By Lauren Knight
A few years after he graduated from UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, Justin Keats’ phone rang in an audition waiting room in New York City. Preparing to sing at an audition in four minutes for another Broadway musical, Keats saw his agent’s name on his screen and did not hesitate to answer. In the midst of rehearsing for another project and auditioning for a new Broadway show, Keats found out that he would be making his Broadway debut in Cirque du Soleil’s new Broadway show, “Paramour.” Processing all that he could over the phone as his agent laid down the logistics, he soon realized that his name would be called for the audition any minute, and hurried back into the waiting room. Finishing up his audition and bolting out of the building as soon as possible, Keats quickly grabbed lunch and two hours after the initial call, ran to his first day of rehearsals for “Paramour.”
Keats was cast in the show as a part-time ensemble understudy, or “vacation swing,” and got to perform three weeks into the run when an ensemble member sprained his ankle mid-show. Jumping on to continue in his place for the remainder of the show, Keats then shifted from memorizing and understudying six roles to twenty-seven, as the production realized it needed full-time swings after the incident and Keats’ role within the show expanded. When the show closed in April 2017, Keats immediately began working in La Jolla Playhouse’s pre-Broadway run of the Jimmy Buffett musical “Escape to Margaritaville,” which began its Broadway run in February 2018. Now back in La Jolla to work on a new musical about Princess Diana, Keats reflects back on his time at UCI and the training that helped him prepare for a career in the Broadway industry.
Graduating in the Class of 2011, Keats earned his BFA in dance performance from the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, dancing in Donald McKayle’s “Etude Dance Ensemble” and taking many classes within the school’s drama department over the course of his four years.
“I did ‘West Side Story’ and a show called ‘Book of Tink,’ and I did the New York Satellite Program with the theater department,” said Keats, recognizing the Satellite Program as one of the most influential parts of his training at UCI.
The four-week program sends UCI students to New York City to train in New York dance studios, meet with agents and casting directors, attend workshops and talkbacks with casts of numerous Broadway shows, and develop their skill set with the help of industry professionals.
“I think what’s really unique about it is you get to meet so many people in the industry who do different things.” said Keats. “My favorite course was the ‘Surviving New York 101’ course. The professor talked about what it means for you to feel safe in the city, how to get survival jobs, what’s considered a survival job… all of these really basic life needs that you don’t think about when you move to a new place in such a big way.”
With the training that he received over four weeks, Keats felt more confident in his choice to move to New York after graduating. Speaking of this experience as something that sets UCI’s arts education apart, Keats explains how the New York Satellite Program also solidified his choice to pursue musical theater after graduation instead of just dance.
“After the New York program, I knew that musical theater was where I wanted to be,” said Keats. “I knew that I want to tell stories, not just do movement for movement’s sake.”
During his four years at UCI, there was hardly a time where Keats was not performing. On top of being a full-time student, Keats worked as a performer at Disneyland all four years.
“I never did less than three or four shows a year,” said Keats. “I always did “Dance Visions,” I did a lot of “Physical Graffiti”s, I did some grad and undergrad theses, and then I worked my job at Disneyland. I was always performing.”
Throughout all of these performance experiences, Keats found that the more he became involved with everything UCI had to offer, the more he loved the school.
“They give a fantastic technique background here,” said Keats. “I think you have a solid technique when you leave, and there are tons of performance opportunities and ways to create opportunities for yourself. If there’s not something suited for you that’s already in place, you are encouraged to create your own path, and that’s awesome.”
Keats could not even decide what his favorite course was during his time at UCI. “Honestly, all of my classes were — so — good,” said Keats. “College was like the best four years that I’ve ever had in one place.”
As Keats continues to work within the Broadway industry, he continues to strive for new goals within his career, already hitting several milestones less than five years after graduation from UCI. Having already recorded tracks on an original Broadway cast album and performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Keats hopes to one day be cast in a show that gets to perform at the Tony Awards.
“That’s my next big bucket list moment,” said Keats. “That’s — truly — the next big thing that I want to accomplish.”
While working in Southern California on “Diana” at La Jolla Playhouse this spring, Keats hopes to visit UCI’s campus in the future, possibly teaching a class for the musical theater department before returning to New York City. As he laughs and recalls stories like doing six pirouettes in dance class after an all-nighter and falling asleep at the ballet barre mid-class, Keats breaks out into a large grin talking about his time in college.
“There was just this general glow over those years of just knowing that I was so happy,” he said. “Getting to be so busy and structured, and with such incredible friends. I was performing constantly, I was working, I was growing as a human, I was figuring myself out, and I had such support all around with people who were challenging me to be a bigger and better human. That… that I think made it for me.”