Greene County’s Donkey is heading to The Big Apple

Donkey with Shrek, played by Jack Schilling | photo by Clay Ross

Greene County senior Michael Kennedy has been to Oz as the Scarecrow in the Community Players’ 2016 production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Earlier this month he traveled across Duloc as Shrek’s pal Donkey in the high school production of “Shrek the Musical.”

Those were fictitious adventures, taking on the Wicked Witch of the West and a love-starved dragoness.

In September he’ll start a real life adventure in New York City, pursuing a huge dream at the urging of his classmates. Kennedy will attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on Madison Avenue, almost in the shadow of the Empire State Building.

Michael Kennedy

Cecil B. DeMille, Spencer Tracy, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Grace Kelly, Robert Redford, Danny DeVito, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain all claim the Academy as their alma mater. Kennedy hopes to call it his.

The road to the Academy hasn’t been straight. Kennedy’s family is sports-minded. His parents Tom and Denise were successful student athletes. Tom is an All-American in 16-inch slow pitch softball and coaches the Ram softball team. He has also coached many seasons of high school basketball. Michael’s older sister Jennifer (Greene County class of 2013) was a four-sport athlete in high school, and several of his cousins have been successful athletically.

Kennedy chuckles that he’s even named after an athlete – Michael Jordan.

He played Little League during his elementary years. “I was always doing sports because my family is sports oriented, but it never was my fun thing. I always got told ‘you’ll like it when you’re older,’ but it never happened,” he said.

He said it wasn’t a matter of his parents’ expectations, but that it was important to them that he stay fit and active, even at a young age. He played baseball, basketball and football, “the whole shebang,” but according to him, “I never really caught on to it.”

It wasn’t until his freshman year that they all agreed he wouldn’t learn to love sports. That allowed him time to pursue other activities he loved more – acting and singing.

He found his “fun thing” in middle school, acting in plays directed by Angie Gingery. “She really inspired me,” he said about Gingery. “Even though it was just middle school, it was something I always looked forward to. In football practice I was nervous every day because I didn’t like it and I didn’t want to be bad. On stage I felt at home…. Everyone gets nervous, but I’d get more nervous before a baseball game.”

He was selected for the OPUS honor choir during the fall of his freshman year. That was also his first year in the high school jazz choir. He knows he has grown a lot as a singer since then. “Freshman year I could barely get sound out because I was so nervous to sing in front of people,” he remembers. His nervousness that year was close to his nervousness playing baseball. “Singing is such a vulnerable thing to do,” he said.

That winter the Community Players did “The Sound of Music” and Kennedy was Friedrich von Trapp. “I did that because I knew I didn’t have confidence, so I tried to throw myself in a position where I needed it,” he said. He had decided he wanted to continue being on stage. “It was scary and it was difficult, but I did it.”

The high school performed “The Music Man” his sophomore year and he was in the barbershop quartet, singing lead tenor. He confesses the quartet struggled with the difficult barbershop harmonies.

Kennedy as Scarecrow | photo by Elaine Deluhery

The Community Players did “The Wizard of Oz” his junior year, and Kennedy made the role of Scarecrow his own. His voice had grown and his singing and dancing had, too. “I wanted to be Scarecrow, but I would have been happy with any role.” He said that becoming the Scarecrow character was easy and natural to him.

When the cast was announced for “Shrek the Musical,” people who had seen him as Scarecrow were excited to see him perform as Donkey. “I seem to get type cast into roles that are excitable characters. Scarecrow and Donkey are very similar,” he said.

Kennedy’s fans weren’t disappointed. He “wowed” the audiences with his stamina, his vocal range, how he used his body, and his total engagement with his role. He was spot-on with every note, and he made it look fun.

He credits two things for his vocal success – all the opportunities he had in high school, and private voice lessons with Laura Hinspeter of Waukee. Hinspeter is “very dedicated to her craft and knows exactly what she’s talking about,” according to Kennedy.

He started studying with her during the summer after his sophomore year and still studies with her.

His plan to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts developed rather unexpectedly, and at the same time “Shrek” was in rehearsal.

As he explains, he took the Leadership and Ethics class from Deb Marquardt during the second trimester, which finished earlier this month. During a class discussion he remembers he said, “I know this isn’t a very stable career and it doesn’t really make sense, but I kind of want to be on Broadway. I think that’s kind of weird, so I’m just going to be a Spanish teacher instead.”

His classmates didn’t find his idea weird or far-fetched, but encouraged him to try for Broadway. “It was such a positive environment. I loved that class…. I knew it wasn’t a steady career choice. I knew I loved it, but I thought it was unrealistic.”

He wasn’t familiar with performing arts schools, but a friend he had made during the two summers he attended a vocal jazz camp at Southwest Iowa Community College in Creston attends the Academy. The friend sent him information and he ended up auditioning for the Academy in Chicago just two weeks later, in late January.

“I feel like it was fate, to be in that class and have such positive people. To meet this random person at a camp and then she ends up changing the entire way I choose my life. I wouldn’t have even known about the American Academy of Dramatic Arts if it weren’t for her,” he said.

His audition included two prepared one-minute monologues, a “cold read,” and a short interview. “It wasn’t as stressful as I expected it to be,” he said. “They were really nice. They wanted me to succeed, not to fail.”

He said he told only a few people he was auditioning because he didn’t want people to know if he failed. If he wasn’t accepted he would go to the University of Iowa as a Spanish education major. If he was accepted at the Academy, he would know that’s what he was meant to do.

He heard two weeks later he had been accepted.

His trip to see the school during spring break was his first visit to New York City. He said he had a rather strange experience in a McDonald’s his first day there, “but I realized it was a learning experience. The rest of the time got easier.”

He said the Academy felt homey and calm. His student tour guide said it’s a lot of hard work, but people were very friendly.

The Academy offers two years of coursework and then students audition for a third “Company” year. First year classes range from theatre history to vocal production, script analysis, theatre dance, and on-camera technique. During the second year students learn the ropes of the trade, including courses on audition preparation.

More than 2,000 students audition for the Academy. One hundred are accepted for the first year; there are 80 slots in the second year class.

Kennedy’s career goal is to be on Broadway, but that might change. “They’re more focused on creating well-rounded actors. I could end up doing just about anything,” he said.

The Academy draws students from all over the world. He said he doesn’t feel at a disadvantage to students coming from large cities. “I feel because of the opportunities I’ve been given here, I’ve grown so much more. It’s hard to think of me, the little freshman me, at a big high school. I don’t know if I would have been able to survive and be a music person if I hadn’t had my start here. I was given so many more opportunities because there wasn’t so much competition. I’ve grown as a musician and as an actor,” he said.

He’s only a little apprehensive about his future. “I just want to make my town proud. I want people to say ‘He’s from Greene County’.” He said he won’t forget where he came from. “How could I? I spent my whole life here,” he said.

Along with that, though, he knows that if he gets to New York and changes his mind and returns to Iowa, “so many people would support me. At least I could say I tried.”



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