Interview with Cherri McKay, in which she discusses her involvement in the local arts community.
Jones: Today is Thursday, March 27th, 2008. I'm Carroll Jones with Chris Malpass with the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History Project, and we're in the Helen Hagen Room of Special Collections. Our guest today is Cherri McKay. Cherri is a very visible force in the arts community in New Hanover County as an innovator in bringing theater to all ages, and I might add to different stages. Directs and trains children, works with established actors, very involved with production, has her own company, at least one right?
Jones: Two, all right. And has a commuter marriage of longstanding with her New York based husband in theater, a daughter, a son in Wilmington involved in theater since early childhood. The odd one out is a son in the Navy. Cherri is also very visible and very much a part of, and I believe a past officer, president maybe, of the Arts Accord Center.
McKay: Community Arts Center Accord.
Jones: The Community Center-- well, you know, I was told that, but...
McKay: That's okay. It's an Accord.
Jones: Yeah, it's an Accord. So Cherri, what do the McKays talk about when you get together?
McKay: It depends on the mood we're in. It's really not about theater to tell you the truth. It's about having bicoastal marriages and children in different cities and lots of humor.
Jones: A lot of family things.
McKay: A lot of family. We're very family oriented. It's what centers and focuses me and I hope will be instilled in my children.
McKay: Yeah, I hope so. So a lot of laughing going on at the McKay table.
Jones: Good. That's good.
Jones: Tell us, where were you born, and a little bit about your family, any influences that were, or mentors that brought you from wherever that is to this point now.
McKay: I probably, absolutely, have to give credit to my parents for the person I am today, and all the experiences I've had growing up. But I was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Jones: So you are a Tar Heel.
McKay: I am. I am. And my father retired from the Marine Corps about the time I would have been in first grade. So they built their first home in Jacksonville, a new subdivision at the time, Northwoods Park, which doesn't look anything like I remember it. And the house that I thought was huge as a little girl is so little. But, nonetheless, moved from there around seventh grade, and then eventually made my way to Chicago, just right outside of Chicago about 50 miles.
Jones: How old were you then?
McKay: I was just going into my freshman year of high school, so what, 15, 16, a very impressionable time. I was very upset about leaving the Washington, D.C., Virginia area, Alexandria, had a great boyfriend.
Jones: Now wait a minute. You went from Jacksonville to Alexandria?
McKay: Jacksonville to, out to, actually to Maryland for a year and then to Alexandria, Virginia for about a year and a half, I believe.
Jones: And where did you live there?
McKay: In Alexandria in it was Mayfair Apartments on Duke Street.
Jones: On Duke, okay, go ahead. So did you go to Williams High School?
McKay: I went to Francis C. Scott...
Jones: Scott Key.
McKay: Scott Key, yes. Boy that's all coming back. Wow, I hadn't thought about that, and Hammond High School.
Jones: Hammond High School, okay.
McKay: Yes. And at the time where segregation was just happening, so that a very much a part of my high school there. But was very upset to leave there and move to the Chicago area, Waukegan, and especially the home of Jack Benny, and did not want to go to traditional high school because I was upset with my parents about moving away from my boyfriend and all that was good and great.
Jones: A normal teenager.
McKay: Yeah, so I decided I would go to an all girls' Catholic high school. It only took me about a year before I was ready to move out of that and into traditional high school. Where we-- strong, strong arts community there, but I have to say as far as my parents and influencing me my mom and dad were both-- the arts were a huge big part of their lives. They loved being entertained by it. My father's-- well, my aunt who I never met had a number one hit record back in the '40s, and she left the career to be married, but. And my, one of my cousins by marriage is Cliff Robertson who goes way back to the old, was it Wagon-- what was it, Wagon Train, I believe. So my dad...
Jones: He did well.
McKay: He did well. He was blackballed for a while from what I understand, but then he came back as things...
Jones: He did well as to who he married too.
McKay: And so there's always been a strong sense of arts and, you know, just entertainment. And living in the Chicago area boy oh boy there's, you know, people talk about New York and Broadway, but Chicago is a huge thriving wonderful place to be, wonderful place to be exposed to the arts and to be a part of it. And I have to say went to school, studied liberal arts, met my husband at a very young age, became pregnant with our first child at a very young age, and one thing led to another, and before we knew it he was into community theater in Waukegan. And, you know, it was-- mom was there. Mom was there part of it, doing things because there was a mom there, you know, had to be with the child, and my own interest in it. And it just was a thriving place to be. And my husband was made an offer to-- he was in the Navy as well, but as he got out he worked with Texas Instruments and Phillips Electronic. He was into the more technical field, but my father made him an offer to come into the media specialty business by form of video stores, which back in that time was a big deal. And it would get him off the road. He traveled extensively, and by then we had two children and, you know, it was like, "Yes, do it." And so we went into business with my father, and of course, became even closer to film, media, a lot of consumer electronic shows, and so my interest was diversified from theater, to film, to media specialty. I have to say, in between that before we even went into that business I had worked for my father. He was a government contractor, so I was an administrator for him running a government contract, taking care of six to seven hundred employees, the payroll department, and being the first to develop a payroll system which we take for granted now, putting your, you know...
Jones: This was before computers.
McKay: Yeah, this was like-- there were computers, but they were dinosaurs. They were huge. And my father was a brilliant business man, I have to say. And he came up with an idea, just an idea if we can hook up this badge reader to this-- and have a program built, a software to be able to have people punch in instead of manually do the time cards, which I used to figure out. We actually did-- we came up with it, and it was-- went into a magazine. And he called it Code Data Systems. And it was very innovative at the time. So as the arts took a second seat all the electronic things opened up to me, computers and, you know, so I was able to learn a lot about, you know, administrative things. Insurance, I mean, you know, as you go in life you experience different things in jobs, and that was all consuming. And then, you know, I-- he decided to retire. He didn't get the contract back. I stayed at home for a little while, reconnected with me and had another-- and then he made the offer to go into business. And my husband came off the road and we opened video stores. And I ran one and my husband ran another, and it was very consuming, and wasn't really conducive to raising small children, and...
