After a 42-year career with the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble, one of Laurie McCants’s favorite roles is the unnamed Gravedigger in “Hamlet.” The reason it’s a favorite says a lot about McCants.
“He’s very funny. He’s the salt of the earth,” she said of the Gravedigger, whom she privately named Grub. “I just had a blast with it.”
But then she added, part of the allure of the role was that Grub finds the skull of Yorick, the deceased jester. The cheerful, goodhearted jester reminded McCants of fellow BTE member Ron Ensel, who had recently died.
“He was like a court jester,” McCants said, fighting her emotions at his memory. “He brought levity to our (BTE) meetings.”
When she started to tell Andrew Hubatsek, who was portraying Hamlet, who the skull made her think of, he immediately guessed Ensel and said he’d been thinking the same thing.
That is what McCants helped to build in the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble, not just a group of actors but a family of friends who have shared nearly a half-century of life’s give-and-take.
Over 24 years, I have learned so much from Laurie and from the other founding brothers and sisters, as I like to call them,” said Daniel Roth, co-director with Morgan Kaufmann of “The Children.” “It’s a gift beyond measure. The risk we all take in performing arts, Laurie was a great force behind us being able to do that.”
“The Children,” showing now through Feb. 2 at the Alvina Krause Theatre, in Bloomsburg, tells the story of three retired nuclear scientists confronting the effects of their actions on future generations in the wake of a recent nuclear meltdown. Rated MA for mature themes, adult humor and explosive drama, the “critically-acclaimed, slow burn thriller” features McCants in her final MainStage role as a fulltime ensemble member alongside fellow founders Elizabeth Dowd and James Goode.
“It’s been a real special road to see the three of them working together because they’ve been here from the get-go,” Roth said. “To see that dynamic after 42 years of working together, it is just magical.”
McCants arrived in Bloomsburg in 1974 to study, along with fellow graduates of Northwestern University, with acting teacher Alvina Krause (1893-1981).
“She had retired here,” McCants said. “She really encouraged us to start a theater here, and we were just young enough and foolish enough to do it. And we were lucky enough to land on fertile ground.”
By fertile ground, McCants referred to the community support of Bloomsburg and surrounding areas. She praised audiences for their support and dedication to the theater.
“It has really affirmed what was an idealistic belief I had as a young person that theater can be an essential and illuminating element in creating community,” she said. “Over the years, the Ensemble has chosen plays that I feel have helped me understand the complexity of human life and have helped our audiences with the challenges and questions that life presents to us.”
BTE founding member Gerard Stropnicky, who worked with McCants for 35 years before he retired, touted her long list of awards.
“It was a remarkable journey,” he said. “She’s a remarkable artist. She’s all that, and it’s not a surprise that she’s become quite known in the world of theater.”
McCants was named an “Actor of Distinguished Achievement” (one of two in the nation) and awarded the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship in 2010. She served as “coal region consultant” for composer Julia Wolfe, who wrote “Anthracite Fields,” which received the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
She is a co-founder of the Network of Ensemble Theaters and serves on the board of trustees for the Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for professional theatres.
Stropnicky noted that McCants collaborated with playwrights in other countries, and he regularly finds her in theater workshops and events around the state. Theater and puppetry studies have taken her to countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
“She has travelled all over,” Stopnicky said. “But she loves Bloomsburg. She calls it the center of the universe.”
Along with other BTE members, McCants has produced stories based in Central Pennsylvania, including “Hard Coal,” “Susquehanna: Mighty, Muddy, Crooked River Of The Long Reach” and “Gunpowder Joe,” Anthony Clarvoe’s play about Joseph Priestley.
“I love telling these stories and passing on to our audience stories of heritage and hope,” she said. “The theater teaches us that we’re all in this together, and we need to figure this out to be better humans.”
She is looking forward to creating new theater opportunities, including a play she is writing, as yet unnamed but based on the story of a 5-year-old Quaker girl who was captured and raised by Lenape Indians and grew to marry the chief of a Miami tribe.
Forming a family
Over the years, Stropnicky has directed McCants, and she has directed him, in a number of plays.
“At times we wanted to throttle each other. At times we wanted to hold onto each other, just like being in a family,” he said.
Roth echoed his feelings.
“I feel very fortunate that I was able to work with BTE and to have Laurie as a director,” he said. “She’s also a dear, dear friend of mine. We’ve gone through a lot together. We’ve played enemies. We’ve played lovers. We’ve played siblings. We’ve done it all, actually.”
Richie Cannaday, ensemble member, recalled first working with McCants when he was an intern in 2002. Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble produced “Romeo and Juliet” and deliberately gave the starring roles to the younger, new actors. McCants played the nurse.
“That was my first experience with Laurie,” Cannaday said. “She was very gracious about passing the torch.”
When asked to offer advice for young actors, McCants said to read and go see all kinds of plays and “find out for yourself what rings true in the production and the performance.” She urged actors to avoid New York City and Los Angeles and to instead find a community like the BTE, “where theater is meaningful to yourself and the people who come to share it with you.”
She praised fellow BTE members, saying they are “so giving, so talented, so brave. I’m leaving behind a legacy of devotion to the art and devotion to the community.”