When Emily Mann started working on “Gloria: A Life,” she was struck by how much credit the celebrated journalist, organizer, and feminist Gloria Steinem gives to others.
“She’s a world-class listener,” says Mann, who created the documentary play about Steinem that opens at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge Jan. 24. “She has always encouraged women to tell their stories, and so I had to work harder to get her to talk about herself.”
Mann says Steinem approached her about adapting her memoir “My Life on the Road” into a one-woman play after Steinem saw “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.” In that play, Mann adapted the oral histories of two sisters who quietly defied prejudice during a century that began with the memory of slavery fresh in their minds and continued through the Harlem Renaissance, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement.
“Those women were a part of an extraordinary period of American history, but audiences connect to them because their stories are so personal,” Mann says. “Gloria is an icon of the women’s movement and has led a very public life, but the heart of her story is the women who helped her find her own voice. I was particularly moved by her relationship with her mother, who Gloria cared for through her teen years and who never felt fulfilled.”
With images and film segments, some even providing a dialogue with Steinem herself, Mann follows a chronological frame while keeping the tone conversational.
“You have to see those actual clips of Richard Nixon mocking her, and newscasters dismissing her,” Mann says. “You also see her extraordinary ability to remove the stigma of feminists as man-haters. Here is a beautiful woman who enjoys being beautiful and loves men. I almost needed to write the play as a thank-you to her. I couldn’t have lived the life I have without her ahead of me.”
The focus of the evening, says Mann, is to offer audiences a view into the woman behind the iconic persona, to show it’s possible for everyone to speak up and make a difference. Every performance ends with a “talking circle,” an invitation for audience members to respond to what they’ve seen onstage.
“It’s extraordinary how Gloria’s experiences resonate, and the experience of listening to other people share their stories in the talking circle has been incredibly moving,” Mann says.
Initially, the plan was for Steinem to play herself, but when she said she was not comfortable performing night after night, Mann needed to rethink the script. She reached out to Diane Paulus, the ART’s artistic director, who said the script needed to open up to accommodate an ensemble.
“The journey is what is important, which is bigger than just one woman,” says Mann. “The actors [six women who play multiple roles] became a collection of storytellers as much as characters, which amplifies the theme.”
Mann says she and Paulus, who is directing “Gloria: A Life,” had never worked together before, but they “just clicked.” The play premiered off-Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theatre with Christine Lahti as Steinem, followed by a production with Oscar winner Mary McDonnell at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., where Mann is completing her 30th and final season as artistic director.
“The premise behind this play is that the audience has gathered for a real-time event,” Paulus says. “Our first previews in New York were during the [hearings for eventual Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh], and as we read through the script for this production at the ART, we had to think about what needed to be tweaked, include [climate activist] Greta Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations, and unfortunately add to the list of gun violence incidents.”
Mann’s strength as a playwright, says Paulus, “is her ability to present a documentary with dramatic tension and emotion. As a director, I enjoy breaking the fourth wall, because what makes the theater so special is that we’re all in the room together experiencing the action in the present, and we use our imagination to look forward and backward.”
Patricia Kalember, who is returning to the lead role after taking over in New York for Lahti, says for her, playing Steinem has never been about an impersonation.
“There are gestures I mimic, and I listen carefully to the cadence of her voice,” says Kalember, best known for her role in the ’90s TV show “Sisters.” “But I’m trying to take people on one woman’s journey to becoming a feminist.”
Although there are other actors onstage, Paulus says the audience is really the performers’ scene partner. So concluding the evening with a talking circle feels perfectly appropriate.
“We’ve all been at talkbacks that can feel more like lectures than conversations,” says Paulus. “I was a little nervous, but Gloria said, ‘Just trust it. Talking circles are magic and they always work.’ ”
“The sharing of experiences has been profound,” says Paulus. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before.”
GLORIA: A LIFE
Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Jan. 24-March 1. Tickets start at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org/Gloria
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.