A passion for performance

The Broadway Theatre Project molds young actors, singers, dancers and musicians. But the drive to strive comes from within.

Published July 27, 2006

TAMPA - Some remember the first time they felt a passion to perform. It came while watching television, or listening to their parents' old records.

The hunger finds sustenance each summer at the Broadway Theatre Project at the University of South Florida. For 15 years, practiced performers have gathered to help talented apprentices from all over develop as actors, singers, dancers and musicians.

Apprentices take classes, grind through strenuous rehearsals and glean advice from stage, television and film talents such as Patrick Wilson, Ben Vereen and Jed Bernstein. At the end of the work: two performances Saturday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, eagerly awaited by friends, family and anyone who loves a good show.

Debra McWaters cofounded the project and took over after director Ann Reinking retired. She studied dance as a young girl but left it for years, only to be reclaimed by a jazz class in a college gym. McWaters went on to choreograph productions of Fosse and Chicago.

The 189 students and 24 staff who make up the project have their own stories of how they made it to the stage. Here are five.

Jonathan Milton can be reached at (813) 226-3374 or milton@sptimes.com.

Kelly King, resident instructor

Originally from St. Petersburg, King attended Gibbs High School's Pinellas County Center for the Arts, where she studied dance and musical theater. She has been part of the Broadway Theatre Project since age 13. Now a Radio City Rockette dance captain, she is resident dance instructor for the Broadway Theatre Project.

Her story: "It wasn't until I was 16 that I got really serious with dance. My mom said ever since I was a little girl, even when I was in the crib, she would be cleaning in the house and put music on and that I would sit there and rock back and forth.

"I remember the first time I saw the Radio City Rockettes on TV during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. I remember thinking that these were some of the most beautiful women. I just thought they were so amazing. I remember being 9 and telling my mother that I was going to be one of them one day.

"I didn't care how hurt I was, how tired I was. I would just push and push myself and I had great people who would push me because they knew what I was capable of doing.

"I wanted to be onstage. I think it's hard to put into words when you just love it and it's who you are. Dancing and performing is who Kelly is."

Josh Cooke, guest instructor

Originally from Gladwyne, Pa., Cooke, 26, is a Broadway Theatre Project alumnus who attended the program in 1996-97. He has had lead roles in the NBC sitcoms Committed and Four Kings and recently landed a lead role in a new fall ABC sitcom, Big Day. He is a Broadway Theatre Project guest master class artist and instructor.

His story: "My father was especially important, because he would always be watching movies and I would always watch movies with him. I just remember seeing him get into movies and just laugh at them.

"I didn't at first have the drive to go into acting. It wasn't until I came here and learned who Bob Fosse was, because I didn't know, and I watched his films and got interested in straight play acting.

"I went to UCLA and graduated from theater. A year after that, strangely enough, that's really when I started to fully understand and start taking things very seriously. I didn't understand drive until it occurred to me later on that it was the idea of human behavior that is such a bizarre and strange and incalculable thing. It's a constant inner challenge.

"It's healthy to live with that passion because you aren't putting the importance on material things or money. Nobody wants to be living in a gutter or a roach-infested apartment in New York, but some people don't care as long as they are doing what they want to do."

Michael Scirotto, apprentice

Scirotto, 23, is a jazz dancer who lives in Jupiter, on the state's east coast. He attended New World School of Arts in Miami, where he studied dance. This is his second year attending the Broadway Theatre Project.

His story: "My father played sports, so I played football when I was younger. At 8, I remember my elementary school doing a production of Nutcracker. I remember saying that I totally wanted to be in theater, I totally want to do this. I auditioned for the part and got it.

"I was jealous of my sisters being able to dance. I was so envious. I remember thinking, 'I have to do this, I have to dance.' I remember saying to myself, 'That feels right but it's wrong because I need to do sports.'

"I was just kind of stuck watching my sisters' recitals and then doing little community theater things. I think when I got into my freshman year of high school, I went to a Catholic school that a lot of my family had attended . . . I realized that I didn't belong there. So my mother and I put in an application and sent it to this performing arts high school. I remember taking my first dance class my senior year of high school and later went to college at New World School of the Arts and really began to make progress as a dancer. It all comes down to it being about the importance and the respect for your art and the discipline you have to further yourself."

Jonathan Sullivan, apprentice

Sullivan, 20, is a gospel music vocalist who lives in Safety Harbor. He attended Gibbs High School's Pinellas County Center for the Arts, where he studied voice. Later, he studied musical theater at Countryside High School. He was also a backup vocalist for American Idol performer Clay Aiken. This is Sullivan's second year at the Broadway Theatre Project.

His story: "I grew up in the church understanding who God was and what the Holy Spirit can do with your soul. And I guess I was blessed with this gift at the age of 4. I remember going to my father's mother's church and seeing the evangelist praying over people. And it was amazing seeing how they would touch people and just make them fall out. Growing up, I was sitting down watching the TV and seeing this gorgeous woman singing. I was just mesmerized. I take those moments as an angel coming sitting next to me and showing me what my life would be like. Watching Whitney Houston, I remember the power that she had by just opening her mouth and singing. It is the divine gift that comes out and touches people's souls that made me decide that I wanted to sing.

"My fifth grade year, I was in music, singing in chorus, and I asked the teacher if I could sing for the last day of school fifth-grade graduation. He said yes, and I sang Whitney Houston's I Believe in You and Me. I remember hitting every note of that song. That is when I got my first standing ovation."

Caitlin Kimball, apprentice

Kimball, 18, an acting student, recently graduated from Bishop Moore High School in Orlando and will attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the fall. This is her third year at the Broadway Theatre Project.

Her story: "I was in the fourth grade and I knew what I was going to do. I told myself that I was going to be the female Michael Jordan. And I said that I was going to be the best basketball player there is. It wasn't quite working out for me. My mom and her father were so into theater. I remember her just playing the chorus line and me singing along with them. My mother said, 'You always sing along to my Broadway songs, why don't you try this?' I auditioned for Those Little Rascals; it was at a community theater in Chicago. I got the part of a made-up little rascal named "Doo Da." It started right there.

"I love it when people are watching me. It was an attention thing - to make people laugh and to get that immediate response of an audience cheering for you is just an incredible thing.

"I think we're in a really cool profession where you never stop learning. You work so hard to get that note right, to get that step right, and to get that scene looking perfect. I am very lucky in that I know what I want to do with my life and I am so passionate about it that it just oozes out of my pores."

*   *   *

Members of the Broadway Theatre Project will present a variety program called "The Movie Musical," 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Ferguson Hall, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center; $35. Call (813) 229-7827.