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TBA Online: News & Features: April 2018

Taking the Helm: An Interview With Pam MacKinnon

Wednesday, April 18, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Sam Hurwitt

In January, American Conservatory Theater finally announced who would succeed outgoing artistic director Carey Perloff at the end of the current season: Pam MacKinnon, a Tony Award-winning director for her 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Local audiences may remember her 2015 world-premiere production of Amélie, a New Musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.) This April, A.C.T. announced the company’s 51st season, which will be MacKinnon’s first as artistic director.

Featuring a wealth of contemporary plays, all by women, plus one classic work to be directed by MacKinnon, the season feels far from business as usual for the venerable institution. The 2018-19 season consists of Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about Pennsylvania steelworkers; Jaclyn Backhaus’s inventive take on 19th-century explorers, Men on Boats; the oddball Edward Albee classic Seascape; Mfoniso Udofia’s Her Portmanteau, part of her nine-play cycle about a Nigerian immigrant family; San Francisco native Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap, about a San Francisco college basketball team’s misadventures in China; and Kate Hamill’s new stage adaptation of the William Thackeray novel Vanity Fair; with a final production to be announced later. 

I spoke with MacKinnon about the new season on the phone from New York. 

Pam MacKinnon. Photo by Chad Batka.

The season announcement happened just a couple months after the announcement of your coming aboard. Had these conversations been going for a while before that? 

Not much. Certainly Lauren Yee’s play had been in the pipeline, because it was developed in the New Strands Festival last season. Then similarly, Vanity Fair was already talked about with Shakespeare Theatre; that’s going to be a co-production with Shakespeare Theatre in DC. Those were the shows that were, if not already decided for the season, then certainly on a list before I was hired. And then the other ones were really December and January, after I got hired. I don’t become the artistic director until July, but in conversations with Carey and my stepping into the AD-designate role I started to talk about planning the season. 

What were some of your considerations in putting this season together?

I think like Carey, and like the tradition at A.C.T., I’m very drawn to meaty language and muscular words. There were some themes I was interested in exploring, in stepping into a new city. One of them was the theme of transition and exploration, and also pioneering, stepping into a new place. That’s why Seascape got chosen. That’s also why the play Men on Boats got chosen. And those are close to my heart, personal plays. When I got hired, the board at ACT was very interested in my directing a play by Edward Albee, and Seascape really fit the bill for me at this particular juncture. 

Among other things, it seems like there’s more contemporary work than usual. 

That’s pretty deliberate. I think a difference between Carey and me is I’m a bit more of an ‘Americanist’ than a ‘Europeanist,’ so that’s showing up in this season, certainly. There are more contemporary plays. I’m definitely interested in continuing the longstanding tradition of classics on our stage, but you’re right, at least this first season has much more new. And that will continue, but I’m not forsaking the classics. 

And obviously there are a whole lot more women playwrights and directors in the mix. 

That actually was sort of step by step by step, and all of a sudden look where we are. The play by Kate Hamill, Vanity Fair, and Lauren Yee’s play The Great Leap were already in play, so that’s two of seven women writers right there. And then I very early brought to the table Edward Albee’s Seascape, that I wanted to direct—not a woman—and also Men on Boats, by a younger playwright, and a woman. Then after that, it was not a conscious effort. In fact, we had a play written by a man that fell through, and we had to replace it quite quickly, and that’s when we decided on Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. I definitely think had the season, decision by decision by decision, been turning into only white men, we or I would have stopped where we were going. But the diversity of the season—ages, and the flow of people’s careers, and ethnicities, cultural backgrounds—it felt very exciting to me. The scope and the breadth of storytellers felt very exciting to me, so we kept on marching along. 

It’s all the more striking because women playwrights have been relatively scarce in past seasons. 

This season, five of the seven directors are women, and it feels like that’s been a really exciting legacy of Carey’s, that she has employed a lot of women on her staff. She also has employed a lot of female directors over the years. She’s been doing that for a long time. But I think you’re right. I think this season as far as the people who actually sat down and wrote the plays, there are a lot of women storytellers, which is exciting to me. 

What are some of your goals for the future at A.C.T.? 

I’m very interested in the dialogue or conversation between the two stages, between the thousand-seat Geary and the 300-seat Rembe at the Strand, and figuring out how stories can be in conversation with each other over the course of the season. I’m interested in not just putting brand new plays or newer plays into the Strand but also classics. I love the idea of sitting with a classic play in an intimate room. And I’m interested in programming more new American plays than maybe A.C.T. has in the past. I’m interested in commissioning writers and more developmental work, honoring long-term artistic marriages between directors and designers and writers and seeing what that ongoing collaboration can bring forth. Adding to the canon, you could say. And continuing to activate how the Conservatory fits into the larger theater and the main stage. That was part of the reason we’re programming the play Her Portmanteau. That playwright, Mfoniso Udofia, is a graduate of the Conservatory, and we’ve commissioned a play of hers which I hope to produce in a couple years when it’s done. But I wanted to bring her into the A.C.T. family as a playwright sooner as opposed to later.  

What are some of the challenges you anticipate? 

I honestly don’t know. I mean, I have a 25-year career in the American theater. I feel very excited about having an artistic home at this juncture in my artistic life. I feel ready to lead a large organization. I’ve been in big leadership positions before but never running a theater. I do think cost of living issues and real estate issues will be part of the conversation frequently. It’s hard to be an artist in a high-rent city. I’ve been that in Manhattan, and now I’m stepping into another one in San Francisco. And so how does that affect the artistic scene? How does that affect staffing a theater? How does that affect bringing in artists? What are the artistic pools in high-rent cities? I think that will be a challenge—and figuring out how a theater like A.C.T. can help with that challenge and support people. 

What’s your sense of A.C.T.’s role in the Bay Area theater ecosystem?

I believe it’s the flagship theater in the Bay Area. I want to dig into, who are the Bay Area writers? Who are the Bay Area directors? You know, make this a really vibrant home. Part of the reason I reached out really early to Loretta Greco, the artistic director at Magic Theatre, I knew I wanted her to direct in my first season. Also with Mfoniso Udofia’s play, the Magic is doing another play of hers, and we’re making sure that the runs overlap so audiences can be part of this family cycle. This is a playwright that has an incredibly ambitious nine-play family cycle, and there will be a moment in the Bay Area when two of those nine plays will be running simultaneously, and the matriarch in this family cycle will be represented as a 55-year-old and also as a 75-year-old. 

Also Tony Taccone’s programming his final season [at Berkeley Rep], and in August they’ll make an announcement of a new artistic director across the Bay. I feel excited that it’s someone to have these Bay Area big picture conversations with. I’m talking to people at Cutting Ball. I’m talking to Bill English [at San Francisco Playhouse]. I recognize that A.C.T. in some respects has more resources, and what does that mean? It doesn’t need to be competitive. I think it is about the health of the ecosystem. Figuring out how to support artists and support other institutions feels wildly exciting to me. I think everyone wins then, especially in these high cost of living cities. I want San Francisco to have a big ass, muscular theater scene.

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance arts journalist and playwright based in the East Bay. Follow him at