London Calling

 

In the lingo of the theater, the tech is the first rehearsal when a show’s design elements are tested with the actors. It’s the point in a show’s birthing process that all previous rehearsals and design meetings have been leading to — as well as the point past which there’s little turning back. It is, in short, a bitch.

On the Saturday before the University of Missouri-Kansas City Theatre Department opens its production of William Shakespeare’s Henry V, director Barry Kyle is overseeing the show’s tech. In an hour, Kyle and his team tackle about 90 seconds of the first scene. (Tech will ultimately consume 20 hours of the weekend.) But if he’s nervous, he’s hiding it well, sneaking cookies from a conveniently placed stash of them. Though Kyle is one of about 15 people sitting a dozen rows from the stage, someone who’s never met him can easily see that he’s in charge.

For one thing, Kyle is a bit older than everyone else. Henry V is a coproduction of the university’s graduate and undergraduate theater departments, and most of the techies look quite young. When Kyle calls a halt, there’s a halt. And there’s that British accent, the only such lilt in the room from the person a UMKC colleague calls “the best thing that’s happened to the theater department in years.”

Kansas City is Kyle’s latest venture in a career that spans as many countries as theatrical styles. At the top of his résumé is the title Honorary Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. He has directed such formidable talents as Kenneth Branagh and Jeremy Irons. He was the first artistic director of Stratford’s Swan Theatre and the founding artistic director of Swine Palace Productions in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he hasn’t been averse to stirring up controversy.

Given this reputation, some might see a Midwestern university as slumming it. Not Kyle. It’s a stage direction true to his character. “I want unusual things,” he says. “And I’ve always moved in very different areas.”

Among those was the production of Shakespeare’s most reputedly anti-Semitic play, The Merchant of Venice, performed in Hebrew in Tel Aviv. There was the time he staged Hamlet in “the police state” of Singapore. And he agreed to direct King Lear in Prague before the fall of Communism in the Czech Republic. By the time it was performed, democracy was on shaky footing, but Kyle had another colorful partner on his dance card.

Lately, everyone’s first question of Kyle is “Why Kansas City?” He says it grew out of a friendship with John Ezell, who heads UMKC’s master’s level scenic design program . “He asked if I’d come to do a design charrette in 2001,” says Kyle, who admits he didn’t even know what a charrette was. (It’s a kind of creative brainstorm spun off from a tradition well-known to French architecture students.) Kyle describes it as “four or five days of intensive work with designers,” centered on one play. “I did another one, and when I finished the second, Ezell asked, ‘What would it take to get you to come here?'” he says.

Conversations went on for a year before Kyle agreed to commit 18 weeks a year to UMKC. A portion of the stint will include directing one play each time; his Henry V is his first for the department. Asked how differently he approaches a play when he’s directing college students as opposed to, say, Sir Ben Kingsley, Kyle is complimentary of his current cast yet realistic about its limitations.

“With immensely experienced people, there are things you don’t have to say,” he says. “You’re trying to partner them through it. If you’re guiding people who are dealing with things for the first or second time, you’re giving more. One of the pleasures of it is the fascination watching what the rookies will do. But the process fundamentally is the same. What I did at tech here is what I’d do with tech at any theater.”

Kyle denies that his expectations are lower. “The process is the same,” he says. “Is the product the same? Of course not.”

Javier Rivera, a third-year master’s student in the acting program, says he’s worked for directors both good and bad. He says of Kyle, “He’s a breath of fresh air for the program. He has an understanding of Shakespeare no one’s ever had here — a clear vision of lighting, set, costumes and acting.”

Rivera isn’t so starstruck that he’s deferential, though. He plays Pistol in Henry V, and he and Kyle had differing opinions about the character’s demeanor. “He lets actors experiment — to a point,” Rivera says.

Kyle eventually vetoed Rivera’s choices for how to play Pistol. “I was very upset,” Rivera admits. “We had a few words. I said, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’ But it became clear at the last scene that Barry was seeing the bigger picture and I was not.”

Vision, clarity, focus — these are recurring themes when people talk about Kyle. Working with Kyle was “unexpected in a way,” says Ralph Prosper, who plays the Dauphin in the show. “He’s very down to earth and very easy to talk to. He communicates in all ways. And though he wants you to take chances, he has a clear idea of what he wants to see.”

Kyle believes that Rivera, Prosper and their peers are in good hands at UMKC. Asked to compare what he knows of American institutions with a British education system that reveres classical theater (and turns out amazing actors like a munitions factory), he says, “There is a slight difference in the sequence of the work. English actors work by habit from the text first, and a lot of American actors want to start somewhere else and come back to the text.

“I suspect that’s well understood here at UMKC,” Kyle continues. “The great advantage of going through the classics is that it instills a great deal of discipline and pitches the students against the big challenges. Look what’s walking down the red carpets in Hollywood: models who are given acting classes. Anybody can train models. We’re trying to create enduring careers.”

At last Saturday’s matinee of Henry V, Kyle’s vision — and that of his young designers — was very much in evidence. The play is essentially about an arrogant leader’s pre-emptive strike against another country. Kathleen Voecks’ set has turned part of the stage into a huge red arrow — aimed, pointedly, at the audience. Though it’s never literally addressed, superimposed on the stage are the faces of actual American soldiers who have died this past year in Iraq.

Kyle’s direction of the play’s violence is as raw as his way of delineating the characters’ allegiances is subtle. When it’s facetiously raised to him that the play is “not at all topical,” he only chuckles — he doesn’t need to overcraft what’s already there.

This week, Kyle is back in London. He will return in the fall to direct Good, C.P. Taylor’s cabaret play about fascism, and he plans to look beyond UMKC’s campus.

“I’ve become interested in small spaces since I came here,” he says. “I’m trying to understand the theater scene in relation to the art scene, and I’ve committed to a project at the end of the year I’m calling ‘retail theater,’ to put theatrical events downtown in shop windows. They’d be recurring, 10-minute drama events that you would drive by, animating the First Friday tradition toward more drama.”

If a fraction of his energy takes hold of others so inclined, Kyle will leave an unalterable stamp on the local theater scene. “Directors sometimes lead and must lead, and sometimes follow and must follow,” he says. “The art is knowing when to lead and when to follow. It’s based on the group in front of you.”

 

Categories: A&E, Stage