Jones: I was going to ask you, did you raise the kids in the back of the store?
McKay: My daughter, Jenna, yes. I mean, you know, her favorite video was Wizard of Oz. We'd pack her lunch and she'd come to the store and sit there. Nobody saw her behind the counter, but she was back there watching the movies, and learned a lot, but it was not really what we wanted to do. I think we just-- we wanted a slower pace. And the kids, by the way, were thriving in the arts as well especially my oldest son who was 14 at the time had done a lot of community shows. And the educational system was very supportive much like they are in New York City. I mean, they spent a lot of their fieldtrips were going to the Goodman Theater and, you know, they saw Phoebe Cates and Brian Dennehy, Taming of the Shrew. It was, you know, it was taken for granted almost. And then when I moved to North Carolina which, by the way, was a leap of faith. Since I had grown up in Jacksonville we'd always come back here to visit family, and my brother-in-law who's a professor here at UNCW, his family had moved here, and that was my sister's husband, and very close to her, and she said, "Why don't you just come and hang out for a while and just play as long as you want.
Jones: When was this?
McKay: That would have been in 1990. And so I came and hung out at the beach and left my husband to run the stores. And in the meantime we were considering moving. And I said, "I found us a house." It'll be ready in a month, can we do this?"
Jones: And that was in Jacksonville?
McKay: No, it was here.
McKay: Yeah, it was here in Wilmington, actually on Clear Run Drive not too far from here. And we packed everything. Went back and had to tell my parents that we were leaving. That was tough being the baby of six and living five minutes away from mom and dad. And they had-- they were the closest grandchildren, so that was really, really tough, but...
Jones: But you felt you had to do it.
McKay: We needed to. Mike and I really didn't talk a lot of dialogue. It was just we knew it. We just knew. If we had talked about it we may have talked ourselves out of it. So we came here and threw ourselves into Wilmington. And I was fortunate enough to say home with the children and become more involved in their lives, in the schools. And, you know, I'm looking around to see what's out there, the arts and Jason went back to it, and he got very involved in New Hanover High.
Jones: Tell us from your perspective, 1990, the arts, what was here?
McKay: Not a lot, but enough. Beautiful Thalian Hall was mesmerizing, loved it, the history intrigued me, went to see some things there, touring companies mostly. It was a birthday play, actually my sister-in-law and brother who live in Emerald Isle, she came up to take me out to a play called Rainy, and it was a traveling company that performed it. And first time in Thalian Hall and it just-- it was beautiful. But not a lot of big community stuff going on like now, enough.
Jones: That's what I want to hear, yeah.
McKay: Enough. There, you know, there was Opera House. I barely remember that. I think it was just beginning, didn't stick out in my mind. There was Kids and Company which my sister had talked about a lot. Her name was Lynn Panko [ph?]. She's since gone. She was tragically killed, but my sister always likens me to her in a way that she worked, you know, with children and did a lot of the same things that I like to do with them. And she says, "You remind me so much of what Lynn did." And so that was here. Obviously, the Thalian Association was here. Don't remember a lot about what they were doing at the time. I just knew I wanted to be involved in some way. Community Arts Center, the first happening there was taking my baby at the time, Kalen [ph?], who's now 18. He wasn't quite a year, to the Fit for Fun there that Kathy Kittleson [ph?] ran. And it was just a cute little place...
Jones: That was about 1990, '91 something like that?
McKay: Ninety, 1990. And it was an arts center.
Jones: Now in 1990 it was called the Community Arts Center?
McKay: Yeah. It was an arts center.
McKay: They had home school classes going on in there.
Jones: I remember when they had all kinds of things going on.
McKay: Yeah. Square dancing started, was happening, but the Thalian Association was not there yet. So it wasn't theatrically inclined yet, so. But, you know, the schools, you know, Kalen, or Jason, sorry I have my mother's disease where we called all the kids by the same name. I've been accused, go through them.
Jones: Every family does that. You're not alone.
McKay: Yeah, so Jason my oldest, was very involved in New Hanover High School's drama department. He did a lot of things. He did a lot of innovative stuff at the time. AIDS was a big deal, did a wonderful show. I don't remember the name of it, but it was so moving, and it was about AIDS and how people got AIDS, you know. Was it really from needle use? What was it really from? So it was very provocative for the time.
Jones: I imagine it was in this town particularly.
McKay: In this town. And the interesting thing about it was the superintendent at the time caught notice of it and thought it was so well done. And then the Health Department caught notice of it. So they picked it up and they took it around New Hanover County and opened it at the end of it as an open forum for discussion about AIDS and HIV. So it was the beginning.
Jones: Where did he get his research to-- because at that time, really, I think that it was pretty much accepted there were only two ways to get AIDS.
McKay: Well, this performance, and forgive me, the playwright I don't know the name, evidentially had done their homework. And they were able to create characters that questioned, well, somebody's brother was dying of AIDS, and so these young teenage kids were left to wonder, "Well gosh, did he get it from prostitution, did he get it from needle use, did he kiss somebody? And it brought up their own kind of insecurities about it. What if I kiss somebody who has a brother who had it? It was very well done.
Jones: And needed at that time.
McKay: And very much needed. And I, in fact, just about a year ago I found a letter that superintendent sent...
Jones: Who was the superintendent?
