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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

From UF to Broadway: A look into the lives of theatre-student success stories

UF School of Theatre and Dance alumni go on to star, direct and choreograph for Broadway and more

UF alumnus Thaddeus Pearson performs as Tony in the West End/International Tour of “West Side Story” in spring 2014.
UF alumnus Thaddeus Pearson performs as Tony in the West End/International Tour of “West Side Story” in spring 2014.

The tight confines of the Constans Theatre nestled inside the Reitz Union was the epicenter of performances for theater students at UF. But now, it’s the bright lights and bustling Broadway streets of Manhattan that many musical theater alumni call home. 

Bachelor’s and master’s students alike, UF has produced prosperous performers credited for projects such as “Be More Chill,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “West Side Story,” “Hamilton” and “Hadestown.” 

Thaddeus Pearson

Born and bred in the Tampa Bay area, home to the largest theater competition for high school students, stage actor Thaddeus Pearson sang and danced in show-stopping numbers each year in the Florida State Thespian Festival. 

Now a Vegas resident with a successful Spanish musical in the works, Pearson looked back at his background in Florida with gratitude and awe. 

“The bulk of my learning was on stage doing actual performances where I had the chance to … work with the incredible professors at the University of Florida to bring the characters to life,” he said. “It really built a bunch of confidence for me to … pursue a professional career in theater.” 

UF College of Arts’ School of Theatre and Dance alumni have gone on to work professionally from Broadway to Hollywood, applying what they learned in courses taught by professors like Tim Altmeyer and Tiza Garland and from student organizations like Florida Players.  

Before transferring to UF to complete his musical theatre degree, Pearson was an eager performing arts student at the Florida School of the Arts. In 2008, after passing an audition for the UF School of Theatre and Dance at the Florida Theatre Conference, he came to Gainesville as one of the only handful of students selected to attend the program. 

“To go from a more small, intimate community college to this whole department that was bigger than the entire school was breathtaking and humbling at the same time,” he said. 

At UF, Pearson lavished on a musical theater career in productions such as “Rocky Horror Show,” “Hair,” “Damn Yankees” and “Pippin.”

“To be able to play these iconic shows and work with these amazing artists, it is something I look back on very fondly,” he said.  

After graduating from UF in 2011, Pearson immediately took off into a full-time career in professional theatre. His senior showcase took place in New York City the day after his commencement ceremony, he said.  

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With his college peers, he put on performances for countless talent agents, managers and casting directors in the heart of Manhattan. 

“To see that the work that we had done throughout our entire collegiate career can be transferred over into the professional world,” he said, “was incredible.” 

Through the UF Actor Showcase, Pearson signed with Judy Boals, Inc. and began a thriving career in the New York theatre scene. 

Less than a year after his graduation, he landed his big break in the national tour of “West Side Story,” where he was cast as the understudy for the male lead, Tony, an opportunity that allowed him to perform on stage in the role a number of times. One of these times was on the London West End, as part of the international tour in 2014. 

“You do the show one night, close the show, get on the bus, sleep on the bus and you go to the next town,” he said. “But, man, was it a lot of fun.” 

Pearson’s restless days of touring the country starring in Broadway classics did not stop there. Afterward, he booked the national tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” the next year, the production where he happened to meet his future wife. 

The connections he made at UF have continued to follow him into his career today, as he is set to star in the English version of the new musical, “Malinche,” an opportunity former classmate Lana Neuman found for him.

Pearson began the development of the production in New York before it was halted by the pandemic in 2020. The musical has since seen a successful revival, having recently won Best Musical at the Max Awards in Spain, he said. The creation of the musical has been made the topic of a Netflix documentary film, “Making Malinche,” which Pearson appears in. 

He awaits to perform the role of Hernán Cortés in “Malinche” in Madrid. Until then, he currently resides in Las Vegas with his wife and newborn son.

“It’s wonderful to be able to come back to something we started prior to the pandemic and then actually have the opportunity to do it,” he said, “when I thought perhaps it might have been over.”

