Kevin Archambault's Love of Dance and Commitment to It Has Brought Him a Long Way in a Short Time
With hair that would make Adam envious and a build reminiscent of Michelangelo's David, Kevin Archambault's exquisite looks probably play a role in his success. He is, after all, a performer, and in show business, how you look is right up there with who you know. Most important, though, is raw talent, and this Colorado native has enough of that to share with an entire cast. At 23 years old, Kevin has not only established himself as a strong theatrical presence, he has learned the art of choreography faster than it takes most of us to learn a single routine.
Coming from a family of accountants and scientists, Kevin was not exactly surrounded by the arts. He discovered, on his own, the happiness and fulfillment that performance gives him. He wanted to act, and he followed his instincts, which brought him to Austin and opened up an entirely new world. Within one year, he went from having minimal dance experience to choreographing musicals for St. Edward's University and teaching dance classes at Austin Musical Theatre, where he now works full time as an academy associate. Most recently, Kevin choreographed A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for St. Edward's.
Having done all he can do for a show that is about to open, Kevin had some free time on a rainy Friday morning to discuss his impromptu entry into the world of dance and where he plans to take it from here.
Austin Chronicle: Describe the path that led you to pursuing a career in the performing arts and the circumstances that have been the most instrumental in keeping you on that path.
Kevin Archambault: I'd have to say my father was very instrumental toward this. He sang with the church choir, and he was always providing a creative outlet. I always just had a theatrical outlook on life, running around the house and singing and dancing.
When I was leaving middle school there was an audition for Denver School of the Arts, which was a new high school opening up. I was accepted into the school, and my drama teacher, Mr. Ryan, got me my first audition. I played Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors, which is an opera, a Christmas story. It was a wonderful experience. I was just a freshman in high school, and the rest of the cast were all in their forties, and I learned a whole lot from them just by watching and listening. Watching and listening has been the biggest help of all. Mr. Ryan always said the smallest role you can have is the best when you're starting out because you get to watch and listen and learn.
AC: College-level theatre programs can be extremely competitive. You began doing the choreography for St. Edward's as a junior and as a newcomer to the field of dance. Aside from what must be extraordinary talent, what enabled you to convince those in charge that you were the best man for the job?
KA: I think a real determination and a real high energy. I was extremely excited when Scott Thompson, who is one of the founders of Austin Musical Theatre, said that he could not choreograph Little Shop of Horrors. I had been in a class with him, and I had done straight shows at St. Ed's with Susan Loughran (one of the faculty members), so I knew the faculty. It's a very small theatre program. Susan's always been instrumental in getting the students to do as many jobs as possible, like design the sets or design the lights. Instead of bringing somebody in or having another staff member do it, she says, "I'd like for the students to get a chance to do that." I believe I was the first that they allowed to do the choreography, but I had been in classes my first two years with Susan. She took me under her wing, and when I started to stray, she definitely led me back onto a path. Anytime I would have doubts she would say, "No, this looks great, this is good for the show, this fits the concept of the show." When I was at a loss for steps, I could always come back to this home base that I had built at Austin Musical Theatre, and Scott was always there to help.
AC: After you first got into dance, how long did it take for you to make it such a big part of your life and to start building this network?
KA: It was just under a year. It moved very quickly for me. My sophomore year, I took a musical theatre class with Scott at St. Edward's. He was coming in as an adjunct faculty member. Austin Musical Theatre was just opening up at that time. I met him, and I enjoyed the class thoroughly. It was an amazing class, and unbeknownst to me, I had a lot of hidden talent in the world of dance and it really brought that out in me. I came over to the [Austin Musical Theatre] studios and took a dance class with Scott, and then the following semester I started teaching the littlest kids.
AC: What form of dance did you teach?
KA: Mostly jazz and musical theatre.
AC: Have you studied other forms of dance?
