New Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon on ACT’s Season of 'Big American Plays'

Pam MacKinnon, Artistic Director of ACT, looks forward to her season of 'big American plays.' (Beryl Baker)

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.

Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-winning playwright of 'Sweat.' (John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

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.

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Although set in the early 2000s, the play's combination of concerns is all too relevant to even the least politicized among us. It certainly feels relevant to MacKinnon, whose Buffalo roots and current union membership (she is the president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society) give Sweat a personal resonance as well.

Sweat is a future classic American play... that I think will be done 50 years from now," MacKinnon says. "It tells a political story on such immediate personal terms that you can read it as an 'American' story, but also as a family story.”

Ensemble cast of Lynn Nottage's 'Sweat' in rehearsal at American Conservatory Theater. (Beryl Baker)

Looking beyond the season opener, MacKinnon is eager to see which shows in the upcoming season will appeal to Bay Area audiences most. A robust lineup of what she calls “big American plays,” the season includes works by younger contemporary playwrights such as Jacklyn Backhaus (whose gender-swapping Manifest Destiny sendup Men in Boats opens in October at the Strand) and San Francisco’s own Lauren Yee (whose basketball drama The Great Leap hits the Geary Stage in March 2019).

Even that classic of European absurdism, Rhinoceros, scheduled for May and June of 2019, feels contextually very “American” to MacKinnon, with its “mob mentality” and “group of people...blindly participating in something that is ridiculous.” Her own directorial debut as ACT's artistic director will be of Edward Albee’s Seascape in January 2019.

“Somebody said they felt that (the season) was lower-case ‘p’ political, but also playful. That those two things were in all the pieces,” she muses. “I also think the theme of transition is in all of them, which makes sense given that I personally exploded my own life, very happily, to move to San Francisco after 24 years in New York. So transition, exploration, and discovery is also in all of these pieces.”

As part of that transition, MacKinnon is particularly excited about facilitating the multiple spaces of ACT, as well as the greater Bay Area theater community as a whole, to “be in conversation with each other.” On a basic level, that includes producing shows across ACT’s spaces that build on each other’s momentum, such as having Lauren Yee’s Hookman performed in October by the Young Conservatory, anticipating the mainstage production of The Great Leap in March.

It also includes reaching out to theaters and theater-makers in order to create larger frames for certain plays and playwrights. For example, inviting the Magic Theatre’s Loretta Greco to direct Sweat creates an immediate bridge to that audience, followed by Greco and MacKinnon's joint plan to produce two of Mfoniso Udofia’s plays in concert with each other: first Her Portmanteau, at ACT in February 2019, followed a month later by In Old Age at the Magic. As Parts Four and Five of Udofia’s ambitious nine-play “Ufot Cycle” (Parts One and Three played at the Magic in 2016), the back-to-back plays will hopefully inspire future collaborative productions on a Bay Area-wide scale.

Ensemble cast of Lynn Nottage's 'Sweat' in rehearsal at American Conservatory Theater. (Beryl Baker)

One person MacKinnon is particularly excited to welcome to the Bay Area is Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s incoming artistic director (and former ACT associate artistic director) Johanna Pfaelzer, who will take the reins from Tony Taccone in September 2019. “She and I go way back," MacKinnon says, "so I’m super excited about [the possibility of] having Berkeley Rep and ACT work in concert.”

Even in this, MacKinnon's small-town roots and stick-to-it-ness shows.

“I’m interested in conversations across spaces,” she emphasizes, “and I feel that San Francisco is very welcoming of that kind of stuff...and it’s a (tight-knit) enough community that we can work together.”

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'Sweat' runs through Oct. 21 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. Details here.

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