In the early 1980s, when she was a student at Clarence Junior High School (now Clarence Middle School), her theater program fell victim to budget cuts. It's a story familiar to many aspiring thespians and artists whose programs are often among the first to be cut when budgets go down at the ballot box, as Clarence's 2013 budget recently did in a controversial vote.
But unlike many in similar situations who might throw in the towel and, say, sign up for intramural sports or band, MacKinnon and her fellow young theater lovers decided to strike out on their own.
“A very industrious friend of mine started a theater company called the Clarence Young Actors,” MacKinnon, 45, said in a phone interview from her home in New York City. “We rented space in the Methodist church right across from school and went around to restaurants and other local establishments and got ads for our programs. It was kind of fantastic.”
For MacKinnon, it was the first step in a storied life in the theater that has taken her from major assignments in San Diego, Toronto and Germany to the upper echelons of Broadway. Her directing nomination for the 2103 Tony Awards, which air at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS, comes just a year after her first Tony nod, for her direction of Bruce Norris' play “Clybourne Park.” (That play will be produced locally in November in the 710 Main Theatre by Road Less Traveled Productions.) She is the second woman in the 66-year history of the Tony Awards to be nominated for directing in two consecutive years.
MacKinnon's family moved to Clarence from Toronto when she was 9 so that her father, a geography professor who is now retired, could take a job at the University at Buffalo. Her young life in Clarence was rich with theater and music, MacKinnon recalled.
As a committed viola player and member of the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra, she took frequent trips to Kleinhans Music Hall to see performances by great opera singers and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Those experiences, she said, played a role in developing the musical sensibility she brings to the plays she directs.
She also remembered attending the former Studio Arena Theatre; a production of Tennessee Williams' “The Glass Menagerie” stands out in her memory.
But it was during a performance in a Clarence Young Actors production of George M. Cohan's musical “Forty-five Minutes from Broadway” that her addiction to theater began in earnest.
“There were two times in that really short run where I had to faint, and two of the four times, the audience spontaneously applauded,” she said. “It feels really great to have that kind of power.”
Though the acting bug crawled into MacKinnon's life early on, her path to a theater career was far from direct. After graduating from Clarence High School in 1985, the self-serious young MacKinnon went back to Toronto to study economics and political science, eventually enrolling in a political science Ph. D. program at the University of California San Diego at the age of 21.
“Maybe because I came from an academic household, theater, while it was very important to me, didn't seem like a career choice,” she said.
But after an unhappy 18 months or so, she said, she was struck by the “adult notion” that “it's not the content of what you're interested in which makes something serious, but it's your relationship in it, it's your feeling about it. So I went back to theater.”
After that, MacKinnon's rise through the ranks of American theater was at once methodical and meteoric. She rented cabaret space and put on shoestring productions in San Diego, worked with the university's theater department and eventually collaborated with rising directors Anne Bogart and Des McAnuff, then artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. After a successful stint in San Diego, MacKinnon moved back to Toronto, where she worked on McAnuff's production of “Tommy,” which she later took to Germany. And finally, at 27, she made the jump to what she called “scary New York City,” where she's been ascending every available ladder for the last 18 years.
Both of MacKinnon's Tony nominations are the fruit of her work with the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which has sent a string of wildly successful productions to Broadway in recent years. Her production of “Clybourne Park,” a mammoth play about race and many other pulsing contemporary issues, won her many accolades and the full confidence of one of the most respected producing companies in America.
In 2011, she was enlisted by the Washington-based company Arena Stage to direct Edward Albee's acclaimed 1962 play “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, an acerbic, psychologically complex and emotionally devastating story about an antagonistic married couple that changed the course of American drama and inspired generations of future playwrights. For the role of Martha (immortalized in the 1966 film by Elizabeth Taylor), MacKinnon had her heart set on her friend and longtime Steppenwolf member Amy Morton. (Morton is also nominated for a Tony for her performance, along with co-stars Tracy Letts and Carrie Coon.)
But Morton had her own condition: If she was going to star, the show would have to start in Chicago, at Steppenwolf. All the parties agreed – including Albee, who had refused for decades to allow his plays to be produced at Steppenwolf because of a long-forgotten objection – and one of the most memorable revivals of the last several years was launched.
MacKinnon said the directing process was less intimidating than might be expected, especially because Morton had such a deep relationship with Letts, her fellow Steppenwolf member who would take on the role of George.
“Amy and Tracy actually go back 23 years, the exact number of years that George and Martha have been married, and they've been onstage together I think nine or 10 times,” she said. “They've played married couples over the years, so that was sort of homework done in living time, and we could really hit the ground running. So I was much less intimated than relieved.”
Many reviews of the production, which were largely ecstatic, pointed out that George's character seemed to take on a more assertive presence than in previous productions. But Morton downplayed the idea that this interpretation was somehow outside-the-box, saying that she's always read Albee's masterwork as “George's play.”
“I've always read it as George is, if not asserting himself, desperately trying to assert himself throughout the play, and that's a pretty clear, strong action,” she said. “We didn't get around the table and say, 'OK, here's the deal: We're going to crack this open in a new way,' ”
What might have been new in the production is the meticulously orchestrated approach MacKinnon and her quartet of actors took to Albee's crackling language, a possible echo of the Clarence-educated director's musical upbringing. It also likely helped that MacKinnon has directed nine plays by Albee, who, more than most other playwrights, is concerned with how the sounds and syllables of his language strike the audience's ears.
“At a certain point, there is a musicality,” MacKinnon said. “Whether it's about realizing, oh, in order for this beat, this turn to really land, play it under instead of topping your scene partner... sort of go sotto voce and that will actually give you more power.”
During the run of the play, MacKinnon said she often found herself going for the same emotional ride she'd taken so many times in rehearsal and being dazzled every time.
“I used to go to the Booth Theatre at least once a month, maybe every three weeks to get a hit of Edward's brilliance and the humanity of it,” she said. “As a director, that was incredibly satisfying, just to witness what the audience was going through, but also genuinely as an individual, to be able to go on that ride, even though I helped to build it.”