pam mckinnon

Pam McKinnon

*Obie and Lilly Award winner and first-time Tony nominee Pam MacKinnon is one of the rising star directors on Broadway.  She directed the Pulitzer-prize winning Broadway play “Clybourne Park,” for which she received a Tony nomination for Best Direction of a Play.  “Clybourne Park” received a total of four Tony Award nominations including Best Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play (Jeremy Shamos), and Best Scenic Design of a Play.  The 44 year-old director makes her Broadway debut at the Walter Kerr Theatre. MacKinnon has an impressive list of works both off-Broadway and in regional theater.  In addition to Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” she has worked on several plays with acclaimed playwright Edward Albee and many others.

Inside Broadway  
Congratulations on your Tony Award nomination for Best Direction of a Play.  When you first heard about your nomination, where were you and what was your reaction?

Pam MacKinnon
I guess I deliberately slept in.  I didn’t want to watch the announcements live, I was just too nervous.  So, I came out of the bedroom and my boyfriend was already up, he had been up for a little while. He said that my phone had been beeping in the kitchen.  So I went into the kitchen and I looked at my phone—we still call them phones [cellular phones], and I really don’t know why—and there were all these messages and texts and they were very general and they were like “Congratulations” and “Wahoo,” “Yay.” Then I knew that at least the production got some nominations, and shortly after that my producer, Jordan Roth, gave me a call and that’s when I knew specifically.

Inside Broadway
As the director, how did you reconstruct/change the play from the initial production that premiered at the Playwright Horizons in 2010 to its debut on Broadway?

Pam MacKinnon
I think it’s very similar.  I think people who have seen both may feel that the characterization, the emotional work and the relationships between the characters have deepened, and that really came out of having another go at it. Also, between Playwright Horizons and Broadway, it’s been two years.  And we’ve all grown-up and we’ve done interesting projects in between.  I feel as if am a stronger director and a stronger artist, and I bet the actors would say that of themselves as well.  So, it shifted organically into something stronger. What’s also interesting is to go from a small theatre like Playwright Horizons, which at most can have two hundred people in the audience, to a Broadway house. I had to physically expand it a bit, and that is definitely a shift. I had to let the audience in a little bit more, because you have to play all the way back to the balcony at the Walter Kerr Theatre, so that changes some of the physical dynamics.  And then the final thing, and a conscientious choice on my part, I really wanted to continue to mine what I have been calling the ugliness in the play. Bruce [Norris] had written a genuinely funny, really laugh out loud play.  But there are moments that are outright racist, downright ugly and should never be glossed-over.  Between laughs, I want to make sure that ugly stuff lives and lands and is honestly felt.

Inside Broadway
What were the most challenging aspects of directing Clybourne Park?

Pam MacKinnon
Walking that delicate balancing act of maintaining the humor. But also making sure that the ugliness is there, or in the case of Act One, that big emotional and tragic aspects are there, without flattening the humor; making sure the tone is really complicated and, at times, kind of oddly schizophrenic.  It’s my job to orchestrate the peaks and valleys and differences of tone.  I think it’s a constant challenge in this kind of work.

Inside Broadway
As a director, what is your process in preparing the actors for their respective roles?  What was your approach to directing this project? Please explain in detail.

Pam MacKinnon
It really changes from project to project.  Each time you’re in a rehearsal hall, there’s a different group of people. And it’s a different kind of play.  Bruce plays are centered around arguments, and even if his characters aren’t articulate, they are still using a lot of language.  It’s a big language play, and you can say it’s a play about people trying to communicate and failing.  So in working with actors’ especially when we were doing it the first time, it was a really quick rehearsal process.  We had to go really quickly and actors were pounding lines into their heads and memorizing lines.  We had to build this thing.  So there wasn’t all that much time to breathe and have a rambling conversation about feelings and stuff like that.  We ran on adrenalin in order to get to the finish line, which is the audience coming in. In other plays, you can take the time, or the physical life of them might be more important than the verbal life of them.  I do a lot of plays where I work with Edward Albee; he is also a big language writer.  I guess, I would say that I don’t really have a set way to do something.  I am a language person, so we spend a lot of time around the table before we get up and start moving.  Sometime, we don’t have the luxury of time, we have to get up and embrace it physically pretty early.

Inside Broadway
Playwright Bruce Norris’ story of Clybourne Park was inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” and is a continuation of the same storyline.  Bruce Norris publicly admitted that he never approached the Lorraine Hansberry estate about the project.  Has there been any backlash about this issue?

Pam MacKinnon
No. I think he started writing it and then he started to wonder if this was going to be allowed.  But there’s been precedence with other authors who have taken other people’s work and used them as a stepping off point.  So he felt fairly confident that this play would live in its own right and be seen as, not based on “A Raisin in the Sun,” but inspired by it, and that’s allowed.

Inside Broadway
With more than fifty years since the premiere of “A Raisin in the Sun” and with the country’s first elected African American president, how do you feel race relations and real estate have changed or not changed in this country?

Pam MacKinnon
Definitely a story in this play or an interest of Bruce’s is to get up and talk about that.  Act one is in 1959 and Act two is in 2009, and the question is how much has really changed. I don’t know—and especially when it comes to real estate, when it comes to a very hot button, very personal issue such as this is my property, this is my neighborhood.  I do think in this county that the racial divide can still be really wide.  We haven’t figured out how to have these conversations. Institutionally, not much has changed.  And when it comes down to it, emotionally, I think a lot of people haven’t figured it out.

