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Pam Mackinnon Doesn't Cry 'Woolf'

The OBIE-winning Steppenwolf director speaks on Albee, the process, and more


Pam Mackinnon Doesn't Cry 'Woolf'

OBIE-winning director Pam Mackinnon, in rehearsal for 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

Photo Credit: Joel Moorman.

Whether you've seen the play or the classic film, you're probably familiar with the tense, brilliant, and caustic trainwreck of that immortal evening with George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But director Pam Mackinnon worked to bring a little something different -- more highs and lows, and a return to the play's rich humor.

As the director of the current Steppenwolf Theatre production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Pam Mackinnon definitely knows her Albee. An OBIE-winning New York-based stage director, Pam’s work includes the recent premiere of Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park (which received Playwrights Horizons, OBIE award and Lortel nominations), Rachel Axler's Smudge (for The Women's Project), Cusi Cram's A Lifetime Burning, for Primary Stages, and Shakespeare's Othello for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, among many others. She is also a Drama League and Lincoln Center Directors' Lab alumna, as well as an Affiliated Artist with the New York downtown theatre company Clubbed Thumb.

As a noted stager of Edward Albee’s work, MacKinnon has directed several of his plays, from A Delicate Balance, to The Goat or, Who's Sylvia?, and The Play About the Baby. She also directed premieres of At Home at the Zoo (formerly titled Peter and Jerry) at Hartford Stage and Second Stage, directed Occupant for the Signature Theatre, and directed the premiere of Roberto Aguire Sacasa's Good Boys and True for the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Her latest project, directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, brought her back to Steppenwolf (and Albee), and takes place on the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre stage in Chicago, Illinois through Sunday, February 13, 2011. The production stars actor and playwright Tracy Letts (author of the Pulitzer-winning August: Osage County) and fellow ensemble member Amy Morton, as well as Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks.

I had the chance to talk to Pam recently about her work on the production, as well as to get her insights on the directing process.

Angela Mitchell: What is your typical approach to a new play when beginning the preparation process to direct?

Pam Mackinnon: I’ll read the play a lot – several times – and really try to use the deadlines that are inherent in the preproduction of the play. This way, you learn a lot speaking to the playwright, going through an audition process, where you get to hear a variety of actors speak the scenes over and over again. in this case working with Steppenwolf, I knew I would be working with Tracy [Letts] as George and Amy as Martha, and they were kind enough to be my readers for the audition process, so that was great to hear them echo and already dig into short scenes as George and as Martha.

Angela Mitchell: Who are some of your inspirations in your work? I always love hearing about those initial experiences that turn people toward the theatre or the arts.

Pam Mackinnon: Inspirations? Huh. Interesting.

Angela Mitchell: No pressure!

Pam Mackinnon: When I was 9 years old, my dad and I went to New York City together, and we saw three big productions in New York, in the course of a single weekend. And they happened to all be musicals but really diverse musicals. One was Sweeney Todd, the original Broadway production, one was The Wiz, and one was the Elizabeth Swados show Runaways, and they really had a profound effect on me, both in their ferociousness, and power. Maybe The Wiz was age-appropriate, but the others weren't, yet they certainly left a lasting impression on me of the power of theatre.

Angela Mitchell: What's unique about working with Steppenwolf for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Pam Mackinnon: It's such a pleasure working with actors who are real stage animals, and who do almost exclusively stage work and many, many plays, and that’s what I have here. And to have Amy and Tracy also in this as Chicago actors and as Steppenwolf actors who go back about 20 years, as friends, colleagues, as scene partners -- that's exciting as a director, to work with actors who have a shorthand and a history like that.

Angela Mitchell: You're especially known for your Albee interpretations. Which of his works is your favorite?

Pam Mackinnon: Yeah, he's such an exciting writer and every time there are huge challenges. I’ve directed a number of his more contemporary plays, which have been really fantastic to work on.

A couple of years ago, I got to direct some of his more classic older works, including A Delicate Balance. What's interesting about working on a writer's work so intensively is that you get to be really aware of these themes, this handful of themes that he keeps on working and working and working. And that's been very interesting and very rewarding.

It's also been interesting for me to work on his contemporary plays first. The themes may be the same – he's still interested in certain things – but the language is much more stripped-down. So to go back and work on some of his older plays, Albee’s work is staged stylistically but not thematically.

Angela Mitchell: There's a strong sense of time and place to Virginia Woolf, especially the way Albee captured the university culture and sense of transition. What makes it especially timely today?

Pam Mackinnon: I think it is set when it is set. Some of Edward’s plays can float a little bit more. A Delicate Balance, with maybe two line changes, could be set in a contemporary Westchester living room. But Virginia Woolf is definitely set in an unchangeable date and time, at the height of the Cold War intellectual politics and sexual politics, 1962.

More importantly, Woolf is a play about marriage, and that's a perpetually timely and interesting topic, and one that a lot of our audience knows really intimately. So that doesn't go out of style.

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