Claire McCoy and George Black

Recorded October 29, 2021 Archived October 29, 2021 40:06 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: mby021194


Claire McCoy (58) sits down with her father, George Black (86), to ask him about his experiences as an actor and his career as a professor in the theater departments of various universities.

Subject Log / Time Code

GB describes his childhood home in Mobile, AL.
GB shares the story of how he went to New York for the first time when he was in high school.
GB explains how he got involved in theater.
GB remembers the first play he was in.
GB explains how he became a theater professor.
GB tells the story of the first time he met his wife, Margaret.
CM tells the story she heard about GB and MB's first meeting.
GB recounts how his career as a theater professor progressed over time.
GB and CM together piece together the story of how GB got the role of Robert E. Lee on "The Civil War" miniseries.
GB reflects on his career as a professor and shares his favorite parts of teaching theater.
GB explains how Alan Snyder became his mentor.
GB and CM discuss the ways community theater has changed throughout GB's lifetime.
GB compliments the work CM does as an art history professor.
CM expresses how she loves being art historian.


  • Claire McCoy
  • George Black

Recording Locations

Columbus Public Library

Partnership Type



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00:01 Okay, great. My name is Claire. Black McCoy. I am 58. Today's date is Friday, October 29th, 2021 and we are in Columbus, Georgia.

00:17 My partner is George black and he is my dad.

00:26 Hello, my name is George black. I am 86 years. Old. Today is October. 29th, 2021 and we're in the library of Columbus, Georgia. And my partner is clear black who has spend my daughter for a very long time and will continue to be.

00:48 Let's have sex.

00:51 Well, I guess we can get started. I know that Henry thought it would be interesting to to learn how you ended up being. Robert E Lee and Ken Burns, Civil War. But I think what's more interesting is sort of the path there?

01:14 So you're born in Mobile Alabama? How did you? I mean you had such a long career in the theater. How did Pat decut started? Well, everything everything in my life is pretty much an accident. My father had a gas station where I started working when I was seven and learned how to change tires. And my mother had finished grade school. My father high school. They were, they were always supportive. I was the eldest of four children I had the youngest is a brother and then there was two sisters in between and they're, they're all still in Mobile.

02:03 Play according to family tradition. They don't go anywhere. So I was, I was an oddball from the word go because I went to strange places and then I will.

02:25 I went to Atlanta one time for a tournament and archery tournament. I think that was and then went to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast where my grandmother lived. But the big one was I went to New York when I was in high school. How did you go to New York?

02:51 High School. My friends having a Chevy Bel Air.

02:57 And we got there very slowly, but very carefully.

03:06 And what why were you going to New York? I mean, Park from it being I was just to go and we stay as I recall.... What's the name of it?

03:23 It was a, it was a house on the lower lower east side, run by nuns. And it'll come to me in a minute, but haven't been there in 6570 years. So, I don't really remember the name and the sightseeing thing. That's cool with that, with Uncle Aubrey, at the time, but he Aubrey was my best friend by far, but

04:02 He didn't have a car, but he did have a job so he couldn't go.

04:14 To all of these places outside of mobile. How did, how did you get involved with plays though? I was being interviewed by some interns in Richmond few years ago. And one of the guys asked me that question and he said that, you know, he asked that question and I said to meet girls and I went to an all-boys school. So there was a Catholic school. So I was kind of raised a professional Catholic. I say, so there was a Catholic girls high school nearby. So if they're there were many benefits to that not only could you meet girls but you could

05:07 Got out of class, which was one thing that we majored in.

05:14 And and then it's just one one accident after another.

05:21 I'd like to say my, my parents.

05:25 My mother died when she was 96, my father, when he was 78, I think till the day they died. They didn't know what I did. They just didn't, they just said, oh,

05:42 He says he teaches that was true. But that was it? Because they didn't believe it. Frankly. I didn't either, but there you go. First play, you remember doing Beyond like say like a nativity pageant or something.

06:06 There was a community theater nearby.

06:11 That was doing.

06:14 Play a very esoteric play by the poet. Playwright Christopher fry.

