Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2010, 12:00 am

Acclaimed director returns to Q-C roots

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

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Photo: Todd Mizener
Tony-nominated director and Augustana alum Phil McKinley may be finished directing "Wit" at the Village Theatre in the Village of East Davenport but he his run as a Davenport resident has just begun. The director, with a host of Broadway and Hollywood credits to his resume, is buying a house in east Davenport. He grew up in Avon, Ill., about 80 minutes away, where his 81-year-old mother, two older sisters and a younger brother live. Mr. McKinley will keep his homes in New York and L.A. "In order to continue doing what I'm doing, I need contact with friends and family, the normalcy of that, and not always talking about theater," he said. "It's what I do, it's not who I am."
Phil McKinley has directed movie star Hugh Jackman in a Tony-winning Broadway musical, a "Ben-Hur" musical in London, a circus in Singapore, and more Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses than any living person.

The gregarious 1973 Augustana College grad is in demand all over the world. A movie musical for Dreamworks, a reality TV series, and a new arena production of The Bible are among current projects on Mr. McKinley's plate. But the most important may be his recent purchase of a home in east Davenport.

"When I'm on the road for extended periods of time, I spend three to four months. When I come home, I want to be home. I didn't want to travel again to see my family," he said recently from The Village Theatre, Davenport, where Mr. McKinley directed the drama "Wit" (its final performance is today).

He grew up in Avon, Ill., about 80 minutes away, where his 81-year-old mother, two older sisters and a younger brother live. Mr. McKinley will keep his homes in New York and L.A.

"In order to continue doing what I'm doing, I need contact with friends and family, the normalcy of that, and not always talking about theater," he said. "It's what I do, it's not who I am."

Compared to high-pressure directing gigs, Mr. McKinley appreciates the slower pace when he comes back to visit family.

"There's a certain relaxed feeling there; I become more creative. The world opens to me," he said, noting he doesn't need to be on the coasts to find work. He got job offers while he was in rehearsals in Davenport. "I think that's going to become my creative outlet, my incubator."

His Q-C colleagues are thrilled to have the chance to have him around more often. Mr. McKinleytaught a theater class at St. Ambrose two years ago, and in 2007 directed the premiere of "Creme de Coco" at Ambrose.

"He's the strongest director I've every worked with as it pertains to character development," said Cory Johnson, SAU theater professor and star of "Wit."

"He's really excellent at mining the character's dialogue to be as rich and surprisingly interesting as possible," she said. "He's also scary as hell. I consider him a friend; my respect for him is so high."

"I was terrified of Phil when I first started working with him," said Curtainbox Theatre president Kim Furness, the lead in "Creme de Coco." "I learned a tremendous amount. As difficult as the process was sometimes, trying to find what Phil wanted to get out of me, the end product I was really proud of."

"He's the single most versatile, talented person I've ever worked with," Circa '21 owner Denny Hitchcock said. Mr. Hitchcock taught him at Augustana, and Mr. McKinley likes to joke he gave him his only B in his major, in directing. Mr. McKinley has also worked as a singer, dancer, playwright, choreographer, composer, lyricist, and scenic and costume designer.

"I'm incredibly jealous, envious of his versatility," Mr. Hitchcock said. "Everything he does, he does really well. It comes so naturally. That's why he challenges those with whom he's working. Whatever he does, it's to make them reach their potential."

"The fact he can do 'Wit,' do major musicals, the circus, and do 'Ben-Hur Live' -- this guy directs comedy, musicals, serious stuff. He does everything," Mr. Hitchcock added. "It's really been a thrill watching his career."

Mr. McKinley started as a performer, in Vegas, and moved to directing in New York "because I got more joy out of watching somebody else do it," he said."I love to do that to actors – Come on, push yourself, you can do it."

Mr. McKinley specializes in huge productions "because there are very few of us that do them," he said. "It's about mathematics, it really is. You take a football field and separate it into quads. You fill that quad. I go up in the stands and blend those quads. It's a strange way to work."

"That's the symbol of a great director -- no matter how many or how few people there are in a cast, they can perfectly choreograph them," said Jessica Sheridan, a "Wit" actor.

"Ben-Hur Live" played last year at London's O2 Dome – featuring 350 actors and 32 horses. "I used to do productions in my backyard, and I tell people, the backyard has just gotten bigger and more expensive," Mr. McKinley said.

He loved "Wit"because "this is very freeing for me," he said. "I don't have 20 marketing people behind me, and I don't have 32 producers. I can do the work, and not have to worry about those kind of numbers."

"An arena is about visual, you're hoping through the visual impact, you create emotion," Mr. McKinley said. "Wit" is "about the emotional intimacy of it, and you really live the thing."

"The fun part of it comes from the reward of doing something good. 'Wit' is proof of that, this is a group of actors -- never at any time did I feel I was doing a community theater piece. I had a professional company totally committed to the work. 'Wit' is probably one of the shows I'm most proud of."

"The reason why I'm coming back. I need to pass it along now. If I don't, if I just harbor it, it's gonna go nowhere," Mr. McKinley said. "It doesn't matter where you come from. Dream the impossible and make it reality. Dreams are only tomorrow's reality."