Pam MacKinnon's directing career is going very well. Her world premiere production of Itamar Moses's "The Four of Us" just closed at the Old Globe in San Diego. A solo show by John Fugelsang, "All the Wrong Reasons," starts performances at New York Theatre Workshop next week. In the fall, she will direct an as yet unannounced Off-Broadway production that is likely to draw significant attention. In a field where there are more men working than women, Ms. MacKinnon, after directing two productions with large all-male casts, has developed a reputation as a woman who can be in the rehearsal room and "rein the guys in," as she said recently.
Ms. MacKinnon, who is 39, is on the verge of being a big-deal director: someone who can choose her own projects; someone who might be invited to direct a musical or a Shakespeare play, although these are costly, and so far she hasn't directed either professionally; someone who doesn't have to pick up a short-term tutoring client to make ends meet.
"I think there is a tipping point that people like Michael Greif ["Grey Gardens," "Rent"] and Michael Mayer ["Spring Awakening," "Thoroughly Modern Millie"] have tipped into that I have not yet," Ms. MacKinnon said when asked about where she is in her career. "I'm not quote ‘playing with the big boys' yet, but yet, I'm working — I'm working sort of nonstop, at very established theaters, which at times are exactly where the big boys are playing as well."
Plenty of people don't know what theater directors do, let alone how they forge their careers. They don't submit scripts, as playwrights do. They don't go to auditions, like actors. So how did Mr. Greif and Mr. Mayer — or, to cite probably the most recognized director in the country right now, Jack O'Brien — get where they are?
Ms. MacKinnon, like the majority of young directors in New York, has built a career so far directing new plays, so she is continually looking to find and connect with promising new playwrights. Early on, she learned that one way to discover playwrights was to befriend literary managers, who "get very passionate about plays that maybe their larger theater can't produce," she said. "So I'll call up a literary manager friend and say, ‘What are the plays you've been lugging around for the last five years?' I'll get this Manhattan-phonebook-size stack of plays that I can then pitch to a downtown company."
Her two most important playwright relationships — with Mr. Moses and Edward Albee — have opened many doors for her. She met Mr. Moses because they share the same agent, Mark Subias. "I read a play of his and really liked it, and then we met for coffee," she said. She directed a workshop of Mr. Moses's play "Outrage." When she read his play "Bach at Leipzig," she "really responded to it" and directed a couple of workshops. Then, in 2005, she directed both the world premiere at Milwaukee Repertory Theater and the New York premiere at New York Theatre Workshop.
New York Theatre Workshop had been considering several more established directors for its production, Ms. MacKinnon said, "but Mark demanded that [the artistic director] Jim Nicola get on a plane and go out to Milwaukee and see my production of it before they made any decisions. And Jim did," she continued, "and he said, ‘Pam, we want to do this show, and we're going to open our season with you directing it.'"
Mr. Subias also introduced her to Mr. Albee. In 2002, she directed the regional premiere of "The Play About the Baby" at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. As it turned out, "The Play About the Baby" was rehearsing in New York at the same time that Mr. Albee was in rehearsals for three other plays. "So we got to know each other in a very ordinary directorplaywright way," Ms. MacKinnon said. The following season, she directed the regional premiere of "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" at the Alley Theater in Houston, and "that cemented our working relationship." Later, she directed the European premiere of "The Goat" in Vienna and the world premiere of "Peter and Jerry" — which consists of Mr. Albee's first play, "The Zoo Story," plus a new prequel, called "Homelife" — at Hartford Stage.
But Ms. MacKinnon is busy with projects even when she's not in the rehearsal room. Besides staging plays, a director is often a playwright's first reader, and someone he or she can bounce ideas off of. A playwright and director will often develop a play together for a year or more: doing readings and workshops, or just talking regularly and looking at new drafts.
"Directing is this weird art form that's all about conversation," Mr. MacKinnon said. "Right now I'm working with a playwright, Anna Ziegler, on a play called ‘Novel,' about a man whose wife has died, and he's not dealing with it, and he winds up at this conference, and he's writing a novel. She has one draft where he's a scientist who writes a novel and one draft where he's a nonfiction writer who writes a novel. And she's really torn. So we have a phone call scheduled to talk about the pros and cons. Writing is a very lonely profession until you're in the rehearsal hall, so having an early sounding board can be very useful."
For those finding their way as young directors, there are some notable grants and professional development programs. Theatre Communications Group offers two: the New Generations Program, which provides a theater with the money to pay a young director to assist for two years, and the NEA/TCG Career Development Program, which includes a $22,500 stipend for six months, during which the recipient may assist, direct his own work, do research, or travel. The Drama League has programs that provide young directors with stipends and housing, or rehearsal space, while they either assist or direct their own projects. The Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab pairs playwrights and directors together to develop scripts over six months; it doesn't involve a stipend but is a good way to meet and work with new writers.
In terms of the classics, Theatre for a New Audience hosts a program called the American Directors Project that gives six to eight young directors the chance to work for several weeks with the voice director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a company of actors, whom they direct in Shakespeare scenes. Several now prominent people got their start at Theatre for a New Audience, including Julie Taymor and Bartlett Sher, who has since directed "The Light in the Piazza" and "Awake and Sing" for Lincoln Center Theater and "The Barber of Seville" at the Metropolitan Opera.
For directors just starting out in New York, the Lincoln Center Directors Lab — a three-week program, in June, including workshops, readings, roundtable discussions, and studio productions — is a good place to meet other young directors and possible mentors.
In spite of these opportunities, making a career as a freelance director is tough. Artistic directors usually won't hire you if they haven't seen your work, so young directors do well who can moonlight as producers, finding ways to mount the plays they like. "Directing is always a little bit about producing yourself," the dean of the Yale School of Drama, James Bundy, said. "Directors who have an entrepreneurial or producer sensibility and know how to get the work on have a huge leg up."
And, of course, a little chutzpah never hurts. When Ms. MacKinnon was in San Diego, having just dropped out of graduate school, she was directing a play in a parking lot, and, as she recalled, the then artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse, Des McAnuff, "had to go through my rehearsal to get to his car. So I put fliers on his car, and he called me and made a breakfast meeting." Later, she assisted him on "The Who's Tommy" in Toronto, which led to her directing it in Germany.
As in any area of the arts, making a living is another challenge. Ironically, Ms. MacKinnon has found that, as her career advances, she tends to make less money, because she increasingly directs world premieres, which are often on a theater's second stage and therefore pay less. "I'm in this ironic situation where my income goes down as I direct the world premiere as opposed to last year's Off-Broadway hit," she said.
Both for that reason, and because she'd like the chance "to think artistically and professionally in a bigger way," Ms. MacKinnon is increasingly considering the artistic-directorship track. Having an artistic position means being able to rely on a salary and to work in one place, rather than constantly traveling for different six-week jobs. More important, it means the opportunity to hone one's craft by directing a wide range of work. Most of the directors working regularly on Broadway, like Mr. McAnuff, were artistic or associate artistic directors at regional companies for some period of time.
Mr. O'Brien — who, if you haven't heard, directed Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" trilogy at Lincoln Center — said he would encourage a young director to leave New York and find a home at a regional theater. Mr. O'Brien became the artistic director of the Old Globe in 1981, and "for the next 20 years, I had the opportunity to literally direct everything," he said. "Quietly, outside of New York, I got all this exposure and experience that very few directors get."