As Elizabeth Judd watched the series premiere of NBC’s Rise, a show about a high school theater department producing Spring Awakening, she recalled her high school theater roots at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson. That strong theatrical background supports her in her current job as an ensemble member and understudy for all three of the main female roles in the Broadway production of Hamilton: An American Musical.
Judd began taking voice lessons at age 7 and those early voice recitals helped her conquer stage fright. By the time she reached high school, she was eager to follow in the footsteps of her older brother and be a part of Pearce Theatre.
“I knew I wanted to do theater in high school at least. It was a community. Everyone was having so much fun,” Judd said.
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While in high school, she made her professional debut in WaterTower Theatre’s Parade. After graduation, she attended Collin College and CAP21, a conservatory in New York City. She joined a national tour of Spring Awakening and made her Broadway debut in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. In 2014, she came home to play Eponine in Les Misérables at the Dallas Theater Center.
When Judd began high school, Pearce Theatre was thriving under the direction of Lynn Zednick Shaw, who students lovingly called Zed.
“Zed put this theater on the map,” Heather Biddle, the Pearce Theatre alumna who took over the program when Shaw died in 2009, said. “Her passion for what she did made us passionate about wanting to be involved. She made it cool to be involved and to care about theater.”
Pearce Theatre’s footprint in the community grew in the mid-nineties when Shaw decided to expand the number of performances.
“Zed wanted to do a Sunday show in the Bible Belt, so they petitioned the school district,” Biddle said. “We did Big River with Hamilton Park Baptist Church and most people say that’s the moment it became more than a high school theater. That’s when it became a community outreach thing.”
Pearce Theatre’s shows became more ambitious, preparing Judd for the demands of a long-running Broadway show. “We got to have a good number of shows, more than most schools. We got to learn the baby steps of taking care of ourselves over a run of a show,” Judd said.
The 2008 Pearce alumna played Belle in Beauty and The Beast, Wendy in Peter Pan, and Kim in Miss Saigon. “I was fortunate that I got to play leading roles and I got to feel what it’s like to own a role,” Judd said. “In high school, I thought you had to be so confident right out of the gate. High school is a good place to build your confidence gradually.”
The diversity of Pearce Theatre was important to Judd’s development as an artist. “What’s cool about Pearce is there’s lots of kinds of kids. I got to work with a lot of different kinds of people and that’s really important to learn in the professional world,” Judd said.
“I think that’s one of the things that makes Pearce Theatre special. It’s not your traditional theater kid. It’s football players, drill team, band, basketball, soccer. It’s everyone from all different places. I think there are kids who find their passion and had no idea this is what they wanted to do and there’s kids who since they were 2 years old came to see Elizabeth Judd in Beauty and The Beast and then come and do a show with us so many years later,” Biddle said.
A cohesive community forms out of the students’ varied backgrounds, leading to impressive onstage spectacle and important emotional connections. “I’m big on community and ensemble,” Biddle said. “We have made a helicopter fly, we have done the same amount of pyro as Disney World in Phantom, we build sets that rival Broadway shows, but sometimes when we do simple scene work in class with nothing but true exploration of the script, you can see kids’ hearts. You can learn a lot when you strip it all away and let them express themselves and their own truth.”
Biddle and Judd are not surprised high school theater students are leading the charge to change gun laws after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. “Theater kids are smart. They know history from reading texts and they know in history, change was instituted from young kids. It makes us theater educators very proud,” Biddle said. “In theater, passion is encouraged. Your voice is encouraged. You can find out who you are as an artist and as a person,” Judd said. “I’m in awe of them. I’m very proud to be one of them.”
From experiencing Tony Awards season to being part of a show that has an incredible influence on culture and current events, Judd is savoring every moment of Hamilton. “It has just provided more experiences than I could have predicted,” Judd said.
On Broadway, she draws on an important lesson from Pearce Theatre: the joy of the work. “I learned how to have fun with theatre and in shows. I think it’s so important at that age. As you get older, business creeps in and it has to,” Judd said. “I was really grateful to learn how to have fun because I still carry that with me.”