UNC-Chapel Hill graduate to pursue Broadway dreams

By Madeline Pennington

“I just knew that if something didn’t change I’d kill myself.”

Mckenzie Wilson, 23, remembers this moment like it was yesterday.

With a one-way ticket in her pocket and a floor to crash on in Manhattan, Wilson boarded a plane at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Her mom didn’t support the idea, but Wilson felt stagnant after her sophomore year at UNC-Chapel Hill. She needed something to change. She was sure of one thing: her love for theater.

Wilson’s life is defined by moments of becoming herself. As an actor, director and person, she hopes to make people feel capable, curious and safe. She uses theater to encourage others to reflect on themselves. Along the way, she hopes to tell her story as an actress and director.

Wilson embraces her weirdness

From the moment she learned about Broadway, Wilson dreamed of Manhattan. Her mother described her as a ham and encouraged her to act in middle school, but Wilson didn’t pursue the art until eighth grade.

Wilson was an off-beat tween. She ignored what others thought and reveled being the quirky girl at Charlotte’s Ardrey Kell Middle School. After joining theater, she transferred to Northwest School of the Arts for high school.

She spent a week at the arts school. Every student was the quirky kid, the drama nerd or the off-beat one. Kids broke into song at a moment’s notice. It was exactly what Wilson thought she wanted.

Something about her week at that school made her shrink. She wasn’t special. She was just another student — a talented student, but just a student.

When Wilson transferred to Ardrey Kell High School, she entered traditional high school culture. She dated a nice Christian boy, kept her grades up and won homecoming queen. She put the quirky girl to bed, but her love for theater wouldn’t sleep long.

At the end of ninth grade, she directed her school’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.” But this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill production. It was Romeo and Juliet with a touch of voodoo culture and a few ghosts here and there.

Wilson embraced her weirdness.

When she graduated high school, Wilson led the school’s theater program. Though she jokes about the size of her ego then, Wilson felt confident about her ability to act and direct her peers as a high school senior.

How to love UNC’s drama department

She wasn’t out of the woods yet. After two years studying communication and dramatic arts at UNC, Wilson lost herself.

She couldn’t connect with her busy professors. She didn’t love UNC’s department of dramatic arts. She felt hopeless as a student and a person. She wondered if UNC was the right decision.

Wilson told her woes to a professor who made her feel special. Julie Fishell, a graduate of The Juilliard School and former professor of dramatic arts at UNC, gave Wilson the advice she needed.

Fishell saw the fire in Wilson’s eyes after class one day. She encouraged Wilson to continue acting, go to a city and soak up the city’s energy.

With a newfound determination, Wilson left for New York City in June 2016. While there, she took what she calls “Clown Classes,” which were unconventional acting classes which got people out of their comfort zones to reflect on the past.

Despite entering the city with no money and no plan, Wilson felt rejuvenated when she left. She said things cosmically aligned that summer. She reignited her love for acting and UNC.

She was grateful for her experiences at UNC that she would’ve missed at a conservatory. She recognized how UNC molded her into a tenacious artist who created her path instead of following others’ footsteps.

Her summer filled her with enough life to keep going. In 2018, she graduated with a bachelor’s in communication and dramatic art. She stuck around Chapel Hill where she found herself for the third time in her young life.

“Our Place” teaches Wilson about the present

In October, Wilson returned to UNC to direct Terry Gabbard’s “Our Place” for the student-theater group, Company Carolina.

The show held a special place in Wilson’s heart because Gabbard was the high school drama teacher who first helped her reclaim her weirdness. Throughout high school, Gabbard became a father figure to her.

Wilson used her experience directing “Our Place” to wrestle with post-graduation limbo. It was a battle between being unsure of her life’s trajectory and being anxious to leave Chapel Hill. She felt nostalgic for the good times past and anticipation for the future.

However, “Our Place” taught Wilson to live in the present.

Gabbard came to see the closing show, and Wilson says that full-circle moment gave her the closure to build her future.

Wilson will move back to Manhattan in June to focus on acting while daylighting as a barista. While there, she plans to apply for master’s programs in directing at Yale University, Brown University and Columbia University.

She doesn’t want to worry about her future though. The majority of her time in college passed in a blur because she was too anxious about the future.

She focuses on her health and happiness, using her opportunities as a director to encourage others to find themselves.

She is sure the next time she stands in Charlotte Douglas International Airport with a one-way ticket to Manhattan, she won’t be escaping anything. She’ll fly confidently to her future.

Edited by Erica Johnson