Following Curiosity and Keeping the Apocalypse at Bay

Tony Taccone and Pam MacKinnon in Conversation

Tony Taccone: What does it feel like to go from being a freelancer to running A.C.T., which is an institution? I’m about to make the opposite move from institution—Berkeley Rep—to freelancer myself.

Pam MacKinnon: That’s the big question. It definitely feels like an evolving, multiple-level, beyond 3D game of chess. As a heavy-duty freelancer, I feel like I had already been playing in 3D, and it’s like another dimension has opened up. And this is wanted, to dig into questions like: What’s the three-year plan, what’s the five-year notion, what’s the big dream?

It’s exciting to get out of bed, but it also keeps me up at night. It’s about the long game and being part of the field as opposed to what has, at times, felt deliciously adolescent and then frustratingly adolescent about ten-week projects.

Not that hopping into a large organization means arresting control immediately, but it does mean I’m in day-to-day conversation with artists, staff, and audiences about something that is bigger than myself. Which feels exciting.

Tony: You just started, so it may be a little hard to tell, but are you feeling a shift in terms of your responsibility for curating work and supporting others?

Pam: Certainly the responsibility of making sure the projects are financially sustainable, because there are paychecks.

Tony: You have people working for you.

Pam: That’s a big deal. But I also feel that the dreams can be bigger, too.

Tony: Did becoming more involved with SDC, the union, and taking on the presidency of that connect you to the field in some way that made you want to feel like, “This is a step towards something I actually want to be involved with”?

Pam: Absolutely. I got approached by some headhunters eight years ago or so, and then I had some Broadway opportunities, and that was new terrain. And so I stuck a pin in thinking about being an artistic director.

Tony: But you were intrigued at that point?

Pam: I was, but not enough to step out of what felt like an interesting opportunity; “Who knows where this is going?”

Tony: The Broadway club, on some level.

Pam: My early Broadway experiences were shows that weren’t built for Broadway: Clybourne Park and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And I put thinking about artistic directorship, or leaving New York, aside. Then, seven Broadway productions later...

For years, when younger directors asked me, “Should I go to grad school? What happens if I leave New York?” I’ve said, “New York will always be there.” So I was taking my own advice. And, also, I came up as the regional theatre director. My bread and butter in my early thirties was working in Philly and Houston. South Coast Rep. Arena Stage. And then, ultimately, Chicago. Watching talkbacks with audiences who have some ownership of the story and how they relate to it has always appealed to me.

Tony: Like at A.C.T. Those audiences have ownership over the building, over the history. They have a sense of what the company represents to the city and to them. That’s a fantastic thing. The sense of community is really palpable, and it’s something you feel, not something you imagine.

two people sitting at a table and smiling

Tony Taccone and John Leguizamo photographed at New 42nd Street Studios in New York City. Photo by Joan Marcus/Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

I haven’t felt like a freelancer in a very long time, but I’ve done some directing with other companies while at Berkeley Rep, and it is different. There is an advantage to freelancing—you’re a little bit like a radical molecule.

Pam: Yeah. “I want this!”

Tony: There’s a little bit of an exotic factor. But it also helps build a sense of community, something meaningful that you can use in your life. I’m not a religious person, but building a community has been my religion. You build a family, you build a community, you build a theatre, you build a show.

Pam: As a director of plays, I live in language. For years I’ve studied text: how do you activate it, what’s meant here, what’s the intent. And I’m realizing, as an artistic director, it’s all about language. Stepping in after Carey Perloff’s twenty-five-years tenure, figuring out, “What next?” It’s all language driven.

I was talking about verbs with Melissa Smith, the director of the conservatory, because we wanted action words, and she gave me Thesaurus for Actors. I’ve been poring over it. What are the actions we want to pursue?

Tony: New leaders actually select words—use language—to concretize, clarify, and liven the vision they have about an institution, for the community. I remember in my first meetings as artistic director with marketing and PR at Berkeley Rep, saying, “I never want to hear these five words again to describe us. If the word “zany” comes out of anyone’s mouth, I’m going to lose my crackers.”

But it’s a challenge now. People are getting so much information. How do you distinguish yourself? And now there’s economic pressure. I’m sure you feel that.

