Jan 25, 2005

Ehn at the Helm

I'm not sure where or if this has been reported—I for one haven't seen it in print yet—but it's been buzzing around the circles I travel in: Playwright Erik Ehn has been named dean of Cal Arts' School of Theater, after serving for just six months as head of the Writing for Performance program.

To put Ehn, as much a theorist of theatre as a playwright, at the helm of a venerable if forward-looking institution strikes me as a radical step. He's probably as well known for his birthing of the RAT Conference, and for penning most of its manifestoes (like this call to arms) as he is for his dense, language-based plays (the most recent being Fireflow—Two Tales From Andersen). I've been roughly 50/50 on his work—I've found it dazzling and maddening in roughly equal portions, with my favorite being his jagged, moving Chokecherry and my least favorite being his prodigiously effrontive Erotic Curtsies, both produced by Bottom's Dream at the Ivy Substation.

And the RAT Conference I attended in 1999 proved to be a fascinating introduction to America's tinier alternative regional theatres, though I recall Ehn on a panel digressing into a long analogy about globalized "targeted marketing" and regional theatre—it sounded like he was making critique of capitalism, but it was a little too abstruse to connect with. But I also remember him movingly talking about the "immanence" of theatre (that may be my word, not his—I'm not sure), how it addresses bodies in space, with all their frailties and pain and needs. I'm mangling his point, but it's stuck with me as a kind of moral criterion for good theatre, both aesthetically and practically—how well does it take care of its bodies in space?

Leslie Tamaribuchi, the Cal Arts producing teacher who will work closely with Ehn in his new position, told me he's a "great systems thinker," which will no doubt make him an interesting dean. And lest it sound like the revolutionaries have stormed the barricades, I recall an interview with Ehn in which he was markedly circumspect about his pedagogic responsibilities. At the time he was teaching playwriting in Iowa, and he told me:

My aim is to get my students to write passionately and authentically... I try to discover for myself and the class what their idea of a play is, to clarify that and then expand on that. It could be that the next Neil Simon is in my class, and I'm not out to pervert what he may do best—I don't want to turn a natural Simon into a phony Kreutz.

And so, the Cal Arts mafia has a new made man. It will be interesting to see what Ehn, who now lives in Newhall, not far from Cal Arts' Valencia, does with his new post, particularly in terms of Cal Arts' rapport with L.A.'s theatre scene, in which so many Cal Arts grads are working, and from which so many current Cal Arts staffers and teachers have been recruited.

UPDATE: Good one, Ravi.

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