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Kent envisions a cultured America

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Steven Kent’s influence on the theater spreads over several states and countries. He serves not only as the director of theater at the University of La Verne but also contributes to several different theater projects including Junebug Productions, with whom he has directed six plays. He has directed plays for the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, among many others. His most recent production for the University was “Facets: A Musical Theatre Cabaret,” which debuted in January. / photo by Christopher Guzman

Steven Kent’s influence on the theater spreads over several states and countries. He serves not only as the director of theater at the University of La Verne but also contributes to several different theater projects including Junebug Productions, with whom he has directed six plays. He has directed plays for the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, among many others. His most recent production for the University was “Facets: A Musical Theatre Cabaret,” which debuted in January. / photo by Christopher Guzman

Kristen Campbell
News Editor

Director of Theater Steven Kent has directed productions internationally, trained the world’s future actors and always has time for his students. While relaxing in his homely office, he sat down to talk about how he ended up in the world of theater, his undying love for Croatia and why he thinks the University of La Verne tops the rest of college theater.

Tell me about your academic history and how you chose to be where you are now.

I started out at the University of Southern California in architecture, graduated to music, then to communication and then to theater. I changed my major four times.

Why did you end up with theater?

Well I didn’t think, see I liked doing plays and stuff in high school, but I didn’t think of it as a discipline. I don’t know why.

All the time, I was intending to be a minister, a Methodist minister, so I was going to get an undergraduate degree then go into training. And I got sort of disenchanted with organized religion in college, even though I was the president of the student council of organized religion. What they wanted was a student council on Christianity and I thought that it was a misnomer. If you’re going to focus on organized religion, let’s bring in the Jews and the Buddhists and all the other people involved. That didn’t go over well.

So, I was looking around for something that gave me the same feeling or pleasure or interest as I had done with this really unusual education. In high school, I was involved with organizations that went to big arts conferences and things like that. Student art, theater, religion and all that; I’ve always been involved in art.

And then I found out what I was really looking for was theater. It is just a group of people getting together and talking about issues that are important to them. Usually it results in a presentation of some sort with an audience, or congregation, and frankly, there’s always music, some of the best music in the world, as a matter of fact. And frankly, I think theater has some of the better saints than any church. You’ve got Sophocles and Shakespeare and people like that. They top anybody as far as I’m concerned.

Do you ever regret not becoming a minister?

Nope. I never looked back. I’m one of those few people that when I found out what I wanted to do as a junior in college, I stuck with it and I’ve never changed. I’m lucky. I love my work and people want me to do it and I get paid for it. Not many people can say that in society.

How has this decision changed how life would have been if you had become a Methodist minister?

I wouldn’t be a theater director, I wouldn’t be teaching theater, I wouldn’t be going to Croatia to direct plays and I wouldn’t have had all of these wild-ass experiences I’ve had in my life. This whole wall is full of them. (Referring to posters on wall of his office) For the forty years I’ve been doing this, I’ve had a very interesting life. Whenever I’m feeling down I can say, “Well, you’ve had a very wonderful life, Steve.” I’ve worked in almost every state in the union, I have friends who I’ve had for over 30 years in theater, I even met one last night whom I hadn’t seen for 20 years and it was like we just resumed where we left off. She and I did a project in San Francisco that won the Best Production of the Year.

So, you’ve been to Croatia. Have you been anywhere else overseas?

France, England, well all over Europe, but production-wise I’ve been to England, France, Italy and Croatia.

Which was your favorite to direct in?

I’ve got to say I fell in love with Croatia. I just love it. But that’s also like having to choose between Los Angeles and New York, they’re just different experiences. I’ve gone back to Croatia six times and by now I have really close friends there. I intend to get to work with the same group of actors. I’ve tended to them and know them very well. Croatia respects people in the arts unlike America.

I was with a state manager once who spoke English with a Scottish accent and this is during the time when a big war had been happening there and it was my first time there. We were walking around in town, walking by old ice-covered fountains and having just getting through the debacle of the reduction and decimation of the national arts council here with all of that horrible stuff. I was thinking about them and I said: “Must have been really hard for Croatia, a place with such culture, to have to reduce your arts budgets to fight a war you didn’t want to fight.” He looked at me and said, “We didn’t reduce our arts budgets. Isn’t that what we were fighting for?”

