′And a Theater Pops Out′
By Lynn Conlee
Outside McCoy Theatre, blustery winds swayed the surrounding pine trees and a cold evening settled in over the Rhodes campus. The night was Feb. 25, 1982. Inside, equally charged air swirled around the intimate black box theater as a cast of 22 prepared to take the stage for the facility’s inaugural performance. First to set foot in front of the packed house, community actor Marler Stone, playing the narrator Voltaire, delivered the opening lines of “Candide:”
“VOLTAIRE (Reading). In Westphalia in the castle of the Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronck, there lived four young people. All of them were very happy because they knew they were living in the best of all possible castles in the best of all possible countries in the best of all possible worlds. (He rises and starts toward one of the small curtained stages.) The happiest of them all was the noble youth Candide.”
And thus began the saga of one of the most storied traditions at Rhodes, the 30-season history of McCoy Theatre. Over the years, McCoy developed a dramatic trajectory in its own right. With the assistance of several faculty and guest directors, the theater program both preceding and following the opening of McCoy has provided Memphis with some of its most outstanding performances, sets, lighting, costumes and moments.
Sitting around the table of McCoy’s conference room, the department’s current staff talks energetically about the theater’s past, recalling favorite productions and exceptional student actors, finishing one another’s sentences in the manner of longtime couples with many shared memories.
“You had Ray Hill, who was wonderful with the avantgarde, and then Betty Ruffin, who loved the classics,” says Julia “Cookie” Ewing, professor of Theatre and artistic director of McCoy. “And then you had Tony Garner ’65, who loved musicals and ... ” “A theater pops out,” inserts Kevin Collier ’91, performing arts coordinator.
While that sequencing might seem a bit magical, it becomes quickly clear that the longevity of McCoy exists due to year after year of hard work on the part of student and community actors and the faculty who encourage them to, in Ewing’s parlance, “question.”
In the years preceding the idea of McCoy Theatre, classes and performances took place in “Theatre 6,” Room 6 in the basement of Palmer Hall, under the direction of Professor Ray Hill and Professor Betty Ruffin. During her tenure at Rhodes, Ruffin was a one-person Theatre Department, known for her elegance and excellence with Restoration drama.
“One of my favorite memories of Betty,” Ewing recalls, “is from the Renaissance Festival in the 1970s. We did the closet scene from ‘Hamlet’ with Jim Peebles ’78, who was a student at that time. Betty was playing Gertrude and he was playing Hamlet and we did it in the Cloister. Jim was a big man and Betty was this thin woman, frail, and he was throwing her around and she would fling into one of those columns and she never complained, she never stopped, she kept on going. And when it was over she said, ‘Would you like to see something?’ and she rolled up her sleeve and it was black and blue.”
Ruffin’s toughness and ability to persevere helped define the Theatre Department; it also foreshadowed the upcoming drive that led to McCoy. At the time, campus planners were intending to demolish the vacant, 3,600-square-foot Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house, built in 1950. Students, particularly music major Kevin Jagoe ’81, had another idea. It involved a theater.
“Kevin started a petition to stop the demolition of Zeta house, and was successful,” recalls Ewing. “At first, we performed in what is now the lobby of McCoy. You could still smell the smoke from the fireplace.”
Jagoe recalls those early performances, but insists he was just one of many who saved the Zeta house.
“I think the movers and shakers and people who should really be applauded for getting the space would be Cookie and the Southwestern Players because it took a lot of effort for people to make contacts and talk to people. When any meetings came up we tried to attend and tried to say our piece and put forth a very thoughtful reason about why we should have a theater.”
But an even better plan was taking shape. When Memphis real estate developer Harry B. McCoy Jr. died in 1966, his will stipulated that a trust be created and that “primary interest will be focused upon developments in the theater.” McCoy Foundation money was already supporting a visiting artist program on campus. The foundation granted $750,000 to renovate the old Zeta house into what Mr. McCoy was said to have wanted: “a little jewel of a theater.” The new 5,000-square-foot addition featured a “black box” performance space. For the exterior design, Met Crump of Taylor and Crump Architects created a building that melded beautifully with the campus’ natural setting. A gala event was held Jan. 21, 1982, to celebrate.
Widely credited with what Ewing describes as “harnessing the energy for McCoy,” founding artistic director Tony Garner ’65 told Southwestern Today, a precursor to Rhodes magazine, “I see McCoy as a place where actors, actresses and technicians all receive training and experience. But all this exists within the milieu of a liberal arts education. You get an educated graduate able to pursue the same kind of acting career as one who’d gone to a professional acting school.”
Ewing concurs. “It was the community and students working together to give a sense of what could be done.”
Nowhere was this more evident than in McCoy’s first production, “Candide,” a musical version of Voltaire’s 1759 satire, with a cast of 13 students and nine community actors portraying 75 roles. The 10-performance run set on seven stages was directed by community member Barry Fuller, with musical direction by Tony Garner ’65, technical direction/ production by Laura Canon ’79 and costumes coordinated by David Jilg ’79 and Bette Dale Garner ’72, Garner’s wife and fellow theater enthusiast. Both Canon and Jilg have since returned to and remain at Rhodes as Theatre faculty members.
Marler Stone asked Fuller if he could be included in the cast. Stone’s stentorian voice opened the show, and he played five roles in the performance.
“It was great working with those young people,” Stone says. “I was twice as old as they were but it was a great cast of young people. They were very energetic. And it was good for them, too, to be working with people like Barry Fuller and have that experience.” The abbreviated inaugural season went on to produce “Brecht on Brecht,” directed by Ewing, and “The World We Live In,” directed by Ray Hill.
