How’s this for career longevity: performer Keith Middleton has been pounding the stage as part of the cast of Off Broadway powerhouse Stomp since 1995. In addition to his involvement in the unusual show — where performers turn everyday objects such as matchboxes, brooms, and garbage cans into the fundamental building blocks of a dance, music and theatrical performance — Middleton has also amassed film and TV credits as well as recorded with his own rap group. He’s currently getting ready to launch a crowdfunding campaign for an album of original poetry and music, but he took time out from his busy schedule to talk to us about growing up around some entertainment-industry greats, what it’s been like being part of the Stomp troupe for almost two decades and what advice he’d give to young people wanting to stomp along in his footsteps.
You were born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Did you grow up harboring dreams of fame and stardom in the city as so many kids do?
Well, my family is heavily invested in the entertainment business. My great-uncle Clarence is in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. His group is Little Anthony and the Imperials, and they sang Tears on My Pillow and Shimmy Shimmy, Ko-Ko Bop. And then I have another uncle named Pepe Willie. He married a woman who said, “Can we please move back to Minnesota? I want you to meet my family. I have a cousin you should meet.” So he went to meet the cousin, a 14-year-old guy, and it just so happened that the cousin was Prince. And my uncle said, “You’re really talented, young man, let me take you to the studio.” So he took him to the studio and recorded some tracks, and my uncle took Prince to get him his first record deal.
So you grew up around a lot of people in the entertainment business?
Yeah, there were always people in and out of the house, different celebrities. I already knew that I wanted to get into the entertainment business, but I just didn’t know what capacity.
Did you get any formal training, in dance or music?
No, but I should have. I’m kind of kicking myself, though. There’s something to be said about natural talent, but then there’s also something to be said about harnessing your skill, channeling and focusing energy on learning more than what you can come up with on your own. I was always that guy who was like, “Oh, I can do that!” In hindsight, though, I wish I’d done it different. We weren’t rich, though, so I didn’t have access to teachers or classes.
Were you one of those kids dancing on the subway?
No, my mother wouldn’t let me take the train by myself. I wasn’t one of those kids who banged on the buckets and stuff, but I was one of those kids who did magic and juggling. I had a partner and we’d do fairs or on the street or in the park and make money like that. And we’d take that money and have a little rap booth. We were maybe 12 years old and we’d go to the recording studio and make a rap record. We’d do a birthday party or a bar mitzvah or something and go to the recording studio and think we were such big stars. But I was always making music, making beats, and I’m still doing that today – I’m launching an Indiegogo project for a new album of original music and poetry. I got into a car accident and almost died, and when I woke up in the hospital and realized I’d almost died, I thought about my bucket list. On the list, I said I always wanted to share my poetry, and I hadn’t done it.
How did you end up on the Stomp team given that you didn’t have any formal training?
A lot of us don’t have formal training, and it’s a gift and a curse at the same time. Stomp is all percussive. Some people come in with an acting background, some people come with a music background, some with a percussive background. I came in with a little bit of everything, self-taught, but there are a lot of people who are self-taught in the show. I think what it is, is if you have a natural ability to rhythm, which I think we all do, it just depends on whether you channel it at an early age.
Was there anything in your background that prepared you for such a physically demanding show?
I was always athletic. That helps with your stamina to do the show, and I have a pretty good knack for music and rhythm. You know, ‘cause I’m from Brooklyn off the block we can always dance, ’cause you couldn’t get no girls if you can’t dance. I never could get them girls but I did learn to dance!
Eighteen years is a long time to be with one production. Did you ever imagine the show would grow into such an international phenomenon?
I had no idea. When I first saw it, they had been running for five or six months. I didn’t know what was going on, they were throwing garbage cans at each other. But I saw that they got to go on stage and get crazy with each other and just have fun. I had some friends who were dancers and I asked if they’d seen the show, and it turned out they’d auditioned for it but didn’t get in. A few months later there were more auditions, and I went and I made it. And I think I was just determined to show that I could be a part of this greater good. But I never imagined it would become as big as it has. I never could have imagined that.
What’s kept you performing with the troupe for all these years?
