An Interview with Keith Rubin: Celebrating Harry Potter in ‘Puffs’ at New World Stages

Now playing at New World Stages as “the famously handsome wizard boy Cedric” in the long-running Off-Broadway hit Puffs – a critically-acclaimed laugh-out-loud comedy inspired by the Harry Potter series – Keith Rubin is a rising star in New York, known for his work on stage, in comedy clubs, and on screen (including appearances on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, At Home with Amy Sedaris, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). With a B.A. in Theater Studies from Yale University and training in Columbia’s TV Writing program, the multi-talented Rubin not only acts, but is also a writer and musician, whose debut EP, This Might Take a While, is now available for download.

Keith Rubin. Photo by Alex Schaefer.

Keith, who performs eight shows a week with Puffs, generously took the time to answer some questions about the hilarious production (which celebrated its 750th performance in February) and the diverse aspects of his burgeoning career.

Deb: At what age did you first realize that you liked to make people laugh? Do you remember that one ah-ha moment when you told a joke or a story, or enacted a scene?

Keith: I don’t remember exactly when it was, but sometime in middle school I went to a sleepaway camp for the first time. I didn’t know anybody there, and it felt like an opportunity to show a different side of myself from the one I was locked into at school. I was a really awkward and self-serious kid, so I was on the receiving end of a fair share of classic middle-school teasing. But at this sleepaway camp, I think the fresh start just made something click for me, and I remember making jokes and doing voices and having people tell me I was funny, which was such a departure from how I was known at school. And I remember thinking, “Oh, I think maybe being funny is . . . good?” So I brought back to school a sense of humor and lightness that helped things roll off my back a bit more, and eventually led me down the road to performing. And now I constantly seek validation in front of an audience, so problem solved!

What do you enjoy most about performing on stage before a live audience?

There’s an incredible tangible energy when you’re onstage that you just don’t have without a live audience. And especially in a comedy, the feeling that an audience is right there with you is electric. Our show is super funny and quick, so the immediate gratification of those laughs is obviously great, but there are also really heartfelt scenes in Puffs, and some of my favorite moments are the more serious ones, when you can sense the audience being affected in a deeper, more emotional way.

Keith Rubin with the cast of Puffs. Photo courtesy of the production.
The cast of Puffs with Chris Rankin from the Harry Potter movies. Photo courtesy of the production.

What are the advantages of acting in a show that you didn’t write, as opposed to performing your own work? What are the biggest challenges?

One of the great things about being in a show I didn’t write is that I only have to wear one hat – I’m not responsible for creating or evaluating the material, only for making my performance of it the best it can be. In a show like Puffs, that’s just such genius on so many levels, it’s easy to do because the source material is amazing. Plus, by the time I came onboard, Puffs was such a well-oiled machine that all the kinks had already been worked out, so I just got to enjoy putting my spin on my character within the context of an already-flourishing show.

On the flip side, sometimes a challenge with performing an existing work is that I only get to wear one hat. I love the process of collaboration and creative problem-solving that comes with creating and developing new work, so if I’m doing an older or classical show that’s already been set in stone and put up in a million different productions, I miss the ability to engage with it on that extra level.

Were you a Harry Potter fan before joining the cast of Puffs? Or did you need a crash course in the books, movies, and current Broadway production to prepare for your part in the show?

Oh I was definitely a fan before Puffs! Growing up, I was about the same age as Harry was each time a new book came out, so I remember feeling like I saw myself reflected in his story as he grew up. That said, I definitely needed a bit of a refresher on some things to make sure I got some of the excellent deep-cut jokes in the script.

A scene from Puffs. Photo by Hunter Canning.
A scene from Puffs. Photo by Hunter Canning.

What do you love most about playing Cedric?

First of all, it’s hard to beat an entrance where you stand in a spotlight and say your character’s name and then a sweet guitar riff plays underneath you as you high five audience members and jump onto the stage. But more importantly, something that’s really cool about Cedric is that since he’s one of the better-known characters in our show, he gets to be a bit of a guide not only for the other characters, but also for the audiences – welcoming them into our world, helping them understand how it works. He’s an access point for people, and it’s really exciting to help audiences get onboard with our universe early in the show.

If you could be a wizard for a day, what magic spell would you cast?

I think I’d be a bad wizard if I didn’t cast a spell that, say, immediately caused lasting world peace. But if I couldn’t do that, I’d probably cast a spell to make myself awake and excited about the day immediately, as soon as my alarm goes off every morning, instead of groggy and disoriented. So I guess my magic spell would be caffeine?

Keith Rubin. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Keith Rubin. Photo by Alex Schaefer.

Puffs offers two kid-friendly performances on weekends. What are the main differences between those and the regular show?

I think there are two main differences — first, we cut out any curse words. And second, without giving too much away, there’s a portion of the show that changes from day to day, and on family-friendly matinees, that portion just makes sure to stay fully appropriate for all ages. But it’s still the same delightful show and experience!

What’s the most important take-away from Puffs that you can relate to in your own life?

I love that Puffs celebrates two things: the inherent value of trying your darnedest; and the inherent value of being a good friend. The Puffs aren’t the most glamorous or showy house, and sometimes they don’t succeed, but the important thing is that they put themselves out there, show up for their friends, and give it their all. That’s been a valuable reminder for my own life.

Cover of This Might Take a While. Photo by Farah Al Q.
Keith Rubin, This Might Take a While. Photo by Farah Al Q.

Does your full schedule of eight performances a week allow you enough time to continue doing your own sketch and stand-up comedy and music?

Puffs is definitely a full-time gig, so while I haven’t been able to perform much of my own work since joining the cast, I’m lucky because I’ve still had time to write and to develop other projects on my own time, including some longer-term projects like screenplays and pilots. Hopefully, that’ll give me a bit of a backlog of material to be excited about for when I eventually move on. In the meantime, though, I’m thrilled and grateful to have such a consistent performance schedule, because it’s a rare and exciting thing!

What’s been the single most rewarding experience of your career to date?

One of the first plays I ever did was a show that was slightly more serious than Puffs, and one night after the show, a woman came up to me and told me that my character and performance had reminded her of one her best friends, who had passed on years earlier, and she thanked me for making her think of him. I was floored. It was maybe the first moment I realized the potential of what a piece of theater could mean to an individual person, and it made me want to try to share meaningful experiences like that with as many people as possible over the course of my career.

Many thanks, Keith! I loved your work in Puffs and hope the show continues to pass many more milestones in its Off-Broadway engagement!

Puffs plays at New World Stages – 340 West 50th Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.

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