Spotlight on Faculty: Peter McKinnon
In October 2011, Sara D’Agostino met with Peter McKinnon to discuss his work outside of teaching: lighting design, producing theatre, and editing a three-volume book, and what may lie ahead.
I did stage lighting for a long, long time. My first lighting was in 1975 and the last was the opening of the Faire Fecan Theatre in the Accolade East Building (although I am going to a rehearsal tonight to light a dance). I stopped enjoying lighting probably about 15 years ago or so. It was no longer enjoyable, or even a challenge; it was just a pain. I’m entirely positive in my life outlook, but I just didn’t know what was going to happen to me. Fortunately, York enabled me or allowed me or fostered me or permitted me or encouraged me to change careers midstream.
That’s when Tom Diamond, an opera director, invited me out for a coffee. I had worked on a couple of shows with Tom, so we had a coffee at Bloor and Bathurst and I remember the dance critic, Paula Citron was there. She came over to us and said that if Peter McKinnon and Tom Diamond were having a conversation she knew there would be something happening, and it turned out to be the first theatre company I formed. I knew that he was going to form a company, so I thought he would ask me to be production manager or resident designer. So when he asked me to be his general manager, I laughed and went and got myself another coffee, came back and said yeah, sure, why not.
So I ran Summer at The Roxy for two years with Tom and discovered that I loved managing because it was the same as lighting. I spent all my time staring at a screen full of numbers. As a lighting designer, the screen was all channels and levels, and as a manager it was all workers and dollars per hour. But if you put too many lights into a dimmer the dimmer blows, so they have to be correct. It’s exactly the same thing as budgeting and scheduling. I later went to Schulich and to Ryerson and got a national certificate in leadership in the not for profit sector through the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy. That was really good for me in that I learned what I ought to have been doing at Summer at the Roxy. Then I formed a company called Rare Gem Productions. A former student and I ran it for a couple of years and found ourselves on Broadway, somewhat to our surprise, with our names above the title. Just last Friday when I was in New York I had breakfast with the lead producer, my friend Bill. I hadn’t seen Bill in a long time and it was great to have breakfast with him because he’s one of the world’s great people. Just to sit and shoot the breeze with him for two hours over breakfast was fabulous. That was a great adventure – that whole Broadway thing.
After that I did a musical that came out of the first year class. We used Everyman one year as a script and many of the students seemed not to understand that there were such things as overarching moral philosophies (in this case Christianity) that one could check in with on a daily or hourly basis to see how one was doing. And I thought that was wrong. So I did a rock and roll adaptation of Everyman called That’s Life and that was spectacularly successful. We took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is the largest gathering of human beings on Earth aside from the Olympics, and got stellar reviews, good houses, but then I didn’t know how to get past that. It needs one more rewrite, which I think will be a retirement project, if I ever retire, and then I think the piece will have legs.
Currently my project is World Scenography, a three-volume series of books looking at stage design throughout the world from 1975-2015. Volume One covers the period of 1975 to 1990 and we are in the last desperate 10 days of getting materiel together so we can send it off to the designer and he has a month to put it together before we send it to the printers. There are about 160 people in 62 countries working on it. The first volume will be 448 pages. It will be a large format book consisting mostly of photographs with a certain amount of contextualizing text to place the design in the world and in the time and place culturally. Then we start Volume Two, which is 1990 to 2005, and that gets published in the fall of 2013. Volume Three will cover 2005 to 2015 and we’ll put that out sometime in 2016.
Our take on the book is that we’re not interested in good examples of fine stage design. Rather, we are interested in stage design that made a difference. For example, I have no interest in a perfectly typical Beijing style opera, but the Maoist ballet The White Haired Girl was enormously important in China. It turned Chinese theatre on its ear. In the American context and at the beginning of the period is A Chorus Line, a big Broadway musical without a set and with no fancy costumes. The photographs you’ve seen of Chorus Line, with all the mirrors and the girls in the glitzy gold and the guys in the top hats and everything, was just the finale. The entire show was people in rehearsal skirts, warm up clothing, and leg warmers, all carefully designed. From that period Les Misérables was a hugely influential design. There are some very influential later works of Josef Svoboda from the Czech Republic. I have convinced the folks of Cirque du Soleil (who are very controlling of their public image) to let me have one photograph from their third show, Le Cirque Réinventé . It’s not a great photograph but it’s an image from the very beginning of Cirque du Soleil.
