Meet AJ Gross, a 17-year-old who just graduated from North Fort Myers High School for the Performing Arts. AJ was born in Pittsburgh while his parents, Adam and Jamie, lived there with his sister for one year, before moving back to Florida.
After being invited to audition for nearly a dozen schools, including NYU, Chapman (in California) and Julliard, AJ is choosing to attend Point Park University in Pittsburgh as one of 14 accepted for the BFA Acting program in the Conservatory for the Performing Arts. They offered the best merit scholarship and there is a lot of family in the area. AJ’s long-term goal is to be on the big screen, but he literally loves every aspect of acting.
As a kid, AJ used to always imagine being someone else or in another world; he didn’t fit in with other kids because his mind was always “somewhere else” in his head. His family knew he was different.
In 3rd grade, AJ was diagnosed with being Bipolar; he was getting either A’s or F’s on every piece of work he turned in at school. It depended on the day, how he felt, as to what he could do. AJ started medication which made his extremes minimal, but he was still either up or down emotionally.
AJ states that he has been blessed to find an outlet for all of the crazy, emotional feelings and inner turmoil that being bipolar can cause. He tried every sport as a kid, but being bipolar made him feel that he was always letting a teammate down. Luckily, he found a hip-hop dance class at Robin Dawn Dance Academy. He loved it, and he added ballet, lyrical, acro and jazz through the years.
In middle school, AJ was thrust into an acting class at Challenger Middle and, in one day, his life changed forever. He used to say “these are my people.” There was no judgment and you were considered great if you could portray someone or something else, something he had been doing his whole life to that point. AJ started living and breathing the world of acting. There he could express his deep feelings and shout the extreme joy.
As he entered high school, AJ decided to give sports another try. With mental health issues, it’s important to be physically active to get endorphins moving in the brain. He made the freshman football team and was on varsity by sophomore year as a defensive end. The football coaches made all of the linemen wrestle in the off-season. That was where AJ learned even more about himself, finding team success with an individual sport.
With wrestling, AJ learned how to eat properly to maintain weight and he completely changed his body. Everyone used to laugh when AJ was little and would say he wanted to be a superhero in the movies, but no one laughed when he walked onto the mat looking lean and mean. AJ became a leader in varsity wrestling. He earned the “coaches award” his junior year and was one of the captains his senior year. AJ said wrestling taught him self-discipline that he will carry throughout life.
In a little over five years, he’s played varsity sports through high school, was a member of NHS with a weighted GPA of 4.06, a member of Faith Presbyterian’s youth group where he sings each week in small group, and has gone to West Virginia on a mission trip to rebuild homes for those in need.
AJ has acted in over 25 shows that started with Creative Theater Workshop and include shows such as Beauty and the Beast, 13 The Musical, Little Mermaid, Little Shop of Horrors. He’s also worked at the Alliance of the Arts and City Scenes theater in Sweeney Todd and Almost, Maine. He is in currently in Heather’s which is his fourth show at the Florida Repertory Theater. This year he was the winner of The Reps inaugural college scholarship. Last summer, AJ was one of 18 accepted to NYU for film acting and he hopes to end up there again to finish his degree and start his career in acting.
AJ found that his life shifted when theater chose him to present himself in a way that the audience could actually escape, be it in moments that he’s created on stage or behind the camera. Furthermore, he’s learned that his disability is what gave him real talent. He has learned to embrace being different and find honest success with his abilities. He’s hoping that, with his future success, he can pay it back to the non-profit theater company here that helped carry him through every life event, along with excellent coaches, teachers, family, and friends. He knows that a strong foundation is everything.
If you’d like more information on how AJ was able to get his career started, check out www.facebook.com/CreativeTheater and www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/creative-theater-workshop?utm_campaign=oc&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=crowdrise