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It's not hard to spot Justin M. Krebs '00.
This morning's undergraduate English orator can be found in the Mather House dining hall every Sunday brunch. He's the tall guy with the long, curly brown ponytail, smothering his Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream.
"Justin runs on strawberries and whipped cream. If you take those away and cut his hair he loses his strength," jokes Krebs' roommate of four years,
Matthew N. Stoller '00. "If there's one flaw in Justin it's that he doesn't eat enough vegetables."
Krebs' "strength"--be it from his toppings of choice or a personality to match--has propelled him to the head of the Class of 2000 as the popularly-elected First Class Marshal, the voice of the undergraduates at today's Commencement exercises and a summa cum laude nominee from the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature.
Krebs hypothesizes that his more than 1,600 classmates elected him as their marshal because of his high visibility on campus as the leader of the Immediate Gratification Players (IGP), an improvisational comedy troupe. He has also been involved in several dramatic productions and served for a year on the Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club board of directors. And he admits that he just plain knows a lot of people.
"I have a life philosophy that involves saying hello and I think people appreciate that," Krebs says, flashing a broad smile from between cheeks covered in long stubble.
"Everyone on campus either knows him or has heard of him, and that stems not as much from him having a high profile as from his knowing peoples' names," says his friend C. Larry Malm '00. "[Justin's] not someone who memorizes peoples' name in order to seem slick, rather he cares about them as soon as he meets them."
Krebs was chosen to speak by a University committee that included University Marshal Richard Hunt and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in the Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes. He acknowledges that with his appearance and beliefs he might be an unexpected choice to speak at fair Harvard's commencement. (" I did shave before I went," he says.)
Krebs is firm in his stance that he is not a member of a final club, is not a senior gift representative, although he was involved in choosing the gift co-chairs, and holds some iconoclastic views.
He recalls a story his father Eric Krebs likes to tell about the eighth grade graduation speech his son delivered: After Krebs' speech, another parent approached his father and asked, "Does he actually believe all that stuff?"
"And I said, 'Yes, every word,'" says Eric Krebs. "No doubt Justin will bring his liberal egalitarian orientation to his speech in some sort of way."
Justin Krebs says his performance and his message were probably key to his selection as speaker. He calls his speech "a little bit whimsical with a nod to our academic, intellectual, thoughtful surroundings."
"It's primarily concerned with how we accept one another," Krebs says.
Practice Makes Perfect
"He'll probably just recycle the same stuff," his father jokes.
If two previous speakig engagements and numerous Harvard rehearsals aren't enough to prepare Krebs for this morning's address, he could also fall back on his clown training from a workshop he attended the summer after his sophomore year. There he learned how to walk to the center of a stage and make an announcement, thus improving his stage presence over the two-week training course.
But more importantly, he also learned how much he prefers improv to clowning.
"It really was actually kind of frustrating because clowning is more precise than improv. I enjoy through improv and the other members of the group creating an entire world," Krebs says. "I think I've always been a make-believer or a maker-believe."
Krebs has been a member of IGP since his first year at Harvard, and says he takes some of the credit for the group's improvement over the past four years. The troupe has grown, he says, and has more paying gigs than ever before. IGP performed a total of 60 times this academic year.
Even though what the audience sees on stage is improvisation, Krebs says, the troupe takes practice very seriously. They practice four hours a week with extra rehearsals before special events. IGP shows mostly consist of improvisation games the performers play with words and situations contributed by the audience.
"It's improved for the audience if we practice what we're doing," Krebs says, adding that each member of the troupe must be able to call on others' strengths during the performance. "You drill yourself on skills, put yourself in a game situation," he says.
One of the productions Krebs says he is most proud of is IGP's first musical theme show, an innovation the troupe produced with financial assistance from Harvard's Office of the Arts. The grant was to perform an improvised musical, but they "had no idea how to do it."
"Up until the week of the show, cast members were suggesting that we simply cancel it," Krebs writes in an e-mail message.
According to Malm, a fellow IGP member, "Justin just sort of stepped in with a very clear vision" and made the production work.
The troupe performed "Superheroes: An Improvised Musical," which recounted the adventures of the weasel warrior, a make-believe superhero shouted out by an audience member at the beginning of the performance. The success of "Superheros" has made the improvised musical an annual IGP event. This year's musical--about the rise and fall of a band--ran for five performances during Arts First weekend.
An Early Start
It is surprising to hear that this creative child had to change elementary schools because he refused to go to art class. Eric Krebs says his son's art teacher scared him by insisting that there was only one way to draw a snowflake.
"That was typical of the ways in which his creative self will no t be stemmed in any way," Eric Krebs says. "We encourage it but we also realize that his talents are so enormous that he had better achieve in areas beyond theater in this world."
Justin Krebs says he has been influenced by his parents, both of whom "came into the business they're in because they were interested in the art of it."
His father is a theater producer and his mother, Suzanne Krebs, turned her interest in photography into a career that allowed her to be home during the day with Justin and his older sister Arielle, 24.
At Harvard, Krebs has achieved beyond his extracurricular interests. His thesis on James Baldwin's articulation of American national identity earned him a History and Literature nomination for a degree summa cum laude.
The thesis focuses on several essays and a novel, Another Country, that Baldwin wrote after returning to the United States from Paris in the 1950s and 1960s. The thesis examines what it means to be American in the context of Baldwin's personal tensions about national identity.
"A thesis is incredible because it is the most ownership you'll ever take over your own education," he says.
But while Krebs studied belonging and identity, both are themes that he seems very comfortable with in his own life. As First Class Marshal he must represent and tie together a disparate class and their University, with whose policies he does not always agree. The most important part of his job, Krebs says, is keeping the class in touch with each other, but he also feels able to serve in the complex position of liaison with the University.
"It doesn't have to be a strictly ceremonial position that fits into the larger machine of the University," he says. The class committee as a whole, Krebs says, "brings forth a good sense of how the class feels."
He says he will not shy from disagreements with the University and will try to effect change through his position.
Although Krebs did not drink until this year, he has broken University rules in the past. In fact, this morning will not be the first time his voice has been amplified in the Yard. A few weeks ago, he had to drive a van into the Yard to pick up bleachers from Dudley House for an IGP event.
"Justin thought this would be a wonderful moment to publicize the event," Malm says. The two got a megaphone and drove through the Yard, throwing candy and flyers to passers-by. "Of course when the Harvard police showed up, it was Justin who dug us all out."
The event is typical of Justin's style--it was fun, and drew people together.
"Unlike most perfect people, he's pretty self-aware about it. Though he is really nice to everyone and likes everyone, he can understand the other perspective," Stoller says. "In his life he will make a lot of people feel better about themselves."
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