Monday, April 15, 2013

Pam MacKinnon Talks About the Director’s Art and “The Parisian Woman”

Steven Culp, Dana Delany and Steven Weber in The Parisian Woman.
Director Pam MacKinnon
The New York Times calls director Pam MacKinnon one of the "new power players of Off Broadway, staging some of the most critically acclaimed productions in recent years." MacKinnon returns to South Coast Repertory, where she's directed three previous productions (on stage and staged readings). In addition to The Parisian Woman this year, she's also directing a staged reading of Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime for the Pacific Playwrights Festival. We talked on a range of topics with MacKinnon.

What play from your childhood do you still remember?
The first play/musical that made a big impression on me was Liz Swados' Runaways, a musical about child runaways in New York City. I was nine and went with my dad, who had researched enough to know that the show had children in it, but not enough to know that it was not appropriate for children to watch. I LOVED IT! It was an eye-opening experience. We bought the cast album; I can still sing many songs.

What was the first play you directed?
As a high school senior I directed Thornton Wilder's Pullman Car Hiawatha, a short play that has a lot of the seeds of Our Town in it. I liked wrestling with the text and puzzling out with actors what was what.

What drew you to theatre and to directing?
I acted a lot starting in junior high school and through early college. I just didn't study theatre or acting. I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in political science at UC San Diego when I realized, at age 23, that I wasn't interested enough to write a dissertation, so I went back to an earlier love that I knew I could really pursue wholeheartedly: theatre.

You've said that you're attracted to writers who pay attention to the "muscular potential of language." What does that phrase mean?
I am attracted to wordy plays populated by loquacious people who understand the power of language. Even if at times inarticulate, the characters, I like, wrestle with language to make their cases. I like actors who innately attend to the muscular potential of language, which means they have to listen attentively and are affected by what is said, making what is on the page alive and in the moment. In The Parisian Woman, battles are won and lost in conversation; it is a play of quick-witted people.

What's your favorite moment in The Parisian Woman?
Oh, it's the final scene with Chloe, Peter and Tom. The structure of stripping down to the truth and then building up a new lie so that life can go on, delights me.

What do you like most about working on world premieres and revivals?
I like new plays for the camaraderie with a writer in the rehearsal hall. A problematic moment can be rewritten, or a writer attending rehearsal may be able to tell the room about the intent of a particular moment in a way so clear that it is a short-cut to a result. I try to work on extant plays in very similar ways to new plays, taking what is on the page, mining it for deep yet clear meaning, obeying what I believe to be the writer's intent, helping actors pour themselves into characters without masking their own spirit, vulnerability and humanity. Sometimes the burden of having to live up to a play's reputation can be daunting. With a new play, what's daunting is not knowing what it is really until it's before an audience.

Do you see yourself as a role model or mentor for women in theatre?
I am trying to make a living, work on stories I believe in. If by doing so, I am also a role model to women coming up in the field, then that's fantastic. I am very grateful to the generation of women ahead of me and hope that my career will help to open more doors for talented women behind me.

I meet frequently with younger directors, both male and female, and always have an assistant/observer in my rehearsal hall. I also am president of the board of a theatre company in New York called Clubbed Thumb, where I got my start 18 years ago. Its mission is to develop and produce new American plays, with a parity of roles for men and women. It was started by two then-actresses who had gone to graduate school and found that they had to rely on a few handfuls of contemporary plays for scene work in class. They wanted to change the literature. The company works with a lot of men and women, but this explicit content rule has tended to support quite a few women writers and directors along the way.

What do you hope audiences will come away with after seeing The Parisian Woman?
I hope audiences leave wanting to talk about what they've just heard and seen.

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