After years of struggle as a screenwriter, Sean Michael McCord left it behind and detoured into a career in computers.
He found new inspiration several years ago, however, as he watched his youngest son perform onstage in a community theater musical.
Now McCord, an audio-visual/information technology engineer for the University of Virginia Library, is using his employee education benefit to complete a master’s degree in playwriting and has started a new theater company, the Charlottesville Playwrights Collective. The group’s first production – McCord’s play, “Moving” – will debut Sept. 7.
Raised near San Francisco, he worked in theater backstage while attending Ohlone Community College and then earned his bachelor’s degree in film from the University of California, Los Angeles. In his late 20s, McCord moved from L.A. to New York City, where he met his wife. They moved to Charlottesville 26 years ago when she got a job nearby, and started a family. He left screenplay-writing behind when he left L.A.
When his then-12-year-old son won a part in a Live Arts play, McCord started volunteering at the local theater to find out more about it and attended its playwrights’ lab.
The first breakthrough came when Live Arts accepted a monologue McCord had written for its 2011 summer season of short works. As he watched an actor portraying the main character, an adult son, talking about his memories of his father, McCord said he felt, “This is it!” He kept writing short plays after work, and they kept getting produced in different places.
He decided to get more serious. A friend was working on a master’s degree in playwriting at Hollins University in Roanoke, so he visited the program’s festival of new works and met Todd Ristau, who directs Hollins’ playwriting program. The program is low residency – a semester’s worth is crammed into six weeks over three to five summers. If he was accepted, he thought it might be doable.
He had to see if he could make arrangements with his job, and credits the supportive work environment at the library, from his supervisors Hoke Perkins and now Tammy Johnson, to the coworkers who fill in for him.
“My employer and co-workers at the UVA Library have been exceptionally accommodating in allowing me to take six weeks off over the summer in order to immerse myself in these high-intensity semesters,” McCord said.
He chose the Hollins Playwrights Lab for two reasons. “One is because of Hollins’ unparalleled reputation for producing strong writers versed in all aspects of collaborative theater-making. The other reason is because I cannot afford to take two years out of my life to pursue a traditional M.F.A.”
UVA’s education benefit provides financial support for coursework toward a degree or academic certificate program or for professional development. This year, for the first time, up to $4,360 may be applied for to help cover a year’s tuition. (The professional development amount is $2,000 per year.)
McCord has participated in the playwriting program for the past three years and has two more to go, including time for his graduate thesis. The immersive summer sessions consist of courses, workshops and readings and working with directors and actors. In between summers, students are expected to write new original plays.
He was so enthused by the program, he decided last summer to start a new theater company in Charlottesville to provide a forum for aspiring playwrights to produce their new works. The Charlottesville Playwrights Collective’s mission is “to produce professional productions of new original works by local playwrights,” McCord said. “We’re doing something really exciting here, with playwrights self-producing and working on each other’s shows in a collaborative environment. Everyone involved is really enthusiastic about the project.”
McCord’s script, “Moving,” was chosen as the group’s debut production partly because it will be relatively easy to stage, he said. There are no elaborate sets or costumes.
“One of the great challenges facing emerging playwrights is finding theaters that will produce new works by unknown, or relatively unknown playwrights,” noted McCord, who has had work produced in Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado, California and Germany. “One way to meet this challenge is for playwrights to collaborate, to help each other self-produce. And Charlottesville, which has always demonstrated an appetite for new plays, is a great place to do this.”
“Moving,” directed by Joncey Boggs, spans 30 years, following the lives of several different residents who move into and out of one apartment in Silver Lake, a neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“I was intrigued by the idea of taking a setting that gave me a platform to explore how the choices we make early in life can impact us and the people around us as we age,” McCord said. “It’s a story about growing, changing and yes, moving.”
The play, to be staged at the Belmont Arts Collaborative, 221 Carlton Rd. in Charlottesville, will be performed on Sept. 7, 8, 9, 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. General admission is pay-what-you-will. The collective has two more plays scheduled for the spring. More information can be found here.