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Raleigh teen has found his place on stage

Michael McKenna, left, and Noah Zimmerman stage a scene from RLT’s production of “James and the Giant Peach.”
Michael McKenna, left, and Noah Zimmerman stage a scene from RLT’s production of “James and the Giant Peach.” David Watts, Raleigh Little Theatre

For his first lead role with Raleigh Little Theatre, Michael McKenna played James in “James and the Giant Peach.” He read the book when he was younger and he remembered liking it, but getting into character as James is a different level of engagement. He had to find out who the character is, what he’s like. James is adventurous, McKenna found, and is good at working out plans and solutions when the bugs that are James’ fellow passengers on the oversized peach need help.

“He’s open-minded and thinks. I do feel that I am kind of like that,” McKenna said. “I do like to try new things.”

Playing the lead in an RLT production was new to McKenna, but acting certainly wasn’t. He’s 15, a 10th-grader at Durham’s Voyager Academy (though he lives in Raleigh), and he’s been in plays since elementary school. He’s been in musicals, school plays and four RLT productions – and he has no intention of stopping anytime soon. He caught the bug during a school production of “The King and I.”

“That was basically when I was like, ‘I have to keep doing this. This is fun,’” McKenna said. “Then I found Raleigh Little Theatre and I’ve done those ever since.”

McKenna was in a few plays in early elementary school, but the first one he really applied himself to was “Beauty and the Beast,” when he was in the fourth grade. His mom, who McKenna credits with supporting and encouraging him, suggested he audition for the musical. He did, and he landed the role of Chip, the little teacup. Then, in the fifth grade he played Charlie Bucket in Voyager’s production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

After that came “The King and I.” McKenna’s mom was impressed by his acting, so she started looking for community theaters, eventually finding a casting call for RLT’s production of “The Velveteen Rabbit.” McKenna auditioned and got the role of young Steve, a character he feels is similar to James: both are adventurous, and both like to try new things. After that, McKenna played Snail in “A Year with Frog and Toad.”

“Basically it was a fun character because I got in the hang of it,” McKenna said. “Snail, he has to have the walk. He has to be kind of spunky a little bit, he has to be happy about things too, and it was fun for me to immerse myself in that kind of character.”

After “Frog and Toad,” McKenna was cast as Adam, the class clown in RLT’s “Miss Nelson is Missing!” That play had a small cast, and McKenna valued the experience of being in a play with fewer than 10 actors. By the end, he knew the rest of the cast really well.

“Then I auditioned for ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and I got James and here we are,” he said.

In this latest play, which ran in late April, the all-ages cast ranged from young to adult actors (this is true of the other RLT plays McKenna’s been in, too). The actor playing the Old Man, for instance, is a few grades younger than James, while the spider is also in middle school. The youngest actor was 9, and McKenna says all these cast members were mature and cool to work with. There were adults in the cast as well, and McKenna values their experience. By paying attention to their acting technique, he’s able to improve his own acting chops.

McKenna is toying with the idea of eventually minoring or majoring in acting; he may try for an agent, too – someone to help him get roles, but he’s not sure yet. Some people have a really set idea of what they want to do when they get older, but for this Raleigh 10th-grader, it’s enough to simply be onstage.

“Since this play, again, it’s reminded me how much I like acting,” McKenna said.