After graduating from North Carolina School of the Arts, Joe Mantello and some fellow actors came to New York separately. They reunited spontaneously to start a theater company, and this is where Joe became a director, Peter Hedges became a writer, and some others among them—Mary Louise Parker—solidified their acting careers. Though the company is now defunct, it did the most a community can do—make artists realize the space of their talents and forgive their limits. In a very short amount of time, Joe has surfaced in New York theater as both a director and actor. He is a member of two theater companies, Circle Rep and Naked Angels, where again, he bounces back and forth between acting and directing.
At Naked Angels, he has directed plays written by Jon Robin Baitz, Keith Reddin, and Peter Hedges, as well as Angel Sent Me, a one-night benefit play with sixty actors. At Circle Rep, he directed Peter Hedges’s Imagining Brad and Babylon Gardens, written by Timothy Mason, with Timothy Hutton and Mary Louise Parker. Last year he acted in Walking The Dead, by Keith Curran, and he is presently starring in Baltimore Waltz, directed by Anne Bogart.
Nicole Burdette I’m here with Joe Mantello . . .
Joe Mantello Wait, wait, wait. This is like Night Line or something.
(laughter, pounding on the table)
NB What about heroes? Are you a person with heroes? (long pause) I guess not. I guess the silence indicates . . . (laughter)
NB Generally, there are actors who direct or, not as common, directors who act. You very, very equally, both direct and act, which is rare. How does that affect you when you work with a director like Anne Bogart?
JM I’ll tell you this. I think I’ve become a better actor since I started directing, although some people might disagree. Since I’ve been removed from the process I see things that actors fall into. Now there’s a part of me that’s removed from the process and can stand back. Anne has such a strong vision, I don’t find myself competing with her. I completely give over to her.
NB Right. So rather than being frustrated, you are inspired by that process.
JM In this particular case.
NB Do you prefer one to the other?
JM That’s what everyone asks me . . . Not really. I like what I’m doing when I’m doing it. If pressed, I would say that my nature as a person lends itself towards being a director because I’m extremely bossy and like people asking me, “What do you think the couch should look like?” or "Should she wear a red slip or a black slip?"
NB You’re very deeply involved in Circle Rep and Naked Angels. What does a company mean to you, what does a community mean to you, how important is that to you in your work?
JM Well, both places have been the support and ongoing nurturing of talents. That is so important, I think very few people have that. You’re allowed to fuck up and they’ll still ask you back to do something else. It’s a long term commitment. Whether you’re successful or not particularly successful, the organization is committed to you as a person and they’re in it with you for the long haul.
NB What about the creative relationships you eventually form? You have one with Peter Hedges? Why is that valuable, how does that feed you?
JM Those kinds of relationships are rare in my experience. What Peter and I have, you know we’ve known each other through four years of drama school, we were both actors, and then when we came up here we had a company called The Edge Theatre and he wrote specifically for the company, like a choreographer would create for a dance company.
NB So in essence, you procured him as a writer and he, you as a director. Whether it’s the company you started or Circle Rep, an actor like yourself became a director and an actor like Peter became a writer through that community. Two people is a community as much as a company. Is that more ideal to you than just being a hired hand?
JM For me, yeah, because a short-hand exists among people you’ve worked with time and time again. So much of going into rehearsal is establishing that rapport with the actors, getting them to trust you and you trusting them. You spend the first week and a half getting used to each other, not that it isn’t real work, but then you get down to the “real work.” With Peter, we can sit down at a table when we’re working on a script and I’ll say, “It should be more like . . .” he’ll say, “Yeah, exactly, but what if it’s . . .” And I’ll say, “Yeah, that’s right.” You know to someone on the outside listening, it’s gibberish, but we’re completely in time with one another.
NB Let’s take the issue of an actual play. Not necessarily a new play. What plays make you say, "I have to direct this?" And what make you say, “I have to be in this?” Are they often the same kind of play or are they different? Let’s start with directing.
JM Genuinely very dark plays, really funny, irreverent, plays that will evoke a very strong reaction from the audience. Whether they hate it or love it. I’m not so interested in kitchen sink drama, I’m not so interested, as an actor or as a director, in classics right now. I don’t really think that’s where my strength is.
