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.