When Jason Katims set out to write his new television series Rise inspired by Michael Sokolove's book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater, he knew he wanted to keep the story in a small town. “I really wanted you to feel like you were dropped down into this town in Pennsylvania,” says Katims. He wants audiences to witness the effects of an arts program—one staging the formative musical Spring Awakening—on both a high school and the larger community.
Katims packs a punch in his ten-episode season, premiering March 13 on NBC, and to help you keep it straight, Playbill has put together this introductory yearbook to the class of Rise Season 1. Just as Spring Awakening shapes their characters, the actors who bring Stanton to life share the show that shaped who they are and what they hope audiences will learn about theatre from watching the show.
Who he plays: Lou Mazzuchelli, father of three, husband of one, and the English teacher/theatre novice who takes over the drama program at Stanton High School
What was your Spring Awakening? What was that formative show for you? The first musical I ever did was Oklahoma!. It was not my Spring Awakening. The following year I was cast as the Emcee in Cabaret and it changed everything for me. I obsessively listened to the cast album for months and my whole performance was basically a rip-off of Joel Grey’s. I just knew something had changed. I had found the ‘thing.’ I wanted to keep doing this forever.
What do you hope audiences realize can be gained from theatre when they watch Rise? [Acting] didn’t come with any social risk in my high school, but [that’s] not in every high school. I do think that the theatre programs are relegated to second class status. When people start thinking about budget cuts, they cut arts programs first, which is the very last thing [that should be cut]. You should quadruple the arts budgets because that’s what creates complicated, compassionate human beings.
Who she plays: Tracey Wolfe, the assistant theatre director who has poured her life into the program for years
What was the formative show for you? I was in Catholic nursery school, and in kindergarten the nuns always put me onstage. [More than a show] a teacher that inspired me was my fifth grade teacher Mr. Mackie, who brought me out of my shell and paid attention to me where prior there wasn’t the right attention paid.
What do you hope audiences realize can be gained from theatre when they watch Rise?
That theatre can make you alive. That you can—whether you’re on the stage, or sitting in the theater in the darkness—have the opportunity to step out of yourself, and feel something new and feel a part of that newness and understand that the world is so much bigger than you are and understand that you’re not alone in your experience. … It makes you a participant of the world and what that does is that it gives life to your empathy. It feeds your emotional intelligence, it feeds your heart and your soul and it makes you a better person. And if you become a better person, then the world becomes a better place. For me, that’s what art does and it also offers an escapism. For children, my gosh, it just gives a child every opportunity to be the best they can be, you know, to open themselves up and feel vulnerable and feel strong, and grow.
Who she plays: Lilette Suarez, a hard-working sophomore who splits her time between studying and shifts at the local diner before joining the school musical
What do you hope audiences realize can be gained from theatre when they watch Rise?
I know this is going to mean a lot to not only young women but to a young generation who’s trying to figure out what they’re going to do and how to rise above their circumstances. I think it’s the breaking of stereotypes that makes this show so special. In every school there are jocks, in every school there are nerds, there are the labels that others will put on each other, but it’s figuring out what you love and what is your passion that makes you individuals.
DAMON J. GILLESPIE
Who he plays: Robbie Thorne, quarterback of the football team who's searching for meaning and possibly finding it in Spring Awakening
What was that formative show for you? The Robber Bridegroom
What do you hope audiences realize can be gained from theatre when they watch Rise? Theatre changes lives.
Who she plays: Gwen Strickland, the daughter of the football coach and a drama club lifer who has played the lead every year.
What was that formative show for you? I did Chicago when I was 16. I was Roxie. It was a community theatre, but you still had to audition and I was like, "I just want to get in. I will be a prop. I don’t care."
What do you hope audiences realize can be gained from theatre when they watch Rise? There’s nothing quite like it on TV right now. I think music and dance is something that a lot of people relate to or feel inspired by and hopefully it can inspire people to start that or just go out and support community theatre companies in their own communities.
Who he plays: Maashous Evers, a teen who’s been in and out of foster homes and finds solace in running the lighting booth for the drama department
What was that formative show for you? When I was 13 years old I played Billy in Billy Elliot: The Musical, and I've never been the same since. It was a show that pushed the boundaries of what you thought you were capable of and it was an extremely important lesson to learn, especially at such a young age. Rise has that same power. It shares the narrative of young people defying the boundaries set by adults. The world is your canvas, you can paint whatever you want.
What do you hope audiences realize can be gained from theatre when they watch Rise? I think theatre is the perfect place to find yourself. We try on so many masks as actors that we realize our deep compassion for every role we play, even the "evil" ones. The environment shapes our individuality, but we share the same light inside us. The more stories that we can tell and listen to, from every perspective, every protagonist, even the "bad" ones, the more we realize how similar we truly are. Theatre is a magic place where we can be anyone and everyone.
Who she plays: Annabelle, an optimistic and open-hearted student at Stanton who finds her people in the drama department
What was that formative show for you? I remember seeing Les Miz for the first time at the Kennedy Center in D.C. and crying when I heard the score. But I did Seussical; I was not an important character at all. Even though it was community theatre, the people who ran it were very professional. I loved having that routine and getting to do what I loved and also being around people who took their jobs seriously.
What do you hope audiences realize can be gained from theatre when they watch Rise? I think people underestimate teenagers and what teenagers go through. Lots of real issues start when you’re very young and I think there’s a real struggle to figure out who you are and what you believe. I really loved that complexity [through this story].
Who he plays: Simon Saunders, a model student and son who is forced to grapple with his religion and identity when he’s cast as a gay character in Spring Awakening
What was that formative show for you? My first theatre experience was Seussical at Helen Hayes Youth Theatre. I played Jojo. I remember loving it and that got me into this.
What do you hope audiences realize can be gained from theatre when they watch Rise? I absolutely think it’s important to play characters that represent these issues, for people to have role models on television … to represent them in a positive light.
Who she plays: Vanessa Suarez, Lilette’s mom who can get herself into trouble by making decisions with her heart and not her head
What was that formative show for you? For me [it was] the 52nd Street Project [in New York City]. Kids write plays and adults come and perform these plays. The feeling of writing something on a piece of paper and then having an adult say your words as written and stand up there in front of your community and perform is the most incredible, validating feeling.
What do you hope audiences realize can be gained from theatre when they watch Rise? I hope that there’s a recognition of the worth that fine arts has, which is always difficult to explain because it’s not something necessarily quantifiable. You just see it. Kids stand a little taller. They’re braver. They feel much better about themselves. I hope that whoever sees this will experience it themselves, also.
Rise premieres March 13 at 10PM ET on NBC. Check your local listings.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.