Playwright-director Emily Mann has built a career that many dream about, but few attain. She’s the author of a plethora of critically acclaimed plays, including Having Our Say (about the Delany sisters), which ran on Broadway in 1995, earning her Tony nods as both the playwright and director. There are the illustrious stage actors she’s directed over the years, including Mary Alice, Jane Alexander, Amanda Plummer, Rosemary Harris, Donna Murphy and the late Brian Murray. The Harvard grad has been showered with laurels, such as the Helen Merrill Distinguished Playwrights’ Award, the Margo Jones Award, multiple Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations and an honorary doctorate from Princeton University. Mann has entered her 28th season as artistic director of the Tony-winning McCarter Theatre Center (which is also in Princeton), and her latest play, Gloria: A Life, about feminist icon Gloria Steinem, opens Off-Broadway on Oct. 18 at The Daryl Roth Theatre. Mann feels a special affinity for this piece, which stars Oscar nominee Christine Lahti and is directed by Tony-winner Diane Paulus. It is, Mann told me, a candid portrait of one of her heroes. This interview is lightly edited for clarity and style.
Iris Dorbian: How did you get involved with this project?
Emily Mann: About four years ago, I got a call from [actress-producer] Kathy Najimy who said, “We’re thinking of doing a play on Gloria Steinem’s life. It’s a commission from Lincoln Center. Gloria and I would love for you to write it.” It took me all of two seconds to say yes. They had gone to [producer] Daryl Roth first, and it was Daryl who said, “Let’s take it to Lincoln Center.” We started a wonderful collaboration with [Artistic Director] Andre Bishop and Anne Cattaneo, the dramaturg there. I started to research, meet with Gloria, and write.
ID: How much of Steinem’s life does it cover?
EM: A good part of it. It’s only an hour and 20 minutes long. She’s 84 years old now. It covers the long line from childhood to now. We spent a lot of time on the 1970s.
ID: What did you use for source material?
EM: I spent two long interviews with Gloria and started to read everything she published in terms of books. I went online and looked at articles. I spent a lot of time diving into this rich and amazing life, and public life. What was wonderful is that later she wrote more personally. Meeting with her she also shared a lot of personal information.
ID: So this is an honest portrait that accurately depicts Steinem’s flaws?
EM: Warts and all. Gloria knows that by sharing your story not only can you heal but you can help others. You’re not crazy and you’re not alone and then you find new ways to go on. A lot of people don’t know the harder things that Gloria has had to live through and she’s had to come through the other side. The whole play is this one talking circle.
ID: What is that?
EM: In ancient cultures, it’s the Gandhian way of making political change. Mahatma Gandhi affected change by sitting in a circle, talking and reaching consensus. It’s also sharing what’s going on and moving forward. All of the great social movements started with talking circles. The feminist movement is a great example of it. People would get up and say what’s happening and others would respond and help them move forward.
ID: During your research, what surprised you most about Steinem?
EM: How funny she is! How warm she is. How well she listens. She someone’s who understands what deep listening is. It’s one of her greatest strengths. That was huge for me to discover. The other thing was her mother had a nervous breakdown when she was little and how important that relationship was in terms of her wanting to save other women from her mother’s fate. Gloria grew up from 11 to 17 taking care of her invalid mother in a working-class neighborhood in Toledo, in a house that was condemned, with little heat and with rats.
ID: Was there a central challenge to create this play?
EM: Once Gloria decided she wasn’t going to play herself, the question was, “What is the event?” When Diane Paulus came on board, she said what we needed was an ensemble to play the story. I had a play that was a simple sharing, like Springsteen On Broadway. It was now activated to scenes and ensemble, so it’s become very different. It’s morphed into a whole new theatrical experience, and that’s been thrilling and very hard. But a complete joy to do.
ID: How did Diane Paulus and Christine Lahti get involved?
EM: I’ve been a great admirer of Diane. I suggested her, and both Daryl and Andre were excited by that idea — she came on when we were at Lincoln Center. We did a workshop. Then Christine Lahti came on when we were doing the production. She’s also one of Gloria’s great friends. She’s so right for it, and she so wanted to do it. It’s thrilling to be a woman with an all-women production. It’s all women in the cast, women designers, female producers, a female playwright and director.
ID: What do you want the audience to come away with when they see the play?
EM: I’m hoping they will find in Gloria’s life an inspiration for them to become active and that no life is easy. Gloria’s deeply human. She is flawed, like all of us. She’s no more or less flawed than you or I, and the play shows her struggles. She’s gone through a lot in her life and she’s made a great contribution. I’m also hoping that in the second act when they have a talking circle, we’ll get people to be active in this dark time.