JoAnne Akalaitis Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Akalaitis is one of the preeminent American theatrical directors of the late twentieth century. Unlike most directors on the commercial stage, she develops her productions using a collaborative method. Her work as a playwright and a director is considered eclectic and avant-garde.

Early Life

JoAnne Akalaitis was born and reared in a blue-collar suburb of Chicago. Her parents, Clement Akalaitis, a supervisor at General Electric, and Estelle, née Mattis, were of Lithuanian Roman Catholic ancestry. As a child, JoAnne Akalaitis attended Lithuanian school, where she appeared in many plays. Still, she did not pursue her interest in drama when she reached college, preferring instead to take a B.A. degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1960. Akalaitis won a fellowship to pursue graduate studies in philosophy at Stanford University, but she eventually dropped out of that program and instead used the money to study at the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco. She met her future collaborators there and in workshops with the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

Eager to expand her theatrical experience, Akalaitis moved to New York in 1963 and to Paris in late 1964. In Paris, she collaborated with Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech, friends from San Francisco, on a production of Play by Samuel Beckett. Another participant in the project was Philip Glass, whom Akalaitis married on July 15, 1965.

In 1968, when her first child Juliet was six months old, Akalaitis joined Maleczech in studying for a month with Jerzy Grotowski, the leader of the movement of the “poor,” or actor-centered, theater. This experience shaped the rest of Akalaitis’ career. She came to the realization that the psychological motivation of a character must have a physical dimension or manifestation. Also, she came to believe that the actor was not just an interpreter of other people’s art, but an artist in his or her own right, just as much as the playwright. She said, “I saw a whole development of Stanislavsky that involved the body, that involved my own personal history, and involved my value as an artist.”

When she returned to New York, in late 1969, Akalaitis formed a theater collective with Maleczech, Breuer, Glass, and David Warrilow. During the troupe’s rehearsals in 1970, which were held in Glass’s beach house in Nova Scotia, Canada, Akalaitis was pregnant with her second child. At first, the men in the group expected her and Ruth Maleczech, who was also pregnant, to cook, clean, and care for the babies, in addition to rehearsing all day. She said, “We decided that the men had to wash the dishes and the company had to pay for the babysitter. And at that time, there was resistance to it. . . . [N]ow it’s different, it’s accepted.”

Akalaitis’ desire for the equitable distribution of housekeeping responsibilities continued to manifest itself as her career progressed. Though she and Glass divorced in 1974, they continued to share the upbringing of their children. “He does it three days and I do it three, then we alternate every other Saturday. Because he’s involved in performing, I take care of the children when he’s on tour, and he takes them when I’m on tour,” she said in a 1976 interview.

It was Akalaitis who suggested that the new theater company take the name of a nearby Nova Scotian mining town, Mabou Mines. The troupe debuted its first play, Lee Breuer’s The Red Horse Animation, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in November, 1970.

Life’s Work

“I think all the people involved in the group really started their artistic lives—in a sense we were reborn—when Mabou Mines began,” JoAnne Akalaitis later said about her work with the theatrical group. The group staged several “animations,” works that could be considered performance art pieces, under Breuer’s direction in the early 1970’s.

When the Mabou Mines performed three plays by Samuel Beckett at the Theater for the New City Festival, their work caught the attention of New York’s theater “establishment,” and they were invited to play at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in 1976.

For her direction of her first production, Cascando, by Samuel Beckett, with the Mabou Mines company, Akalaitis won her first Obie Award for excellence in an off-Broadway production. From this point on, Akalaitis changed her focus from acting to directing. She went on to stage her own script, Dressed Like an Egg, based on the writings of the French novelist Colette, with Mabou Mines at the Public Theater in 1977. Akalaitis won her second Obie Award for this production.

In 1978, Akalaitis won a Guggenheim fellowship and used it to cowrite, design, and direct a play about Antarctica, called Southern Exposure, with Mabou Mines in 1979. This effort brought her a third Obie Award.

Her 1980 collaboration...

(The entire section is 2038 words.)

JoAnne Akalaitis Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The influence of JoAnne Akalaitis’s background appears in various forms in her work. Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1937, she was reared in a predominantly Lithuanian Catholic neighborhood. She studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and Stanford University, training that emerges in her constant fascination with the nature of being. She worked at the Actors’ Workshop in San Francisco in 1962, where she first met Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech, with whom she formed the theater collective Mabou Mines in 1969. Her acting teachers included Herbert Berghof, Bill Hickey, and later Spalding Gray and Joyce Aaron of Open Theatre. She has commented in an interview with Jonathan Kalb that having two children with her former husband, composer Philip Glass, may have kept her from doing more work, but that she would not be who she is without them.

In 1993, only twenty months after being appointed artistic director of the Public Theatre by Joseph Papp, Akalaitis was dismissed from that position in a sudden Public Theatre Board decision. Although the board’s decision may have been partly based on Akalaitis’s performance of her administrative duties as artistic director, her political agenda, her working style, and various theater business issues, Akalaitis remains an artist who is on the cutting edge of theater.

JoAnne Akalaitis Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

JoAnne Akalaitis (ah-kah-LAY-tihs) is recognized for her contributions to performance art and avant-garde drama, particularly with Mabou Mines, the theater company she helped form in 1969. After growing up in a Lithuanian Catholic neighborhood, she studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and at Stanford University. In 1962, she participated in the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco, where she worked with Ruth Maleczech and Lee Breuer. Together with these and other performers, she formed the theater collective Mabou Mines. She received training from such well-known acting teachers as Bill Hickey, Herbert Berghof, Spalding Gray, and Joyce Aaron.

Akalaitis was awarded financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the New York State Creative Artists Public Service Program. Working with Mabou Mines, she contributed to such conceptual collaborations as Red Horse Animation (1970) and The Saint and the Football Player (1976), which initially took place as visual performance pieces in New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Berkeley and Pasadena art museums. Other multimedia events she worked on include performances with the 1976 American Dance Festival. For a time, Akalaitis was married to the composer Philip Glass, who provided music for Mabou Mines in Dressed Like an Egg and Dead End Kids, which were significant contributions to New York’s burgeoning avant-garde theater. Akalaitis won three Obie Awards and in August, 1991, succeeded Joseph Papp as the director of the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public Theater. Her abrupt dismissal from that position in early 1993 was hotly debated in the theater community.

Akalaitis describes her work as disconnected from the American theater tradition of such artists as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee. In contrast to their work, which focuses on domestic issues and personal relationships, Akalaitis’s use of music, art, science, and surrealist and expressionist forms aligns her with the tradition of such European avant-garde performance artists as Bertolt Brecht. Her group, Mabou Mines, shocks audiences out of their usual expectations through nontraditional use of props, opening of the stage boundaries, onstage narration, unconventional exchanges of character portrayal among various actors, and set designs and scene changes...

(The entire section is 994 words.)