Katrina Kemp is fierce. Let’s just get that out of the way quickly. She’s widely known for her appearances on television and in performances with celebrities, and she is currently performing in the musical “Love Never Dies,” which is the sequel to “Phantom of the Opera.” All of that is amazing, and you can Google it.
What I want to describe to you are the insights she has shared with me as a person of small stature and huge ambition. I think something many of us appreciate in other people’s stories is the ability others have not only to survive, but to thrive. This is all the more remarkable in situations where someone is, by default, marginalized by the broader culture. How do you make yourself seen in a world where you’re generally invisible?
How? You refuse to be ignored while orchestrating the opportunities and executing the projects that allow you to embody the work you want to do. You define your space, and then you fill it with yourself. “You make your own art. That’s what I constantly kept doing… since I was a little kid, I’m making my own films, editing my own things… writing out scenes and stories.” In other words: She creates her own context.
For Kemp, creating a character involves getting to know the role from a physical perspective. I found this interesting, because there are hardly any roles written for little people, so it’s very clever of her to jump right in and create a person by way of their movement. “I’m very connected to dance and speaking with my body. I think that led me more toward being around other people who like the same things… taking from people’s energy and listening to them say what they liked me doing… leading me back to this approach of doing what someone is not going to expect… finding yourself in that character, finding that originality.” She agrees that it’s vital to understand how a character moves, which then influences everything else about them.
Exploitation is definitely another issue people with dwarfism have to contend with. Between the general presumption that little people must always be funny or clownish in their personalities, and the more specific sexual fetishization of their bodies, Kemp has taken care to make sure that the work she accepts does not diminish her person or dignity. In “Love Never Dies,” she plays an aerialist named Fleck. “I don’t know who said this role needs to be a little person, but nowhere is there a time that I felt when they wrote that that it felt it comes off as exploitative. If we’re saying this is a circus, and she’s an aerialist extraordinaire, I feel like that eliminates all the exploitation from it for me, because that’s Fleck being an aerialist.”
Kemp impressed upon me that we create the life we choose, and that we choose the life we create. Whether it be inventing original narratives in order to have acting roles to portray, or assembling multimedia projects from scratch to materialize her own opportunities to direct, Kemp has conjured limitless possibility for herself. By doing so, she is also showing the world how tall the expectations and opportunities can and should be for people who are short.
How does she use her platform to speak to the universal human experience? “I’m striving to live in truth. You know deep down when something doesn’t feel right in your heart, and you feel like you have to say something. I feel like that, and also knowing when to keep my mouth shut and listen — both of those things have always served me. If I feel like someone needed to listen to something I needed to say, I wanted them to hear me out. And I think it’s a ‘Little People Thing’ (and just a people thing in general): If people keep something to themselves, other people are just going to magically understand them one day. It’s like, ‘No! You gotta remind them who you are!’ And if they want to knock you off of your reality, you’ve got to stay in that truth and tell them, ‘This is how it is, and this is how it’s going to be!’”
Big gifts come in small packages? Indeed!
Katrina Kemp can be seen in “Love Never Dies” on stage from Sept. 11-16 at the Belk Theatre at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Tickets are still available at the Blumenthal ticket office, 130 N. Tryon St., or online at bit.ly/2PJJTWC.