One hint that an emerging director just might be good: when theaters across town keep asking her to handle tough assignments.
That’s been the path lately for Amber McGinnis, who, after a string of small troupe successes, is stepping up in class this month with a job at Theater J — directing Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.”
McGinnis has a knack for guiding actors. The stylish overlapping dialogue in Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls," now at the Keegan Theatre, is as dynamic and exacting as music. Yet the play's gritty ending feels heartbreakingly real.
Also acutely believable: Stephen Spotswood's "The Girl in the Red Corner," which McGinnis staged for the Welders Playwrights' Collective last year in a cage, for the martial arts fight scenes; and the troubled high-school-girl relationship in Ruby Rae Spiegel's "Dry Land," performed in the spring on a wide strip stage (with the audience on two sides) at Forum Theatre. "Dry Land" unfolded in a locker room as one of the girls dealt with an unintended pregnancy.
“I really didn’t like it,” McGinnis, 34, recalls of her first reaction to that script, which had harsh passages that McGinnis navigated with notable honesty and taste. “Then an hour later I started sobbing my eyes out.”
It was last year's "Equus" — Peter Shaffer's famous drama about the fervent boy who blinds horses — at Constellation Theatre that started a conversation with Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr. That led to her current Theater J gig directing Uhry's 1997 Tony-winning play about a 1939 Jewish family in Atlanta.
For a change, the serious comedy “Ballyhoo” — with its title referring to a dance at an exclusive country club — is what theater types call a conventional, “well-made play.” It’s also McGinnis’s first experience with the regular daytime rehearsal hours of a fully Equity company.
"And I'm excited for something set in the South," says McGinnis, who was raised outside Charlotte and got a master's degree in directing from Baylor University in Texas. Her thesis was about playwright Sarah Ruhl, a detail that piqued the interest of D.C. actress Sara Barker and led them to collaborate on Ruhl's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando," a production by WSC Avant Bard in 2014.
McGinnis understands if some people think of her as a feminist director; a lot of plays focused on women have come her way. “But I hope I’m not being pigeonholed,” she says. “That’d make things really boring.”
She fell naturally into performing as a child. Her mother ran a dance studio, which explains why some of McGinnis’s early credits here included choreography. Her college major at North Carolina’s Gardner-Webb University was religious studies, but she made it a double major with theater once she started taking classes.
“I think it was Brecht,” McGinnis says of the radical German dramatist when asked about the turning point.
That interest in drama and social change was sharpened after graduate school, when McGinnis started working with Will Interactive, an Austin-based outfit creating suicide-prevention pieces for soldiers and civilians. In 2009, the company offered McGinnis work in the Washington area writing and directing interactive training films. The "branching story lines," she says, are "part film, part video game." Which must have made her a natural to stage Bekah Brunstetter's video game-themed "The Oregon Trail" for Flying V during the 2015 Women's Voices Theater Festival?
“Yes — that is my life!” she says with a laugh.
Actually, McGinnis’s life may be changing: Soon she’ll be off to Minnesota to shoot her first feature film, an independent picture (with a quarter-million-dollar budget) called “International Falls.” She’s also writing her own screenplay of a story set in the South, which is part of finding her sense of direction after a divorce a few years ago. She married at age 20.
“Writing my own stories,” McGinnis says, “is new to me.”
Edlavitch DCJCC's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.
Dates: Nov. 29-Dec. 31.