“SpongeBob” actor Troy Serena learned all his moves at UAB

Voted Best Performer in a Musical by Birmingham Broadway World for his sensational performance as SpongeBob SquarePants for Theatre UAB, Serena will reprise the role for professional theater after graduation.

Toy Serena Close upTroy Serena Photography: Steve WoodTroy Serena had never taken a single acting, dance or voice lesson when he visited the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Theatre as a high school senior.

But in four short years, Serena learned a lot. And while he may have had a late start, he has more than made up for it.

Birmingham Broadway World readers voted him Best Performer in a Musical for his sensational performance as SpongeBob SquarePants in Theatre UAB’s April 2022 production of “SpongeBob the Musical.” He performed in the starring role in Theatre UAB’s production of the musical “A New Brain” for fall 2022. This spring, Serena was in Red Mountain Theatre’s productions of “Dreamgirls” and “Bright Star.”

On April 29, he will graduate from the UAB College of Arts and Sciences with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in musical theater. Then he will reprise the role of SpongeBob this summer for a regional theater company in Nebraska. Serena has also signed with the talent agency Bloc in New York, which represents actors, singers, dancers and choreographers, for feature film, episodic and commercial television, live stage and theater performances, music videos and more.

His performance in “SpongeBob” is the gift that keeps on giving, with all the accolades, visual assets, fun and opportunities he has had because of the role. A fellow student fatefully predicted he would play the iconic character when they started school. The fact that he got to play SpongeBob while still in college, in a learning environment, was amazing, he says.

“Not only is the entire show about him, but I got to sing, I got to dance, I got to act, I got to play an instrument, I got to tumble, I got to climb up the wall,” Serena said. “They do not make roles like that for men at all." 

The end of the “SpongeBob” performance run was “the coolest weekend of my entire life,” Serena said. “I felt like a little superstar. With the stamina that SpongeBob requires and the athleticism, it felt amazing because I love to sing and I love to dance.”

Serena SpongebobPhotography: Taylor CampbellIt took a lot to manage classes, projects and work while being the star of an action-packed musical. Serena even got an emergency crash course in work/life balance when he landed in the hospital sick and with exhaustion. Still in the hospital bed, he got an offer for an immediate replacement in “Cinderella” at Red Mountain Theater, which would end up being his first contract with the professional company.

Growing up

Serena is from the small town of Oneonta, Alabama, about an hour north of Birmingham.

His experience is much different from those of most of the people with whom he goes to school, especially for the arts. Growing up, he always gravitated toward music.

“My grandmother taught me how to play piano and I have been playing since I was 8, and that is definitely where the love came from,” he said.

He performed live for the first time at age 11 or 12 in a talent competition — and won $150 — by playing piano and singing a Bruno Mars song. The next year, he won again. Serena was interested in music and drama, and in ninth grade, he started participating in high school theater. First “Beauty and The Beast,” his first book musical ever, then “Shrek.” The sense of community and friendship — performing with his best friends — is what cemented it for him.

“That was when I started doing more research as to what it looks like to work and actually pursue this,” he said. For any college Bachelor of Fine Arts program, students usually must audition a year in advance. A close friend, who is a year older, was a nursing major at UAB, so he visited a few times, and in August of his senior year he came to an on-campus audition. 

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That is a late start for people who want to pursue professional musical theater.

“Most of the people I go to school with have been in voice, dance and acting lessons since they were little bitty and have been doing this for a long time,” Serena said. 

Musical Director Carolyn Violi was the first face he met, and the two were cutting up within two minutes, he says. She invited him to classes, and there he met Valerie Accetta, head of Musical Theatre at UAB.

“I showed up here and I feel like I did not know a thing,” he said. “Not a singing lesson, not a dance class ever, to just kind of show up with my little binder and be like, ‘I’m gonna sing. I heard y’all want songs. That’s what I’m gonna give you all today.’”

When he was offered a place at UAB, he accepted.

Toy Serena StreamVoted Best Performer in a Musical by Birmingham Broadway World for his sensational performance as SpongeBob SquarePants for Theatre UAB, Serena will reprise the role for professional theater after graduation. Photography: Steve WoodWhat he learned at UAB

UAB has been the biggest blessing, he says.

“Just the faculty, the lengths they will go through to [help you] figure it out. It’s just crazy how willing they are to help and how much they care about us — as creatives, as actual human beings — separate from what we are doing as a career,” Serena said.

The faculty, the courses and the training that professors and faculty have help students on their journey to self-discovery and learning about the human experience, he says. Friends in top 10 schools for musical theater will ask him what they are doing at UAB.

“And I am talking about business classes, what we are doing in dance classes, learning how to file my taxes for theater,” Serena said. “Across the board, I cannot speak more highly of the training and the program.”

Serena came to UAB with a hunger to learn, and he has not stopped, Accetta says. “His commitment and perseverance coupled with his genuine joy have allowed for such growth,” Accetta said. “I feel so lucky to have been part of his journey.”

Serena’s advice to upcoming theater students is “you get out of it exactly what you put in. It is directly proportional.

“I am glad I feel like I have run this place dry. Not in a negative way — like, I sought out every opportunity I could, I worked well past my limits to make it, and it has been the best decision of literally my entire life,” he said. “I am really happy with just how the last four years went and what that is transitioning into.” 

UAB spring commencement will be April 28-29 at Bartow Arena. Click here for ceremony information.

What would he tell his 18-year-old self?

“I had to figure it out and just go for it. The universe sends you the craziest signs, and you just have to listen,” Serena said.