I realized then that it was very different. They understand. Culture is how you understand a civilization. The first thing to go in America is arts budgets. Always. When I’m there, I say I’m a director and people don’t ask what television or movie I’ve worked on. I’m a respected person. Actors are respected and they go through the academy so they’re not thought to be stupid or neurotic.

But for instance, Croatia, which has a national population of about Glendale, has five national theaters. All of these great big beautiful opera houses that they perform in. The national theater that I first directed in has a staff of 480 people. It’s in the center of town and it has an opera, a theater, a ballet and an orchestra. It’s all very inexpensive to go to and it’s funded by the state. They understand that the arts are not a business. It’s an art form.

Do you think America will be able to realize that?

I wish it would, but I’m not hopeful.

What’s one of the best parts about directing and interacting with different cultures?

The best part? There are a million of them. Well, it’s amazing that you can communicate effectively with actors in a language you don’t speak. It was a shock. We can only use theater to communicate, but after a while you seem to become telepathic with them. Of course, I have a translator in the room.

There’s this one actor I’ve worked with who is wonderful. People look at what we do and ask how the hell we get things done. It’s really like telepathy somehow. I indicate something, he gets it and he does it and then he’ll ask me a question, he demonstrates and I’ll understand it completely. He’s been in all productions I’ve been there.

The other thing I like is how people relate to the art form. That changes everything. And their star system is much different than America, although they are learning it. I work with the most beloved actress in the country and she walks through the streets and we have coffee and people know who she is, but there isn’t a big to-do. There are no paparazzi or swarms of people. Nobody is interested in his or her private lives. They’re artists. It’s not a cultural celebrity, which I find detrimental. Plus, the Croatians are very deep and loving people. They’ve certainly suffered a lot. The country has been in trouble often, but not for anything they ever wanted.

What makes the travel and the intense time and commitment worth the hassle?

What makes it worthwhile? I love my work and what I do. I know who I am in a rehearsal room. It’s always been kind of like channeling. I never really know where I come up with things. I’ve studied it a lot. I’m a scholar, in terms of theater. I work very hard in preparation for my plays. I’m sort of known as “Mr. Preparedness.” I really know what I’m talking about. I love the liveness of it. I adore working with live actors and I like having live people watching the live event. It matters. If people wouldn’t do a show, there wouldn’t be a show. They didn’t film it so you can be off doing something else in the meantime. I like the breathingness and liveness of it.

Some days, I’m sitting in an acting class, for instance, and we’re talking in one day about Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett. Who else gets to do that? I’m getting up there in age and I spend my life working with 20 year olds and I forget I’m three times their age. Three times. About the age of their grandparents. How old is your mother? (49). Yes, I’m way older than she is and I’ve gotten these long-time relationships that keep me into the current world. I’ve had to do something to catch up with y’all. Occasionally there are just words and phrases you use and I’m a student of popular culture.

Although, I tend to prefer classical music. But I like all music. I have some country favorites like Sugarland. I think they’re brilliant. And that Australian guy who plays the guitar…Keith Urban. He’s a great songwriter. I am fond of those American Idol kids…Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. They’re good and I’m glad they were discovered. People all say it’s weird to listen to classical music and I think music is just music. Music is a perfect reason to be in theater. Damn, we’ve got some good composers. Right? You know that one. By now, I have many collaborators. Like the one you met (Michele Brourman), I’ve known her since before her kids were born and now they’re in college. And then there’s Carol (Stephenson). Carol and I hit it off instantly. Most of my really good friends are women. By far. I like really strong, realized and intelligent women. They pose no threat to me.

Would you ever direct a film?

Probably not. Maybe if I was asked to and it was a big project, but I don’t have the patience. I don’t think I could wait until the “lighting’s right” and I like doing things in sequence, I like long coaching periods, I’d rather do the rehearsing than the actual thing and the editing process is too mechanical for me. I will go to many more movies than I will theater productions, because if you see a bad movie, it won’t sway you from going back. But if you see a bad theater production, it may sour you to not see another play. You’d have to drag my ass to see a play. Even though theater is my life. Well besides my relationship, but it’s my life. I love it too much to see it done badly. If it’s done badly, I will get really upset, particularly if I’ve directed it.

