By Hilary Sutton
Lauren McCauley Barnes and Lynchburg’s Academy of Fine Arts are old friends. Anyone who has darkened the doors of the Academy over the last 20 years has most likely seen her perform at one time or another. Barnes’ first taste of the stage came when she was six years old-a full four years after her mother had enrolled her in dance classes at the age of two. In 1992, Lauren was cast in a production of “ANNIE” as Molly, the youngest, cutest pipsqueak of the orphans. Fast forward 19 years and now a mother herself, Lauren Barnes has certainly grown up. Having blossomed into a statuesque, elegant, Rockette-like performer, Barnes is playing the sultry siren Velma Kelly in the May production of Kander & Ebb’s “CHICAGO” at that very same Academy of Fine Arts.
Barnes may have fallen in love with the stage while belting out “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile,” but the performing arts were in her blood long before she ever donned the rags and messy ponytail. Her mother, Laurie Bartram McCauley, was an accomplished dancer and actress. Born and raised in St. Louis, MO, Bartram spent many of her formative years dancing on the stage at the famed St. Louis MUNY, one of the most-respected regional theatres in the country.
After graduating from high school, she moved to Los Angeles, joined the famed June Taylor Dancers and ran in circles with the young Hollywood elite. Landing the role of Brenda in the now cult-classic movie “Friday the 13th,” which filmed in New York, she relocated to the Big Apple in 1978. While in New York, she was also cast in the soap opera, “Another World.” The young beauty was beginning to hit it big and from a bird’s eye view, Bartram seemed to have it all. But as quickly as she acquired commercial success, she removed herself from it. Prior to the release of “Friday the 13th,” Bartram became a born-again Christian and began attending Manhattan Bible Church. There, through the ministry of students who were on a mission trip, she became acquainted with Lynchburg Baptist College, now Liberty University. Ready for a detour from the industry that began to hold little meaning to her, she packed her bags for Lynchburg, Virginia.
In 1984, Bartram married her college sweetheart, Greg McCauley, and the two built a life together in Lynchburg. In September 1985, Lauren was born and the family grew to seven, with the subsequent additions of Scott, Jordan, Francis and finally, Isabelle. Laurie McCauley invested 15 years homeschooling her children and became very involved in the local arts scene. Directing, choreographing and sewing costumes for theatre productions, she also did local commercials and voice-over work. By no means as glamorous or lucrative as Los Angeles or New York, McCauley never wavered in her passion for the performing arts.
“The arts to her weren’t just a hobby or a profession. It was a way of life,” Lauren explained of her mother’s passion for the arts. “My mother approached life from an artistic worldview. She got so much joy from art, whether it was going to an art museum or listening to a concert or watching a ballet.”
In a turn of events that grieved a community and family who adored her, Laurie McCauley was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and lost her battle in May 2007 at the age of 49. To her children and those who encountered her, she left behind a host of memories and principles. Now, four years after her mother’s death, Barnes is a first-time mother to 7-month-old Beatrice, and has a deeper perspective on the woman who raised her.
“I am understanding, in a way so many said I would, how dear to her I must have been, how precious. This beautiful baby girl is so loved, so cherished,” Barnes said.
Remarking on the unusual gift of mirror pregnancies, Barnes said, “Our pregnancies were the exact same. Beatrice’s due date was my birthday and she was born the day before me. It’s been fun to know that I’m learning things that [my mother] was learning and discovering things that she was discovering.”
Beatrice, whose name means “bringer of joy,” truly has brought unprecedented joy to a family who endured tragedy. Even in temperament, she lives up to her name. At the mere hint of a smile thrown her way, Beatrice lights up. Gleaming blue eyes and dimples at the edge of her smile make grown-ups want to endlessly dote on this sweet baby. With legs already noticeably long for a 7-month-old child, Barnes holds Beatrice and asks “Are you gonna be a dancer?” Beatrice coos back in charming baby form.
Now returning to the stage for the first time since Beatrice’s birth, Barnes anticipates teaching her own daughter about the joys of performing but remembers her mother’s perspective on the arts. She taught her daughter to “use the arts not as a platform for your own glory but as a way of life,” Lauren recanted. “Let it be something you do because you love it, as something that brings you joy. Let it arise as an outpouring of your heart. Don’t let it be from a job.”
“Auditions were our thing,” Barnes recalled. “When I was little she went with me to every one. When I was older, we were on the phone right before and right after. When she started choreographing shows in town, it was so fun to watch her in her element. She choreographed ‘OLIVER’ and ‘CAMELOT’ at the Academy. It was beautiful to watch.”
When asked what she has learned about being a performer from her mother, Barnes’s answer is the opposite of what most would expect to hear about a mother so accomplished in the arts.
“Humility as a performer was one of the biggest things she taught me. It is usually so absent in performers. Pride comes before a fall. She’d been places. She’d done things. She was never too proud. No one ever knew [of her past success] unless they had somehow gotten the back story. She handled everyone with graciousness,” Barnes said. “We get so caught up in the accolades and the glory of the spotlight but it’s about what you can express through your art. As a painter or songwriter, it’s about creating something. Theatre can tell such amazing stories. As artists, we should be impacting the world. It shouldn’t be all about us.”
Barnes believes that even the art that, at first glance, seems like its only purpose is for fun entertainment should be honored and thoughtfully portrayed.
“Even ‘CHICAGO’ [has merit]! It ends in ‘Can you believe the ridiculousness of the corruption of the 1920′s?’ We’re just as foolish as the people back then. ‘CHICAGO’ tells a very tragic story. My mother gave me the ability to look at art and dissect it,” Barnes explained.
As for little Beatrice, Barnes hopes that she too will come to love the performing arts like she does, and her mother before her.
“I pray that Beatrice shares our love of the arts but I want to be supportive of her in whatever she pursues,” she said.
Beatrice may be too young to appreciate her mother’s turn in “CHICAGO” this May but she will certainly grow to learn of the passion for art and life that has been passed down in her heritage. Though years have passed in her absence, Laurie Bartram McCauley has left a profound legacy in Lynchburg and beyond.
“It’s almost like the rest of her story is being told now through the lives of her children and grandchild,” Barnes said.
Throughout the duration of “CHICAGO,” Barnes will undoubtedly be thinking of her new daughter as well as her mother.
“The theatre is where I feel closest to her. It’s the biggest thing that we shared,” she said.
Perhaps in only a few short years, Beatrice will be donning similar rags and a messy ponytail to belt out “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” And the legacy will continue. Lynchburg theatre patrons will simply have to keep darkening the Academy’s doors to find out.
“CHICAGO” is playing at The Academy of Fine Arts in Lynchburg, May 6-8 and 11-15. Tickets can be purchased by phone at 434.846.TIXX or on the web at www.academyfinearts.com.
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