Add spice to your theatrical season...

(This article originally appeared in the July 1981 issue of "W&L: The Alumni Magazine of Washington and Lee". Reproduced with permission. (c) Washington and Lee University.)

(Leonel L. Kahn Jr., associate professor of drama who had taught at Washington and Lee for 16 years, died on April 26 after a long and courageous fight against cancer. He was 46.

(A native of New Orleans, he received his bachelor’s degree in 1957 and his master’s degree in fine arts in 1959 from Tulane University. He taught for three years at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., before coming to W&L in 1965 as an instructor n fine arts and director of the Troubadour Theatre. Lee was noted for not only producing plays of consistently high quality but also for selecting plays of unusual significance. He spent the 1970-71 academic year in Spain, where he studied contemporary Spanish theatre. He also conducted several spring term abroad programs in which students studied theatre in both London and Florence. In 1975, he was executive vice president of the board of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.)

My impressions of Lee Kahn are personal; nothing is more personal than theatre. I remember, as a freshman in 1965, walking to the Troubadour Theatre one night to see Waiting for Godot. I had no way of knowing then that Lee Kahn, as new to the school as I was, had deliberately chosen for his first production the most difficult play he could think of. He had his problems with it, too, and the performance (as I recall) was not of the best.

All the same, Lee had given a clear and definite signal of the kind of theater program he intended to run, and he stuck to his guns. By the time his brilliant Marat/Sade came around (fascinated, I saw every performance), it was clear that something outstanding was going on. Over the years Lee chose only the most difficult plays: the list includes The Homecoming, Arturo Ui, Equus, The Bacchants, and The Investigation (which deals with responsibility for the holocaust).

As I gradually became acquainted with Lee, I became aware that as a person this theatrical radical was not at all what one might expect: no wild-eyed Bohemian but a devoted family man, conservative and elegant in his tastes, fiercely loyal to and protective of his students, and endearingly terrified by the plays he chose to direct. (Shakespeare’s plays, especially, scared him stiff. It was typical of him, then, that he chose to stage the most challenging ones: King Lear, Troilius and Cressida, and, for his final production, an uncut Hamlet.)

His approach to plays was refreshingly unacademic. Usually he chose plays after seeing, rather than reading them. He preferred modern plays, responding to their vitality, and he produced them as soon as he could – before the bloom was off. (With the classics, on the other hand, he would “live” with a play for as much as a year before directing it.)

I had the idea that I might want to work in theater, so I started watching rehearsals in the Troubadour Theatre. I took verbatim notes on many of those rehearsals, and they give a marvelous picture of Lee as a director. Much of a director’s time is spent dealing with problems. Lee faced them with humor and doggedness. “Are we going to have sound tonight?” a stage manager asked him once. “I don’t know, I just work here,” Lee said. “You just run the place!” said the stage manager. “I wish,” Lee replied, “that I could say that and mean it.” To the cast he announced, “You’ll get sound tomorrow. Tonight you’ll just have to suffer. You’re supposed to suffer for your art. You should see how much I’ve suffered.”

Other problems:

ACTORS WITHOUT PENCILS: “I’ll supply you one. This time. Next time you’ll have to prick your finger and write in blood.”

DICTION: “We’re faced with a very serious problem with British accents. Just soften the vowels. Enunciate for an equivalent. If you try a British accent, it’ll come off, ‘I cahn’t, I cahn’t, I just CAAAAN’T!’”

MEN TRIPPING OVER PERIOD COSTUMES: “Hold up your skirts. It’s historical. Even the Greeks didn’t like falling on their faces.”

MOVEMENT DIFFICULTIES: “Platforms always look smaller on this stage than they do on paper. It’s part of the disease.”

FORGETTING LINES IN A TRAGEDY: “If you forget a line, there’s a Greek alphabet. Or a Greek National Anthem.”

Lee delivered criticism (relatively little) and praise (frequently) in exactly the same manner, without apparent premeditation. He was capable of inspiring a cast without insulting its intelligence. This is a sample of a late-rehearsal talk, which he gave to the cast of The Homecoming:

"Some shows we can lie our way through, but not this one. I get feeling… helpless about this because all I can do is talk to you. If you don’t work and think the whole time, we’re lost… You know what Pinter wants, what the play wants, and what I want. Now do it! … When rehearsal is over you should be so exhausted – mentally, mostly – that you won’t be able to do your homework… Entertain me! Move me, even."

Lee’s pool of available performers often lacked depth. He knew this and accepted it as part of his job. “I’ll have a hell of a fight with him,” he told me once about a student actor, “but he has the potential for what I want.” He always kept his eye on the educational function of a school theater program. “If a freshman enters this school unaware of theater,” he said once, “and leaves at the end of four years knowing there’s more out there than television, then I feel I’ve done my job.”

Rehearsals exhilarated him. He was totally unable, however, to watch performances, and spent them pacing furiously out in the lobby. “If we could have rehearsals and no performances I’d be happy,” he said. “Personally I could care less what people think about my interpretation of a play. The performances are for the actors – for their egos. They deserve something for all that work.”

Lee had extraordinarily sensitive theatrical instincts. I worked as his assistant director for King Lear. One day in his office he predicted the exact date the production would “jell” (come together, begin to live on its own), and he named the date an entire month in advance, marking it with an “x” on the calendar. I kidded him about this for the whole month, particularly during the disastrous rehearsal the night before the date. He smiled securely, not the least bit perturbed, and the next night, to my utter astonishment, the production “jelled” before our eyes, just as he had said it would. I never understood how he did that, any more than I understood how he could correct an actor’s movement during a performance, without ever watching the actor, based entirely on the way the performance sounded – a feat I saw and verified for myself.

Theater is a moment-to-moment art; it has to be recreated, virtually from scratch, time after time. All the same, its effects can linger in people’s lives. Lee seemed to be thinking along these lines when we talked last January about his career. He told me:

"Looking back, I see that so many of my productions dealt with the subject of the truth, with what is true and what is not. So many people seem in danger of forgetting the truth about what’s happening in the world. It scares me. I think a college drama department should stage The Investigation every five years, for example – so people don’t forget."

Lee Kahn is not likely to be forgotten by the people who have known him.