After 40 years, Fresno State’s Kathleen McKinley looks back on a career directing theater and teaching acting. She loves the path she took.
By Donald Munro
With the final performance on Saturday night of the play “At the Wedding,” Fresno State’s theater department said farewell to the end of an era.
The McKinley Era.
Pictured above: Kathleen McKinley is lifted by her actors in a commemorative photo taken of her production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Fresno State
It started in the 1970s when Kathleen McKinley finished up an undergraduate degree in theater at Fresno State. She’d imagined breaking loose after graduation, never to return, but after getting her MFA at UC Davis, a temporary faculty position at Fresno State beckoned, turning into something much, much longer.
Now, after directing dozens of plays – some of them big productions of the classics, others tight and tiny recent arrivals from Broadway — the acting/directing professor is retiring. “After the Wedding” was her last show.
The production of Bryna Turner’s play (which had its New York premiere in 2022) had many qualities that were quintessential McKinley: character-driven, funny, blunt, provocative, well-written. The subject matter was cutting-edge. As I watched, I mused: What would McKinley’s long-gone predecessors, perhaps still occasionally flitting through the hallowed halls of the Fresno State theater building to check in on their legacy, have thought of the male Lothario wedding-guest attempting to woo the lesbian crashing her ex-girlfriend’s “aggressively heterosexual” ceremony, thus cheating on his steady boyfriend planning a wedding proposal of his own that very evening?
Yes, times change.
Most of all, the show was tenderly directed. Over the years, I’ve interviewed McKinley many times about upcoming productions, and I’ve always walked away tickled by her filled-to-the-brim enthusiasm for these characters she’d be bringing to life, as if they were real people she was privileged to escort for a brief fling into the real world. In “After the Wedding,” the antics of the plot subsided by the end to a delicate, emotional finale that offered a dose of melancholy and a hint of hope. I thought it was a beautiful way for McKinley to end her Fresno State career.
To celebrate her final show, I engaged her in a long, wide-ranging interview the week before her last show closed. We met in her office, on whose door is affixed a headshot of McKinley at age 26, the reason being her regular bulletin board got pulled down because of the installation of new braille office numbers. Inside, the space is decorated with show posters and an award she treasures: “#1 Director,” a sports-vanity-style-everyone’s-a-winner plaque given her to by the 2018 cast of “The Wolves,” the all-women play about soccer that remains one of her favorite productions.
Rather than presenting our discussion in narrative or question-and-answer form, I give it to you all in McKinley’s voice.
I got a call during the summer that several professors here were retiring and would I be interested in coming in as a lecturer in the fall, and I was interviewed on the actual telephone back then – with a real telephone. I had recently finished my MFA, I was acting, and I had all kinds of other plans as well, and, but on a personal level, my father was very, very ill, and he lives in the valley. And, and so, one of my motivations, I was excited about teaching acting, because I had all these ideas and thought I could do it better than anyone. I wanted to be close to my father.
One of my tasks was to direct a play for children for schools that were going to come i to the Child Drama Center. I had not directed for children very much or worked with, you know, kids or anything. So I wound up thinking, Well, I can do an adaptation of “the Comedy of Errors,” because I was very familiar with Shakespeare. And so we put on this huge show, in that little Lab Theater., I can’t tell you, I have huge memories of it, because it was frantic. And I was also going every weekend to help with my dad, who died, sadly, right during winter break. I was 26. I was beginning what turned out to be a constant kind of a push-pull from two directions that went on throughout my whole career.
So that was the first show, and, of course it was balanced with this thing going on with it with my family.
I think people find me quite driven. And I don’t think that’s unusual for women of my generation who are trying to carve out a place for ourselves. In 1983, I was the first woman hired in the area of acting and directing. I was proud of that, and I felt a lot of pressure.
I was not from Fresno, but I did do some of my undergraduate work here. I started out at UC Santa Barbara, then a community college in Stockton, over financial reasons, and then got on the road to go to San Diego State. My car broke down. I know this is going to seem hysterical, but it’s absolutely true. I pulled off the road and came into Fresno State and said, Can I just go to school here? I’ve just been at UC. And of course, back then they said, Yeah, sure, absolutely. You can start tomorrow. And I did. And that’s how I got as an undergraduate to actually finish my degree at Fresno State. I was a couple years as a student here. And then I went off for my MFA at UC Davis without any plan of ever returning to Fresno.
