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Damon J. Gillespie plays Robbie Thorne, the high school quarterback, in "Rise." Gilliespie is a graduate of Center for Creative Arts, which does not have sports teams, but the actor spent several years playing prior to that. "I played football as a kid at Middle Valley (recreational league) and I played in a (competitive) traveling league until ninth grade," he says.
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The cast of "Rise" at an NBCUniversal press tour. From left are Josh Radnor, Auli'i Cravalho, Damon J. Gillespie and Rosie Perez.

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Watch the series premiere of “Rise” at 10 p.m. Tuesday on NBC.

Damon J. Gillespie was working as a barista in a New York Dunkin' Donuts this time last year. Tuesday night, the Chattanoogan will make his debut in NBC's new drama, "Rise," in which he's cast as the male teen lead.

Even though the show has yet to air, it has been receiving critical acclaim in entertainment industry magazines for more than two months. TV Guide included "Rise" among the seven shows in its "The New Season's Big Stars" as well as its "The Best Midseason Shows Ever" list.

NBC has aggressively been promoting the teen drama since running its trailer in a Super Bowl commercial. But the peacock network's biggest show of faith: the premiere of "Rise" has been slotted right after Tuesday night's season finale of "This Is Us."

The show stars Josh Radnor ("How I Met Your Mother") as a high school English teacher who takes it upon himself to reinvigorate the school's dying arts department — and ultimately gives the whole town something to sing about. Radnor decides to shake up the status quo with a controversial production of "Spring Awakening." Pushing aside the drama coach, played by Rosie Perez, he begins looking for students to cast.

Gillespie, a 2012 graduate of Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts, plays Robbie Thorne, the high school quarterback with a sensitive side. Football rules in his working-class town, and Robbie's focused on earning a football scholarship to college. But seeing bigger possibilities for the student, Radnor approaches him to audition. Playing opposite Gillespie in the teen female lead is Auli'i Cravalho, who voiced Moana in the Disney movie of the same name.

"Essentially, Robbie is a little resistant; he doesn't do theater at all. He doesn't know how to take it (when Radnor wants him to audition), and he's not really into it," Gillespie explains of his character.

"So when he auditions and meets the girl he's had a fondness for, he gives it a chance. He reads the play and connects with it."

He reluctantly takes the part, then discovers along the way his love for dancing and singing.

A singing football jock?

A shy brunette who's not part of the "it clique," but gains respect with her voice.

Sound familiar?

But don't think this is "Glee" 2.0. Gillespie says there is a distinct difference.

"I've seen 'Glee' and watched 'Smash,' and what they did for musical theater, as an artist I owe respect to them. But what's different about our show is that the audience is seeing the process of putting on a musical. We won't be singing about our feelings. We're putting on a show throughout the season. Viewers see us going to auditions and in rehearsals. You will see cutaways to different songs because they run parallel with what some of the characters are going through."

Gillespie says winning this part gave him a sense of deja vu. Five years ago, he was performing in "Spring Awakening" at Memorial Auditorium with a local theater company.

The creative team behind "Rise" is an actor's dream team. The drama is the creation of Jason Katims, producer of "Friday Night Lights," and Jeffrey Seller, "Hamilton" producer. It's based on the true story told in the nonfiction book "Drama High." The show is choreographed by Danny Mefford ("Dear Evan Hansen" and "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.")

"If you've ever seen 'Friday Night Lights' or 'Parenthood,' you know Jason's style is to tell more than one or two stories," says Gillespie. "I think one of the things that will draw people in is that they are going to get attached to more than one character. Josh and Rosie are amazing. He's so talented; he's been a guide for me and everyone on set. She's definitely been the mom of our cast."

After graduating from CCA, Gillespie went to Roosevelt University in Chicago. He won a role in the ensemble of "Newsies" on Broadway in 2014, but spent only the last month with that cast before the show closed. He played Chino in a Carnegie Hall production of "West Side Story" that was staged in Queens, New York, before joining the casts of Disney's "Aladdin" on Broadway then "The Prom" in Atlanta in 2016.

He attributes the work ethic instilled in him by CCA teachers Allan Ledford and Lindsay Fussell with helping him persevere through the ups and downs of finding work in show business.

"They are the reason why I am so driven, because they always challenged me to go the extra mile and do more than what I was asked," he says.

Ledford says his former student has the stage presence that naturally draws the eyes of an audience.

"He was willing to do the work outside of class and rehearsal. Most of he time he came to (musical theater) class prepared, knowing his lines and lyrics. If you've got talent, that's one thing; but you have to have that willingness to do the work," says Ledford, now retired from CCA.

Ledford says his former student had the ability to pick up movement quickly, and even though he might learn choreography before his peers, he was never impatient with the others in a cast who were slower on the uptake.

"He was very supportive of everyone."

Kindness to others amd a willingness to help younger students are the trait CCA principal Debbie Smith recalls about Gillespie as well.

"I look at Damon as one of our biggest success stories. He was passionate about the arts and came to our school, where his family supported him and attended everything he did. They were available to support not just Damon, but help wherever our school needed," she says of their commitment to the arts school.

"Damon truly is a success story in itself — that someone who lives in a town like Chattanooga can pursue his passion and be successful in what he enjoys doing in life," she says.

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

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