KA: Now in life, yes. I have not taken a ballet class yet, which I am ashamed to say, because I really need it. Everybody who's thinking about doing dance should take ballet, and I still get in trouble for it. During this last show, A Chorus Line, there's this ballet section, and I was lost, and it took me so much longer to pick up because I don't have that background. I've taken tap classes and modern classes now, but I've never taken a ballet class ... You'll forgive me? I wish, as a kid, that I had done it, but it was so not what boys do. Boys don't take dance.
AC: Austin Musical Theatre is one of the city's most prestigious performing companies, and it's many a choreographer's dream to work with such a company. So tell me, how does a 23-year-old recent college graduate get a gig like that?
KA: When Scott [Thompson] and Richard [Byron, the founders of Austin Musical Theatre] came to Austin, they really wanted to reach out to the kids. Teaching kids from the ages of nine to 17 was really the focus of what they wanted to do with their academy. Their first production was Peter Pan, and I had just finished that class my sophomore year with Scott, and he said, "Please come audition for me." So I went and didn't make it, and I was devastated and thought, "Oh, I'm a terrible dancer, I knew it," because I went to this dance audition, which was extremely difficult, and I wasn't accepted and wasn't ready and I had never been to anything quite like that. But the following year he did West Side Story and I was cast as Snow Boy.
One of the things Scott has always told me is, "You're not the best dancer, you're not the best singer, you're probably not the best actor, but you have an extremely high work ethic." I always came in ready to work and on time and showed a real determination and a real liking for the kids, and he saw that immediately. I was offered a job co-teaching this class, and I came to work every day on time and really loved it and said, "I want to do this again, please consider me."
There is also a dance troupe at the academy, and they perform around Austin and a couple of other cities, and I'm their dance captain. So I've kept my foot in the door, and whether by their choice or not, I've kind of forced my way into staying part of [Austin Musical Theatre]. Then, finally, they asked if I wanted a full-time job. So I said, "I would love it," because I was just graduating at the time.
AC: Forum is the fourth musical you've choreographed for St. Edward's. Yet the school's theatre program focuses mainly on acting, meaning that a majority of the students do not have extensive dance training. What's your strategy when choreographing a show whose cast consists mostly of novice dancers?
KA: I actually don't take a strategy. I go in there with an idea, and the director and I have a lot of meetings and have a real concept for the show. I go in there with what I think I would go in with normally and then sometimes you have to tune down a little bit, but I really try to challenge the students. If I know immediately who's cast in a certain role, and I know they'll never do a round off back-flip double illusion, then I don't go in with that and say, "Well, you'll get it by the time opening comes."
There are things that I go in with, thinking that it's not going to look pretty or perfect for the first two and a half weeks, but I don't know a show that really does. So I try to go in and push them toward things that really stretch them out, just as I think our acting program at St. Edward's stretches them as actors. I challenge them, and make sure that it fits the concept of the show. Forum is definitely more of a vaudeville piece, it's very farcical, so there's not going to be a lot of pirouette layouts. But there is definite need for movement.
AC: As a musical comedy, Forum boasts several songs that have the audience laughing out loud. Which was your favorite song to choreograph, and which do you expect to be the audience's favorite?
KA: I think I have the same answer for both. I think I had the most fun with "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," mainly because I got to focus on four different gentlemen. It's not a large cast, only about 18, so it's never been huge amounts of people that I have to deal with, but it was nice to have a rehearsal with just four people there that could really have my undivided attention. All four of them play very much character roles. They were a lot of fun to work with, and I think they pull it off really well. I had the most fun in the rehearsal process doing that, and I definitely think the audience will enjoy it a lot. It's a crowd-pleaser.
AC: Forum was written at a time when it was not uncommon for theatrical productions to portray women as the subordinate sex. In addition, this show is set during Roman times, when women could actually be sold as sex slaves. Has it crossed your mind that audience members might take offense at the chauvinistic tone of the show?
