Then, as Now, It's a Rich Man's World :: Karen MacDonald on Directing 'Old Money' for CSC

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 2, 2018

Karen MacDonald has been a leading light of the Boston theater scene for decades. She was a founding company member of the American Repertory Theatre -- a distinction she holds along with the late, much missed Thomas Derrah -- and still teaches at Harvard. MacDonald has also had a Monan Professorship in Theater Arts at Boston College, an honor she shares with fellow former A.R.T. company member Remo Airaldi.

MacDonald has directed for several area theater companies and is now at the helm of a production of Wendy Wasserstein's "Old Money" for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. It's on the stage that Boston audiences may be most familiar with MacDonald's work, which has spanned seventy productions at the A.R.T. and numerous other roles around the area, but her growing list of credits as a director shows that she's a talent to keep track of whether she's treading the boards or acting as a guiding creative forces behind the scenes.

EDGE had the privilege of chatting with Karen MacDonald recently about "Old Money," our changed new world, and the way actors often gravitate toward the director's chair.

EDGE: You have directed shows for companies like Bridge Rep and Boston Playwrights Theatre. How did you come to be directing "Old Money" for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company?

Karen MacDonald: Well, actually, Steven Maler asked me to. He had chosen his season and this play was part of the season he wanted to do, and he asked me if I was interested in directing. I thought, "Yeah - it's an interesting play. It has some challenging aspects to it."

I've only done one of Wendy's plays: I did "Third" up at Portland Stage, up in Maine. I was an actor in that; this is the first time I've directed a piece of hers. I just thought, "Yeah, let's dig in and see what we can do. If I can assemble a fantastic cast -- people that I want to be in the room with every day -- and an amazing group of designers, then I'll be cool." I was very fortunate in that my dream came true!

The cast is fantastic. Will Lyman and Jeremiah Kissel, and Ed Hoopman, and Elliot Purcell... and we have Veronica Wiseman, Amanda Collins, Jordan Clark, and Josephine Ellwood. And it's cool because it's a play that has [a mix of] older, middle[-aged, and] younger people, so it is generational, which makes it a really nice room of actors to have.

My designers are fantastic. I have, oh, this really great sound designer [David Remedios]... who happens to be my husband!

[Laughter]

Brian Lilienthal is doing the lights, and Jon Savage is doing the set, and Charles Schoonmaker is doing the costumes - so it's just a great group of collaborators. I feel really lucky to have all those people here. It's been a lot of work, but it's fun.

EDGE: I did want to ask you about that wonderful cast you mentioned. Did you handpick each of them for the show, or what went into the process of gathering them together?

Karen MacDonald: I did think about who I wanted, and some of those choices were made fairly early. And then other people sort of came along... we did hold auditions, of course, but the folks I have been lucky enough to assemble, those were my choices. It just seems like the right group of people.

We're friends. I haven't worked with all of them. I've worked with most of them, and in one instance I was a teacher. I was at BC for a year as the Monan Fellow, and I taught Eliott. He took an improv class when he was a freshman. I've kept track of him over the years, and what he's been up to. Sometimes you just luck out and people are available and you can put them together. I was very fortunate.

EDGE: And all the members of the cast have to work extra hard because they are all playing two roles since the play is set in two different time periods.

Karen MacDonald: Yes. The whole thing takes place in a restored mansion on Fifth Avenue - uptown, on the Upper East Side. It's a mansion that's being restored. It's being celebrated with a big party in the year the play is set, which is 2000. It's interesting to read it and go, "Oh, this is actually a kind of a period piece." The year 2000 doesn't much resemble the year 2018, does it?

EDGE: That was a different world, for sure.

Karen MacDonald: And then the play travels back in time a hundred years to when the house was newly built the first time. It was busily by one of those robber baron type guys - an imaginary man named Tobias Vivian Pfeiffer. He built this mansion, and so each actor does play two roles. They play a role in the present, and they play a role in the past.

EDGE: Money is a fascinating subject in any time period, but how does the play particularly resonate with our current times - especially in the wake of the Great Recession?

Karen MacDonald: Wendy Wasserstein said she was inspired to write this play when she went to a dinner party on Upper East Side in the late '90s, and it had many hot and happening people both from Wall Street and Hollywood, and she said the opulence of the place where they were having dinner, and the way the dinner was presented, that she kind of felt, by the surroundings, like she was in an Edith Wharton novel from a hundred years before. So she began to have, she said, an idea for a play that took place in the same place, but in two different centuries. I think she was looking at that relationship of money to the American character. How has it shaped us since this country's beginnings?

I found an interesting quote that I use in my Notes from the Director. It's actually a quote from John Adams that he wrote in, I think, 1802. If you read the quote, you would think somebody wrote it just yesterday: He's commenting on how money seems to be the thing that drives the American character. I think that's something the playwright was turning over in her mind a lot: What does it mean, to have money? To not have money? To hold on to money? To lose money? And specifically, through the life of a mansion, a big house in New York, that has seen many kinds of people come and go.

