When you spy a sparkling gem in the earth you dig it up, trim it and polish it because it has a wealth of light and shimmer to share. It will find its place in the world to shine and give joy to others because its destiny refuses to be denied.
Well known for his colossal talent and an even bigger heart to go with it, Rick McVey is one such jewel. Burning with creative energy and a multi-faceted capacity for storytelling, this nugget was spotted and cultivated from an early age. And lovers of theater have been blessed ever since.
From his start as a 7-year-old Damascus, Virginia, student earning $15 dollars to perform in a talent show through his long tenure in the Barter Theatre Resident Acting Company, McVey has built a successful and rewarding career as an entertainer. His nimble imagination and chameleon-like agility with characterization have captivated audiences for decades.
McVey’s dedication to his artistic work has been a constant, but in his giving nature he acknowledges many people who have been influential in his journey.
His interest in theater turned serious during his youth through working with Cathy DeCaterina at Bristol Children’s Theatre. McVey says these experiences were invaluable.
“Children are really honest audiences. You learn many fundamentals of theatre and what it takes to tell a story.” Years later when the theater expanded into Theatre Bristol, McVey was employed to direct shows and serve as producing director.
McVey also branched out into broadcasting. He served as copywriter, creative services director and eventually production manager at WCYB-TV in Bristol, Virginia.
During the early 1980s, he formed the Empire Touring Theatre with David Browning and performed plays for schools and community groups. His composition for elementary students, “The Learning Box,” was the first play to be endorsed by the Virginia Education Association.
The 1990s were fruitful years for McVey. He started his own company, McVey Multimedia, producing commercials and industrial presentations. He was also producing director of the six-year radio show “Don’t Touch That Dial!” at WETS-FM, for which he wrote many of the scripts.
But an urge to return to theater in a serious way was taking hold, and a fateful call in 2000 sealed the deal. It led to a role as Scrooge in ETSU’s production of “A Christmas Carol” with the well-known TV actor Pat Cronin. That led to more shows, earning a degree, and eventually a call from Barter Theatre.
Richard Major, director of theater at Milligan College, recommended McVey to Barter for their production of “1776.” At the time of the audition a stage injury had temporarily left McVey with restricted head movement and bound to a cane. When requested to read for the role of the oldest member of congress, he asked, “Are you asking me to read for this because I’m on a cane?” “Yes,” came the reply. But he won the role and thus got his start at Barter. He performed in a few subsequent plays, and in 2005 was asked to join their Resident Acting Company full-time.
This full immersion in theater plus past broadcasting experiences beckoned a new creative endeavor: filmmaking. With the help of Barter actors and over 100 volunteer Civil War reenactors, McVey wrote, produced and directed “Freedom,” released in 2007. He did a second film five years later that he co-wrote with John Hardy called “This World,” a black comedy about a Civil War reenactor. He hired Jamie Farr of TV’s “M.A.S.H.” fame to play a role, a thrilling and rewarding experience.
Though acting styles for stage and film differ, both fascinate McVey. “It still comes down to this: We, human beings, need story tellers. Because we are very social animals, we need to see what’s going on in other peoples’ lives. And because of Barter’s approach to storytelling, I’ve come to appreciate that we really are doing a service.”
He recalls advice Katy Brown, Barter’s producing artistic director, gave him years ago concerning how to keep fresh in a demanding performance schedule. She said, “‘Remember this: there is at least one person, in that theater, that night, who needs this. They don’t just want it, they need it.’ And that realization has given me more stamina than I ever thought I would have.”
McVey explains that the challenges and the joys of acting are one and the same.
“Working through a challenge and overcoming it provides the joy.” As an example, he claims that he is not a dancer but that through a change of approach he was able to conquer it. The advice came again from Katie Brown. “She said, ‘Well, just act like a dancer.’ So I began to look at dancing as an acting challenge as opposed to a physical challenge.” Proof that creative thinking and ingenuity have big payoffs.
McVey is generous with praise for Barter Theatre as a place to carry out creative work. “I loved that place; I love those people. I don’t think there is a better place in this country, maybe in the world, for an actor to work.” He was employed there for 17 years, performing in over 100 productions. “I knew when I went to work at Barter that it was a special place, that I was going to get the chance to do some things that I’d never been able to do before. I did not know how it would enrich me; how it would make me a better actor, a better artist, and shape my appreciation for the art form and the craft.”
He looks forward now to spending time with family, traveling with his wife, perhaps some woodworking and pursuing a bit of work in front of the camera instead of behind it.
“I have been so fortunate to do the things that I’ve had the chance to do. I couldn’t be more satisfied as an artist, or as a person. I have a great family that I love and love me. And it’s the same with the people at Barter. I think that I’m the luckiest person that I’ve ever known.”
Audiences have been lucky as well, and Maya Angelou’s words ring especially true: “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The bounty of sentiments his performances have stirred in us is the treasured legacy of Rick McVey.
Bonny Gable is a former theatre professor and freelance writer based in Bristol, Virginia. https://www.linkedin.com/in/bonny-gable-4a4767a1/