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CurtainUp Interview: Kaia Calhoun
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
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
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
(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
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
© August 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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