When Erica McGee was eight years old, she landed her first theater role, starring in “Annie” at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville.
It was the early 1980s, when the movie adaptation of “Annie,” starring Carol Burnett and Aileen Quinn, had children across the U.S. singing “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard Knock Life.”
McGee said she knew every word to every “Annie” song before she auditioned. When the musical’s run ended, she was hooked on theater.
“Once you’re standing on stage with the red wig and a real live Sandy, it’s in you,” said McGee, who now lives in South Charlotte. “You’re not going to want to do anything else.”
McGee’s 20-year theater career has included everything from performing at Dollywood Entertainment Park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to her recent role as a church lady in the feature film “Miracles from Heaven” starring Jennifer Garner.
In recent years, though, she has focused her efforts on children, putting on musicals at Elizabeth Lane Elementary and holding drama and musical theater summer camps for children in Charlotte.
“Erica’s positive energy, passion and creativity are a gift to our community and school,” said Laura Bentley, Elizabeth Lane assistant principal. “She pours her time, energy and resources into writing and producing original pieces that inspire kids to love theater.”
Playground Players emerge
After graduating from the University of Tennessee, McGee moved to Nashville, where she sang with a female trio called “Savannah.”
The group didn’t make it like they’d hoped, and around that time McGee reconnected with a college boyfriend who lived in Charlotte. She married him and moved to Charlotte, and they have a daughter, Tara.
When Tara was in second grade at Elizabeth Lane, McGee realized the school didn’t have a drama program.
“I was like, there’s really nothing artistic for these younger kids to do,” McGee said. She approached the school about running an afterschool theater program open to all grade levels.
The school loved the idea. The first year, McGee had to turn away 30 students from Playground Players because she had enrolled so many in the program that the stage was full.
McGee owns a production company, McGee Entertainment, and has written and produced a number of Southern-themed shows, including “Grits, The Musical” and “Cindabella, A Southern Fried Fairytale.”Each year, she writes a musical for Playground Players.
The afterschool theater group operates on a lottery system, so McGee never knows who she’ll get.
This year, McGee wrote “Star Wars: The Musical,” creating lyrics for the instrumental Star Wars theme music. Enrollment fees paid for costumes and sets, which McGee keeps minimal so more students can fit on the stage.
Stephanie Stallings said she and her husband have long encouraged their children to be involved in music. When her son Hayden saw the 2015 Playground Players performance at Elizabeth Lane, he loved it.
This year, Hayden played Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars: The Musical.”
Tara McGee will be in sixth grade in the fall, but McGee plans to continue her program at Elizabeth Lane.
She said Playground Players gives students an appreciation of musical theater and the hard work it takes to stage a production. Some students have never performed on stage before, such as a boy who played the emperor in last year’s Elvis-themed performance, “The Emporer’s New ‘Do’.”
McGee said the sound system blew out midway through the show, and the air conditioner stopped working. The room was hot, and there was no music track for the songs.
“They could tell in my eyes, we were just going to keep going,” McGee said.
The emperor sang his remaining songs a capella.
“You’d think it was a horrible experience, but it was really great,” McGee said. “That’s what you have to do in life. You have to keep going and do the best you can.
“Those kids were sweating, and it was just a mess, but those kids who participated in that show will never forget it.”
Lisa Nelson’s daughter, Aspen, who is in third grade, has participated in two Playground Players shows. Nelson said Aspen, loved learning the songs and the humor in the plays.
“Erica is gifted at working with people of all ages,” Nelson said. “You can see the love she has for each young person and how she wants them to feel special and enjoy being a part of the production.”
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erica McGee will offer drama and show choir summer camps in June and August at Sharon Presbyterian Church that are open to all rising first- through eighth-graders. For information, visit www.creativesoutherntheater.com/summercamps.htm.