Director Pam MacKinnon scales the Broadway heights

Associated Press
In this undated theater image released by The O & M Co., director Pam MacKinnon is shown. MacKinnon, director of "Clybourne Park," is currently putting the final touches on a play that debuted off-Broadway in early 2010, then went to California and is now back in New York for its Broadway debut. (AP Photo/The O & M Co.)
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In this undated theater image released by The O & M Co., director Pam MacKinnon is shown. MacKinnon, …

NEW YORK (AP) — When theatergoers at "Clybourne Park" spot a woman with a yellow legal pad sitting in the last row of the orchestra section, they invariably ask what she's doing.

"You're somebody," they usually tell her.

She refuses to lie.

"I say, 'I'm the director,'" says Pam MacKinnon. "I have no qualms about that."

MacKinnon can be found in those seats most nights, putting the final touches on a play that debuted off-Broadway in early 2010, then went to California and is now back in New York for its Broadway debut.

Though she's been onboard the whole time and the cast hasn't changed, MacKinnon is the kind of director who never phones it in. "I'm continuing to give notes until I'm told 'There it is,'" she says.

There's also another, more private reason for why MacKinnon lingers: "Clybourne Park," by Bruce Norris, represents her own Broadway debut after a steady climb that includes stops at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, The Old Globe, Primary Stages, the Geffen Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, the Goodman Theatre and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

"As a kid, I sat in these Broadway houses. So there is something nostalgic, very dear, very personal," says the Chicago-born director during an afternoon interview in the empty balcony seats at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Below her, the play is being run-through again, but this time it's the understudies getting a chance to practice. MacKinnon may have seen about 100 performances of "Clybourne Park" by now, but she still seems to be excited at the scene below.

"When I first read it, I knew it was something really, really special," she says.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a riff on "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking drama about the first African-American family to move into the fictional all-white Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park.

Norris has written a funny and searing examination of how little has changed. The first act of "Clybourne Park" takes place in 1959, just before the African-American family moves in, and the second is set in 2009, where a dispute over the house boils over into angry racist accusations.

"Bruce as a writer has a very clear voice. He sort of demands that we be impolitic in order to actually say something," says MacKinnon, who adds that it feels like a rock concert in the livelier second act. "This is a big-boned, muscular boulevard play."

It marks the third time she has worked on a Norris play. She directed his "The Unmentionable" in Washington, D.C., and led a reading of his "The Infidel" in Philadelphia. The two have been friends for 17 years. "He was my primary cat-sitter when I had a cat," she says with a smile.

The "Clybourne Park" cast — Crystal A. Dickinson, Brendan Griffin, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos and Frank Wood — hasn't changed, even though Griffin and Kirk both welcomed new babies in the past few years. MacKinnon says that continuity means the actors can just go deeper into their parts: "It was really exciting to already have a really strong skeleton and then just continue to add more muscle."

MacKinnon, 44, who directed the world premiere of "Clybourne Park" at the intimate off-Broadway company Playwrights Horizon and then modified it for a thrust stage at the 750-seat Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, almost never got her chance to bring it to Broadway. After Scott Rudin backed out of producing the work, the play's future was in limbo until Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, stepped in.

"It was scary. We'd come very, very far and then there was a three-day period or so where it looked like it wasn't going to continue and through no fault of the project itself," says MacKinnon.

Shamos, a Drama Desk Award-winner making his fourth trip to Broadway, credits MacKinnon's patience for keeping everyone happy and productive. "She's curious and fiercely intelligent but I also think she's patient. It's a great combination because she doesn't jump on things even though she probably has a very good answer. It makes her genuinely collaborative."

MacKinnon was born in Chicago and lived in Toronto until she was 10 before moving with her family to suburban Buffalo, N.Y. She recalls taking trips into Manhattan to watch Broadway shows and recalls once as a 9-year-old seeing "The Wiz" with her dad and Elizabeth Swados' "Runaways."

She acted a bit in high school but majored in economics and political science at the University of Toronto and then went on to enroll in a political science Ph.D. program at the University California at San Diego.

"I realized at age 23, 'I'm not interested enough in this,'" she recalls. So she dropped out, making her parents nervous. "In my dad's image, I was going to wind up at Port Authority with suitcases."

Instead, she worked with Des McAnuff at the La Jolla Playhouse and Anne Bogart in San Diego, put on "The Who's Tommy" in Berlin and found herself at 27 in New York, where she has remained. Each night after the show she hops on her bike and peddles more than 50 blocks north to her apartment.

MacKinnon has also worked closely with Edward Albee ever since she directed a regional premiere of his "The Play About the Baby" in 2001 in Philadelphia. She's directed world premieres of "At Home at the Zoo" and "Occupant" as well as "A Delicate Balance" for Arena Stage. In the fall, she'll helm a Broadway revival of Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

"He can be very intimidating and I still sometimes get a little knocked back on my heels with 'oh, Edward's here,'" she says. "Clearly he feels very comfortable with me. He keeps on welcoming me to do his work. It's pretty awesome."

As a freelance director, MacKinnon is constantly stacking up work, hopping from rehearsal hall to rehearsal hall, but her rising popularity means she's starting to turn down more work than she accepts. One day she says she may settle down and run a theater, but so far she's thriving on the promiscuous life of a director-for-hire.

"It's incredibly exciting and a little exhausting," she says. "You say yes to the exciting projects when they come your way because you may be yesterday's news in three years."

Between now and the Albee play, she'll be working on a new play by Sarah Treem and conducting a few readings. She has a workshop at the Soho Rep and will be directing some Horton Foote short plays later this summer at Primary Stages.

Right now, she plans on sitting through another performance of "Clybourne Park," taking notes on her yellow legal pad. Nearby will be her friend, the playwright Norris. Nearby, but not too close — they never sit together.

"That would be too tension-making," she says with a laugh. "Like, 'What are you writing? How dare you!'"

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Online:

http://clybournepark.com

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Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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