Michigan native Nathan Keen is only 22-years-old, but he’s a veteran actor, having played ‘Gavroche’ in Les Miserables on Broadway and ‘Little Boy’ in the National Tour of Ragtime — all before he hit double digits.
Both shows explore the consequences of discrimination based on class or race. Both dramatize the violence that inevitably explodes when the system pushes a group of marginalized people so far that they have nothing left to lose.
So, whenNathan Keen walks on stage in the National Tour of West Side Story as an underprivileged kid turned gang member, you might say his theatre experience informs the role.
Keen plays ‘Big Deal,’ a member of the Jets who’s eager to prove his worth to gang leaders Tony and Riff. In a phone interview following a New York rehearsal, Keen described Big Deal as ‘a little bit twisted.’ Big Deal is something of a comedian, but as Keen points out, the way his character seeks constant attention and approval from the gang just underlines how messed up he is.
Unlike the original production in the ‘50s, director Arthur Laurents has instructed the young actors playing the Jets and the Sharks NOT to treat their performances as musical theatre comedy. Rather, the actors have been told to keep it real – bringing out all the dark resentment, hatred and bigotry that has turned these youthful street kids into hardened gang members. Keen points out how different these gang members are from the goofy delinquents of the original show.
‘They beat people up. They are capable of killing someone …. The Sharks are everything we [the Jets] hate in the world.‘
Keen admits that it takes a lot of energy and focus to keep that level of hostility at peak levels during rehearsal and performances, especially when the young cast members are all best of friends off stage. But on stage, he describes the tension between the gangs as ‘barely controlled.’ And then, once the curtain drops, he admits, ‘you just have to let it all go.’
Keen was born in Ann Arbor but grew up in Birmingham, attended Otterbine University, and has spent a lot of time on the road for one so young. Even so, he still calls Michigan home and looks forward to catching up with friends and family during the local run as part of the Broadway in Detroit series at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre.
We asked if he had advice for local young actors who might want to follow in his footsteps.
‘Train hard!’ says Keen. ‘Find good acting classes….take dance classes.’
He also adds that acting isn’t an easy career choice, cut encourages young actors to get experience wherever they can – in school shows, community theatre, touring shows, wherever.
You can see Nathan Keen in the smashhit Broadway revival of West Side Story at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre from September 30 through Oct. 16, 2010. Tickets can be secured the Fisher Theatre box office, all Ticketmaster locations, by phone at 1-800-982-2787, or online at either www.ticketmaster.comor www.broadwayindetroit.com.