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UTEP professor steps off center stage and into a new stage

Nina Titovets
”The Importance of Being Earnest” will play at the Wise Family Theatre from Sept. 28-30 and Oct. 5-6 .

It’s 1926 in Chicago, well into the Prohibition era. After a night of boozing with a striking couple in a speakeasy, a young, blonde, bright-eyed woman ends up dead, and her dress, once a sparkling gold, is now crimson.

Her killer? A vampire.

If you ask UTEP Assistant Professor Kim McKean, she will tell you that they do exist. After all, she was the victim of that fateful night.

This was a scene out of an episode of HBO’s hit series, “True Blood,” just one of the television shows McKean has appeared in.

“It was a really fun process,” McKean said about her role as a vampire couple’s prey.

Along with that show, she’s also done episodes of ABC’s “Private Practice” and CBS’ long-time fixture “CSI: Miami.”

Having landed roles in these well-known shows, it’s clear that McKean has a gift for acting.

Most notably, McKean won an award for best actress in the 2011 New York International Film and TV Festival for her role in the independent short film “Pretty Twisted” (2009). The film also won first place for best short film at the festival.

Like many actors in the industry, McKean got her start on the stage and was able to grow from a young thespian from Normal, Illinois, into a well-rounded, award-winning actress, producer and director, who now finds herself in the Sun City.

She grew up attending the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and went on to pursue her bachelor of arts degree in acting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Prior to arriving to El Paso, her acting journey had taken her from stages in Chicago to Los Angeles and into the Big Apple.

During her time in Chicago, she was able to meet and work with famous playwright Tracy Letts, whose best work includes the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “August: Osage County.”

After moving to Los Angeles and working for a few years, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of California-Irvine.

While living in New York, McKean taught at the New York Film Academy. At the same time, she continued passionately working in film, television and stage productions as an actress and director before deciding that she needed a change from big city living.

“I liked New York, but I wanted to be in a community that I felt wasn’t oversaturated with everything, and then I happened upon El Paso,” McKean said.

One thing she loves about El Paso so far is that there is a strong support for the arts community.

“There is a lot of support in the community for the arts, and I would love to see more theater and film happening here. It’s on the brink and everyone I’ve met is so supportive of it,” McKean said. “It seems like a very nurturing place for young artists and actors, and a great place to stretch yourself and grow and take some chances.”

From the stage to the small screen, McKean brought her talents to the UTEP Department of Theatre & Dance in 2016, and has already had an impact on her students and the university.

“Kim is a relatively new addition to the theater department, but her impact can already be seen in the growth of her students,” said senior theater major Brandon Mullenix. “Having had her as a professor, I’ve been lucky enough to see her process and can tell you that it’s an exciting experience for my peers and I to see her bring out the best in all of us.”

Currently, she teaches acting, directing and script analysis classes for both stage and screen, but she’s also directed a few mainstage plays during her short time here, including last year’s sold-out production of “Lydia” by local playwright Octavio Solis.

McKean felt the need to ensure that her students felt really connected to the play. She applied for a grant and was able to bring Solis into town to meet with the actors in the play.

“She is really invested in our students,” said Adriana Dominguez, clinical professor and director of audience development. “Very rarely do actors get to meet the playwright on a work they are actually doing, and that to me spoke volumes that Kim really wanted our students to go through that process. I’m very grateful that she’s here and I think she’s a great asset to our community and university.”

Her next project is the play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” written by famed playwright Oscar Wilde, which opens Sept. 28 at the Wise Family Theatre.

McKean is excited to show what her students can do.

“This is a play that is very active and engaging, and hopefully will keep the audience on the edge of their seats,” McKean said. “We as a company and me as a director have really tried bringing the words to life in this play.”

Dominguez is also eager for the audience to see this play.

“It’s a fun, hilarious piece full of energy! The actors we have are top notch. The costumes are gorgeous,” Dominguez said. “The set is really cool, so people are going to see a lot of magic on stage as well in terms of the design as well.”

Student actors in the production are equally excited to have McKean as a mentor and guide as they get ready to open the show.

Senior theater major Gabriel Franco Kull has worked with McKean since her arrival at UTEP. He will be starring as one of the lead actors of the play in his role as charming bachelor, Algernon Moncrieff.

“This is my second show with Kim, I really love working with her. She makes you feel like she totally believes in you, which is awesome,” Kull said. 

Lauren Wagner, who plays female lead Cecily Cardew, attributed her artistic development to McKean.

“It is an amazing opportunity to be directed by Kim. She has pushed me to be confident and make bigger choices,”  Wagner said. “I’m excited for the audience to see all the hard work that the cast and crew has put in. This play’s humor comes from the relationship between the characters and we have a strong cast to showcase that!”

While McKean has been working on directing plays and teaching students to become better actors, she has also continued to work on her artistry. 

Over the summer, she took a trip to Oregon to attend a month-long Meisner camp and become certified as a teacher in the Meisner technique, which is different from method acting. McKean describes the Meisner technique as one that trains actors to be genuinely spontaneous and genuinely present with who they are in the scene with.

“It was a great opportunity to go back into the eyes of a student and get to relearn some of those things,” McKean said.

She just finished shooting a film that was written and directed by UTEP graduate Robert Robles.

Before getting in touch with McKean, Robles reached out to another professor Jay Stratton about the film, and he referred her to the actress and director. He sent her the script for “Rook,” hoping to receive feedback and instead, she asked if she could read for one of the roles in the film, and she ended up getting the role.

“Kim has a tireless work ethic and has very talented intuition in writing, acting and directing,” Robles said. “She was on set at 3 a.m. for the last part of production and still cracking smiles and helping with some aspects of the production outside of acting. It was a sincere privilege to work with her.”

The film they worked on is about people not getting along when things get difficult and is set to premiere in next year’s Plaza Classic Film Festival.  One of McKean’s goals is to direct a feature film. She also plans to continue working professionally as she lives in El Paso. She currently has an agent in Austin, whom she works with while she auditions for roles.

“For me, it’s not about the fame, it’s about doing really good quality work. I think that’s really important as a teacher, to do the work so we can use that to help the students,” McKean said. “I love completely immersing myself in the character. When you’re really focused and present, everything else just goes away, and it’s almost like a form of meditation.”

She also has some advice for aspiring actors.

“Travel, read, work as hard as you possibly can, go to school, get a well-rounded education because all of those things are going to deepen your acting work and make you more versatile. To be a good actor, you really have to understand people,” she said.

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Elenie Gonzalez, Web Editor
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UTEP professor steps off center stage and into a new stage