Jason Gotay developed tunnel vision at a very young age. “We would do one stage play every year — in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades — and that was always the highlight of the year for me,” says the 28-year-old actor and singer. His introduction to the stage came at PS 180 in Borough Park, near the Bensonhurst neighborhood where he grew up. His interest grew at IS 239, the Mark Twain School, in Coney Island. At Professional Performing Arts HS, near Times Square, Gotay began seriously considering a career in theater. He went to Emerson College in Boston as a freshman but found “the level of talent and focus wasn’t as strong as what I was surrounded by in high school. I was a little spoiled.” So Gotay returned to the city, studying at Marymount Manhattan College and working part-time in the theater district, handing out postcard advertisements underneath the marquees at Broadway theaters. In 2012 and 2013, inside two of those theaters, Gotay made his Broadway debut — originating a lead role in the Tony-nominated “Bring It On: The Musical” — and was the alternate lead in “Spider-Man, Turn off the Dark.”
I was raised by a single mom, and I owe everything to her. She provided for us — I have a sister and a brother — and she encouraged my love of music and performing. She’s my biggest supporter and has come to every show, from grade school to community theater to regional theater.
I was leisurely interested in theater in elementary school, so I took music and singing lessons. I auditioned for Mark Twain for middle school and started to take it a little more seriously.
Peter DeCaro taught the drama class all three years at Mark Twain, and he became a mentor and role model for me. He directed our shows and instilled in us passion and excitement and commitment. He came up with exercises that allowed us to be creative and to learn about who we were.
Through improvisation, we learned to be spontaneous and to create characters and conflict in the moment. In 7th grade, I was Dr. Jekyll in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and in 8th grade, I was the lead in “West Side Story.” Mr. DeCaro recognized potential in me and gave me the opportunity to shine and to explore that. He encouraged me, allowed my creativity to flourish and made sure I had the opportunity to grow. He was super smart and had an energy that made all of us want to emulate him. The environment he created was a wonderful hybrid of mentorship and friendship, and we looked forward to his class every day.
My older brother was a music student at LaGuardia HS so I was exposed early on to performing arts high schools. My family went to visit each one and see their shows. I knew I loved musical theater and Professional Performing Arts HS had an amazing program. I liked that it was very small, only about 350 students, in a small building on West 48th Street between 8th and 9th avenues. Our campus was Times Square and the theater district; our field trips were to Broadway shows. I was taking classes alongside people who were on TV or who would leave school to do a Broadway matinee. Our teachers also were artists or were choreographing and directing shows outside of school. It was an amazing, vibrant community.
And the kids were so diverse. They came from all five boroughs. Some were from low-income neighborhoods, some were very affluent. But they were all extraordinarily talented. We were in the same classes because talent was what got us there. One teacher, James DeForte, became my mentor. He taught musical theater and dance and directed some of the productions. My junior year, he gave me the lead role in “Bat Boy, The Musical,” a show inspired by tabloid headlines about a half-man, half-bat creature. Getting to create that character was a huge deal. Even my family looks back on it as my big coming out moment of being able to tackle a character and transform and commit fiercely to it. James DeForte really inspired me to do that and challenged me to push myself physically and emotionally. He taught me what it took to carry a show, to be the leader and set an example for my fellow actors. I look back on that as one of the biggest challenges of my life, and I was only 16.
I came into my own as an artist and a young adult in the theater district. So to see my dream come full circle and play a lead role on Broadway, it’s pretty mind-blowing. I’m so thankful for the high school experience I had. The level of training we got, the individualized attention, the people we worked with, it was invaluable. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
— As told to reporter Suzanne Popadin