Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2038

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.

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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 with Mabou Mines was called Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power, about the dangers of atomic energy and weapons. It played at the Public Theater for more than two-hundred performances and also found success on tour at regional theaters around the country. The script was made into a film in 1986, which Akalaitis also directed.

Akalaitis won the Rosamond Gilder Award from the New Drama Forum and a Drama Desk Award for her 1981 direction of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Request Concert. Also in 1981, Akalaitis acted the role of Mrs. Lammle in the play Dark Ride by Len Jenkins.

Akalaitis directed a piece called Red and Blue by Michael Hurson in 1982. In 1983, she staged a multimedia production called The Photographer with music by her former husband Philip Glass at the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Akalaitis staged two notable works in 1984. The first was Through the Leaves by Franz Xaver Kroetz. Ruth Maleczech and Frederick Neumann, her colleagues from Mabou Mines, won Obie Awards for their acting in this production. Akalaitis went on to direct an unconventional staging of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the American Repertory Theater. Beckett became so upset when he learned that she had wavered from his exact stage directions that he threatened to go to court to stop the production. He finally allowed the show to go on, with the provision that his caveat denouncing the production be attached to every play program.

Akalaitis directed another iconoclastic production at the American Repertory Theater late in 1985, a new translation of Jean Genet’s The Balcony. In 1986, she directed herself and Ruth Maleczech in Help Wanted by Franz Xaver Kroetz. In the same year, she traveled to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles to create a work entitled Green Card, about the American immigrant experience—a play considered by many to contain the hallmarks of her work as a playwright.

In 1987, Akalaitis staged Georg Büchner’s play Leon and Lena at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. She returned to that theater in 1989 to direct The Screens by Jean Genet.

She finally came to national prominence, however, when she was asked to direct William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the summer of 1989. In May of 1990, Joseph Papp invited her to become one of his four artistic associates. She accepted, and in 1991 directed Shakespeare’s two part historical drama Henry IV.

In August of that year, Joseph Papp, who was suffering from cancer, resigned his post as artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival and named Akalaitis as his successor. Her tenure was brief and bitter. That fall, she conducted a town meeting of playwrights to discuss their concerns. She wanted to promote the works of new playwrights in spite of the severe budget cuts that wracked her organization.

In the spring of 1992, Akalaitis staged rsquo;Tis Pity She’s a Whore (pr. 1629[?]-1633, pb. 1633) by John Ford. In December, she mounted Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. On March 13, 1993, the board of directors of the New York Shakespeare Festival suddenly fired Akalaitis and named African American playwright George C. Wolfe as her replacement. Akalaitis was given scarcely a week to clean out her desk.

She had planned to stage Shakespeare’s Henry VIII that summer for the Festival. Instead she directed a Lincoln Center Theater Company production of a play by Jane Bowles called In the Summer House, which opened in August, 1993.

Apparently, Akalaitis’ sudden dismissal was influenced by the savage reviews of her work written by The New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. Robert Brustein warned, in a 1993 article in the New Republic, that Rich and the Festival board of directors were, “still in the grip of Reagan-Bush conservatism, despite the recent change in administration, and a bottom-line mentality continues to rule our art.” He called this movement New Aesthetic Populism, a “war on the arts” from the center.

Brustein stated that Rich exposed his “continuing indifference to art with any depth or daring. . . . It is bad enough for one newspaper to control the destiny of commercial production, but when a powerful critic begins to arbitrate the conduct of non-profit institutions, then a shudder passes through the entire theater community.”

Akalaitis concurred with this opinion. “The center of this story is an agenda on the part of The New York Times. . . . In this case, it’s not that the board [of directors] has a strong opinion—it has no opinion. It’s waiting to be told what to think by the newspapers.”

Brustein has predicted that Akalaitis will continue to be a strong artist who might be better suited to independence than the administrative duties inherent in running a large theater. Yet, he worries that there might not be anyplace left that she will want to work, given the conservative nature of the present climate of the cultural world.

Summary

Even Frank Rich, the theater critic whose brutal assaults on Akalaitis may have resulted in her downfall, admitted in 1981, “Almost single-handedly she is giving new life to the whole notion of political theater.”

Her power grew with the nascent women’s movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. She began as a pregnant actress, demanding equality in housekeeping chores with her male counterparts. Even though she was a single mother, she continued in her career, growing more experienced and skilled as a theatrical director. Akalaitis remained true to her artistic vision, even when that meant she had to stand up to Samuel Beckett or to suffer a dismissal from the Public Theater that Robert Brustein described as “unusually brusque and humiliating.”

Akalaitis has faced the practical problems of raising a family while working in the theater. She has struggled against sexism, anti-intellectualism, and political conservatism. Yet, Akalaitis has persisted, providing leadership in the theater world and maintaining her integrity in both her personal and professional life.

Bibliography

Brustein, Robert. “Akalaitis Axed.” New Republic 208 (April 26, 1993): 29-31. Brustein writes a sympathetic interpretation of the events that led up to Akalaitis’ dismissal from her post as artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He includes a review of the last production there under her tenure, a musical version of the play Wings by Arthur Kopit.

Kalb, Jonathan. “JoAnne Akalaitis.” Theater 15 (Spring, 1984): 6-13. Kalb interviews Akalaitis on her directing theories. She discusses the projects she was involved in then, such as Dead End Kids and Green Card. She talks about the importance of her children to her work and the practical problems of being a working single mother.

Kenvin, Roger. “JoAnne Akalaitis.” In Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Alice M. Robinson, Vera Mowry Roberts, and Milly S. Barranger. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. This is the most scholarly biographical article on Akalaitis available. Covers her career up to her directing debut at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

O’Quinn, Jim. “Change of Will.” American Theatre 10 (May-June, 1993): 43. O’Quinn gives a factual interpretation of the events that led up to the firing of Akalaitis from the Public Theater. He summarizes Akalaitis’ reaction to the event and the reactions of the American theater world.

Sommer, Sally R. “JoAnne Akalaitis.” The Drama Review 20 (September, 1976): 3-16. Sommer interviewed Akalaitis for a special magazine issue subtitled “Actors and Acting.” Akalaitis talks about her life as an actress in the collaborative environment of the Mabou Mines and addresses the problems of being a single mother working in the professional theater.

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