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Director, Teacher, Actor: Our Neighbor, Jeff McCoy



“Once you get that applause and everything, you’re suddenly sitting there going, ‘Oh, that was actually pretty cool,’” stated Jeff McCoy. “That’s one of the things I love about teaching is that I can get the students to be excited about that.”

In his role as drama teacher, McCoy has been getting students excited about hearing their first round of applause for several years now and his dedication to theater has resulted in numerous awards, including three Virginia High School League championships in theatre.

McCoy is a native of Blacksburg and was inspired to become a teacher by a “very nurturing and caring fifth grade teacher named Nellie Ross.”

After graduating from Blacksburg High School, McCoy went on to attend the conveniently located institution of higher learning known as Virginia Tech. There he earned his bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education in 1978 and subsequently landed a job in Pulaski County.

His first teaching job was at Hiwassee Elementary School. When the school system downsized from a faculty of four to a faculty of three at Hiwassee, McCoy was sent to Pulaski Middle School, where he taught English and Social Studies.

Though he decided to teach early on, McCoy’s penchant for performance began to blossom when he would do skits for his school’s Spring Festival. There was no high school drama department, as such, McCoy enjoyed singing in the choir, and that had its affect.

“A guy came into church choir who kept encouraging me saying, ‘You’ve got a good voice,’” McCoy recounted. “And when I auditioned, I got the solo for one of the concerts over all these people that I thought were much better singers than me, and I thought, ‘Hey, I can actually do this.’ It gave me confidence.”

While teaching elementary school in 1981, McCoy worked as an actor at Dry Gulch Junction, an Old West theme park set up on the south side of Big Walker Mountain.

“I played the Marshall most of the time but sometimes I was the guy that robbed the train,” said McCoy. “When the train got to the top, we’d run back into town and change costumes for the saloon show.”

In 1982, McCoy began teaching Social Studies and English at Pulaski Middle School and at about the same time, McCoy began his long involvement with Christiansburg Community Theater, where he landed a part in Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap.” His association with the Christiansburg theater scene continued through the 80s as he continued to teach in Pulaski. In 1989 McCoy somehow found time to earn his Master’s Degree in Counseling from Virginia Tech. Nine years later he earned his certification in theatre from Radford University.

When the PMS drama teacher was transferred to PCHS, McCoy became the new middle school drama teacher but every summer he made a point of keeping his acting chops honed. McCoy became a regular cast member of Blacksburg’s Summer Musical Enterprise and was given the opportunity to perform musicals such as “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man” and “My Fair Lady” at the Haymarket Theatre on the VT campus.

“I’ve directed three of their shows as well,” said McCoy. “They’re always ask, ‘Would you like to direct another show?’ and I say, ‘No, I like having the opportunity act in the summer.’”

In 1995 McCoy took over the position of Director of Theater Arts at Pulaski County High School. While he loved both theater and teaching, he had his misgivings.

“After my first year and a half, I was like, I don’t know if I like this or not and actually got accepted at Lexington Theological Seminary,” McCoy related.

But as it turned out, McCoy decided to not choose the pastoral life.

“I think that my calling is to be with these kids and to hopefully be a positive role model; a positive influence to either go into theater as a vocation or go into it as an avocation,” said McCoy.

Several of his students have indeed found work in the theater.

“Kendall Payne, who founded the Adair Theatre, has acted all over the place,” said McCoy. “Jordan does the children’s program and acts in a bunch of stuff in a Florida Theater Company. Another former student is at Northwestern University teaching lighting design. Several of my students have gone into writing and directing and that’s what they do today.”

Apart from making a living in the theater, taking a drama class can also have unforeseen advantages.

“I’ve had so many students to write back over the years and say, ‘I didn’t think I was a great actor but it gave me the courage and the confidence to get in front of other people to do presentations and things like that in college.’”

In his 26 years of teaching drama at PCHS, McCoy has directed dozens of plays, each one seemingly topping the last.

