Behind the Curtain

Terry LeCompte.

 

For more than 70 years, the mission of the Ocala Civic Theatre (OCT) has been to uplift, inspire and entertain our community by providing quality theatrical experiences and offering performing arts education and enrichment programs. The educational offerings are available year-round and are open to learners of all ages through skill-building and performance classes. To those of us who have never availed ourselves of these programs, Terry LeCompte, the Director of Education and Enrichment at OCT, may seem like a bit of a hidden figure. But to those in the know, she is a force of nature behind the scenes…and occasionally center stage as well.

From left , front row: Liam Ortiz and Caroline Overly; middle row: Grace DeClerk, Alessandra Mastroserio, Alexa Blanco and Bentley Johnson; back row: Benjamin Burnette, Tyler Ruiz, Aubrey Bush and Kiersten Farley.

 

Terry LeCompte radiates a spirit of positivity. When she smiles, which she does often, her powerful grin travels up and lights her expressive eyes with a joyful exuberance. She has an easy laugh and frequently replies in an enthusiastically positive way, often adding an encouraging “right” to the end of each sentence—as if punctuating it with an affirmation. In a less sincere person, it might come across as an affectation, but spend a little time with her and it becomes clear that LeCompte’s zest for life is the real deal.

“I love, love, love, love learning,” she enthuses. “I’m ridiculous in my love for learning things.”

After attending Rutgers University in New Jersey, she studied acting at the famed HB Studios and The New School in New York City. But she calls herself a work in progress and a lifelong learner. 

“When my grandmother was in her 80s, she would still say she didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up. And my mom, who’s now in her 70s, says the same thing, even though she had a full career as a teacher,” she explains. “I love school. When I lived in New York City, I was a working equity actor, but I still took classes. If I had $10 in my pocket, I would use it to drop into a musical theater or acting class. Right now, I am looking at an online program for business certification. I’m never going to say I’m finished learning. And I try to really impart that to our learners here, too. I mean, you don’t take one class in tap dance and now you’re a tap dancer, right?”

She says she is reminded of her desire to stay open to all the possibilities on a daily basis. 

“I realize from talking with so many people in this community, it’s not that easy for people to figure out what they want to be…what they want to do.”

Given her passion to continually expand her own horizons, it is particularly fitting that LeCompte heads up OCT’s education and enrichment program, a role that she says helps prepare her students to build confidence and life skills that will serve them in any field they choose. 

“You’re going to be successful whether you decide to be an actor, a store manager or a lawyer,” she asserts. “Because when you are here, we are building your crucial skills, communication skills and your character.”

LeCompte was hand-picked for the role by Mary Britt, the theater’s longtime executive director, shortly before her death in the spring of 2019. Britt was a visionary leader and beloved by the community. 

“Mary was a driving force for the theatre and the arts community. She spearheaded, along with a cadre of dedicated individuals and dreamers, a drive to build a quality facility,” OCT board member, actor and director Fred Mullen says of Britt. “The result of her efforts over the years has taken the Ocala Civic Theatre from a small local troupe to a theater now regarded as one of the top 10 community theater groups in the country.”

That reputation and Britt’s passion were a big part of what attracted LeCompte to relocate to Ocala and take on the challenge of growing the theater’s  education programs.

“There’s always a struggle with theaters to balance art and education,” LeCompte offers. “If they’re smart, they realize that education is what funds the art. Mary knew that. Anyone who was friends with her will say that Mary knew that education was where it was at. She brought me here from New York, so she made a really big commitment. The program was in need of a complete overhaul. I feel incredibly fortunate that Mary trusted me with the program. I’m forever grateful for that.”

As director of education and enrichment, LeCompte creates the programming and training opportunities available at the theater and oversees a staff of eight paid teaching artists and a part-time arts program coordinator. 

Caroline Overly, Aubrey Bush, Bentley Johnson, Benjamin Burnette, Grace DeClerk, Tyler Ruiz and Liam Ortiz. Photo courtesy of OCT. 

“We create programming that’s differentiated based on age and experience levels. The important thing to note is that all of the training that we do here for youth and for adults is practical and hands on. We’re not a princess party babysitting thing. You come here and you learn how to act, how to sing and how to dance,” she explains. “All of the training that we do here is practical and hands on for children as young as 5, all the way up to adults who are 105 years old. I’ve taken this program to pre-professional training.”

But she doesn’t just administrate. She teaches, directs and runs extension activities, as well as the programming that goes into schools. She also has some ambitious ideas about programs she would like to develop to help grow the reach and offerings OCT provides, but still struggles with funding, even with the education and enrichment endowment Britt gifted them when she died.