New leaders actually select words—use language—to concretize, clarify, and liven the vision they have about an institution, for the community.

Pam: Yeah.

Tony: You have great mastery of your craft, you’re already a leader in the field. You have a lot of those resources that you bring to the table. But we live in a hyper-capitalist society.

Pam: And this is the center of it.

Tony: This is it. And the contradictions of living in the wealthiest part of the world right now, technically, but not having access to some of the richest people, or the people you think would naturally be predisposed to giving. It’s also part of the excitement as a freelancer, because you start meeting people you wouldn’t normally. You come into a board meeting if you’re close with the artistic director, and they invite you to give a twenty-minute thing or a ten-minute song and dance, and the play is gonna be great.

Pam: I did that once for Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf, and it was a huge board meeting. It was my first time, and I thought, “Oh, this is what the structure is.”

Tony: I assume you have some latitude with continuing to move the shows you direct to commercial productions, and I assume that A.C.T.’s in support of that. Are you going to try to do that?

Pam: Yeah, within conscientious reason, and not just commercially. I have no interest in being an absentee artistic director or spreading myself too thin, but working away from “home” can be a great thing. They hired a director, after all. I now bring A.C.T. with me.

That said, I feel like the day-to-day meetings, season programming, dealing with board—just getting up to speed—is definitely stepping into my dreaming time as an artist. So I have to carve out time for that.

Tony: You’re the only one who can protect your time. You have to figure out what your ground rules are while also being aware that your employees will ask you for things. They also have to be aware that when you say no to something, it’s because your lifeblood is about the work. But no one’s going to say: “Pam, you need to take some time off and recharge those batteries.”

What’s your history with the Bay Area?

Pam: Limited.

Tony: So when you were interviewing, what were you compelled by?

Pam: I’m a bit of a regional-theatre geek, and there is something about these fifty-year-old theatres, the original ones. I kind of geek out. About Arena Stage, about the Guthrie, about A.C.T.

Tony: They are iconic.

Pam: At A.C.T., to have, architecturally, both sides of the rooms that I feel most interested in as an artist—the “Broadway” scale of the Geary and the intimacy of the Strand—was really compelling to me. Walking around the streets of San Francisco reminded me of one of the neighborhoods I lived in in Toronto: some glass towers, but also trolleys; urban but not. It felt like home. And it’s a world-class city.

A group of people sitting behind a rehearsal table

Amelie rehearsal, 8 November 2016. Photo by Heath Calvert.

Tony: It is a world-class city. Although, as you noticed, it is under economic siege right now.

Pam: I’m already thinking about that here. Like, where’s the middle class?

Tony: Exactly. Traditionally, they have been the theatre audience. Subscription is based on middle class, and of course very wealthy people are always going to give money to support us, but subscription has been the economic foundation of the theatre. When I first joined the field, subscription was the enemy. We’d sit around saying things like, “Oh, God! The theatre is being corrupted by bourgeois morality.”

And what’s ironic is that, now, with the state subsidies collapsing in Europe, they’re calling us up and going “How does subscription work?” Because it allows for planning.

It’ll be interesting to see how you respond to the economic and energetic mood swings in the Bay Area. The political mood in the country right now is challenging, it’s full of a lot fear. Programming for that, either to get to the heart of it or to raise our spirits, is a concern that I’ve had for a while

When I started out, the idea was to take on the darkness out there. It was theatre of anger and political conscience. If we just show people what’s going on, it will raise collective awareness and people will take to the streets. But people have a lot of information now. Everyone is pretty aware of the state of the planet. And what they need is energy to actually get up and do something about it. 

More and more, theatre has become this place where people can come together and celebrate something, anything to keep the apocalypse at bay. The positive end of the spectrum is more what people need right now. Some of the artists I’ve consistently chosen to work for—who are not me, because I tend to go for darkness—like the Emma Rice’s and the Mary Zimmerman’s, consistently create a sense of catharsis and well-being.

More and more, theatre has become this place where people can come together and celebrate something, anything to keep the apocalypse at bay.

Pam: So now as a freelancer, stepping out of a gigantic career institutional job, what are you thinking?

