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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009 8 years ago

The troupe juggler

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Mydra McKinnon doesn’t sing and doesn’t act, although she’d be willing to brave both if it meant performing in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” her favorite musical.

“Don’t ask me why,” McKinnon laughs, “but I’m obsessed with that musical.”

A stage manager for the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe (WCBTT) for five years, McKinnon, 23, says she’s better suited for other things: positioning actors on stage, handling props, moving sets, remedying wardrobe malfunctions and keeping cool under pressure. When friends and family ask her why she doesn’t step into the limelight, she shrugs and says softly, “I was just born to be backstage.”

McKinnon, a Gillespie Park resident, has worked with WCBTT founder and artistic director Nate Jacobs since she was in first grade. A graduate of the Westcoast School for Human Development, McKinnon was cast as a rose in Jacobs’ “Supercilious Seed” when she was in first grade. It was her first play and one of her only starring roles.

“If I had the gift to act and sing I would definitely do it,” McKinnon says. “But I’d rather work on a show behind the scenes and live vicariously through the people on stage.”

Five years ago, when Jacobs asked McKinnon to help block actors during rehearsals for “Black Nativity,” at the Gompertz Theatre, McKinnon wasn’t even sure what blocking was. She was 18 and straight out of high school, unsure of her career path. She remembers when she arrived at the rehearsal, the first thing she heard was the choir — robust and soulful. Jacobs was coming up with songs on the fly, compelling the cast, many of whom McKinnon recognized as former classmates and church acquaintances, to sing louder and stronger.

“I was drawn to the way Nate commanded the stage,” McKinnon says. “From then on, I made my services available whenever he needed me.”

She learned that blocking requires meticulous note taking. Whenever Jacobs would forget whether he had placed an actor stage left or stage right in a previous rehearsal, McKinnon would pull out her notebook and remind him.

She called lines from backstage and helped Jacobs shop for dazzling costumes. Last season, when WCBTT performed “Sistas in the Name of Soul,” McKinnon combed the racks at NY Connection, a North Tamiami Trail clothing store, looking for diva dresses inspired by singers Aretha Franklin, Sister Sledge and Gladys Knight.

When actress and singer Tsadok Porter ripped her zipper during one of the opening numbers, McKinnon held the dress together by weaving two safety pins along the seam.

“You’re gonna have to shake it less as Tina Turner,” McKinnon told Porter backstage between numbers. “Otherwise you’re going to have two pins stuck in your side.”

Now a student at State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College), McKinnon says her dream job is to design Broadway costumes. She works part-time in Macy’s shoe department at the Westfield Sarasota Square Mall and, in a year, she plans to transfer to the University of South Florida to study theater design, a major she didn’t know existed until she met a USF costume designer during WCBTT’s 2008 production, “Hot Mikado,” at the Asolo Repertory Theatre.

“Without West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, I certainly wouldn’t be pursuing a career in theater design,” McKinnon says. “I’ve been designing clothes since I was 7, so the dream has always been in my head. I just didn’t know how to get there.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]

1. Know your props. “Always place them in the exact same spot. The actors need to be able to reach for it, and it has to be there every time.”
2. Use your spotlights. “Lighting sets the mood, from the happy stuff to the serious stuff.”
3. Keep your mic on. “So many times, actors forget to turn them on, so it’s the backstage crew’s job to go around and check the mic on every actor before they go on stage.”
4. Don’t drink and act. “Stop drinking liquids an hour before you go on stage. Believe me, there have been times an actor has run to the bathroom and missed their cue.”
5. Be professional. “Most of us at West Coast Black Theatre Troupe have known each other since we were little kids. But no matter how much we goof off outside of the theater, we know when to turn it off. When we’re backstage, there’s always a level of professionalism.”

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