A bumpy road of rejection and failure brought Sean Cercone to West Virginia University in 1999. Visiting campus in 2017 as a senior vice president, he watched the musical he co-wrote come to life in the same building where he received his shot at success.
Cercone was interested in studying theatre after high school, while his parents wanted him to go into the medical field. He took the path his parents suggested, but eventually failed out of two nursing schools and one emergency medical technician program. When his best friend needed a copilot on a trip to visit Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland, from their hometown in Upstate New York, Cercone volunteered.
While exploring the campus, Cercone visited the theatre program and thought it was a good fit, so he enrolled. While attending FSU, Cercone formed a student theatre organization aimed to explore scripts outside of the school’s mainstage productions. He was determined to learn as much as he could.
In 1999, Cercone graduated from the program and knew he wanted to continue his education in theatre. He went to New York City for the annual University Resident Theatre Association auditions, which welcomes hundreds of hopeful students to audition in front of dozens of schools, WVU included.
Cercone auditioned and received zero call backs. Undeterred, Cercone saw a posting about local auditions for the graduate theatre program at WVU. He made the quick trip from FSU to Morgantown.
WVU faculty thought they remembered him from the New York City auditions, but Cercone told them he wasn’t there – he needed that chance to audition and wanted a clean slate. Cercone brought with him a portfolio, which included newspaper articles about the club he had started at FSU.
“Sean was the only candidate that walked in with something to show he was doing real work,” said Jerry McGonigle, professor of acting and director of theatre graduate studies at WVU. Cercone was accepted.
“I am so deeply indebted to WVU and the theatre program because they were the only ones that took a chance on me,” Cercone said. “It’s a phenomenal environment here because from morning to night you’re creating, understanding and learning every aspect of the theatre. I needed that.”
After writing his thesis on the what it would take to create a professional theatre associated with the WVU School of Theatre and Dance, Cercone found himself at the helm of the West Virginia Shakespeare Festival – a nonprofit he chartered that worked with the school to produce free performances of “Romeo and Juliet” at Prickett’s Fork State Park in Fairmont.
The festival was producing experience that helped Cercone land his first job out of school as an assistant producer. He’s never looked back.
Today, Cercone is senior vice president of new musical development for Theatrical Rights Worldwide. He oversees the worldwide distribution of blockbuster hits including “Jersey Boys” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
Cercone co-wrote the most recent musical adaptation of “Saturday Night Fever” that has been seen throughout North America, South Africa, Italy, Brazil, Peru and the United Kingdom. The production stopped at the WVU Creative Arts Center on February 21.
Cercone spent his time reminiscing with faculty and telling current students his story.
“It’s important to me to come back and tell my story because it’s riddled with failure,” Cercone said. “I failed so many times, but I knew I wanted to be in theatre, I knew I wanted to do this. I was just determined to do it and make something happen.”
Entering an industry where uneasiness and self-questioning is the norm, Cercone urged students to define what success means to them.
“Nobody knows my name, and that’s not important to me,” Cercone said. “I pay my bills, I have a beautiful family and I get to work in the American theatre every day. To me, that’s success.”
Grateful for all WVU gave to him, Cercone hopes to rally his fellow alumni and collectively support the School of Theatre and Dance reach the next level.
“The theatre program is on the verge of moving into a whole new, higher level of functioning within the theatre industry, and has an administration that is actively working toward that on a daily basis,” Cercone said. “As passionate alumni, we’re harnessing out collective resources. I want to help do the necessary work and I’m really expecting great things out of this effort.”