Julian Robertson was running late to his audition, his feet frozen and
his pants snow-wet. Little could he have imagined how that winter day in Manhattan would shape his summer here in Jacksonville. But then, he had no idea that The Juilliard School, the nation’s premiere performing arts school, would accept him into their acting program.
The 18-year-old Douglas Anderson School of the Arts graduate has found a way to parlay his hometown life into a summer play, aptly entitled “Broke,” as a fundraiser for his first year’s educational expenses at his dream school. Robertson will be one of only 18 acting students in the world admitted to Juilliard’s acting department this fall.
The young actor and playwright pulled a few of his friends from Douglas Anderson to direct and act in his original play. The cast has been rehearsing daily for weeks. “Broke” will premiere at The Performer’s Academy on Beach Blvd. on Friday, August 5.
Sitting across the kitchen table from Robertson, discussing his young characters and their pronounced moral conflicts, it’s easy to forget he’s only eighteen.
He explains that the play centers on a handful of young friends who grew up together in a hardscrabble neighborhood modeled on Robertson’s own North Jacksonville community.
“All of the characters are in survival mode,” Robertson says. “Markis has dug a hole for himself too big to get out of. He’s lost touch with who he is. He has a massive debt, and the clock is ticking.”
Robertson says that after “bouncing around in his head” for months, the story poured out of him “all at once,” when he returned from the Rutgers Summer Acting Conservatory in 2015.
“I sat down at the computer and I tried to write what they were saying,” he says of the play’s characters. “I was trying to catch it all.”
The characters are shaped by “parts and pieces” of people Robertson knows from his neighborhood and school: There’s Markis, who can’t seem to capitalize on the benefits he was sure finding religion would bring, and is now looking to his old friends for help; Scott, the best friend who loves Marcus to a fault; Alexx, the college girl who’s got it all together; and Izzy, the happy, hardworking hair stylist who lives with her parents. Red, whom Robertson describes as “a criminal with a conscience,” is the neighborhood enforcer for an unscrupulous cop who has found a way to make money from others’ suffering. As Red struggles to separate his job from who he really is, he will have to decide whether he is really better than the sum of his actions.
We’ll have to see the play to see how it ends, Robertson says. And he won’t reveal who the real hero in the story is.
It’s the third play Robertson has produced. His first, “Lily and Derek Against the World,” was performed at Stage Aurora in the Gateway Mall in 2014. In 2015, “Fleas” was staged at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and also at the Jacksonville Public Library’s main stage downtown.
Despite Robertson’s success as a young playwright, he says that before attending Douglas Anderson, he’d always thought of himself as a terrible writer. He recalled dreading standardized writing tests while attending elementary school in Clay County.
“The attitude was you’re either good at it or you’re bad at it and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Robertson says. “What I learned was if you work at it you can and will get better.
“Our brains are filled with ideas — and you go and search for the vocabulary to express them. And you can do it today.”
Robertson credits his English teacher at Douglas Anderson, Denise Harbin, for giving him unwavering encouragement. But it was his friends and fellow students who lit the fire.
“I wrote a poem for my friends Dwight [James] and Terrence [Scott] and they just kept making me do more. Dwight said, ‘You’ve got to write every day,’” Robertson recalls.
Dwight studied creative writing at Douglas Anderson.
“Dwight signed me up for a poetry slam,” Robertson said. He wasn’t worried about getting up in front of an audience; he already had extensive acting credentials, having appeared in productions of Radio Golf, The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wilde, Hairspray, Rumors, The Shadow Box, and more.
He was worried about performing his own words.
“I was more scared doing that than auditioning for Juilliard,” he says. And while he did not win any prizes that day, others were enthusiastic about his poetry, which gave him the confidence to dive into playwriting. Robertson is counting on that enthusiasm to draw people to his play, which will help him raise money to get through that first year in New York.
Robertson says his acceptance to Juilliard is still a bit surreal.
“It was complete disbelief for awhile — I didn’t really expect to get in. It took awhile for me to even be able to say I was going. It’s a dream. The odds are ridiculously out of your favor. It didn’t seem like me, from good old Jacksonville, could go and be there with people from around the world.”
And yet, he says, after he figured out that he walked a half-mile the wrong way in the snow the wintry day of his Julliard audition, he turned around and pressed on. Once he got to the warm-up room and the feeling came back into his frozen feet, he entered the first of three rounds of auditions feeling oddly comfortable.
“I remember being not really able to get nervous and being able to get comfortable and feel at home at the school. I was expecting to be nervous out of my mind,” he says. “And I showed up and I felt like I was at home. It didn’t feel like an audition; it felt like class.
“I felt like I’d had the best acting class of my life.”
"Broke" will be performed at 7 p.m. on August 5, 6, and 7 at The Performer's Academy, 3674 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville. Tickets are $15 and are available here. The theater is also accepting donations.
Additional donations to Robertson's education may be made here.