The year is 2006. "High School Musical" has just been released, and 13-year-old McKinley Merritt is captivated by the music, the dancing and probably Zac Efron. Unlike most teenagers however, Merritt's love for HSM will propel her to take her first step onto the stage.
A year later, she will audition for a Nashville community theater production of the beloved tween classic where she will play a cheerleader, the first of many roles.
Merritt, now a junior in educational interpreting with a minor in theatre, has gone on to make a name for herself at UT, acting in numerous productions at the Clarence Brown Theatre, a short film and, more recently, as Joanne Jefferson in Sex Week's February production of RENT.
Before her "Musical" debut, Merritt had never sang, "like ever."
"It wasn't like I was singing from birth and my parents were like, 'We've got to get this girl on a stage!'" Merritt said. "None of my family are artsy people, by any means. My mom and dad can hold a tune."
Despite this less-than-dazzling beginning, Merritt pursued her new interest with vigor, transferring to Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet high school in Nashville because of its reputable theater program. While at Hume-Fogg, she performed in the ensemble in several productions, including "Les Miserables" and "Into the Woods."
Although she has dealt with the rejection all actors inevitably face, an experience directing "The Glass Menagerie" last year gave her a little more insight as to why certain casting choices are made.
"Sitting on the other side of that table, you see that person is perfect for a certain role," Merritt said. "And you understand that there's a reason you are put where you are within a show; that's also just a life thing."
She soon found a practical application for this wisdom that came in the form of spring and fall of 2013, when she wasn't cast in any Clarence Brown Theatre productions.
"After doing four shows more or less back-to-back, that was a humbling experience," Merritt said. "I had to reevaluate and talk to teachers and say, 'Hey, give me some tips. What else do I need to do?'
"You take what you need to improve on and you work on it and come back and fix it and hopefully get cast next time."
One of the teachers she sought advice from is Carol Mayo Jenkins, the artist in residence in acting and professor of theatre at UT. Jenkins, who has acted on Broadway and on the 1980s television show "Fame," has seen and helped Merritt grow as an actress.
"In the beginning, she was a talented, enthusiastic kid – boisterous, cocky and sometimes, frankly, a bit of a pain," Jenkins said. "That didn't last long. Because McKinley is very aware of the world around her and very smart, she began to see how the professionals with whom she was working dealt with rehearsals, directors, other people.
"A large part of our development in theater comes from observing others, absorbing their techniques, remembering what they do and how it affects us. McKinley is very good at that."
These techniques came in handy during Merritt's time as Joanne in "RENT." In a musical with so many versions, she said it can be difficult to bring a new voice to a beloved character. Brian Gligor, graduate student and one of the directors of "RENT," said he thinks she achieved this goal.
"McKinley really brought her own quirks to Joanne," Gligor said, "making her very charming while still exuding the professionalism and drive that makes her and Maureen's relationship so fun to watch."
For Merritt, making a character her own is the product of combining her own qualities with the qualities of the character.
"It's hard to not 100 percent copy something else that you see," she said. "And I can't say that I was 100 percent original, but when you take the character and what you know about the character, and personalize it in some way, that's how you make it different."
Merritt said her passion for theater and willingness to learn has shaped her in ways that affect every facet of her personality.
"I think everyone should be forced to learn theater at some point," Merritt said. "You're forced to figure yourself out when you've got to figure out another person, even if it's just for a scene for a class and finding a way to personalize. It's opened me up as a person.
"I've always kind of been a ham, but I definitely don't know what I'd be doing if I weren't acting."