NBC’s newest series, Rise, follows an inspirational high school teacher in Pennsylvania who uses his love of theater to bring together a group of teens, and ultimately, a town. EW asked showrunner Jason Katims to blog the series premiere. See what he had to say below…
The 2016 presidential election happened to fall on the night of my wedding anniversary. My wife and I decided we’d celebrate by ordering in dinner and sitting in front of the television fully expecting to watch history being made as the first woman became President of the United States. But the grip on our Champagne flutes grew tighter and tighter as we, along with the rest of the country, watched Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio turn red. Putting aside what party you belong to, or who you voted for that day, we indeed all watched history being made. This was the night I, along with millions of other Americans, realized we were living in a bubble. Rust Belt America, weary of being overlooked and unwitnessed, rose up and insisted on being included in the American conversation. And as their voices rose, so did Americans who feared their basic civil and human rights being threatened. We were suddenly living in a world of activism on all sides of the political spectrum. That night, we all woke up.
This was the precise moment that I was beginning to work on the pilot script of Rise.
As the weeks and months continued, I couldn’t help but see the connective tissue between the fictionalized steel mill town of Stanton, Pennsylvania that I was writing about, and the towns and counties of the rust belt states whose voices were finally being heard loud and clear by the rest of the country: “We are not you, Washington, D.C. We are not you, New York City.” And perhaps most personally to me, “We are not you, Hollywood.”
I realized that I was making a show that would most likely be compared more to Glee than to House of Cards, yet still, there was something strikingly relevant and innately political about the timing of this show.
On a basic level, a television show that celebrates the arts in public education became significantly more timely the night of the 2016 election. While public education and the arts continue to be under fire, Rise, for 10 consecutive Tuesday nights, consistently will chant its mantra: “What is happening to these kids in this theater is magic. It is important. It is changing their lives. It cannot be ignored. Oooommmmm.”
And the courage of the students of Rise who defend their rights to not have their artistic expression censored became even more timely in the aftermath of Parkland. As I watched the students of Parkland speak out about their frustration and anger with their leaders, I couldn’t help but take note that many of these remarkably poised and articulate students were participants in that school’s drama department. In fact, a few of them were in rehearsals for a local production of Spring Awakening, the show featured throughout the first season of Rise.
As a writer, what makes Rise compelling to me is that it is ultimately a show about an American town more than it is a show about theater. The kids in this school’s drama program aren’t necessarily destined to go to Broadway or become movie stars. They’re a world away from that, and it’s not the point of the show. In fact, considerable work had to be done to make our incredibly talented young cast, be, well, less incredible. I feel a pang of guilt every time I watch the audition sequence in the pilot episode, where Rachel Hilson (one of the actresses in the ensemble), joyfully belts out a painfully shaky off-key performance of an Adele song when I know she is, in fact, an amazing singer (don’t worry, she and all of them will all get a lot more polished as the season progresses). We watch the character of Robbie struggle with his acting as he experiences his first moments on stage after Lou poaches him from the football team. But in reality, Damon J. Gillespie, the incredibly talented actor playing Robbie, has already starred in a Broadway show and has been studying his craft since he was 3 years old. As an accomplished dancer as well, he had to constantly remind himself, “Oh wait, Robbie would never spot when he was turning — he wouldn’t even know what spotting is.”
It’s easy to slip into the alluring notion of letting them all be as brilliant as they actually are. After all, we do come on right after The Voice. But this isn’t a show about showcasing their incredible talent. Rather, it’s about telling the story of these kids coming of age and coming into their own in their hometown. It is as much of a purely American story as I’ve ever told. The true joy of watching these kids shine on stage continues to deepen and grow the more we learn about their lives. Their stories are a mirror to the current American landscape. Lilette, who Lou casts as the female lead of the play, has to wait tables at the local diner and work her way through high school. Maashous, the student lighting designer, is struggling through the foster care system. Michael, a trans kid, joins the troupe looking for a safe harbor. Simon, who has been cast as a gay character, must confront his emerging sexuality even when he fears it could wreck his conservative family. And a member of the troupe we’ll meet later in the season must contend with an unplanned pregnancy with little parental support. All of these kids find a home, a community, a family, and salvation in their high school theater. All the while, the program is underfunded, overlooked, and viewed by the school’s administrators as a financial and P.R. burden, as opposed to the holy place it is.
The show’s fictional town of Stanton, Pennsylvania, reflects the very type of town whose citizens elected our current president. I was compelled to simply observe a town like that, rather than comment on it, or criticize its constituents for voting a different way than I might have. I wanted to see the town and its people — to embrace them, to witness them, to celebrate them. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were dropped down into its homes and pizza parlors and high school hallways and experience it for all its beauty and flaws. I fully acknowledge this is not a documentary, but rather a feel-good, aspirational TV show about a high school musical — I’ve seen the promos. Yet the town’s history and story is deeply embedded into the fabric of Rise. The football coach came from three generations of steel mill workers. He himself was a foreman there, until the mill shut its doors, devastating the economy of the town. The English teacher has spent 16 years at the high school, watching his school and community struggle with increased unemployment, dropout rate, and drug dependency. Watching his school and town suffer is what motivates him to take over the theater department. He is doing anything he can to make a difference.
When I first met with Josh Radnor to talk about the possibility of him taking on the role of Lou Mazzuchelli, the meeting turned quickly from two people trying to convince each other they should want to work with each other and became a conversation about why we both felt so deeply compelled to tell this story. As Josh said, “Right now I just want to work on something I am proud and compelled to be putting out into the world.” When he said that, I knew he was Lou.
When we watch the young voices from Parkland speak up, or hear about how Teresa Shook, whose single Facebook post started the Women’s March, I feel as if we are witnessing a new type of American hero being born. Modern day, fresh-faced, Twittersavvy Tom Joads, with a refreshing and distinct purity of purpose. They are raising their authentic voices on a grass-roots level out of a feeling of urgent necessity. The day Lou Mazzuchelli takes over this underfunded and overlooked theater department at his Pennsylvania public school and decides to turn his personal malaise into action, I like to think he too, in his own small way, becomes a new American hero.
Rise airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.