By Lacey Colby
Anyone seeking inspiration for a future career in theater doesn’t need to look any further than McCarter Theatre’s Emily Mann, who spoke to Rider’s Acting III class last week about her experiences as a director.
Mann, the artistic director and resident playwright at McCarter in Princeton, has enjoyed great success in her theater career, including multiple awards and Broadway productions. Uncle Vanya, Anna in the Tropics, The Cherry Orchard, and The Glass Menagerie are among the plays she has directed, and she has worked with actors John Glover, Cynthia Nixon, Avery Brooks, Kim Cattrall and Jane Alexander. Her award-winning plays include Mrs. Packard and Having Our Say.
It’s strange to think that this same woman was, in her senior year as an undergraduate at Harvard, told by her director that women could not have professional lives in directing. A determined individual, Mann told that director to watch her do it anyway. She used her anger as fuel and earned her first professional directing job at the young age of 22. Decades later, she is a well-respected name in the theater business.
Mann talked to the small group of students about her start and her experiences as a director, a position which requires her to help channel the energy of the actors on stage. She said that her job is to receive and interpret chemistry, which she calls the “vibrations in a room.” When any channel for this energy is blocked, she identifies and fixes it.
“The only thing quite like [directing], really, is sex,” she said.
The relationship between a director and an actor, according to Mann, is very deep and intimate. An actor must trust in the director to take him further emotionally than he would go.
A good portion of the discussion focused on Mann’s work with the plays of Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Mann has directed his plays more often than the work of any other playwright.
“I had an affectionate relationship with Mr. Chekhov,” Mann said of her experience with The Cherry Orchard. “We were collaborating word for word. By the time I did Seagull, he was right on my shoulder.”
She frequently chooses to work on Chekhov plays because she feels that he was the master of the “moment when you make a decision and that decision might be the end of you — or the beginning.”
Mann also left the aspiring actors with some words of advice in dealing with a tough business. Actors face more rejection than most people in other occupations, and they are extremely vulnerable every time they audition, according to Mann. She encouraged the theater students to keep trying and told them to learn to improve themselves with the criticism they receive.
“I trust in the people around me to be honest with me, and if you can’t take that, you are in the wrong profession,” she told them. “You’ve got to know how to take criticism, and you’ve got to know how to take that criticism, use it and make yourself better.”
She recognized, as well, that passion is the most important thing that these actors can hang on to in order to be happy pursuing their careers.
“You do theater because you can’t not,” Mann said. “Otherwise, you won’t be happy, and you will fail in your own eyes.”