06:24 Called a sleep of prisoners.

06:28 And one of the one of the characters, one of the actors in that was from South America and he had a, he had a emergency in his family and they had to leave. So I got the call to be in that it was terrible casting but, you know, I got to be in it and hung lights and went on tour and my favorite story about it. This is a verse drama set in a wartime captured Church.

07:06 And the the prisoners all have dreams in which they interact and we were playing, I guess it was in Baldwin County and there was a reception afterwards. And this nice lady came up and she said, oh, it was just wonderful. She said, you really put me to sleep.

07:30 You know, you take what you get. Well, you know, sometimes I have so many of my classes recorded, now, since bright and one of my students said, she likes to listen to them before she goes to sleep cuz it will like

07:52 So I think that's a positive. I think, I don't know where she stayed for the whole thing.

08:04 So you so you did that and then you just kept doing plays. It, just things just kept happening. And honestly, there was nothing planned. I was a I was in college. I was an English major at Spring Hill College and

08:26 The they have a drama faculty person and he left in the middle of the year.

08:35 And they said, would you like to do, this will put you up and give you your, your tuition, and everything and I said, sure. And then when when I was in the Army the first time.

08:55 The head of the English Department. Wonderful man. Who was my first Mentor? Real a father Murray?

09:07 Was in town, giving a retreat or something. And he calls and he essentially offered me a job, which had the added benefit of getting me out of the army 30 days sooner than I was supposed to be. So there you go. And

09:30 And that was was that before or after I was born before I was Sprite and then

09:41 I was called up again. So I had two tours in the Army and that's I saved America from the Berlin Wall crisis.

09:54 Well, I'm sure America's very grateful for that. Now now I haven't so in between like, sleep of prisoners.

10:04 And father Murray offering you this job. You got married, right? Cuz you were married before to my mom the year after I graduated. So, how does how did you?

10:20 Tell me the story of how you met her.

10:24 Oh well.

10:28 I was, I was with my friend Aubrey. We were co-directing a production. That was supposed to be a fundraiser for this same Community Theater that I talked about. And it was called in the Red Witch, the the director of the of the theory that didn't really like that name, but that's what we insisted on and it was a musical variety show and we had the auditions open auditions.

11:05 And,

11:07 My wife Margaret and her sister, Mary Jane, who were they had another, they had two other sisters, but the two of them. At the time, I had really dance professionally and they done professional classes in New York because they were at a different social stratum from they were rich, and I just remembered, I just remembered the name of the nuns facility. It was called the Leo house. Then I think it's still there. Okay.

11:58 Way to go on. There you go. Well, that's but the story that I heard about how you met my mother.

12:09 Is that you had these auditions? And one of the side benefits with that, you can meet girls and that Mom and Aunt, Jane came in, haven't been like, in auditions in New York and I will say in my mother's defense, Aunt Jane told me the story that they came and and you had evidently seen a lot of movies because you fold up a folding chair. Put one leg over it. And on the sea, took a dragon on a cigarette. And said, I hear you girls dance. Show us your stuff.

12:56 And that's true.

13:01 So that shows you how you know, how turned in I was.

13:10 So you guys got married and you were in the Army and then father Murray offers you this job at SpringHill and you'd what were some of those plays you did they or do you remember? Yeah, I did. Let's see.

13:33 I did the lady's not for burning. Also by Christopher fry. It was a much more.

13:39 Commercially successful play and I did Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night and a couple of light dramas Angel Street, I think was 1. So if it was just up, it was just a mixture.

14:04 So and then I remember when I was a kid we moved around a fair amount. I mean, I guess all people do that because you got your master's degree. I was teaching at SpringHill and

14:22 I said, how can I make more money and they said, you can be promoted if you get up another degree? Okay, and so I looked around and I went to

14:40 And I went to Tulane which was an Elite School of theater.

14:52 Tulane and Yale, were just the tip. And and so I got in.

15:00 And manage to managed to finish it in pretty short time because we had

15:10 And that's when you were born when I was at, when we were at 2:11, and we talked and then I got an offer out of the blue.

