Professional Lighting & Production - Winter 2021 - Page 43

Ken MacKenzie

By Michael Raine
Like so many in theatre , Ken MacKenzie credits drama class as the origins of his life ’ s work . And while acting was the original dream , it was ultimately work in lighting , set , and costume design that both captured his passion and paid the bills . These days , he ’ s a multi-faceted leader in the Canadian theatre design world . On top his duties as the president of the Associated Designers of Canada ( a . k . a . IATSE Local ADC659 ), which has kept him very busy during the pandemic , he ’ s also now an assistant professor in the University of Saskatchewan ’ s College of Arts & Science , where he ’ s teaching design , stage management , and production in the drama department . “ Maybe more so than a lot of people , I did have some really formative experiences in drama with technical theatre because I went to an art school ,” MacKenzie says , recalling his childhood growing up in Toronto and attending the Claude Watson School for the Arts . “ I took drama from grade four all the way up through OAC classes . Part of that was technical theatre and they had a rehearsal space that had a grid and it had a lift . There ’ s no way us grade tens had our lift tickets or anything , but that ’ s where it started ,” he laughs .
It was at Montreal ’ s Concordia University , though , where the design component of theatre really came into focus for him . In his third year at the school , one of his teachers made him “ her project ,” as he calls it , and turned him into a designer .
“ I kind of got into it because I really enjoyed it ; I thought it was a lot of fun . And so , after I graduated [ in 2000 ], I was still auditioning for things , and still had one foot in performer land and another foot in design land . But in fact , I was making more of a living as a designer than I was as a performer ,” MacKenzie explains . He then recounts with humility and humour : “ It got to the point where I was called to an audition for a character in a coma and then didn ’ t get the part . So , I was just like , ‘ I don ’ t really feel the need to continue auditioning for characters in comas and not getting the part !’ [ laughs ] ‘ I like this design thing and I seem to be doing fairly well at it , so I ’ m just going to focus my energy over there and do that .’”
Along the way , MacKenzie was admitted to the California Institute of the Arts ( better known as CalArts ) and completed his master ’ s degree , specializing in set and lighting design . “ There , I got to explore what it meant to be a designer and how to challenge a lot of the ideas and preconceptions that I had about what that meant .”
In an interesting twist , while in L . A ., MacKenzie developed a niche working in professional puppet shows , and later headed to Austria to work on the Salzburg Marionette Theater ’ s production of The Sound of Music . “ The Europeans spend a huge amount of money on their marionettes . On that show alone , as an assistant , I made $ 23,000 American , which blew my mind and kind of still does !”
Once he headed back to Toronto , MacKenzie worked for famed puppeteer Ronnie Burkett and then , he says , “ a big career-changing thing for me was that I ended up in the Soulpepper Academy in 2008 or ’ 09 . That started a long , long residency at Soulpepper and I was there until they closed down for the pandemic . I ’ ve done tons and tons of work
there and some of the highlights would include the trip that they took to Broadway . I had about six shows , I think , that went down to Broadway — Spoon River being one of them and it was a really big show for me .”
Looking back over his years in lighting , set , and costume design , MacKenzie say , “ I don ’ t want to undervalue the influence of some of the people that I ’ ve assisted for and worked under and been mentored by . That ’ s been huge for me in my career , and I try to pass that on as much as I can , and take on assistants and mentor younger students . That ’ s been a big deal because I got to work on some shows that were massive because I was an assistant .”
Similarly , in terms of what he enjoys most about his career in theatre , “ There ’ s a kind of high I get in those moments during tech , when you ’ re collaborating with the director and the other designers and something works . There ’ s a bit of a magic moment where everything comes together the way that you ’ d hoped — or maybe not even the way you hoped but something better . There ’ s a discovery in those moments where you ’ re like , ‘ Oh , that was perfect .’”
Outside of work , MacKenzie ’ s life is consumed with family , his wife of eight years , and their two kids . “ I get to sneak in some pop culture that ’ s relevant to my age range every once in a while , but I get a lot of kids stuff ,” he chuckles . He also enjoys playing hockey , though notes that the recreational league he ’ s part of in Saskatoon takes it a lot more seriously than the league of arts industry folks he played with in Toronto . But the family is loving their new home city , especially the quick access to the countryside , the slower pace of life , and the more reasonable cost of living . “ We ’ re just excited about being in a new city and getting to know the community here .”
Michael Raine is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Lighting & Production .
Winter 2021 | 43