Kennedy as Bobby Galena
Robert W.C. Kennedy is a man of many names. The W.C. is a mystery to all but his closest friends and family, but his nicknames (all given with love) are well known: The Detective, The Department Store of Technique, The Golden Pharaoh, and of course, The Deacon. And if you’ve been a patron of theatre in Milwaukee over the last decade or so, you’ve seen his work on any number of stages.
Master Kennedy been a huge part of the success of Bunny Gumbo having appeared in more Combat pieces than any other actor. He’s also appeared in the Bunny Gumbo productions, ‘Losers’ portraying Kurt (a part that was written for him), and has the distinction of being the only actor to portray a part in all three plays of ‘Criminal Acts.’
Indeed, it’s hard not to run into Robert if you spend any time in Milwaukee. He’s a lifelong patron of the Milwaukee Transit System, bartends at Irish Fest, routinely shows up in short films made in the Cream City, and can occasionally be found supping at Real Chile with Bai Ling. He’s a good guy to know, so let’s get to it.
Kennedy in Bialystock & Bloom’s production of “Search and Destroy”
How did you first get involved in theatre?
My First Grade Thanksgiving pageant found me playing an apple. The producers admired how I peeled back the layers to get to the core of that character and cast me in the role of John F. Kennedy for some sort of patriotic revue that they were fond of in southern Indiana during the lead up to the U.S. Bicentennial celebration. (There is no way I was cast solely on name alone.) I enjoyed the chicks you got as JFK, and I was hooked. I played Bobby Shaftoe in “Babes in Toyland” a year or two after that, before taking a 10-year hiatus and moving north.
I didn’t take to the stage again until my senior year of high school, having spent the previous three primarily occupied with Dungeons & Dragons. During that year, I was in the chorus of “HMS Pinafore,” played Captain Ahab in a course stage version of “Moby Dick,” and Julius Caesar and others in the senior follies program.
I went off to college with big plans to major in anything but theatre. I took one introductory course that covered all aspects of the theatre craft, from performance to the technical. When it came time for the final projects, my fellow students wanted to keep me far away from anything heavy or electric, and I was assigned the job of “actor.” So, I played the guy in a scene from “Same Time Next Year” while others did the important stuff.
The slightly older young woman playing opposite me wore a slip in the scene. I thought I might like to spend more time around women in their underwear, so I pulled a bit of a grift with the assistance of my older brother to secure one of the hard-to-get spots in an introduction to acting class. I still had no intention of taking this on as a major.
Kennedy in Skylight’s production of “The Music Man”
Well, it was just too much damn fun, and everyone seemed to appreciate me in that environment, including the instructor who suggested I audition for (what was then) the Acting Specialist program. I really wish I could remember what piece I auditioned with, but I found out much later that the conversation in the room after I left pretty much centered around “Does he always dress like that?” (Those who knew me then will understand…)
I guess I didn’t realize that I was actually taking Theatre and Drama on as a major, but that’s what happened. I didn’t have much ambition to take it on as a career though, so I grabbed a Communication Arts minor at the last minute (sometime into my fifth year…).
Kennedy as Deiter in Drew Brhel’s “Neibelungen-Lite”
The program eventually evolved into the Specialist In Acting Major (because the professor who took it over during my time liked being “the king of S.I.A.M.), and I re-auditioned for it every semester studying everything from Commedia del’Arte, circus skills, Kabuki and stage combat — they really tried to squeeze a lot of specialties into an undergraduate program. Anything but simple modern American scene study.
I was one of two members from my original class to finish the program. The other one occasionally shows up Off-Broadway, in Coen Brothers movies and in multiple episodes of “Louis,” that Louis C.K. show.
Kennedy as Che in Michael Moynihan’s “Bang Bang, Gong Gong; The Re-education of Chuck Barris
What’s did you go to school?
That grade school was St. Columba’s in Columbus, Indiana. I attended from first through fourth grade.
My next grade school was St. Sebastian’s in Milwaukee, in the area now called “Washington Heights.”
That high school was Marquette University High School. (I know what you’re thinking, but I worked in the kitchen to pay tuition.)
That college was the University of Wisconsin — Madison. I worked with rhesus macaques at the Harlow Primate Lab to fund that degree.
Kennedy as Brad Pit in Randy Rehberg’s “A Clean Sweep”
You’ve bounced around a bit. Where did you grow up?
Born in Columbus, Indiana, which is a lot more like Kentucky than Indiana, although a county or two too north to be “Kentuckiana” proper. It’s the home of shoe genius Chuck Taylor, Ross and Don Barbour (of the Four Freshman, of course) and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. It’s also the architectural capital of the Midwest. Seriously, ask an architect.
