By Vanessa Hunt
Award-winning director and trained actor Art Manke has worked in playhouses and regional theatres across the country. He is the winner of multiple Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards and Backstage West Garlands, Robbie Awards, and Dramalogue Awards. As a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, Directors Guild of America, and Dramatists Guild, Art Manke has established himself with a long, successful career in the world of the arts, and, more specifically, the world of theatre.
Art Manke was raised on the south side of Chicago in a working-class family. Even though he grew up in a family that didn’t participate in the arts, he somehow fell into the arts and music in school. At the age of thirteen, he discovered performing and started working with a children’s theatre. Trying his hand in different aspects of theatre, he participated in acting, singing, choreographing, designing, and even directing. He directed his first play while in high school.
Manke attended college in Illinois where he received his BFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, continuing his education in actor training, directing, choreographing, and producing. After spending a year working in Chicago, he attended the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco where he received his MFA in acting. At the American Conservatory Theatre, Manke was a student of William Ball, whom he calls one of his greatest inspirations. Ball’s mantra of, “Say yes, say yes to everything,” inspired Manke, and it was here that he learned that every creative opportunity begets another creative opportunity. Manke says that in his greatest hours of doubting, he will hear Ball’s voice saying, “Just say yes. Yes, you can,” (Art Manke, Personal Interview, September 24, 2017).
After receiving his MFA, Manke began to build his career, with his main goal being to start his own theatre company. Along with two of his classmates, they founded the acclaimed classical theatre company A Noise Within, located in Los Angeles, California and currently in its twenty-sixth season. During his time with the company, he directed many plays, including The Winter’s Tale, Hay Fever, Pericles, Oedipus the King, Cymbeline, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Importance of Being Earnest, Tartuffe, The School for Wives, Romeo and Juliet, Volpone, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet. After serving as artistic director for ten years, Manke left A Noise Within to direct television shows and to teach at various universities.
Manke has given workshops at universities and conservatories across the country, including Stanford University, American Conservatory Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, South Coast Repertory, University of Southern California, Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts, University of California at Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, Pepperdine University, California State University at Fullerton and Los Angeles, and many more. Some of the subjects he covers within these lectures are acting, directing, acting Shakespeare, textual analysis and scansion, and Shakespeare’s First Folio.
Manke’s television directorial credits include episodes of Eve, One on One, and Hannah Montana. He spent three to five years in television, but he had a constant interest in many areas of theatre. He eventually decided to leave television and return to the theatre where he narrowed his efforts to mainly directing and choreographing, rotating between working on Shakespeare, musicals, and new works. When people suggested that Manke add another branch of theatre to his resume, writing, he initially resisted the idea. However, he gave in and decided to try his hand at writing after recognizing that in directing over fifty productions of Shakespeare and other great playwrights, he had learned what elements make up a great play. These elements included dramatic structure and character development (Manke, Personal Interview).
Inspired by the time he saw Pearl Bailey perform in Hello Dolly! where after the show had ended she would do her “third act” and come back out on the stage to sing additional songs and share stories of her life, Manke began searching for more stories about her life, leading him to write the play Pearl’s in the House, a musical that celebrates the life of Pearl Bailey. He researched Bailey’s life extensively, and his travels to learn more about her took him to places such as the Paley Center, the Nixon Library, the Reagan Library, and the Eisenhower Library. The first reading of Pearl’s in the House took place at the Pasadena Playhouse where Manke frequently works. He is passionate about the messages he learned from researching the life of Pearl Bailey, which include that you can talk about problem solving and talk about what needs to be done and that we can’t rely on other people, we have to be engaged citizens and participate (Manke, personal interview).
Other works he has written are an adaptation, along with Douglas Langworthy, of the novel Women in Love by D.H. Lawerence for the stage and an unproduced television pilot. However, Pearl’s in the House is the first produced piece he has authored.
Within the realm of live theatre, Manke has directed productions in various theatres across the nation, including South Coast Repertory, Denver Center Theatre Company, Pasadena Playhouse, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Pioneer Theatre Company, Jewel Theatre Company, Mark Taper Forum, and Santa Cruz Shakespeare. Productions he has directed within these spaces have included Peter and the Starcatcher, Noises Off!, The Constant Wife, The Three Musketeers, The 39 Steps, I Hate Hamlet, Sense and Sensibility, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Liar, Pride and Prejudice, The School for Scandal, and The Moliere Comedies.
At the end of the day, Manke says he enjoys working in theatre because, “I am happier working in the theatre. It is where I feel I belong, where I feel my skill set is most useful,” (Manke, Personal Interview). He is currently based in Los Angeles, California, but he travels three to four months throughout the year working at different theatres around the country.
Continuing to direct, Manke’s next projects include directing the world premiere of Amy Freed’s Shrew! at South Coast Repertory and directing the world premiere of his own play Pearl’s in the House at the Utah Shakespeare Festival for its 2018 season.