Buffalo, New York is known as a theater town: a frequent stop on the way to or from Broadway due to its close proximity to New York City, and a city that maintains a strong season of homegrown shows. But Buffalo is also a “rust belt” city hit hard by the deindustrialization of the region. While it's making a quiet comeback as a stronghold of entrepreneurship, its hard times won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
For Pam MacKinnon, growing up from the age of 10 in Erie County, this combination of can-do tenacity and arts appreciation has been a constant in life since she was in junior high school, in Clarence, New York. When loss of funding caused her school’s drama club to disband, one of her classmates, Will Crosby, took the reins and started his own after-school theater across the street in a United Methodist Church, wrangling MacKinnon and other members of the defunct drama department to put on a season of shows on their own until they graduated to High School.
This was the first time MacKinnon, the new artistic director for American Conservatory Theater (ACT), found herself, in her words, the “beneficiary of someone else's entrepreneurial spirit.” It wouldn't be her last. After a stint in academia, studying for a PhD in Political Science she never received, MacKinnon moved to New York to pursue theater, becoming one of the first go-to directors of New York’s Clubbed Thumb and growing in reputation as a freelance director on and off Broadway.
Among her achievements since are a Tony for her directing of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, an Obie for directing Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and helping usher the musical Amélie to the Broadway stage. ACT will be her first permanent “artistic home,” as she calls it—though she's currently wrapping up a pair of freelance projects, including the world premiere of Norris’ new play Downstate, which opened at Steppenwolf Theatre on Sept. 20.
As the first mainstage production of MacKinnon’s inaugural season at ACT, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat not only speaks to the issues of our day, but also with MacKinnon’s own background. Set in the union town of Reading, Pennsylvania, the Pulitzer-winning Sweat explores labor issues, the forced decline of American manufacturing, racial identity, and how the personal and political intersect.