By Whit Emerson
How does one go from a degree in journalism to choreographing the smash hit Avenue Q? New professor of musical theatre practice Kenneth L. Roberson smiles as he readies his response, “My family was known to be great social dancers, including my father.” So it runs in the family? “The first thing I choreographed was a piece on the playground in first grade to Marvin Gaye.” It seems experience and environment are equally effective at giving you an edge in your career.
Roberson loved modern dance and musical theatre, performing in plays at the University of Georgia. After graduating with his degree in journalism, Roberson worked for a newspaper but continued to take dance classes. He flew up from Georgia to see The Wiz in New York, his first Broadway show. It was then that he knew eventually he was going to perform on those stages.
Roberson’s first professional off-Broadway show was the doo-wop musical Avenue X. He worked on and off Broadway as an actor, dancer, and choreographer for the next 15 years. Roberson went to many “cattle call” auditions for Broadway shows. Outside of one audition, a record company scout asked Roberson to be part of his group. With the addition of 4 more people the disco dance group Fantasy was formed. “It was different, it was fun,” Roberson smiles. They even had a Billboard top 10 hit and toured cross-country.
How did he make the transition from actor and dancer to choreographer? “I would be in rehearsal and directors would ask me things, and I would stay around and look. So I started assisting choreographers.” From there Roberson got a job assisting famous choreographer Hope Clarke with the Tony-winning Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam, directed by George C. Wolfe. Tap legend Gregory Hines played the lead in that show. “It was magical. It was all you want it to be. His generosity with other dancers and his respect for the work did not go unnoticed and stays with us.”
Eventually his choreography work lead him to the smash hit Avenue Q. Roberson enjoyed the challenge of working with actors and puppeteers. He had to walk a fine line in designing the dances, “We didn’t want the puppeteers to look like bad puppeteers.” But some puppets had to look like bad dancers. “It was humbling to work with the puppeteers and puppets.”
One of his favorite productions to choreograph was Guys and Dolls in the round at Arena Stage. The entire cast were first rate dancers. Roberson smiles and quips, “They had feet.” Is that a dig at Avenue Q? “No!” Roberson laughs.
So what is the most important thing for musical theatre students to learn? “Make a fair assessment of yourself, set your goals and work towards them. Hone the craft, hone the craft, do the work, hone, hone, hone.” Sounds like a lot of good, hard work. “Listen to constructive criticism. Your gut knows.” Great words of advice that any student can take to heart.
Roberson’s IU Theatre directing debut will be Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS, coming to the Ruth N. Halls Theatre in April of 2015.