Season 2 initiated a tradition that has become synonymous with McCoy: the production of plays by The Bard.
“We have a strong tradition of Shakespeare,” says Ewing. “We are doing things others in town can’t do and we like to ask big questions.”
Jilg notes that one of the advantages of being a college theater, subsidized by the college, is the ability to select plays on their merit without concern about their commercial viability. McCoy’s nonprofit status has allowed it to experiment with Shakespeare in ways that have pushed the boundaries of audience approval.
The company’s Shakespeare tradition began with “The Tempest,” brought to the stage by guest director Bennett Wood in May 1983. The next year, Ewing’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” drew praise from the Memphis Business Journal ’s theater critic Edwin Howard. The show “crackled with invention and spirit under Julia ‘Cookie’ Ewing’s clever direction,” he wrote when selecting the play as one of the year’s best citywide. All told, 12 Shakespeare plays have graced the McCoy stage.
But few productions earned the attention that Ewing’s “Hamlet” did in Season 22.
“We turned it on its head,” she says. Indeed, Ewing prepped the audience for the departure from tradition in her director’s note from the playbill: “This is not your traditional ‘Hamlet.’ We have laughter and fun. We have music and pratfalls. There are no traditional costumes.” Photos from the performance show actors dressed in contemporary, daily attire. “We liked to say, ‘It’s not your mama’s Shakespeare,’” Ewing laughs.
A few traditionalists voiced dislike of the production, but the overwhelming response was positive, Ewing says.
“The thing that I will remember is that the audience, after every performance, did not want to leave. They stood, and they clapped, and they did not want to leave.”
While all productions bring with them challenges, McCoy consistently has undertaken plays controversial in nature and difficult in scope. Season 23 brought to stage “The Laramie Project,” a play written about the brutal 1998 hate-crime killing of Matthew Shepard near Laramie, WY. Elaborate musicals such as “Cabaret,” “The Fantasticks,” “Robber Bridegroom” and “Carnival” take place typically once a year during the performance season. But arguably, little compares with the tackling in 1985 of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.”
McCoy Theatre lays claim to being the first in the South—and the first college troupe ever—to stage the 7½-hour show, a production so lengthy that it was performed in two-night runs 12 times. “Nick Nick” as it is affectionately referred to at McCoy, required 2 ½ months of rehearsal (220 hours), followed by 100 hours onstage in performance. It involved a community-wide cast of 38 actors playing 131 roles in 95 scenes.
Bringing the 360-page script to life resulted in a cost of $20,000, almost a whole year’s budget, Garner told the Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ daily newspaper. The sheer scope of the endeavor led to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and helped net Garner the Clarence Day Dean’s Award for Research and Creative Activitiy. And again, Memphis Business Journal critic Howard chose a McCoy production as one of the year’s best.
Perhaps the resilience of McCoy casts and crews as they undertook those difficult productions over the years prepared them for an unexpected moment that even today affects the joyous celebration of the theater’s 30th season. In the mid-1990s, Garner was diagnosed with cancer. Throughout his treatment, he continued to work, conducting concerts—even singing at a benefit for Memphis actor Jim Ostrander, also battling cancer, whose name is attached to the city’s annual theater awards. Garner had turned over his duties to Ewing by the time he died June 25, 1998, at age 55.
“One of the beautiful things, though, at his memorial service, which was at Evergreen (Presbyterian Church),” Ewing reflects, “was that all of those singers he had taught came back and they started singing and that whole place was just incredible. I’ve never heard anything like that since.” Today, the campus’ only fountain serves as a memorial to Garner. Dedicated at Homecoming 1999, the fountain is in Garner Court at the main entrance to McCoy Theatre.
Thanks again to the McCoy Foundation, in 2006, the theatre underwent an expansion that added office and classroom space along with a costume shop and a studio that compares in size to the actual performance area. Along the hallway of the new space hangs what might be another tribute to Garner: professional headshots of all the students on campus who are active in McCoy productions, be they theater or econ majors, undecided or bound for a career in medicine. The diversity of students attests to Garner’s hopes for a teaching theater grounded in the liberal arts, and to the current faculty’s ability to draw students from all disciplines.
As Season 30 opened with a bang in October 2010, the hallway of photos was packed with theatergoers poring over 29 digital photo frames and scrapbooks featuring every past McCoy performance. Before filling the hallway, the crowd had seen a reprisal of “The Robber Bridegroom,” originally produced in Season 8. In November, a reunion for the cast of “Nicholas Nickleby” drew 22 out of 32 surviving members of the original cast, many of whom recorded their memories in a video session. Their stories and the recollections of all the other cast and crew members over the years give McCoy life, says Ewing.
While much has changed since “Candide” opened that cold February night, the core values that have made McCoy Theatre successful—innovation, resilience, quality, fearlessness—remain. But, as Tony Garner wrote in the program for Season 1’s final performance, when “a theater pops out,” a little magic is, after all, required: “I recall standing squarely in the center of the McCoy Theatre just prior to its completion. As I stood there, it occurred to me that no matter how functional this space was, no matter how attractive the facility, no matter what promise of the future lay ahead, what the McCoy Theatre needed was people ... ‘spirits’ or actors, performers, artists, directors, musicians, technicians and those other never seen but behind the scene people who help bring a theatre to life.
“Three months later, on the night after ‘Brecht on Brecht’ was struck, I came into the theater rather late in the evening. All the platforms were out, the lights were down and the theater appeared to be much like it was before it opened. But on this night the theater was warm and alive with ‘spirits.’ People had filled this space and had learned much from it. Communities of actors and technicians had taken the raw materials of script, score and talent and had created the magic of theater.”