Note: this article will be published in the November 2012 issue of KC Stage Magazine.
Chris McCoy’s career can be summed up in his own words of being at the right place at the right time. “It’s funny you mention being lucky: I do kind of feel that I lucked into a lot of awesome experiences,” he says.
Born and raised in Overland Park, McCoy knew he wanted to do theatre from a very young age. “I knew it’s what I wanted to do when I was like five years old,” he says, talking of going to The Theatre in the Park performances growing up. He started taking dance, then voice lessons, and started working professionally his senior year of high school.
He started his college experience at William Jewell, and then transferred to KU. “And you know, I really fell in love with studying theatre,” McCoy says. “I wasn’t as interested in performing – I was much more interested in directing, choreographing, more behind the scenes work, and fell in love with dramaturgy and script analysis and all that stuff.
“It was at that point in my life that I kind of figured [that] I’m not sure I want to be a performer, but I’m really interested in education and theatre and how those two things can work together.” He talked to one of his professors, Jeanne Klein, about his love of theatre and love of education, and she turned him toward the idea of being an education director. “So I learned about this entire career about theatre education direction. And I was like, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do.’ Because I could get professional experience, I could work in the professional theatre. I really wanted to understand the arts as a national economy, so I wanted to get out of Kansas and see not necessarily the world, but at least the country. And that seemed like the perfect fit for me.”
Seeing the country was definitely something McCoy ended up doing. Starting at Seattle Children’s Theatre with a summer internship program, he then did a year-long internship with Alliance Theatre in Atlanta – which included being involved with the production of Elaborate Lives, which is now better known as Aida, where he got to meet Tim Rice and Elton John. “Working there for a year was amazing,” he says with a tinge of still not quite believing it had happened. “That’s the largest professional theatre in the southeast United States. They just had a lot of young people who were working there, and so that kind of spread me into the arts community quickly.”
After Atlanta, he got a year-long internship as the assistant for the education department with the Denver Center Theatre Company which turned into a full-time job for two years. “I was working with fabulous teachers there. The Denver Center had a company of a core group of actors who would perform in all of their shows. So, learning from them, taking classes with them, [and] watching them in all their different roles was an amazing experience.” It was here that McCoy had another brush with modern theatre history: being at the world premiere of The Laramie Project. “I actually got to work on the study guide for that,” McCoy says with more than a little pride in his voice, “[and] meet Moisés Kaufman and a number of performers in that. And so it was kind of – again, imagine – lucky time, just happened to be at the right place, right time to experience that world premiere. That really had a huge impact up on the way that I thought about art, because I got really excited about this concept of documentary theatre, and started doing research into the living newspapers of the Federal Theatre Project, which Moisés Kaufman admits was an inspiration for him. It was an example of something in the theatre really reflecting what was going on in larger popular culture.”
While there, he applied for a national fellowship with Opera America, the national service organization for all professional opera companies in North America. While readily admitting knowing almost nothing about opera when he applied, he thinks the fact that he was the only applicant with an education background was what helped him get the offer. “The purpose of this fellowship is to place you with regional opera companies for three to four months at a time. So, you spend three to four months in a different city, you learn about what that opera’s doing, and then you would have projects that you kind of develop with that opera company.”
In his work with Opera America, his first placement was at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, where he got to work on their prison arts program where they took opera to prisons. “That was one of the most moving and amazing experiences I’ve ever had. You think, you know, prisoners – you don’t think would like opera music, but they loved it. It reconfirmed how the arts can change lives and can reach across huge class and racial barriers.”
Opera America then sent him with San Diego Opera, one of the largest opera companies in the country. “You can imagine, when that much money is at stake, it raises the bar. But I got to go to board meetings, I got to do the opening night gala, and really see how a large organization worked. I definitely learned about how a major multi-million dollar arts organization ran.”
Finally, they sent him to Austin Lyric Opera, where he worked with a summer camp that had kids writing their own operas. “One of the most rewarding projects I got to do there was actually a summer camp at a homeless shelter, working with kids who were at a homeless shelter. And it was a very challenging group. Somehow I connected with them. Some of the other teachers had some problems, but they loved me. I think it was because I did a lot of dance and movement work with them. So they brought me back numerous times, and that was really awesome. Again, showing me that arts reach across barriers, you know? Especially when working with youth.”
Austin extended his contract for six months so he could help with the production of Dead Man Walking. The opera company brought in Terrance McNally and Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the book, for a symposium in association with the University of Texas at Austin, Catholic Charities, and Performing Arts Research Coalition. “My job was to work with all of the arts organizations in Austin. We were doing these audience surveys to find out what the arts mean to people who lived in the city, how arts enriched the lives of citizens.”
