MacKinnon photographed by Tess Mayer for

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 highlighting theatre directors with this conversation with MacKinnon. 

Kevin Sessums:  So let’s start by talking about Downstate by Bruce Norris.  It has been the best thing I’ve seen in the theatre  – well, in years really   I saw it at The National in London during my last trip there.

Pam MacKinnon:  And what did you expect before you went?

KS:  Nothing.  I knew nothing about it.  I sort of thought it was maybe something like Sweat. Something about working class folks in Illinois.  So I didn’t even know the plot and its being about a halfway house for sex offenders.  By the end of it I was sitting in my seat with tears flowing down my face and whispering prayerfully,  “Shiiiiit .. shiiiit … ”   That “shit” became an “amen” to me in some way.     

PM:  Did you see it during previews?

KS:  Yes. 

PM:  So I heard that.  I heard you.  And I  talked about it the next day with the company.

KS:  You did?  I’m going to cry again.    I call these kind of God moments “Heightened Coincidences.” But that “shit” spoken as an “amen” was what you and your company found in the play: a dirty kind of grace.  Or a dirtied-up kind of it.   You arrived at grace from areas where you would never expect one would set out to find such a thing as grace.

PM. Yes.  That’s right

KS:  That production has to land in New York at some point.  It just has to.

PM:  One would think.   Bruce and I are interested in keeping as much of the cast together as we can because we built something special with them.

KS:   You’re here working on Toni Stone for the Roundabout and we’ve talked about you’re having worked at Steppenwolf and The National this year.   Now that you’re at A.C.T., how  proprietary are they going to be? 

PM:  They hired a director, not simply a producer.  Those are two distinctive types of Artistic Director models.   So I took with me into the job a couple of freelance jobs that were very personal to me.  Downstate with Bruce.  I’ve been working with him for 15 years.  And Toni Stone, which  I’ve been working on for six years.  I gave up two jobs as well that were more generic.  Moving forward, ideally I will direct two productions at A.C.T. each season.  And then it’s in my contract that without any necessary conversation with the board, it’s up to me if I want to direct one thing away from A.C.T. per season.  Beyond that, it’s in consultation with the board.  This first season felt a bit more absentee than I would like to be because this Bruce Norris gig involved both Steppenwolf and The National. It almost felt like three instead of two, so it felt a bit a little too soon and too much.  But I’m uncovering what this rhythm can be going forward.

KS:  What appealed to you about Toni Stone?

PM:  I was brought onboard before a writer was brought onboard by an independent producer, Samantha Barrie.  She really spearheaded this whole production. It’s a great story.  It’s based on a really wonderful biography by Barbara Ackmann, Curve Ball.   Samantha and I then approached Lydia Diamond to write it.  That was six years ago.  When I was first approached, I had never heard of Toni Stone.  I grew up in Buffalo and Toronto, so my spectator sports were football and hockey.  Not baseball.  To hear that Toni Stone, a black American woman, was the first to play professional ball, I wondered why don’t we know about this.  So I devoured the biography.  It is amazingly well-written and researched.  It’s recent history, which is something that I don’t think America really thinks about.  We’re talking early 1950s.  We’re talking the Jim Crow South.   But it’s only the early ‘50s.  Toni Stone had a fire in her belly.  There is something really interesting about any person – let alone a woman, let alone an African American woman – who kind of actualized herself in the world.  Certainly with a lot of help and a lot of obstacles.  But to know who you are and to demand that the world make room for you – I mean that alone is a fascinating story to step into.  And then working with Lydia Diamond –  I have have been a big fan of not just her language but also her inherent “politicalness” without being didactic.   I am also a big fan – whether it’s Edward Albee or Bruce Norris – of smart people talking plays.  But smart people talking plays doesn’t just mean they are in the drawing room.  I mean, you saw Downstate.  That is a huge swatch of class that that play looks at.  And Lydia is also interested in that.  Very verbal.  But here we are in the Negro Leagues and there is a character who in another lifetime and another point in history would have been a university professor, but also happens to be an amazing athlete.  We are specifically looking at the Indianapolis Clowns.

The real Toni Stone

KS:  They were like the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball.  There are so many levels there of the performative aspects of race in the history of America.   There is a minstrel-like aspect to this team.

