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'I want it to be my life': How a former IU football player fell for the theater


Graduate student Kenneth Arnold portrays Aaron the Moor in IU Theatre's production of "Titus Andronicus." Arnold played football for IU his entire undergraduate career and began acting in 2016. Ty Vinson Buy Photos

At heart, IU graduate student Kenneth Arnold is an entertainer. 

Through four years of college football and more than a year of stage performance, one thing has remained consistent for the baller-turned-thespian: he’s there to put on a show.

That’s why to him, the two aren’t that different. Whether he’s running the field or soliloquizing on stage, both under the bright lights and in front of a crowd, Arnold wants to entertain.

“It’s almost the same,” he said. “The only difference is when you’re out on the field you’re not saying words. Your movement and actions are what speak for you.”

He said he knows in each setting it’s on him and his teammates or fellow cast members to keep a crowd drawn in. The nature of the entertainment is different, but the desire to produce it is the same. 

If he plays a bad game, spectators will be bored — he's seen them leave at halftime. If his acting is weak, he’s letting down everyone who paid for a good show.

It’s his job to keep them engaged.

As an undergraduate, Arnold played linebacker and studied management through IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a linebacker for all four years of college but saw no games in his senior year after a season-ending injury. 

He remembers football with fondness. He said it taught him commitment and dedication, how to have constant energy and to be enthusiastic even on the bad days, all things he’s since translated into acting. And though he’s in a new part of his life now, Arnold said he hasn’t forgotten his old team.

"I'm a Hoosier for life," he said.

Derrian Meminger, a former teammate of Arnold’s, said his enthusiasm and energy were key. He was competitive and hated to lose, but also passionate no matter what.

“I feel as though being an athlete has molded Kenny to having an unbelievable work ethic,” Meminger said.

It wasn’t until the spring of his junior year that Arnold even discovered an affinity for acting. He had loved storytelling all his life, had always been the student overly eager to speak in class and tell stories to his peers.

His appreciation for the arts was always present, he said, even if it didn't always show.

Football, on the other hand, was clearer from the get-go. When he was 8, Arnold played youth football with a community organization in Canton, Michigan. His love of the game was cultivated by his father, who played until he was 35, first at Saginaw Valley State University and then for the Detroit Seminoles.

Acting crept up on Arnold quietly. In high school, he took a voiceover and creative arts class where his passion began to grow. He took an intro-level acting class at IU in 2016, and it swept him off his feet.

Arnold remembers being completely captivated by the class. 

“I would have, you know, an hour and ten minute class in my major courses, and those felt like they took forever,” he said. “But as soon as I got to acting class, it was exciting, and I was never not entertained.”

From there, it was just a matter of patience. He knew he wanted to pursue acting, but also he couldn’t put all of his eggs in one basket, he said.

So he went to graduate school. He’s currently working on a Master of Science in Safety Management while acting on the side. He studied other actors’ careers for inspiration, and cites Harper Hill, who pursued acting but went to Harvard Law School with Barack Obama, as an influence. 

His first show was an IU production of “Barbecue” in October 2018. He loved the experience so much that he auditioned for “Titus Andronicus,” a Shakespeare production that opened Jan. 18, and was cast as Aaron the Moor.

“It was amazing, just to touch a crowd with a show that hadn’t really been brought to IU’s campus,” Arnold said.

Director James Nelson said Arnold brings incredible magnetism to the part. 

“He holds the attention of the audience with ease, and everyone is on his side,” Nelson said. “As an actor, he's tremendously disciplined and is hungry to master every detail of the performance  — he was finding new things in the text up through opening, and it was really exciting to watch that progress.”

Though Nelson, a third-year  Master of Fine Arts candidate, said he’s not an expert in football, he said many of Arnold’s best qualities come straight from the game.

“He knows intuitively how to support others,” Nelson said. “He's also a very positive inspiration for his colleagues to do their best work, because he brings it every single day.”

For Arnold, the joy of acting is in bringing a story to life. It’s about bringing audience members into that story and keeping them entertained. It’s about translating a playwright’s desire to touch an audience into something real.

“Playwrights, they’re always trying to touch a certain crowd or speak a certain voice to our world,” he said. “I think that’s what helped me developed this passion.”

He said he doesn’t know exactly what comes next, other than more performances. But one thing is for certain: Kenneth Arnold wants acting to be his life. 

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