David Andrew Macdonald
From soap operas to the Broadway stage, actor David Andrew Macdonald '77 breathes vivid life into a wide array of characters.
It’s Friday night at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and all eyes are on David Andrew Macdonald ’77. He’s in character as Leo Tresler, a pompous businessman with an important decision to make: whether he will bid on a steel company, saving it from financial ruin, or allow it to be bought with junk bonds by the clever but underhanded Robert Merkin. As the tension builds, David delivers a final line, turns around, and exits the stage. Tresler has made his decision – and the story has just taken a shocking turn from which the characters will never recover.
Junk: The Golden Age of Debt, a Tony-nominated play by Ayad Akhtar, was performed this April and May, earning rave reviews from critics and audiences alike. David, a DC native whose career has led him to theaters all over the country – from New York to Minnesota to Utah – returned to his hometown to take up the role of Tresler. From the start, he says, he knew that this play was important.
“Junk is set in 1985, but the author is using that recent history to talk about greed in America now,” David says. “This play goes to the origins of human greed.”
That realization, along with the prospects of portraying Tresler’s complex character and coming back to Arena Stage, a venue David has always loved, was enough to draw him back to the place where he grew up – and where the seeds that grew into his acting career were first planted.
As Potomac students, David and his classmates put on a variety of plays and performances. Tall for his age, he remembers being given the same type of role time and again. “I was always the dad, in everything from Charlotte’s Web to Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” he laughs. “I also really enjoyed the big Christmas play that we did every year. Potomac helped me develop an early love for theater.”
After finishing ninth grade at Potomac, David went on to St. George’s School in Middleton, Rhode Island, where he focused on an interest in opera. However, after being accepted to a college program in operatic vocal performance, he realized that it wasn’t his calling. He had to recalibrate his idea of what he wanted to do with his life.
David recalls, “I was also interested in chamber and medieval music, and the leading scholar for that was at Colorado College. I knew they had a good small theater department there, and it occurred to me that maybe I could pursue that while I was studying music history.”
College was an awakening for David. “I started reading a lot about theater, history, philosophy, and how those things intersect,” he says. “The first play I acted in at Colorado was Chekhov’s Three Sisters – a brilliant play – and because I liked it so much, I just fell into acting from there. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
He says he was drawn to both the challenges and the rewards of the theatrical world: “Acting is a bit like playing four-dimensional chess. There are a number of aspects that you have to keep in mind at all times – for example, the quality of the play itself must be considered, along with the director’s interpretation of the production. But even when it’s hard, going through the rehearsal and performance processes with the other actors can be a profound experience.”
When he was finished with his undergraduate studies, David headed home, to check out the DC theater scene. “I did a few different things: a show at Arena Stage, a premiere called Women of Water, and a few other productions around town,” he says. “But I really didn’t know what I was doing and I knew it, so I decided to apply for graduate school. I was especially interested in Juilliard. I knew it would be very difficult to get in, though.”
But David not only got in – he was also accepted to Harvard’s equally prestigious theater program. Opting for Juilliard because of its emphasis on Shakespeare (one of David’s theatrical passions), he spent the next few years acting in a variety of classical and contemporary plays and perfecting his art. He also managed to secure an agent during this time. At the end of his studies, David landed a role in a play called The Wizards of Quiz. Touring with the show, he missed his Juilliard graduation and catapulted from life as a grad student to life as an working actor.
David recalls a favorite role during this time: “A professor from Juilliard recommended me to a man who was doing a production up in Poughkeepsie; it was a Restoration play, and he was having a hard time casting the male lead. With my professor’s recommendation, I got the opportunity to play Mirabell in The Way of the World. As Restoration plays go, it’s absolutely fabulous – a searing critique of social life in London on the cusp of the 18th century.”
In 1992, David made his Broadway debut in Two Shakespearean Actors, the story of a tragedy that occurred during a performance of Macbeth in the 19th century. With his star rising, David began doing guest appearances on television shows while also continuing his stage work. Then, in 1999, he got a call from his agent that swung his life in a totally unexpected direction.
“He told me that Another World, a popular soap opera at the time, wanted me to get in touch,” David remembers. “And then the show gave me a role as a time-traveling scientist – a terrific part.”
