DIRECTOR PAM MacKINNON:
A FIRE IN HER BELLY
MacKinnon, center, in the rehearsal hall for the Roundabout Theatre production of Toni Stone which is about the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. With MacKinnon are her collaborators, playwright Lydia R. Diamond (left) and choreographer Camille Brown (right). Photo by Jenny Anderson
Pam MacKinnon has most recently been busy directing the current Roundabout Theatre production of “Toni Stone” by Lydia R. Diamond which is about the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. It is based on the book “Curveball, The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone ” by Martha Ackmann, and is produced in association with Samantha Barrie. It will later be seen in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater where MacKinnon was named Artistic Director this time last year.
MacKinnon, who has been associated with the works of Edward Albee during her career, opened her first season as A.C.T.’s Artistic Director with a production of Albee’s “Seascape.” She also won a Tony Award for Best Director for her production of his “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in 2013. Tracy Letts, who played George in that production, says of her, “Pam is not only a great theatre director, but she has a burning curiosity and boundless passion. She’s also a lot of fun. All of the above I consider qualities necessary to run a theatre. I can’t wait to see what she continues to do with A.C.T.”
MacKinnon also was nominated for another Tony in 2012 – and won an Obie in 2010 – for her direction of Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park.” Norris is another playwright with whom she has become identified. They most recently worked together on his new play “Downstate,” which is set in a half-way house for sex offenders. It was done at both the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and at The National in London. I saw it at the latter and was left devastated by the production. I went into “Downstate” that night with no expectations other than my love of the visceral artistic aesthetic of Steppenwolf. But the whole production “blew my fucking mind,” as I emailed a couple of friends from the lobby of the Dorfman that night at The National still reeling a bit from it all. It is a troubling, truly great play directed with a profound sense of grace by MacKinnon, – startlingly so, based on its subject matter.
I am still processing this play many months later. On an artistic level, it was one of the best-acted-and-directed productions I have seen in years. But on a personal level, as someone who was molested as a child, it riled and roiled – and even healed me – in unexpected ways. This is what great theatre does when all the artists are in a kind of half-way house themselves in the rehearsal hall, unbound yet bound together, as they are guided forward by an empathic and expert director.
One intuits where the play’s narrative is going finally but it is the inexorable getting there that is the point of it all. Jesse Green in his “New York Times” review of the production when it was in Chicago called it “a great, squirmy moral-thrill-ride of a play.” It is not only set in a half-way house for sex offenders, but also within our smugness and the smarmy outrage we have for the people who live there. It is unsettling in that regard. I don’t want to say too much because I hope you will see and experience this play and this production yourself when it arrives in New York – as it must.
“Downstate” might not restore your faith in humanity but it will restore your faith in theatre – and great directing which enables great acting. Sitting there that night at the end of this production with tears running down my face and my heart racing as a sense of incongruous calm descended upon me – was it, yes, a moment of grace? – I softly heard myself whisper, ” … shiiiiiiit … shiiiiiiiiiit …” as the lights went down and right before we in the audience stood and roared our approval after the moments it took to gather ourselves. Those two whispered, elongated “shit”s were the “amens” that came from me in that sacred, deeply human space – a temporal temple – which theatre is for me.
I met with MacKinnon in Manhattan during a break from her early rehearsals for “Toni Stone” where we sat on a sofa outside the rehearsal hall. We began, however, by talking about my experience at The National and her extraordinary work on “Downstate.” I am humbled and honored to begin building this iteration of sessumsMagazine.com highlighting theatre directors with this conversation with MacKinnon.
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THE ARTFUL JOY
Name the show from this Broadway and West End director and choreographer. And cite the joy. "Spamalot." "The Drowsey Chaperone." "Something Rotten!" "The Book of Mormon." "Aladdin." "Dreamgirls." "Mean Girls." "The Prom." Next up: A new version of "Some Like It Hot" with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and a book by "The Inheritance"'s Matthew Lopez. Does this Casey ever strike out when he gets up to bat?
Nicholaw, who got his start performing in the ensembles of eight Broadway musicals before Mike Nichols gave him his first big break as the choreographer of Spamalot, photographed with three members of the ensemble of Aladdin, which he directed and choreographed, in 2014 by Max Abadian for Vanity Fair.
Poul photographed by Nino Munoz.
