Freshman McKinley enjoys the spotlight of play’s leading role

Freshman Caroline McKinley has been cast in the role as Alice.

Story: Phillip Tutor | Photos: Betsy Compton

Though only a freshman, Caroline McKinley’s adoration of the arts is already blossoming at the University of West Alabama. Last fall, she worked behind the scenes with the UWA Theatre and performed as a member of the marching band’s color guard.

But her upcoming campus stage debut in a production of “Alice in Wonderland” is a significant step up for the 18-year-old from Thomasville High School. She’s starring in the lead role as Alice.

The responsibility has required a unique skill.

“I’ve had to re-learn how to be a 7-year-old,” said McKinley, an elementary education major who has tried to incorporate how other actors have played Alice on film and stage. “I just remembered how I was when I was 7 and added that to her a little bit.”

Opening night is March 22 at 7 p.m. at the UWA Auditorium in the Math and Science Building, with performances running nightly through March 25. A 9:30 a.m. student matinee is also set for March 23. Tickets are free for UWA students, faculty and staff, but are $10 for the public. Reservations are required by calling (205) 652-3849.

Instead of a traditional take of “Alice in Wonderland,” the UWA Theatre is performing the popular Manhattan Project Company version developed by director Andre Gregory at the New York University School of the Arts in the early 1970s.

“They decided to take ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and explore it, for a lack of a better phrase, as dark humor,” said Rhonda Wooley, an assistant professor of theater at UWA. “There’s a lot of Kafkaesque sort of material in it because it’s absolutely absurd, but everyone involved outside of Alice thinks nothing is absurd. This is just a way of life. So it’s social commentary, as well.”

The play, which features 12 UWA students in its cast, is being directed by Suzanne McGahey, artistic director of the Sumter Theatre Workshop. “She chose this piece because it’s close to her heart,” Wooley said. “She really enjoys it.”

The casting flexibility in the Manhattan Projection version was particularly attractive, Wooley said. McKinley is the only student actor who is playing a single character. All others are cast in multiple roles.

“The real selling point for me was that it gave so many different students opportunities,” Wooley said. “We were not set like ‘Steel Magnolias,’ where there are six characters. You can’t be flexible with that. I liked that (McGahey) chose something where students who have never done theater could come in, have a role, experience it and be done, and then they can decide, ‘Have I been bitten by the bug, or have I not?’”

Caroline McKinley, right, on stage at UWA Auditorium.

cGahey isn’t the only Sumter County community member assisting with the production. Meghanne Helms, who teaches at Sumter Central High School, is the play’s costume designer. Helms’ participation is giving UWA students exposure to that part of theater production, Wooley said.

“This is a different situation, and it’s hopefully going to be beneficial to our students,” she said. “I hope the actual production will reflect that it was more of a voluminous collaboration rather than two people working with students trying to make sure that it was as professionally polished as possible.”

McKinley performed in numerous theater productions at Thomasville High and says “Alice in Wonderland” remains one of her favorite stories, but this is her first appearance in a stage adaptation of the classic Lewis Carroll novel. McKinley earned the lead role for a multitude of reasons, Wooley said, chief among them talent and maturity. She’s also one of three McKinleys at UWA, along with her older siblings, Victoria McKinley and Daniel McKinley.

“She was a very committed backstage crew worker for our last show in the fall, so we knew that once she committed, she would be true to her word,” Wooley said. “She had done high school theater and was both talented and skilled. You put all that together and she was your Alice.”

The cast includes 12 current and former UWA students: Alex Davis, Abby Hadaway, Cameron Jones, Lindsey Lancaster, Trey Lang, Makayla Lawrence, Payton McLean, Brianna McClure, Kaylee Owens, Cole Todd, Alaisha Perry and McKinley.

Wooley is serving as the play’s artistic producer alongside McGahey and Helms. Dusty Prine is the technical director, and student Annsley Johnsey is the stage manager.