A Director’s Journey to Broadway

theatre director Pam MacKinnon

Directors are to theatre what the depot is to railroads: all trains run through them. Tracks radiate from the director to every corner of a production – the writer, producer, actors, designers, finance people, marketers, and venue management. She also serves the vital defensive function of shielding the creative team from the producer phalanx. A most curious thing about this Grand Central position is that no two directors go about the job the same way. So whenever I come across an account of a director working, I stop and pay attention. There can be dramatic gold in them thar hills.

Pam MacKinnon is one of the country’s A-list directors, working regularly on Broadway and elsewhere. Susan Stroman is the only female who has directed more shows on Broadway than MacKinnon. Given that MacKinnon has been directing on Broadway for only five and a half years, she considers that achievement to be evidence of gender bias for theatre directors (last year women directed 17% of Broadway shows).

MacKinnon’s recent credits include Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (Broadway; with Glenn Close and John Lithgow), Bruce Norris’s The Qualms (Steppenwolf); Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Broadway, Arena Stage, Steppenwolf; Tony Award and Drama Desk Awards for Best Director); Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (Broadway, Mark Taper, Playwrights Horizons), and Horton Foote’s Harrison, TX (Primary Stages). She is a frequent interpreter of the work of Edward Albee, having directed six of his plays. Albee, who was most particular about who he let direct his plays, held MacKinnon in high regard.  She currently serves as president of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC).

Last week MacKinnon was interviewed by New York producer Ken Davenport and their conversation was posted as a podcast on his “Producer’s Perspective” blog. Below are a few highlights of the interview.

MacKinnon’s professional journey was not linear. She grew up in suburban Buffalo, where her father was a college professor. Catching the stage bug in high school, she directed a Thornton Wilder one-act, Pullman Car Hiawatha, and did some acting. At the University of Toronto she stepped away from theatre to study economics and political science. From there she entered a PhD program in political science at UC San Diego. A year and a half into grad school, as she began to research and write her dissertation, she realized that she just didn’t have the passion for an academic career like her father’s. What “hit me as a thunderbolt”, as she put it, was the realization that “It’s not about what you’re doing in life, it’s your relationship to it. What’s important is not the content of the work, it’s how it activates you.” She realized that the last time she felt passionate about work in a self-starting kind of way, was in theatre. She knew she didn’t want to be an actress and in an internal monologue told herself, “You know what, I think my brain is a director-brain.”

For a while she stayed involved with political science by teaching intro classes in ethics, but she started doing theatre in the university’s cabaret space. As she re-embraced theatre, she had the good fortune of assisting two powerhouse directors who were associated with UCSD at the time, Des McAnuff and Anne Bogart.

When it was time to leave San Diego she didn’t feel ready for New York, so she went back to Toronto. She was doing stage management there when she caught a break. The Who’s Tommy musical (remember the pinball wizard?), which her San Diego mentor Des McAnuff had co-written the book for along with Pete Townshend, was coming to Toronto after a successful run on Broadway. McAnuff hired her as his local assistant. Following that gig she went to Germany to help stage Tommy there.

With those experiences under her belt she felt ready to go to New York and direct Broadway musicals. Hah! Twenty years later she directed her first musical on Broadway. But the crucial thing is she kept busy in those intervening 20 years, directing lots of new plays, small downtown shows, and regional productions.

In New York a stroke of good fortune arrived when top director Dan Sullivan hired her to assist him on some productions. “Dan, Des and Anne were three very different directors, which was great for me, as someone who never studied theatre,” she told Davenport. A pearl of wisdom she picked up in those rehearsal halls is that you have to be true to yourself. “Directing is a very personal, conversational art form. It’s about activating other people who are more ‘specialist’ in their field, whether it’s design, whether it’s acting, whether it’s playwriting. You have to be true to your own energy, to your own moment. Know when to pull the lever and give the hard note, when to celebrate the good things. Those three directors have found their core and can walk into any room and be themselves.” Having now worked with three of the country’s top directors, MacKinnon’s career gained traction.

She begins her rehearsal process with three or four days around the table [reading the script], “trying to find the big picture as well as the little pictures.” As for blocking (actors’ movements), she says it all comes out of the script. She strives to find the deep, true intent and then the actors’ bodies will follow. “I try not to set the blocking until really late in the process. She tries different things and if something gets repeated, the actors are repeating it for a reason, because it’s good. If the story is getting translated from that movement, then it’s working.”

Davenport wanted to know how much she encourages the actors to get involved in script recommendations on a new play. MacKinnon said, “It really depends on the writer. Some writers will hand me a play with it being good to go, with maybe a few question marks about a couple of speeches, or one scene: ‘I know this bit isn’t there yet.’ Other playwrights will give me a script that’s ‘a bit of a notion and a prayer’. They want to get in a room, have a reading, and see what sticks. So it does really depend on the writer. And I’m really sensitive to that. If the writer encourages me to let the actors in [on the process] then I do. If the writer says I don’t need that free-for-all, then I’m very sensitive to that. It’s not my call, I feel.”

As to how she gets feedback during previews, she explained, “You can feel in the room whether that collective [audience] is going on a ride. You can feel when they’re engaged, when they’re excited.” She notices where the audience’s attention flags: “Okay there’s a problem with scene four. I make a note of that.” From the audience she “takes in the collective feeling, not so much the individual whisperings.”

One of the big lessons for her about directing on Broadway was “It’s cutthroat. Stuff can close that is fantastic because it doesn’t find its audience.” MacKinnon has suffered a few flops, such as The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway starring Elizabeth Moss.

How to handle the pain of flops? “You just put your hands up alongside your head. You lick your wounds, and lick them privately. I have great friends and family, a great support system.” She’s also in the blessed position of not having time to stay down for long. Her calendar is full; another rehearsal room and a new team of designers and actors await.”

MacKinnon stresses the importance of relationships in theatre. “Those writer-director relationships are hugely important. It’s not that this writer is going to take me to Broadway. It’s that this writer and I click, and let’s continue with this relationship and let’s see where we go. You have your people and sometimes those people wind up taking you to interesting places and you take them to interesting places. The loyalty of collaboration is important.”

She doesn’t overlook the role of luck. “The first time I worked in Chicago was on an Albee play because the first director dropped out to take a movie. First time I worked at the Goodman. My relationship with Edward Albee opened a lot of doors for me. [To have] a 17-year relationship with someone like that, I was very fortunate for a young director, man or woman. I was also lucky in that there were plays Broadway producers wanted to produce that I was attached to. And then I did a good job. I showed up. I was authentic and true to myself and worked hard.”

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