Laurie McCants is a dramachick to the core. A graduate of Northwestern University’s master of arts in theatre program, she joined a group of her fellow graduates in a cross-country trip to the rural Pennsylvania town of Bloomsburg, seeking the instruction of Alvina Krause, a retired Northwestern theatre professor. They not only took private lessons with Krause for five years, but they stayed in Bloomsburg and decided to start their own theatre company — the renowned Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble — and named their theatre space after their mentor.
Says McCants, “I feel extremely grateful for my fate…the accident of going to Northwestern….the accident of finding out about Alvina Krause…the accident that the people who traveled out to Bloomsburg with me were these kind of people…ones who said, ‘let’s do it!'”
Since the inception of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble in 1978, McCants’ success has been anything but accidental. Her work as an actress, a director, and a playwright is receiving attention because it is excellent work; the result of months or even years of research and preparation. Now McCants has taken a step away from her ensemble work to create a fascinating one-woman show, Industrious Angels.
As a resident of northeast Pennsylvania and a long-time fan of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, it was a pleasure and a privilege to sit down for an interview with McCants. What follows is only a fraction of what we discussed; the entire conversation was fantastic, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ve tried to pull out for you some of the very best bits. In fact, there is so much more I’d like to tell you about this amazing artist, that this will be part I, with part II to come next Friday. Enjoy!
dramachicky (dc): When people ask what your career is, or what you do, what do you tell them?
Laurie McCants (LM): I say I’m a theatre artist, but then people always go, “Huh? What does that mean?” I’m very much a generalist in that I’m an actor, I’m a director, I’m a writer, I’m a teacher, I’m a life-long student, I’m an avid theatre-goer…So you know, my job encapsulates all that. Plus, I will add to that art advocate. Theatre advocate. I’m an activist in terms of the place of arts in our society.
dc: You are a founding member of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, where you have worked as an actress and director since 1978. How and when did you take the step into playwriting?
LM: I’ve done a lot of writing with (BTE’s) Theatre-In-the-Classroom program, which is a wonderful program…(that) tours to the elementary and middle schools all over Pennsylvania and the surrounding states….I love that program…(it) started with this idea that we were going to be performing works that we create on folk literature and world cultures and local history…We usually have a director-slash-writer as part of the creation process, but it is very much an ensemble-generated process and I’ve done a lot of writing connected with that. I think the first one I did was Passage to America…about the immigrant experience in America.
dc: Before Industrious Angels, you did a lot of collaborative writing. Can you tell me about that?
LM: (Passage to America led to) the co-writing with Jim Goode of Patchworks: Life in a Coal Town, which was about another immigrant experience…about the “patchtowns” in the coal region around the turn of the century. And that lead to Jim and I writing Hard Coal, which was an extravaganza: music, theatre, dance, image, documentary theatre piece. We worked with a composer and a choreographer on that. Then another piece that I wrote fairly recently was Susquehanna: Mighty Muddy Crooked River of the Long Reach…and I was the primary writer on that and also the director, although a lot of the script was created from what I gleaned from the work that the ensemble did. We did a lot of improvisational work in creating the piece.
And then a piece that I didn’t work with the ensemble on was a piece that I wrote called The Alexandria Carry-On…which I created in collaboration with a composer/performer named Theo Bleckmann….we created a piece about the ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt. I wrote the piece and all of the lyrics for the piece; he wrote the music, and together we created the performance aspect of the piece, which was a lot of music and dance. The songs were all adapted from ancient texts that might have been held in the library…And we got to perform it at the new library in Alexandria, Egypt, which led to discovering and collaborating with an Egyptian shadow puppet theatre company. We created…a bilingual shadow puppet play called Our Shadows.
I have to say that the processes that I used to come up with the solo show are the ones that I learned in the ensemble in terms of generating material; how to take text and turn it into performance.
dc: So after all this collaborative work, what led you to do a solo project?
LM: It was one of those accidents…happy accidents…a happy confluence of circumstance. Through BTE and through the Network of Ensemble Theatres, I’ve had a long-term association with the Ko Festival of Performance of Amherst, Mass. It’s a wonderful festival run by Sabrina Hamilton….and I started going up to Amherst every summer to work on pieces with Sabrina or participate in workshops she presents there….And so, a few summers ago — I think this was 2007 — I was driving up to Amherst because I had signed up for a course in Making Solo Theatre, just on a lark because I thought, “Gosh, maybe I can make something for myself to perform.” But I was supposed to come with an idea; I was supposed to do some homework…and I was just emerging from (the Egyptian shadow puppet collaboration) and driving to Amherst thinking, “Oh my God, I didn’t do my homework.”
Well, at BTE when we make our own work, it’s usually about the place where we live. So where am I going? I’m going to Amherst, Mass. What do I know about it, other than it’s a great town…? Well, Emily Dickinson’s house is there. That’s where Emily Dickinson lived. Well, I’m not going to make a solo piece about Emily Dickinson, that’s been done to death, it’s ridiculous. So I got to Amherst (and) I went for a visit to her house, which I’ve done before, but this time I was just hit….when I got up to the second floor and you’re ushered to the bedroom where she wrote the poems…and her story is so interesting because there’s a lot of mystery connected to it…and what I was hit with was the vivid memory of my mother reading Emily Dickinson poetry to me when I was small linked with the memory of my reading an Emily Dickinson poem to my mother when she passed away, at the moment of her death, and realizing that there is some link there that I need to find out about in terms of my mother, Emily Dickinson, and me. And that’s how the piece was born.
McCants went on to workshop Industrious Angels at the Ko Festival for two summer residencies. Industrious Angels previewed at the Moose Exchange, Bloomsburg’s community center, and premiered as the first production of this year’s Ko Festival.
Tune in next week to learn more about this fascinating theatre artist.