Interview with the Director: Cecil MacKinnon

cecil-picture_editedIn many ways theater is a portrayal of the human experience, thus igniting a catharsis between audience member and performer. However seamless a production might portray itself, the rehearsal process takes great strides to reach that pivotal outcome. I sat down with Cecil MacKinnon, the director of Later Life, to find out about the rehearsal process, her history with various aspects of performance, and the human experiences she pulled from to create this production.

Playnotes: What would you guess is the biggest thing that pops up when you Google yourself?

Cecil MacKinnon: I’ve never actually Googled myself.

PN: What would you guess?

CM: Uhh Circus?

PN: Yes! Would you care to explain some of your history with circus?

CM: My interest in circus is always in the theatrical. Making circus have a story and an emotional connection to the performers. I write, direct and also play the white face clown named Yo-Yo. That character is traditional, in the sense of European white face. I began working as part of Pickle Family Jugglers on the street, and that expanded to the Pickle Family Circus while I was also working in theater in New York City. Then I started working at Shakespeare and Company. I thought I wouldn’t be doing circus and then a couple years later I received a call saying they were starting a circus. It was to be a theatrical circus with a narrative and they had a whole theatrical staff that would begin in Spoleto at the festival in South Carolina. That was 1986, and I’ve been doing that show ever since, Circus Flora.

PN: And you are still a part of Shakespeare and Company?

CM: Yes. Since 1980, I haven’t been there lately. First I acted, John and I acted together. I didn’t direct until the early 90’s. I’ve just done a lot of Shakespeare. You perform, workshops and then it’s just sort of very ongoing. And I actually know Kate from there and John and Ron. All of them.

PN: And now you’re directing Later Life.

CM: Well circus and Shakespeare are very similar but Later Life is great because there’s only four people in it. The last play I directed had a cast of 17 and the circus has 90. So having only four actors is a great pleasure, you can really scrutinize everything, I really like that.

PN: Before I had met you and the rehearsal process started, I assumed you would use clowning or some kind of mask work during the rehearsal process. But you don’t.

CM: I don’t really see a place for that here.

PN: I’m not saying there is a place, I guess I just assumed since you’re background is partly in that you would incorporate it somehow.

CM: I guess that’s been a big problem over my career – because I go back and forth – is people seeing things as “circusy.” Which is actually not a positive thing. To me it’s quite different, how you move in a circus ring is completely different than a stage, and how you have relationships. It’s hard to move, I’ve been doing it for a long time, between one and another. In my early 20s I used a different name. So you, well there was no Google, but you couldn’t have found me. For this very reason, because of the prejudice. Because Circus, it’s in fashion now but it wasn’t then, it’s not taken seriously. I mean in America. Compared to the way it is in the world where – like in France – there’s twenty circus schools. In Montreal it’s all state funded. I love it, I love the two different worlds but they don’t completely spill into each other. In circus you have to have a skill, I’m a juggler that’s why I’m in it. Of course acting is a skill but it’s not a repeatable physical activity in the same way that juggling is, or wire walking or the trapeze that’s what makes it really different.

PN: The WASP culture, like the majority of Gurney’s work, is very present in Later Life. A lot of people feel this culture needs to die out sooner rather than later. Do you believe there is still an aspect to WASP culture that is relevant and worth exploring in today’s culture?

CM: Well yes, the play is set with the social mores of how people speak to each other, how they move in relation to each other, and in a situation that is of a particular kind. Just like the cliché, “you write about what you know,” Gurney knows WASP culture from the inside. But any art has to be very specific and grounded, and then hopefully it expands out from there to talk about the human condition. I think Gurney does that in this! I try to make a play that speaks about people and therefore to people. I think this play is really interesting; all of us are afraid to make the wrong choices, but that becomes tragic if it leads you to make no choices at all. Gurney uses the lens of WASP culture to illuminate the character’s in-action.

PN: So you decided to modernize Later Life. It is originally set in the early 90’s. Can you tell us about why you felt it was important to bring it to the present?

CM: The purpose is so that it doesn’t seem like you could say to yourself “Oh that’s the way they behaved then!” Instead it’s like this is how people behave…

PN: Now.

CM: Or anytime! I just don’t want it to be specific to a time that you can say, “That was then, everything’s changed since then.” To me it’s talking about life and it can’t be placed in a time when you dismiss it, and it doesn’t really matter to the play… I don’t think.

PN: Do you think it is helpful to aim at the audience members that will be watching the show, to help guide what they might find illuminating about the production?

CM: You can’t sculpt a performance to please someone. You have to put out what you believe to be true and hope that other people also share that thought, understand and feel it. You have to do your best to achieve that. That’s what art is, with whatever it is. You can’t gage it to please. I mean of course you want it to please. First you have to do what you believe.

PN: Do you think about your own later life? If so, has that influenced your choices as a director?

CM: Absolutely, well I feel all of us in the room have a collective experience of that. Which I think is helpful to our process.

PN: It is interesting… a lot of times when you work on a play you try to find a way to tap into someone’s specific life experience. And this seems to maybe not be the case.

CM: Yes, it’s a time in life. I enjoy watching my cast contribute from their various life experiences. It’s really great; I like watching that a lot. And I think it’s also wonderful that Gurney writes for older actors. There are not many people who do that. The parts he creates for women are great, which is another thing you have to say about Gurney: he writes really strong women’s parts and they don’t have to be young to be complicated and have lives.

PN: I agree. Ruth is a very complicated character but subtle. That’s why I struggled with the play when I first read it. I glazed over the subtlety but once you discover that little key the entire thing seems to reveal yourself.

CM: I think as a director you’re always looking for the why. Why people, why are you saying that now? Why are you doing that? And the actor as well, that’s our job. Not so the audience goes “Oh I see,” but so that it leads you through the story. So you understand.

PN: I’m interested – I’ve been having a really great time watching you direct – how, how you get someone on the same page as you?

CM: It’s really hard.

PN: Because you never want to implant anything and you always want people to find it themselves.

CM: Right, right.

PN: And it has to be a two way street.

CM: Right and every actor has different language they want to hear. Some language works and some doesn’t for different people. One person may need to know each specific thing and for another person that doesn’t help them. It’s difficult and it’s interesting. It’s not just your idea, it’s a collaboration of ideas and that’s what’s wonderful about theater. It has to be about how you get there, what’s it about, why? That’s the important part. It’s very delicate, and trying to create it so it’s repeatable. This is not film. It’s not a one-time shot. So you have to know what you’re doing.

PN: What are you hoping audiences will leave with or take away from Later Life?

CM: I hope they’ll have a really good time, really like the people, and see it as true to the way life is.

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