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CurtainUp Interview: Kaia Calhoun

by Les Gutman

In June, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation awarded the first Sir John Gielgud Fellowship to Kia Calhoun. Established with a gift from Gielgud "to encourage the passing down of directorial skills particular to work on classical plays," the fellow is to assist a master director on a major classical play. The director Calhoun was assigned to is Garland Wright (former artistic director of Minnesota's Guthrie Theater who has also directed and won awards in New York and most of the nation's other regional theaters). The classic play they are working on together is The Tempest at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC (opening September 8).

Since CurtainUp recently reviewed Ms. Calhoun's directing in Seeking the Genesis at Manhattan Theatre Club as well as Mr. Wright's direction of The Devils at New York Theatre Workshop, I thought it would be interesting to find out from Calhoun what she hopes to learn from Wright.

Despite their different backgrounds and experience, Calhoun and Wright already has more in common than one might imagine. Her resume, in addition to acting credits, includes a couple dozen stints as a director or assistant director (including two Shakespeares), as well as serving as Drama League Fellow assisting Athol Fugard in the American premiere of Valley Song at the McCarter Theatre in 1995. Emily Mann describes her as "one of the extraordinary young artists in the theatre". 

Both mentor and mentee's theatrical careers were launched with decidedly non-Shakespearean intentions. When Wright left college he was in his own words "virtually illiterate in Shakespeare," and interested in new plays and the avant-garde. Though his first job was at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, his function was to direct small, late night "alternative" productions. As for Calhoun, to her "Shakespeare was counter-revolutionary".

So what happened?

When Calhoun was stuggling with her acting, her teacher used Shakespeare as a way of forcing her to connect images and feelings to create a voice:
It just rocked me. I hadn't had an experience where I could speak this language -- which I thought was anti-revolutionary. . .The key to voice is feelings and the thoughts connected to them. You have to bring both and somewhere in the process I wasn't. . .All of a sudden there was this landscape of words.. .I've been in love ever since.
I wanted to discover how Kia Calhoun hoped to continue this romance through the fellowship, whether she felt directing the classics was "different" and a little about how she viewed directing in general.

Two things attracted Calhoun to the Gielgud Fellowship. The first was the chance to continue her education. ("Gielgud once wrote that '[American?] actors are the only ones who don't continue to train'".) The second was the chance to work with Garland Wright:
I saw Devils. I thought it was genius. I thought Garland was the perfect person to be with at this point in my career....His compositions are art -- communicative, so strong visually....To understand his use of depth of field and foreground, you have to discover he had been a painter before he was a director. I thought, this is it: the next rung on my educational ladder.
(It's worth noting that Kia is not alone in her praise of Wright's work in Devils. In her CurtainUp review, Elyse Sommer called it "a director's triumph").

A fellowship geared to directing "the classics" raises several questions of its own. Does it require a different craft than directing contemporary theater (like Seeking the Genesis)? And what are "the classics" anyway? Calhoun has very definite opinions on both.

She sees directing Seeking the Genesis and The Tempest as similar:
You've got to get in and wrestle with the language . . ..That seems to be my path: language, language, language, and I really love that. . .The Tempest is about emotions, humanity -- that's Garland's take on it, a journey toward humanity. Kia [Calhoun, playwright of Seeking the Genesis] was tapping into the child in all of us. . .Those two intersect; I don't put them in periods . . .My job as a director is to communicate. If I don't provoke you, then why am I there? If it doesn't resonate, it's a museum piece.
Calhoun resists my definition of the word, "classic". Eschewing categories -- especially eurocentric ones -- she relates an early experience at Shakespeare and Company (where she is a founding member) when everyone was told to look up the meaning of "classic". The root she found ("a healing climb upward") informs her work: "That's what I'm in search of," she says.

Still, there seems to be a need for "translation" in Shakespeare that is absent in plays set in the "here and now". When I raised potential obstacles for modern audiences "relating to" The Tempest (all those spirits and that magic and stuff), she laughed. Her answer sheds light: "Stay up past 11 tonight and its the Psychic Friends Network. Magic is just art."

Indeed. What a take on Prospero's prayer, "Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant."

Plays mentioned above and reviewed at CurtainUp :
Seeking the Genesis
The Devils
© August 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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