Kiss Me, Kate's Kurt Kemper
October 28, 2017
Kurt Kemper’s photo is tacked up on the gray bulletin board in the lobby of the Pittsburgh Playhouse. He’s on one knee, his face in profile smiling at the girl dressed in 1949 lingerie who is sitting on his knee. He’s dressed in a blue and gold doublet, brown tights, and tan over-the-knee boots that lace up the sides and tie at his knees. I’m standing studying the picture when a tall man, 6’5” I later learn, comes up and asks, “Hi, are you Naomi? I’m Kurt!”
We say our hellos and then walk into the café of the playhouse. We take a seat at a table near the door and before I can even get a question out, Kemper starts asking me questions! He wants to know why I interview actors, how I got lucky enough to do it, and where I go to school. It’s only after I remind him that we’re here to talk about him, and not me, that he leans back in his chair good naturedly and tells me to go ahead.
It’s six o’clock on Friday October 27th, and it’s one hour before Kemper’s call time for Point Park University’s production of Kiss Me, Kate. In the show junior Musical Theatre major Kemper plays Bill Calhoun, an actor in The Taming of the Shrew with an unfortunate passion for gambling. It’s his gambling debts that propel the plot of the show when Calhoun signs his producer’s name, Fredrick C. Graham, to a ten-thousand-dollar IOU to a mob boss. The rest of the show is full of comedic shenanigans involving two mob henchmen with a strange penchant for Shakespeare, a promiscuous rising star and Calhoun’s girlfriend named Lois Lane, and the tenuous relationship between Graham and his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi.
The show is a “show within a show” structure where Graham must woo and tame his ex-wife in a way that mirrors the way that Graham’s character, Petruchio, must woo and tame his wife, Vanessi’s character Katherine – or Kate, in the show within the show.
Mirroring Calhoun’s pursuit of his flirtatious girlfriend, Lane, Calhoun’s character in Taming of the Shrew, Lucentio must win the heart of Lane’s character, Bianca. Though Kiss Me, Kate was originally a Broadway show, composer Cole Porter’s music was brought to the big screen in 1953 with a film version starring Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, and Bob Fosse singing and dancing the music of the great Cole Porter.
Kemper thinks highly of Cole Porter and repeatedly says, “He’s a genius.” He leans forward some, his eyes wide with excitement. “He was so clever, so funny. He wrote about his wealth, about his experiences. And we hear about this all the time, but Cole Porter wrote to show off; that’s why there’re so many verses in so many of these songs - to show off his wide array of knowledge. It makes you be a hard researcher and have to be really truthful to the circumstances. I didn’t know most of the references in the show going into it. How can I react truthfully to what Lois is singing in “Always True to You in my Fashion” if I don’t know the references?”
Kemper sits back, one leg draped over the arm of the chair. Upon realizing that I’m making note of how he’s sitting, he laughs sheepishly and moves the dangling leg under the table, “I’m probably sitting too casually.” The overhead light illuminates him like a spotlight, casting shadows under his sharp cheekbones and highlighting his, as he jokes, “crazy hair that frizzes in a second.” He wears olive green pants, a black t-shirt with a blue and tan plaid button up thrown on top. His blue eyes are framed by tortoise shell glasses. His voice and infectious laugh cut over the hockey analysis playing on the TV in the background of the café.
“I need to live truthfully through my character – make it land on the audience. They’re the most important; it matters what the audience feels. To make people feel things, to bring it to the real world because we're not in 1949; it's 2017,” he says thoughtfully. “The feedback we’ve gotten from the show is immense. Some wonderful middle-aged ladies will come up to me – pinch my cheeks, you know – and tell me, “You reminded me of so and so,” or “You made me feel like so and so did when I saw him on TV” and that’s the greatest thing. I’m emulating people that used to make them swoon, and it’s so fun and such an honor. Acting is making people feel good.”
“For me, anyway, I always have to do the show for someone whether they’re there in the audience or not. You have to have someone else to give for. For me, it’s always my grandma who passed away two summers ago. Every bio since, every show has been for her. You know, Kiss Me, Kate was actually one of the last shows that she saw me in. I did it back where I was from – I was the haberdasher.”
Kemper’s nature is incredibly giving and honest. His friends walk by as we speak and he smiles, waves, and says hello to each of them. With every question I ask, he has people he needs to thank and give credit to: his family, mentors, close friends, professors, directors, choreographers, and fellow actors. He speaks so enthusiastically and earnestly about these people with such care and attention that it’s impossible not to want to get to know them too. In particular, the Camarillo, California native thanks and credits Lewis Wilkenfeld, Ginny Grady, and Diann Alexander for getting him to where he is now.
