Had this been a normal spring, Emily Mann would have wrapped up her three decades as artistic director of McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, N.J., in the traditional way, with colleagues and patrons gathered under a tent to toast her at a gala. Instead, on Saturday night, they gave her a virtual tribute on Zoom, which she watched, teary-eyed, from her living room.
“I think I liked this better,” Mann, 68, said by phone later that evening, moved that more than a thousand people had registered to tune in online and looking forward to watching it all again on video.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz, whose “Anna in the Tropics” Mann took to Broadway, recited a poem he had written for her. David Hyde Pierce, in a recorded segment, called her the doula of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the Christopher Durang hit that had its premiere at McCarter.
Zooming in from Dublin, the Irish playwright Marina Carr marveled at the time Mann wrote a play in five days on a Country Kerry beach. The actress Blair Brown likened her to Prospera at the end of Mann’s gender-switched production of “The Tempest” — not diminished but powerful and heading into a new world of possibilities.
When Mann arrived at McCarter in 1990, she envisioned staying five years, maximum. But in 1994, after she got a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, she offered to resign, and the board won her enduring devotion with its refusal. That was also the year that the regional Tony Award went to McCarter.
This time, though, Mann really is leaving. June 30 is her last day, and Sarah Rasmussen of the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis has been tapped to succeed her. McCarter, meanwhile, under strain from the economic slowdown, is laying off most of its staff on May 15, though employees will retain health insurance through June, and the theater hopes to extend that.
Hunkered down at home, Mann — best known as a playwright for her 1995 Broadway show “Having Our Say” and her recent Off Broadway bioplay “Gloria: A Life,” about Gloria Steinem — is already at work on new projects, including a musical adaptation of the Kent Haruf novel “Our Souls at Night” with Lucy Simon, Carly Simon and Susan Birkenhead.
The final speaker on the program, Mann ended her emotional remarks by lifting her Champagne flute to the future of theater. Then, in an interview, she reflected on her career. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How are you?
I’m sort of a blubbery mess right now.
Your final season gets cut short because of the pandemic, and your send-off is virtual. Does the leaving feel real?
Oh yes. It’s sort of a violent thrust into post-McCarter life. I used to wake up every morning and go to my theater. Now I work at home, which is what I’m going to be doing next, right? I’m writing up a storm. I’ve got two plays going.
You mentioned during the tribute something about working 90-hour weeks?
I was working during the day and then there were rehearsals at night, and then I would often be going in and out of New York to see work there. I was writing in the interstices.
Tell me what you were like and where you were in your life when you arrived at McCarter.
I was a freelance playwright, director and screenwriter. I had just come back from South Africa, having written a mini-series on the life of Winnie Mandela and spent time with her. I was a single mom, and my son was no longer portable. He was going into first grade, so I needed him to be able to have a really stable home. And I realized I was sick of being on the road. I’m actually quite a nester.
The kind of career you’ve had so far was not remotely a well blazed trail when you set out.
Oh God, no. No. (laughs)
When you were at Harvard as an undergrad, didn’t someone try to nudge you toward children’s theater because you were a woman?
I was trying to decide, my senior year, whether I should go to the West Coast, like some of my friends were doing to become film directors, or to Yale or New York and become a theater director and playwright. I sort of didn’t notice that all my friends were guys.
I remember going to my adviser and saying, “Gosh, which should I do?” And he looked at me with great pity in his eyes and said, “Oh my dear, I should have told you earlier. You’re quite talented, but women can’t direct and write professionally. You really should consider going into children’s theater.”
The top of my head went off in just a rage, and I decided, “Well, yeah, you just watch me.” I have a bottomless well of outrage when people are dealt with unjustly. I’m always looking to find a way to make it more equal for those who are deserving, whether it’s women or whether it’s artists of color. I just won’t have it.
What has been most important to you as an artistic director?
I think bringing a whole community together that looks like America. That includes the audience, the board, the artists, the staff. Everyone working for a common purpose — that has been the joy.
Do you wish, leaving now, you weren’t? Are you glad you are? Are you worried about leaving your baby?
All of the above. I’m relieved, I’m sad, I’m terrified, I’m worried. But at the same time I think it’s a moment of reset that is so global and so huge. I think a lot of theaters aren’t going to make it. The smaller ones, because they’re more nimble and they have a lower financial overhead, may make it. And the larger institutions — I spent 30 years building an endowment, right? McCarter Theater will exist.
It must be excruciating that you’re about to lay off staff.
I’ve been in agony. I went to sleep crying every night. We were able to keep them on as long as we could, and now I want to make sure they get health care. So that’s what I vowed to do, and we raised a lot of money tonight, and I’m really happy about it.
Did you achieve what you wanted as artistic director?
I don’t want to sound arrogant or — you know what? I’m taking a big old exhale and saying yes, I did. I loved my job. It fulfilled every part of me. I was able to write about 15 plays and adaptations. And I directed 50 plays, and I produced 150 plays. And I raised a kid!
What will you miss?
I’m going to miss my staff. I’ve been so incredibly fortified by them all. Everyone thinks I’m such a confident person. They’ve helped me believe in myself.
Confidence: That reminds me of your toast. You are confident that the theater will return.
I am. I don’t think that people can live without theater in some form. We never have. It will be different possibly, but it will happen. I have no doubt.