15:24 To take over the Executive artistic leadership of the Little Theater Monroe, Louisiana, which was the second largest community theater in the country. They had a membership of 3,000 on a waiting list.

15:49 And I was there for a while and then I would, I was at a conference and saw a friend with whom I was at Tulane.

16:02 Who said we've been looking for you. And I said, here I am. And they said, well, you need to come to the University of Virginia.

16:13 And I said, that's pretty big deal. So I said, yeah, come on.

16:21 So we went there and we were there for almost 20 years.

16:30 That's where you got hooked up with this business, right? With Ken Burns in the Civil War cuz your teaching and doing place and running the VA. I've been there for several years and the chairman of the department, David Wise.

16:52 And I decided that we should start a professional Resident Theater in the summer time. And so, we did that and premiered in 1976. And, and to do that, I would, it was completely at we had, we had an equity guest artist contract. So, based on our budget. I would go to New York and audition people and they would come down and

17:30 Performing our shows and that's where that's where this whole thing gets connected. Started number.

17:44 I mean, I remember I was always interested in film and documentaries and I had like seeing Brooklyn Bridge and stuff like that. So I was really familiar with his work more familiar than you more than I because you told me what to do, what to look for. And I remember,

18:04 You were doing some. You had told me you were doing some educational TV thing with and you were doing a voice for Robert E Lee.

18:16 And I just thought it was like some local whatever and people that were fans of his work. No, this is like 3 years ago almost we're like really looking for. Everybody knew that. This thing was coming, the Civil War thing, and I went into your room one day and on your dresser, I saw a card.

18:38 For real, not Ken Burns, but Rick Burns. Rig, Florentine films. And I picked it up like by The Edge and walked into your office. And said, where did you get that? And you said real nice guy?

18:54 And then I said,

18:56 This is the Civil War. I said, this is the big one and then you told me, like how you got mixed up in this whole thing Bridge.

19:10 And shakers. Yes, and

19:15 And one of the shows we were running in the season at the Heritage, Repertory was the little foxes and out of the blue. I got a call from a man named Steven Ives who said he worked with Ken Burns. And I saw to put that together and they would like to audition some people that they had seen in the show to do this production. And I said, there's nothing better. You can do four actors then get them auditions. So yes, I'll be glad to do that.

19:51 So, we set that up. And so it was, I think the big players at the time where?

19:58 Rick Byrne Steven Ives and Ken but a can of Rick and Steven we came for the auditions and they were doing they would they would be doing auditions and they did a lot.

20:19 They looked at a lot of people.

20:22 And then after they'd sort of, you know, called it down Ken, Ken appeared and I was struck can is 20 years younger than so at the time. He was maybe in his mid-thirties.

20:42 And he had a very stylish haircut.

20:45 And just a Charming guy. And so we looked and we talked about people in who would do what all that. And so, he said, I'm going to use this, these people there were four or five in fact.

21:04 And as he was and we going to lunch and stuff like that, and he said that I'm still looking. He said I'm still looking for Robert E Lee and

21:18 Would you be interested in that? I said Wilshire. And he said, well, I've got, I have to say this cuz it's true. He says, I'm going to Hollywood. I have to see a few more people there, but

21:34 If it works out, I'll let you know. And of course that.

21:39 For the business. I'm in that's like we'll have to have lunch, and so he did. And so I went up to New York stayed in the Algonquin hotel, and it was really funny things that happened once before it premiered. I was in grad school at UT Austin, really tired. One night working on a paper like where you're at. You're not delirious but, you know, you really need to go to sleep and I'm sitting there and I hear your voice in my room by the TV on PBS and that was crazy. And then I think, the first time I took my girls to DC, we were in the gift shop of the Lincoln Memorial.

22:39 And everything they're looking at, you know, and then again because of that we hear your voice and the girls look at me like what it was really funny. Will I have to tell you about some about

22:59 Can.

23:01 I was thinking, you know, big-time producer director.

23:07 He said he would call the house.

23:11 Ask ask how everything was going. And have we heard anything about the show. I mean, this was before it was released. And in the immediate.