“Every kid has a different show that they say was their favorite,” said McCoy. “ I always go into the thing saying this could be something special. Let’s see where it goes and take the ride.”

As mentioned, the ride has taken McCoy and his students to three state titles in drama.

“We won state in December 2002 and my dad passed away later that month,” McCoy recounted. “I said at the time, I think this is a God thing because He doesn’t put more on your plate that you can handle. There are good moments and bad moments, but I think it balances out.”

The award winning play was called, “The Lady of the Lake and other British Tales,” which was a piece of absurdist theater that had been written by a couple of McCoy’s students.

“I thought that’s really great and that will never happen again and then in 2006, it happened again with “The Other Side of the Story,” which was a musical that I wrote,” McCoy explained. “I took some fairy tales and threw them together and did the play from the perspective of the villains.”

“It took 11 years but in 2017, “You Don’t Know Jack,” which was taken from Appalachian Folk Tales won the state title,” he continued. “Each time it was a very different show.”

A big part of producing high quality drama is helping sometimes shy kids lose themselves in the character.

“Students don’t seem to understand in the beginning that you’re getting them to be outside of themselves,” said McCoy. “You’re playing a character. You can be as silly as you want to be. So getting somebody to the point where they’re really, really comfortable with just letting it all out is key. What’s the big deal? I’m in my 60’s and they’re 15 to 18 years old, so what are they so worried about? We’re learning how to be wide open.”

Whether they win awards or not, the PCHS theatre department is known for the high quality of its theatrical productions.

“That’s one of the things that we try to do,” McCoy stated. “We try to make sure that people in Pulaski County get to see stuff that they wouldn’t normally get to see. Our budget is not huge but we make the most of the budget that we happen to have and give them the big shows that they want to be able to see.”

Being able to see productions at all has been an issue in the era of COVID. Last semester’s class did a version of “CLUE” using their Chromebooks. This semester, a one act play entitled “Ellis Island Through the Golden Door,” will be filmed and then edited before being sent to the VHSL theater competition.

To keep the live productions going, the school system gave McCoy the go ahead to have an amphitheater built in the courtyard next to the PCHS gym. The plan is to have a choir concert there on May 16, with the next two weekends dedicated to a production of “Mamma Mia.”

No doubt McCoy has more sway than most at PCHS. After all, he taught Jennifer Bolling, the Principal of PCHS, back when she was in the sixth grade at Pulaski Middle School.

Despite his reputation for being “wide open” when teaching drama, McCoy tends to mellow out when he returns to his home in Christiansburg.

“When I’m at home, I’m just dull and boring,” admitted McCoy. “HGTV is on and I’m watching people build houses and do things with that. That’s fun.”

He’s also taken a serious like to walking long distances.

“I started walking a lot this past summer because of COVID,” he said. “I started in March 2018. By December, I’d hit 1,900 miles and then hit another 100 miles last month. I’ll hit another 100 miles this month. Since we’re in school again, I can’t walk as much. I was walking anywhere from seven to 10 miles almost every single day. Now if I can get five miles in I figure I’m doing good.”

McCoy could retire anytime but has no plans to, at least in the immediate future. He’d like to see one of his former students take the reins when that day comes. Still, McCoy won’t spend his days watching HGTV, as he has plans to keep acting, perhaps even as a full time cast member at the Barter Theatre.

Until that day comes, he is satisfied with his chosen profession.

“I have stayed in Pulaski County this entire time. I’ve had opportunities to go other places and do other things but I’ve just felt a tie to this area and being at the high school has just been a great experience,” McCoy related. “Even in the years that have been rough. It’s like I’m here for a specific reason. I enjoy what I do. If I didn’t enjoy what I was doing then I would have been out the door a long time ago! I love people being able to experience theater in so many different ways, taking them on a trip to Europe or to New York or someplace like that. I get to see the world. I can do these types of things. Everybody can’t do that, but they can see the world through what we do on stage.”



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