I moved to Milwaukee between fourth and fifth grade. I was in Madison for five years of higher education, with a brief stint in The Philippines, and have been back in Milwaukee since 1991.
Kennedy as Tony Soprano in Patrick Holland’s “Holy Big Pussy, Batman”
What was your first professional gig?
Live Bait Theatricals (associated with Live Bait Theatre in Chicago) produced a play called “Girls! Girls! Girls! Live On Stage, Totally Rude.” I played a sleazy strip club comedian, and I think we were paid $100 per week for four shows at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. It ran for about two-and-a-half months, until one of the cast members broke his leg rehearsing for another show. I had long hair then, and got my first favorable reviews in a major newspaper. That’s about all I remember about it.
Kennedy in Live Bait Theatrical’s production of “Girls! Girls! Girls! Live On Stage, Totally Rude”
Tell us about your upcoming performance in Ireland.
I’ll be brief, because I don’t want to jinx anything.
I’m playing the role of Nathanial Yeshov, a Russian-Chinese from Brooklyn, in Sebastian Barry’s “White Woman Street.” Milwaukee Irish Arts is producing this piece as part of the Acting Irish International Theatre Festival, which is being held at Axis-Ballymun in northern Dublin this year.
I’ve performed in this festival in Chicago, Toronto and Rochester, New York. I did a one-man, hour-long monologue about the Euro ‘88 Cup and other matters at Irish Fest for this organization.
The play is sort of a Western that takes place in Ohio in 1916. Nathaniel is part of a group of outlaws planning to rob an army train. I have an insane beard. I have an accent. I have a bowie knife. I have a Colt revolver. We ride horses. We get covered in steam during a train robbery.
And they’re flying us out and putting us up in Dublin for a week for this thing.
I’ll stop now before I have to wipe my monitor and keyboard off.
Ask me about it after May 20… It’s gonna be cool!
Kennedy as Nathanial Yeshov in Sebastian Barry’s “White Woman Street”
Robert has returned since I originally interviewed him and he has this to add:
Looking back at what I wrote in response to this question before we opened that show, it’s hard to believe that the experience could possibly have exceeded my lofty expectations. But it did.
We certainly saved our best performance for the festival, and it’s a good thing we did. We had the Lord Mayor of Dublin Andrew Montague in the audience. He loved it and even tweeted about it. There was spontaneous audience applause during one particularly “complicated” moment in the script, and a standing ovation followed. Pretty much everything you can hope for during a critical performance.
The show was so different from what they usually have at this festival that we were kind of media darlings over there, getting interviewed on RTE Radio 1 and getting our picture on the cover of The Irish Times.
We walked away with a nomination for best production (getting edged out by a well-deserving production of “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” from Calgary). And one of our cast won Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The festival participants, the hotel staff and the Ballymum neighborhood treated us like visiting royalty. And the camaraderie of the cast was epic.
The whole experience had a pretty profound effect on me. I took a little side trip to Belfast, and I remember thinking on the train up there that I might actually be achieving the best life for which anyone such as I could really hope. And the funny thing is that this all happened because I participate in this often-thankless hobby. I’m not even doing this for a living and here I am reaping a reward greater than anything money could buy.
It made me question my notions of commercial theatre, the role of performing arts in society, and my whole purpose in “the great hidden scheme.” Yep. Pretty deep thoughts between all of that Guinness and whiskey. Don’t ever ask me about it again; it will bore you to tears.”
Kennedy and the cast of “White Woman Street”
Do you have a favorite venue in Milwaukee?
It’s like a 20-way tie. Every space has its own little quirks, its limitations, and its charms. I fondly recall water bottles backstage at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts freezing in winter; all of the chaotic cafes and bars I performed in with Inertia Ensemble; the Boulevard Theatre back when the only commercial operation for miles of Kinnikinnic was the Big Beer Bar; the unsurpassable backdrops of the courtyard, lake, and grand hall of the Villa Terrace; and my mansion-away-from-home at the Brumbder. And there is nothing like the exercise in focus that is the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center, with dancers stomping above you and pipers droning away next door. But they do have that great pub…
Oh, I suppose the Steimke, the old Off-Broadway, and the spaces at the Broadway Theatre Center are nice too. There just a little “refined” for my tastes.
And there is one little acoustically perfect spot on the main stage at UWM that is killer! (Anyone who has performed there knows what I’m talking about.)
Kennedy as Father in Tony Woods’ “Flaming Feet”
As I always say: “It’s a great base of operations.” I can live here affordably — damn-near opulently — and yet still get anywhere in the world without much hassle.
In the summer months, I hardly think there is a more entertaining place to live. And I’ve been a few places. If you have trouble finding something to do, you simply aren’t looking.