23:26 Proceeding weeks or so that I had a guest directing job in Vermont and I looked up and I saw that we would write. We were just really ride across the tracks from Walpole, New Hampshire, where can live?

23:53 So, I called and his wife, Amy said,

24:00 Tim is out, trying to convince stations to run this.

24:06 Because it's it's 11 hours. It doesn't have any big action scenes. It's in black and white. And and so he's just out trying to do a sales pitch.

24:22 And I thought, you know, in the aftermath how ironic that was. That is kind of crazy.

24:30 Well, people often after that thought that I had like some deep-seated interest in the Civil War really strange.

24:38 But it's funny how those things, how it, how you doing, something like that, kind of sticks with you because you did so much after that to you. I mean you so you were teaching at Virginia. You were running that theater in the summer.

24:55 When you were the two, talk about a little bit like when you were teaching.

25:00 I mean your your teaching students to go into a field where there is, you know, like less than no unemployment. I mean no employment really hard.

25:13 What did you I mean, what did you enjoy? Most about teaching and working with students end and you know, creating plays with them.

25:25 Well, it it was I mean just the work of having the class and directing with lot of the students was a joy and there were some.

25:40 Pretty successful students in there. I think of Tina Fey who took several of my classes and who worked as an intern in the theater, in the summertime because of the property leasing. So it was so it was, it was always always found it, very rewarding and especially when

26:14 Everybody seem to be really tuned in to things that were useful, you know, pragmatic efficient things like how to, how to get a headshot and to prepare a resume and all of that. So when you could give them reliable useful information, that was very, they were very interested in that during that period when you were

26:53 Virginia.

26:55 Well, looking back on it. I did too many.

27:01 But,

27:06 The.

27:08 The breakfast Play Opera, that's one that I would put on my Monument.

27:25 Highlight reel. That's right, but they were in fact, volpone was. Yeah. That was the second show that I did there. And then that one, the that won the college, the university, I can call it whatever American College, theater, Festival. Yes, and that also introduced me to another

27:59 Mentor.

28:02 Alan Schneider who was maybe the most important director in the world at the time, and he had seen it.

28:11 And he was,

28:13 He he came and talked to me and then we had Communications and then he was made, he was made head of the theater program at Juilliard, then he

28:31 I mean, it was it was quite a loss when he was gone because he sent me for one thing. He sent me The Gallows of his book 2.

28:42 Comment on before it got published that I still have that but I feel like that world.

28:51 Sometimes.

28:53 Do you sometimes feel that that that world that you were in, you know in the early sixties in the 1970s that the theater world?

29:05 Was somewhat smaller than that, that you were able to connect more with a little or

29:16 Or do you think you were just exploring are really fortunate? I think I was extraordinary fortunate but I'm not really sure because it's the Community Theater. Now that seems to have changed and then in fact over the letter I've seen it changed over the last several years.

29:39 From being a sort of a serious.

29:45 Commitment. So the thing to being, you know, something that you have fun with and I always thought it could be both but

29:57 There you go.

30:00 So, so I must say that the, that the

30:05 The big.

30:07 The largest most serious Community Theater in Mobile, at the time.

30:14 Is a Joe Jefferson players?

30:17 And they were doing a, they would doing a series of four Productions in the summer, time with them.

30:30 With stars, and

30:37 And one of the stars that I worked with you, you might know, but nobody else will was Jeffrey Lynn, who was who is a very big deal. But anyway,

30:49 They hit the wall with their fourth show.

30:53 And they didn't know what to do or who could do it, and they couldn't get a star and they

31:00 Call me and I said, okay.

31:05 We were just over the bay for a weekend and I read Waiting for Godot. How about we do that? It's almost said that was a huge disaster and I said I know but it's so anyway, I convinced them and we did waiting for good though, which was of course the smash of the season.

31:28 Well, that's but that would never happen. Now. We'll that would never happen now. But yeah, I barely have but yeah, that's that's when it was. Yeah, so

31:44 So, that was another. That was another production that I was.

31:50 Really proud of because it elicited such huge and unexpected reaction.

