OF the many words used to describe playwright Erik Ehn -- aesthete, mystic, anarchist, collectivist and, certainly, radical -- there's one few would have thought of until now: college administrator.
Best known as the author of highly literate fantasias of language and spirituality barely contained by the word "play" as well as founder of the underground RAT theater movement, Ehn took over as dean of California Institute of the Arts' School of Theater in July. And rather than reshaping himself to fit the conventions of dean-hood, he has taken it upon himself to transfigure the role.
For the 47-year-old Ehn, a graduate of Yale University and the Yale School of Drama, the task of a dean is not about pushing paper and endless meetings. Instead, he is an unbounded idealist. "I think the essential job of dean is in line with the job of writer or husband, which is to listen," says the soft-spoken and gently, if not guilelessly, self-abnegating Ehn. He is preternaturally calm as he sits behind a desk full of papers, Post-its and the tracings of myriad as-yet-unresolved pleas from his constituencies.
His office here in Valencia is spare of decoration, save a well-filled bookcase and a few tiny, and significant, artworks. Through large windows can be seen the grassy slopes of CalArts, bathed in late-day light and crossed only once during the course of a long conversation, by a black-clad magenta-haired artiste-in-training.
Ehn exudes benevolence yet speaks in intricate streams of thought with such precision -- nary an "um" to be heard -- that one can't help but be impressed by the feat itself as much as the ideas. Perhaps it's the shaved head and deep eyes, or his delicate hands, but there is something vaguely monkish about him too, as if it were a cosmic accident that he appears here rather than sitting cross-legged on a Himalayan mountaintop.
His manner is inscrutably calm and his words carefully measured -- whether in the midst of dean's office bureaucracy or when applying emotional balm to graduate student playwrights in one of the four writing seminars he teaches. While the students and office staff treat him with reverence, he deflects it, usually without their even realizing he's doing so.
Call it Zen and the Art of CalArts Maintenance. "As much as I can, I put my ears in the presence of people with something interesting to say," says Ehn. "Then the job is to synthesize and reflect back what's been heard in a general way -- so, reveal the school to itself -- and to be in a constant state of writing the mission statement and articulating that mission.
"Then, also reflecting what I've heard, in a pointed way, to people who can effect change. And thirdly, insofar as I'm able to conceive of change or enact change, to do that on behalf of the people around me. There's actually only one responsibility, which is to a kind of honesty, and every feature of the day provides equal access to that one responsibility."
An engaged experimentalist
WHAT might have made the seemingly esoteric Ehn an unlikely candidate for dean at other institutions is exactly what made him right for CalArts. "His unconventionality and eccentricity are precisely what is attractive about Erik in the role of dean," says Travis Preston, artistic director of the Center for New Theater at CalArts as well as director of performance programs and head of directing at CalArts. "We recognize our mission as being dedicated to the imagination of the individual artist in its most anarchic manifestations.
"Erik Ehn is a dedicated experimentalist infused with social concerns of great urgency," continues Preston, who was instrumental in bringing Ehn to CalArts, first as a teacher and later as dean. "Throughout his career he has been steadfastly dedicated to pushing the boundaries of theater form and equally determined to bring a social conscience to theater discourse."
A prime example of Ehn's work in global arts activism is his involvement with the fallout from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Ehn hopes to develop an artists' exchange between CalArts and Rwanda, and this month CalArts will host "Arts in One World: Considering Genocide," a practicum and symposium primarily for CalArts students, with a public panel discussion Jan. 28 at the school's REDCAT facility.
"I've been interested in the connection between art and justice for a long time, and with that concern, one couldn't help but respond to Rwanda," Ehn says. "I began writing about it dramatically a few years back, and to research that piece I went to Brussels first, because these two nuns were on trial there for genocide, and I followed that up with a trip to Rwanda." Out of that came his play "Maria Kizito," which he envisions as the first of a trilogy and which premiered at Atlanta's 7 Stages in the 2004-05 season.
Indeed, Ehn has written series of plays before, often dealing with faith and religiosity. His best-known work is "The Saint Plays," an ongoing cycle in which Ehn is attempting to write a play -- 16 in the published version -- for each of the Roman Catholic saints and biblical figures. More recently, he wrote "13 Christs," a series of short plays about Christ, for a small theater in Baltimore called Run of the Mill.
His persistent exploration of faith in his writing is part and parcel of his identity: "It's from my Catholic background and my Catholic present." Yet he is also critical of the church. "I'm confused and upset by a lot of what the church does," he says. "I'm confused by the administration of the country, but I'm still an American. So I'm a citizen of Catholicism in the same way that I'm a citizen of this country.
