Pam MacKinnon, Sam Gold, and Oliver Butler: A Directors Roundtable

Three of New York's best talents sit down with the Voice to talk Edward Albee, bad actor traits, and why Shaw will have to wait

How on earth can anyone act naturally when surrounded by three of New York’s best directors? Gather together Sam Gold, Oliver Butler, and Pam MacKinnon and suddenly your ordinary Brooklyn living room feels like the set of some enthralling drama.

On a damp winter morning, the three lingered over coffee and almond croissants to talk with the Voice about Edward Albee’s impromptu acting, A Streetcar Named Desire’s tearful party scene, and the elusive art of directing—a theatrical practice at once nearly invisible and wholly vital. Gold, who worked through multiple mugs of coffee, will open a revival of William Inge’s Picnic at the American Airlines Theatre in early January and then begin rehearsals on Annie Baker’s The Flick, which debuts at Playwrights Horizons in February. Butler, resplendent in an argyle sweater, will next remount Blood Play at the Under the Radar Festival in January, a piece created with his devised theater company the Debate Society, while continuing work with the group on a project known only as Untitled Ski Play. Across from them lounged MacKinnon, who will soon begin rehearsals for Craig Lucas’s two-hander The Lying Lesson, premiering at the Atlantic Theater in February, even as her searing revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues on Broadway.

Alexis Soloski: If this were the first day of rehearsals, if we'd all gathered together to start work on a play, how would you begin our conversation?

MacKinnon's Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Michael Brosilow
MacKinnon's Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Gold revives Inge: Picnic
Joan Marcus
Gold revives Inge: Picnic

Sam Gold: Most first days start with food and coffee and people getting to know each other. It can often be kind of a wasted day from a work standpoint, but a nice day from a ritual standpoint.

Pam MacKinnon: I like to read the play really early on in the day without much chat beforehand, just to get the words out into the air.

Oliver Butler: With the Debate Society, it’s hard to tell what the first day is. By the time the first day of actual production rehearsals rolls around, people have already been there for a few weeks. It all starts with [Debate Society actor-writers] Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen having lots of food and coffee and tricking ourselves into feeling comfortable with each other. We hate each other.

Soloski: How did you know you wanted to direct?

Butler: My mother [Pamela Payton-Wright] is an actor, so I grew up backstage. I tried to escape it in a lot of different ways, but I spent a year at the Williamstown Theater Festival in 1998. I liked that process so much that when I returned to college, I decided I wanted to be able to make work and not wait to be cast in it.

Gold: I was at Williamstown the year after you as a directing intern. I was an English major, maybe pre-med in college, acting a little bit. And as a whim, I went to Williamstown as a director and liked it and started doing it from there. That little summer camp is a nice beginning to a lot of people’s stories.

MacKinnon: I directed one show in high school, a one-act by Thornton Wilder, and really enjoyed that process. Then I decided to step away from all things theatrical and get serious, studying political science and economics. I enrolled in a PhD program for political science. And at age 22, doing dissertation research in Madrid, I was in a depressive state and unable to get myself to the Union archives. I sent out these postcards saying I was going to drop out of the PhD program, I was going to direct.

Soloski: Now that you’ve each established yourselves as directors, what distinguishes your work? How would I know not looking at the program that I was seeing a Sam, Pam, or Oliver play?

Gold: I always wanted to have Oliver’s career. I started in the theater admiring work made by people who are really close with each other, like that of Ariane Mnouchkine’s company or the Wooster Group. But I don’t think my social brain is right for that environment. I had this realization I was going to make work in a more freelance way. But I try to bring to that model some of the intimacy and depth of connection between people in ensembles who devise work together. I’ve tried to trick the process into making it seem like the ensemble has a deeper, fuller, more detailed connection.

Butler: What I aspire to in my own work is a depth of detail, the ability to look at the stage and see a depth of detail. It is exhilarating.

Soloski: Proportionally, how much of your work is about serving the play, how much the actors, and how much the audience?

Gold: I can’t imagine dividing those things up like that. In terms of a timeline, I always start with the piece of writing and what it evokes for me, how it comes alive in my imagination. I don’t think of my job as managing the playwright and the actors and delivering their goods to the audience. I’m trying to serve myself and hope that the audience agrees with me. It’s about trusting that my interest will galvanize people to that aim. But I start with the play. The writing and my connection to the writing is the reason I’m there.

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