BWW Interview: Ken Arpino Talks RUBEN & CLAY'S FIRST ANNUAL CHRISTMAS CAROL FAMILY FUN PAGEANT SPECTACULAR REUNION SHOW
Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken have reunited this Christmas season for a holiday themed Broadway show that celebrates the 15th Anniversary of their record-setting American Idol finale. Inspired by the sketch shows starring the likes of Dean Martin, Andy Williams, and Carol Burnett, this duo plans to amuse and delight with vocal performances and light-hearted comedy skits. To get the inside scoop on this show, we sat down with writer and performer Ken Arpino to chat about this first annual holiday spectacular.
How did you come to be involved in RUBEN & CLAY'S FIRST ANNUAL CHRISTMAS CAROL FAMILY FUN PAGEANT SPECTACULAR REUNION SHOW?
That's the whole thing. [Laughs] Also known as RUBEN & CLAY'S CHRISTMAS SHOW. Clay gave me a phone call in the beginning of Fall and said they were looking for some writers, and he thought that I should submit some sketches. He and I had met and done JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT in Ogunquit together. He's been super supportive of me, my career, and knows I am trying to get my writing out there. So, we thought it would be a good opportunity to just have new people to see my work. Long story short, they ended up picking me, and I got to be one of the sketch writers for the show.
That's awesome. Were both Ruben and Clay familiar with your amazing web series THE QUEEN'S PROJECT before you joined this team?
I know that Clay has seen it and watched it, but I don't know if anyone else had watched it before this. I hope so. [Laughs]
When it comes to writing, what has been your training and experiences?
I have been fortunate enough that I have gotten to write a couple of things with Dustin Williams for Wolfbane Productions. I wrote a one act play called THE HANNAH REYNOLDS STORY that we performed last April 2018 at the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. It was Wolfbane's way to start a celebration in Appomattox for Freedom Day because technically emancipation happened in Appomattox, Virginia. We focus a lot on Lee, Grant, and the surrender, but we wanted to tell the broader story. I was really lucky to have gotten to write that, and then this happened. it has been a crazy, fun whirlwind.
Getting to transition from writing for a 501C3 nonprofit in Virginia to writing for Broadway, what is that like?
It's the same thing. [Laughs] There's definitely more people involved when you work on a Broadway show, which is exciting. And, I can tell you right now that the coolest thing in the world was to write something with stage directions like "And, then they take off a wreath," and, then, to come in on the first day and see all of the props are all of the things that came out of your crazy brain. You know what I mean? Or, the set pieces. You write, "And, then they sit by the fireplace." Then, you walk in, and there's a fireplace. It's the coolest thing I think that has ever happened. [Laughs] It's been really fun. We have such an amazing team of creatives and designers that it looks amazing, and to know that it came out of my crazy little brain is just awesome.
With THE QUEEN'S PROJECT your writing is always accessible and pretty family friendly. I imagine in a Christmas show, you're getting to write in that vein as well. Why do you choose that route?
The freedom with THE QUEEN'S PROJECT is that the base there because they want to be there. Especially, on YouTube. You can pick and choose what you watch. On Broadway, people who are coming to the show want to see not only Ruben and Clay, but they're there to see a Christmas show. So, it's about trying to put on the goggles of, "Well, how can I make this accessible to everyone and also stay true to my style of comedy?"
I think that Clay, as an LGBT artist, has been so willing to let me be myself. He goes with it, and they've all been super supportive of me and given me freedom. But, at the same time, as a writer, I have to take into account this need to translate to families from across the world. We've had people come from everywhere to see the show, even with just this handful of performances. It's about making sure that it's comedy that's approachable and fun for everyone, and not just for Ken. Grandma and Little Suzy need to be able to laugh at the same joke.
Definitely. And, that's something I think you accomplish in the work or yours that I have seen.
Yeah. And, friends that have come to see the show will laugh to themselves and been like, "Well, that's a Ken joke." It's a lot of puns. And, Clay and Ruben are so funny. They're great performers and their natural banter together is great, so when they do go off script a little bit it's just fun because you're getting a glimpse of them as people. It's really great that the audience gets to be in on it.
