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Pam MacKinnon, Broadway powerhouse, is content to stay behind the scenes

NEW YORK – The Metro Diner, with its chunky-lettered signage and neon-lit, apple-red exterior, isn’t exactly Broadway. On a chilly morning, it’s a place where the parka-wearing, scarf-wrapped Upper West Side crowd can order two eggs with bacon, home fries and toast for only $8.95, coffee included.

The Metro skips glitz, and so does Pam MacKinnon. Fifty-five blocks south of here, on a tall sign mounted above the marquee of Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre, MacKinnon’s name is billed in big blocky letters: There’s AL PACINO, the legendary actor. There’s DAVID MAMET, the celebrated writer of the show playing here. And there’s one more name, that of the Clarence-bred, Tony-winning Broadway director: PAM MACKINNON.

On Broadway, MacKinnon gets that kind of billing. But here in the Metro, she blends in. Like everyone else, she’s layered for winter. Her long, dark hair loosely frames both sides of her face. She has no pretensions. By position and accomplishment, MacKinnon could convey and command glamour. But she doesn’t.

“Sometimes people control the room with charisma,” said Carrie Coon, an actress who worked for MacKinnon on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “Pam walks into the room focused.”

Coon is talking about a rehearsal room, but that’s just as true here in the Metro, a place where MacKinnon regularly holds meetings with designers and assistant directors. Her head is into designing and dissecting and deciding on the details of a story. There’s blocking onstage and blocking out distractions. There are relationships and mentorships and networking and the rare glimmers of the spotlight.

That’s the powerful but mostly invisible world in which Pam MacKinnon operates. She won that Tony Award in 2013 for directing “Virginia Woolf,” the Edward Albee play that explores the relationship of a middle-aged couple. The year before that, she was nominated for “Clybourne Park,” a Bruce Norris play that explores the intersection between housing and race.

She’s worked with legends like Pacino and Glenn Close. She’s won praise and drawn criticism. Just a few days before this breakfast meeting, she confronted one of those critics – a widely read gossip columnist – at a holiday party, with some of the Broadway community’s most powerful players watching and apparently urging, “Hit him, Pam!”

She didn’t need to hit him. A quick conversation would do. Words are MacKinnon’s strength, one rooted in her childhood in Clarence. Every night at 6 o’clock, young Pam sat with her mom, dad and little sister at a round table to eat dinner and discuss politics, the arts and culture.

Meals, including those here at the Metro, are still a working tool for her today.MacKinnon slips into a booth and gives her order right away.

“Can I get two eggs over easy with rye toast and no potatoes?”

She has another meeting in an hour with her agent, who’s fielding offers for her to work on a film. That would extend an already-broadening slate of opportunities for MacKinnon, who at 48, is still considered young in the world of Broadway directors.

“She’s highly respected within the community and is considered one of our finest new directors,” said Jeffrey Richards, a Broadway producer who has worked with MacKinnon on multiple shows.

At the time of her Buffalo News interview, MacKinnon had a show on Broadway: “China Doll,” a two-character play written by Mamet and starring Pacino. (“China Doll,” which was slated for a 15-week run and produced by Richards, closed Jan. 31.)

She was also working on a musical version of the movie “Amélie,” which was recently announced as part of next season’s lineup at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

“I say no to more things than I say yes to,” she said. “My plate is as full as it can be. I feel very fortunate that I can do projects that are diverse. A two-character play written by David Mamet, a brand-new play starring Al Pacino, versus a musical adaptation of the movie ‘Amélie’ – those are two incredibly different projects: content, tone, form. Everything is different about them, so that’s the best. That’s what keeps you coming back.”

The gift of gab

MacKinnon was born in Chicago but spent most of her early childhood in Ontario, where her father, Ross, taught geography at the University of Toronto. Even as a child, she was an engaging conversationalist who, in turn, displayed a networking ability that few people ever master.

Her mother, Helga, who later ran the arts nonprofit Young Audiences of Western New York, remembers Pam as a first-grader attending an academic event in Austria with her parents. At one point, Helga glanced across the room and saw Pam chatting with a Nobel Prize-winning economist, who was leaning over and listening intently to the little girl.

Later, Helga asked Pam what they were discussing.

“Oh, I told him about school and the woods and just fun things,” Pam said.

The economist, clearly charmed, sent Pam a stuffed animal.