McKay: Was, I think, it McNeal [ph?] at the time, if my memory serves me correct. It's been a while. So he would have been like 16, yeah in late '70s. And a newspaper, they took a beautiful picture of all the kids. And so, anyway, I was beginning to really become more and more involved. Kalen [ph?] was becoming, you know, more of a little one. And I had worked with my kids in theater off and on through the years, you know, through different jobs, but was able to go back and, you know, nursed Kalen in a theater. So, you know, I would go there and hold a book and stage manage with a baby in my arms.
Jones: Let me ask you something. Having continued to stay in the theater and with kids, and having raised children to do this, do you feel this was healthy for your children as far as expressing themselves and being themselves, and perhaps freeing up-- what am I trying to say, oh, their inner self in some way.
McKay: Without a doubt. Without a doubt, and each one of them are obviously individuals, but...
Jones: And that's the other thing, allowing them to be themselves.
McKay: And they were. And they're all different actors as well. Each child, I mean, there's seven years between each one of my kids, so they all, you know, they weren't...
Jones: Oh, you did take a deep breath.
McKay: Yes, seven years. It was seven year itch as my husband called it. We weren't having affairs we were having babies. But yeah, absolutely, Jason, the oldest, you know, formed the friendships and the bonding that happens, you know, in a performance during a period of a rehearsal time, and they just seemed to have each other, and they were, you know, quirky, some kids quirky in the theater. They get that odd kind of stereotype, well, the more expressive artistically you are, you know, the bigger space you need to do it, and what better place than either backstage, onstage or, you know, just creating art in a performance way, so yeah. And I-- and when I'm working with the youth now, and I always meet with the parents, and I tell them, "You know, I'm not here to make your child the next Broadway star." That's not my mission. I'm giving them an opportunity to express themselves. They may find that being on the stage is not what they want to do. They may find that it's backstage. It may be more technical. It may be artistic in props, or it may be organization. Maybe they're the one who wants to stage manage. I said but, "I can guarantee you this, that as their little lives grow and they become more involved in school, and they have to get up before an audience and speak, they'll be good speakers." They will not be so afraid of it. And there's so many grown people I know today that are scared to get, you know, they're brilliant. They can write beautiful, but to stand up before an audience and to give a speech is nerve racking. So I said, "If anything they, you know, I will give them that." And so yeah, I do believe it's fundamentally should be a part of their education.
Jones: Have you ever either done or been asked to do small groups of adults who really have no wish to become an actor, but who need to learn how to speak in front of a group, who are in business, who are in industry, who can express themselves and capture their business audience.
McKay: I've never been-- no I've never been asked to do that but, I mean, I certainly would if anybody needed it. I'd be happy to try to walk them through it.
Jones: A lot of the larger corporations will handpick some of their people, particularly if they're going around the country selling a product or whatever, and it's very effective.
McKay: Motivational speaking.
McKay: Yeah, absolutely.
Jones: It's motivational speaking, but not by one person who does all the traveling.
McKay: Yeah. It is--
Jones: But this is what you're doing is you're actually readying young people to feel confident, standup and not afraid to speak.
McKay: Absolutely, it's one facet of what I do. It absolutely is. There's also the self rewarding part of it. I mean, there's nothing more exciting to me than to read a play and to envision it coming to life with the actors on stage, and to go through the process of the audition process to the very last day when you tear the set down and put it away. There's something incredibly inspiring and awakening in me, and it's a little selfish in practice, disciplined or selfish, I don't know which. I also know that it's a period of time that when it's done it's done and I can move onto something else whether it be domestication, whether it be to go-- just be at the beach for the family week. I know that I can come back to another show, another play, something that moves me, or a mission, or an obligation and know that it's that period of time. That it will be over and it'll leave you with-- so yeah, there's many different. I feel very diversified in my wishes for being a part of the arts community. I'm an underdog person. I typically look at the underdogs and for some reason I gravitate to them. I'm an outside of the box person. I'm not traditional by any means.
Jones: Well, you can't be.
McKay: Yeah, it just-- I can't. I've had trouble conforming but, you know, what is the saying? Was it Eleanor Roosevelt, "Well-behaved women rarely make history."
Jones: That's true.
McKay: I have that t-shirt.
Jones: You do, I love it.
McKay: I absolutely have it.
Jones: I love it.
McKay: And, you know, well behaved. You know, I guess that just means, you know, I'm just not a conformist. I love the alternative, I love, you know, at lot of children have-- actually, the Community Arts Center came back to me through the history as I became their day camp arts director by virtue of somebody leaving and asking me if would come in there. So I got to work with a lot of children for many different summers. I eventually gave it up. It just was consuming, and I love the beach. And Kalen [ph?] was surfing, and so there were reasons why I needed to move on. But it was an enriching experience in that I found so many kids with, you know, the autism now that's very much...
Jones: I was going to ask you, yeah.
McKay: It was prevalent in the groups of kids that we would have, and a lot of that had to do with parents needing a place for their children, you know, day care, so to speak. But we, under the guise of an arts day camp we tried to provide day care, which is not what it was supposed to be. So we ended up, you know, I had to give a lot of medication. So as a result when I created Journey Productions...
Jones: Okay. I wanted to ask you about your productions, but you're segueing into it just beautifully. If you don't mind, let me ask you about the autistic, or children with, you know, I hate to use the word problems, but that's what it is to get to the chase, behavioral...
McKay: Yeah, difficulties.
Jones: Uh-huh, right.
McKay: It's really, you know, the word retardation is so completely gone. It should be gone from the medical...
Jones: And there's all levels. There's all levels.
McKay: Yes it's-- a lot of it has to do, I believe, there's-- I do believe in what you put in your body has a huge effect on how you feel.
Jones: Oh, no doubt. Oh, no doubt, but a lot of it is environment too.
McKay: A lot of environmental stuff. I remember the day they came to spray for bugs, and I was like, "You are-- got to be kidding me. We have 75 children here at a day camp. You need to do this on the weekend and open all the windows." I mean, I had always known though all my life environmental things so, but back to the autism and the learning behaviors...
