Hi! My name is Jessica Lipps and I interview extraordinary people who are living their dreams.
September's guest is Kenny Leon. Kenny is perhaps best known for directing NBC's The Wiz Live! and Hairspray Live! He has worked with countless stars, from Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett on Broadway's The Mountaintop to Denzel Washington and Viola Davis on Fences and many more. This year, Kenny - who is a multi-Tony winner - received the "Mr. Abbott" award for his extraordinary contributions to the theater.
In this interview, learn about Kenny's journey and advice for young artists, hear funny behind-the-scenes stories and more:
Here are some highlights (what I call #takeaways) from Kenny's interview. To be inspired by Kenny on a regular basis, visit @jesslipps on social media to receive his motivational words directly to your feed.
-I grew up in the country. We lived on a small farm, had outhouses and didn't have indoor plumbing or hot water. It was great growing up there and walking the country roads to pick plums and berries.
-After years of living with my grandmother, I eventually moved to live with my mother and stepfather in St. Petersburg, Florida.
-We grew up pretty poor but never felt like we were poor.
ON HIGH SCHOOL:
-My high school didn’t have vision enough to do plays that incorporated roles for black actors.
-I was involved in the Upward Bound Program, which helped low-income families dream of a college education. This Program prepared me for a life in college.
-Upward Bound encouraged acting. In particular, I remember doing a play with Angela Bassett called "Son Gone Home." She played my mother and I played her son even though I was older.
-I was a little encouraged then but never thought of a career in theater or directing. My family said: "you go to school and do something we know!" You had to be a teacher, lawyer or minister.
-Even when I left to go to college, I wasn’t thinking about a career in the arts. I was thinking that if I could study political science and get into law school, I could be a pretty good lawyer.
-I attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia where I was a political science major and theater minor.
-At Clark, I met people like Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee and gained a clearer and better understanding of the impact of storytelling on the lives of Americans. It was during that time that I got really interested in theater.
ON STARTING IN THEATER:
-I went to law school for a year and left because it wasn’t the place for me.
-I started acting and doing television commercials.
-I was admitted into the Academy of Music and Theatre. There, I would go into prisons and work with prisoners on acting skills and with the homeless population on their journey. Years later, my work with these and more communities always finds a way into my work.
-Eventually, I became a member of another company. The Artistic Director told me that I didn’t have the gift to be a great director and wanted me to focus on acting. I decided it was time to leave that company.
-I kept searching for what could make me the best artist. For many years, I would act some and direct some, act some and direct some. Once I started directing, I realized that was my true calling.
-As a director, you’re like a piece of the pie. You have to figure out how your slice of the pie fits into the whole.
-When I’m directing, I participate in all of the pie. I have to find a way to express the entire vision.
-I get motivated working with actors, writers and designers.
-Acting only makes me a better director. It allows me to understand what the actor is going through.
-I love seeing people right before my eyes become bigger than they are, do things they never thought that they could do. I love seeing great actors go to a place that they haven't been and seeing growth in actors.
ON HELPING ACTORS GROW:
-My job is to help the actor navigate through a story so that they can become the fullest representation of that character possible.
-I focus on why this particular actor is working on the particular character. How to get them to personalize their own DNA and create a DNA for a character that they are playing.
-For a young actor, I have to be able to teach them how to connect the dots to become a full human being.
-For more experienced actors, I have to be able to unstick them when they get stuck.
-I take pride in building ensemble and making a cast work as one.
-Directing has never been not challenging. It's not an easy job.
-You’re part therapist, counselor, teacher and minister.
-You have to figure out how people process information. Everyone processes in a different way so I look for that challenge every production.
-I don’t get frustrated by it. I get energized by figuring out how to reach each actor.
-Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you have to let an actor go. But most of the time you’re trying to build family and confidence.
ON DECIDING ON WHICH SHOWS TO DO:
-I’m always trying to figure out plays that have an impact on the community and the world right now.
-I want audience members to leave their seats, go home and think about the lessons of the play and how they can integrate them into their lives.
-I have to be in tune with myself and alive in the world to figure out where the challenges are. These days, it’s easy to see what we need in our country.
-I look for plays and TV projects about love. I look for all the things that are missing in our society right now.
-I’m interested in a multi-racial production of “Children of a Lesser God" where we try to make each other over in our image instead of having real communication.
-I’m interested in "Holler If Ya Hear Me" because I want to hear the generations talking to each other.
-I’m interested in a play called "Dot" about a woman suffering from alzheimer's because more and more and more of our family members are going through that.
-I’m interested to see how I can affect the lives of people in the seats.
ON STAYING GROUNDED:
-I’m lucky to have had a grandmother, mother and folks in my life who taught me well.
-My grandmother always reminded me that I’m just a country boy from Tallahassee, Florida and it’s about how you serve human beings and behave on the planet that counts.
-All the things you need to know about how to treat people are discovered in kindergarten!
-It’s easy to stay grounded because I just remind myself why I’m here. I’ve ben blessed to discover that I have a passion for telling stories. I’m lucky enough to wake up every day and tell a story. Hopefully it has an impact on people’s lives.
-I've been raised to give back. I’ve figured out that my way to give back is storytelling.
ADVICE FOR ASPIRING ARTISTS:
-Don’t give up.
-This is a business where you don’t get as much encouragement as you would like because everyone thinks they can do it.
-If you’re born with that unquenchable thirst that says you’ve got to have it, then you have to believe.
-Seek our your own source of spirituality to center you and give you faith and confidence.
-Never let anyone tell you you can’t have it. It’s tough, but it’s worth it
Find & Follow:
Facebook: @OfficialKennyLeon; @JessLipps
Twitter: @IAmKennyLeon; @JessLipps
Instagram: @IAmKennyLeon; @Jess_Lipps