This goes the same for the other nine months out of the year. Just a few weeks back, I was trying to figure out how I was going to see and do everything that I wanted to with rehearsals, performances and this upcoming trip. I realized that there was just no way I could squeeze in everything that was being offered to me.
Whenever I hear someone say “there’s nothing to do in Milwaukee,” I laugh. And I cry. Because I know that person is lame. I read this in some musician’s interview recently, and I couldn’t agree more: “There are two kinds of people who hate Milwaukee. Those who have never been here. And those who have never left.” (Sure it gets cold. Grow a pair, ya’ pussies!)
Kennedy as Brett Michaels in Tom Dillon’s “The All Access Pass to My Heart”
Has there been a favorite gig?
I’ve learned something from every single one, so I’m hesitant to even start listing them. I remember starting to put together a top 10 list for some reason several years ago, and it just kept growing and growing. I’m fickle.
I’ve enjoyed so many Combat experiences because of the people with whom I’ve had a chance to work and the roles in which I would never be cast anywhere else. But you don’t really live with those pieces long enough for them to stick with you in any deep, emotional way. Of course, the sumo wrestling / rodeo clown piece was memorable.
Kennedy as Siomoto in Tony Woods’ “Yipee-Kai-Yay-Yokihama”
Yeah, I’m not even going to start going into the productions I have done with different companies in the area because I simply cannot list how many good times I have had in Milwaukee theatre, and it would be unfair to leave any out. Even though they haven’t all been life-changing experiences, I can honestly say there isn’t a single gig that I regret doing. I even enjoyed the camaraderie aspect of traveling around to hotel conference centers throughout Wisconsin doing murder mysteries for corporate parties. The “theatre” wasn’t so memorable, but the friendships are.
But since this is a Bunny Gumbo interview, I don’t think I’m playing favorites in mentioning “Losers.” And anyone who saw it will know I’m not pandering either. That was just a solid production all around. Who doesn’t like working with their favorite performers and best friends on meaningful content in a collaborative environment with overwhelmingly successful results? Maybe there are people out there who didn‘t think that show was something special, but I haven’t met them yet.
And I guess I’ll always have a soft spot for that one-man production of “In High Germany” I did at Irish Fest a few years back. Only two performances of a monologue, basically about soccer, but my father got a chance to see it and later said it was the first time he realized how really good I was at this stuff. Critics, audiences and directors can say what they want about me from that point forward. I ain’t even hearin’ it.
Kennedy as Kurt in James Fletcher’s “Losers”
Has there ever been a gig that scared you?
They’re all pretty scary if we stop and think about them too long — and maybe this one is just coming to mind because it was so recent — but I had nightmares about that goddamn train scene in The Music Man. It became one of those things I looked forward to doing every night and wanted to do again the moment it was over, but there was just such potential for disaster, me being the only non-musical theatre person in the bunch. My natural rhythms are just not of the Meredith Wilson middle-America type. But it was such a rush as it took off each time and barreled forward, taking everything in its path with it. And when it was on, it was so on. The audience loved it and people still give me credit for being a part of that. While I’m usually pretty humble, I’ll take all the kudos I can get for living through that one. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, sit bolt upright in bed and scream, “No it ain’t. No it ain’t. But you gotta know the territory!” The horror, The horror…
Kennedy as Lionel in John Van Slyke’s “Sweet Smell of Silence”
Any dream roles out there?
Nah. I don’t read enough dramatic literature to know what is available out there, and I can’t look at any individual performance and say “I’d really like to give that a shot some day.” There are shows I’d like to be in, sure, but I’d probably be totally inappropriate for them. I try to just take what is offered to me and make it my own. I’m not setting out to define any character or put my stamp on anything. And I guess when I become aware of or see someone else tackling a really challenging role I just think “Good for him. Looks like a lot of work.” I think I try to treat whatever role I’m working on as “the one I’ve been preparing for all this time.” I think I’d get depressed if I was always thinking that a better role was coming after this one. That sounds a little counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?
Kennedy as Van in Randy Rehberg’s “Fangs for the Memories”
What’s your day job?
I’m a corporate communications specialist, responsible for internal communications at an area utility company employing approximately 4,700 people. My role is to engage a diverse workforce in the organization’s mission, to improve their efficiency and effectiveness in providing essential energy services to our customers.
I didn’t just pull that off of a job description. That’s actually what I do. I ask questions. I conduct interviews. I research projects and I research technologies. I teach. I do a lot of writing. I examine challenges and try to come up with the simplest solutions to barriers of understanding. And I go to too many meetings.
If all works out, employees understand what their company is doing, how they contribute to it, and they want to do it better. And when a customer flicks a switch and a light goes on, they don’t ever have to think about the small miracle that we just made happen.
The Deacon will be escaping this weekend to join Bunny Gumbo for another round of Combat Theatre. For more info go to: Bunny Gumbo