“There’s some seed money, but not money to develop the wing that I would love to have,” LeCompte says with a laugh. “It is needed because we are growing all of the time, growing beyond what our resource capacities are in terms of space, time and teaching artists. Currently, we only have from about 4:30 until about 7 o’clock every evening to provide programming here and that’s because that is when this building shifts into getting the productions up. So, that’s not a lot of time when you’ve got 125 students.”


COMMUNITY PLAYERS

What is especially meaningful for LeCompte are the people with whom she has formed relationships through her role at the theatre.

“I appreciate the sense of community within the families that are involved here, because I didn’t have a lot of experience in that before,” she shares. “I really, truly love that we’re so close.”

And the feeling seems to be entirely mutual.

“Terry gives all she has to the theater, and then she gives some more,” asserts OCT board member Jeanne Henningsen. “That’s just who she is. Terry devotes her heart and soul to the theater. Our daughter Juliana has taken classes and has thoroughly enjoyed her experience. In fact, every parent I know who has a child involved at OCT has been very impressed by the talent, professionalism and supportiveness of the staff. She loves those kids like they are her own.”

For 16-year-old Aubrey Bush, it’s the example of “how she is the true version of herself and doesn’t care what others think of her” that has made a lasting impression and ignited her passion. “She makes learning enjoyable,” Bush explains. “She makes me love theater more and more.”

But LeCompte also is helping them to develop vital life skills and build community.

“My experiences with Mrs. LeCompte and the education program at OCT have helped me become more confident” 13-year-old Alessandra Mastroserio  shares. “She has helped me pursue my love of acting in a great environment where I can be myself. I feel that it’s my home away from home and I’ve made wonderful friends. I love being there!”

Included in that community, which LeCompte lovingly calls the OCT family, are the teaching artists she has brought on board during her tenure.

Mario Villella is one of those artists, who first came to the theater as a performer.

“I am a parent of two of Terry’s students and I was impressed with the way she was able to immediately influence the culture of whatever room she is in. It seemed that she was able to teach lessons, off the top of her head, that would have taken me hours to prepare,” Villella explains. “Unlike most of the parents who send their kids to theater arts camp, I actually got to watch how she taught my kids. My children participated and loved it!” 

This opportunity came when LeCompte offered Villella a position to join her team.

“I worked with Mario on OCT’s production of Beauty and the Beast.  Since we were not in many scenes together, I was able to observe his work ethic while he rehearsed,” she explains. “We had a couple of good conversations where he shared his collegiate theater training with me, his work as an actor and teaching artist, his journey to youth ministry and then pastoral call. I have always joked that actors, lawyers and clergy have the same job. Except it isn’t a joke. The three occupations share the same skillset and they are part of what I look for in our education team. To be a teaching artist at OCT, you must be equal parts educator, artist and youth developer. We require a minimum of three years post-high school training in your theater discipline, excellent communication and interpersonal skills, professionalism inside and outside the classroom, and a background in directing or education.”

Another individual who has benefited from LeCompte’s mentoring is Kiersten Farley, who is both a student and OCT’s arts program coordinator.

“Not only are students able to develop their theater techniques, they are also learning how to be kind and supportive individuals to one another,” Farley offers. “Having the chance to work closely with Ms. LeCompte has given me the chance to see how a room should be run in a fun, educational and professional manner. What makes her so special is that she really cares about each individual person. Whether you’re in her class, coming to see a show or running into her at the coffee shop, she will take the time to listen and be there with you in the moment. Being a part of the program has changed me for the better as a teaching artist, a performer and a person.”


ONCE UPON A TIME

LeCompte was fortunate to discover her chosen vocation early in life and realize that her road to success would be in melding two distinct elements into one fulfilling career.

“When I was in third grade, I did a report about wanting to be a teacher like my mom,” she recalls. “I arranged a photo shoot. I had props and costumes. I created this whole story, this scene, for this teacher. And, at 11, I did my first play and that was it. I was the King in a version of Huckleberry Finn. Right after that I was cast as Pinocchio. And the rest is history.”

But what made her journey from there forward unique was her drive to unite her two passions.

“What I’ve been so fortunate to do, because of the right mentors in my life, is to realize that I can be a professional performing artist and I can be an educator,” she shares. “There’s a whole career that is called ‘teaching artist.’ The first time I remember taking a leadership role as an educating artist was after high school. My drama teacher asked me to come back and help coach their theater competition teams. Throughout my career, it has been about what opportunity is presenting itself.”

The next opportunity she found not only allowed her to hone her craft, but she credits it for changing the course of her life. 