I think for me Stomp is home. I love this place. I feel at ease and at peace. It’s second nature for me. It’s about fundamentals. Before there were actual drums, people banged on something. Before there were trumpets, people made noise from shells, they made music from what they had. And that’s what Stomp is doing; it brings music back to the fundamentals, to the essence. And if you take it a step further, it shows that there’s music in everyone and you can’t judge a book by its cover. If you look at a garbage can, people throw trash in it, but for me I turn it around and I bang the hell out of it, and I make everyone go “uh!” and they’re grooving, because it’s my instrument now, it’s not just a way to discard your trash anymore.
How do you keep it fresh?
I don’t know, it’s just what I do. If you’re a musician, you’re always playing music because that’s what you love to do. It becomes fresh because you’re always creating something. What’s great about Stomp is that we’re creating with seven other folks, like a family, and we all play different parts and change off. Tonight I might play Doctor Who and tomorrow I might play someone else. Every drummer, every guitar player is different, and it’s the same with us when we switch parts and characters. We’re always able to reinvent ourselves that way. And it’s not age or race or gender; everyone interchanges the roles and it doesn’t matter. I’m black and I’ve never been in a situation where everyone is equal before Stomp.
There are many different elements that go into the production — dance, percussion, and putting it all together in a cohesive fashion. What’s your specialty in the context of the bigger picture?
My normal role is Doctor Who, which is supposed to be funny, spontaneous and zany, but that’s kind of who I am in my everyday life anyway, so I kind of fall into that anyhow. But when I play other parts I have to have a different approach. There will be little hints of it, but I’ll have to be a different guy.
What is the most rewarding part about being part of the Stomp ensemble?
The applause, the audience, the kindred spirit. People come in here not knowing or maybe knowing what to expect, but they all leave with the same vibe. They’re all like, “Oh, wow, I just experienced something and we’re all with the ‘in crowd’ now.” They all walk out of here like I was saying with the fundamentals and the rhythm. Here and abroad, like Russia or Singapore or somewhere where they don’t speak English, everybody gets rhythm, their heads start nodding back and forth. When people leave here I get elated that the show has that effect on them.
Children in particular seem transfixed by the show thanks to its central tenant that you can make art, dance and music out of everyday objects, something they’re already intimately familiar with. Do you find adults and children relate to the show in different ways?
I just got an email from a man who had stopped me in the street in Times Square and said, “You’re in Stomp!” He said his son loved me, so we took a picture together. He gave me his card, and this guy was a writer for Vanity Fair, so I sent him the picture. He sent me back an email about how much his son loved the show and all the characters and especially my character. And his son shot a video where the kid has on my outfit, like I do a newspaper scene where I act crazy, and he was doing that scene. And we get stuff like that all the time from kids.
Kids also respond to the show because they see there are all kinds of characters they can identify with, all type of people, shapes and sizes and genders and races. Kids can see we’re all different but we’re all the same, we’re doing one thing together, showing we can work together collectively to make great music. And it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like, what you believe in, we’re here to do this thing and we can work together. And kids can see that.
In addition to Stomp, you’ve been in some movies and done other things, including being on Sesame Street. What’s that experience been like?
Yes, we’ve been on Sesame Street, we’ve done the Oscars. Out of all my years of Stomp-dom, being on Sesame Street is definitely one of the top things I’ve been part of. Doing the film Pulse was amazing, but just traveling around the world and working with different musical groups and filming in general has been an amazing experience. I’ve gotten to travel to India, Africa, New Zealand, Asia, practically everywhere.
There’s an old joke where someone asks how to get to Carnegie Hall and the answer is “practice!” Other than the obvious, is there any advice you can offer aspiring performers who want to make it as a performing artist like yourself in this city?
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not capable. As long as you believe in it and you work hard, you can do it. I was surrounded by super talented dancers and break-dancers and drummers all my life, just looking up to these guys. And they were the folks who told me that I couldn’t get it because they couldn’t get it. I was almost discouraged, but had I not seen Stomp I probably would have listened to them. But I saw the show and I thought, “I think I can do that. You just have to be yourself and play with the people on stage. I can do that.” And lo and behold, here I am talking to you about it all these years later. Where I come from, people don’t expect you to make it. You just have to believe in yourself. You can’t let anybody, whatever they believe or however they try to deter you, I’m living proof. You can’t let people tell you that you can’t do something.
Looking back, what’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Follow your dream. People who are supportive of you are true blue friends or family. The people who tell you to follow your heart or your dreams and stay focused.
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