AAPEX Interview: Courtney McClellan — Circle Players , Courtney McClellan — AAPEX

Friday, March 4, 2011

AAPEX Interview: Courtney McClellan

Courtney McClellan

I saw Courtney McClellan onstage for the first time in the recent Circle Players production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Her hysterical portrayal of the Youngers' meddlesome neighbor, Wilhemina Othella Johnson, brought down the house. I also learned that Courtney sits on the board of Circle Players and is also responsible for the classy, Broadway style playbills for their shows. 

I then had the privilege of working with Courtney on the AAPEX Black History month show at Vanderbilt, where she gave another outstanding comic turn as Eslanda Goode Robeson, wife of the legendary Paul Robeson, who is trying to keep her superstar husband in check as he rises to international stardom.

Here's what Courtney has to say for herself.

Jaz Dorsey
AAPEX Dramaturge

What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
My first performance experiences, like many I imagine, were in church and school. I sang in the church choir and did all the Easter plays and Christmas pageants, played flute in the school band, and performed with my elementary and junior high chorus groups. I also did the occasional youth performance workshop and theatre camp during the summer months. I received great vocal training and lots of exposure, but my formal introduction to theatre and the arts came in high school. I attended a private, Catholic, all-girls, largely-based arts high school here in Nashville where I began learning to read music, participated in forensics, took an interest in visual art (some of my work even went up for sale!), held membership in the theatre guild and dance ensemble, and had my first theatrical stage experiences. The arts were always a large part of my life and that came from the exposure in the arts my parents allowed me. They have always been huge supporters and proponents of me trying many things. "You can't" weren't words I heard a lot in my household when it came to my interest in the arts. Thus, the theatre became a consistent comfort to me. Walking toward the stage was like coming home, and in fact I spent much of my time there. I lived in the theatre in high school and college, and went to my house or dormitory to sleep (sometimes). This type of art became a release for me and has absolutely made me a more intelligent, well-rounded, and cultured individual.

Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
I began in the arts thinking I wanted to be a professional singer. My dream was to one day sing the national anthem at a nationally televised major sporting event. (After watching Christina Aguilera (and countless other vocalists, for that matter,) fumble over the words during the most recent Super Bowl, I laugh at myself.) In preschool, when it was song-sharing time and the other kids got up and sang "Old McDonald Had A Farm," my song of choice was "It Cuts Like A Knife." My teachers had some awkward conversations with my parents, I'm sure. Actually, as I got older my confidence as a singer diminished drastically, but I developed a passion for drama, acting, and speaking, and found the confidence to sing and dance in the context of those things. I think that's when the realization set in, that part of why I love theatre so much is that in order to properly execute it, you have to throw yourself, head first, into the role and completely assume another personage for it. Hence, when I'm singing as a character, it's not really me singing. It's me acting like someone who's singing. Much easier! I'm not embarrassing myself onstage anymore when I sing, because the character I'm playing is the one that's singing. A bit convoluted I know, but it's the difference between my anxiety overcoming me on stage, which, if you're a performer, you know means EVERYTHING in the world, and being able to deliver in the moment. I now consider myself in the ranking of "triple-threatness" to be an actor-singer- dancer, with singer-dancer being a FAR second and third. I've also directed a bit, which is an entirely different art form as well. The bottom line is that, as an artist, I am still evolving daily and enjoying the ride, ups and downs withal. 

Tell us about Circle Players and why you are so committed to this company.
I graduated with a Bachelor of the Arts degree from Hampton University in Virginia in 2008 and returned home to Nashville shortly after. I came off of some not-so-great theatrical experiences in Nashville (imagine that: type casting...in the south? Gasp!?) before attending my beloved HBU (historically black university) where the doors of the theatre opened up countless opportunities and solidified my love for the art. Upon returning home, I prepared to be greeted with the same challenges and hurdles I experienced in theatre before I left. Instead, I reconnected to the arts community with Circle Players, for which LaTonya Turner should receive lots of credit. Not only did the organization welcome me home (to Nashville AND to theatre) with open arms, after a short time overcoming the "new kid" feeling, Circle members were excited to use my professional skills to serve the organization as well as my onstage contributions. I felt valued in Nashville's theatrical community for a change. This coming year will be my third year serving on Circle's Board and, involvement with A Raisin in the Sun (January 2011) and "13" The Musical (coming April 2011) make my eighth and ninth shows with the organization. See! I can barely talk about Circle without shameless organizational promotion. I love the people with whom I've made connections and I know I've gained lasting and meaningful friendships from my participation. I also love what the organization is about, and its commitment to providing open opportunities to ALL types of people who have a passion and interest in theatre. Its board and artist members are dedicated and hardworking and deserve many more accolades for the purely volunteer work they do than I can possibly fit into this interview. I'll continue my involvement with Circle as long as the organization will have me.

What are your thoughts on Nashville as a theatre town?

Nashville has great potential to be a mecca for all kinds of theatre in Tennessee and the South, for that matter. I find its albeit misguided efforts toward popularization as a "celebrity hub" for country music to be a bit inhibiting when visiting other cities known for theatre in the United States. In fact many Nashville natives aren't even aware where the term "Music City" comes from. Some historical references attribute England's Queen Victoria with the term after she heard a performance by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1873. In the 1950s, a local radio DJ used the term and it stuck. There is a diverse artistic community in Nashville that begs for appropriate physical spaces and funding to be its absolute best. I hope more attention can be diverted towards our city nationally for the theatrical work that it so beautifully provides each season. When the business and commerce behind the city's front back the artistic community as an invaluable part of the city's thriving, as opposed to solely its occasional entertainment source, then can we hope to make Nashville a true theatre town, because the talent is most assuredly present.

To learn more about the Circle Players, please click the post's title and the link below.

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