Cathy Rigby brings out the star in every young performer
A chorus of ragamuffins belts out “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” during a sweaty rehearsal for a production of “Annie” at the McCoy Rigby Conservatory of the Arts in Yorba Linda. Eyeing every move for a misstep or a limb out of line is conservatory director and co-founder Cathy Rigby, who bounces 3-year-old granddaughter Delilah Flemming on her hip even as she does.
Rigby knows something about excellence: A former Olympic gymnast, Rigby went on to equally successful careers as sports announcer, television actor and Tony Award-nominated performer, best known for her role as Peter Pan.
But this Los Alamitos native’s most passionate role has been as theater arts champion. Her entertainment company with husband Thomas McCoy has brought many a production to life at La Mirada Theatre. Hundreds of youngsters have blossomed through the McCoy Rigby Conservatory of the Arts and their nonprofit MRARTS in Yorba Linda.
“There’s nothing better than to be 62 and you’re doing a pullover on the bar to show the kids how to do it,” Rigby says. “That’s what’s really cool. People put limits on themselves, but you have no idea what you can do.”
For that kind of dedication, Rigby is adding OC Arts Award honoree to her laurels this month.
Coast: What’s been the most rewarding thing you’ve done?
CR: What I think is important is that every child discover their own unique abilities and potential. Getting to that potential is a lot of hard work and discipline, and expectations are high because we really do believe in them. I had been one of those kids who wasn’t the best.
Coast: You were an Olympian! It’s hard to imagine you weren’t the best.
CR: Seriously, I wasn’t, but I had a passion. These kids, they don’t know how to believe in themselves. The ones in the back, who are kind of shy, those are the ones where I want to go, “I know you can do this.”
Or, you have kids who have everything, and they don’t have to work too much for anything, so therefore they stay just OK. What I love is when they become better after working harder than they have ever worked in their lives.
Coast: Is that an ethos that comes from your early training as a gymnast?
CR: I loved what I did, and yes, I had enough of a dysfunctional background that I wanted to be there – you need a little dysfunction to be obsessive and want approval! But no, I was one of those kids who had more visits to the ER than most kids. I was very daring, “Don’t tell me I can’t do it.” And I’m ADD.
Coast: It seems theater really is that special spot for you. Why?
CR: Because it is so active and in the moment. There is a through-line to it. It’s all gratifying, but the spaces between filming and actually acting are really long. I remember when I did my first film, “The Great Wallendas,” I had a scene where my brother had fallen off the wire. I had to be grieving my brother, and I was so into it. Three hours. And then they said, “OK, now we have to do the close-up.” What?
I’m actually getting ready to do “Peter Pan” again in Canada.”
Coast: But didn’t you retire that role?
CR: I did – in the U.S.! This is in Vancouver. But it was a twisting of the arm, only because I want to be believable. I had a little boy on the last tour come up to me – I was in my costume – and say, “I really liked it when you fly! And how do you crow? But up close I see you have some wrinkles!” I said, “Well, you’re right.”
Coast: C’mon, you must love Peter.
CR: I do. My husband said to me the other night as I was getting ready for rehearsal, “You get younger as you start engaging in this role.” You do. When you are in an environment that is playful, you just get playful. I don’t care what age you are, who does not like to pick their nose or sword fight or jump up and down?
I love being mischievous. I can get away with it as Peter – I don’t have to be an adult! I still get to fly, but I don’t have to be the one pushing off the floor to get up there.