Becoming more than a ‘face in the crowd’

February 08, 2017

By Nina Mastandrea

Richard Gebo performs in the 2011 Lees-McRae production of Beguiled Again.

Under layers of makeup and even green synthetic fur, 26-year-old Richard Gebo is almost unrecognizable.  

A 2013 Lees-McRae BFA graduate, Gebo has played roles from reformed shark “Bruce” in Finding Nemo: The Musical to the “Grinch” in Grinchmas, and though he says the work he does is constant and highly competitive, he would not change a thing.


Originally from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Gebo attended high school at Carolina Forest High School while working at Freestyle Music Theme Park–previously known as the Hard Rock Park.

When it came time to look into colleges towards the end of high school, he knew he wanted to continue pursuing performing arts, so his high school drama teacher led him to Lees-McRae.

“I chose Lees-McRae because I immediately knew I could be myself there and not just another face in the crowd. The gorgeous mountain environment was also a huge draw,” Gebo said.

Gebo began his journey to become a professional actor, but it certainly pushed the boundaries of his knowledge gained before college.

Gebo said his experience at Lees-McRae was not centered on seniority–who was the oldest, or the most seasoned–but what was brought to the audition, “which is the way it is in the real word.”

From day one, Gebo and his fellow classmates learned not only about acting, singing and dancing, but also about set design, stage management, advertising, pitching show ideas, theatre history and makeup, among several other subjects.

“I was taught a little bit of everything so I could find my place in the theatre and find how I fit in and explore [my interests],” he said.

Those skills became especially helpful when he and his girlfriend, Nicole Estrella Wright ’14, whom he met when they played the roles of “Elle” and “Emmett” in Legally Blonde at Lees-McRae in 2012, moved from Banner Elk to Orlando, Florida.

Two weeks into Orlando, Gebo discovered an opportunity at Walt Disney World Resort, so he quickly auditioned.

Shortly after his audition, Gebo heard back from Disney.

He got the part.

“I was absolutely elated,” he said. “It only takes one role to make your career take off.”

The role?

As leader of the fish-friendly support group “Bruce” and his minion “Anchor” in Finding Nemo: The Musical at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Gebo estimates that the Broadway-style production gathers over 1,000 people, five times a day, 365 days a year.

“It is completely unique in the theme park world and it is kind of a big deal–I can say that because I still get star struck when I go to work, and it’s really cool to feel that way about where you work!” he said.

Another big role he received was as the iconic, green and bitter “Grinch” in Universal Studios’ Grinchmas.

“I had to spend about 50-80 minutes in the makeup chair each day with leading professional makeup artists, including former TV show Face/Off cast members, to get the full treatment and become ‘The Mean One’ himself,” Gebo said. “[That] show is one of the other very few real musical theatre productions in the theme park world.”

Over the last year, Gebo has also starred as Elwood Blues in The Blues Brothers LIVE! at Universal Studios, and in Atlantic City Boys, a Four Seasons tribute show.

For both his roles big and small, Gebo said that it is essential to have perseverance.

“If you don’t put yourself out there, you won’t get jobs,” he said. “Keep your ear to the ground and don’t wait around for auditions to come to you…you have to go out and get it.”

He said that it was also important to know your personal strengths and your character type, but never limit yourself.

“You won’t know if you can get that role until you try,” he said. “Just keep trying.”

Gebo attributes his successes to the comprehensive and dynamic education he received at Lees-McRae, describing it as a “unicorn” for its uniqueness.

“Lees-McRae fosters a very tight-knit family you just don’t find at bigger schools,” Gebo said.

“It prepares future actors, dancers, directors, dreamers and techs through diverse knowledge and experience. The program teaches the importance of networking, preparation, adaptability, persistent auditioning, continued personal and professional growth, theatrical know-how and finding your place in this crazy, diverse business.”

In short, Gebo says, “You’d be hard-pressed to find such an experience at larger schools.” 

Photo credit to Walt Disney World. Additional photos provided by Richard Gebo. 

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