Suddenly, David found himself immersed in the world of the soap opera. “I enjoyed it immensely,” he reflects. “It’s like being in a theatrical MASH unit – you’re constantly getting new writing because it’s all happening so quickly. The storylines were these interwoven, high-drama, almost Dickensian plots that were constantly being expanded upon. Where something like Game of Thrones produced about 10 hours of TV per year, we were doing 246. So if any of it was good, that was a huge accomplishment.”
Another World was winding down when David joined the cast, and when the show ended, he was offered a role on another soap opera, Guiding Light. There, he played Edmund Winslow, a character described by Soaps.com as “infamous.” The youngest son of a fictional nation’s royal family, Edmund is a nefarious schemer who engages in everything from blackmail to kidnapping in an attempt to gain power. David kept the role for nearly a decade.
In retrospect, he acknowledges that the soap world’s challenges could sometimes seem overwhelming. “It’s a tough business – because it goes so fast, there are times you’re good and times you’re bad. When it does go badly, you end up diving into the wreck, figuring out what worked and what didn’t, and making choices that you hope will work to your satisfaction the next time. You always have the chance to learn something.”
Guiding Light aired its last episode in 2009. Its end meant an opportunity for David to turn his full attention back to the theatrical world. Exciting opportunities quickly opened up. Among other parts, he understudied for acclaimed actor Bill Nighy in Broadway’s Skylight; played fight promoter Miles Jergens in Rocky, also on Broadway; and became Sir John Falstaff in the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Of the latter role, David says, “I jumped at the chance because I never thought anyone would cast me as Falstaff! He’s usually played by actors who are more traditionally comedic. But the director wanted to show that Falstaff in this play is only in the first few years of his debauchery – he isn’t yet how we think of him in the Henry plays.”
David is a great believer in research, and he read up on England in the 1550s in order to learn more about Falstaff’s world. “I always thought The Merry Wives of Windsor was a silly bit of fluff next to the Henry plays, but it’s so much more than that,” he muses. “Shakespeare wrote it to appease Elizabeth I, who wanted to see a play where Falstaff was in love – but Shakespeare needed to keep himself entertained as well. So it’s a story about the tail end of feudalism and the way the middle class was rising during that time period. Because Falstaff is a knight, he expects to be able to go into town and seduce women who are married to these newly wealthy merchants, but they just make fun of him – they don’t need him anymore. The story is fascinating if you look at it from that perspective.”
Ultimately, David believes that research is only one of the ingredients he needs to fully embody his roles. “Doing the research is important, but for me, the most important thing is the relationship between the actor and the script,” David explains. “Anything that sparks my imagination is great, and research can be part of that. But bringing a character to life also involves thinking about the right choices for that character and having important conversations with your colleagues about what the play means.”
He adds that the same goes for audience members – and connection can happen even if they don’t ultimately like the play. David reflects, “Stories allow us to organize on a gigantic level; they create cohesion. They bring people who have never met together over a single idea. So I’ve always jokingly said that we actors are in this job for the criticism, because there will be some criticism in all the best conversations. A group of people might sit down after the play and ask, ‘What do you think took place?’ And that act of conversation can bind a community together, whether they’re praising the show or criticizing it.”
It’s a surprising takeaway, given that criticism can be difficult for even the most self-confident performers to take. But David makes an effort to learn and grow from it, rather than letting it hold him back. “You will always run into people who appreciate what you did and people who don’t,” he says. “The only thing you are in control of is your own perspective. I know that I have a voice – some people may not like that voice, but others do, and I want it to be heard. That’s what has kept me going.”
So what’s next for David Andrew McDonald? He and his wife, Monette Magrath, a professional actor herself, currently live in New York City with their four-year-old daughter. David also has two teenagers, so the role of father is an important one for him. Between rehearsals and family life, he engages in a quieter pursuit: writing plays of his own, on which he hopes to spend more time over the coming years. And he will doubtless be seen onstage for many years to come, whether in New York, DC, or elsewhere, bringing stories to life.
“Whether I’m in Hamlet or The Seagull or Rosmersholm or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it’s all about being intimately connected with the words on the page,” David says. “And that’s a complete joy.”