“She is really good at sizing up people,” Helga MacKinnon said. “She can just zero in on that one thing.”

That people-reading skill is vital for a director, who plays a key role in choosing set and costume designers, casting, and is in charge of running rehearsals and helping actors dissect the meaning of a story and the intent of a character.

“There’s a feeling in a Pam MacKinnon rehearsal of incredible trust,” said actress Coon, who is widely known for her on-camera roles in the film “Gone Girl” and HBO’s “The Leftovers.”

“What Pam becomes is this surgeon,” said said. “It’s like a scalpel. She very delicately starts to make incisions in what you’re doing and remove little bits … She’ll just drop some very specific notes in your lap that shifts you gradually over time, so by the time you get to performance, you have something really crafted that you feel very confident in.”

Still, becoming a director wasn’t MacKinnon’s early intent. After moving to Clarence in fourth grade when her father took a job at the University at Buffalo, Pam performed in both school and community shows. She also became a serious viola player.

“One irony is I didn’t like rehearsing as an actor but I loved performing,” she said. “But now I’m only in the rehearsal halls. The repetition of being an actor didn’t excite me as much but the rush of telling the story did. That was the case with the viola too. I didn’t like practicing as much as performing.”

The thrill of performing was dulled slightly by a factor outside of Pam’s control: Her height. She’s 5-foot-10 today, and reached that height in middle school. That made her appear older, and thus cast her in the adult roles.

“Which at times is sort of a drag,” MacKinnon said. “As a 15-year-old girl, you’re the one teacher in ‘Grease.’ It’s sort of a bummer. I’m in the company, but I’m not the one singing that fun number. I’m the one who walks in and shuts it down.”

Sitting in the Metro Diner, using her rye toast to soak up the yolk of those over-easy eggs, MacKinnon dissects the text of her own life.

“This is completely in retrospect, but even as a performer in a company, I was always a little outside it,” she said. “Which is the director’s purview.”

Getting serious

Following her graduation from Clarence High School, MacKinnon returned to Toronto – “my other hometown” – to study economics and political science. She did a little bit of acting during her time at the University of Toronto, “but mostly stepped away from it,” she said.

It was time to get serious about something that deserved seriousness. In MacKinnon’s mind at the time, that meant something academic. After earning her undergraduate degree, she enrolled in the University of California, San Diego, to pursue a doctorate in political science.

She quickly learned, though, that seriousness needed to be coupled with passion. And she didn’t have it. During a summer in Madrid where she was supposed to be doing pre-dissertation research, MacKinnon could not push herself to get to the library archives during her appointed hours of 8 to 10 a.m.

“I just couldn’t do it,” she said. “A person more interested could.”

Life was changing at home, too. MacKinnon’s parents were splitting, a circumstance that Helga MacKinnon believes freed her daughter to pursue a career she wanted – instead of the one she thought she was supposed to have.

“I think that divorce, on some level, gave her freedom to be able to say, ‘I’m not going to have a mid-life crisis and regret that I didn’t stick with theater,’ ” her mother said.

Pam dropped political science and, at 23, “dove in” to theater.

“While I was in school, I sort of had this idea that I had to be serious about something, and that can’t be theater,” she said. “So I was pursuing something ‘serious.’ And then I realized … it’s not about the content of what you’re pursuing, it’s your relationship to it. So I became serious about what I was serious about.”

MacKinnon was unrelentingly serious about breaking in. An important step would be apprenticing with an established director, and MacKinnon found one in San Diego who would be the right fit: Des McAnuff, then the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse.

MacKinnon and McAnuff shared a similar history: Both are natives of Illinois who grew up in Toronto. More important, McAnuff was a big deal. At the time, he was working on the musical “The Who’s Tommy,” which he wrote with rock legend Pete Townshend.

One rainy day, she drove to the theater, knocked on the stage door, and asked to see the director. The assistant who answered the door turned her away, saying rehearsals were going on and nobody saw Mr. McAnuff without an appointment.

MacKinnon walked back to her car, and came close to opening the door, turning on the ignition and pulling away. But then she made a decision, a key decision that led to everything that would follow: assistant directorships, followed by full directing jobs for regional theaters, off-Broadway companies, and eventually, Broadway.

She turned back and knocked on the door again.

“I have an appointment with Mr. McAnuff,” she said.

Helga MacKinnon takes the story from here.