I saw a production of “Streetcar Named Desire” that made me physically ill. It wasn’t a bad production, but I saw so many opportunities being missed. It is a beautiful play and they missed nearly all of the basic things of putting on a production. If you took a photo, you could tell what play it was, but everything else was bad. Stanley is not an ape. I mean, he pooched his stomach out and walked like an ape. Stanley has to be sexy! So does Blanche as a matter of fact. There has to be a thing between them.

Anyway, so I stomped out of “Götterdämmerung.” Even after arranging for 30 students to attend. I did not want those stupid images associated with that brilliant music in my mind. I’ve listened to The Ring for years. Siegfried should not look like Bozo. He’s supposed to be a Nordic hero. Now there are many interpretations of it, but not that. And they say he comes in on his giant steed and this stupid cutout of a horse with a child on it comes out on this dumb-looking horse. And the magic helmet was a big gold hat? Oh give me a break. And if you have any respect for singers, you would never put them in those huge costumes on that steep stage. How can you sing like that? Come on.

Sean (Dillon) called me a Wagner purist in his lecture because I was so vociferously against that production. But, it was roundly booed when it opened. Yay. It looked to me like a high school version of Cirque Du Soleil without the acrobats. I know you liked it, I read your article. However, your opinion was different, because you had never seen opera and you got a cultural experience out of it. It’s wonderful to go to a gorgeous theater and get a cultural experience. I’ve already had that experience in my life. I don’t want to sit there and watch something like that. I’m even quieter now about my opinion because I don’t want to take that experience away from students. I walked home from the show. I don’t live far from there, but I stomped out and walked home. I couldn’t even listen to the music because it was directed badly. That affects me as a director. I wish I had that opportunity. I would have directed “The Ring” in a second. I’d do it better than he obviously did.

How would you have presented it differently?

Oh, I don’t want to get into that. That would make me work. I would have certainly not done something that made a mockery of the major characters. Siegfried was wearing a Hulk suit! How about the sexism of the show? All of the women’s costumes had these giant, draping breasts hanging all over them. And the throne of the king was on the back of a naked woman with her rump in the air. Give me a break!

Are there any major opportunities you had to turn down?

Yes. I’ve had to juggle several offerings of projects. It’s nice becoming a teacher because I spent 15 years on the road where I was out 300 of the 365 days. It was exciting, but it wore my butt out. So, I came here and I love it here. I find this school really groovy, I like the freedom I have, I think the students are it and really great. They are self-effacing because they think if they were really good they’d be somewhere else. What? They think of this as not the incredible place it is. I’ve taught at UCLA and USC and Cal Arts and I’ve quit because they were so rigid.

Here, if I think something should be taught, I can write a class prospective and I can end up teaching it as a class. For example, the musical interterm, Acting for the Camera and Theater and Community are all classes I have created. How could I do that anywhere else? The music department is right across the lawn and they’re great people. Sometimes it seems like we’re the same department, you know? And, it gives me the summers, Christmas and interterm, if I’m not teaching, to direct professional productions. My partner says there has to be a point in the year where I work with non-student actors, people who are already trained. I like training people, but I want to be surprised by professionals because they’ve been trained and are knowledgeable on what I want.

What’s your main reason for wanting to train these future actors?

A former dean said it perfectly. We’re not just helping them with their education. We’re helping them with their maturation process. I get people who come into me as nerdy and goofy freshmen who have an inflated idea of what their senior year of high school experience was and then they realize college is different. I get to watch them for the four most formative years of their life. They leave here as my friends and as adults. It’s a delicious thing to see the effects of your pedagogy on students.

I had a group of people who started a class and everyone hated Shakespeare. By the end, two weeks ago, they’ve been arguing and screaming about how something should be scanned and what it meant. They were so involved I couldn’t stop them. I stopped them and asked them, “You like Shakespeare now?” And they all said, “He’s tight, man!” I was happy because I don’t have to teach them that anymore. I don’t want to have to have me around to make them do Shakespeare. Look at “Twelfth Night.” That’s a really good production. It’s fun as hell. Being there for those students and watching them blossom is amazing.

