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Becca McCoy and the year of living purposefully

Bill DeYoung

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Becca McCoy in "Flying," 2017. "It’s unbelievable to me how St. Pete’s changed," she says. "For the better. It’s right for people who are motivated to create. The ground is fertile." Photo by Megan Lamasney.

The reckoning, for Becca McCoy, came in the spring of 2018, when she and her husband parted ways after 15 years of marriage. She was a busy, working regional theater actress, based in St. Petersburg, raising a 9-year-old daughter.

“I spent a little bit of time just continuing on the hamster wheel of how things were,” McCoy explains, “but it wasn’t working for me. I’d been engaged or married since I was 17, and got divorced at 40 – so I put the brakes on everything in a purposeful way.”

Not too long before, she’d hit a major career high, earning praise for an atypically dramatic role in local playwright Sheila Cowley’s Flying with Tampa Rep.

“I’m a larger-than-life human being, and I have a huge singing voice, so that’s where my bread and butter is,” she says. “Shenanigans, silly costumes, that’s my wheelhouse.

“But Sheila knows me as a person, at the core, when I’m being still and quiet. And that’s where the gift of getting to do that show came from – someone who just knew what she was dealing with.”

Not long afterward, everything changed. And last summer, after the dust of the divorce had settled, she took yet another dramatic turn.

She sold her house, quit her day job (actors refer to this as a “survival job”), donated her car and put the rest of her belongings in storage. “I moved my daughter in with my parents, and I got on a plane.”

McCoy spent five weeks in New York, Great Britain and France – for a “reset.” She calls it her “Eat, Pray, Love phase” – a reference to author Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling post-divorce memoir.

She saw a lot of theater. She saw the sights. She ate good food and drank fine wine. “I met some old friends, I met new people and just spent a lot of time alone.”

Even now, when her daughter is with her grandparents, or with her daddy, McCoy takes short breaks for “purposeful travel” once a month – she visited New Orleans, Chicago and Fairbanks, and when she finished the run of a show in Naples, in southwest Florida, she decided spontaneously to take the ferry over to Key West for a little more “me time.”

Happily, the worm has turned for Becca McCoy. She thinks her year of living purposefully – “how I re-routed the ship at 40,” she calls it – might become the foundation of her second self-penned one-woman show. “No offense to my ex-husband, who’s a lovely man,” she smiles. “We’re better friends now than we ever were. But I’m the happiest and most genuine I’ve ever been in my life.”

“Becca,” says American Stage’s Stephanie Gularte, who’s directing McCoy this month in the feel-good musical Mamma Mia! at Demens Landing Park, “brings everything. She can do the dramatic stuff, she does the comedic stuff beautifully, she sings and she dances. She’s just wonderful to work with.”

Gularte explains that she knew she wanted McCoy in Mamma Mia! before the show was even cast. Ultimately, she auditioned for and won the part of the all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking character Rosie.

“There’s a reason that Becca McCoy is somebody that people want to see,” Gularte says. “She brings it every time.”

The St. Pete High graduate has been “bringing it” as long as she can remember. “I’ve been performing in front of large groups since I was 5,” she says. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”

After a year attending Shenandoah Conservatory, a music and theater school in West Virginia, McCoy came home and enrolled in the theater program at Eckerd College. Her mother was acquisitions librarian, which meant Becca could go tuition-free. “Coming out of college without student loans has impacted my career as much as where the piece of paper was from, honestly,” she says.

The program, she says, was incredible and invaluable. Still … “when I was growing up here, the goal was to get out. And especially in terms of a having to have a viable career as a performing artist.”

She met theater technician Thaddeus Engle in 2001, while they were both working in a summer stock show; two years later, following Love’s Labour’s Lost at American Stage, they got married.

The young family traveled a lot, following the work. For a time, they were based in Chicago; they also lived in tiny Palatka, Florida (that particular experience inspired McCoy’s first one-woman show, the culture-shock musical comedy The Pearl in the Hogwaller).

McCoy’s resume is jammed with the titles of shows she’s performed in, all over the country. Her American Stage appearances have included Spamalot, Blythe Spirit, It’s a Wonderful Life and others; at freeFall Theater, she’s been in The Wild Party, The Frogs and The Comedy of Errors.

As Eulalie Shinn in “The Music Man,” 2018. Photo: Jim Swallow/Packinghouse Gallery.

For the St. Petersburg Opera Co. production of The Music Man in 2018, McCoy starred as Eulalie Shinn, the mayor’s eccentric wife.

“Because I’m a ‘character woman,’ I’m just now aging into the good stuff,” McCoy beams. “A year from now, I’ll be doing Mama Rose in Gypsy in Naples. It’s nice to have a 20-year career behind you and just getting started.”

It’s very easy, she says, to get pigeonholed as an actor – Mama Rose, like Eulalie Shinn, is loud and somewhat brassy. So, in fact, is Rosie in Mamma Mia!, to a lesser extent.

“I think that it’s a privilege to get to play Rosie, because one of the thing that I do well is bring a genuine heart to a clown,” McCoy declares. “Eulalie is a bit of a clown, but if there’s something about her that’s real then she not only makes you laugh, she draws you in.

“So when Rosie has that other layer of body positivity – she doesn’t care what she looks like in the Spandex – in the show, it’s all about the love she has for her best friends – Becca doesn’t have to care either.

“I get to get out in front of a thousand people wearing a crazy, ridiculous Spandex costume, and feeling fabulous, and hoping that somebody else out there who didn’t ride a theme park ride because they felt fat will go ‘oh, I can live life in whatever shape I’m in at this moment in time.’

“To me, that’s a privilege. I like to be entrusted with the characters that I get, because then I get to infuse them – hopefully – with a level of heart that elevates them beyond just being a clown.”

In American Stage’s “Mamma Mia!,” opening this week: Becca McCoy left, Alison Burns and Jennifer Byrne. Photo: Joey Clay.

 

 

 

 

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