Inside Broadway
To date, what has been your most challenging directorial project?  And why?

Pam MacKinnon
They all pose challenges. That’s why you keep coming back for more.  I’m sure you feel like that in your own work.  The moment it gets like “I got this; I could do this in my sleep.”  It’s probably time to change it up. “Clybourne Park” is a big project. I’m going to be doing Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf,” which I did in Chicago at Steppenwolf Theatre and Arena Stage [Washington, D.C.], and like “Clybourne Park,” I’m doing it again on Broadway with that same company, and it’s going to be two years later.  And it’s a big play.  It’s a mysterious play; it’s a big emotional play. Like “Clybourne Park,” it can be very funny, but it also has some really heralding emotional depth.  Putting it up for the first time in Chicago, I think we all went a little crazy—especially that third act of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.” If you know it, it’s really devastating and it feels abusive and it’s that kind of work takes its emotional toll on you.  I remember staying up in my little beige apartment in Chicago that the theatre had rented for me—staying up to 4:00 a.m. muttering lines.  It can definitely get in as you are trying to figure out how to make it work in the rehearsal hall.  I would say that was a big, big challenge, but an exciting one, and the payoff was big. Even if it weren’t Broadway,  it’s just so great to have the chance to get together with those actors again and dig in, dig in even more, knowing that we already built a structure that works and now we get to own it.

Inside Broadway
Is there one experience or person you can identify as having had the greatest influence on your career?

Pam MacKinnon
My work with Edward Albee definitely opened up a lot of doors—a lot of early doors.  I worked at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre for the first time because Edward put my name forward as a director that he gotten to know.  I worked in Vienna similarly, so having a big writer in your corner definitely opened a few doors early. From one season to the next, I was working at very small theatres and all of sudden working at very big theatres. Even psychologically, to have a great writer—he is arguably our greatest living American playwright—in my corner, that’s a boost, that’s like “Whoa, okay.”  I can also answer this question in a more sentimental way. My parents read to me as a little, little girl.  So stories were part of our household.  I think that’s also a big part of what made me interested and, dare I say, capable in telling stories.

Inside Broadway
As a female director in a male dominated business, what has the experience been like for you?  And what have you learned from it.

Pam MacKinnon
I do get asked this question and it’s a really hard one to answer because I don’t know what the experience would be like if I weren’t a woman. So it’s a really tricky thing to say, “If I were a man and if I were only thirty five would I be further ahead, or would I be the golden boy?” It is really, really hard to answer.  I definitely recognize that there continues to be more men sitting in the director’s chair than women—especially at this “level.”  But there are a lot of women coming up and a lot of really talented directors.  I’m 44 years old and there are a lot of women my age and younger who are really coming up, and they have been doing really good work.  So you have to say “look out, things are changing.”  In my experience, I have no complaints.  I have been working really hard.  “Did I set Broadway as a goal?” No.  But I set working with interesting plays as a goal and I work a lot. I work not only in New York, and that’s fine with me.  You go where the work is.  I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great writers, some great actors, some great designers, and you keep moving through it.  The more work you do, the more people want to work with you.

Inside Broadway
Tell us what’s next for you.

Pam MacKinnon
I’m in a rehearsal process.  I’m in a workshop so there’s no full production value going into this.  It’s a new play by a younger writer, Sylvan Oswald, and we’re doing it downtown at a small theatre called SoHo Rep.  It’s a two week workshop. He’s rewriting the play, and we will stage it, but it will be script in hand.  It will be a couple of presentations.  So it’s more to get the play to the next level.  It’s not about creating a big, full production.  I have a few readings in June. They are one day affairs where you cast them and you meet with the actors for a few hours and you literally just read the play out loud for the playwright to hear and the audience to hear.  And in the summer, I’m doing some short plays by Horton Foote at Primary Stages—that’s an off-Broadway theatre.  I’m in design and casting mode right now. I never worked on any Horton Foote plays.  I just think he’s a fantastic, fantastic writer, and I’m looking forward to digging into those.  Then around the corner is Virginia Wolf. Those are the things that I know.  I really hope that my boyfriend and I can sneak away in August and not tell anyone where we are going.

Inside Broadway
Tell us one thing people would be surprised to know about you.

Pam MacKinnon
I’m a pretty ordinary person.  I ride my bike to commute around the city.

See Inside Broadway’s review of “Clybourne Park”:
http://www.eurweb.com/2012/04/inside-broadway-theater-review-clybourne-park/

See “Clybourne Park” at the Walter Kerr Theatre, (located at 219 West 48th Street, Times Square), New York, New York.  For more information, please visit:  www.clybournepark.com.

Gwendolyn Quinn is veteran media specialist with a career spanning 20 years. She is the founder of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the publisher and editorial director of Global Communicator, an e-publication for public relations, marketing, journalists and communications professionals. She is a contributor to Souls Revealed (Souls of My Sisters/Kensington) and featured in Handle Your Entertainment Business (Grand Central/Warner Publishing). She is a contributor to the forthcoming book, Souls of My Faithful Sisters (Souls of My Sisters/Kensington).  Contact her at [email protected].

gwendolyn quinn

Gwendolyn Quinn