Pam MacKinnon, Sam Gold, and Oliver Butler: A Directors Roundtable
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?
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.
MacKinnon: I would piggyback on that very wholeheartedly. It’s not about thinking about how to play the audience. It’s a day-to-day seeing if I’m still interested in a really primal way.
Butler: I definitely never think “Who is the audience?” in rehearsal. The audience is me. Maybe late in the process, like in previews, I do a little of that.
Soloski: What are the productions where you feel, months or years on, a real sense of satisfaction? Which are the ones you wish you could have another crack at?
Butler: My friend Lally Katz from Australia has a play Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart, and we did it with the Production Company. And so late in the process I saw where the mistakes were, including a lack of conceptual specificity on my part.
Soloski: And a play that satisfies you?
Butler: [The Debate Society’s] Buddy Cop 2 was total satisfaction.
MacKinnon: I’m really happy with the Virginia Woolf running right now. When Martha at the beginning sings the song I feel so horribly that these characters have to go on this ride that they don’t know about yet. I feel complicit and deliciously horrible, and I’m proud of that. It’s the sixth or seventh play I’ve done of Edward’s. It would be fun to go back and do some of the early plays I did, like The Play About the Baby, and see where I am with his work now.
Gold: This question makes me feel feisty and rebellious. I’ve done a few things that were really dividing that a lot of people really didn’t like, and I’d really like to defend those things, even as I agree with a lot of the things people didn’t like about them. When I was at Juilliard, I was working on Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and I was doing something really aggressive with it and the actors were really not into it, and I took them all to see Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler and they all hated it. A week later they were still talking about it, [so] they probably found something really compelling in it. And I’ve made a couple of those things. I made a Threepenny Opera that a lot of people hated.
Butler: Those are things you love in spite of other people hating.
Gold: But I also agree with all the criticisms. I think it’s a love-hate thing. I love what’s broken about it and I also want to fix it. I would love to do Threepenny again. There’s a lot I didn’t understand, and I’d love to take what I know now and make another piece, but I wouldn’t say make a better piece.
Butler: I want to do [the Debate Society’s] Snow Hen again. We did that super early in our career. And I am so happy with what that was. But I want to retell that story now that we’re all a little bit older.
MacKinnon: I like going back and doing plays again—the same play with completely different people. And I am a different person two years later, let alone 10 years later. It’s exciting to even just read a play 10 years down the road or even see it.
Soloski: What plays or playwrights would you really like to direct? And which plays or playwrights fail to interest you?
Gold: I’ve become really interested lately in sturdy, muscular American plays—the Williams, the Millers, the Odets. I’ve been doing a lot of really fragile, tender new writing, and it would be fun to do some more muscular plays.
MacKinnon: I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan. I’ve directed a couple and I enjoy the process, but I don’t get as excited as I think I want to be.
Butler: I grew up backstage—I should have left my childhood with an encyclopedic knowledge of American theater because I was there for it. Instead I just have these little moments in the theater that are really powerful for me emotionally. The birthday party in A Streetcar Named Desire was the first time I cried in the theater, because my mom looked so sad in a birthday hat. I cried every time I saw it. I want to direct some of those shows I remember seeing, these classic plays I grew up with.
Soloski: Are there some plays we don’t need to see again? Do we need another Death of a Salesman? Another Twelfth Night?
Gold: These things all go in cycles. You don’t need them if you’ve seen them a ton, and then you need them desperately a few years later. There have been writers I’ve never been particularly attracted to. I’m still waiting to have an interest in doing a Shaw play—I can’t make it though a lot of those plays right now. But maybe in 20 years that’ll be exactly what I want. I’ll be ready for some rhetoric.
Soloski: Working on a Shaw play or even Inge’s Picnic, you don’t get to have the writer in rehearsal. But you’ve all worked on plays with living playwrights. When is it helpful to have the writer in the room and when is it less helpful?
Gold: In the case of Inge, I’ve been treating it like he’s in the room. I’ve read a ton about him and about Picnic in particular. I can imagine the guy in the room with me, what he wants and how he can contribute to the event. You can feel Inge hovering over it in this really intense way.
MacKinnon: I really like the camaraderie and the social aspect of having someone sitting to my left. So I really enjoy that, though sometimes it can be really hard. The frowny playwright clearly emanating dissatisfaction, that can be really tricky.
Soloski: How is Albee in the room? He can be quite prickly.
