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On Safari With Jesse McKinley

The wild life of the New York Times' "On Stage and Off" columnist. logo
Jesse McKinley
Setting: The fourth floor of the New York Times building on West 43rd Street, New York City. In a small room filled with books waiting (or hoping) to be reviewed, Jesse McKinley, whose "On Stage and Off" column is a staple of theater coverage at the Times, reclines and reflects. His demeanor is that of an intelligent loafer--a gentleman slacker, if you will. With his spectacles, chiseled good looks, and easy humor, one would almost expect him to be taking a break from writing a dissertation, minding a well-stocked bookstore, or perhaps drinking a gin and tonic on the veldt after jumping out of his Land Rover, rather than being one of the most highly visible theatrical journalists in the country. The following conversation is best imagined as generously spiked with laughter.


THEATERMANIA: I remember running into you when you were covering one of the Tompkins Square riots back in the day. How did things get started for you at the Times?

McKINLEY: I came to New York to study acting at NYU [Tisch School of the Arts, Experimental Theatre Wing]. And my older brother James said, "Well, if you're going to try to be an actor, you're going to need a job." He was then working as a reporter here, and is now a reporter in Albany for the Metro Section. So, he got me a job as a copy boy; we still have them, although the job description has evolved a bit with the technology. I was getting coffee and making copies.

TM: And from there, the leap to columnist?

McKINLEY: Not exactly. I was standing by the copy machine late one night and there was a shooting down at the World Trade Center. An editor came up to me and said, basically, "Why don't you go down there and see what happened?" I responded that he must have the wrong guy. But, no, he told me to just start asking questions. So I went on down there--without journalism school, without anything but this magical formula: If you ask people questions, they'll usually answer them. And it worked. After that, I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time several times.

TM: How so?

McKINLEY: Well, I remember one time when I literally got off the train just after the wreck that killed six people in Union Square station.

TM: Did you turn around and start asking questions?

McKINLEY: Actually--no. I didn't realize until I got home what had happened. I went upstairs to my apartment, which was very nearby at the time, and there was a message waiting for me. I just turned around and went right back.

TM: Grabbed your press credentials and jetted...

McKINLEY: Not even. Didn't have them yet, because I was just a copy boy. I went back down with a pad and pencil and started asking questions. Then there were a number of other situations like that. I didn't cover what is thought of as The Tompkins Square Riot, which was in '88, but I covered the "follow-up" riot in '89 on the anniversary of the first one. I was there in the neighborhood when people happened to start throwing bottles. Not that you were doing that, of course.

TM: I think I was busy emptying bottles at the time.

McKINLEY: Beer bottles, as I remember. Anyway, I started reporting regularly in '95.

TM: You've written for the theater, and about the experience of producing...

McKINLEY: That was in '95. The play was called Quick Bright Things and was based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I had been in recently with you in the park. After the show closed, I wrote a piece that centered on our attempt to get a 1978 Pinto into the HERE theater. We ended up with it stranded in the gallery and ruining a few paintings with exhaust fumes.

TM: Was that the first time your editors took a chance on letting you write in the first person?

McKINLEY: Yes. It moved on from there. You have to be careful when you're writing in the first person.

TM: How so? Do you feel that you're different in print than in person?

McKINLEY: Yes. I think I'm goofier in print. No one wants to read someone taking himself too seriously in the first person; they want a wry report from someone in an odd situation. I've been lucky to be in a few of those, and to write about them.

TM: You write for other departments of the paper. I read your Disney piece, speaking of odd situations.

McKINLEY: Yes, well, I was there undercover. The place I stayed in was mid-range, really a decorated version of a Motel 6. It was strange. Disney is such a phenomenon in Florida. There were wild fires while I was there, and it just felt surreal. I woke up and smelled smoke and went downstairs to ask the person at the desk. They were very cool about it, very matter of fact. "Oh, there's wildfires." As if it all ended at the border to Disney World and God would send down great walls of water to preserve the complex. A whole, huge book could be written about that place; there's so much coming together there, and some of it feels like it just isn't obvious. There's more there under the surface than the legendary basement levels. But I was only there for three days.

TM: Before "On Stage and Off," you wrote another column for the Times

McKINLEY: Yes. After college, I took a year off in '96 to...well, to pursue a romantic relationship and to write another play. I went to San Francisco and was lucky enough to pull down a job as a stringer for the Times covering Northern California. Then a series of things brought me back to New York and I eventually ending up as a contract writer, again for the Times. And that's what led me to writing the "FYI" column. This consisted of answering trivia questions from the readership about New York City, some of them relatively esoteric.

TM: I understand that Ian Hill [artistic director, Gemini/CollisionWorks Theatre] was a frequent contributor of interesting questions.

McKINLEY: He was, as were a number of other, less stable members of the community. I had people ask me things like, "Why won't my neighbor's dog stop barking at night?" Sometimes, I was at a loss...

TM: I have heard that the position of "On Stage and Off" columnist was hard to fill. Was it? How did you get the job?

McKINLEY: Well, the pattern seems to have been that people would have the job for a couple of years and burn out. It is exhausting. I was here one day and got onto the elevator; the then-editor of the Culture Desk was in the elevator at the time and asked me if I'd like to have coffee. I said yes, and he asked me if I'd like the job.

TM: What's tough about it?

McKINLEY: There's a wide readership. It is an ungainly beast, trying to cover the scene on Broadway for everyone from people very much in the business to Upper West Side theater mavens to your basic folks in New Jersey who just want to come in and see a show. At the very least, you need to show that you know what's going on behind the scenes to get basic street cred. So it's a constant juggling act.

TM: Rumor has it that Broadway producers have screamed at you on the phone.

McKINLEY: [laughs] Well, there have been some heated exchanges. Nobody's perfect, and sometimes I have gotten it wrong. That's to be expected. They [the producers] also have a right as readers to call and complain directly if they feel I got something wrong for any reason. And I have the right as the writer to defend what I've written when I feel that it is right. So, there's a dialogue--and it has gotten heated at times!

TM: What do you love about the theater?

McKINLEY: I love goofy, oddball things. There have been some great things downtown recently that I loved. The Elevator Repair Service's show Highway to Tomorrow was, on some levels, a mess, but it was just so creative! I love that expression of creativity, the magic that can take an audience on a real journey, even if it's a wild and improbable one.

TM: What do you hate about the theater?

McKINLEY: I won't name names, but I hate the feeling that there's no soul to a show. I hate feeling like there is a lot of razzle-dazzle and no substance at all, and the audience member is out $90.

TM: What's great about the job of writing "On Stage and Off?" What keeps you at it?

McKINLEY: They pay me.

TM: But what keeps your soul at it?

McKINLEY: I've gotten to talk to Arthur Miller and so many of my heroes, and ask them the questions that I've always wondered about. To get an inside look at the real players really playing the game, to learn what their decisions are and why they make them--it's a very different world from the 50-seat black boxes downtown where you and I come from. It's like, if you were a wildebeest, this would be a chance to live on the great African plains. Or, to torture the metaphor even further: Writing the "On Stage and Off" column is like getting to live among the big game on permanent safari in the wild world of Broadway theater.

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