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The Storyteller: How Asking Why Has Helped Kevin Paul

July 25, 2017

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             Kevin Paul’s voice comes over the phone. He says, “Hang on,” and then his face appears. It’s 11:30 at night on Thursday July 20th and Paul has just gotten home from a performance of the Pittsburgh CLO’s  Disney's Newsies. There’s a rustle of static and his face disappears for a minute before coming back into view. “I'm in bed,” he says sheepishly, adjusting the angle of his phone so that his full face is visible in FaceTime.

           This is Paul’s second season with the CLO, his first season being the summer after his freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University. Now a rising senior and a Musical Theatre major, he’s back with the CLO and grateful for the opportunity to bring his acting journey in Pittsburgh full circle, even if it comes with a tiring schedule. “I’m sleepy,” he declares, scrunching half of his face up and settling in bed. He moves a bit to get comfortable and says thoughtfully, “It was a long show but a good show.”

               His tousled dark hair is a bit of a mess; his jaw is covered in light stubble, and he rubs at his face tiredly. Despite his fatigue, he’s complimented his big hazel eyes with a light green knit shirt. The twenty-one year old Palm City, Florida native has just spent the past two and a half hours as both a determined, idealistic newsboy and as the villainous muscle man Oscar Delancey.

               Newsies  was originally a Disney movie before it became a Broadway hit in 2012, running for two years on Broadway before a two-year national tour run.  The musical tells the true story of the Newsboy Strike of 1899 where ten to seventeen year old newsboys shut down newspaper circulation in New York City for two weeks to protest wage changes. In the musical, antagonist Wiesel and his two henchmen, bothers Oscar and Morris Delancey, physically intimidate the newsies in an attempt to stop their strike.

               As Delancey, Paul fights and harasses the newsies in a red and white button up shirt, a maroon vest and matching tie, black pinstriped pants, and a black bowler hat.  At 6’2” he’s an imposing presence on stage and towers over the newsies. As he settles into the interview, however, I find that, unlike Delancey, Paul is easy going and fast to laugh. Maybe it’s also partly because he’s been awake for about eighteen hours and, with a wide grin, has proclaimed himself to be in “the loopy stage of exhaustion.” “An interviewer’s dream,” he quips with a chuckle.

               When asked about his roles he lists off a few of his favorites: Danny Zuko in  Grease, Melchior Gabor in  Spring Awakening, Jean Valjean in  Les Misérables, and Roger Davis in  Rent. He then grows more serious and delves into long explanations about his acting motivation behind his characters. About Delancey Paul says, “He serves a function in the plot. Oscar genuinely enjoys wreaking havoc on these newsies; it’s not a pain. 60-70% of the time it’s something I enjoy doing.” His eyes go wide and he hastens to say, “I’m talking as Oscar right now. That’s a choice I made as Kevin. I could’ve played him as annoyed instead of malicious, but I think that playing him in this way enhances the performance – even if it is only a few lines.”

                          A lot of his conversation comes back to motivation, whether getting into his characters’ minds or his as an actor. Paul assumes that it stems from his lifelong curiosity and thirst for knowledge. He has always been curious. As a kid he constantly asked, “Why?” and read  Curious George, a children’s book series with themes about learning and playful curiosity. “I would listen to the answers; I wanted to know. It’s a good trait to have but sometimes it’s good to be in the moment and not seek knowledge constantly.” He smiles fondly when he talks about George and draws the parallel between the monkey and himself. His curiosity has served him well and may be part of why he’s so successful as an actor.

               “I’ve always loved stories, and I love hearing other peoples’ stories,” he says. “One of my favorite things is to listen to other people tell stories. I’ve realized this more recently, but I just love it. I’m always instigating and egging people on to tell the full story. I don’t want them to leave anything out. My whole life I’ve always asked a bunch of questions, specific questions, to people because I like to know all the details, because it fuels my imagination. It definitely plays into me being an actor and doing all this.”

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               “We’re storytellers,” Paul says. His forehead furrows and he bites his bottom lip for a moment before saying slowly, “If you think about it, a story is a false journey that you allow yourself to go on that you never really go on. But if you’re an empathetic person, I think, then you can experience it just by watching someone and listening to them and letting your mind wander. And, in essence, that’s what you do as an audience member.”

