A Woman Who Dares: Interview with KC MacMillan

Last year, Kathryn “KC” MacMillan left her longtime position as associate artistic director of Lantern Theater Company, intent on cultivating her burgeoning freelance directing career. Work came quickly: In addition to directing Lantern’s productions of Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Informed Consent, her 2016-2017 season included engagements with InterAct Theatre Company (Grounded), Shakespeare in Clark Park (The Two Gentlemen of Verona), Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company (Romeo and Juliet), and the world-premiere musical In My Body.

But McMillan would not remain unaffiliated for long. In June, Tiny Dynamite announced that she would succeed Emma Gibson, the company’s founder, as producing artistic director. One month later, MacMillan was named guest artistic director of the Norristown-based Theatre Horizon, while founding artistic director Erin Reilly takes maternity leave. MacMillan will oversee Theatre Horizon’s “Women Who Dare” season, which highlights works written by and about powerful and disruptive women. She further retains the title of Resident Director at Lantern, and plans to continue her career as one of Philadelphia’s most in-demand freelance directors.

I recently spoke with MacMillan about making the transition from freelance artist to administrative director, what she envisions for the next phase of her career, and what advice she has for young women who aspire to direct in Philadelphia. Some responses have been edited and condensed.

1. kc headshotCameron Kelsall: When you left your position with Lantern Theater Company, did you imagine that you’d be back in an administrative role so quickly?

KC MacMillan: I don’t know if I would call it part of a plan, but it is definitely in line with the trajectory I’ve been on. I was a staff member at Lantern for 15 years, and my journey there included everything from box office and house management early on to the seven years I spent as Associate Artistic Director. Having a position in a company model has been a big part of my career. That said, I did approach Charles [McMahon, Lantern’s artistic director] last year and tell him it felt like time I tried freelance directing for a while.

CK: And how did the position with Tiny Dynamite come back?

KCM: Emma Gibson has accomplished a lot of what she set out to do with the company, and I think she was ready for a change, so she let her board know she was ready to move on. It’s a very enthusiastic board, and they wanted to see the company continue, and they wanted to keep the model of female leadership. I had actually known all of the board members through previous work I’ve done in Philadelphia, so my name came up right away. I think it was in January that Sarah Weinstein, one of the board members, called me up and said “Hey—this is happening. Do you want to do it?” So, that’s how it started. I was enthusiastic right away. My husband and I discussed how it would fit in with the life we want, and with my directing career, considering I’d just left a staff position because it was getting to be too much.

CK: That is something I was curious about—what kind of thought goes into balancing a freelance career with an administrative position?

KCM: It’s a reality that many arts leaders are trying to address. That reality is that artists tend to subsidize the artistic output in theater—not just in Philadelphia, but everywhere—through low-paid labor, particularly for the amount of work we put in. Artists are used to making very little money, and it is pretty precarious to try and make a full-time life as a freelancer. There are lots of companies that are trying to do what they can to raise wages for artists—here in Philadelphia, there’s Lantern, Walnut Street Theatre, Arden, Theatre Horizon—but given the timing of how the work comes and the expectations of the work, it’s really hard to make a life on your own. So even when I left the Lantern, I knew it was a scary thing to do. But it was something I was ready to try. Sometimes you have to do the things that are scary. There is a stability to a permanent position that is undeniable, though.

CK: Tiny Dynamite has really distinguished itself within the Philadelphia theater community, particularly through its series A Play, A Pie and A Pint. Do you see yourself continuing a lot of the work Emma Gibson started, or going off in a new direction?

KCM: I see my role as not only a leader, but a steward. One of my first jobs is to choose programs that will reassure Tiny Dynamite’s loyal audience that I’m not going to screw things up. I am going to continue all the things they love about the company, and I want things to look a little bit familiar to those who love the idea behind Tiny Dynamite’s programming. A Play, A Pie and a Pint is just such a great idea. And because it’s such a great idea, there’s a lot of room to explore different ways of doing it. For example, I think there’s a world in which we can explore late-night programming—stuff that is maybe a little more challenging or adult in content. On the other end of the spectrum, we might explore a Saturday brunch type of program that is more geared towards families. I think that just like arts and fringe festivals all over the world, there is a place for both super-edgy, grownup fare and for family-friendly theater. The model of the program—it’s an hour, you’re fed, you get to experience a show, and you’re out the door—is something that appeals to all different groups.

CK: You are also taking on the role of guest artistic director at Theatre Horizon this season. The theme is “Women Who Dare,” and I wanted to ask what that means to you, and what these stories have to say about our current moment in history?

KCM: I think what was revealed in the fall about the really ardent supporters of Hillary Clinton, of which I was one, was a sheepishness and a secrecy around saying “I’m With Her.” Culture scholars say that’s partly because Clinton is a polarizing figure, but I think the sheepishness with which women say what they want and what they believe in with confidence, at least among women in my generation, is something that continued. It felt like a radical idea to say, publicly, these are women’s stories. These are stories about women who are flawed, who are making discoveries, and we think that women’s stories are human stories. If you’d asked me eight months ago if that was a radical thing to say, I would have laughed and cried at the possibility. But now I know that it is a radical thing to say, and it feels just too important not to do it. The plays we started to get excited about were for their own individual merit. But as the season started coming together and we saw that a focus was building around daring, powerful women, it just felt really right and incredibly exciting.

