Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life has gone through many iterations, but the message behind it has remained the same: women matter. Initially planned as a solo show starring Gloria Steinem herself, the play ultimately transformed into an ensemble piece that premiered Off-Broadway in 2018, directed by Diane Paulus. The piece has since impacted audiences in various ways, from Steinem’s powerful action recreated on the stage to the young generation offering to pick up the torch at the stage door.
Now, Gloria: A Life comes to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, beginning performances January 24. Patricia Kalember takes on the title role, having taken center stage during the show's Off-Broadway run.
In the interview below, A.R.T. Director of Artistic Programs & Dramaturg Ryan McKittrick and Mann discuss the play’s organic transformation into an ensemble piece, Steinem’s relationship with her mother, post-show talkbacks, and what’s next for the playwright.
Ryan McKittrick: Could you talk about the process you went through writing this play and how the script developed?
Emily Mann: I knew from all the documentary work I’ve done that I didn’t want to get everything from newspaper clippings and books. I wanted Gloria’s own words, and I wanted them from her heart. So we set up a series of interviews that we filmed and transcribed, then I went off and banged out a first draft in 10 days. At that point, it was a one-woman play that Gloria herself was going to perform. We had a workshop at Lincoln Center, and right afterwards, Gloria said, “I’d rather die than do this again!” So we had to rethink, and we asked Diane Paulus if she would come on board to direct. I’d always loved Diane’s work, and I knew she had talked about how much she admired what the women of the generation ahead of her had accomplished. When Diane began working with us, she said she wasn’t sure the play should remain a one-woman show if Gloria wasn’t going to play herself. And so eventually we decided we needed an ensemble to help tell the story.
How did introducing the ensemble transform the play?
It made so much sense, because Gloria never likes to be the one voice. She’s always giving credit to everyone else. She always thinks of herself as part of a team and part of a movement. When Diane and I went into auditions, we had an epiphany that the ensemble should be all women. Suddenly the play came alive in an absolutely new way, because looking at the male roles through the eyes of women brought another dimension to it. The other thing that happened is that Diane created an extraordinarily open rehearsal room. There was so much discussion in the room—ideas flying around all the time. It was such a creative space where the whole company of brilliant women really helped with how we were framing and staging the piece.
You’ve written a number of documentary dramas. How do you conduct interviews when you’re working on a new documentary play?
One of the things you look for as an interviewer is what I call “the spill.” You talk and talk and talk, and then you know when to be quiet. And often there’s this outpouring from the person you’re interviewing that comes from a place deep inside. That’s where a lot of the monologues in the work that I do come from. It’s a very long process, and then you have to dramatize the conversation.
Were there specific aspects of Gloria Steinem’s life and work that you found particularly compelling as a playwright? What made you want to bring Gloria’s story to the stage?
I and so many of the women of my generation would not have the lives we live today if it hadn’t been for her. But what I always look for when I’m writing are the surprises. I never knew, for example, that Gloria took care of her mother from the time she was 11 until she was 17. Gloria’s mother, Ruth, had what was called, in those days, “a nervous breakdown.” Gloria’s mother never received a diagnosis of mental illness. Gloria believed her mother’s spirit had been broken—broken by having to give up her work as a pioneering journalist. That propelled her—she didn’t want to become her mother, and she didn’t want other women to become her mother. The second thing is that Gloria’s personal history also told part of the history of the second-wave feminist movement. I knew I could explore her life story and the history of the women’s movement together, like a braid. I also knew early on that the story was going to go out to the audience. Gloria kept saying that she only wanted to tell her story if it helped other people tell their stories. I knew the play should end with a talking circle, but I was scared because talkbacks in the theatre have to be guided skillfully or they’re an utter drag. But I remember Gloria saying not to worry—talking circles are always magic. And that turned out to be true.
Could you describe what a talking circle is?
It’s similar to a Quaker meeting. People speak when they feel compelled to speak. Gloria learned about them when she was in India, walking with followers of Gandhi who were going from village to village during the caste riots. They would sit in a circle with the villagers and the prompt was: how are we going to stop the violence? By the end, it was not about taking revenge but finding a way to forgive those who were perpetuating the violence and bring them into the circle. It blew her mind and she knew that was one of the biggest life lessons she had ever learned. Years later, she saw the power of talking circles in the consciousness-raising groups formed out on the road. No one came in as an expert. The people on the ground were saying what they needed and what was going on in their lives. That form of grassroots organizing is how great social justice movements happen.
Gloria: A Life premiered in New York last year and opened your season at the McCarter Theatre this year. What have you experienced watching the show and being in the talking circles over the past year?
We’re living through a very frightening time. And in times of what seems to be chaos we need each other more than ever. When we all come together, we realize we’re not crazy; the system is crazy and we’re not alone. As Gloria says, the people who want justice and equality for all are the majority. So there’s a sense of community that gets forged that helps people go on. Even if audience members come with a sense of despair or a sense that we’ve lost ground—we found this in New York, especially after the Kavanaugh hearings—what happens is that the experience is often multi-generational. And the younger audience members say, “We’re here, we’re going to take it on.” The youth show us how to stay hopeful and how to work with them.
You received your B.A. from Harvard in the 1970s. How did your time here impact you as a theatre artist?
I lived at the Loeb Drama Center from 1970 to 1974. I acted. I directed. I wrote. I was a member of the Harvard Radcliffe Drama Club. It was a mixed bag going to Harvard in that I had never encountered such contempt for women’s minds. That was not true in the theatre. It wasn’t true of my friends and the students, but it was true of the faculty. I was so fortunate that the great William Alfred took me on. He was my tutor and he helped me get through it all. But I never had a woman as a professor in my four years there. Nor as a section leader. I’d gone to college thinking you couldn’t actually be a professional in theatre. I thought it was just a passion that one had, and I’d end up being a college professor like my father. But after spending my entire life at the Loeb whenever I wasn’t cramming for exams or writing my papers, I began to realize that it was what I wanted to do. I started to read about Hallie Flannigan and how one could make an intellectual, political, and cultural impact through theatre, and I became extremely interested in it as my life’s work. I was the first woman to direct on every stage where I worked. At the Guthrie Theater. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music. We’ve come so far. And at the same time there’s not parity yet.
After three decades serving as the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, this will be your last season leading the theatre. What’s next for you?
I’m stepping down from running McCarter and the day-to-day activities of the theatre so I can write and direct more. It’s been an incredible privilege and total joy having my artistic home for 30 years, and I know it’s going to be hard. But it seems like the right kind of hard. Gloria says that people always ask her who she’s passing her torch to and she says, “I’m not passing my torch; I’m using my torch to light the torches of others.” And that’s what I hope to do. I look forward to lighting the torch of my successor and continuing to work with artists who I deeply admire and helping them forward.
Performances are scheduled through March 1. The cast also includes Patrena Murray, Brenda Withers, Erika Stone, Eunice Wong, Joanna Glushak, and Gabrielle Beckford, each of whom either performed in Gloria: A Life Off-Broadway or at the McCarter Theatre Center. Rachel Cognata completes the company. For more information, visit AmericanRepertoryTheater.org.