Alabama actress finds home at center stage

A figure is standing in the center of the theater stage. The props on the stage depict a house.


By Brendan Bryan

This story was originally produced as part of NPR’s Next Generation Radio project as part of their collaboration with the Gulf States Newsroom.

When actress Lily Kate Gwin, 22, first walks into a theater, her eyes are immediately drawn to the stage. If it’s open, she’ll walk out to its center, look out at the empty house seats and take a deep breath.

“I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like a hollow space, but you feel the ghosts of the energy and the stories that have been told,” Gwin says. “It gets me excited to fill the seats and see them with people in them when the stage lights are on and someone’s giving the performance of a lifetime.”

On the stage is where Gwin found her sense of home, belonging, and what she believes to be her purpose — to tell stories. She was born in Huntsville, Alabama, was adopted at birth and grew up in a loving, two-story home in Fairhope, Alabama, that overlooked the bay with her family.

Lily Kate relaxes in an audience chair at the Troy Trojan Center Theater with her feet up on another seat.
Lily Kate Gwin relaxes in an audience chair at Troy University’s Trojan Center Theater on May 6, 2024. Gwin is comfortable and relaxed in her home, the theater. BRENDAN BRYAN/NEXTGENRADIO

Her earliest memory of the theater involves her adoptive parents. In second grade, Gwin and her class visited their local civic center for a production of Mulan. That production changed her life, Gwin says. Sitting on the edge of her mother’s knees, she was entranced by the songs, costumes and general spectacle.

“It was the first time it really clicked for me that this was something that I could do,” she says.

Sparks went off inside Gwin, and before she knew it, she was enrolled in an acting summer camp. Soon, she was spending almost every free moment at her local theater. There, she honed her skills and found a second home on the stage with her fellow actors.

Gwin describes her young experiences as “electrifying,” as she and other kids would come together to act, dance, sing and tell stories.

Gwin performed in an array of plays and musicals throughout grade school, becoming more entwined with the stage each time. Shows such as Once on This Island by Lynn Aarons and Stephen Flaherty furthered her love for storytelling. Gwin says she connected with the play’s themes of continuing the story — something she seeks to do every day — through love and growth. Watching other actors, such as Carol Burnett in Annie, taught her comedic timing. When she enrolled at Troy University, majoring in theater was a no-brainer.

Lily Kate dances and sings along with fellow actors during a performance of The Last Five Years.
Lily Kate sings and dances alongside her fellow actors in a production of The Last Five Years. This was her first two-person show where only she and one other actor performed alongside a non-speaking ensemble.

The difficulty of transitioning from high school to college acting was not lost on Gwin. She says it was like moving from a microscopic version of theater to the real world. Roles became more specific and the demands on her as an actor dramatically increased.

Competition for roles also increased, straining relationships within her adopted home, the theater. Instead of backing down, Gwin doubled down on her commitment to the stage and grew as a person. She took advice from one of her directors, who advised her that after the cast list was posted, she had one day to either celebrate or be sad. After that, it was back to work.

In her most recent role, Gwin played the witch from Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapin’s Into the Woods. To date, it’s been her most intensive role. Like the witch who makes a complete physical transformation, Gwin morphs from a haggard old woman in the first act and becomes beautiful through magic in the second. All of this is done to win the love of Rapunzel, who was stolen by the witch as an infant. The witch is rejected by Rapunzel, and her character’s grief, in Gwin’s opinion, makes her more human.

Gwin has never met or known her biological parents, but an interesting connection exists between them. While moving to Troy University, her adoptive mother informed her that she believed her biological father went to Troy also to study theater.

Gwin sees this connection as confirmation that she chose the right life path. She doesn’t hold any ill will toward her biological parents, and she hopes that through her storytelling, she is making them proud — wherever they are.

Made with Flourish

“I have parents that love me and it’s not what they make it seem like in movies where people will say, ‘Have you ever met your real parents?’” Gwin said. “I know my real parents. They raised me and they’re wonderful.”

Gwin graduated from Troy on May 10 and leaving the theater department made her emotional.

“I mean, it’s going to break my heart a little bit,” she says. “I feel like it’s like any goodbye. It’s just a very grateful feeling.”

She describes acting as a job that invites goodbyes. However, as she also describes, wherever she goes, the theater will always be her home.

Gwin is already ready for her next step. She has an upcoming callback in Salt Lake City, Utah, on May 22.

Lily Kate sits cross-legged at the edge of the stage at the Troy Trojan Center Theater.
Lily Kate Gwin sits cross-legged at the edge of Troy University’s Trojan Center Theater on May 6, 2024. This is the same theater where she played the role of the witch in Into the Woods. BRENDAN BRYAN/NEXTGENRADIO


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