Jones: But some of this also is, you know...
McKay: There are children who need medication, there are, absolutely, and as a result when I did found Journey Production, which, by the way, was an opportunity for me to control my own environment, as my husband would put it.
Jones: In what way? Journey Production, now Journey is devoted to the children?
McKay: Journey, yes. It's actually it's an umbrella organization. It started out that way.
Jones: I thought so.
McKay: Its main project has been The P.E.T. Project. It was an acronym that I came up with P.E.T., Performance Education Theater, The P.E.T. Project.
Jones: That's very good.
McKay: Yes, we thought it was pretty cool at the time.
Jones: And gee that's performance, education and theater.
McKay: It's called The P.E.T. Project. And my idea was to take so many of the experienced talented actors I have had the opportunity to work with through film, through the stage over the years by virtue of working with the many different companies that eventually started to happen in our little New Hanover County. So the reason for doing that was just a need to do what I wanted to do in my environment, and create my principals which were the inner core things inside of me, things that I thought about for years, and years, and years, and especially children. So getting back to the autism, what I found out was there were a lot of parents that wanted their children to be a part of their P.E.T. Project. Why wouldn't they? We had incredible actors coming in as educators, and I would cast them in the lead roles, and their job was to come in not only to perform for an audience, but to also, as I directed the show, become a performance educator. So in other words it was the whole village kind of a thing where I had three or four adult educators helping me direct an incredible large amount of children in, most of the times, an originally written performance play.
McKay: Yes, and an hour long. We'd showcase. It was just-- it's incredibly uplifting. The parents would come. People would come and say, "This is not like a kid's performance." We were tough on them in a way. We'd say look, "We're asking people to pay money. This is not the elementary school stage." And great reviews, great audiences, but within those, back to what I originally was talking about, there were always children that couldn't quite fit. And I always had people next to me saying. Cherri, you can't have them all. You can't, you know, and I said, "But, I think this child-- let me give him one more chance." And the defining moment was at the Arts Center in the middle of a production on tech night, you know, the night before dress rehearsal, and the Orange Street door was open, it was dark. His parents were in the other room, and they are medical professionals, by the way. He's about eight-years-old. All of a sudden he's gone. And I'm like, "Where is he?" We found him outside sitting on the curb of Orange Street in the dark on a tree, upset. And he had a lot of trouble communicating with other kids. Socialization was an issue for him, you know, and we had gone through this a couple of different times, but that for me was the defining moment, because no longer did I feel that I was equipped to keep him safe. If his parents being in the same building couldn't keep him, you know, disciplined enough to stay in there how could I? How could I? And I wasn't equipped. I don't have the education, the degree, the certification.
Jones: And he was one of many children too.
McKay: There were quite a few, but he was really the one that I felt I had to draw the line, and the parents knew. They had-- a lot of other companies had...
Jones: That was your nurturing coming in.
McKay: Yeah. I didn't want to let go. And he had been through the other companies and they were saying no, and I didn't want to, you know, I didn't want to punish him, but I found out that it was punishment. And I talked to the mother the next go around. She called and says we've got him on new medication, we really want him to be a part of this, and that's where I had to be a real grownup and not listen to the compassionate nurturing side of me and think about what was best for this child. And I said, "You know, I'm not an expert, but maybe he'd be better off doing an activity that challenged himself where he didn't have to have the huge social skills it takes to be a part of a performance and to be a part of a play." You know, the only thing I could think of was rock climbing, you know, as an-- but something that challenged him. It was him and the rock. I thought maybe that-- "I think that's what, you know, if you could look into those areas, but I believe that we're doing him a disservice."
Jones: So he had Asperger's.
McKay: He may have.
Jones: It sounds like it.
McKay: I haven't talked to them since, but...
Jones: You haven't? I was wondering if, you know...
McKay: I've seen them through the course of the different productions that I do. They'd come to visit, and we're very cordial, and I don't-- there was no ill will. I'm hoping that maybe I sparked a different perspective for them on him.
Jones: You probably did eventually.
McKay: But it felt good to say that, and I felt like I would have...
Jones: You took a stand and it was like being a big girl now.
McKay: Yeah, yeah.
Jones: That's tough.
McKay: It's very tough because you do-- it's like giving in. You want everybody to be happy, but you can't-- he wasn't happy, and the children around him weren't happy, and I could punish the other children for him because he was constantly needling him? No, he just wasn't happy doing theater. So, you know, that was a big lesson for me as far as working with youth. I now know where to draw different lines, but not every kid, you know?
Jones: Well, I think it takes a special talent to work with children in many endeavors because each child is different.
McKay: They are.
Jones: And they come from environments that you don't know about. I think it's tough enough being a mother of your own children.
McKay: It absolutely is. It really is.
Jones: So you formed your-- now, your other production is?
McKay: Shakespeare on the Green.
Jones: That we all know about.
McKay: Yeah, you know, and that's my baby.
Jones: And how did this get started?
McKay: Well, it goes back to my oldest son when he graduated from the...
Jones: There's one in San Diego you know, a Shakespeare on the Green.
McKay: Is there really?
Jones: There is.
McKay: I have to give M.C. Ernie [ph?] credit for coming up with the name. It originally was Cape Fear Shakespeare.
Jones: Oh, really?
McKay: Yes, it was founded as Cape Fear Shakespeare.
Jones: Shakespeare on the Green in San Diego is done mostly in the spring and summer and they mostly do the fun things of Shakespeare, you know, Kiss me Kate type things.
McKay: The comedies instead of the dramas.
Jones: Yeah, and that sort of thing. And it's wonderful. You're sitting outside, and of course you can sit outside.
McKay: There should be one in every state as far as I'm concerned. There's an organization now called Standup for Shakespeare that I've just recently started reading some verbiage on and it's, you know, forever. Four-hundred years you would think that we wouldn't have to fight for Shakespeare, but you do. Somebody's got to continue to hold the torch.