I feel like sometimes it sometimes too easy for people to snub holiday shows. What has it been like writing something that is aiming to be fun and uplifting for the holiday?
The most you can do is your best. I feel I've provided material that they could definitely jump off with. As I said, coming in and seeing the set pieces, the props, and this cast is phenomenal. They've really helped shape out the world a little bit more. All in all it's been a really great experience.
I would say, if you're looking for a book musical, this isn't a book musical. What it is is a showcasing of the vocals of two incredibly talented people. You're going to have a good time. You're going to smile. You're going to laugh a little bit, and then the two of them are going to blow your minds with their vocals.
And, excitingly for you, you are also making your Broadway debut as a performer.
What is it like getting to have your first Broadway bow?
It's incredible. Walking into the theater for the first time, it was amazing. Then, seeing the Playbill was amazing. The whole thing has just been such a crazy, fun experience. Because when you're writing, and I was in Virginia for like 99% of it, you're kind of separate. It didn't feel real for a very long time. Then I got to New York and started rehearsals, and it was all in. It was Christmas bootcamp, and it was so much fun. It's just been so much fun, and I feel like the show is going to end, I am going to breathe again, and I am going to be like "Oh my gosh, that was the coolest thing!" [Laughs] But, right now, it's all very much "go, go, go!"
What is the rehearsal process like when you are both writing and performing in the same show?
Especially being the first year, and this being a new work, there were a lot of rehearsals where something wouldn't land, and it was like, "Okay, Ken, give us a couple of options for a rewrite." So, I was wearing many hats. But, I was with a team that I trusted. They also respected that I was wearing many hats, so it was a very easy process, fun to play, and Clay and Ruben were always so great. I'd pop in a rewrite and they'd be like "Great, we'll do it." It's been a really collaborative, fun process. Now that I have a taste of it, I'm really excited for the future and to see what else we can all do.
Speaking of the future, what is in the pipeline for Ken as writer and Ken as performer?
So, Friends of Dorothy, the Production Company, took a step forward, and we are now Pals of Dorothy because we couldn't get Friends of Dorothy as an LLC. But, we are a full Production Company. The goal is to try to develop two new pilots that I have written, and of course THE QUEEN'S PROJECT. So, I'm going to be developing those throughout the year with the intent to sell and get them on a bigger platform. Of course I also work for Wolfbane, and I will be down in Virginia where we will be doing our normal season.
As a performer, I'm just going to keep doing the thing and see what happens because I am just having fun. The craziest part is that I have a marketing degree. I didn't even necessarily plan to be an actor. Now that I have done it, I love it. But, I also love all of these other hats that I'm wearing. I'm just taking it one step at a time and seeing what other great opportunities are ahead.
What advice would you offer to someone that is looking at performing or writing?
This is always, and will forever be my answer to that question: generate your own work. I think that there are so many platforms and so many opportunities for kids today to get their work out there, for better or for worse. From YouTube to Facebook and Instagram stories, there's a million venues. Just get your work out there and see what people like and what people are responding to.
The reason I wrote THE QUEEN'S PROJECT was because I didn't feel like I was being represented in the media, and I wanted a story that me and my friends could relate to and laugh with. I feel like there has to be other people that feel the exact same way I do, and they just don't feel like their fellowship is being heard. So, write about it. Start telling your own stories. You might end up loving the directing side of it. You might love the scoring side of it. You might love the writing side of it. You might have goals to be an actor, but you might fall in love with other things.
And, it's okay to love those things. I think that a lot of the students I am talking to are afraid that if they love directing they won't be actors. You can still be an actor, but you should still be directing on the side if that's your passion. You don't have to be one thing. That's the moral of a story. So, start developing your skills. You never know when Clay Aiken is going to call you and say "Hey, we're doing this Christmas show on Broadway. Do you want to be one of the writers?" You know what I mean? So always be developing your skills, more than just performance, because you have them and start developing them now.
For tickets and more information about RUBEN & CLAY'S FIRST ANNUAL CHRISTMAS CAROL FAMILY FUN PAGEANT SPECTACULAR REUNION SHOW please visit http://www.rubenandclay.com/.