THE DEEP END OF THE POUL
Producer and director Alan Poul talks about the new "Tales of the City" on Netflix. "One of my big bugaboos is the cross-generational dialogue within the queer community that is not happening. The AIDS crisis created this chasm with us older gay guys on one side and the younger queer generation on the other. And we don’t fucking talk to each other ... in order to make the show work today we really had to take a deeper dive into what it means to be queer now in 2019 in all its glory and diversity."
BRANDISHING BRANDO, WHO BRANDISHED HIMSELF: THE CAULDRON WHO TURNED INTO HIS COMIC VERSON
“In the midst of Broadway’s ‘victory season,’ in March, 1946, an outraged ad denouncing the critics appeared in the ‘The New York Times,'” wrote Claudia Roth in ‘The New Yorker’ back in 2008. “Signed by the production team of Elia Kazan and Harold Clurman, the ad failed to save their drama about returning vets, ‘Truckline Café,’ from closing after a mere thirteen performances. But the play has gone down in history, thanks to a five-minute speech made by a little-known actor in a secondary role: Marlon Brando (pictured above from that production), at twenty-one, played an ex-G.I. who comes home to find that his wife has been unfaithful; in his final scene, he entered exhausted and wringing wet, and confessed that he had killed her and carried her body out to sea. Karl Malden, who played another minor role, reported that the rest of the cast sometimes had to wait for nearly two minutes after Brando’s exit while the audience screamed and stamped its feet. The performance was as remarkable for what Brando didn’t do as for what he did. Pauline Kael, very young herself and years away from a critical career, happened to come late to the play one evening and recalled that she averted her eyes, in embarrassment, from what appeared to be a man having a seizure onstage: it wasn’t until her companion ‘grabbed my arm and said “Watch this guy!” that I realized he was acting.'” To read the rest of Roth’s essay and one by Kael from 1966 in “The Atlantic” that explains how Brando became that comic version of himself, click here. There is also a revealing gallery of Brando images by Carl Van Vechten, who photographed him before his nose was broken by a stagehand during horseplay backstage during a performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Irene Selznick, who produced “Streetcar,” said, “I honestly think that broken nose made his fortune. It gave him sex appeal. He was too beautiful before.” I have always been fascinated with Brando’s double image: the beautifully brilliant actor and the sexy brat he always needed to bring along with him. By the end of his career, he was just babysitting the brat.
From his Broadway musicals "Spring Awakening" and "American Idiot" to his productions at The Met of Verdi's "Rigoletto," and "La Traviata" and Nico Muhly's "Marnie" as well as the upcoming "Aida" starring Anna Netrebko, the director has orchestrated quite a career for himself.
The director and I at The Met during an intermission at his scrumptious, deeply moving production of Verdi’s La Traviata
Four production photos of me as Alan Strang in Equus with, among the other “horses,” Daniel von Bargen, who played Nugget, in the Trinity Square Repertory production of the play in Providence, Rhode Island, directed by Larry Arrick.
THE DIRECTORS ISSUE
This latest iteration of sessumsMagazine.com is focused on directors, which brought back memories of my early years in New York as an actor when I had a few encounters with John Dexter, a brilliant director of theatre and opera. One of his early triumphs was “Othello ” with Laurence Oliver and Maggie Smith. The Met recently revived his exquisite and timeless production of “Dialogues des Carmélites.” He also made Peter Shaffer’s rather simpleminded play “Equus” work in ways it should not have worked because of his staging of it. But in my experiences with him, he was not a very nice man.
When I was first starting out to be an actor in NYC, having dropped out of the Juilliard School of Drama, I made it down to the last few boys to play Alan Strang in “Equus “opposite Richard Burton when he took over the role of Dr. Dysart on Broadway. I was invited to have lunch with Dexter out at his home in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, and a few nights later to have a dinner with him at Sardi’s at which he made it clear if I slept with him the part was mine. I don’t know what he did with the other boys – the actor Keith McDermott who got the part was brilliant in it and also became a friend of mine – but I do know my own experience with him. I chose to “play dumb” and his exasperation at that Sardi’s dinner matched my disgust at his putting me in that position. We even began to spar a bit. I didn’t get the part and the play’s Production Stage Manager, Bob Borod, telephoned to tell me he understood from John why I didn’t and told me when he had a chance to cast it himself that he would give me my chance. Bob became an early mentor of mine and proved that the theatre can be a place for kind and talented people – like the ones I profile here at sessumsMagazine.com this month as well as talented rats like Dexter. Bob was true to his word and I did the role in summer stock with Donald Madden and in Philadelphia with Tony Perkins and a winter-long run at Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. I do wonder sometimes how my life would have been different if I had just shut my eyes and thought of England – John Dexter’s homeland – and been cast opposite Burton in that show.