But I was close to the faculty here by that point. And so when they offered me to come on in for this position, I thought, wow, that’ll be great. I, but I, I didn’t know what the future was going to hold for me. The following year they said, stay another year, and you will direct on the main season. And I really had to take that offer. So then the next show I directed was Artichoke,” which was a pretty unknown play that had been done in some regional theaters.
I have a lot of memories of “A Taste of Honey” by Sheila Delaney. It was not the type of material we frequently did here. There was an interracial couple, a mother who was a prostitute, a girl who had been impregnated by a Black sailor, and she found a gay young man to be her roommate. These were not topics that anyone was doing here at Fresno State at the time. I’ve always wanted to look for risky topics and risky material, in addition to, you know, wonderful plays that were always on my list like Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.
There were no rules. We had a little candle and a little teddy bear in “A Taste of Honey.” And the teddy bear caught on fire during a show. I thought, well, if I don’t get fired now … It was the kind of thing that happens in live theater that they handled really well. There are rules now: No fire.
I would go to meetings, because I was involved in faculty governance, and I would often be the only woman at the meeting. At an entire giant task force, there would be one woman with 20 men, because those who were there had to be full professors, and there just weren’t as many. I wound up finding more colleagues in the English department, women colleagues, and we would have lunch once a week. We called it the coven. And that was a place where we were all kind of finding refuge.
I saw right away that what we were doing as artists was not valued the same as publishing an article in a journal that no one was going to read. And that’s why I did it. When I came on, an MFA was not considered a terminal degree. I had goals in terms of arts recognition on this campus. And I think I was pretty good at it, of working on how the administration looked at artistic work? I remember talking about creating a term instead of teacher-scholar, because that’s what was used. I said there should also be artist-teacher. We MFA folks, we are terminal degrees in doing our craft, and continuing to create theories about our craft. It’s different than a Ph.D. At the time I came on, an MFA was not recognized as a terminal degree. And so I had that as a goal
I can remember in Academic Senate meetings, having academic vice presidents stand up and say, Kathleen will tell you that directing a play is, you know, like publishing, and that’s what she thinks we’re all going to agree to. And I can remember that distinctly. And I thought: That is exactly where we’re going to get. We definitely are there now.
And that was why I got into faculty governance. It was all probably too much. But I felt a responsibility for all kinds of reasons. That’s how I think I wound up being department chair after someone else had done it for a quarter century. And I absolutely was the first woman to do it. It was amazing to me that no woman had been chair of our department before that. It seems so late for that to have happened.
Fresno State Theatre majors are amazingly talented, courageous, and committed. I am moved by the journey of each student actor towards a performance. As a director, I feel so lucky to have worked with my gifted design colleagues and technical staff.
Pictured in section above, clockwise from top left: A 20-something Kathleen McKinley greets visitors on her office door; a plaque from the “Wolves” team; McKinley and her daughter at the opening of “At the Wedding”; posters on the walls of McKinley’s Fresno State office.
I think what’s interesting is that there are a lot of shows from the recent past that are so important for me. I’m thinking about the ones where I was trying to do a first. “Anton in Show Business” (2003) was an all-woman cast, and we hadn’t done that in a really long time with a contemporary play.
“Water by the Spoonful” (2015). That was an all Latinx cast on a main season show. A beautiful, beautiful, beautiful play that I absolutely fell in love with having never seen it. Here I was presenting this work by a Puerto Rican playwright. And of course, I’m not Puerto Rican, but I wanted to bring it in. And were delving into new technology, with slides and videos, and it’s not stuff we had done before. And it was all about cyberspace. So I had to force myself to learn about this new world that my students were absolutely engrossed in. What’s a chat room? I had no idea. I don’t do that stuff.
“The Wolves” (2018) is a huge one. My students lobbied for that. And it was not available to colleges, and we had already picked a season. And I began writing the playwright, writing the agent. And when I thought it was close, that we could get rights, and I told my colleagues, the women want this. I don’t know anything about soccer. I will learn this summer, I’m telling you, I’m going to know how to do play soccer by the end of the summer, and we switched up the whole season, as long as I would take the first slot, which I did. I don’t know how my cast learned to play soccer in three and a half weeks.
