"All of us who work in the theatre are members of a tribe," Anne Cattaneo says. "And you know you're in that tribe because at some point in your life you enter a dark theatre and see a ghost light" — the lamp that's left burning onstage all night — "and something in your life changes. You feel you've come home, and you belong there."
For the last two decades, Cattaneo has been the dramaturg, or literary manager, at Lincoln Center Theater. She is also the creator and head of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors' Lab and has worked widely as a dramaturg on classical plays with directors like James Lapine, Robert Wilson, Jack O'Brien, Robert Falls and Mark Lamos. Her many Lincoln Center Theater credits include Tom Stoppard's Tony-winning The Coast of Utopia, Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig, the Tony-winning revival of The Heiress and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation.
The feeling of belonging, of wanting to make theatre her career, came when she was in her early 20s, after she had already dipped her toes into the stage life. "I grew up in a family of scientists in California, and my interest in theatre began by going to it. I was employed for the first time at the American Conservatory Theatre," William Ball's legendary San Francisco company, "and going into the Geary Theatre and seeing that ghost light, it suddenly hit me that that's what I wanted to do."
It was the beginning of the '70s, she said, "and I was very fortunate to be in the San Francisco Bay area at a really important time in theatre." In addition to the A.C.T., a great deal of experimental theatre was happening — the Living Theatre tour, the Bread and Puppet Theatre. "It was a heady moment when theatre was playing an important social as well as an artistic role." She knew she didn't want to act, and she had also been writing criticism for an underground paper with headquarters in a commune. "They would say, 'Who's this guy Molière?' I would say he was a revolutionary man, he was against the king — the king banned him. They would say, 'O.K., we'll print the review.'"
She was working for Ed Hastings, the A.C.T.'s associate artistic director. He wrote a recommendation for her to the Yale School of Drama, where she specialized in criticism. After Yale she spent several years teaching theatre at a small college in Westchester, but then realized that "if I didn't leave academia, I would stay in it forever.
"And then I was lucky enough to be offered a job as literary manager at the great Phoenix Theatre with T. Edward Hambleton. It was the second day of rehearsal of Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein, whom I had known a bit at Yale. When I walked into the rehearsal, she turned to me and said, 'Oh, thank God you're here.'" Wasserstein was to become "one of my greatest friends. We worked on many plays together."
Cattaneo thanks the New York City subway system for the key role it played in her getting a job at Lincoln Center Theater. "After the Phoenix, I worked at a number of theatres and did a lot of freelancing. I was hired by Second Stage as a dramaturg. It's now quite established, but then it was a very scrappy organization. The staff numbered about six. We had a little crisis moment — they said we have to get more subscribers, we need to pass out brochures. We just need help — there's no money."
So Cattaneo said she would take some brochures and stand at a subway station entrance and hand them out for a half hour on her way home. "I was standing at the 72nd Street and Broadway station, though it was strictly speaking not my job. And up the subway steps came Gregory Mosher, who was getting off the subway because he had just been hired to run Lincoln Center Theater. I had met Gregory before, but I didn't know him very well. He said, 'Oh, my God, you're passing out brochures.' I said, 'Oh, I'm just helping out.' He said, 'Come see me, I want you to come work for me.' That's how I got the job."
These days at Lincoln Center Theater, under artistic director André Bishop, just exactly what does her job as dramaturg — or literary manager — consist of? "The closest job that many people know is in publishing," Cattaneo says. "I'm like an acquisitions editor. I pay attention to all things literary. My main job is to read the plays that come in to Lincoln Center and to advocate what plays we should be producing." In addition, with John Guare she edits the Lincoln Center Theater Review, a literary magazine the theatre publishes.
And she works on helping actors with historical research on their plays and their roles. With last season's Coast of Utopia, "I spent a month before rehearsals working with the leading actors to give them information I discovered about the historical characters they played. I became an expert on Russian 19th century history, and found all kinds of unpublished and hidden things which I gave to the actors."
On this season's Cymbeline, she looked at the text and prepared necessary cuts, "and I looked at past productions of the play and what their takes on it were."
Cattaneo says she has "the best job in the theatre. Because I can live always in art." She doesn't have to worry about problems like raising funds — "I'm just behind the scenes. I can work with people I love on wonderful projects."
For the future, Cattaneo says, she is "devoted to" her Theater Directors' Lab. "It's a working environment under the aegis of the theatre for young professional directors, free of charge. We bring in about 80 directors from all over the world." The program also involves young playwrights and designers.
"Some of the best directors working now are having trouble getting jobs in large theatres, for very good reasons," she says. "It's hard to take a chance on a new director." And that's why, she says, "my dream would be to extend and expand their work at Lincoln Center Theater."