Get Real: The Not So Delicate Balance of Pam MacKinnon

Get Real by Carla Stockton

Entry #4: The Not So Delicate Balance of Pam MacKinnon

It’s hell week, and despite the fact that she is buried in the tech glitches and stage emergencies that characterize the very last week of rehearsal before a show opens, Pam MacKinnon is talking to me on the telephone.  It is June 28th, and Qualms, the new play she is directing, written by her frequent collaborator Bruce Norris, will open at Steppenwolf on July 3, but there is no anxiety in her voice, no sense of urgency to wrap the conversation quickly.  I thank her, and she replies, “No problem.  I do it all the time.”

Women’s issues have preoccupied the media this year and have been part of ongoing conversations about inequities in the workplace, inequity in insurance policies, inequities in opportunities for women in the arts.  And part of that conversation is the extent to which women themselves feel held back.  MacKinnon, for one, has no time to dwell on the negative. “I have nothing to compare to,” she says in response to my asking if being a woman negatively or positively affected her trajectory. She notes that it’s taken a lot of work and a lot of stamina to get where she is; she has earned her place at the top of her game.

 Obie award winner Pam MacKinnon photographed at the New York Times studio in New York. Chad Batka for The New York Times. Courtesy of Pam MacKinnon
Obie award winner Pam MacKinnon photographed at The New York Times studio in New York. Chad Batka for The New York Times. Courtesy of Pam MacKinnon

“Around the country, the numbers of women working as directors has been growing for some time,” she points out.  And training programs that aggressively recruit women proliferate. Yet while women comprise over 50% of the general population, they are treated as a minority, and the percentage of male directors far exceeds that of women.  Of the thirty shows now open on Broadway, only seven are directed by women; one is a non-musical (Of Mice and Men). While MacKinnon is a Tony Award winner for best direction of a play (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, 2013) she has nothing currently on Broadway, but she did direct the Manhattan Theater Club’s off-Broadway production of Sara Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid, starring Cherry Jones, Morgan Saylor and Zoe Kazan. (Find out more here.)

To MacKinnon, however, being a woman has never felt like being an underdog; nobody in this business gets anywhere on talent alone. She has relied on her own perspiration, persistence, perseverance to propel her career. Would the fifteen-year-long road have taken less time, less effort were she a man?  There’s no way of knowing.

When I wonder aloud if Pam chose When We Were Young because it’s a woman’s play, about a woman and her daughter and the women to whom they give comfort, Pam disagrees, saying that she chose the play because she loves the way Treem writes.  “She is so smart, and her characters are very contradictory.  Sarah starts with a deeply personally felt problem or question that she’s working through. It becomes the spine of her story and influences what characters emerge.”

MacKinnon says, “As a director, I take pride in honoring the writer’s intent.  I am first and foremost committed to the story, and that story is already set in motion [by the time she becomes involved] by a singular voice.”

Which is largely what brought MacKinnon to the theater. As an undergraduate, she followed her father’s academic footsteps, pursuing degrees in Political Science and Economics. But she had acted in high school and had even tried her hand at directing; in graduate school at the Univ. of California at San Diego, she was enticed back to the theater to direct cabarets and parking lot productions, to assist student then professional directors.

Thus began a series of relationships that enhanced her skills and provided her with mentors and collaborators the like of Des McAnuf, (Columbia’s own) Ann Bogart, Edward Albee and Bruce Norris.

“I was able to make relationships that were hugely influential to my career…  like my relationship with Edward Albee.  It was he who introduced me to a few larger regional theaters at a time when I was just starting to break into that circle, like the Goodman and Hartford Stage.

“Bruce Norris is a long time friend and my go-to cat sitter.  We got to know each other as our careers began to build… It was a natural progression that I should direct (Pulitzer Prize Winner) Clybourne Park—I had directed one of his earlier plays in DC, and we had been following each other’s work for over fifteen years.”

MacKinnon is motivated more by a desire to make her playwrights’ vision take life onstage than by any feminist imperative. Her next Broadway show, Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, starring Glenn Close and John Lithgow, which opens at the John Golden Theater in November (previews open in October—website) features the kind of gender-equal interactions she admires in Albee’s work.

“I love Albee’s characters.  His women have just as much Albee in them as his men.  I especially love his language.  His characters are speaking their ways through their lives, and their stories come to life through the rhythms, the nuances of language. Speech is action.”

What’s salient about Pam MacKinnon is that she’s an artist—not a female artist.  “I work with a team among whom I foster ideas, but I demand that we honor the playwright’s story.”


Carla Stockton, Nonfiction Editor of Issue #53, is a lifelong on-and-off New Yorker, who, after living for 13 years in exile in the southwest desert, brings a returnee’s perspective to the city. As a fully licensed sightseeing guide, she has a particular intimacy with the area and is never reluctant to share it with others. Carla’s semi-weekly column will discuss people, places and events in and around Manhattan. Follow her here.

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