NB Well, when are you most in love with the theater? On any level, acting or directing, what is the sensation, the moment that you feel that this is completely six senses together, the way it should be? It’s such a rough life, the only reason anyone would continue with this is because there’s that moment. It’s not about self-glory, but isn’t it about collaboration or community? I mean, you tell me.
JM Well, it is collaboration, it is community those kinds of things are rare in television or film, or in my experience they’re rare. But also, you can do things in the theater that can’t be replicated by the other two. There are moments in theater that are pure theater, like in Dancing at Lughnasa. Right before they all dance there’s this moment where she turns and throws white flour on her face, and lets out this primal scream. Then one by one all of the sisters start dancing. It’s something you can’t articulate, it’s not cerebral. And the audience can go from doubling over with laughter to complete silence, sitting on the edge of their seats in a second. That’s what I love about the theater.
NB Yeah, me too.
JM I love that you can be in a completely black space with two chairs and go anywhere. When you have millions of dollars to do a film, if the scene is on a train to Berlin, you’re on a train to Berlin. But if you don’t have millions of dollars but you do have two chairs and a black space, how do you do that? You’re called upon to use everything.
NB That’s a very difficult, imaginative moment, getting to your emotions through imagination, meaning the senses.
JM Going back to working with Peter in The Edge Theatre, we had no money. He would write these enormous plays, and we could afford two chairs and a table. And his plays were all over the map. It was a necessity that we found ways to be creative. That’s why when we first did Imagining Brad, the set was literally two chairs. If you looked deep down into it, conceptually, that came out of the way we had been working for years and we translated that, carried it over into off-Broadway. Although working with a great designer like Loy Arcenas—how do you take those spare elements and make them frightening, beautiful, all of those things.
NB What about great art? How do you feel when you go to The Metropolitan Museum or the opera? How do you feel when you walk out of any of those buildings?
JM I don’t go to the opera, really.
NB Anything like that.
JM Umm, the times when I have seen great theater, and they have been rare, I’m really unable to move after the experience of the play, maybe that’s happened three times since I’ve been here.
NB A large part of you is the audience member but does it hit you since you do theater, in abstract terms?
JM What do you mean?
NB If you were to see Michelangelo’s David—I don’t mean you would have a white, plaster of Paris sculpture in your next play, but do those correlate with you?
JM Yeah, they carry over. Things that I have visceral responses to are things that I never would have thought of. I can’t direct like Jerry Zaks, what he does is particular to Jerry Zaks, but after Six Degrees of Separation, I really couldn’t move. Not that the next time I direct I would try to recreate that, but even unconsciously you take something away . . .
NB That’s what I mean. There’s this strange thing that happens. It’s not at all that you want to be like him or you want a play like that play, but that it hit you. In a way, I feel you’re never the same again, you’re better for it. You become stronger by seeing great art. Is that the feeling that you get sometimes?
JM Definitely, definitely.
NB Who was your childhood hero?
JM Who was my childhood hero?
JM Well, you know I was raised a Catholic, and I went to Catholic schools so . . .
NB A priest?!
JM Oh, absolutely. No, actually, even from a really early age, I never bought into the whole Catholicism thing. Even when I was nine and ten years old, I knew them for the hypocrites that they were.
NB But at the same time, you’re noticing the hypocrisy, the uncomfortableness you feel, in another weird way they were heroic?
JM Well, all joking aside, there is something about Catholicism and growing up in a Catholic church, the ritual of it and going to mass, the whole idea of an altar. I know that when I direct now some of that feeds in to it. It’s really bizarre. I’m fascinated by the ritual.
NB Yeah, me too.
JM Like weddings and people getting together to worship, I don’t buy into it but as an outside observer, I think it’s completely fascinating.
NB It’s beautiful.
JM It’s so beautiful. The pageantry, the robes and the incense . . .
—Nicole Burdette is a playwright and actress who lives and works in New York. Her play, The Great Unwashed, is being produced by Naked Angels.