I think everything about theater is harder now post-pandemic. Everything. Students and young people are more connected through social media than years ago when they didn’t have social media, and you actually met somebody’s eyes when you walked into a classroom. And I understand it completely. And students are connecting with each other via their phone, via social media. So to ask them to see a live performance is hard. But I think that post-pandemic theater is hard everywhere. Audiences got out of the habit of coming.
The pressure on students is different now too. And I feel it: depression, the financial pressures on them, the family pressures on them. It is not like when I first arrived on campus, and students would hang out, all day long, rehearse all night long. Now students are all working. There are many ways in which they’re struggling. And so that for me more than audiences even is the pressure on our college students. I feel it, I feel their anxiety.
When I first got here, we had students literally taking seven years. They were changing their major three times. I thought that was great. We would get students sometimes later in their career, they change from History or English and now they’re theater majors. Well, that can’t happen anymore. It’s get done, get through, get out. I think it’s hard to discover yourself, you know, in that amount of time.
The show dearest to me? “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is definitely dear in my heart for all kinds of reasons. The problem is if I talk about Tennessee Williams or I talk about Shakespeare, that’s a whole different category. I can’t compare anything to those productions. I had a wonderful designer who worked with me hand in hand, Liz Waldman. I said, I’ve got this image in mind that is wild. And it’s going to need wild sound, wild lighting. And I’m going to put 33 students in it, and I’m going to have a lot of dancing in it, and everything’s going to be contemporary. And I had an incredibly fabulous multi-ethnic cast, which was thrilling to me.
Whenever I contemplated leaving Fresno State, I was always lured back by an exciting opportunity – directing my first show on the main stage in 1985, being invited to direct Terry Miller’s original musical “All the Answers” and touring this show to Edinburgh the following year, touring to Asia with EmanuEl’s original play in 1988, and then after a summer and fall season as an actor at PCPA (Pacific Conservatory Theatre), returning to Fresno State to chair the Theatre Department in 1998. There was always a new adventure here.
When I thought I might be pregnant, and I don’t think I had quite made full professor, I was worried. And I called HR. And I said, is there maternity leave?
And the answer – and this is absolutely true – was: “We would like our professors to have their babies in the summer.”
Many women came back to work after they’d already raised their children. I was the first full professor in this department to have a portable crib and a big sign, you know, on my door, saying, “Please don’t knock. I’m nursing a baby.” There was that push and pull again between professional life and personal life. This is pretty common among women on campus: We sort of felt we had to feel guilty at all times: You feel guilty for not being with your children, and when you’re with your children, you feel guilty for not focusing on your job. And I think that’s pretty common. And some of us almost lost our minds. And things are better now so much better. My daughter today can make all the choices she wants. But at the time, I felt like a pioneer, kind of carving my way.
“Dark Side” was the play I did during the pandemic. No other university was doing face to face with their students. My colleagues who worked on it with me – Candace Egan and Liz Waldman – it was crazy we were in there. We were creating our own safety protocols. We were alone. Walking onto this empty campus, walking into this building that had been shut down – it was dark, and I thought, well, here I am. Here I am with these 15 students, we’re just going to do it.
And strangely enough, it was a pivotal production for me because I knew I was venturing into a whole new area, not positive that I was doing the right thing. But deciding that the students needed it. I look back and say maybe you shouldn’t have done it. But at the time, I thought we’re going to overcome this thing. Little did I know it was going to last another year. I thought we’d be done in a semester. So it’s funny that this show holds a big place in my heart. But it does, just because the students were so brave.
The future? Acting is certainly in the back of my mind. During the second half of my career I served on three non-profit boards and became quite involved in election politics. In addition to enjoying my grandchildren, I see so much need in this world – I will discover where best I can contribute.
I haven’t been able to get my brain around any of this. People keep asking me, and I’m a little bit in denial. A young faculty member was eyeing my office the other day and I saw them – “Yeah, yeah, get out of here, I’m going.” It’s a big transition. And it’s all good, though. People are saying, well, how do you feel? I don’t know. It was a lifetime, you know, a lifetime centered on this campus.
One of the characters in “At the Wedding” is a poor, sweet guy, and he says:” Risk joy. Joy and pain, you know, they’re part of the same thing.” And I’ll tell you: That is directing. If it’s not a little painful, you’re not working hard enough and not taking enough risks. And if you don’t find joy in it, then you shouldn’t be doing it at all.