Like Father, Like Daughter

Tom and Gillian McNally

Tom and Gillian McNally share a father-daughter moment.

Photo, Video / Katie Owston

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Excerpts from the interview with father and daughter Tom and Gillian McNally

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Tom McNally and his daughter, Gillian McNally, are mainstays in UNC's theater programs. In the next week, they'll be honored by their peers on the national and regional levels, respectively, with Gillian receiving the same award her father earned 16 years ago.

Tom, professor of Theatre Arts and coordinator of the Performance Studies and Acting program, received the 1995 Higher Education Theatre Educator of the Year Award from the Alliance for Colorado Theatre. On Sept. 16, Gillian, assistant professor of Theatre Education and head of UNC's community engagement programs for the youth, will receive the same award from the alliance.

On Sept. 23, Tom will be inducted into the Educational Theatre Association's Hall of Fame at its annual national conference in Chicago.

In 2005, she was working at People's Light and Theatre in Philadelphia, where she developed an award-winning professional development program for teachers, when she learned of the opening for her current position at UNC and realized the job fit her qualifications and interests perfectly.

"I love the theater education field because I feel like it trained me well," Gillian said. "Now that I'm on the other side, I feel a strong sense of dedication and obligation to the next generation of people entering our field; to still be part of the conversation means the world to me."

Tom came to UNC in 1988 when the theater program had a total of 53 majors. The first meeting he had at the university was with Howard Skinner, then dean of the College of Performing and Visual Arts. Skinner told Tom that unless they increased the number of theater students in the college, the program would be dropped.

"I decided to go on the recruitment trail, in a big way," Tom said. "First I started in Colorado, then I spread out doing acting workshops around the country."

Each workshop he presented at theater education conferences attended by high school and college theater teachers and students resulted in requests for additional ones. Sometimes they were at the same conference; other times they were at difference conferences and colleges he'd never been to.

Several of the conferences featured him as the keynote speaker. The more than 300 presentations he's given for teachers and students around the country were perfect for recruiting for UNC's program.

"The day I stopped being chair, we had 365-375 majors in the theater program, and the provost was leaving us alone," Tom said. "Roughly 60 percent of our music majors and 45 percent of our theater majors are from out-of-state, which is more than any other college on campus."

Theater has always been a part of the McNally family tradition. As a freshman at Regis College, Tom's English professor recognized something in him that Tom hadn't realized, yet; a natural gift for acting. In order to pass English, Tom would have to try out for the school play.

Two weeks before the play opened, the male lead dropped out. Tom was chosen to take his place, and the rest was history; he's now directed and acted in more than 120 productions, including off-Broadway, repertory and university theater productions.

Growing up Gillian's parents (her mother is a high school drama teacher) encouraged her to explore anything other than theater. She said she tried on lots of personalities but ultimately decided the drama personality seemed to fit her best.

"We have a dramatic Irish-Catholic family," Gillian said. "Theater just kind of runs in the family."

Tom began teaching at UNC when Gillian was a sophomore in high school, but she said she's been learning from him since she was very young, and now being able to teach at the same university as her father has been a blessing of the best kind.

"I have pretty much taken his classes just from hanging around so much when I was younger," Gillian said. "I know what he teaches and I know what his students have been through, so I can build on those skills. I think we really compliment each other."

Gillian may have learned a lot from her father over the years, but now that she‘s teaching at the same university as her father, he seems to be the one who is learning from her.

"One thing that has been a plus is understanding Gillian's interests and where she sees the importance of our particular art form," Tom said. "She sees art relating to the world of education and society in a certain way; watching her put her thoughts into words and actions has been a great learning experience for me."

- Katie Owston, Junior Journalism Major