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These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

From Charlotte to Broadway: Liam Pearce hits the big time

Liam Pearce, a 2018 graduate of Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, is one of the co-stars of "How to Dance in Ohio," a new musical playing at the Belasco Theatre in New York.
Curtis Brown
How to Dance in Ohio
Liam Pearce, a 2018 graduate of Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, is one of the costars of "How to Dance in Ohio," a new musical playing at the Belasco Theatre in New York.

A new show playing on Broadway has a familiar face to Charlotte theatergoers. Liam Pearce was once a regular on stages around Charlotte. He performed in community shows and at Northwest School of the Arts, where he graduated in 2018.

Now, he's appearing before audiences in New York in the new musical, "How to Dance in Ohio."

The show tells the story of seven autistic young adults preparing for a spring formal. It's adapted from a documentary of the same name, and all seven of the show's main characters are played by actors who themselves are autistic.

Pearce, who was diagnosed when he was 5, said it was something he typically hid growing up.

"I was kind of told as a child, when I was younger than 10, not to really talk about it with many people, and that was both by my parents under the advisement of my doctors. And I think it's just 'cause at the time it was not necessarily a thing that people were as accepting of, or, like, have a lot of preconceived notions about, and some of those definitely being negative preconceived notions, and, like, what my abilities would be like just as a human being with that attached to my name," he said.

Most people didn't know until he started to open up about it in college. Later, in June 2021, Pearce saw a casting notice on Instagram seeking autistic actors for a new show centered on the lives of young adults with autism coming of age.

"I was just like, well absolutely, yes. That is something that needs to be made," he said. "There's so much heart and so much ability to talk about connection, which is so much of what acting is. But if you center it around autism, where some people have, like, a difficulty connecting, or connection is just such a big part of autism, and I thought it was a perfect subject matter for a musical. And then when I saw that they were casting it authentically, I was, like, of course."

After several rounds of auditions, he was cast, alongside six costars who opened the show as a workshop in Syracuse, New York, before learning last year that the show was headed to Broadway.

"It wasn't something I was able to process for months, and it really wasn't until we opened the show that, like, — and I'm still — there are times I'm standing on stage going, 'Oh my god, this is my life,' like, that is — that is crazy," Pearce said.

In an interview with WFAE's Nick de la Canal, Pearce talked more about his character and the impact the musical is having on young kids with autism who are coming to see the show.

The cast of "How to Dance in Ohio" performs at the Belasco Theatre in New York.
Curtis Brown
How to Dance in Ohio
The cast of "How to Dance in Ohio" performs at the Belasco Theatre in New York.

Nick de la Canal: I want to ask you about the character you play in the show, Drew. He seems like a really smart guy. He really excels in academics.

(Soundbite of song, "Under Control")

Liam Pearce: (as Drew) "Check another box. Ace another test. Much how impressed they are with how I've progressed."

De la Canal: He agonizes over whether to attend the University of Michigan for engineering, which would be, like, far from home, and develops a crush on this other autistic girl, Marideth. How else would you describe this character to people who haven't seen the show?

Pearce: I think something that I love so much about Drew, and that I have kind of tapped into with Drew, is his attention to detail and his care for decision-making. He's very much just, like, if I do this, that will happen. If I complete these steps, I'm going to get to here. If I practice this conversation I have with this person, this is going to be the outcome.

(Soundbite of song, "Under Control")

Pearce: (as Drew) "Get the perfect score. Attend the perfect school. Learn to decipher each new invisible rule. Hide away the flaws I don't want the world to see. Do the best impression of what my parents want of me."

Pearce: To an extent, I've been very similar in that way, where I, like, definitely plan out a lot of things ahead of it happening. I'm a big person who, like, follows kind of like a routine, and I get a little thrown off when things aren't exactly how I thought they would be in my head.

De la Canal: Is there a story that you can share from your life that when you're performing in this show, you think, like, oh this kind of corresponds or parallels to this thing that I've experienced?

Pearce: I guess it is kind of like a similar thing like when I — obviously Drew and I are very different in what we enjoy and what our goals in life have been. But, like, thinking about — because he's a high school senior in the show and thinking about his decision-making process in going to college and his like — the way he carries himself throughout that whole process, and I did this so this is going to happen, and I've completed all these goals and this. I have to succeed because of that.

And I think when I was auditioning for schools, and when I was just putting all of my energy into looking towards my future when I was 18, 19. I think that very closely parallels what I'm doing in Act One of the show (as) Drew. I was auditioning to sing and dance for four years, and he was auditioning to do engineering for four years. But I think the way that we tackled that process is very similar.

Liam Pearce performs alongside the cast of "How to Dance in Ohio."
Curtis Brown
How to Dance in Ohio
Liam Pearce (left) performs in "How to Dance in Ohio."

De la Canal: I want to ask, too, there's a song that you sing called "Building Momentum."

(Soundbite of song, "Building Momentum")

Pearce: (As Drew) "Building momentum, the very beginning. Building momentum, the energy spinning. Moving with purpose and picking up speed."

De la Canal: How does this song fit into the show, and what is it about to you?

Pearce: To me, it's the start of the snowball leading towards the very end of the show. Like, once that song starts, the show does not stop moving.

It is the most fun to sing. It comes at a point in the show where it looks kind of like all is lost, and then without saying too much, it's just like — all of the negative things that happen in Act Two where everything kind of falls apart, culminate in the scene leading up to "Building Momentum." And then Drew comes in and is like 'No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. This dance has to happen. I have to dance with this girl. Let's figure this out.'

(Soundbite of song, "Building Momentum")

Pearce: (as Drew) "You don't know what she does to me. Like she rewired my circuitry. My operating systems reeling, and I can't bear to lose this feeling. Building momentum, the very beginning."

De la Canal: I imagine there are a lot of families who've seen this show with autistic children, friends or relatives. What kind of feedback have you heard from audiences who've come to see this?

Pearce: It is the reason that I love doing this show so much, is the DMs I get from young autistic people and meeting them at the stage door. Kind of circling back to what we talked about earlier, when I was talking about when I was under 10 years old, I never admitted that I was autistic. There are so many times where young autistic, truly, children — I'm talking like 8 years old — have come up to me at the stage door and been like, 'I'm autistic too. Like, thank you so much for doing this.' And I'm like, woah., I'm looking down at (them) thinking I never at your age, would have said that to anyone, let alone a stranger, let alone somebody who you just watched perform. Like I would have been — that is never something that would have even crossed my mind as a kid.

So it's so cool to be able to celebrate autism on stage and have young autistic people celebrating that with us, and being so open and vulnerable to sharing their experiences with us.

De la Canal: Liam Pearce, thank you so much.

Pearce: Thank you, Nick. I appreciate it.

WFAE's weekly arts and entertainment email newsletter, Tapestry, will keep you in the loop on arts and culture in the Charlotte region.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal