The alarm sounded while the sky was still dark. The cold Manhattan air whipped the back of Richie Dupkin’s neck as he sipped his coffee and headed out of his building to wait on line at another open call. It was theater-casting season, and he had been to plenty of calls last winter. He joined a line of actors at 5 a.m.; the theater door would open at 8.
Dupkin, 24, was just starting to find his footing in the city he had dreamed about performing in. He was living on his own, away from his parents and three younger siblings in Seaford, and was working to catch his first break.
At 11 a.m., he auditioned for “SpongeBob SquarePants: the Broadway Musical.” It was a national tour, which Dupkin was unfamiliar with. He had done theater, mostly in New York and Florida, but this would be something different.
He sang his rendition of Cher Lloyd’s “Want U Back” for Casting Director Christine McKenna. She thanked him, and he headed back out into the chilly Manhattan air.
A few weeks later, he got a callback.
“I then got to audition in front of the creative team,” Dupkin recounted. “Then I got another callback to come in and dance, and another callback, and I started to really become attached to this production and to the people behind it. It was the first time I felt like I’d be very upset if I didn’t end up getting the part, because I believed so strongly in it.”
He got the part, not only achieving a goal that had weighed on his mind for a year, but affirming his years of commitment to an art form that helped him find himself.
Dupkin attended Seaford public schools — Seaford Manor, then the middle and high school. He felt different than most of his classmates, though, because of his sexual orientation and his love for theater. “I only knew of two queer people in Seaford at the time,” he said. “One was severely bullied, and as a young, vulnerable high school kid, I didn’t know what I was feeling. I had no example of what it meant to be open and queer.”
Dupkin wasn’t quite ready to openly express his passion for theater, either. “Every year we had a checklist for what we were to sign up for, and I always just chose ‘Ensemble,’” he recalled. “It wasn’t until [one of my teachers] pushed me to be the principal lead in the school play.”
Dupkin went on to be the male lead in many of the school's plays, and came to be part of a group of supportive friends who had a common goal: to succeed in the arts. It felt like a calling for him, but he wasn’t sure, because his experience with live theater was so limited.
“Being so close to the city, people assume I was raised watching all of these Broadway shows,” he said. “My parents had to work a lot, have three other kids and didn’t really bring us to many shows when I was younger.”
At Seaford High, Dupkin met Danny Gorman, an openly gay theater actor and director and an alumnus of the school. Gorman provided Dupkin with a clear blueprint that he didn’t realize he needed.
“In real time, I didn’t see [Gorman] and say, ‘He is who I think I am,’” Dupkin said. “But in hindsight, I think he really gave me that example I didn’t have.”
Dupkin did not come out as gay in high school, which he attributes mostly to his own insecurities. “I desperately wanted to hide in the shadows,” he said. “I was bullied for seeming gay from early elementary school, but I always had thick skin. I dated girls, I was never quiet or afraid of speaking my mind, and on the surface I had a really easy adolescence. It was in my own head where I had to cope with these thoughts.”
A hesitance to embrace who he truly was remained a constant narrative for Dupkin after high school. He was afraid of leaving the area and having to cope with his insecurity alone. He came up with numerous excuses to stay home, and chose to study television production at Hofstra University.
“I had no interest or knowledge in television production,” he said. “I was lying to myself.”
As a freshman, Dupkin took a few drama classes. He got parts in small, student-run productions, where his talent was acknowledged. “I was meeting different people from different states, ethnic backgrounds — gay, straight and all,” he said.
Soon, Dupkin became romantically involved with his first boy. “I had to have this conversation with myself about who I really was,” he said, referring not only to his sexuality, but also his passion for theater.
He came out as gay, and started telling friends. He initially kept it from his parents, Mary Ann and Richie, but, he said, “I knew they would always be accepting and supportive. That was my insecurity that kept me delaying telling them.”
Dupkin’s courage in coming to terms with his sexuality led him to another realization: He damn sure wasn’t going to be a television producer. In the first semester of his sophomore year, he was cast in his first faculty-directed production, and then given the chance to audition for Hofstra’s fine arts program, which accepts a maximum of 16 students per year. He was one of them.
After earning his degree, he moved to the city with a few roommates, some production experience, a hunger to perform and no real idea where his life was headed.
“I didn’t even know who I was yet, [and] I’m paying $800 a month just to live . . .,” Dupkin said. “Transitioning to life in the city that first year was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
He had booked some regional gigs, and was working tirelessly toward a break he wasn’t sure was coming . . . until that callback.
Dupkin is now touring the nation as a member of the cast of “SpongeBob SquarePants: the Broadway Musical.” He plays Perch Perkins, a reporter fish who sets the narrative for the upcoming scenes. He reveled in the opportunity to be the play’s framing device for the audience — and to express himself through the art form he changed his life to pursue.
On Nov. 26 and 27, the musical will make a stop at the Tilles Center in Brookville, and it will be a poignant homecoming for Dupkin. “The return to Long Island is going to be a bit emotional,” he said. “The play represents coming together, no matter who you are or what background you are. It’s about the world uniting, and I can’t wait to bring that message home.”