STORY WRITTEN BY RUTH ROVNER
For Digital First Media
When Brandon Pierce first read the script for “Exit Strategy,” the current offering of Philadelphia Theatre Company, his reaction was immediate. “I really liked it,” ” he recalls. “I liked how relevant it is. It’s about a school that’s about to close down, and this is quite relevant for Philadelphia.”
In this case, the dilapidated public high school targeted for closure is in Chicago. The play focuses on the reactions, conflicts and struggles that this imminent closing stirs up among teachers, a vice principal, and one student, a senior, who becomes a leader in the effort to keep the school open.
Pierce, a Wallingford native, was eager to audition for the role of the student. The fact that he’s 26 didn’t stop him.
“Everyone tells me I look younger than 26,” he says. It also didn’t stop him that the auditions were in New York and he could not audition in person because of schedule conflicts. Instead, he got permission to send a video.
“I recorded myself doing the scene,” he relates. “And then I couldn’t even get it in on time because of Internet problems. So I thought I didn’t have a chance. But a few days later, my agent called and said I got the part. I was really excited.”
And no wonder. In this new American play by Ike Holter, Pierce has a pivotal role. His character, Donnie, is a successful and confident senior who is threatened with suspension because he has hacked into the school’s computer system in order to create a campaign to save the school.
But when he meets with the vice principal, Donnie’s passion for saving the school converts the administrator to his cause.
Pierce is in four of the six scenes, and in each of these, he’s a dominant force on the stage. He exudes energy and anger as a tough young activist. He paces, he struts, he gestures, he shouts. He’s constantly in motion both physically and verbally.
Pierce’s transformation into an angry and activist high school senior came fairly easily . “Donnie is sort of a smart aleck, and that’s easy for me to portray because I’m kind of like that myself,” he confesses.
But the role also has considerable challenges. For instance, in one scene Donnie delivers an especially long monologue that includes hurling quite a few expletives. “He really starts to let go and express his pent-up feelings,” says Pierce. “And it’s the opposite of how I really am. I’m a very calm person and I don’t swear at all.”
Also, the fictional high school environment is entirely different from his actual high school experience at Strath Haven, where he was a senior eight years ago.
“It’s a suburban school, not a city school, and it’s in no danger of closing,” he says. “Also it’s predominantly white.” Pierce, who is African American, was in the minority at Strath Haven. But the fictional Chicago school serves primarily African American and Hispanic students.
In the ensemble cast of seven, Pierce is the youngest because he’s the only one playing a student. “It’s somewhat intimidating to be the youngest, but everyone’s been really friendly and supportive,” he says. It’s a really good group with good energy.”
And that group energy won’t stop when the play ends its Philadelphia run on Feb. 28. Pierce and the other cast members will reprise their roles at the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan in March. “Exit Strategy” is a co-production with New York’s Primary Stages.
When he was a senior at Strath Haven, Pierce couldn’t forsee that eight years later, he’d be playing the role of a high school senior on a main stage in Philadelphia and then in New York.
But he was interested in acting from a very early age. “When I was five or six, I wanted to be an actor,” he recalls. At age 10, he started attending an acting camp at Neumann College, and did this for three years.
At Strath Haven, he eagerly signed up for an acting class as a freshman, and continued with courses in advanced studio theater for the next three years. . The students put on two productions every semester.
Then, attending the University of the Arts, Pierce majored in acting, had featured roles in several productions, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
Since then, he’s had varied roles with area theater companies, including the Arden, Flashpoint, Azuka, Simpatico, and Philadelphia Artists Collective.
“Exit Strategy” marks his debut with Philadelphia Theatre Company. It’s been a most satisfying experience. “ Working with this cast has been a highlight,” he says. “And it’s been exciting to present this play. It’s sad, it’s funny, and it deals with such a relevant subject.”
Then, too, it’s the chance to bring to life the character of Donnie, who is so different from himself. “One thing I like about acting is getting to live other people’s lives and telling their story,” he observes. “And Donnie’s story is very different from mine.”