KA: No, it really has not crossed my mind. I've been too focused on another aspect of it. If someone came up to me and was very concerned about this, I would say, "And look how far you've come." Not only women, but minorities in general -- gays and African-Americans, etc. This is just a farcical, vaudeville piece to look back and laugh at that and say, "Look how far we've come." There's a certain art to what that was, also, and a certain beauty to it, and I don't know if the performers themselves at the time felt like they were being degraded. Who knows? We weren't there. I'm sure it wasn't the best of all worlds, and the musical doesn't show these deep inner feelings. It's a musical comedy. Then I would have to point them toward pieces that I think are a lot more racy. So many of the shows have an undertone of male dominance and female suppression, and they're audiences' favorites. Again, I would just want to say, "And look how far we've come," and thank god.
AC: Only a few years ago, you fell in love with dance. Since then, you've applied that passion in different realms and met with great success. How do you feel you've grown over the past few years, both as a young adult and as a dancer?
KA: It's strange, I find myself more and more picky about me, personally. As a young adult, I would say I've grown immensely because I've had something to be passionate about and focused toward. And to be able to watch these people who have aspects in their lives and in their world that I would like to mimic in some way -- that's been a real fine-tuner of my own maturity level.
I would have to say that just as most people are never happy with their own bodies or their own hair, I'm never happy with my dancing. After a show closes and I go back and look at something, I think, "If only I had thought of this, if only could have done this." I'm always thinking, "Oh, if I had just worked a little bit harder that one night I could have gotten that down." The night I happen to be caught on video I fall out of my turn, which is forever engraved in my mind. So I always feel, as a dancer, that I can always keep learning and always keep stretching myself and I want to be stretched more and more, and I feel that I need to put the time in. But my time and energy goes toward the kids right now, the students, which I love. There's not a lot of time to focus on myself.
AC: You're off to a fabulous start. It seems as though you've hit the ground running and you're picking up speed as you go. Where do you want your path to lead from here, and how do you plan on making it happen?
KA: I used to think, "Oh, the only way I'll be happy is if I'm in the movies and I'm famous and I'm rich and I'm on Broadway and my name's in lights." But as I've grown up and matured a little bit and seen the harsh reality of this world, I would have to say that the most important thing for me to be is happy, and that doesn't include fame or wealth.
I would love and am planning to pursue the profession that I feel has chosen me. My contract with Austin Musical Theatre runs out next year, and at that time I would like to say goodbye and leave Austin, Texas. And as sad as I will be because they've opened so many doors for me, I would like to go a little bit further out into the water and go probably to either Chicago or New York. I don't need fame or riches. I would be very happy if I could make a career out of the performing arts and spend my days sleeping and my nights working. I would love it.
AC: So should we look for you in Broadway in a couple of years?
KA: I would definitely love it. Wow ... I can't believe I'm telling you this, but I used to make silly goals, I think all children do -- "By the time I'm 22, I'll be a Broadway star." Well, I'm 23, and I'm not on Broadway and I'm not a Broadway star. But I would love to find myself in a company, whether it be in New York or touring, and be able to support myself just through that.
AC: Do you have any last bits of advice?
KA: I see a lot of students taking things for granted. I feel like I've grown up so fast in the past couple of years, but it's such a recent memory for me, of being that rebellious 18-year-old who doesn't want to go to class and is failing out of school, etc.
Just be wary and don't burn any bridges, when someday you're going to want to walk across them again. Thank god I have lovely parents, who have taken me back into their life, and friends that have taken me back into their lives and mentors that have guided me in the theatre world. It would have been very easy to completely burn those bridges, but I left a small strand there that I was able to rebuild and reweave. So, as horrible as it may seem and as down and out as you may be, you have those people there for you.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum runs through Nov. 19, Thursday-Saturday, 7:30pm, Sunday, 2pm, at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre on the St. Edward's University campus. Call 448-8484.