Pam MacKinnon: I was born in Evanston, Illinois. My father was pursuing a Ph.D. at Northwestern. Shortly after my birth, we moved to Toronto. My parents were Canadian, and my dad was offered several professorships, and one was in Canada. They decided to go back. This was June of 1968. Chicago was scary that summer. Nine years later we moved to suburban Buffalo. I have dual citizenship. In junior high and high school I acted a lot and also played the viola, and I directed a short play by Thornton Wilder, Pullman Car Hiawatha. In college I took a step away from theatre. I started to study political science and economics; really loved it and had great professors. I continued in that and got a double major and then went into a Ph.D. program for political science at UC-San Diego. This was right after undergrad. My second summer into grad school I was in Madrid doing some research and couldn’t get myself to the union archives. I sent postcards (this was pre-email) to friends telling them I was through with political science and I wanted to direct theater.
TS: So are you a doctor of political science?
PM: No. I dropped out. After the summer in Madrid I returned to San Diego and came clean with my advisor, who encouraged me and also let me stay on for the year as a TA. I had a great transition year, directing in the UCSD cabaret spaces and parking lots, assisting student and professional directors. Two years later I moved to my childhood town of Toronto. Did some directing and stage managed. I assisted on the musical Tommy and helped to put Tommy up in Germany. I then felt ready to move to New York, imagining I would direct Broadway musicals of course. That was 18 years ago.
TS: You have a bit of history with Dinner with Friends -- correct?
PM: It’s a little complicated. I was hired by Dan Sullivan to assist him on what was supposed to be a North American tour of Dinner with Friends after it ran off-Broadway. He directed it at the Geffen Theatre. We hopped to Boston to the Wilbur Theatre and then the national tour never happened.
TS: What made you want to revisit the material?
PM: I am 15 years older. I’m now the age of these characters. I think it is a great play and as I march through time, it has become more relevant to me. I used to make the naive assumption that my closest friends would go through life as I am, prioritizing always what I hold dear. Like Gabe, I have been surprised.
TS: How did you respond to this script when you first worked on it 15 years ago and how are you responding now?
PM: It’s now just much closer to home. The story felt removed, a delightful remove, at age 30 that isn’t there at age 45. The play makes me reflect not just on coupledom in general but more on my relationship.
TS: What would you say the play is about?
PM: It’s about expectations. It’s about defining and sorting through which ties bind and which ties don’t.
TS: Your last two Broadway outings have been about marriage. Certainly Clybourne Park and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? deal head on with the subject. Is this a subject you are interested in?
PM: It is so ripe for investigation. There is something about a vow that pressurizes a relationship for sure. It is inherently dramatic. Loving and supporting each other can turn to wounding each other. I am not married; I don’t think I will ever get married. I have a wonderful long-term relationship and I am sure that in another era we would have been married by now, but we haven’t chosen to do that.
TS: What qualities in the actors were you looking for when you cast the play?
PM: These are very smart people that Donald has written. These are very verbal people, so I really wanted true-blue stage actors who could bite into the language and could understand how using language can push an action forward. I also didn’t want us to circle Beth or Tom and say, “Oh, oh, I get it, they are that kind of person” versus Gabe and Karen. I didn’t want to over determine the story; I really wanted these people to come across as real friends.
TS: How difficult is it to ask actors to go back in time to play their younger selves?
PM: There is something so delicious about that flashback scene. If we had seen it in chronological order, we wouldn’t pay attention to it. It is a great breath of fresh air. We get to play with nothing but potential, while the audience gets to see tiny seeds of destruction perhaps.
TS: How will you handle the offstage kids’ voices?
PM: We will go through a bit of rehearsal as a company so I know where this play is living and then we will decide what ages the brothers are and we will cast two children. (Today I’m thinking nine and six.) We’ll then rehearse the scripted lines and do multiple takes so that when we are in the theater, we’ll have different choices that we can play with.
TS: Talk about how you are collaborating with your design team.
PM: I have had multiple meetings with the set designer, Allen Moyer, and we’re very interested in the first act’s snow storm. There is something about a snowstorm, especially outside a city, where all you want to do is cuddle up in your cozy sweater. That setting forces an intimacy and sometimes conversations to happen that otherwise wouldn’t. At the top of the second act, we also really want to experience a different point of view. We are not outside per se, but it is wide open. It is an emotional and psychologically open space. All this has also been translated through discussions with the sound designer and composer, Josh Schmidt, into the music. I am interested in what winter sounds like in act one and where we go from there.
TS: The play keeps changing location and that is always a challenge – correct?
PM: Absolutely. You want to get the sense that this is Gabe and Karen’s house versus Tom and Beth’s house. Who are these people and what have they accumulated? What is the snapshot of their respective places? The challenge becomes how do we complete for the story the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room, the patio, the bar, the two Vineyard scenes with just the essentials, so the focus remains on the people.
TS: I am curious about your collaboration with the author Donald Margulies -- have you been meeting often?
PM: Yes, we’ve met several times. We’ve had several coffees to talk about the play. We naturally talked frequently as we cast the company. We’ve also attended a couple of ad meetings. We always use proscribed meetings as a jumping off point to then linger and talk about some aspect of the play. It’s been a real treat thus far. He knows these characters so well.
TS: When I interviewed Donald he said he’s wanted to collaborate with you for a while now.
PM: I am just thrilled to be working with him. He feels like a kid in a candy store and I feel the same way because I know this is such a good play. I know this is a play that works, and it’s a satisfying play in front of an audience. I’m eager to have Donald in rehearsal with the actors for the first few days, when we are around a table, hearing the language and getting to know each other before it turns into walking and talking. I always think it’s so great for actors to have the source that their disposal. Sometimes not even for what a playwright might say but how they might say it, an inflection, a turn of phrase, a smile can unlock a piece of the play as much as a fact.
TS: Will you talk about the things that inspire you as an artist? Do you like seeing other people’s work?
PM: I see a lot of theatre. I enjoy that. I consider myself to have more catholic tastes than most of my friends. Some productions stay with me and others just slide off of me, but inevitably there is something that I say, “Whoa, what is that, who designed the lights?” There is nothing better than having zero expectations and saying, “Wow, I didn’t know what was going to happen!” I also read fiction when I can. I have to read a lot of plays, but when I can put the plays down, I like reading fiction a lot.
TS: Is there anything else you would like to add about Dinner with Friends?
PM: I’m already enjoying working in the Steinberg Center -- it’s the perfect size for this play. This is a very voyeuristic play. The audience should feel as if they are peeking through a keyhole. The Laura Pels Theatre can provide this.
Dinner With Friends plays at the Laura Pels Theatre January 17 through April 13. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2013-2014 Season, Dinner With Friends