Rise's Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez and Damon J. Gillespie recently surprised students at Union High School in Union, New Jersey, with a special visit

By Karen Mizoguchi
March 19, 2018 03:36 PM
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What a way to celebrate National Theatre in Our Schools month!

Rise‘s Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez and Damon J. Gillespie recently surprised students at Union High School in Union, New Jersey, with a special visit to congratulate the school’s theatre department as one of 50 in the nation that won a $10,000 R.I.S.E. America grant from NBC.

The surprise drop-in was extra meaningful for Radnor, 43, and Perez, 53, who portray drama teachers Lou Mazzuchelli and Tracey Wolfe, respectively, in the coming-of-age musical drama about students navigating the difficulties of alcoholism and divorce as well as issues facing LGBTQ youth, all while getting ready for their school’s controversial production of Spring Awakening.

“We had an amazing morning here meeting the students. It brings me back to acting in high school and in my drama department and how much that changed my life. It literally sent my life in a different direction,” the How I Met Your Mother alum, who was also joined by the show’s executive producers Jason Katims and Flody Suarez, tells PEOPLE.

“The theater changes lives, drama departments in high schools change lives and yet they’re criminally underfunded. So I just love being a part of a show that brings attention to the vibrancy and excitement that goes on there, the growth that happens there,” Radnor says.

Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez and Damon J. Gillespie
| Credit: Cindy Ord/NBC

“High school is a really delicate time. You’re figuring out who you are. You’re kind of trapped between being a kid and an adult. There’s a lot of insecurity, there’s a lot of self-consciousness, there’s a lot of confusion, and there’s also a lot of awakening to possibility,” says the Columbus, Ohio, native, who went off to receive his Master of Fine Arts degree in acting from New York University.

“There’s also a lot of people stumbling into what they’re good at – what they have some talent for. So, if you can get a kid at that tender age and recognize something in them, you can cultivate a gift that they might have and pull it out of them and say, ‘You got something. Keep going,’ ” Radnor concludes.

Damon J. Gillespie and Rosie Perez
| Credit: Cindy Ord/NBC

Meanwhile, Broadway veteran Perez hopes theatre programs across the country will continue to inspire and influence the next generation.

“I believe in the power of the arts. The main reason why I decided to participate in this amazing series, and to see the enthusiasm and the joy and the hope on these young students’ faces when they received that $10,000 check is just awesome,” she says. “It feeds your soul. I think that it’s important to connect with these young high school students to send the message that we care about you. We want to invest in your talent. We want to invest in your future. We want to see you rise.”

Union High School’s theatre department
| Credit: Cindy Ord/NBC

Breakout star Gillespie also related to the students as he was a performer at his local community theatre in Tennessee.

“We got to talk to them about our personal stories and some of our struggles that we went through in high school. High school is essentially where you start to figure out who you are and what you want to do,” says Gillespie, who plays football player-turned-leading man Robbie Thorne in Rise.

“That’s when I started to figure out who I was, and that’s when I decided I was going to make [acting a] career. So I wanted these students to know that they can achieve a successful career in acting, writing, producing, or whatever their hearts really desire,” he adds.

Rise airs Tuesdays on NBC at 9 p.m. ET.