               He readjusts his blanket before continuing, “And really as an actor, you’re suspending your own disbelief and believing in the story that you’re in because it’s clearly fake. It’s not like being on a movie set when you’re on stage, for example. You might really have a piece of paper in your hand saying X, Y, Z and whatnot and you might not, but regardless of if you physically have it, you have it, if that makes sense. You’re suspending your own disbelief.” He takes a minute to reflect on what he’s said and then nods. “Yeah,” he says finally.

               His phone buzzes with an email and he apologizes, “Sorry, I just need to check this.”

               He’s silent while he reads until suddenly he bursts out with a shout of excitement followed by a long half-sung half-squealed, “Yeeeeessss!” He mutters, “This can’t be right; I don’t believe it,” as he reads more. He explains, “Rehearsal got pushed back by an hour tomorrow which is huge because every hour matters.”

               Though he’s a newsie at night, Paul is in rehearsal for the Pittsburgh CLO's  Mamma Mia!  during the day. As he continues reading the email, he ticks off his rehearsal schedule for the next day. After rehearsal, he’ll grab food and a quick but intense cardio and weight lifting session before heading to the theatre to perform  Newsies again. As if that wasn’t tiring enough, Paul starts his day off at 5:30 in the morning to, if you’ll pardon his  Newsies pun, “seize the day.” (“Seize the Day” being an astounding song and dance number in  Newsies  complete with acrobatic tricks and dizzying turns.) “It’s a grind, but I love it,” he says with a bright smile. “Who wouldn’t love it?

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               But, he admits, his shows can get a little crossed in his mind. “As the  Newsies’ curtain was going up tonight I had  Mamma Mia!  music in my head which is not good!” He shakes his head and then sings a few bars of his harmony for  Mamma Mia!’s title song. The tenor harmony sounds very different from the easily recognizable melody line, and he admits that it sounds a little funny without the melody and other harmonies. But, he promises, the harmony sounds great with the rest of the cast singing. 

                          His eyes focus on something across from him, his guitar. In addition to singing, acting, and dancing, Paul is a songwriter and lyricist (his music can be found on YouTube) who plays piano, guitar, harmonica, and ukulele. He’s at ease when talking about his music and his face brightens when he talks about a dream of his: to perform in something that he wrote or to originate a role.

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               Repeatedly he says, “I’m a writer, musician, actor.” He used to write stories and poems though now he’s mainly writing in a theatrical setting. His one-man show,  Man Up, was showcased at Carnegie Mellon University’s student-created theatre festival Playground this past year. A solemn show about an abusive father/son relationship and its effect on future relationships, Paul wrote the book and the music himself.

            “As a performer, live theatre is amazing,” he says, suddenly looking more energetic. “Every night’s going to be different, and that’s rewarding in itself. You have to strive for something and go with the flow. You have to say yes to whatever happens and can’t let falling or missing a line mess you up.”

               He smiles as he talks, running a hand through his hair. “The worst thing you can do onstage is get into autopilot,” he says. “You want to stay present in the moment. No two nights are going to be the same. It’s new every night. A lot of acting and performing, I think, is play. It’s tossing a ball back and forth with the people on stage, metaphorically speaking, and creating something that’s engaging and new each night, but within a given framework because there’re lines, a story, lighting, given places you have to be, but within that you want to find the freedom to make choices. You have to experience each night and experience everything in the moment.”

               It seems to be a philosophy that Paul lives by. He’s started a new morning routine –an ice cold shower, 10 minutes to meditate, and finishes with 5 minutes writing in his journal – as a part of his campaign to get into a morning rhythm inspired by a Ted Talk.  He’s only been at it a week and says to check back in thirty days to see how it pans out. In spite of the tiredness that his new early routine brings, he remains cheerful, “No matter what, you have to find the joy in it.”

               Over his shoulder resting against the blinds of his window is a fake yellow sunflower from his freshman year. He used it to perform  Shrek The Musical’s “When Words Fail” for his first voice lab performance his freshman year and will reuse it for his final voice lab performance as a senior this coming year.  Ever conscientious of the story, he’s bookending his time at CMU with the same yellow sunflower. It’s symbolic and worthy of Paul’s meticulous consideration for narrative.

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