You may not know Kyle Kemph’s face, but if you have been to Jenny Wiley Theatre is Prestonsburg this summer, you know his work. On top of playing Pinocchio (complete with growing nose) in Shrek: The Musical, professional actor Kemph has been puppeteer for multiple puppets both large and small this summer. These puppets include the huge dragon in Shrek (which Kemph controls along with three other people), and all the various sizes of Audrey 2, the quickly growing man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors.
Little Shop of Horrors just closed July 31, but tickets are still available for Shrek: The Musical, which closes August 8. Based on the Oscar-winning DreamWorks Animation film, Shrek is a TONY Award-winning musical fairy tale adventure. This show has laughs for the whole family and brings to life all your favorite characters, including the wisecracking donkey, the feisty princess, and of course, the grumpy but lovable green ogre, Shrek.
Bringing puppets to life is no small part of the magic of larger-than-life shows like Shrek and Little Shop. Puppeteering can be a thankless, physically taxing job but fortunately, actor/puppeteer Kyle Kemph is more concerned with doing quality work than with getting lots of credit and praise from the audience. “I am inside the plant. You can’t see my face at all,” Kemph says, laughing about his role as Audrey 2, the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. “When I come out for bows they have no idea who I am!”
Puppetry, especially with large puppets like Kemph is handling, also requires strength and flexibility and takes a physical toll on the body. However, 22-year-old Kemph is not one to complain. “I have a high pain tolerance,” Kemph shrugs. “It doesn’t really phase me too much because of having that background in physical sports like wrestling in high school.”
As a young professional actor new to puppetry, Kemph has had to be flexible. Hired as an actor by Jenny Wiley Theatre because of his gifts in character voices and singing, Kemph did not even know he would also be working with the puppets until arriving at the theatre this summer. However, Kemph enjoys the challenge of learning new skills, and developed a natural talent for puppetry that the theatre’s directors noticed. “Every summer for the past five or six summers I have learned something new,” Kemph says. “Tap dancing, beat boxing, playing harmonica, playing trumpet, and now puppeteering.”
Controlling the motions of the puppets in Shrek and Little Shop is especially challenging because other actors are providing the voices. “Since I am not the one voicing, I have to be very aware of what’s going on and the nuances of the actors’ voices,” Kemph explains, “They [the directors] recognized early on I am a stickler for perfection; I wanted to match it up as best I could, to try to make them look real.”
Kemph, who has a BFA in Musical Theatre from Kent State University in Ohio, is no slouch in the voice department himself. In addition to dazzling audiences at JWT this summer with his hilarious character voices for Pinocchio and other parts, Kemph’s resumé includes several other regional theatres and shows such as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, The Rocky Horror Show, and A Chorus Line. Kemph plans to continue his professional acting career in New York City after this summer.
But for now, Kemph a native of Akron-Canton, Ohio, is enjoying the natural beauty and hospitality of eastern Kentucky. “I really appreciate the natural beauty this place has… And there’s the Country Music Highway, and Hatfield-McCoy’s— there is history here,” Kemph notes, “And everyone is so nice.”
Shrek: The Musical runs through August 8 at Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg. Tickets are now available by calling 877-CALL-JWT Monday through Saturday 11:00 am to 6:00 pm or by visiting jwtheatre.com. You can also find Jenny Wiley Theatre on Facebook and Twitter (@JWTdrama).