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From Grove Park Elementary to Madison Square Garden

Clay County native honing acting talents in New York

Jesse Hollett
Posted 9/7/16

ORANGE PARK – Kelly P. Williams and her future husband packed her life into a cargo van 15 years ago and hauled it 960 miles from Orange Park to Brooklyn, New York shortly after college. Her black …

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From Grove Park Elementary to Madison Square Garden

Clay County native honing acting talents in New York


ORANGE PARK – Kelly P. Williams and her future husband packed her life into a cargo van 15 years ago and hauled it 960 miles from Orange Park to Brooklyn, New York shortly after college. Her black cat “Lucky” sat in the van the whole way to the one room apartment they eventually stuffed into.

As it turns out, she would need a lot of luck over the next few years to survive off her art along with luck and a cocktail dress.

After a promising start in the Jacksonville dance scene and her Florida State University diploma in hand, Williams decided to move from Clay County to New York to spark a career in live dance. Through sheer force of will, tenacity and even some coincidental luck, Williams was able to expand her aspirations to more than just dance.

Williams grew her references, sharpened her talents and groomed a list of agents who helped her acquire roles on such television series such as “Gotham,” “Gossip Girl” and “Blindspot.”

Her start was a little turbulent, but like many dancers, “it’s a tough, tough business” to try and make a life as a concert dancer, sometimes called the “orphan of the entertainment industry,” Williams said.

“I was managing, I was poor, but I was managing,” Williams said. “It really stinks because you go to an audition one morning and there’s a little guy out there selling doughnuts and coffee and you’re thinking ‘do I want a cup of coffee, or do I want to take a dance class.’”

She held down three jobs to pay for her apartment ranging from dance instructor to Victoria’s Secret associate. She said dancers work harder than other entertainers because of the hours spent drilling choreography into habit and constant assault of classes.

So she broadened her horizons.

Williams searched audition lists for musical theatre roles to help supplement the rather paltry rates dance companies paid her. She had some experience built up from school plays at Grove Park Elementary, Orange Park Junior High and Jacksonville’s Douglas Anderson School of the Arts.

She auditioned for and later performed in live musical performances heavy in dance such as the romantic comedy “Hello, Dolly!” and the western musical classic “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Suddenly, she found herself earning higher rates for her performances.

“Okay maybe I can have the coffee and still go take class,” Williams said.

As she took more roles, she had to take more vocal lessonss. Increasingly, Williams suddenly found herself developing a set of entertainment tools she could carry over to other genres.

The Actors Equity Association, founded in 1913, is the performing arts union for live theatre performers and guarantees its members higher rates for their work among other things. The problem is getting in.

What takes some performers a lifetime took Williams 10 years of work through the Alhambra Dinner Theater in Jacksonville. While in New York, Williams booked shows at the Alhambra so they could accumulate points towards equity membership.

Shortly after earning her union stripes, a big break came in the form of a phone call from an old dance partner turned casting producer.

“She called me, I’m in Jacksonville, and she said ‘Kelly what are you doing for New Years?’ Would you be interested in doing this live event at Madison Square Garden, and I was like ‘what, really?’” Williams said.

Her friend offered her a chance to dance in the American Jam Band Phish’s annual New Year’s Eve show.

Her fresh membership in the union started great. However, for two years after her Madison Square Garden performance, she hadn’t booked anything. Her union membership guaranteed her competitive pay, but it meant she could only take work from union shows.

Her friends were in the same predicament and, like her, held down other jobs to pay the bills.

Her next break came from a theatre teacher, a cocktail dress and a call for background actors in the “Gossip Girl” television series.

“She said to me one day, ‘hey Kelly do you have a cocktail gown?’” Williams said.

Apparently, the show needed actors to walk around in the back of the frame in cocktail dresses. Williams had a cocktail dress, but no knowledge of the business of television production or acting. She auditioned anyway, got the part and arrived to the set looking and feeling, naturally, a bit lost.

The realization that she could show up to a set without drilling choreography into her head, without warming her voice or memorizing lines and make a paycheck astounded her.

The realization propelled her forward. She joined the Screen Actors Guild labor union and began to pick up background and acting roles in major television shows and had four agents to represent her.

“I was so tickled because I had kind of stepped away from so much dance and musical theatre and it kind of hurts a bit because my heart will still be in musical theatre and dance,” Williams said. “If my friend had never asked me for someone to walk around in a cocktail dress for Gossip Girl, If I would have just blown that off – who knows where I’d be right now. Probably still struggling as a dancer or working in a clothing store.”

Luckily, her newest role marries both her passions. She plays a speakeasy dancer in the Amazon Prime period drama “Z: The Beginning of Everything.”

Williams is still out dabbling in every medium. She modeled one of the 10 finalist wedding dresses in the 12th annual Charmin Toilet Paper Wedding Dress Contest in New York. She models and operates her own photography and videography company.

While she’s been a bit caught up with screen acting lately, Williams’ passion for live performance will likely erupt again – as soon as she gets her next break.

“It’s just very depressing because you don’t get much back for so many years of work besides being in front of an audience,” Williams said. “I love to hear the audience cry, I love to hear the audience sigh, I love to hear the audience clap.”