Ruben Van Kempen has been at the helm of Roosevelt High's drama program for 30 years, sent plenty of young actors into the world and garnered many awards. He'll get yet another honor as he is inducted into the Educational Theatre Association's Hall of Fame.
A rumor arose recently that, after some 30 years at the helm of Roosevelt High School’s drama program, revered teacher Ruben Van Kempen was retiring.
Not so, says Van Kempen, who still has zest for his job — and is receiving national recognition for his dedication to a generation of Seattle drama students.
On Thursday, Van Kempen will be among five teachers inducted into the Educational Theatre Association’s Hall of Fame, at the organization’s conference in San Diego.
Even if he was surprised by the honor, few in local theater circles were. An accomplished stage director as well as an innovative teacher, Van Kempen has trained and inspired dozens of theater professionals, working from here to Broadway.
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They include Chad Kimball, a recent Tony Award nominee in the Broadway musical “Memphis,” as well as Noah Racey, a busy performer-choreographer who’ll be the lead in the 5th Avenue Theatre’s new production of “The Music Man,” and Ryah Nixon (who has starred at Village Theatre and ACT Theatre), among others.
Yet Van Kempen, a genial man with the slender, graceful frame of an ex-dancer, does not consider himself a star maker. He aims to have a positive impact on all his students, knowing the vast majority won’t wind up in showbiz.
“I want them to learn about the technical aspects and process of theater, but also about collaboration, being a team player, a leader, a follower, and being responsible for making things happen for themselves,” he explains.
“Most are not going to be actors, but they’re going to have to someday give a report at work, or before a PTA. I want to give them skills and confidence.”
Jamie Herlich, a 1994 Roosevelt High grad who is now an arts administrator with the Edmonds Center for the Arts and New Century Theatre Company, says Van Kempen “really changed my life at a pivotal point.
“He instilled a belief in me, a belief in following my passions and dreams. Whether I’d gone on to be an engineer or a teacher or anything else, I’d appreciate what he gave me at a really important time.”
Theater was a vital part of Van Kempen’s own youth. Born in the Netherlands, he immigrated to the U.S. when young and soon “turned toward the arts because that’s the only place I could succeed without knowing the language.”
Attending McClure Middle School, then Queen Anne High School, he played French horn and took art, dance and drama classes. “In high school, my drama teacher was fresh out of college and, would you believe it, a Roosevelt High grad! She was very inspiring and told me I’d be an incredible drama teacher. I said, ‘Wait a minute — I want to be on the stage!’ “
At the University of Washington, Van Kempen pursued “hard-core acting and dance,” but as a “back up” double-majored in education.
For a while he pursued both passions — starting his teaching career at Roosevelt in 1979 while tackling roles at local theaters. For a better way to balance his time, he turned to directing, staging shows at Seattle Civic Light Opera and Village Theatre.
Meanwhile with his wife, Myrnie, a music teacher in the Edmonds School District, he raised two children — Andrew, 27, a Seattle musician, and Lauren, 25, a singer and cellist living in Paris.
Over his long tenure at Roosevelt, Van Kempen has overseen the only full-time theater program in the Seattle School District. It offers eight periods of drama per day with classes in acting, directing, technical theater, production, design and musical theater. And it has sent students to perform in festivals in the U.S. and abroad.
Now run by Van Kempen and fellow teacher Beth Orme, the program maintains a college-size production schedule: a fall festival of student-directed one-act plays; a bill of short stories adapted by students with Book-It Repertory Theatre; a young playwrights festival at Seattle Repertory Theatre; as well as full-length dramas and the customary big spring musical.
As public-education budgets have grown leaner, Van Kempen’s duties have also included more fundraising.
But the main action is in the classroom. “My style of teaching is personal, very relaxed,” he says. “I really respect the students, and try to draw out their individual strengths. Then I challenge them to develop new strengths.”
That approach worked for Herlich. “Ruben was very accessible, and open, while balancing that with having very high standards,” she recalls. “He made you want to do well. He also had a way of making everybody feel that whether they were in the chorus, or backstage, or the star, what they did was really important.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com