Ruben Van Kempen leaves a theatrical legacy that stretches from the new 720-seat theater at Roosevelt High to Broadway.
Classes have ended for the day at Roosevelt High. But wend your way through the quiet hallways to the spiffy 720-seat theater and you’ll find Ruben Van Kempen in his usual habitat: overseeing a student production with eagle-eyed concentration.
This year’s Roosevelt production is the Broadway musical “Mary Poppins,” complete with flying nanny. And its eight-performance run, beginning May 21, will be Van Kempen’s swan song after more than three decades directing the Roosevelt drama program.
It is a bittersweet occasion, says the respected and beloved arts educator.
But after so many years of 12-hour days preparing shows, as well as teaching a full load of acting, directing and production classes, and endless fundraising to develop the program and keep its standards high, Van Kempen looks forward to moving on.
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He and his wife, Myrnie (a music teacher who is also retiring), will soon travel to Paris to visit one of their two adult children. When back in Seattle, Van Kempen hopes to get into the act himself now and then — as a freelance theater director and (“if anyone will have me, I’m not the chorus boy I used to be!”) a performer.
About 200 friends, former and current students, and grateful parents of students feted him at a retirement soiree held in April. It was a fond send-off but also part of an ambitious campaign to raise money to sustain Roosevelt’s high-octane drama program at its present level.
So far about $60,000 has been donated. If as much as $350,000 is raised, the money will also pay for the right to name Roosevelt’s theater after Van Kempen, who insisted to the designers when the school was renovated in 2004-2006 that the hall have a balcony — “to give it a little grandeur. And I got my balcony!”
The naming would be a fitting tribute to the man who is affectionately valued by many accomplished alums — not only as a teacher, but as a leading player in their lives.
“I thank God that I met him,” says 1989 Roosevelt grad Noah Racey, a Broadway performer-choreographer who has starred here in a 5th Avenue Theatre production of “The Music Man.”
Racey recalls that in school another teacher heard him humming in class and told him to check out theater courses. Van Kempen spotted his fledgling talent, and “opened the door for me to find my calling. He invested not only the time but also the interest in dealing with a very insecure young man.”
Daniel Berryman, a more recent alum now co-starring Off Broadway in the perennial musical “The Fantasticks,” also thrived under Van Kempen’s tutelage.
“One of the many things that made Ruben a special drama teacher was his vision,” comments Berryman. “This vision created an environment for students like myself to explore, grow, imagine and discover the wonder of theater.”
Van Kempen has also been celebrated by his peers. He was inducted into the Educational Theatre Association’s Hall of Fame, and received a Gregory A. Falls Sustained Achievement Award from Theatre Puget Sound, among other honors.
But the ongoing friendships with former students have been especially rewarding for Van Kempen, who was born in The Netherlands but grew up in Seattle. After graduating from the University of Washington and briefly pursuing a career as a performer, he began teaching drama in the late 1970s.
Chad Kimball, a 2010 Tony Award nominee who returned to Seattle to attend the April 23 retirement bash, still relies on his former teacher for advice and support.
“One of the reasons I’ve survived the melee of professional theater is because of [Ruben’s] generous ear and his active participation in encouraging my better pursuits,” Kimball says.
Sarah Schenkkan, who appeared on tour in the musical “Wicked” and whose stage and screen career is just taking off, believes Van Kempen gave her a head start in the business. “Ruben continues to create a huge number of performance opportunities for his students,” she states. “We were able to do collaborations with theaters like the Seattle Rep, travel abroad to perform in festivals, write/direct our own plays” with his help.
Talking with Van Kempen, one is struck by his warm and unpretentious manner and ready laugh. But he also has emphasized discipline, commitment and professionalism in the intensive theater program he developed and ran alongside longtime Roosevelt colleague Beth Orme.
Recalls Berryman, “Ruben helped me to learn the balance between the serious discipline involved in any artistic endeavor and the fun and joy of playing pretend in the theater.”
Having fun while learning, whether a student is shooting for Broadway or happy carting around scenery, has been part of Van Kempen’s credo.
A favorite memory is staging a student version of the dance musical “42nd Street” at Roosevelt in the 1980s. “Maybe a couple of kids knew how to tap. But by opening night,” he reports happily, “they were all doing triple time-steps.”