“If it wasn’t for Lewis and the opportunities that he gave me, I wouldn’t be here. He took this crazy kid with no dance training in dickie slacks and a button up shirt who had no idea what he was doing and said, “Yes, that kid; he can be in the show; I’ll give him an opportunity,” and gave me a chance. And I knew nothing. I was always getting notes about touching my face on stage; I was a goober who didn’t know what I was doing. And Diann Alexander, I can consider her like a second mother to me. She was not only my vocal coach but a mentor. She just taught me to have fun in auditions, how to go in and say, “Hi, I’m here, and I’m going to take care of you for the next two minutes that I’m in the room.”
“Ginny Grady – she was an improv coach actually – she was my only insight into acting coming into college. I had never taken an acting class.” He laughs and then shakes his head. “I’ll never forget. Freshman year my acting class with John Shepard. He told us, “Come back next week with your scene marked down in beats, shifts, and I was like what, what, what? I literally had no idea what he was talking about. I had a phenomenal scene partner who taught me everything. Here’s how Ginny saved me: she taught me everything I know about Improv and that’s what saved my butt learning how to act. Once I was learning the definitions, I realized it was everything we’d been doing in improv but set a little bit more.””
Kemper didn’t know he wanted to do theatre until he saw the movie High School Musical. He grew up not doing much theatre. He’d been doing “the sports thing” but it wasn’t his passion. His father was a phenomenal singer Kemper says and Kemper would hear him sing in church and tried to mirror what he was doing vocally, but he didn’t know that theatre was it for him yet. After seeing High School Musical he fell in love with it and just desperately wanted to be in a production of it. Soon after, a camp was doing a production of it and, as he put it, “My parents were like: there, he’s going to do that.”
For Kemper, that first camp was an awakening. He’d never been in the musical theatre community and he was now a part of it, though he didn’t follow the “normal track.” He didn’t have a long-term agent or representation or the incredibly long resume that the other actors did, yet that didn’t deter him. In fact, he and his mother prided themselves on knowing less than everyone else and learning as they went along. Once he was a part of the musical theatre scene, however, he never second guessed it. The more he was doing it, the more he realized that this was it. “I love it so damn much,” he says emphatically. “I can’t stop.”
Watching Kemper on stage it’s obvious how much he loves what he does. He’s present in every moment and the audience is drawn to his magnetism and attention to detail. At any point when he’s simply standing on stage he stands in ballet’s Fifth Position. When I tell him this, he leans forward eagerly. “Really?” he says happily. “I try to do that – especially when I’m playing Lucentio.” In his big number “Bianca," Kemper dances across the stage with ease (he’s a Dance minor) and charms the audience, though, as he says lovingly, “It’s a rinky-dink number that does nothing to advance the plot. It’s just about a man who loves this girl, and Bill is just screwing around on stage, dancing around, having a giggle fest with everyone.” He has the ease and stage presence of a Golden Age song and dance man; Gene Kelly would be proud, and Kemper would kill to do Singin’ in the Rain someday.
“I grew up on Gene Kelly, on Fred Astaire. I love tapping, I love singing. That’s what I so enjoy, that croon-y openness. There’s beautiful musical theater tension,” he says. “I love anything Gavin Creel has ever done. I’d kill to do Book of Mormon, Hair, oh my gosh, Hello Dolly!, She Loves Me. Gavin Creel is the kind of man we need on Broadway nowadays. He’s modern but handsome, and he’s the perfect example of someone who can sing both contemporary and the Golden Age. That’s what I try to bring to Bill. I consider myself much more of a contemporary singer than a Golden Age singer. So I wanted to bring everything I wanted Bill to be and making a good compromise between what Bill has to be and what I, Kurt, loving the goofball that Bill is and the asshole he is, to be honest, want him to be. I wanted to play him a little kooky, and maybe if you think back to the gamblers of the day, they were probably nothing like how I play him, but that’s ok and musical theatre is heightened anyway. I think Bill is the most beautiful blend of me and what most people would come into the show thinking Bill would be. Because at the end of the day there’re two people on stage: yourself and the character. On stage last night I just looked at Mikey and had a great moment, and I mean no one else knew, but if I can get something to land on him on the stage to also land on the people in the seats, that’s all that matters.”
If the roaring applause and standing ovation for the entire cast is anything to go by, the audience was hit just right by the show. The entire cast is wonderful and charming, and Kemper gives everything he can and creates a memorable performance as Bill Calhoun whose charisma is sure to sweep the audience off their feet and put smiles on their faces. Kiss Me, Kate runs through Sunday at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
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