"It's indivisible from my writing. Prayer is an act of writing, and writing is an act of prayer. It's not one language playing into another, but it's fused."
"Erik is singular, an eloquent man with conscience, mission, commitment and compassion far beyond most," says director-dramaturge Roberta Levitow, who is working with Ehn on the January CalArts events. "He's an activist, an intellectual, an artist, a worker bee, an enthusiast, a seeker."
After moving to the Bay Area in the '90s and working as literary manager at Berkeley Repertory Theatre for 18 months, Ehn, who is married, began an odyssey of freelance teaching that took him to the University of Iowa, UC San Diego, the University of San Francisco, Princeton and elsewhere, before landing at CalArts.
The itinerancy had its virtues, but Ehn "wanted to start working more deeply, so I began to look for a home. By being in one place over time, I can be forced to clarify my own thinking and be honest about my own actions. This is why in writing I like writing series of plays."
In addition to his plays, Ehn is also known for founding a movement of tiny alternative theaters known as RAT (Radical Alternative Theater). The international alliance of theaters took as its mission finding ways to produce theater on minuscule budgets and succeeded primarily in compiling a couple of provocative broadsides. "It was a repeated rehearsal of manifesto, and I think we got our manifesto worked out and got it around," Ehn says of his '90s project. "The book on RAT closed after 10 years, because I think it had done its job."
"He's kind of a hero to the ensemble theater movement," says Libby Zilber, co-artistic director at San Francisco's Theatre of Yugen, where Ehn has been an artistic associate since 1997. "He's extremely generous and very community-minded." His work with Theater of Yugen included a Noh adaptation of his play "The Death of Crazy Horse," which features Native Americans and Japanese Americans and was first staged at Yugen in 2001. This fall it traveled to the World's Fair in Japan, presented by the U.S. Pavilion, and subsequently toured Japan and the U.S. Also this fall, Ehn went on an artistic retreat with Theatre of Yugen to develop a future project.
"The object," Ehn explains, "is to do five Noh plays and do them all in one day and only one day" in the Bay Area in June 2007. Just before that, Ehn collaborated with Sho-Zheng Chen on "My Life as a Fairy Tale," a piece about Hans Christian Andersen's life and work, which was presented at the Lincoln Center Festival.
Go ahead. Speak up.
EHN'S post was previously occupied by Susan Solt, who served for eight years before stepping down in 2003. She was followed by Jon Gottlieb, head of the sound design program, who served as acting dean between Solt and Ehn. The theater school offers a three-year MFA and has a total student body of 290 students, out of about 1,300 in the CalArts institute. This means, for instance, that the theater school admits only two playwriting students each year, along with directors, designers, actors, technical arts students and others.
While not the top drama program in the U.S., CalArts' School of Theater's reputation is rising, in large part because of the faculty recruitment of many Yale School of Drama graduates such as Ehn, as well as the establishment of a professional producing arm, the Center for New Theater, run by fellow Yale Drama-alum Preston.
Center for New Theater productions have included Preston's all-female "King Lear," which was staged in an old industrial building near downtown L.A. and later traveled to Dijon, France, as well as Chen Shi-Zheng's "Peach Blossom Fan," which was the theater school's inaugural production at REDCAT. Preston also directed actor Stephen Dillane in a one-man "Macbeth" that premiered at REDCAT and recently closed a run in London.
All of these productions gave students the opportunity to work side by side with seasoned professionals -- an essential component of the CalArts curriculum and one that Ehn plans to make a priority.
Ehn is changing things in ways both subtle and overt. A key innovation of his is the weekly all-school meeting, where he brings the student body and faculty together to discuss both philosophical matters and the school's aesthetic. "It's as close to everybody in the school as we can get," says Ehn. "We'll get together on the hill out there and talk about some ideas."
It is part of the process of articulating the CalArts mission, which Ehn believes is essential. "As a school, I believe we should model utopia, and I would like to see us function as a school -- and this came up at the last all-school meeting -- the way a school of fish functions as a school, where we retain our individual identities but we're able to move in the same direction at will," he says. "I would like us to be a school of thought, where we are divergent but overall comprehensive."
Ehn's purpose goes far beyond traditional notions of art-making to true engagement with today's society. "I believe strongly that the world needs to change radically in the next few years, and that theater will be a part of that change," he explains. "I can feel it like a person with a broken leg can feel the rain coming, that this need for coalescing is in the air. Whatever causes that coalescence is going to be what we call theater next."