A Woman’s World: Pam MacKinnon on The Decision to Restore Wasserstein’s Cut Dialogue to The Heidi Chronicles

Originally published on Playbill.com
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Pam MacKinnon, an award-winning director who has breathed new life into classic plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, is bringing another revival of a well-known play to Broadway: Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles.

The production marks the first time Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning look at the life of a young feminist through several turbulent decades has returned to Broadway. This revival, which features “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss in the titular role of the art historian, will also include another first: the return of some dialogue to the script that was eliminated prior to its Broadway bow in 1989.

When directing the recent revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, MacKinnon worked with Scott Lehrer, who was the sound designer of the first Broadway production of The Heidi Chronicles. Lehrer shared the original draft of the play, which was used in its Off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons and included two lines of dialogue that were not included in the final script that are now spoken in the final scene between Heidi and her longtime love interest Scoop, about a life-changing decision that Heidi makes.

“We’re going to add [them] for this production,” MacKinnon said. “I pitched that to the estate headed by Andre Bishop, and he said, ‘That sounds good. I don’t know why we cut that; let’s put that back in.’ It’s very character subtext, and I can see getting rid of it, but I love actually seeing them saying it aloud.”Wasserstein’s play follows the life of Heidi Holland, beginning with a high school dance and progressing through her participation in the feminist movement and career as an art historian as she strives to “have it all” in a rapidly changing cultural landscape.

Although the play first bowed on Broadway in 1989, MacKinnon believes it is still extremely relevant.

“I don’t think it’s a dated play in any way, shape or form,” she said. “I wish it were dated more than it is, but it does feel like the issues of today and fulfilling your potential and having it all — there’s this complicated psychology of being a woman as well as the sociology of making your way in your own career and thoughts of family — are still very, very current in our country.”

The play begins as an adult Heidi gives a lecture to students and travels back in time to 1965, when Heidi is still a teenager, before progressing through her life. MacKinnon considers the amount of time that has passed to be an asset, saying, “I think that now that it is 25-26 years later — to have that kind of distance on it — I think is really helpful. It’s not as if we’re bringing this back after only ten years because then you’re sort of too close to what almost used to be the present. I’m looking forward to a completely new audience getting this.”

The Heidi Chronicles, the first Broadway play to address feminism in current culture, returns to Broadway at a time when few plays by women are being produced. The activist group The Kilroys, which was formed in June 2014 to address the issue, released a list of plays by women that they recommend for production. The spring 2015 Broadway season features two plays by women: The Heidi Chronicles and Airline Highway, by Lisa D’Amour.

The musicals include Fun Home, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori; Doctor Zhivago, with music by Lucy Simon, lyrics by Amy Powers and Michael Korie and a book by Michael Weller; It Shoulda Been You, with a book by Brian Hargrove, music by Barbara Anselmi and lyrics by Jill Abramovitz, Brian Hargrove, Carla Rose Fisher, Michael Cooper, Ernie Lijoi and Will Randall; and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Gigi, which features a revised book by Heidi Thomas.

The previous season featured two dramas by women, and both were revivals: Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell; and A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, as well as the new musical The Bridges of Madison County, which featured a book by Marsha Norman alongside Jason Robert Brown’s music and lyrics. Additionally, Lynn Ahrens contributed lyrics to the musical Rocky with her frequent writing partner Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the music.

“It feels like it’s an ongoing norm,” MacKinnon said of the recent statistics, adding, “Whether it’s one to three, that’s still a ridiculously small number.”MacKinnon’s discovery of the discarded lines in The Heidi Chronicles reflects on one of the defining aspects of her career: her ability to create and maintain meaningful relationships with people in the industry. As she worked steadily on and Off-Broadway, she has built relationships with Bruce Norris and Albee which have resulted in her leading revivals of the classics as well as new works. In fact, she made her Broadway debut with Norris’ Clybourne Park.

“I have a lot of ongoing relationships with writers,” she said. “Bruce [Norris] and I have known each other for 20 years and have worked a lot together, so that’s definitely one route that I wind up directing a play.”

Making an effort to talk with playwrights and get to know them was a valuable piece of advice MacKinnon was given early in her career, which she said has contributed to her success. “I’m now at a point where, yes, I can pitch projects to producers, but that takes a while,” she said. “That was really good advice to work with writers, and then writers, as they continue, as their stars continue to rise, will mention you. And, all of a sudden you’re getting phone calls from a producer, and all of a sudden you’re working in a theatre.”

MacKinnon described her relationship with Albee as “a huge professional and personal relationship in my life that opened a lot of doors for me.” MacKinnon said Albee introduced her to a number of not-for-profit Off-Broadway theatres who wanted to present one of his plays, and he suggested she direct them. MacKinnon and Albee had known each other for more than ten years when she directed the 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the acclaimed play. The production, which featured Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as the dysfunctional couple George and Martha, won MacKinnon the Tony Award for Director as well as awards for Best Actor (Letts) and Revival of a Play. Morton and Carrie Coon received nominations for Actress and Featured Actress, respectively.

“When I first started working with [Albee], I was working mainly on his brand-new plays, and in retrospect I was incredibly lucky,” MacKinnon said. “Edward was still really interested in those plays. I think if he had met me as a director and one of the first few things I’d done had been Virginia Woolf, I wouldn’t have gotten to have known him as well. It would have been, ‘Ugh, that 40-year old play.’

“But I was working on plays of his that he’d maybe only seen [produced] once before and then eventually brand-new plays of his,” she continued. “He was very much a playwright in the rehearsal process so that was really, really great. But then to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, his masterpiece, with so much knowledge of his humor and the syntax and the tone, and to work with the Steppenwolf Company [was] incredibly rewarding.”

The production received rave reviews from critics, which MacKinnon said she did read “just to get the general temperature and tenure of it all.

“As a working artist, if you start to touch and own other people’s language of your work while you’re attempting to build the next thing, it can be damaging — both the good reviews as well as the bad reviews,” she added. “I read them pretty quickly.”MacKinnon, who has lived in New York for 20 years, came to the city with “very little theatre experience,” and worked jobs downtown and at regional theatres for many years as she honed her craft.

“It took a long time, and maybe as a man it would have been quicker,” she said. “It’s always hard to know because my experience is just my experience. I’ve certainly had meetings where I’ve felt that socially and conversationally, sitting with a producer, whether it’s a man or a woman, that I felt, ‘We’re not clicking. There’s something that chemically, we’re not clicking.’ Maybe had I been a young guy, the click would have happened. But I can also say, maybe if I had been a recent MFA graduate from Yale, the click would have happened or maybe if I’d grown up in New York City and we had more socially in common, the click might have happened. There are many interesting factors, but there’s a sort of conversational chemistry that sometimes you feel you’re off and running and sometimes not. I have to think that sometimes that is gender based.”

As a successful professional woman, MacKinnon brings her own experiences to her direction of The Heidi Chronicles, which closely examines the question of if women can “have it all,” including professional and personal fulfillment. But when asked if women can, in fact, “have it all,” MacKinnon thinks the definition goes far beyond those two categories. –

“It can still be along the lines of family and career, but I think it’s broader than that somehow, too,” she said. “I think this play… it looks very much at the emotional terrain among these friends. That also brings up notions of having it all — friends going through time. It’s about how do you build a rich life? How do you actualize your person-ness while you’re trying to maintain friendships and love and at times, judging people and judging yourself and hating that you’re judging — and yet we inherently judge. I’m really interested in pushing the emotional terrain that this play explores.”

 

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