BWW Interview: OUR TOWN's Michael McKean
Mr. McKean previously appeared on the New York stage in Superior Donuts, The Pajama Game, The Homecoming, Hairspray and Accomplice (Theatre World Award) on Broadway; and Woody Allen's A Second Hand Memory Off-Broadway.
The New York production of Our Town began performances on February 17, 2009, with an official opening night on February 26, 2009. Our Town went on to win the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Production and Outstanding Direction and Obie Award for Outstanding Director.
This current staging of Our Town marked its second year on February 26th, becoming the longest-running production of the play in its 72-year history.
What made you want to get involved in OUR TOWN?
Well, I saw the play in December of last year with my friend Jason Butler Harner in the role of Stage Manager. I knew the play and I didn't know the play. I knew Our Town but I had heard that this was a revelatory production, that David Cromer found something brand new in this classic and I was really blown away by it, I thought it was wonderful. And then a little over a month ago my wife and I were in New York to do a reading for Adam Rapp's new play, and I got a call asking me to go on as the Stage Manager for the month of June. And I said, uh, yeah! So I had about ten days to learn the part, which was really a crash course. But it was just an amazing experience; it still is an amazing experience. This company is just the best actors and the best people. It really is like moving to this little town within New York City; there we are at Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, and it's just a phenomenal bunch of people. It's going to hurt like hell to leave but the show goes on, and it has been an amazing experience.
The show was written in the late 1930's and takes place in 1901. Do you feel that the messages, plot lines, and characters can still be accessible to modern audiences?
Absolutely. This is not a dated play. The play debuted in 1938 but it takes place between 1901 and 1913. So it is already about the past. But it is from the perspective of something outside of time. It is from a universal perspective. So as specific as it is about New Hampshire or even America, and to be very specific, about the earliest part of the 20th century, it is generally about absolutely everything. I think that what a great playwright or a great artist can do is to take the entire universe and put it in a drop of water. And I think that that is what MR. Wilder did. The speech at the beginning of Act III, that is as good of a piece of writing as I've ever been able to say on the stage. And it is a great privilege, and there are no footnotes needed, every one knows exactly what this play is about and it is a wonderful thing.
Do you feel that your background in comedy lent a hand in the way that you played your part?
You know, my "background in comedy" is really a matter of accident more than anything else. I always wanted to be an actor and I was a pretty good improviser, so when I went out to California when I was 22 years old I started working with my old friend David Lander, and my new friends Harry Shearer and Richard Beebe in this group called "The Credibility Gap" and I became a writer and performer. It was a satirical group. So I think that it is just how you are schooled and what school you are in and how well you do at school. As far as this goes, if I called to the fore anything from my training it was my ability to communicate. And that goes for if you are delivering jokes or a laboriously learned dance number, which I occasionally do, or a song, or a piece of dramatic information, it's still all the same gig, it is still communicating something from up on the stage to down there in the house.
You have an extensive history in film, television, dramatic theatre, and musical theatre. Do you find that one particular medium calls to you over others?
Lately I have. The last six years I have been working a lot on the stage in New York, Chicago and London and elsewhere. It is kind of what I set out to do when I was 14 years old and started doing plays in high school and I thought, well, this is the best job you can have! But you know, things took me other places, I wound up having success in TV and film and in 1990 I made my Broadway debut and didn't come back until 14 years later. What's great about it, of course, is that you have a chance to come back and do it again the next night and mess it up in an entirely different way. I do like that notion, that nothing is ever quite in the can that you can always do better.
As a writer do you find it difficult to follow other people's scripts and lines? Do you ever find yourself editing?
If you are working with a classic like Our Town or The Homecoming, which I did a couple of years ago on Broadway, that stuff might as well be written in stone. It has already passed through the minds and mouths of some terrific actors. Unless something is still in it's chrysalis and still changing then I don't ave any impulse to change anything. If it is something that I don't understand then I will certainly consult the experts. You know, I just did this play with Tracy Letts, Superior Donuts, last year. And that was an extremely good playwright working on that, working every day to make it better. And I felt, geez, if I contribute anything it would be the physicality of it and I certainly trust Tracy to fix whats fixable and to find the play in the play, that is his department. So unless it is something like a musical revue or a sketch show, I don't contribute, I leave it to the experts.
Music plays an important role in your life as well. Do you feel that you are able to keep it going while you are doing a project such as Our Town?
Yeah. You know, now that I'm not learning the play anymore, sure yeah. After lunch my wife and I are going to rehearse a couple of songs that we are doing on the radio today, so yeah we keep our hand in it, as they say.
You have a long history in New York; you were born here and Our Town brings you back. Do you plan on staying after your run with the show comes to an end?
You know, we are headed back to LA when the play is done. After that we don't really know, there are a couple of things up in the air so we don't really know. We have a place here now so we don't have to scramble and find a sublet if I get work in New York and that's refreshing. Annette loves the city as much as I do, it is her adopted home town and she thrives here and loves it. We love Chicago too, we got to know it a few years ago and it is also a great theater town.
Can you think of one particular special moment that stands out from your career in theater?
Gee, I don't know, it's hard to say. Every moment that you are on stage is sort of special onto itself. The experience of doing Superior Donuts in Chicago and then bringing it to New York, that isn't one moment, obviously, but being involved in the creation of a character to that extent, and one that the writer eye-balled me for, it is just a great experience. That and getting to work with a lot of people I had never met before. John Michael Hill was my scene partner in that play, just watching this remarkable talent for the first time, and just kind of knowing that I'm in on the beginning of something big here, as well as the rest of the cast, it was a phenomenal cast, but I'd say on stage that is a very high point. I don't know if it is the high point, but working on that project was certainly a high point.
Do you find that you have achieved your original goals from when you first set out to be an actor?
Boy, I don't know! I don't remember having one particular goal in mind. I just thought, maybe I can do this, maybe I can make a living as an actor. Or if that fails, maybe write songs for people. I've had a chance to do both, I haven't had a top ten hit yet, but I've got a Grammy, and I've had a lot of fun doing what I do, working with remarkable people on the stage and on a sound stage. If my goal was to make a living doing this I've been doing that pretty well for about thirty years now.
Do you have any post Our Town plans that you are able to discuss?
It is kind of a swirl of activity and we'll see what happens.
It has been announced that Helen Hunt will be taking over as Stage Manager of Our Town after you.
Yes. I think Helen is phenomenal and a wonderful actor and a great girl. Hopefully I'll get back here and see her do it.
Are you sad to go?
I think it is working out just perfectly, but it is going to hurt like hell to leave.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride/Retna Ltd.