Jones: Well, you know, these Shakespeare societies are still fighting over what he did and did not do, so join the-- well, let's go on about this, because when do you operate this one?
McKay: Well, we usually start in January because I have people starting to call.
Jones: Oh, for a production?
McKay: Yeah. And I am the producer and artistic director for Shakespeare on the Green.
Jones: What fun.
McKay: It actually did begin 16 seasons ago in 1993. My son who had just graduated from New Hanover High was cast in the first production at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater, so I go that far back. And became more, and more, and more involved, and...
Jones: So you jumped right in once you got here.
McKay: I did. I did. I don't want to say that I jumped in because I did a lot of girl scouting too with my daughter. She needed a Brownie troop and I started-- I couldn't get her into one, they were full. So I started our own, and I was very active with PTA. I was the vice president of the entire county with Tannis Nelson who has a huge, you know, name in...
Jones: I didn't know that.
McKay: Yeah, and so I didn't jump right in, but I was never too far from the arts, you know, my kids were doing it more than I was. I was trying to save the world with other things. But it was all great, great experiences. I mean, it's given me such-- I mean, the PTA was amazing what I learned form working with that organization. And, you know, and who didn't love camping at Camp Pretty Pond before it was renovated. That place was an eyesore when I went, but I was like, I'll go. So it was only natural that I was going to end up out at Greenfield Lake creating stages and fighting...
Jones: So you start in January by doing what, casting?
McKay: Well, no it's more about the producing side of it. We go all over the country with our media. Being an established company we've picked up through the years, I continued it when I took over as the artistic director six years ago. We changed the name from Cape Fear Shakespeare to Shakespeare on the Green. The founder dissolved the other company, which really just means the 501c3 went a different way. So we felt the people that wanted to continue felt it necessary to just change the name and let's just move forward. We lost everything. So we had to start over. And I picked up the torch, and without a dime in our pocket we did it, so. But we have maintained the different media, you know. I had somebody who had resourced a lot of that kind of thing so that I could pick up and move forward and keep some of our patrons that we had been sending letters. So in January, the magazines, they start contacting you because the publications and the deadlines. So it sort of starts then, or people have the number and the amount of tourists that call saying, "We just want to make sure you're doing it in June again, because we're going to be here, and it's one of the things we love to come see." So it's an amazing thing because I believe that out there for the month of May and June there are people that may not ever go see any theater all year long, but they will come out there with their picnic and see Shakespeare.
Jones: Yeah. Tell me how you get this going, that's a huge undertaking.
McKay: It's huge.
Jones: Backdrops, costumes...
Jones: Casting. So let's talk a bit about how that goes.
McKay: Well, like I said, we started over.
Jones: You have a Shakespearean company here.
McKay: Yes, Shakespeare on the Green.
Jones: Well, this is actors...
McKay: Oh, where we get our actors from, the community, basically.
Jones: They audition?
McKay: Yes, we just actually finished auditions, and we've just cast our regular June production of Taming of the Shrew.
Jones: Oh, how about that.
McKay: And I'll be-- I created the Youth Shakespeare Company. This is our fourth season. I'll be directing Comedy of Errors, which will piggyback that, and open in May, and piggyback through June so I can keep the youth going. And I also put some adults in there too so we can have that-- I love the experience level, moving up so the kids can kind of look up. But yeah, we have an open audition call. I have to say that we have-- this year was especially exciting. Out of all the people who came to audition, I have to say, that we could have used every single one of them, the talent that came through. A lot of it came through UNCW. I have maintained the liaison that we've had with them for years. It's always been-- helped us whether it was providing us with a class to help learn and get a credit for by helping to create the set or to come in and work technically, always kept that liaison going, that connection. So we tend to always get some-- a cache of theater students who want to come in and do something. We have our tried and true who have been loyal actors for the company for years. They come and go, very good, very talented. Occasionally, we just get somebody who is new, moved into the area, saw us, wants to be a part of it, they come in, they read, it's like yeah. So it's a conglomerate.
Jones: Is this anything like a Summer Stock where the kids or the actors also help with the sets and so forth? They really had the huge burden of doing it all for a long, long time. They would come in-- actually the company would come in-- because we have no security we have to put our lights up and take them down every night. And the set would be built out there and we would just cross our fingers there would be no vandalism or any strong storms to take it away. But all the props, all the costumes would be stored down there. We'd have our typical load in. But yes, they would get there at 6:00 and we had teams of them. Some would do props, some would do lighting and put it up and take it down. And it was-- the beauty of it was the audiences, you know, we've always encouraged them to come early and watch our preshow. Sometimes it's music, sometimes it's just watching people rig things. Eventually as I moved through into Shakespeare on the Green and decided-- I didn't want to burden the actors as much as we were. I felt that it was an unnecessary thing albeit, you know, there was a lot of bravado and a lot of, you know, thank you, thank you, thank you, I felt like their job really was acting. That if we could utilize them in a smaller way and let the real big job be just acting. So I've tried to create a crew that comes in and does the majority of the backbreaking stuff so that they're not out there sweating.
Jones: Now, is this a crew that you've relied on before?
McKay: It's different people every year. I tend to get a lot of UNCW students who want to come out and make a small stipend. We don't...
Jones: Are the paid?
McKay: I never-- I can't say anybody's paid. We're free. We don't charge anything so what they're given...
Jones: They do this for joy and the fun of it and learning experience.
McKay: And we do try to give them...
Jones: And do they give you free sandwiches or something? You ought to really push on that one.
McKay: Well, I do have a huge party that they get to come to that's my thank you.
Jones: Yeah, but you give it. I mean...
McKay: I give it.
Jones: Like every night that they...
McKay: Sponsors who...
