Emily Mann Author Commentary - Essay

Author Commentary

(Drama Criticism)

Interview with Mann (1987)

SOURCE: An interview with Emily Mann, in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Beech Tree Books, 1987, pp. 274-87.

[In the following conversation with Betsko and Koenig, Mann discusses her use of interviews and transcripts in the creation of Still Life, Execution of Justice, and Annulla Allen.]

[Betsko and Koenig]: You often utilize performance elements in your plays: recorded dialogue, repetitions, slides.

[Mann]: I'm fascinated with live performance aspects of theater. It enables you to add another layer of perception to what you are presenting and gives you alternative ways to tell your story. You can stylize without being linear, without the traditional rising and falling action, where you watch one protagonist. The play can then be seen from different angles simultaneously. I did use some performance elements in the writing of Execution of Justice [which premiered at the Eureka Theatre in 1982], and I like that aesthetic. Some people called Still Life [premiered at the Goodman Theatre in 1980] a performance piece. I don't know if I would or not. But there are certainly performance elements in it.

Simultaneity seems important to you as a playwright, and as a director.

Yes. Incredibly so. For example, when I was working on Execution of Justice, I kept telling the dramaturg, Oskar Eustis at the Eureka Theatre [in San Francisco], that I was hearing all this emotional noise throughout the play. I wanted to hear both the trial and the community breaking down … at the same time. It has to do with content dictating form. The sobs from the community had to be heard. I had been in many living rooms, offices, kitchens in that city hearing people's stories and I knew the people I'd been talking to had to have an opportunity to give testimony. In the theater you can hear many voices at once; it is a wonderful aspect of live theater that can't actually be reproduced in film.

At what point, during the creation of Still Life, did you realize that you were not using standard dialogue?

When I realized that the dialogue I'd written, which I'd liked by itself, didn't have the muscle I wanted. It became a way to get information across, and the play began to seem like educational theater. The piece seemed very leaden; it didn't have any poetry, it didn't have any drive or electricity or tension in it. And it didn't have the traumatic element.

How did you get the invented dialogue and the material from the transcripts down to the "muscle," the "poetry"?

First, I became obsessed with the material, the story, and with what needed to be said. Then I found the form. For example, when I was editing the court transcript of the Dan White trial for Execution of Justice, I knew this was the spine of the play. I felt that I had to get the material in the right order, so that the audience would understand the trial. But that was only one layer, and I didn't know what the next layer would be. I'd edited the trial down well but that was just the first step. The rest came to me when I went to San Francisco for a full month. Once I was there, I heard the community story, breathed it and lived it. When I went back to the raw material of that first draft, voices started to come at me. That's when I discovered that emotional noise and began to let it be words and responses and needs.

How did the structure of Still Life evolve?

It's not mystical at all. The first draft was a series of monologues in a particular sequence for each of the three characters [distilled from taped conversations with a Vietnam veteran, his wife and his mistress]. Everyone who read the first draft loved it, then I had a reading and it was dead as a doornail. I didn't know why. I talked to my husband, Gerry [Bamman, actor] about it, and he said that he felt each monologue in its distinct form was fantastic, but he was curious as to why I had put the monologues in that particular order. I said, "Don't you see the connections between this moment and this one? Or this and this?" I indicated points in each monologue and how they related to points in others placed close to them in the text. He said, "Why don't you put the connections closer together?" Then he literally handed me scissors and tape. That was the beginning. Then all of my personal connections became so trippy and ultraclear that it was like I was on speed. A whole different part of my brain was working. I didn't sleep or eat for five full days. Before that, each monologue was about ten pages long. When I read a monologue I would hear the response in my brain, but it wasn't on the page. Now the response was there as I heard it. It was the beginning of my work with simultaneity, juxtaposition.

What about the line breaks in the monologues? Were the original monologues in poetic form, as they are in the published version [T.C.G. New Plays U.S.A., Volume I, ed. James Leverett, 1982]?

Yes. Those monologues were distilled down to ninety pages from the eight hundred pages of interview transcript. Obviously, when I began to narrow them down, they found their own rhythm, which was, in fact, iambic pentameter. I never had any fat in those monologues, even in first draft. There was never a wasted word. I wanted to retain the actual rhythms of the way each person spoke, in real language, during the interviews. That came from my training in literature and from my work with Shakespearean texts with director Michael Langham. So much of Shakespeare's poetry is in the rhythms of real speech; that's what iambic pentameter actually is! Many powerful moments emerge when speech rhythms change, for example, the witches in Macbeth, or the songs in Shakespeare's plays. I also learned about soliloquy from working with Shakespearean texts—they are, after all, conversations between the protagonist and the audience. I know from coaching actors the power of direct address, and so it became clear to me that I wanted to use it in Still Life.

Did you realize the power and the poetry of everyday American speech while you were conducting the interviews for Still Life, or did that occur later during the writing process?

I realized it during the interview process. So many surprising moments occurred. I had expected combat imagery from the marine, but when I heard combat imagery from the two women, I realized that they had shared imagery, concerns, and common language. When Nadine said to me, "I've been in the jungle so long that even with intimates I protect myself," I thought, "What war were you in?" The language they spoke was an inspiration to me.

Edward Albee says that each play has its own musical architecture. Is this true of your writing?

Yes. A Washington reviewer understood that element of Still Life and talked about the play as a fugue. I'm very aware of the music and rhythmic structure as I'm writing; it's not just instinct. Before I went into theater, I had to choose between music and the theater. I used to play three instruments, though I don't anymore.

Why did you choose theater over music?

I knew I could never compose. I didn't have the skill. I felt I could become a better technician, but never master the creative side.

Has working with transcripts, for example, the interviews you conducted and edited for Still Life and Annula Allen [which premiered at the Goodman Theatre, 1978], as well as the court trial you utilized in Execution of Justice, helped you to develop your extraordinary skill with dramatic exposition?

Yes. But the skill has partly come out of my experience as a director. I have directed many so-called well-made plays. I loathed having to do Ibsen first acts, because you have to make that exposition seem like it's not exposition, and it so baldly is. You must make it seem as if it is all coming out of character. That is hard work for directors and actors. Exposition is THE hardest thing to write. You must get the story out without being heavy-handed. The audience needs the exposition, they need information in order to make judgments and to be able to fully experience the piece. You cannot make judgments without that information. And my plays are about asking the audience to face that information, and to actively question it. That is the form and content of Execution of Justice. It is a trial. The audience is the jury. The audience must have the information. But finally, the audience must have a visceral reaction to the play. All of this information, this exposition has to be made theatrical, rather than expositional. You could write a whole book about this! But I do want to say that you've got to make it theater. And that means you've got to make the play an active, live, gripping, in-the-moment event for people. From beginning to end, the audience must experience the information in a visceral way so that they don't notice they are using their intellect; they must be sucked in by their emotions and love for story, and then they must use both intellect and feeling to sort out what they've learned. It's very complex. Given that we're in a world where there is film and television where exposition is sometimes over by the end of the opening credits, anything that smacks of old-fashioned exposition always makes me uncomfortable. I hate it. From that hatred, I think, came a drive to get at it in my own way. A way that satisfied me.

How did you become interested in the Dan White trial [Execution of Justice]? [On November 27, 1978, Dan White—former policeman, former member of the Board of Supervisors...

(The entire section is 4113 words.)