Production Line UMBC theater director helps students crank out play after wonderful play as his drama department gains national attention.

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April 16, 1997|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Hunched over in his seat, glasses strung around his neck, UMBC theater director Sam McCready watches his students portray social insincerity in the style of Russian aristocrats. Momentarily, he stops the play so he can straighten a torso, adjust a hand gesture, turn out a foot.

Visual dialogue forms an integral part of this production. Alexander Ostrovsky's "The Diary of A Scoundrel" is a 19th century comedy about the art of keeping up appearances. Rarely performed in the United States, the play tells the story of an upwardly mobile charlatan who writes in a diary about the people he manipulates.

The actors, whose faces and hair are painted crimson and green and yellow and purple to match their period costumes, become stylized extensions of their characters. They move across the monochromatic set like elegant brush strokes, calligraphic expressions of their own vanities.

It's mesmerizing theater. So mesmerizing, in fact, that "The Diary of A Scoundrel" is being presented today and tomorrow in Washington as part of the prestigious American College Theater Festival.

Chosen from a field of roughly 900 university productions, the UMBC play was judged one of the eight best in the nation. This year is the fifth time the university's small theater department has been honored at this national festival -- more times than any other college in the country.

And it's the third time Sam McCready has directed a play there.

"This is like getting to the national playoffs," he says in a voice flowing with Irish inflections. "If this was a lacrosse team, there'd be victory parades: The place would be humming with it!"

The energetic director has become something of a campus legend during his 13 years at UMBC. Praised as artistic director of the late, lamented Shakespeare on Wheels summer theater, acclaimed for his acting with Maryland Stage Company, the university's professional troupe, McCready has also managed to write two books while teaching a generation of eager drama students.

Over the years, he has become adept at the art of coaxing actors deeply into their characters. And as he prepares for the Kennedy Center, he nudges his students to the brink of roles they haven't performed since January.

"This is a rehearsal, an exploration. It's not simply a repetition," he tells them. "It would be wonderful if we didn't know how each scene ended and played it that way! Wouldn't it be great if you could actually change the play through your actions? We've got the potential to do that in every scene."

Collaborative creativity

The students devour his advice. Surprising themselves, taking chances, they pour themselves into what one festival judge called "some of the best theater I have ever seen. ... Intelligent, unpredictable and stylistically dangerous."

Afterward, they get hugs from this small man with huge, dark eyes. McCready is proud, enthusiastic, affectionate -- and not afraid to show it.

"Everyone says, 'You have such wonderful actors!' Well, practically what we have in the department is what you see on this stage," McCready says.

While many of the universities who compete in the festival can draw from an experienced pool of graduate students, UMBC's productions use only undergraduates. In fact, three of the actors in "Diary of A Scoundrel" are freshmen.

"I think we score so well because we have this totality of elements -- set, costumes, lighting -- in our productions: Everything comes together," McCready says. "I believe the set is an actor. It must move, and it must change. The costumes are a player, too."

He operates on a principle of collaborative creativity: Bill Brown's set design, Elena Zlotescu's costuming, Terry Cobb's lighting, Richard McCready's music. All intimately reflect the acting and vice versa. Students also work with lighting, makeup, costuming and sound until they become thoroughly invested in the production.

"I'm really interested in the development of the student through the process of productions," McCready says. "I never try to direct just one way of doing a performance. I take each student as far along the road [in a role] as I think is appropriate. And then, in the next production, I take them farther."

He established his career as a director in Ireland but says he refined many of his ideas while working with Shakespeare on Wheels, the traveling summer theater that fell victim to budget cut-backs last year.

"There seems no chance that it would come back -- and that's to be regretted in every possible way," he says.

Started by theater department head Bill Brown in 1984, Shakespeare on Wheels' productions were performed on a self-contained stage placed on the flatbed of a truck. The theater traveled throughout the state during the summer, bringing innovative, student-acted performances to non-traditional audiences.

Faced with demanding, restless people who often walked around during a show, McCready crafted productions that were simple, direct and spectacular: his Kabuki-styled Macbeth, for instance.

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