Jones: Yeah, okay.
McKay: Sponsors. Well, it's a lot of shows and really our volunteer efforts and sponsorship usually is saved for getting raffle baskets together. One of the things that we do is we created a suggested donation where it's suggested that if you give $5 to come in you'll get a free raffle ticket and at intermission we raffle off-- I put together, I call them Shakespeare baskets where I go around and I beg literally for gift certificates and little things, and just come up with great baskets, and we raffle them off at intermissions. It's a way of saying, you know, if you want to give this is a great way to give, but you also have an opportunity of maybe walking out with a door prize. And so, rather than begging for food, you know, for our crew it's like, "Wow, you know, let's take care of getting the audience their perks to come out here and want to put money in the basket because that's how we thrive. I mean, it's all by donation. We're not-- we haven't had grants in years, and it's not because we don't want to, it because I haven't had the manpower to help me.
Jones: God, it's amazing. That's amazing.
McKay: It's a huge, it's a huge undertaking, and we, you know, I didn't want to grow it so big that it became a conglomerate, which it could. It could very well. I felt that you go-- baby steps are what we've needed to do. Now we have a brand new amphitheater this year.
Jones: Don't you think it's time to grow?
McKay: Yeah, and it was hard to say, "Look," to a huge corporation, "Come out to the amphitheater and see," when it was just very primitive out there. I mean, people are willing to pack their picnic baskets and come out and sit under the stars and watch a great performance, but to have corporations come out to an amphitheater that would have been sorely neglected over the years and say, "Hey, be a part of this," it was a little daunting. So I knew the future was near as far as renovations. I had been working with City of Wilmington for many years on different committees to pull in to get our ideas of what-- and they begged me to stay. They said, "Please don't leave." I can say that we take credit for one of the big reasons why they're renovating that because we're the only company that has used that space in years, and years, and years, and years. So back to the question of, yes, it does need to grow, and now we're at a crossroads here of which way to go. Who are we going to let be our sponsors?
Jones: Okay, this possibly could fall in line with one of the questions-- I'm going to fast forward on this particular question. With the changing face of this area, and I am not just saying Wilmington, or just New Hanover County, I'm talking about Southeastern North Carolina. With more and more people moving in who have retired earlier, with healthy incomes, who want to play, but who are talented, and who have, thank God, given of their time and talents. Something like this, I would think, would be another star in what they call this diamond, Wilmington, in the middle of Brunswick County, and Pender County etcetera. A place to come to dine, to enjoy good art, the theater etcetera, do you not feel this way?
McKay: I absolutely feel that way, I think, yes. And the change is here. It's here now not only for the arts, it's here for our community.
Jones: It is. Do you know the population of the county right now?
McKay: I don't. That's a daunting number, and daunting numbers don't stick in my head. What are we now?
Jones: This came from the Board of Elections, and the Board of Elections based this on registrations for the two major parties and then the unaffiliated, and then taking into consideration those who have not registered yet like just turning 18-year-olds, and those who are coming up. We're at about 130,000.
McKay: Good night.
McKay: That's a lot of people.
Jones: That's a lot of people.
McKay: No wonder our roads are so congested.
Jones: Well, there you go. It's infrastructure, but...
McKay: But that being said...
Jones: That being said.
McKay: I have to tell you that I absolutely noticed the change probably about three years ago, the small change that was going to make the big change. I put out survey questionnaires, just tiny little things for people to fill out, was a way to kind of get our mailing list back on track and just to get ideas from people, the new zip codes. Because I did all the mailings, over 3-4,000 mailings I had to go through when I took over to see what was good and what was bad. And I said, okay, this is the way to do it. And I recognized, or didn't, I should say, recognize the zip codes. They're brand new zip codes. I was like, "Wow!" Little communities, or tuck aways-- are everywhere and not it's unbelievable the amount of new zip codes and the people that-- and one of the questions was, have you ever been here? Have you ever seen? So you know, "No, we're new to the area," a lot of little comments, "We're new to the area," more than not, "New to the area. New to the area," and it is, there is a lot of, I've noticed, retirees.
Jones: They are-- I could go on and on, and I'll tell you off camera, but talking to people like Connie Majure-Rhett as an example. Talking to people like Mary Ellen Bonczek who practically runs New Hanover Medical Center, what they have there, what's planned. Talking to anybody on the school board today, another high school's going to be built to accommodate these people, and there comes a saturation point. So there will be a zero growth for Wilmington, which is fine. And people are in Brunswick and Pender. They'll come here to play, and they'll come here to shop, and they'll come here to dine. They'll come here and drop their dollars.
McKay: And they'll come here because I believe that this is where they will feel that the strongest arts and the most talented are here.
Jones: That's what I'm getting to, yes.
McKay: Yes, we're here. I know that.
Jones: So I wanted to hear this from you though. I want you to hear about any future-- now Tony is telling, Tony Rivenbark told us that aside from what's being built now he envisions, and he's working on it, I don't know if he's got-- how much funding he's got. A new smaller theater almost like the old Shakespearean theater where...
McKay: He is, yes, and he's talking about it, yes.
Jones: Where the audience and the actors interact, you know, just like a Globe Theater type thing. Did you-- like Gilbert and Sullivan things too.
McKay: I've seen...
Jones: And I think it would go over beautifully.
McKay: It will, and Tony has worked really, really hard to make...
Jones: And I think Linda and Steve's plays...
McKay: Beautiful. I was just there watching Four Dogs and a Bone last night.
Jones: And, you know, they've got a tiger by the tail.
McKay: Anything that Linda touches is gold. So, you know, her talent.
Jones: Well, he's not to, you know, he's ________________.
McKay: Steve is incredibly talented.
Jones: Yes he is.