“She walked in and she said to him, ‘You and I were both born in the United States. You and I were both brought to Toronto by our parents. You and I are both passionate theater people.’ And he hired her on the spot to be his assistant.”

Reached by phone last week, McAnuff was happy to discuss MacKinnon. He didn’t remember her talking up the Canadian connection, but he acknowledged it exits.

“There’s a kind of unspoken vow that we take as Canadians who move to the United States that we always look out for other Canadians,” he said.

What leaps forward in McAnuff’s mind is MacKinnon’s “intellect and her personality and her enthusiasm.” He saw it. His rock-star collaborator saw it.

“Pete Townshend was extremely fond of Pam,” he said.

He also saw an articulate, determined star of a director-in-the-making.

“When her career started to take off, I was not at all surprised,” he said. “I knew from the very beginning that she had a future.”

Staying grounded

Becoming a star director and enjoying the trappings of Broadway success were never MacKinnon’s intent. She doesn’t dress fancy, save for the occasional splurge on a nice pair of short, chunky-heeled boots. A few weeks ago, when Helga picked up Pam and her boyfriend, the actor John Procaccino, from the airport for a quick Buffalo visit, she noticed her daughter wearing teal and purple shoes.

“Now that she has a little bit more money, she can have the fancier shoes,” said Helga who, in the 1990s, first knew her daughter was making an acceptable living as a young director in New York when she stopped wearing white tube socks and replaced them with more colorful ones.

“But she’s not a clothes horse, ever,” her mother said.

MacKinnon applies that grounded view toward the most visible splashes of color on her résumé: Her 2012 Tony nomination for “Clybourne Park” and her 2013 win for “Virginia Woolf.”

“A very nice cherry on an already nice sundae,” she said. “Completely fun, but kind of beside the point.”

Facing her critic

Over the years, reviews of her work have collectively been good. The most visible exception is “China Doll,” which was panned by critics for Mamet’s writing and Pacino’s delivery. Ben Brantley, in a New York Times review, applied descriptors such as “semi-coherent” and “hunched and sluggish” to the show. He called MacKinnon’s job “a thankless task.”

MacKinnon stands staunchly behind her work, and though she keeps the reviews in perspective (“Some critics have seen one performance and write their individual opinion about what they experienced,” she said), she’ll defend it from what she perceives as cheap shots.

The most critical writing on “China Doll” came from the New York Post’s Michael Riedel, whom New York Magazine described as “the columnist Broadway loves to hate” and “an attack dog in a world of lapdogs.” The theater gossip columnist has wielded his words (“Give me a keyboard and I’ll kill ya,” he told New York Magazine) against legions of Broadway legends, from Stephen Sondheim to Bernadette Peters. So beyond the noise, Riedel aiming his keyboard at MacKinnon may be the ultimate backward Broadway compliment.

In a Dec. 13 Post column, Riedel quoted unnamed sources critical of Pacino’s performance, Mamet’s writing and MacKinnon’s leadership. He referred to MacKinnon as “The Elk,” quoting an anonymous source as saying: “She’s too big for the room and she runs around banging her antlers into the wall.”

Days later, at a party hosted by the owners of Jujamcyn Theaters, MacKinnon was standing next to one of the hosts, Jordan Roth, and saw Riedel.

“I said to Jordan, ‘Should I go say hi to Michael Riedel?’ ” MacKinnon said. “Jordan said, ‘He’s here? He’s here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’s about 20 feet over there.’ So I went on up to him.”

MacKinnon’s account: “We had a fine conversation.”

The Post’s gossip column provided more details: “I hear you’ve been attacking me, but I don’t care because I haven’t read any of it,” the Post quoted MacKinnon as telling Riedel, while people nearby reportedly urged, “Hit him, Pam!”

She kept it calm.

“I take deep pride in my work,” MacKinnon said. “Maybe he takes deep pride in his, I don’t know. But he’s part of the scene. I don’t feel the victim. I just wanted to sort of nip it in the bud. We had a fine conversation. A lot of Broadway theater owners were there, and I put myself forward as part of the community.”

She doesn’t need to stand out in the lights, or on the occasional red carpet that she’s invited to walk.

But among the Broadway crowd? The people who produce the shows and give her a stage upon which to create a story?

In that room, she’ll stand out – and when needed, stand up – every time.

email: toshei@buffnews.com

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