor, director, and political activist Cynthia Nixon. (Emily Mann photo by Matt Pilsner; Cynthia Nixon photo by Victoria Stevens.)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter Theatre presented “McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Cynthia Nixon.” The May 29 discussion was part of the theatre’s ongoing live-streamed series, McCarter @Home. Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson curated the conversation between Nixon and outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann.

Nixon perhaps is best known for her portrayal of Miranda Hobbes in the television and film series Sex and the City, for which she received the 2004 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She also has appeared in films such as Amadeus and A Quiet Passion. She has won Tony Awards for her Broadway performances in Rabbit Hole and The Little Foxes.

In 1996 Nixon portrayed Nora Helmer, the protagonist of A Doll House (1879), in McCarter’s production of the Ibsen classic. She regards being directed by Mann, who staged that production, as “one of the high points” of her career.

“Every time somebody asks me ‘What’s your favorite role you’ve ever played?’ [Nora] is the one that pops right into my head,” Nixon enthuses, speaking from her home in downtown Manhattan. “Emily is such an amazing director, but also it is a great play. Emily knew that play like the back of her hand.” (Mann had directed the play twice before, at other venues, starring Mary McDonnell as Nora.)

Nixon remains impressed by Mann’s conception of the set, which was developed by scenic designer Thomas Lynch. Whereas many productions tend to limit the action to the parlor, Mann moved the climactic confrontation between Nora and [her husband] Torvald to the bedroom.

“Torvald’s such a formal person,” Nixon observes. “To finally see him in private was incredible. While we were having our big scene our entire living room was being struck; when I decided to leave, I opened the door to the bedroom, and I had a long hallway to walk through, to [reach] the front door.”

“That kind of innovation with the set design speaks to how Emily understood how important both the private and the public [spaces] are to these people,” Nixon reflects. “Sometimes we’re in public moments; people are formal. Sometimes that is stripped bare — there’s a man and a woman fighting for each other, fighting for their lives, fighting for themselves — with everything revealed.”

Nixon also is impressed by the contribution of costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser. She remembers one of their first conversations. “I said, ‘By the way, I should tell you: I am pregnant.’ I think I was about three months pregnant,” she recalls, adding, “We started rehearsal a month later.”

Of von Mayrhauser’s canny design work Nixon raves, “She’s a genius! She would put lines in the clothes so that they would create a waist where there wasn’t one. She teaches costume design, and she said it’s an assignment she always gives her students: ‘Your leading actress is pregnant. How are you going to hide it?’ I had such great clothes in the show.”

Mann has equally high praise for Nixon’s performance. “When you play [Nora’s character development] as Cynthia did, it just blows an audience away,” she says. “Magic sometimes happens between a director and an actor.” She describes Nixon as “emotionally fearless, coupled with an extraordinary craft. Cynthia knew how to use the language, and her body.”

In additional to her prolific acting career Nixon also is a director. In 2015 she helmed Steve for the New Group. Before the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the suspension of theatrical productions, she was slated to direct Last Summer at Bluefish Cove on Broadway.

Having worked with Nixon as a performer, Mann is unsurprised by her talent for directing. “You see the whole,” Mann tells Nixon. “That to me is thrilling to work with as a director, directing you. Because it’s never just about you and your moment, you’re also looking out and seeing where the whole play is going.”

Political Activism

In 2018 Nixon launched an unsuccessful campaign for governor of New York, as a challenger to Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo. “I always had a political bent,” she says. “The first issue that I really stepped out on was fighting for public school funding.”

Nixon was galvanized by seeing the extent to which city-wide budget cuts affected her oldest child’s school. She started writing speeches to “codify what I thought the situation was, and what I thought should happen,” she explains. “So much of the activism … is about my city and my state, and wanting things like education to be better funded. It’s the main reason I ran for governor.”

Alekson observes that crafting political beliefs into a speech is analogous to writing a script. Nixon concurs, “The great thing about [writing] speeches is it combines writing and theater! You’re going to write a speech, and then you’re going to get in front of a whole bunch of people … and deliver it.”

Musicals and Current Projects

Alekson notes that in a recent interview given for the New Group’s “Why We Do It” series Nixon revealed her enthusiasm for musicals. “Musicals are one of our greatest American art forms; we’ve put such a stamp on them,” Nixon affirms. “Songs in musical comedies … are some of the most beautiful monologues and character studies that we have. I like theatricality in my music; musical comedy has that.”

Mann reveals that she is at work on a musical. “[Composer] Lucy Simon called me. She said, ‘I want to write the music, and you should write the book, of a musical. I love how you write.’ So we started to look for a property, and it’s Our Souls at Night, this wonderful novel by Kent Haruf. It’s a love story.” Susan Birkenhead will write the lyrics.

Nixon is one of the stars of Ratched, a Netflix series to be released in September. “It takes place post-WWII in the coast of California,” she says. Sarah Paulson plays Nurse Ratched, the antagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “We all remember how impervious and sadistic she was,” Nixon says, promising that the prequel will explore “what happened to her that made her such a tyrant. I am her love interest!”

Both Mann and Nixon recently contributed to The 24 Hour Plays project’s “Viral Monologues” series. Nixon directed herself in Rabbit Hole playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s mordant “What’s in the Box, Paul,” about a mysterious delivery her character’s husband receives. Mann wrote “It Could Be You,” which was performed by Madeline Brewer, for the series’ “COVID & Incarceration” category. Both monologues are available on YouTube.

“I have so many projects — in the theater, and in television and film — that I’m really excited about,” Nixon says. She acknowledges that, during her gubernatorial run, “It was hard to be away from the thing that I love the most: our business, our world.”

To view the conversation between Emily Mann and Cynthia Nixon, or to learn about upcoming McCarter@Home events, visit mccarter.org/tickets-events/mccarterathome or McCarter’s Facebook page.