PM:  Yeah.  Yeah.  Absolutely.  They “clowned” for their money.  They “clowned” to enable themselves to be the professional baseball players that they were.

KS:  Do  your black actors play the white people in Toni’s life so that it is a reversal of colorblind casting?

PM:  It’s a play about baseball so we have nine actors and the eight men who surround April Matthis, who plays Toni, do sometimes play white characters in her life – and play women, too.  I call it color conscious casting – not colorblind.   It’s conscientious.   It’s an all-black cast but per storytelling occasionally become white.  There’s one actor who plays Toni Stone’s mother.  One actor plays a prostitute that Toni stays with when she’s on the road and becomes a friend. 

KS:  As a white woman directing a black cast in a black woman’s narrative, are you color conscious of yourself within this construct?  Are you conscious of not being black and this not being your culture?  Do you direct differently within that context?

PM: I mean, I can only bring my only experience into the room.  But I think in any rehearsal hall it is about listening. There are certainly things that emotionally land on different people in different ways.  You’re right to say that very much the surround of this play is about racism in America.  We recognize we’re doing this at the Roundabout and that means that the audience will likely be vastly white.  That’s part of what this is.   We are doing a lot of outreach to get more African Americans to see it.  But there is an aspect of this show that is about that performative thing you picked up on, that is about clowning and the “minstrel-show-ness” of clowning in this particular team in the Negro Leagues.  In performing it before a majoritarian white audience, it takes on a different thing.  So we have to make sure we land our story the right way.  People can take things in different ways, but I want us to have control of the story and control of the frame.

Going back to your question, I really wanted choreographer Camille Brown involved with this.  This is part of her bigger project as a choreographer.  I would dare even call her a historian of black American social dance.  She brings that into the room.  So, yes, it’s a lot of listening.  But I do know the craft of directing and collectively there is the choreographer to my left, playwright to my right, cast in front of me – all African American collaborators.  What is the story we want to tell and how deeply can we go – those are the missions.   And sometimes we are walking a very thin line of wanting the humor but then when does it drop  into the deep, deep, deep, deeply personal.

KS:  But because your collaborators are African Americans and this is an African American story, do you as a white director listen to them in different ways than you usually do with your collaborators and your actors?  There is another layer of context it seems to me here.  They have experiences being African Americans that you do not have.  I guess I’m asking if you listen differently in that context?

PM:  I hope not. 

KS:  Okay.  That’s an interesting answer.  Okay.

PM:  I mean I hope I listen as vigilantly as I always do.  At A.C.T. in addition to doing Toni Stone at the Geary, I’m going to do a play by Kate Atwell called Test Match which is a cricket play.  I’m doing a cricket play and a baseball play.  In my cricket play there is an all-female cast.  Three white Brits and three Indian cricket players. The first scene is contemporary and we see cracks in the decorum.  In the second scene we go back to the 1800s and we’re on the Indian subcontinent as the rules of cricket are being codified.  It uses cricket to unpack the legacy of British imperialism.  So I hope I’m listening in that room, too.  I even found that in Downstate – whether it’s about class or its also being very much about race in that play – I had to listen as well. 

KS:  What pulled you to do Downstate?  Was it just your loyalty to Bruce Norris as a playwright and your dedication to his work no matter what?  Or  was there something about this particular play?  It is a brilliant but quite challenging piece of writing.

PM:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  Speaking of loyalty, you don’t know where to put your loyalties in that play. They get really confounded.  But that was exciting to me.  That challenge was the opportunity.  Digging deep in a world that is all ambivalence.  Bruce’s big project on this play, which became our big project on this production, again knowing your audience and knowing that they were going to be majoritarian good liberals, was to ask as a collective how far can empathy go?  That became the question.  As you get to know these very problematic characters and not being apologists for their actions, how far can an audience’s empathy go?

Francis Guinan, Glenn Davis, Celilia Noble, K. Todd Freeman, and Eddie Torres in “Downstate.” Photo by Joel Moorman

KS:  I was molested as a 12 and 13-year-old.  When I saw the play the night I saw it,  I looked around that audience and wondered how many others were molested in their youth because it is an epidemic that is never talked about really.  When theatre is working we all bring our own narratives to the play we’re seeing and thus see ourselves in the play.   But I was feeling in that space that night this unspoken conversation – the play was going on in front of us but you could feel all these other narratives people were bringing to the play that night vibrating in the air and the darkness between us and the performance.  It was a remarkable experience being in that theatre that night.  