Theatre Horizon is almost entirely staffed by women, with the exception of Matt Decker [co-founder and resident director] and Tim Odem [assistant production manager and master carpenter]. You can’t produce a show that you don’t feel passionate about, and I think especially among the women on our staff, there’s such a lot of passion for these stories that we get to tell. I think our audiences will see when they come that our staff is just thrillingly on board.

KC MacMillan directed MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION for Lantern Theater. Photo by Mark Garvin.

KC MacMillan directed MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION for Lantern Theater. Photo by Mark Garvin.

CK: I think it’s fair to say that you’re one of the more prominent directors in Philadelphia, and you bring a unique perspective to navigating the business by being a woman in a field that is still male-dominated. What advice would you give to younger women who want to be on the creative side of theater? And what do you think institutional forces can do to make working in theater a more welcoming and equitable space for women or nonbinary people?

KCM: I read somewhere that you’re only ever giving advice to the younger version of yourself, and I think that’s true. I give a lot of advice to young women, sometimes completely unsolicited. And I think the main advice I have is, be audacious. I know lots of women who are incredibly talented, and it would never occur to them to call or email me and ask to AD [assistant-direct] for me. I get fewer of those emails than you think. So I would tell women to be audacious, know your worth, and say what you want into the world. The second piece of that advice would be to work really hard and make sure you are doing everything you can to put your work into the world. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission to do it. Despite what it might seem, this is not a community of gatekeepers. This is a community of a Fringe Festival, a SoLow Festival, and many small companies. So don’t wait for anyone to tell you it’s OK to do your work. This is something I still have to tell myself sometimes at nearly 40 years old, and after many years in this business.

I really value that my position as an arts leader allows me to mentor a lot of young people in the community—particularly women. And I have relationships with a lot of the young women directors in town, like Elaina di Monaco, who is going to be directing a Theatre Horizon this year; Laurel Hostak, who has been my AD in the past; Christine Freije, who is such a genius. I’ve given all of them the advice to go make it happen, and I think they are. They are producing their own work, and that will help them get the attention of the more established companies.

I think the first thing companies can do—and I think there’s a dawning awareness in the community about this—is be aware that they can amplify marginalized voices, be they women, people of color, LGBTQ+ communities, etc. They can be aware that the issues that may not affect them directly are still things we can share with audiences. It is certainly not something that every company, from the largest to the smallest, isn’t aware of. It’s a matter of making space for other voices, both in your season and on your payroll. Making art is challenging, and it takes all the additional energy we can find to make space for all the voices that would otherwise go unheard. Because these are the voices that must be heard.

CK: Two years ago, you returned to acting for the first time in a long while, appearing in Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s The Fair Maid of the West. Any plans, or any desire, to tread the boards again?

KCM: Maybe. You never know what would happen. It’s definitely not something I see happening at Tiny Dynamite, because someone has to be there to pick up the pieces and make sure the beer is chilled. But there are certainly art-makers in town that I trust, and this is a community where people exchange roles all the time. I am very personally and professionally close to people like Charlotte Northeast [local actor/director and Philadelphia Artists’ Collective artistic associate] and Kittson [O’Neill, local actor/director and artistic director of Shakespeare in Clark Park], and if they called me up and asked me to audition for something, the answer would be yes. I’ve directed them, and Kittson hired me to direct my first Shakespeare, so these are relationships I want to continue in whatever way seems right.

I think my biggest takeaway of performing in Fair Maid of the West is a reminder of what a challenge it can be to play a small role in a production. As a director, it was good to be reminded that it’s really hard, and that those actors need the time to build those characters that need to be built, even if they don’t have the most time onstage to explore them. It’s good to be reminded to be strategic and compassionate to actors. But I will say this: my list of plays that I want to direct and produce is far longer than my list of roles I’d want to play.

CK: And can you speak about any plays you’re dying to direct?

KCM: Well, I have to keep that a little close to the chest, because I don’t want any other director to snatch something up! I love classical plays, and I love approaching them with a contemporary aesthetic. The plays that have made it this long have done so because they’re universal, and I’ve always loved exploring that. I’d love to direct more Harold Pinter. It’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve been directing Shakespeare, and I’d love to direct more. That was a real discovery for me, that I love working with verse. Right now, I’m super excited that my entire current season is comedy, and I’m excited to stay in the present with that. Getting to work on one genre so consistently, I think, will help me get out on the other side a much stronger director of it.

KC MacMillan’s upcoming directorial engagements include Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists for Theatre Horizon and Marc Camoletti’s Don’t Dress For Dinner for Lantern Theater Company.

 

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About the author

Cameron Kelsall

Cameron Kelsall has been writing about theater, classical music and the arts for more than ten years. He currently contributes to several Philadelphia-based publications, including Phindie, Broad Street Review and Talkin' Broadway, and reviews Broadway and Off-Broadway productions for Exeunt Magazine. Cameron also serves as a judge for the Barrymore Awards. You can follow him on Twitter @CameronPKelsall.