“I started working professionally for this company called the Shoestring Players while I was still in New Jersey. It was a theater company for young audiences and was nationally renowned. We would do four international folk tales. They were hysterically funny. Eight actors would play 25 roles and create all the things the story needed with nothing but basic costumes and percussion instruments. We would have to be whatever was called for…the drawbridge, the spooky forest, a blizzard,” she explains. “The physicality of that kind of work just expanded everything for me. I worked for them as an actor and as a teaching artist. We went into schools where we would direct different Shoestring stories and then they would present their own shows. So, I’ve directed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people over my career just from that alone. That was my first professional job and even after we moved to New York City I still worked for them because I loved it so much.” 

LeCompte and her husband, Jim Foster (who is the production manager at OCT) first met in high school and, as she says, they “made all of the big scary jumps together” towards their goal of each being a part of the New York theater community, albeit in very different areas.

“We met doing theater when we were teenagers,” she shares. “Making all these moves with my husband was very fortunate for me. His career in theater has always been in production management and technical direction. He went right from college to one full-time job after another. He was never eager to leave New York City because he always had such prestigious work. But my ‘prestigious’ work always took me out of the city.”

Some of those opportunities found her working with such esteemed talents as musical theater lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz, who has written such hit musicals as Godspell, Pippin and Wicked. 

Over the course of the next 15 years, their careers flourished and brought them much joy, as well as some challenges. Through it all, LeCompte seized all kinds of opportunities and decided what direction she wanted her life and career to take.

“9/11 happened and everything changed,” she remembers. “The theater world shifted and when it started to revitalize an interesting thing happened. They started bringing in TV and movie stars. So everybody, wherever you were on the ladder, got knocked down a couple of pegs because the top tier has now gone to Ethan Hawke, Nathan Lane and these giant stars. The thing is, I had so many other interests and I was still acting. But I didn’t have the drive to get up and get in line at 4 o’clock in the morning in February, in a snowstorm, and stand in a line around the equity building to get my appointment for the day. So, I started doing shows if somebody asked me to, like off-Broadway stuff. I did a lot of singing with groups and at cabarets. But I stopped going to equity Broadway calls. I had friends who were doing Broadway and I saw that it was so hard. They didn’t have any life outside of it. Eight shows a week and you sleep in between. But I was always flexing my acting muscles and still teaching. I have always been able to shift gears and luckily not have to wait tables.”

In addition to performing, she was a tour guide at Lincoln Center and had an opportunity to train future teachers at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“A woman who I was friends with worked there and was a writer. She asked me if I could coach her because she had to go to these conferences to pitch her books. Then she brought me to Columbia to teach this workshop called Classroom Presence. I went in and I taught them how to just communicate in a room, how to change the energy and those sorts of things. I got to do that for a few years.”

She also discovered that she could get paid to act and practice her improv skills as something called a “standardized patient” and “standardized client” performer for medical schools and law schools, where she would play the part of someone suffering with certain medical symptoms or going through a divorce in order to allow the students to develop their interpersonal skills.

She also had opportunities that took her on the road to direct productions such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in places like Alaska and Colorado.

And as much as she enjoyed each new challenge, she ultimately found it unfulfilling going from one project to another and bidding farewell to her collaborators each time. 

“I was always freelance and I was always saying goodbye. That’s exhausting,” she admits. “And I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted one community. Jim was getting to the point where he could also see a life outside of New York City, so we just made a decision to throw our resumes in the air. I’m not here because I didn’t make it in New York. I’m here because I wanted to have a different kind of life. I did it for 15 years, so I bring a lot to the table. It’s New York City training right here in Ocala.”

She also still gets to perform occasionally and has been praised for her willingness to jump in to sub for an actor when the need arises.

“My first year, they lost Mrs. Phelps in Matilda during tech week, so I stepped in,” she explains. “And then, the morning of our final performance of Seussical Jr. for our Summer Musical Theatre Conservatory, I got a call that the actress playing Mrs. Mayor had tested positive for COVID. Everybody was already on the way to the theatre so I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m playing Mrs. Mayor today.’”

Terry LeCompte with Conley Todd in OCT’s Beauty and the Beast. Photo courtesy of OCT. 

But she was also persuaded by several of her students to play Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast earlier this year.

“I definitely got a charge from doing that” she says. “Some of my students were in it, so it was a blast!”

Here in Ocala, she has found that community she was looking for and a way to utilize her many talents. 

“I just love it. I love the students, the youth and the adults. I love the families. I love having this as my playground. I love that my husband is here,” she enthuses. “When people say something nice to me about what I do here, my response, from my heart, is ‘Are you kidding?’ It’s my honor to do it. It’s my privilege. Like, how lucky am I, right?” OS

For more information, visit ocalacivictheatre.com/education-enrichment

 

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