31:59 Now, I have a question. I have a question, how many questions? But okay. So you do I mean, you're in this world where you can, you know, do a production of waiting for Godot for a summer theater. Like in a tent situation that usually has like movie stars and stuff.

32:23 I don't think that would happen anymore. I mean, I think it would be, he knows something about some sort of review with all-singing all-dancing.

32:34 So, I mean, I'm just thinking here is

32:39 If you were say, you know, 1820 again.

32:46 With things being as they, they seem to be with this real emphasis.

32:53 On entertainment, you know, commercial.

32:58 Do you think you would still go into the field? Probably not. I would probably look to television because that that still has

33:17 You can still find the sort of disciplines committed.

33:24 Okay, I admit obsessive.

33:29 And and the theater now is the theater now is is all Showbiz all, you know.

33:39 A lot. Yeah, I mean, I don't know that that's completely no, it's not completely true. But you know the things that that you know about

33:49 Straight plays or so often. Now limited runs into musicals in particular then you know, it's stick it in the US at least it can be kind of hard going which is sad cuz I don't like musicals and said it. I don't like something I do like musicals. Well, that's good. But I don't think there are a couple that I like it's but it's, you know, to each his own. So you think you would go into television cuz you think that seems more satisfied. I don't know because my original career plan was to be a lawyer.

34:34 But then I went straight, but it wasn't just my decision. It was just as somebody said here. Come over here and do this and you can pay me. Okay?

34:51 I'm asking cuz I had a conversation with one of my students and she really likes art history, but she also likes to do things with her hands and she I suggested like conservation or other fields like that. But then we had this conversation about, you know, okay, plan B. I think you sort of need a plan B, if you're going to go into fields that are not going to make you enough to live on the war or that their opportunities are. So limited you need something so that you can find your way to do the things that you enjoy. Absolutely. I find that really interesting that you would say, tell him. I mean, honestly, I haven't thought about it a lot. Well, you don't have to and it was it was

35:45 You know, it.

35:48 I think about it.

35:50 I thought about it more in the last couple of years that.

35:56 Where, I mean, I had no business doing what I did.

36:04 And because I had no, I had no precedents. I had no models. There was so

36:16 I think it's just

36:18 Came to me and

36:21 I took it. I wonder if that still happens so much today. I don't really know. I don't know. I don't know that this happened so much then but career planning with not your strong suit.

36:36 What you mean?

36:38 Yeah, and running theater, Virginia, and doing some beautiful plays, right? Because yeah.

36:49 But the I think that was just, I was just a one-off.

36:56 As far as you know, and I can't,

37:00 I can't really recommend.

37:05 Did you give people career advice?

37:09 Ever, you know sometime. Yeah. Yeah and

37:18 It's, it's so

37:22 It's so tricky. I mean it isn't any business, what? You know, who's going to get higher than hell?

37:30 So there's always that element of luck and being the right resume off at the right moment.

37:38 I think they positive seamless if you're interested.

37:44 Ask about the company.

37:48 I mean, I don't know how many times I would be auditioning somebody and I'd say so, what do you know about our company and they say, Well done nothing. Really?

38:01 You're in Virginia. Are you out of?

38:06 That's amazing. That's amazing.

38:11 About me. And what I've done, can you see when you look at my work, the influence of what you did?

38:21 Like in terms of the videos and stuff that I've put together. I think they are very well done. And I think the same thing, your grandmother and grandfather would have no idea what you do and it was

38:46 And we do what, you know, it's interesting. Cuz when people ask me about what I do, and I think you could say the same that I, I have never envied anyone else's job. I love being an artist or their aspects of you, no work. Like everybody that I really dislike a lot. No job is perfect. But what a great profession

39:10 So, do you think I could become a conservationist?

39:14 You mean like an art conservator to know?

39:19 No, either cuz you need to know about, you know, once I could perhaps in fact, I knew somebody from the theater who did that and who's doing it very successful. You could have done that, but I'm glad you didn't.

39:38 So, I guess we're done.

39:41 So, thank you very much.

39:45 This is,

39:48 This is what?

39:51 Mom, did you?