Summertime, and he'll be taking it easy


F. Scott Black has often heard that during this time of year, lots of people take vacations, travel or just hang out, loafing.

Now he's going to see for himself.

"There's something out there called summertime, I understand," he says.

"I'd like to find out what it is."

For the past 26 summers, Black has run the Cockpit in Court theater at Essex Community College.

He helped found the company that claims to be the biggest summer theater in the area. He's directed plays, auditioned players, cultivated an extremely loyal audience, mopped up water when a production of "Singin' in the Rain" flooded the stage, chased away bats and birds, laughed and partied with cast members when the shows were great, wiped away tears when they weren't.

After 26 years, F. Scott Black, a founder of Cockpit in Court theater, takes his final bow there today.

And he's made a curtain speech before every performance. It's a bow he'll take for the last time today, before the current production, Agatha Christie's "Murder at the Vicarage." He's giving up his role as managing director of the Cockpit in Court.

"Cockpit was becoming all-consuming in the administrative end," he says.

Another founder, Bill Ellis, chairman of the humanities and arts division at Essex, retired two years ago. Other colleagues had moved on. "I was running it solo for a while, with a lot of good people helping me.

"There are other things I'd like to do," he says. "I'd like to do more acting. I'd like to do some writing. I'd like to direct elsewhere. I might like to do nothing sometimes during the summer."

It was a tough decision, he says.

"It was my baby, being a founder of it.

But hopefully - and I'm sure - it will continue without me. And Tom and other people can bring some fresh ideas."

Tom is Tom Colonna, of the Dundalk Community Theater, who will take over as acting managing director.

Black's not exactly the Ancient Mariner. He's a ruddy, youthful 51 ("I used to think that was old," he says). He'll continue teaching introduction to theater, acting and speech communication, and still occasionally direct at

Essex. And he's by no means giving up the F. Scott Black Towsontowne Dinner Theatre.

But he is in the midst of moving out of his office at Essex, with its mounds of scripts stored on a high shelf, and a wall full of photos of players who have gone on to be Equity actors.

"Margie Shannon is currently on Broadway in 'Beauty and the Beast,' " he says, surveying the pictures. "David Drake, he was in the movie "Philadelphia." He had the longest-running one-man show off-Broadway, 'The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.' He's done quite well."

Black was a brand-new faculty member when Cockpit opened its first season with "Celebration," a musical by the team that wrote "The Fantasticks"; Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest"; and a cabaret review, "Joyce and Rejoice."

"I came in the fall of 1972 and we started Cockpit in spring of 1973," he says. "We went to the school and said we'd like to start a summer theater."

The school put up $1,500. Pay it back, the administration said, and you can have a theater.

"We got through the season and paid the college the $1,500 and had about $1,500 more to start the next season," Black recounts. "And the rest is history."

Cockpit has been pretty much a self-supporting community theater ever since. But the college doesn't charge any rent and does provide "in-kind" services like air conditioning.

"We have auditions open to anyone," he says. "They come from all over the area and all ages, from down in Annapolis and up in York."

"It's been a conduit for people to grow," he says. "It's introduced live

theater to people who would simply not go into downtown Baltimore."

These days, Cockpit has about 20,000 ticket buyers and 2,500 subscribers (who buy the whole season).

And of the 165 or so productions Cockpit has put on since 1973 - with repeats only by popular demand during its 20th anniversary season - Black directed about 50, with "Jesus Christ Superstar" his favorite.

His theater career was perhaps inevitable. He was born in a small town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia named Broadway, "believe it or not."

He went to William and Mary College and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in political science. He dabbled in the theater, loved it, even played in the old "Common Glory" pageant at Williamsburg, Va. But he wasn't considering theater as a career. He had a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University law school.

"Everything was set," he says. "Except for something called Vietnam."

He graduated in 1968, the year of the Tet offensive. Draft deferments for education ended and a draft lottery began. Not only did his number come up, he was drafted into the Marine Corps.

"In a room full of 50 people, they got up and said two of you are going to be drafted into the Marine Corps," Black recalls. "Well, you think, two out of 50, those are pretty good odds."

Not good enough. After being locked in a hotel room "so we wouldn't try to escape" he was on his way to Parris Island.

"I just said, 'I gotta do this,' and I did things that I would never believe I could do and never could do again."

He got through boot camp, then spent two years in the corps, mostly as a supply sergeant.

"The Marine Corps taught me a lot of things: That you owe a lot to your family, you owe a lot to what you should do, but you also owe something to yourself. I decided to try to do what I wanted, which was go into the theater."

After his discharge, he went to Catholic University in Washington and took part in the graduate theater program with the Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, the famous and widely respected Jesuit theater guru.

Father Hartke was at the Cockpit opening and brought along with him Mercedes McCambridge, the Oscar- winning actress.

"She dedicated the theater and she was wonderful," Black says. "She did this beautiful presentation and then she said, as only an Irish person could: 'I feel these vibrations. I feel that greatness will come from this place.' "

Black's not planning a big exit scene. But he has moments of sadness, tinges of "wait a minute."

"But it has to happen," he says. "Anything has to be bigger than the individuals involved if it is to survive. Cockpit has to be something apart from me.

"Certainly I want to be missed. And I want them to say it's not the same as when Scott was here. But the theater will continue and that's important.

"Twenty-six years," he says, "is a pretty good ride."

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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