This week, the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) hired a new artistic director. Pam MacKinnon comes to San Francisco with a slew of Broadway credits and accolades — including a Tony Award — to her name. KQED caught up with her at A.C.T.’s office in downtown San Francisco the day after the appointment was announced to find out more about the director’s vision for the Bay Area’s flagship theater company.
You have a powerful career in New York with many Broadway credits. Why does coming to San Francisco seem like a good career move for you at this stage?
I’ve always been a freelance director. I’ve never been attached to an institution and I’ve thought about it for a number of years. When the opportunity at A.C.T. came up, it struck me as an interesting thing to pursue because I am very interested in moving beyond simply thinking about my own work. I want to continue my own work, but I don’t want that to simply be what I do. I want to have the opportunity to think beyond my own rehearsal hall, to make marriages with great artists, to think about social justice, to become a more politically engaged person in a community as an artist telling stories. That’s what an institution can afford.
But why A.C.T.? Why San Francisco? A lot of people consider this to be a bit of a theatrical backwater.
Oh, I don’t consider it a backwater at all. There are so many smaller companies in addition to A.C.T. — Berkeley Rep and TheatreWorks that are producing great work, work with playwrights that I feel very close to. And it’s a scene that’s on the rise. A.C.T. is part of that. A.C.T. is also a flagship regional theater with an incredible 50-year-plus history. It has the Geary Theater, which is that traditional, big-bones, “Broadway” house that I’ve been directing in these last six years with my Broadway career. So that feels like a home base. That’s something that I continue to want to explore. What are the stories for those big rooms? And then to also have these smaller, newer spaces at the Strand, which are just ripe with potential. And how do those spaces all then talk to each other? It feels like a very exciting time for this theater and San Francisco.
What would you say are your two or three biggest priorities?
I’m already in the throes of season programming. Carey [Perloff, the outgoing artistic director] and I are programming the next season together. So that’s already started, me hitting the ground running. I also really want to understand a bit more, learn a bit more. This is an amazing organization that in addition to what they put on their stages, has an MFA training program, a conservatory program, a young conservatory program, a commissioning wing, and an education and community outreach program. It’s just this multifaceted, gigantic organization that it’s my turn to dig into. I’m calling this moment a “listening tour” where I get to go in as the new person and at times ask the naive questions, which I think an organization that has been sort of dealing with the day-to-day sometimes forgets to ask. Like, “what is the umbrella?” “What is the bird’s eye view?” “How does this actually relate to our mission statement?” And I think this is a crucial time to relate back to the mission statement.
Presumably listening is something you will continue to do beyond your initial “listening tour.” How long do you expect this initial listening period to last?
How can I know? I become the artistic director on July 1. Of course I will continue to listen. But I am the artistic leader of this organization. So at a certain point, it’s not about not listening anymore, but it’s actually about actualizing things and putting things into practice.
And do you have a sense of what some of those things might be?
What about some of the actual artists and plays you’re thinking about? What work might we expect to see?
It’s way too early to get super specific. I certainly come from a background of new plays as well as American classics. Carey and I are both interested in plays that have interesting language, that use language as action. So that will continue. In some respects I have much more sort of a big experience in the American, “big-bone” plays as well as a big interest in new plays. So expect more of that than what has been on A.C.T.’s stages in the last few years.
So will we see more of playwrights you’ve championed in the past, like Edward Albee and Itamar Moses for example?
Absolutely, and Bruce Norris. I’d love to get Bruce back here, as well as younger writers. I have a longstanding relationship with a downtown New York company called Clubbed Thumb, and want to continue to support younger writers. Also, you think of the Strand perhaps as, “that’s where the new plays belong.” I’m also really interested in getting writers to think of the Geary as a place for a new play, and think about writing a play that can survive in the 1,000-seat room. Plays used to be written with that in mind. Some plays shouldn’t be put into that space, but others should be there, and I want to encourage writers to write for the Geary as well as the Strand.
That strikes me as a huge risk, because the Geary is such a huge space. Unless you’re talking about a playwright with the track record and brand recognition of Edward Albee, I imagine it would be hard to fill. Even Broadway theaters can’t sell plays anymore.
But the gift of the Geary is also that it’s only a four-and-a-half-week run. Broadway has a very particular model. It’s a very different world.
What would you say, from where you’re standing now, seem to be the biggest challenges you face going forward with this new gig?
It’s challenges and opportunities. Programming the Geary is hard. That’s a challenge. As is bringing new audiences into the fold. The tech industry and tech employees tend not to be that interested in live theater — well, why not? What are some stories that maybe will bring them in and make them then interested in other stories? I don’t think it’s about putting stories about people who work in tech on stage. What excites me about theater is seeing stuff that I don’t immediately relate to. And then all of a sudden you’re in a story that is at once so personal and universal you get sucked in. What are some stories that can be gateway introductions to hook people?
A.C.T.’s associate artistic director Andy Donald and I have talked a lot about sports plays. I’ve been developing a sports play with [playwright] Lydia Diamond. It’s a play about this woman, Toni Stone, who was a longtime resident of San Francisco and then Oakland. She was the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues in the late 1940s. Lydia and I have been in development of this play for probably five years. It’s an amazing story of an amazing woman that should be told in the Bay Area.
A.C.T. has a long, standout legacy of having a resident company of actors. The resident company doesn’t exist at A.C.T. these days. What are your views on resident companies? Do you think this will be part of your focus going forward?
There is an incredible talent pool in the Bay Area that I want to get to know. But moving forward the next couple years, I do not see A.C.T. reinstating its core acting company. There’s so much stuff going on, that would be an addition as opposed to a deepening of what is already here.
Are you still living in New York or have you moved yet?
I still have a lot of commitments in New York and am directing a show in the spring, prior to coming out here. My partner, actor John Procaccino, and I decided to take the pressure off a little bit. And so instead of moving to San Francisco and packing everything up and immediately throwing a dart or hanging out with a real estate agent and seeing a ton of places, we’re going to AirBnB it for a little while. We’d like to learn about the city before making a crazy commitment.
That’s smart. One last question: what are you most excited about beyond the job stuff?
I’m really looking forward to a chapter in my life where I am minutes away from awe-inspiring natural beauty. San Francisco has that.