JoAnne Akalaitis

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(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...

(The entire section is 2,038 words.)