I think she was genuinely interested in that, and of course interested in that in regard to New York City, because she certainly was a New York girl, and wrote about the place where she grew up, and the place where she came from. So, yeah: It is interesting a discussion to have nowadays because as opposed to when she wrote the play in 2000, I'm thinking, what if she wrote the play in 2018? I mean, my god, there's been so much that has gone on and changed the world that we live in - specifically, the world we're living in right this very minute, which seems to be a lot about who has money and who doesn't; and who wants to protect their money, and who doesn't want it to be given away; who needs money, and how do you run a country, you know, how do you organize a society where there's so much inequity around money? How does that work, or not work?

I think I'll be interested to see if the play will cause discussion for people. It's provocative in that way... how the whole idea of money plays into our everyday life in America.

EDGE: As far as dealing with two different time periods, it seems to me that would be fascinating for a director because you'd be working with your actors about how to move and speak and emote in ways that are characteristic of the two different times.

Karen MacDonald: Yeah, and of course that's where costumes come in, in a big way... certainly for the women, [who are all] in lovely early 20th Century clothes. It's fun to watch how each actor is doing with playing two people. And certainly what they're wearing, and how constricting and formal some of the costumes are, especially the ones from the past, you know; how that makes people move and behave in a different way. I'm hoping it's fun for them. I know it's challenging, but they are certainly all up to that. Our costume designer, Chip Schoonmaker, is going to make them look fabulous - in both centuries!

Some of the cast, although they're [playing] different people, there's a thread that kind of connects [their characters]. There's a kind of similarity, maybe, in how they look at the world, or how they behave. But the fact that they'll be dressed so different is really a help. And it keeps them busy because during the show they're changing their costumes quite a bit!

EDGE: How do you feel about the creative act of directing versus acting? Does it feel like they belong on the same continuum? Or do they belong in different realms of the theatrical arts?

Karen MacDonald: I can understand why a lot of actors feel the impulse of the interest to direct, just to experience that - just to see what it's like to be on the other side of the table. I have directed at BPT and at Gloucester Stage and Bridge Rep, and I enjoyed those experiences. I think it's important for an actor, if you can and if you have the interest, to be on the other side of that table and to see what it's like to be the one who's running the show; who's responsible for so many things: How it looks, and how it sounds and how it's lit, and who's in it.

I don't think that they're necessarily separate, and probably there are some actors who are better at directing than others, but it's funny that you ask that, because I start thinking: How many directors do you know who want to be actors? There are some people in town I would like to ask, now that you've asked that. "Have you ever wanted to be on the stage?"

[Laughter]

Karen MacDonald: It's an interesting juxtaposition to think about. I try to keep my actor hat off and my director hat on while I'm here in the rehearsal room, but it is a challenge because as an actor you're looking at scenes so specifically, and your work and what you're doing so specifically, whereas when you're directing, obviously you're responsible for how everything is moving. It's a different way of looking at stuff. But I can understand why people want to cross the line. It's an interesting place to put yourself.

EDGE: Does it feel for you like it's part of the same ongoing journey in terms of exploring those arts?

Karen MacDonald: Yeah, I think it is part of it, and it's a great way to keep yourself open and keep yourself working on larger issues. It's not that an actor isn't looking at a whole play, they are, but they have a very specific job.

I do think that if you are a creative person you do want to try and see if you're challenged by certain things. What else creatively interests you? It's nice that there is room for that, and I'm happy that Steve has given me the opportunity to do that here.

I have been consistently delighted every day with this process to just be in the presence of all of the people we have in the room. It's really fun when you can watch how actors create and get ideas. These actors are all locally based, and so they're all part of our community here of actors here in Boston. A lot of them have worked together in the past, but some of them haven't, so it's fun to watch people have a new experience with someone. And there's a lot of shorthand; there's lots of great rapport that goes on in the room. It's a fun thing to watch, and also to be a part of, and to watch them take those relationships they're already part of and bring those into their work and onto the stage. It's really a wonderful thing that I get to watch because I'm the director.

EDGE: You are one of the founding members of the American Repertory Theater, along with Thomas Derrah, who passed away last fall. Do you find yourself thinking, "I wish he were here for me to cast in this production," or "It would be so great to have him as a castmate for this project?"

Karen MacDonald: We were such great friends, and I miss him every single day because I spoke with him almost every single day. We were part of each other's lives from 1980 when I met him at the A.R.T. ... it's been a horrible, difficult time. I know I'm not alone in feeling that way.... It's just a very sad experience to have someone be such a part of your life, and have them gone - as I'm sure you know; we all have a person that's gone already, and who we think about all the time.

He and Larry [Coen, who died in January]... it's such a loss. It's been a weird year. There have been a lot of people who have been disappearing in my life, besides [those] two people... so it's been a really strange fall and winter.

EDGE: What else is on your calendar moving forward?

Karen MacDonald: I'm going to be one of the "Calendar Girls" at the Greater Boston Stage Company, Nancy Carroll is directing a bunch of us women of a certain age -

[Laughter]

Karen MacDonald: - and that comes up in the spring. And then, summer? Some traveling, I hope.

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's production of Wendy Wasserstein's "Old Money" runs at the Carling-Sorenson Theater at Babson College in Wellesley March 6 - 18. For tickets and more information, please go to http://commshakes.org/production/old-money

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.