A few years ago, I was invited to have a lunch with Daniel Radcliffe at the Algonquin Hotel. He wanted to know all about Dexter since he was then starring in his own production of “Equus” on Broadway. Indeed, a whole chapter in my second memoir, I” Left It on the Mountain,” is dedicated to the many facets of that lunch that day with Daniel. It was a lunch that changed my life in many ways. The chapter’s title is “The Role-Player.” Here is a slightly edited excerpt of that chapter about that life-changing lunch that deals with our discussion about Dexter:
“I hear you once played the role of Alan in ‘Equus’ too,” Daniel told me. “That must have been back in the 1970s when it was originally done on Broadway?”
“I played it with Tony Perkins in a production down in Philadelphia and in a tour or two,” I said. “I almost got the part on Broadway when Richard Burton took over the role of the psychiatrist, Dr. Dysart, but my experience with the show’s director John Dexter wasn’t the best.”
“What was Dexter like?” Radcliffe asked.
“Well, I was never directed by him except at my callbacks. I auditioned for him several times but finally had to deal with the ‘dirty old man’ side of him,” I said.
Radcliffe and I began to talk about our different experiences in having played the boy in “Equus,” whose sexuality had been warped by the rigors of fundamentalist religion. He raved about Richard Griffiths who was playing Dysart opposite him, an actor so entombed in flesh that an elegiac carnality was his appeal in the role because Dysart, as written, is stuck in a sexless marriage.
“That’s what I think is sort of fantastic about Richard as a piece of casting,” Radcliffe told me. “If you see someone like Richard Burton or Tony Perkins in that part – that if they weren’t fucking their wife, if they had gotten to that point in their marriage – you’d have a hard time believing that they wouldn’t leave to find somebody else to fuck like a secretary or a nurse or whomever. But you almost got cast to play the part with Burton? What happened?”
“Keith McDermott, who did play the part, was amazing in it. I don’t know what his experience with Dexter was. I can only speak of mine,” I said, sipping at the ginger ale that had just arrived. “Dexter asked me to come out to his home in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, one Saturday for a lunch, with a couple of other boys. Keith wasn’t a part of that threesome for some reason. We were picked up at the stage door of what was then the Plymouth Theatre where ‘Equus’ was playing. Dexter had sent his tall black male secretary to drive us out to Atlantic Highlands but we got stuck in traffic.” I paused. “Do you really want to hear all this?” I asked.
“Yes. Please. Carry on,” said Radcliffe, seemingly relieved not to have to keep up his part of the conversation just yet.
“Well, we were almost an hour late for lunch,” I said. “Dexter’s first words when we entered the house were, ‘You’re late, you black cunt!’ You Brits say ‘cunt’ more than we do over here, I take it.”
Radcliffe giggled. “Go on,” he said.
“Well, there were three huge goblets of red wine poured at-the-ready and, after a bit of conversation, Dexter asked me if I would be the first to accompany him into his study. He locked the door behind him and told me to strip because he said he needed see if I could pass for a naked seventeen-year-old boy. I was already 20 by then and I wanted the part more than anything I’d ever wanted in those 20 years. So I took off my clothes. Stood there in my underwear. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I must see everything. You have to be comfortable being nude because you must be nude in the play. Do it.’ I did it. Then watched him take a big gulp of his Burgundy as he took me in. Blushing a color close to that Burgundy, I stared down at his desk. Atop it were the blueprints for the stage design of Leontyne Price’s upcoming production of ‘Aida’ at the Met, which Dexter was also directing. I had placed my own goblet of wine next to the blueprints. I reached for it to take a few needed gulps myself.
‘No, no,’ he said again. ‘First turn around for me. Let’s see how hairy your bum is.’ I did as I was told but, as I turned, my hand glanced my goblet spilling the wine all over the blueprints for ‘Aida.’ I grabbed my underwear and was about to mop it up. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Dexter, waving me away, though he was obviously pissed. ‘Whatever the wine blotted out I wasn’t supposed to see,. I’ll just pretend I didn’t approve these plans and demand the designer draw up a revised set.’ I don’t know what happened when the other two went in there. But we had a mostly silent lunch.”