Danny Sharron

Growing up in the vibrant, artistic city of Fort Lauderdale, Danny Sharron knew he was born for the theatre. The 37-year-old theatre director came to UF thinking he’d pursue performing like he had done his whole life. However, the resources he was exposed to turned him toward a new side of performing arts that took him behind the scenes. 

Double majoring in marketing and the theatre program at UF, he acquired more opportunities in technical theatre than performing, and he began stage managing for productions put on by Florida Players and the School of Theatre and Dance. 

“I quickly realized I wasn’t as good [at performing] as the other people,” he said. “I didn’t love performing enough.” 

After two years in stage management at UF, Sharron also realized that was not quite the path for him either. It was through his experience in Florida Players that he finally found the passion he was going to pursue for the rest of his life: directing. 

The first play he directed with the organization was “Proof” by David Auburn, and he later became the artistic director of Florida Players his senior year. 

“There were not opportunities to direct in the main stage for the theatre department,” he said. “So, Florida Players was a way for me to exercise that muscle. It totally changed my life.”  

The combination of being a business student and running a student organization on campus empowered him with the leadership skills he would take to his professional career.

Upon moving to New York in August 2008 following his graduation, Sharron began his own theatre company, Ugly Rhino, in which he involved many from his UF cohort. 

“I was directing plays in weird spaces in Brooklyn; in lofts in warehouses,” he said. “So that [people] can see that I knew what I was doing, and I was serious about it.” 

A decade later, Sharron’s hard work would pay off as he became senior associate director of “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway in 2018.

“Having a Broadway show,” he said, “the amount of people you can reach with the work you are doing is so significant and shocking.” 

For five years, until this past July, Sharron led auditions for each role, taught every aspect of the show to the actors from blocking to characterization and watched live performances each week on Broadway and West End to give notes to the actors.  

Since completing his stint with “Dear Evan Hansen,” he said he is devoting his time to raising his child in New York, as well as directing another Broadway production. 

Teniece Divya Johnson

Los Angeles resident and intimacy and stunt director Teniece Divya Johnson played Division I basketball as a marketing student at Lehigh University. With not many opportunities to pursue theatre as an undergraduate, Johnson decided to dive deeper into the art form much later when they pursued a master’s of fine arts in performance and theatre, they said. 

“I was kind of like a sponge at first,” Divya Johnson said. “I was a little bit behind in terms of my experience.” 

Johnson joined the hip-hop theatre troupe Signs of Life when they began school at UF. They took the opportunity to travel to and perform internationally in countries such as the Czech Republic, Germany and Rwanda. 

“It was inspiring and humbling,” they said, “You can travel such a far distance and have so much in common with people.”  

On campus, Johnson starred in productions such as “Gem of the Ocean,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Hamlet.” 

After graduating, Johnson began as an actor in Off-Broadway productions and the National Black Theatre Festival, they said. 

After getting involved in a blaxploitation film, they were introduced to stunt performing, a craft that would become the center of Johnson’s career moving forward. 

“It really reminded me of basketball,” they said, “In the sense that you have to have all expected abilities: fighting, falling, driving.” 

Credited behind the action in projects such as Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” (2021) and “Slave Play” in New York, Johnson has established themselves as the first Black and nonbinary intimacy coordinator in film and on Broadway, they said. 

“I’ve just been doing it a long time,” they said referring to their career and monumental title. 

Johnson said they can credit part of their success to skills they learned in movement courses taught by Garland and productions directed by Michael Lynn Pinkney. However, they felt their MFA program’s lack of diversity at the time failed to make them feel supported. 

“Programs are political,” they said. “I got what I needed, and I didn’t stop there.” 

These three artists hardly scratch the surface of success stories to come out of UF. From Faye Dunaway of “Mommie Dearest” to George Salazar of the original Broadway cast of “Be More Chill,” gators growl everywhere from the big screen to Broadway. 

Contact Jared Teitel at Follow him on Twitter @jaredteitel.

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Jared Teitel

Jared Teitel is a third-year journalism major, and this is his second semester as an Avenue reporter. In his free time, he enjoys running, shopping, and drinking coffee. 

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