PM:   Yes.  Yes.  Yes.

KS:  Let’s talk about Albee.  You’re very connected to his work, too.  Edward sure loved language – its curlicues and caustic cadences.  Its puns.  How puny it can be when trying so hard not to be puny.  Sometimes he’s a bit like a college kid showing off his affinity for language for the sake of showing off.   

PM:  I would take issue with the description of him as a college kid showing off.  I think his plays do bring you in that way, but I do think there’s a real guts and a real heart that is alive and beating to his work as well.  I like that he, like Bruce, demands of himself to have humor – that if we go to dark and lonely places, that we go there with humor.    Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a three-act play that begins quite literally with “Fun and Games”  That is the name of Act One.   Eventually we do get to the pre-dawn and we do go the marrow.  I love that trajectory.  I am building this Lydia Diamond play right now and for lack of a better word it is very cinematic.  Very of-the-brain. You can be at two places at once – in the bus, in the dugout, back to the bus.  There is a physicality that is super fun.  Working with a choreographer in a straight play: super fun.  Working with nine characters and shape shifting within that.  A total of 40 characters all told unfold in the narrative but nine people telling the story.  Edward sometimes did that, but the plays of his I’ve directed – and Downstate as well – are long-scene plays which I really love.  It’s theatricality in a different way.  It’s not bring-out-the-puppets, but there is something in that long-scene form that I think theatre can do so well.  Movies are not about that. Novels are not about that.  It’s living time.

MacKinnon and Albee taking a bow opening night of her production of his “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on Broadway. 2012. Photo by Tristan Fuge.

KS:  Have you directed any film?

PM:  No.

KS:  Do you have any desire to?  You’re now settling into an institutional theatre setting out in San Francisco.  Are you happy to be in-and-of the theatre.  Is that enough?

PM: Enough?

KS:  Is “enough” a bad word?  You did sort of recoil when I said it.

PM:  It feels like bad word.  Right?  It feels belittling?  “Is that enough?”  If one’s ambition is storytelling is theatre a strange medium to stop at?   Hmmm ….

KS:  Well, my job is to be a bit provocative.  I guess I am provoking you a bit.  So, again:  Is that enough?   I presume you have an agent who pushes you to do film and some television.  That’s what agents do.

PM: I am fifty-one years old.  I have certainly read a lot of bad screenplays.  I’ve certainly thought about it on occasion.  For me, it’s all about the right project.

KS:  I am a theatre creature.  I’d much rather sit in a theatre and see a live production than in a cinema.  I see so much good theatre these days and it is because of creatures like you, artists who are dedicated to it.  So let me stop being provocative and just thank you. 

PM:  But we are certainly at a point whether it is Netflix or deep, deep cable were there is so much content …

KS:  And some of it so good.

PM:  Yes.  And writers and actors certainly go back and forth much more than directors do – although British directors go back and forth a lot.  I am also President of the Board of SDC (Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation).  So I know a lot of directors as colleagues.  There are certainly directors who do camera work and TV, but it is a little less fluid.

KS:  Edward Albee once said that he didn’t want to live in a city where there wasn’t a production of Beckett going on somewhere.  Have you directed any Beckett?

PM. No.

KS:  Have you had any desire to direct Beckett based on your love of Albee and his love of Beckett?  There is an artistic lineage there it seems that you would be honoring.

PM:  Hmmm.

KS: Let’s keep this at dead playwrights.  Have you ever directed any Tennessee Williams?

PM:  No.  Never.  There are a couple of his plays I’d love to direct.

KS:  God.  I would love to see you get your hands on some Williams.

PM:  I’ve directed Death of a Salesman.  There are some more Miller plays I’d love to direct.  I also love the work of María Irene Fornés.  I’ve never done any of her work.  There are a lot.

KS:  But now that you’re at A.C.T. you can assign it to yourself.

PM: Yeah.

KS:  That’s an amazing thing.

PM:  Yes.  That’s an amazing thing.

KS:  What a blessing.

PM:  Absolutely.