After Austin, McCoy came back to Kansas City: not only to go for his master’s at UMKC in curriculum and instruction, but also to help with the Teach for America program. After that, he got a job with Theater League in arts administration, back when they were based in the Music Hall. “That’s an industry I hadn’t worked in,” he says for why he applied for the position. “I had worked in regional theatre, I had worked in regional opera, and with the national service organization, so I thought, yeah – that’s a logical next step is then do touring.”
McCoy definitely felt it was a learning experience. “I’m not a techie. I love and admire tech work, so that was my opportunity to really get my hands grubby and get in and learn all of the back stage things that have to happen to make a tour go on. And it was great, although I was at the Music Hall from six in the morning until midnight for like an entire two weeks of pre-production planning. But I loved it, you know. And when you’re doing theatre, it may be exhausting and it’s long hours, but if you love what you’re doing, it makes it all worthwhile.”
He became the manager of education and community programs, partly because he wrote a national grant to do education in relation to the tour of Hairspray the Theater League was producing on the civil rights movement in Kansas City. He then helped create the Kansas City Festival of New Musicals along with Kate Egan [Egan did a photo essay for KC Stage‘s September 2006 issue about this] and Bess Wallerstein. “It was nationally recognized. We got a number of submissions from all over the world. It was really fun, interesting, new – brought artists to Kansas City. I consider myself the cultural ambassador for Kansas City. As I’ve been traveling around, I always say that because we have so many amazing artists and arts organizations here, and that’s just not what people think of when they think of the Midwest. So, bringing these writers to Kansas City: they were so impressed with how much we had, with the talent that we had, and it was really an awesome situation. And it gave local artists the opportunity to work on a world premiere musical, which is not something you get to do. It was only a week of rehearsals, and so it was a really, really fun and awesome experiment that I’d love to bring back, hint hint, if anyone’s out there in the reading world want to fund a project like that.”
Then, he then went to Emerson College to pursue his dream of teaching on the college level. “Robbie McCauley, actually, was one of the main reasons that I decided to go there,” he says as to why Emerson. “She was a solo performance artist in the 1960s in the black arts movement, and she is an amazing performer and teacher. She just had this amazing career, but was dedicated to using the arts to transform lives both through education and now through community-based programming. And so I was like, okay, if anybody in the country, she’s the one I want to learn from. I want her to be my mentor.”
After attending Emerson for two years, he was accepted to the University of California at Davis. He’s currently writing his dissertation for his PhD, which – in a very unusual way – is what landed him back in the Kansas City area, teaching at JCCC and directing. “I met with Beate Pettigrew. She and I worked together at The Barn, which was one of my first directing gigs in Kansas City, and she believed in my talent. She said, ‘Would you be interested in coming back to JCCC and directing and teaching now that you’re working on a PhD?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ So, I’m teaching the history of musical theatre. I’ve got nine amazing students who are learning to take this cultural approach to theatre history and musicals in particular and apply that critical eye. Teaching college at UC Davis, I got to teach two classes on my own as well as be a TA every quarter. And it is the most fulfilling and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I just know that that is where I am supposed to be, and that’s what I’m supposed to do. Someone reminded me of the quote, ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And that’s how I feel about the past two years of finally being able to move into this collegiate world.”
JCCC’s fall musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, drew him in since it’s the subject of his dissertation – in a way. “Musicals really begin to form in the 1890s, and that’s when this show is set,” says McCoy. “In a way, it has that symbolic purpose for me. It’s kind of like, okay, I’m beginning this new career path of teaching and directing on the college level, and so I chose a show that reflects the beginning of the new genre of musical theatre.”
As to what draws him to teaching, he has a quick answer. “Directing and teaching are the two things that I love, because I think directing is teaching and teaching is directing, so they’re very much linked. When you’re teaching, you form it from the beginning. I feel like George M. Cohen in my classroom. A great quote that I heard is that teaching is 75% preparation and 25% performance, and it’s true. It’s just like when you’re on stage as a good performer. You’re constantly attuned with how the audience is – that energy in the room. And I think it’s that live energy, especially in our increasingly media-tized age, that live energy of person to person interaction – I live for that. Any time that you can be in a room and feel that unspeakable, undefinable energy – that’s what I thrive on. And that is the magic of live theatre, and that is the magic of teaching and education.”
Chris McCoy will be in the Kansas City area at least until the show he’s directing, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, is performed, which is Nov 9 – 11 and 16 – 18. More information on the show is available on the JCCC’s website under “Current Season”.