Wednesday, May 4, 2016

McCoy Theatre Alumni Throw a Party for Retiring Professor Julia "Cookie" Ewing

Or the True Confessions of a B-Student

Posted By on Wed, May 4, 2016 at 4:47 PM

click to enlarge Teresa Morrow Brown directs a cast of 43 Rhodes College theater alumni.
  • Teresa Morrow Brown directs a cast of 43 Rhodes College theater alumni.
I'd never questioned a grade before, but something about that B in beginning acting just bugged the hell out of me. How could I have made a B? I was a senior for gosh sakes. I'd already taken advanced acting, and directing, and "Languages of the Stage," and done quite well. I was only returning to the 101 course because I'd changed my major late in the game and the intro-level class was required to graduate with a degree in Theater & Media Arts. Thing is, I loved that intro class and did so much more than what was required. But there it was, big as life, staring back at me —- B.  

"I think there's been a mistake," I said to my professor and faculty advisor, Julia "Cookie" Ewing, making what seemed like a strong case for a better grade. She listened intently, as always, nodding her head from time to time. Then, when I finished my pitiful monologuing she agreed. No, she vociferously agreed, doling out high praise. 

"But I require students to give themselves a daily grade in their journals," Cookie reminded, softly, melodically. She's always had a switchblade edge, zero tolerance for malarkey, and a reputation for gentleness and generosity, in addition to an uncanny ability to shut out the whole world and devote her full attention to whoever she might be talking to. She didn't have to say another word. I knew exactly where this conversation was going. 

"What's the highest grade you ever gave yourself?" she asked, and I sputtered excuses about not wanting to be presumptuous, and always thinking I could make even my best work better. Then I ran out of steam and answered the question she asked: "I gave myself a B."

"Why would I give you a grade higher than the highest grade you gave yourself," she then asked, with the intensity of Meryl Streep playing Yoda.  Oh, I had an answer. But  I couldn't bring myself to say, "Because I earned it, dammit!" Because suddenly, I wasn't so sure I had. 
click to enlarge Cookie
  • Cookie

With Cookie there was often very little separation between life lessons and the regular kind. She's one of those tough-loving teachers who makes you want to work harder and be better at everything you do. Everybody who's ever worked with her has a story to tell and many of those stories were related this past weekend — on stage and off— when numerous representatives from every class she's ever taught, and every show she's ever directed or acted in, returned to the McCoy Theatre to thank her, hug her neck, and wish her a happy retirement.

What happened Saturday was supposed to be a surprise, though I have it on good authority, she'd sniffed out the plot a week or so before. Hopefully she was at least surprised by the scale of the SRO event, which included a performance co-written and directed by Teresa Morrow Brown (Class of '83),  featuring a cast of 43 former students. (I encourage you to read all about it here). The show referenced dozens of productions including J.B., Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Brecht on Brecht, The Metamorphosis, Pippin, Cabaret, The Miss Firecracker Contest, Summer and Smoke, The Children's Hour, and Rhodes' landmark production of Nicholas Nickleby. It ended, appropriately enough, with images of a mama bird turning an out of the way corner of the McCoy Theatre into a safe place to raise her babies, followed by the formal presentation of a bronzed nest.  The McCoy Theatre's newer studio space was also renamed The Ewing Studio Theater. 

I could list all of Cookie's awards, accomplishments and accolades, but I'd rather share the image of former students, separated by decades, interacting like old friends and family. The sense of kinship and camaraderie was palpable. The abundant love and clear legacy evidenced an extraordinary teacher's virtuoso performance as a mentor to generations.

Standing O.

Oh, about that B. The grade stood — and I've continued to earn it. I never really learned that last lesson, and remain my own worst critic. Now, at least, I'm everybody else's worst critic too. 

click to enlarge Florence Johnson, Amy Matheney, and an all Rhodes cast celebrate the career and legacy of Cookie Ewing.
  • Florence Johnson, Amy Matheney, and an all Rhodes cast celebrate the career and legacy of Cookie Ewing.

Special thanks to Wes Meador, Dustin Pappin, Laura Canon, and Kevin Collier for the parts they all played in organizing a perfect evening.

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