KS:  Well, you’ve earned it.  It’s not all luck.

PM:  Absolutely.  Yeah yeah yeah.  That is definitely part of heading up an institution.  We’re marching through my first season that I picked.  We just announced our second season.  But what is also wonderful is to dream up projects and make marriages of things that I don’t want to direct, but  that I want to see and that I want to see realized in a top-drawer way.

KS:  You’re a matchmaker in your work shirt and jeans.  Your Dolly in Levis.

PM:  Yeah!  For example, the actor Tony Hale has done a hand-over-hand Arrested Development and Veep and back to Arrested Development then back to Veep.  He’s going to come back to the stage and do a Will Eno play directed by Anne Kauffman.  And I wanted a curtain raiser for it so Will is working with Anne on that and we’re going to cast it with a subset of our third year MFA students at A.C.T.  So that’s  A.C.T. firing on all its cylinders.  But I don’t want to direct that.  I am directing Toni Stone next season at the Geary.

KS:  We are at a critical juncture politically and socially in our country.  What do you think your role as an artist is?  Should you just create art for art’s own sake or do you feel the Responsibility of Response as the head of an artistic institution within a community? 

PM:  Yes.  I feel that.  Absolutely.  I think it can start with the stories you choose to put on the stage – not that every play has to be overtly political.  But I think plays are political.  I think there is something about people coming into a room and attending something that it makes you ideally look at yourself and the world differently.  I think that is part of a theatrical project.  You can certainly laugh your way through something.  But I like plays that are sticky by the end of them. And then I also think a theatre like A.C.T. in a city like San Francisco – a city that is in big flux right now, the haves and have-nots feels so palpable on the streets there – has a responsibility as part of the community.  It is a pressurized city.  We at A.C.T. have to tell some stories about that – whether it is directly or skewed.  And being an arts leader with other arts leaders: Who are we to our city?

A.C.T. also, even outside the MFA training program, has a lot of educational programs with deep roots in middle schools and high schools that need shoring up. They need to be as muscular as they possibly can be.  As the arts are taken out of schools formally, it falls on the shoulders of the not-for-profits to make sure that that’s there.  Because I believe in that, in arts being a part of an education system and building,  as part of that education system, citizens and people who think about their society writ large. I think it is a deeply political position to be head of an arts organization.

KS:  You began your life as a young adult in Toronto at university studying economic and political science.  You were going to get your PhD in political science at UC, San Diego, but you left to work in the theatre there in San Diego and were mentored by directors Des McAnuff and Ann Bogart at theaters in the area.  Do you ever wonder who that person was who was going to get that PhD, or do you still fall back on those early academic impulses as an artist?

PM: No, I don’t wonder who that person was.   I certainly would say less economics than political science because those were stories I was studying.    How do you look at a world and parse a story out of it?   I certainly felt as I was stepping through course work for a PhD that I learned how to read deeply – which is a first thing a director needs to do – and to mine the intent and/or the point of view of a writer.   And that is what reading social science is because what everyone writes with is point of view – whether it’s Marxist or Rational Choice or Political Economy, there is a point of view that is driving how you’re looking at the world that then winds up on the page.  We look at the world and its chaotic and then we create a story to make some sense of it.  It’s like what you said about being in the audience of Downstate when you could feel people parsing out stories and finding something deeply personal.  It was never so much the content maybe back then – but I learned how to read

KS:  What was the first thing you ever saw in the theatre?

PM:  I do remember my first back-to-back Broadway shows.  That felt big.  I was with my father because my mother was hugely pregnant with my sister.  My dad and I came to New York and we saw back-to-back The Wiz and Liz Swados’s Runaways.   I was nine.  It was pivotal.  Both of them were really great.  It was a glimpse at a different world – especially with   because I was a little too young to see that maybe.  And a glimpse at a world beyond my own. 

KS:  I often tell people who ask me why I love the theatre so much that it is because I am so often taken to a world I know nothing about and feel welcomed there.   And, more important, made to feel at home. I guess I’m just always looking for a sense of home and find it over and over in the theater.  But what a great father you had to have taken you to those two shows when you were nine.  What I got from that story is love. A lot of love. 

PM:  Absolutely.

KS:  So maybe your work as an artist is about perpetuating that love.

PM:  Yes.   

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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