I paused to take a breath. I sipped at my ginger ale some more.
“This one sure isn’t, huh” I told Radcliffe. “You told me to carry on and I got carried away.”
“No. I loved all that,” Radcliffe said, giggling again. “Nothing like that ever happens to me. You should put that story in the sequel you’re writing to ‘Mississippi Sissy,’” he offered.
“I will,” I told him. “I am.”
Carmen, husband Geoffrey Holder, and their son Leo. Photo by Martin Dain. 1958
STARS IN BLACK TURTLENECKS
Carmen de Lavallade. 2019, at 88.
Carmen rehearsing with Josephine Baker at the Olympia Music Hall in Paris. Photo by Lipnitski. 1964
IN THE COMING WEEKS ...
Mary J. Blige. Willem Dafoe. Laura Linney. Judith Light. Cara Buono. Ellen Barkin. Jason Moore. Annette Bening. Jane Fonda. Parker Posey. Style icon and photographer Lisa Eisner. Writers Armistead Maupin, Julia Reed, George Hodgman, Jesse Kornbluth, Joyce Maynard, Sheila Weller, Mark Childress, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, Jennifer Raiser, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, and William Norwich.
THE DAILY DIVE
HERE ARE MY DAILY POSTS ABOUT POLITICS AND CULTURE. AND MY META-MEMOIR. SMALL-TOWN HUDSON. SMALL-TOWN NEW YORK. SMALL-TOWN LONDON. THIS IS WHERE WE ARE ALL A SMALL TOWN TOGETHER. WELCOME TO SESSUMSMAGAZINE.COM'S NEWEST FEATURE.
Top, Judith Anderson as Hamlet in 1970. Her Hamlet “refused to be aligned with either classical theatre or avant-garde performance,” writes Dr. Gregory, our guest columnist, “existing in a state of otherness and demanding to be assessed on its own terms … In the 1960s and 70s, Anderson became increasingly disillusioned not only with film and television but with the contemporary theatre. Her solution was to retreat into the classics: ‘There’s so little that is good. I would rather fail as Hamlet than succeed in something less worthy.'” Deemed ill-conceived by critics, the production was a commercial success; its two nights at Carnegie Hall sold out before rehearsals even started. Below, Asta Nielsen in the 1921 German silent film of “Hamlet,” inspired by Dr. Edward P. Vining’s book “The Mystery of Hamlet,” in which Hamlet is born female but raised as a male to preserve the royal lineage.
Cush Jumbo will play Hamlet at the Young Vic in 2020
Cher and Cher-Alike
Part One of our interview with director Jason Moore focuses on his theatre career, including his most recent Broadway musical: The Cher Show.
Pitch Perfect Film Career
Part Two of our interview with director Jason Moore focuses on his hits, Sisters and both Pitch Perfect movies. He even gave Ben Platt his first job on his own first film.
“Cher” and Cher Does Not Like. The time Cher went on Oprah’s show and dissed Vanity Fair and me for the cover we did on her in 1991. She was not pleased. Read my explanation and watch the video. I’ve cued it up for you.
Our travel correspondent, Robert Hofler, headed to Berlin, Milan, Florence, Venice, and Zurich to see eleven operas in twenty days. It was in Zurich where he heard Piotr Beczala and Elsa Dreisig, left, in a thrilling “Manon.” There were too many box sets and just enough Wagner.
The director of the hit musical "Tootsie" and the hit revival of "Kiss Me, Kate," this season, talks about his responsibility as an artist.
KEVIN SESSUMS: We are in an ugly moment in our politics. It is so exhausting. What greater impulse do you have as an artist in this moment - do you feel the impulse to acknowledge the ugliness and respond to it or do you have the responsibility to give audiences a respite from it?
SCOTT ELLIS: I think that you are still attracted to the stories you want to tell. When we started "Tootsie" we weren’t in as bad shape as a country as we are now. Our opening in Chicago was the day that Kavanaugh got approved in the Senate for the Supreme Court. It was a rough day for our country. But it was nice to walk into that theatre and hear laughter.
Photo by Erik Tanner for vulture.com