On Receiving the Visionary Leadership Award

Emily Mann at the 2019 Theatre Communications Group Annual Conference

Emily Mann.  Photo by Matt Pilsner

On June 7, McCarter Theatre Center Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann was honored with the Theatre Communications Group’s (TCG) Visionary Leadership Award. Attending TCG’s national conference in Miami, Ms. Mann spoke to a large gathering of leaders and professionals in the field.

What follows is an introduction by TCG Executive Director Teresa Eyring and excerpts from Emily Mann’s remarks sharing her reflections, gratitude, and hopes for the future of the American theater.

TERESA EYRING:The Visionary Leadership Award is given to an individual who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to advance the theatre field as a whole.

Emily Mann has made a career of above and beyond. Several careers, really: a playwright, a director, and, for the last 30 years, the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center. While she’s leaving McCarter, we are so damn lucky that her work in the theatre continues. Because whether you consider her 50 McCarter directing credits, from world premieres to classics; or you consider her plays, from Execution of Justice to Greensboro (A Requiem) to Gloria: A Life, it becomes clear that whatever courage our theatre field collectively possesses, no small part of it comes from Emily Mann.  Courage in her leadership, at a time when women artistic directors were even rarer than they are now; courage in her artistry, telling difficult truths with extraordinary craft; and courage in her vision of the theatre as an act of service.

Please join me in welcoming Emily Mann to the stage.

EMILY MANN:  Thank you so much. It is a privilege and an honor to be here with you today — my colleagues, my community.  Thank you, TCG, for this great honor. Receiving the Visionary Leadership Award at this moment in time means more to me than I can ever express to you.

It strikes me that my very first TCG meeting was 40 years ago to the day. In 1979, it was a very different event — not one woman spoke.  The only people of color on the dais were legendary director Lloyd Richards and the iconic set designer Ming Cho Lee. 

I had just left the Guthrie Theatre after directing The Glass Menagerie which Ming designed, the first woman ever to direct on the Guthrie main stage.  Even with that honor, I wondered, looking around the conference, if and how there could be a future for me in the American theater.  No one directing or writing or leading a theater looked like me.

Little did I know I would be standing before you 40 years later receiving this high honor, about to end my 30 year tenure as Artistic Director and Resident Playwright of the McCarter Theatre Center, and that today, I would look around the conference and see I am only one of scores of women and people of color speaking — as artistic leaders, artists, artisans, and managers.  I have had an extraordinarily happy life in the theater, and I hope the best is yet to come.  We came a long way in 40 years.

And yet — I know this is not a news flash — we have not come far enough.

As we all know, there is not yet gender parity for directors, playwrights, designers, and artistic directors.  More people of color are in fact being heard from — on and off our stages — and yet in a country that is going to be majority white for another like 20 minutes! — the numbers are dismal — we are nowhere near parity.  I am happy— after 30 years as an Artistic Director commissioning, developing, producing, mentoring, and supporting the work of women and people of color—  I know I can pass the torch and many leaders are ready and willing to continue the struggle for equality in our profession.  

But I am also profoundly worried — that the women and people of color who should be our leaders of the future might not be set up to succeed.

I want to speak with you about this briefly today.

My first year as Artistic Director was 1990.  Three other extraordinary women were also appointed to artistic directorships in flagship theaters in that year.  Sadly, I was the only one left standing at the end of our first two seasons.  Why? 

We were the first wave of women after the founding Mothers— (Zelda Fichandler, Margo Jones, Nina Vance and Pat Brown).  Lynne Meadow came soon after them and famously said:  ‘if we do not start our own theaters, we will never work.’ The second wave (my tiny wave) inherited AD positions from white men. We were HIRED.  We were not founders. And the table was not set for us.  Many of us were fired.

My arrival to Princeton came with the local paper’s headline:  “Mann first woman to lead McCarter Theatre.”

Later in that same season — which was a great success artistically, by the way—the paper ran a headline reading: “‘That woman’ should be run out of town on a rail.” 

Now...Let’s unpack that for a moment— gender, race... I had brought the first work by and about African American people onto our town’s stage.  And “that woman???” There is no denying what this man was saying. 

But my Board President and Managing Director immediately scheduled a sit-down with the paper’s editor. This so-called journalist was told to knock it off, or be fired.

In other words, I was marching arm in arm with powerful allies who believed in me and my vision for the theater. My colleagues who did not last their first seasons did not have Boards or Managers who stood up for them.

Appointing an exciting new artistic director is only the beginning.  In fact, it is the easy part. Let me repeat that: It is only the beginning.

I sincerely hope the Presidents of the Board and the Managing Directors here today know how much their unwavering support are needed for a new Artistic Director to succeed, especially a new artistic director who wants to affect change, sometimes radical change, as I did.

Board leaders need to work with their Managing Directors to do powerful advocacy work with their patrons, the Board itself and community leaders before the new AD even arrives. The Boards need to know that it is not easy for an Artistic Director to run these behemoths. It is not easy to move to a new community.  If you are female or gender fluid and/or of color and you are moving to a predominantly white community or a predominantly conservative community, you may have challenges you never expected.

The boards must be aware of this— and they must work to have the community, staff and Board prepared and excited for their new leader.  On arrival, the Board President must say to the new Artistic Director, in effect— “I have your back. I believe in you. We chose you. ALL OF YOU. Welcome.  What can WE do for YOU?” And they must know the transition might be— or most likely will be— challenging.  They must stick it out. It often takes 2-3 years for the new vision to take hold.

To all new artistic leaders let me say this— thank you and congratulations. Thank you for your courage and your energy and your talent. We need you.  And we deeply admire you. You WILL succeed.  But you need allies at home base and also, in the field.

Network and find your mentors, your partners, your inspirational co-workers.  You cannot do this alone.  And I hope you will take advantage of those of us who came before you.  I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I can speak for myself—I would be honored to be a resource to you. Peter Zeisler, founder of TCG, was a great resource to me when the going got really rough, as was Bill Wingate, former MD of The Mark Taper Forum.  I could not have survived without them.   I will be happy to share my experience with you as they did for me. I want to see you thrive—to grow and flourish and bring your vision whole to your new home. That is also true for Board leadership.  I am happy to be a resource to you. I hope you will reach out.

This is a thrilling time to be in the American theater.  Never has theater been more essential to the health of our democracy— that there is a sea change in the leadership of our theaters only makes it more exciting. We must all work together now to give our new leaders what they need to thrive and bring the American theater to even higher ground.  

And finally—Let me just say— I am not retiring. 

I am stepping down from running the McCarter Theater so I can make more trouble—write more, direct more, teach more, organize more, and continue to mentor the next generation— I will be doing (Inshallah— God willing)  MORE work, not less. 

My most fervent hope is to march forward into the very angering and long and exciting future together with all of you— arm in arm— knowing—All of our stories matter. Each of us knows things no one else knows, and every one of our stories is of value.

May the future leadership of our theaters thrive.

Thank you.  

About the Visionary Leadership Award
The Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Visionary Leadership Award, first established in 2009, is given annually to an individual who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to advance the theatre field as a whole, nationally and/or internationally. Nominations for this award are accepted for both practicing professionals, volunteers, and in some instances teams who have provided strong leadership for the field. Possible recipients of this award are individuals who regularly think beyond their day-to-day work in order to implement practices, new models, advocacy efforts, and more.