McKay: And, you know, a true artist in the sense of visual, and I just adore them as a couple and friends. And we are so fortunate to have them in our community. So, yeah, Tony's new inspiration will be needed. And it's not going to be a new entity it's just going to be a bigger one. So when you talked about saturation as far as people I don't believe that the arts can ever be saturated. There needs to be a place where everybody can feel comfortable. It may not always be at Thalian Hall. It may not always be at the little Brown Coat Pub Theater that's just opened. It may not be Red Barn. There's always going to be a need for a place of difference, alternatives. Educationally is where my focus is going to be coming into.
Jones: All right. Let's talk about there. Where are you going to continue to do this? Now, I don't want to spend time on this, but the USO is going to have a happening, but there's still going to be places for you people down here, right?
McKay: Well, let me tell you briefly how I feel about that, being so involved in helping to save that building and, you know, lost friends...
Jones: It had to be saved.
McKay: Made enemies, and made more friends. It had to be saved and, you know, thereby it shows my personality again, oh, boy, standup. But anyway, that being said it's...
Jones: No, I think you're brave. I think you're absolutely right, though, historically.
McKay: It had to be done. It was the underdog situation, again. And I'm so excited, overwhelmed. Went in there, cried tears of joy, but how I feel personally as a founder of two companies, and moving forward with my companies, is I don't believe that the Community Arts Center, since it belongs to our community should be a place where any one theater company should be housed. I believe that it needs to remain a flexible use building so that theater companies like my self who started there with Journey, it enabled us to do very low cost productions to build our company, to build our reputation, to use it as a community building. So now my-- I'm strong enough. It's time to move one. It's time to grow, and that's how I feel about the Community Art Center and as far as companies kind of housing there. I think that companies absolutely should use it to grow strong like a grassroots grant. You use it to grow.
Jones: But you feel you've outgrown it?
McKay: Not outgrown it. I feel that I've utilized it to the capacity that a community building should be utilized. I don't want to take advantage of it any more. I don't want to stand in the way of somebody moving to the town like I did years ago and wanting to create their own company. And so I'm in there using the rehearsal space. I'm in there using the performance space. It doesn't-- and everybody else is, where does that leave room for another company, a new company? And I think everybody deserves to have an opportunity to use it. It's going to take a huge amount of understanding and discipline to schedule that building. So personally that's one of the reasons I feel very strongly about moving forward. The other is to educationally have a building where I can focus the P.E.T. Project and have an off season home for Shakespeare on the Green. And I found a building, and it can be renovated to fit my needs, and it will become another performance venue.
Jones: Well, I'm glad you found a building.
McKay: And I will...
Jones: Surely, particularly with this kind of change.
Jones: Along with the others, but particularly with that, particularly working with children who need this. There must be people out there and grants available to you.
McKay: And I do know that that is a funding source that is-- not everybody wants to work with our youth, but I know that the funding sources are more...
Jones: But you're not asking them to do it. You're asking for the wherewithal to do it.
McKay: Absolutely, and I'm just the person to make it happen.
Jones: Yes you are, definitely.
McKay: And I want to make it happen, and I'm going to. Right now I'll concentrate on our 16th season of Shakespeare on the Green. The building that I have a letter of intent to move into...
Jones: Is that is a downtown building?
McKay: It's actually the Old Modern Cleaning Building.
Jones: Oh, really?
McKay: Yes, and...
Jones: Oh, yeah.
McKay: Wonderful beautiful landlord.
Jones: On Princess?
McKay: No, it's actually on 17th Street. It's on South 17th. As you're going towards Market Street and you're heading towards north on Market.
Jones: Yeah, I'm turned around.
McKay: You know where the Chancellor's house is?
McKay: It's on the south side of 17th. It's the old, old, it's a 1940s' building, 7,200 square feet, the whole bottom portion is going to be ours, and I've named it. It'll be the Neighborhood Theater at Carolina Place, which it is in Carolina Place. And I'll be focusing on education and youth. I'll be focusing on bringing more vibrancy and revitalization to that neighborhood. A green feel, a stroll to the neighborhood theater, which is one of the little cocktail parties I had. And I invited a lot of people that would be interested in helping me, and we walked down to it, because I live in Carolina Heights which is just across the street. And like I said, just another venue, another-- it'll be space for other people to come and perform. It'll obviously need income.
Jones: I guess, you know what, I was thinking of something. There was something on Princess that somebody told me recently was available they were thinking of putting an offer on. Anyway, this was the cleaners.
McKay: Uh-huh, the Old Modern Cleaners. Yeah, it's a great place.
Jones: Okay, I know where that is.
McKay: Yep, yep.
Jones: Seventeenth I use all the time.
McKay: Yeah, it's the one way where it goes to Market.
Jones: Yeah and sixteenth is the other way.
McKay: Drive by. Dance Cooperative is upstairs. That already has a partial CO. We are taking over where all the operational of the actual dry cleaning hub was. I mean, it was the biggest hub. So all of it's been cleaned out, and there's going to be an organic coffee shop in the front and then the 7,200 square feet. And I'll also have an even small little outdoor brickyard venue in the back. So those are my plans for the future and I, you know, the more the merrier in my opinion. The more companies that form, the more places there are to perform it makes us even that much more vibrant. And with the amount of people that are here it's giving them an opportunity. You know, you used to get closed out of the little theater companies here. You know, there was only so many to go around, and there was only so many actors they need.
Jones: Do you have any interest or help, or just for a night at a time, any of the kids who are here with Screen Gems, for example, doing TV shows and so forth.
McKay: Well, that's actually a part of what I'll be developing there, because film and theater...
Jones: Okay, because it seems to me it would be a great source for them.
McKay: A mixed media.
Jones: I'm on the board for Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, and our annual fashion show, dinner, whatever, is coming up next week. It is a hoot. It's an absolute hoot.
McKay: My daughter actually modeled years go for it.