In the Canadian context, the production here in Toronto of The Tectonic Plates is important not because the production itself was very important, although it was very interesting, but because it was the first time Michael Levine and Robert Lepage ever worked together. Lepage had mounted the piece in Quebec City but coming to Toronto he thought he needed someone to work with. Michael Levine was relatively fresh out of school and when he came back to Canada this was one of his first shows. That was the beginning of the relationship between Levine and Lepage which went for a decade and will be seen in Volume Two in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle. The two of them were quite the pair in the international opera world for a long time.
Similarly, there are productions from Africa, such as a production that took place in a Ugandan Police Station. It’s not a great set and it’s badly realized, but we want it in the book because that set had the words “Ugandan Police” written on it and this was in the time of the murderous dictator Idi Amin. That staged show showing the corruption of the Ugandan Police was one of the catalytic influences in the revolution in Uganda that deposed Idi Amin. Our Ugandan contributor Sam Kazule thinks that the only reason that it was allowed to be put on was because no one in Idi Amin’s government could read. So how many set designs are there in the world that have been part of the instigation of a revolution?
There are two designs from 1973 that we are going to incude. There was a previous set of books called Stage Design Throughout the World covering the period of 1939 to 1975 by a Belgian named Rene Hainaux and we’re picking up on his work. These designs were not in René Hainaux’s books but it would be a crime not to have them in because they are arguable two of the most influential costume designs. One, which will be the title page of the book, is the wire frame horse heads from Equus (which still exist and are at the Victoria and Albert Museum). Those pre-date wire frame modeling on computers and they were shortly after Buckminster Fuller invented the geodesic dome. So I have to wonder, and I don’t know the answer, is how much of an influence Buckminster Fuller had on these horse heads and whether or not the horse heads had an influence on subsequent computer modeling through wire framing. In that same summer there was a costume from The Rocky Horror Show. People go to the movies and they look at Frank N. Furter’s costume and they still dress up like that. So that costume is going to be in the book as well.
We’re launching at the United States Institute for Theatre Technology’s annual conference in Long Beach, California in March. Then we get on with Volume Two. Everyone that’s worked on Volume One says they want to work on Volume Two as well. Certainly, I learned a lot about geopolitics and there’s an awful lot of diplomacy comes out of this, as my students who have worked on this have noticed. I’ve had six students working on it over the years and all learned an awful lot about international diplomacy.
In the meantime, just two weeks ago, I thought up my next book which is something a couple of the staff here asked me about, the nautical derivation of some backstage terminology. One asked me, “Why is it called a boom?” Because a boom is that which holds a sail out from a mast so why does it hold lights up in the air, a lighting boom. He asked, “Why isn’t it called a spar?” So I got to thinking about that and then someone else asked me “Where did the word “crew” come from?” So I began to think I should write a book about the sea and the stage, as found in the terminology backstage. The very first backstage crew were all sailors because they knew how to deal with large expanses of fabric hung from overhead with ropes. Then I began to think I should also do something on superstitions, because most of the superstitions in theatre are nautical superstitions, like never whistling in the theatre. There is also the similarity between sailors at sea and crew backstage because they’re all ‘Peter Pans’. They don’t want to grow up. Some young men like to run away to the circus and some like to run away to sea and I did both and I found the same people in both places.
The projects that I think up and instigate are the primary materiel that I use in my management classes. And everything in life that I do feeds the History of Visual Sources. My wife and I walked across Spain two year ago, 788 kms, starting in Southern France, up over the Pyrenees, turn right at Pamplona and walk until you can smell the ocean. It took us 35 days. We then walked the Loire Valley this past June, and that feeds VIS. This coming June we’re going to walk Hadrian’s Wall from sea to sea on the border between England and Scotland. All of that feeds what I teach in VIS. This past June, in the middle of the Prague Quadrennial, I took seven students to Istanbul and I’m teaching Byzantine starting on Tuesday, so the fact that I was in Istanbul just a couple of months ago refreshes and expands my knowledge of Byzantine art and architecture.
Ultimately, I think I should paint, my wife thinks I should write murder mysteries, but what I really want to do is have a wine bar and bookstore. Little bar eight or ten stools in a bookstore wouldn’t that be nice? So you take the bookstore make it about a quarter of the size of a typical Chapters and it’s full of literature and fine wine. What could be better?