I want them to be aware of the world around them and to become critical and activist citizens. They need to understand the role of arts in society. If they want to go into theater professionally, great. If you don’t want to, become lovers of the art form. It has become confused with TV and movies. I want students to be self-motivated active theater artists with a political consciousness. You know what it’s like. You were one of my students.

Have you ever had students react as if you were being over-critical?

I only want what’s best for my students. But some overreact often. I’m very passionate and I rarely get angry, but I scream a lot. I’m making noise so things will happen. I use my energy, which sometimes fails me at 67 years old.

I find passivity unbearable. I find cynicism unbearable. I find someone saying they’re bored unbearable. I think those things should be taken care of by you. I find the biggest sin in our world is deliberate cruelty, conscious or not. I think that’s just unbelievable. I’m pissed off at the way the world is, it’s not how it could be. I learned recently that every day in this country, 30,000 people are in solitary confinement. We are one of the only countries who still use it. Obviously, it’s the worst thing you can do to a person; isolate them from their life. It simply drives them nuts. Whose idea was that?

I’ve had students who are afraid of my energy and some who have had to decide to stand up to me. As if I cared. Good, but don’t kill me in the process. People get very angry with me because I meddle. It’s usually if they’re hiding something like substance abuse or sexual orientation or a bad family life. They try to present something to me that is not true. I just talked to a young student who is now a really good friend. It was because of a lot of personal stuff in her life.

If I’m in the room, you’ll know I’m there. Somebody said once that I’m in charge of most of the rooms I’m in. I walk in and people are waiting for me to tell them to do things like any teacher. I challenge people to think. I want them to know things. I had a group of students the other day that did not know what NATO meant. I thought I was going to die. I don’t fault the students, but rather the educational system. Why don’t they know this? I had an honors student who did not know where Copenhagen was. I will not tell students what something means. I tell them to look it up.

This is more than you want to know, but we had a Shakespeare student who was working on the character Mercutio. I asked him what a word meant and he said, “It’s a light fixture with crystal that hangs from the ceiling,” meaning a chandelier. No, the word was chanticleer, which means a rooster. He thought he was doing a monologue about a ceiling light fixture, but it’s about a crowing rooster. He just assumed he knew what it meant. And he is not a dumb student. There have just been times I’ve gone, “Oh boy.”

What are your plans for the future for La Verne or directing in general?

I’m going to direct two projects next year. I will do one here. I want to do something that will be good for the students and will challenge them somewhere. But I also want to do a real play, not another creative original because we just did that. I’ve also been asked to come back to Croatia and direct “Three Penny Opera,” which would be great. I’m spending my time now going through all of the works in this office and seeing what I can do and what would be good for both locations, so that I can use the summer to work on the projects because it takes that long. I’ve got to know the play backwards and forwards. I really read it daily once it has been chosen. I’ve got to make decisions on how to present the work and how to communicate my desires to actors.

What in entertainment today is so appealing and why are the private lives of celebrities important to society?

Probably because our society is so dull and the individuals living in it reinforce it. I mean, so you go to a Michael Bay movie and watch something blow up for two hours and you think you had an experience. No, you’ve just been put to sleep. People don’t want to think because if they think, they’ll begin to think about their lives.

I have a poster on my door that says to speak up even if your voice shakes. I think outspoken populace is difficult to govern and should be. A quiet, sedated population is easy to put things over like weapons of mass destruction. Hello? Everyone knew that was wrong. If we were cultural, we’d know our history and we’d know we’ve made some huge mistakes. Ask any Native American. That proverb says: “Unless a person acknowledges their illness, they have no hope for a cure.”

Do you think America will realize our downfalls when it comes to culture?

We’re an uncultured culture and don’t think it is important to us. Students don’t know they have culture even though it completely surrounds them. They’re like fish who don’t know they’re in water. It doesn’t have to be exotic to be culture. Everything around you is culture.

My friend tells me that you can either work toward social change because things will get better or to make sure the last years are not unpleasant. It’s like taking care of a patient. Do you give them less care because you know it is terminal? I hope we can change. I love this country. I am so American that Europeans would know immediately.

Kristen Campbell can be reached at kristen.campbell@laverne.edu.

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