Tony: This is going to sound shocking, but I’m really excited. I have been here for thirty-two years. I was at the Eureka for maybe eleven years. I’ve been steeped in this thing; running a theatre is almost in my DNA. The reason why I’m not burnt out, I’m not unenergized, is that I feel like I’m doing my job as well or better than I ever have. But there are aspects of myself that have gone dormant, assumptions I have made because of my job. I get things, I have an assistant. And I don’t want to be a person whose identity is bound up in just being the director of a big institution. I’m happy to be that but, honestly, I don’t want to die not having explored those dormant aspects of myself. And I need to separate myself from running a theatre to do that.

Friends and colleagues have threatened to hire me, so that feels okay. Because obviously there’s a fear going into freelancing. And when you look at the history of artistic directors, it’s not pretty. Usually people are like: “You’re out to pasture, goodbye!” And also there’s the feeling of: “You had your shot, now move over, grandpa.” And that’s okay, I get that. But I want to work. I want to do meaningful work, make exciting things happen. I have some cool things lined up, and people seem interested in talking to me about other work, which is great. The last number of years I’ve also been writing more, which is interesting and fun.

Pam: Great.

Tony: My father was a painter and photographer. He was ninety-two when he died, and he worked until three months before then. His most fertile years were after he stopped running his own studio, and he just went after it in a way that was really impressive. He always said the secret to life was curiosity. And I keep finding that to be true.

I know I’ll miss a lot of things, and I think the biggest one will be the community of artists. People walking in the door is fun. They challenge you, they get you through, and you hang out with people who don’t think like you do. That’s interesting. And you’re able to curate their work, support their work. It’s like being a teacher in some ways. People need different things, and you’re able to provide. There’s an art form there. It never gets boring because there’s a whole new group of artists who come in, and no show is the same.

I’ve always said the secret to keeping us “edgy,” to progress, is to follow the artists. You hire the right artist and they will take you to places you didn’t think you were going. I don’t know what your experience will be at A.C.T., but at Berkeley Rep, we can do almost anything content-wise and the audience will go with it. Form is a completely different thing.

Pam: I’m curious to understand that.

Tony: My nickel theory is that audiences in the Bay Area have been through a lot of schooling. They have degrees, they’re used to analyzing, parsing, clarifying, and solving. When that’s not the trigger or mechanism in which they can understand their experience, they can feel anything from befuddled to betrayed. We have to push ourselves here, because if we don’t, we’re not doing our job.

One of the coolest things I experienced as the artistic director was making seasons. Of course, you’re choosing shows for the full season, and only certain portion of the audience buys the whole season. But, that’s the only way you can do it: pick the whole thing and see how it works out in your mind.

Pam: There’s some stuff that I don’t want to direct but I want to be involved in, and I’ve always felt that. I remember reading Elia Kazan’s memoir, and in when he took over the Lincoln Center, he decided his kick-off production would be a Greek drama. And he describes in his memoir, two days in, “I’m not the director for this. This is great. I want to see it, but I don’t want to do it.”

Tony: Are you thinking about your own work as it will play out over the three-year arc?

Pam: Not yet. It really is too early.

Tony: You inherited half a season, right?

Pam: I inherited one show. There were two things in the pipeline, but we moved one of them from the Strand to the Geary. So I feel like I can claim that one.

Tony: And you have a lot of new staff members?

Pam: Yeah. And I’m coming in with the new executive director, Jennifer Bielstein.

Tony: That’s actually good. New people, fresh start. And there are a lot of new artistic directors you get to hang out with.

Pam: I remember one artistic director telling me that, at least every two weeks, I should have a conversation with a fellow artistic director. To add a little perspective when trying to run an idea up a flagpole. To realize you’re not crazy. So far I’ve been doing that.

Tony: Oskar Eustis and I have started doing that. We got a steering group together with like-minded souls. Our colleagues were ecstatic to talk with others.

Pam: Are you staying in the area?

Tony: Yeah, I’m staying here. I love it here. It’s a great place to live, and I love the work. I’ll see where it takes me.

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Thoughts from the curator

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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All the change in theater leadership the Bay Area (and elsewhere) is exciting, but also a bit scary. It's really nice to have the two of you share this conversation. Tony, thank you for truly visionary leadership over the last decades - I look forward to following your next projects. And Pamela, welcome to the area - I can't wait to see where you take us, and A.C.T., next.