MacKinnon: He loves actors when they are rising to the occasion. He was very minimally involved in this production of Virginia Woolf. He only came out to Chicago for a day. I was a bit nervous, the actors were nervous. There was one 10-minute break in which Madison Dirks, who plays Nick, was late returning. We were going to look at the top of the second act, and Edward said, “Well, I can do it.” He hopped onstage. It was dear. For Edward it was a lark. Madison came in and Edward said, “I give you the stage.”
Butler: Greatest theater story ever.
Soloski: What kind of actor behavior endears a performer to you, and what sort of behavior tells you that you never want to work with an actor again?
Gold: It’s about trust. If somebody trusts the process and is excited about the material, it’s going to go well. And if someone comes in with mistrust or self-interest, it isn’t.
Soloski: How do they show that mistrust?
Gold: My god, there’s a million ways. People looking out for themselves and not for the material. Telling the other actors how to do their jobs or telling me how to do my job in order to serve them. I have empathy for every single actor, because it is a crazy, scary thing to go out in front of all these people and bare your soul. Sometimes that act is so scary that it makes an actor have a lot of needs.
MacKinnon: There is a fear factor that can take over and sometimes it can become infectious. If someone is starting to radiate that fear, we all suffer. I like the people who show up on time and have dug in a little more by day’s end.
Soloski: You all go to see many plays. What directorial choice or habits can you not stand?
MacKinnon: When I see what to me smacks of “blocking.” Staging that is so outside of human behavior or for the sake of, oh, they’ve been sitting for a while, now they must expand. It’s pretty, but I get knocked out of the story.
Gold: When the intelligence of the audience is being underappreciated. When directors are telling the audience something the audience could figure out for themselves. I tend to get my most annoyed response when something takes place at a Starbucks, so you see an enormous sign come in that says Starbucks, and everyone is holding Starbucks cups, and then they say Starbucks 10 times in the scene. I bet the audience could have figured that out and you could have saved $10,000. When a director is afraid the audience won’t get it, they tend to make less exciting choices.
Butler: It’s those little moments of inauthenticity. You feel heartbreak when there’s something good going and then something sloppy happens and undermines it.
Gold: I also want to defend artifice. The idea of seeing “blocking” isn’t always a bad thing. I’m all for artificial staging if the audience can fall in love with it. In Picnic, I’m thinking about getting them to do the exact thing Pam says she hates. I definitely don’t want them sitting in the exact same place for half and hour.
MacKinnon: But they have to own it.
Gold: They have to be given enough trust to believe they’re doing something for a reason.
Soloski: There are a lot of factors that impinge on your work: producers, budgets, Equity rules, time. If you could magically alter an aspect of your working conditions, what would it be?
Gold: Actors’ agents. We’re so controlled by the schedules and whims of the actors. We have no leverage for keeping people together. I’ve had a million shows where I’ve lost cast members the day before I go into rehearsal. And I don’t blame the actors at all. For the most part in the theater, you’re subsidizing the theater by working there because you’re not being paid a living wage. But I’m trying to trick the system. I’m trying to create an ensemble with a lot of depth and detail on the schedule of a Broadway or Off-Broadway contract.
Butler: I’m not necessarily standing up for actors’ agents, but I feel like it’s a result of the finances of theater. We had to change an actor out with four days notice.
Gold: But what if you were to take another job three days before you start rehearsal?
Soloski: Oliver, would you then make theater a financially viable enterprise?
Butler: Back to having the actor mom—she’s been doing it her entire life. And at this point in any other industry she’d be senior V.P. or partner in the business. She’s incredible. But when you look at what she actually gets paid, even at the big theaters, it’s insane. Now, I’m not getting calls a day before rehearsal to fill in directing a TV show. But there is probably a dollar [amount] at which I would do it, because it would substantially change my life.
Soloski: Pam, what would you change?
MacKinnon: Rehearsal times getting less and less. I haven’t even been doing this very long, but it feels like even in this decade, it’s now two and a half weeks before tech for a brand new play. That’s really hard. It feels abusive—to the actors, to me, to the writer.
Soloski: So you need them to come in with the script memorized.
Gold: And you’re changing the script a ton. Having two and a half weeks in a room with a script that’s going to change in major ways, you’re just doing triage.
MacKinnon: And that’s the world premiere. And then people say, “Oh, that play doesn’t work.” No kidding! That’s harsh.
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