Jones: We're using this year some of the kids from One Tree Hill as well as old Wilmingtonians and business owners etcetera. They camp it up. They have a wonderful time. And these kids are doing it free, you know, thank you.
McKay: The experience.
Jones: It's the experience, but it's also visual. Hello.
McKay: Very, very, very.
McKay: Yeah, I totally believe, you know, we didn't' talk about film, but a lot of my educators have strong film backgrounds. My children did a lot of film, and my youngest son has a great interest in it and has a lot of friends that have graduated with film degrees that are here wanting to hone their skills and become the next filmmaker. So, you know, they've put together some cute little things, you know, Cooking with Kalen was one, just for fun. Improv(ed) it in my kitchen, did a cooking show. Kalen loves to cook. And I said, "You know, would you ever be interested in coming over to the neighborhood theater?" There are so many children that don't want to be on stage. They don't want to, you know, do the whole stage on off, but are interested in the techniques of film. And you can create now with your digital camera the little one stop action films. Do you remember the old fashioned cartoons how you would-- the crackerjack where you'd spread it open and it would have the little character moving. You do Chris?
McKay: You can't see Chris, but yes, well the technical version of that is you can do that now with digital cameras, and every kid has a digital camera. So I asked him would he be interested in coming over and we could put together classes for kids who want to create films.
Jones: Spielberg started out that way.
McKay: Yes. You know, and we have such a strong film community. It just makes perfect sense to me that we mix part of what we do at the Neighborhood Theater with film.
Jones: I think you're onto something.
McKay: A great marriage, yeah.
Jones: I think it'll be a great thing.
McKay: Yeah, I'm excited about it. I think, shoot, everybody wants to be part of film whether it's in front of the camera, or just meeting people who are in front of the camera. There's an aurora around it. I happen to think live theater is the stronger of the arts and acting. I happen to believe that your best actors come from stage. So I'll always be...
Jones: Oh, I'll agree with you there.
McKay: I will always push that as the place to start.
Jones: I'll have to agree with you there. I grew up in LA, so.
McKay: So you know.
McKay: You know.
Jones: Film people out there are not necessarily accepted everywhere, you know, it's just too many of them.
McKay: It's different.
Jones: They come to town every actor would be is a waiter or a bartender, or whatever and, you know, it gets sad.
McKay: Tinsel town.
Jones: Oh, gees. Okay. We've got five minutes here. I hate-- I've got so many questions for you, but I hate to...
McKay: It's okay.
Jones: You know, I just want you to tell us, you've been telling us. This is great. Where, ultimately, let's say over the next five year period. Some of these statistics I gave you early on were gathered over the last ten year period, and I'll give you more later. Things are moving so quickly, and you know this, you see it. Where would you ultimately like to be with your productions, with all that you do in five years from now?
McKay: Five years from now I'd love to have Shakespeare on the Green performing every month, every May and June of every year and filled to capacity. That's what I'd love. My mission behind that is to keep Shakespeare alive and to expose as many people as possible. So I want to-- I see that, I want that to be. Five years from now I see our community not much different than it is now. I believe things will continue to grow. For my company I'd love to have the Neighborhood Theater become the educational center for youth theatrically, film wise, even therapeutic wise. I mean, there's so many different composites to it that we don't have time to talk about. But even we talked about autism even working with those children. In five years I'd love to have that fully funded and granted with grants. And I'd also love to have my, you know, from on a personal note, I'd love to have my husband back home and my grandchildren living close enough to be able to be a part of it.
Jones: A complete...
McKay: A family.
Jones: Part of it.
McKay: Yeah, yeah.
Jones: I don't blame you.
McKay: Yeah, that's it.
Jones: That doesn't sound impossible.
McKay: No, no. My husband's the dreamer. I'm more in the moment.
Jones: You're the doer.
McKay: And the doer. And I try to stay in my moments. I'm here with you today. I'm right here. My mind is nowhere but here with you talking about this.
Jones: This town is full of dreamers that are making things happen. Katherine Rudasill [ph?] and her husband come to mind. There are a few others. And, you know, it would be marvelous if everybody gets together and they're on the same wave when it comes to it.
McKay: And Katherine and Troy are good friends of mine as well.
Jones: Oh, yeah. I love them.
McKay: And so, you know, I thoroughly respect them for who they are and what they've achieved artistically as well as just a beautiful family with a brand new baby.
Jones: She's now talking about another one.
McKay: Yeah. I think it's, you know, I went through her wanting one so bad, and...
Jones: Oh, we did too.
McKay: Yeah. So, you know, that just-- being an old mom and a grand mom now it just, you know, makes...
Jones: I can't believe you're a grandmother.
McKay: I am. I know.
Jones: Who's got the children?
McKay: Jason. He gave us two grandchildren.
Jones: And where is he living now?
McKay: He's in Hawaii right now, and finishing the tour of duty there as a Naval Air Crewman. Very happily married with those two beautiful boys, but crossing our fingers, knocking on wood Uncle Sam sees it fit to go ahead and let him have the next duty station, which would be in Virginia, which would be so perfect, perfect place for him to finish his tour of duty and raise a family, and close to the grandma.
Jones: You are a mom.
McKay: I am. I am.
Jones: Well, there's nothing wrong with that.
McKay: My nick-- they call me the earth mother. I recently reconnected with my girlfriends of some 25 years. Within the last year 12 of us have regained communication by via e-mail. A lot of them still live in the Chicago area, but some of us are far reaching out. And it has been-- I'm saving all the e-mails. It has been the most amazing adventure the last year of my life getting to know them again, because the high school years that we went through together. And so my-- they all still call me an earth mother. They said, "You're still an earth mother."
Jones: There's nothing wrong with that.
McKay: I don't mind a bit.
Jones: Cherri, thanks so much for coming.
McKay: You're welcome. You're welcome.