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INTERVIEW: Actor McKinnley Aitchison on Tenor Problems and Resolutions

Melanie Wehrmacher and McKinnley Aitchison in the Old Log Theatre production of Lend Me a Tenor. Photo courtesy of the Old Log Theatre.

Down at the Old Log Theatre, the Cast & Cru restaurant is dishing out desserts like the Berry Macaron Melange. What is this dairy-free, gluten-free treat, you say? Just read through the ingredients and see if you don’t want to give it the ultimate in-person taste test: pistachio macaron, raspberry sorbet, Meyer lemon curd, strawberry rhubarb gel, seasonal berries, and vanilla coconut foam. If you think that sounds delicious, you should see your date’s gluten-free Chocolate Banana Tart, which uses an almond coconut crust to hold a delicious mélange of banana custard, cashew cream, rum sauce, and Valrhona dark chocolate.

After dessert, it’s time to head over to the other side of the building, where the other cast is dishing out some old-fashioned boudoir comedy with slamming doors, mistaken identities, and steadily escalating situations. Basil Considine spoke with McKinnley Aitchison, who plays Maggie in Lend Me a Tenor, about dancing around accidents and navigating the rapids in this comedy classic by Ken Ludwig.


You’re ending the year at the Old Log Theatre in Lend Me a Tenor. What other shows and creative projects have you worked on in the past year?

Actor McKinnley Aitchison.

I started out the year playing Antonia in Theater Latté Da’s production of Man of La Mancha. Since then, it’s been a bit of everything: a few workshops here and there, singing, waiting tables, and traveling. I also work often with the Illusion Theater and their internal education program in different middle schools, performing and working with kids around topics like bullying, consent, familial conflict, etc.

As the years go on, I’m learning how to keep myself productive and creative when I’m not in a fully produced production, and to motivate myself in continuing to exercise my voice and body in ways that serve me. My 2019 goal is to get cracking on my piano skills!

You broke your foot shortly before the show’s opening. Fortunately, this isn’t a dance-heavy show – how are you doing at this point? Did you have to make any significant modifications to the blocking?

I broke my foot two days before opening…coming down the stairs in the middle of the night. An unfortunate accident, in which I missed a step and came down directly onto my toes, splintering up and fracturing my 5th metatarsal in two different spots. I am managing – with each week performing, it starts to become easier.

Outside of the show, I am in a boot, but onstage I wear a special steel insert that allows me to walk without moving the actual base of my foot. There are ACE bandages involved, a bit of a limp, ice, and ibuprofen – but with my extremely talented and supportive team, we’ve been able to make it work just fine. There are a couple movement modifications, but for the most part, it’s the same show it’s always been!

What’s your favorite moment in the show?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. I think my favorite moment of the show would have to be the conflict between Tito and Maria at the beginning of the show. They both enter the scene with fire, and it’s the first time we consistently feel the audience settling into the absurdity of the show and really allowing themselves to enjoy the ride.

It’s been almost 3 decades since Lend Me a Tenor premiered on Broadway. Many things have changed in terms of social perceptions and emphases, and it would be unlikely for some of the plot elements in this play (e.g., mistaken identity seductions) to appear in a play written in 2018. As an actor, how do you/have you approached elements like this in older works that may be construed as out of step with contemporary values?

As an actor (and human), it’s pretty out of the question to agree with some of Ken Ludwig’s choices/original intent, specifically the blackface. Choosing for the characters to produce Otello, instead of an opera like Pagliacci – which tells the story of a clown and would serve the same purpose of giving Tito a costume and makeup to be mistaken in – feels inappropriate and easily avoidable.

There was never a question as to whether we were going to perform in blackface – that was eliminated before we even signed contracts. In fact, the Met’s current production of Otello is lead by a white man sans makeup, and I’ve yet to read a review that comments on it. We’re just like the Met! But some of the more subtler plot themes – mistaken identity seduction, and the overall characterization of women being dumb, over-sexualized, or controlling – are where we were tested as actors.

McKinnley Aitchison (center) at work.

When approaching this piece, we talked about it in a historical context as well as the social commentary provided via screwball comedy. Screwball often depicts social class in conflict, usually with a battle of the sexes, zany dialogue, and often disguise – all in place for comedic effect. In Lend Me a Tenor, both Maggie and Diana are fooled by Tito and Max (disguised as Tito) in the bedroom. It is a tricky topic to approach, especially in the rise of the #MeToo movement, however, at the root of screwball comedy is female empowerment.

Characters depicted in screwball are strong-willed, independent, boundary-pushing females challenging the social construct and patriarchy around them. In the production, Maggie earns independence and challenges traditional values by making the decision to have sex with Tito. Her clothes are already off before he even turns around. Eric makes a point of this in his director’s note in the program – read it and maybe you’ll see the show with a different lens!

You went to UW-La Crosse. What made you choose this program and what brought you to the Twin Cities?

I did attend the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse for a short time, however I did not graduate. I am originally from the Twin Cities and started acting as a teenager. I attended the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to proceed after school. I headed to La Crosse and found that a small town life was not for me, so I came home and decided to do it on my own… I spent some time trying to figure out who I was as a human before I started to focus on who I am as an artist, and how the two correlate with each other.

It hasn’t been easy breaking into the scene without collegiate connections…slow and steady…but I think I’ll be fine.

Many actors agonize over audition songs. What did you use in your audition for this show? Do you have any go to songs in your audition book?

For this audition, Eric asked us to prepare something in an operatic style. I sang a Christmas carol, ”I Saw Three Ships”. I guess it worked.

My audition book is stuffed to the brim and I switch it up quite a bit, but I’ve had a lot of success with Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good”.

What are some of your favorite companies that you’ve worked with in the Twin Cities? Why?

I think working at Theater Latté Da with Peter Rothstein has been one of my favorite experiences to date. He has this exquisite trademark of detailed deconstruction that he brings to each production, and not without an immense amount of research and respect. I was exposed to a lot, both politically and artistically, through the company and feel that it’s just a really clear example of action through art.

McKinnley Aitchison (left) with Zachary Garcia (rear), Jon-Michael Reese (fore), and Sara Ochs (right) in Theater Latté Da’s 2017 production of Man of La Mancha. Photo by Allen Weeks.

I haven’t worked there as an adult, but I do think the best ticket in town is the Children’s Theatre Company. The production values are off the charts, the actors are working their tails off fifty hours (or more, I’m sure) a week, the kids onstage and off – I’m just in awe every time I attend a production. Magical!

Any audition horror stories to share?

I attended an audition with my shirt on inside-out. (That feels pretty classic and not so much of a horror story – I didn’t notice until I got home.) On a more horrific note, a few years ago, I left a dance call to throw up due to some leftovers that were left in the fridge a little too long. I never went back, and they never called…

Honestly, auditioning is pretty tough for me, as I know it is for so many of us. I usually black out when I walk into the room and leave hoping for the best – it’s hard to go spill your guts for a panel of judges when the politics of theatre are working against you – but it always swings the other way. It’s just all part of the process.

What’s next?

It’s audition season! I have a couple things brewing, but we’ll just have to wait and see how it all shakes out. If nothing else, check in with me next year and see how well I can play the piano!

Lend Me a Tenor plays at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior, MN through February 16, 2019.

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and remains an occasional contributing writer for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Chattanoogan. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.

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