Tom McNally sits in his Frasier Hall office surrounded by scripts, books that scripts were developed from and countless tomes about the crafts of acting and directing. Photo by Rob Trubia
The impact that Tom McNally has had on the School of Theatre Arts and Dance during his 28 years at UNC is nearly legendary, so it’s fitting that he’s the 2016 recipient of the M. Lucile Harrison Award, which annually recognizes a faculty member with a distinguished career in teaching, professional activity and service — all traits that marked Harrison’s career.
The award certainly validates McNally’s other major awards: the National Educational Association’s Hall of Fame Award and Founders Award for Teaching; the Alliance of Colorado Theatre’s Higher Education Educator of the Year Award and the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre.
And it provides a forum for his 43-year career of professional activity, which includes directing 110 productions, presenting more than 500 workshops and giving 16 keynote speeches at out-of-state and national conferences.
McNally came to UNC in 1988 after successful tenures in the drama departments at the former Loretto Heights College in Denver and Pennsylvania State University. He returned to Colorado so that he could be closer to his elderly parents in Denver, where he was born and raised.
He currently focuses on teaching acting, but he served as chair of the Acting program for 14 years, as coordinator of Performance Studies until 2014 and as artistic director of the Little Theatre of the Rockies until 2015.
While he’s excelled in all those roles, teaching may be his forte. As current STAD Director David Grapes notes in his letter nominating McNally for the award, “McNally is one of the few people I have ever known who truly merits the title of ‘master teacher’ … His record of success given the competition in our discipline has been nothing short of remarkable. His yearly evaluations are consistently the highest in the school.”
McNally describes his teaching philosophy as process-oriented.
“Since I’m primarily an acting teacher, the big thing for me is to make sure by the end of the semester, that there has been significant growth,” he says. “And so what I like to teach is process, so that 10 years down the road they can still take those process steps, those techniques, and connect them to performance. And I coach them a lot.”
McNally recalls his days as an acting student fondly.
“Our teachers would run lines with students,” he says. “During a five- or six-hour rehearsal day, maybe we covered a page or a page-and-a-half (of script), but you understood every layer of the possibilities.”
The title of McNally’s textbook tells it all, Acting: The Active Process (Kendall Hunt Publishing) has been used in hundreds of colleges and high schools throughout the United States.
On Student Recruitment
McNally’s just as well known for his success in recruiting students: He took the Acting program from 65 majors when he arrived in 1988 to 140 the next year, and with help from colleagues after his first few years here, to the current level of more than 300.
“Howard Skinner, who was truly, truly a mentor to me, was the head of musical theater when I got here,” McNally says. “He’d gotten a memo from President Dickinson saying that the program was in jeopardy because of the lack of students.
“I told him I thought I could change that, so that very first year I was here, I went to 17 high school plays, including Grand Junction, Durango and other far-off spots … and of course I hit the Denver schools.
“The program’s reputation wasn’t very good, but I talked to teachers. I talked to students. I told them there was a new commitment to make it a great program. And some of them believed me!”
McNally says he’s convinced that UNC can reach its growth target of 15,000 students if more faculty spend some time in high schools talking to students and their teachers.
“It worked for me back then and it’s still working today for me and acting faculty like Ken Womble, Shelly Gaza and others who visit schools, who give workshops and attend or present at national conferences for high school drama teachers,” McNally says.
“It does help,” he says, “when we can tell kids that 25 former UNC students have appeared in more than 50 Broadway productions in the past 25 years, and then make sure that they get a letter from Tony nominee and UNC alum Beth Malone pointing out what UNC’s musical theater program meant to her.”
As in McNally’s life, it’s a case of success begetting success.
For more about McNally, visit his faculty web page.