They say turnabout is fair play, but Kip Niven hopes it makes for a more-than-fair theater production.
Twenty-six years ago, Niven took direction from William Kuhlke, Kansas University professor of theater and film. Now Kuhlke takes direction from Niven in "The Tempest," which opens Friday at Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall. Niven sees directing his mentor as the fulfillment of a long friendship.
"I was heckling Jack Wright (director of University Theatre) for four or five years to get alumni involved as visiting artists,'' said Niven, a stage and screen actor. "I was performing in `Oh, Coward!' in Boca Raton (Fla.), when Jack called and said he had two directing slots open. One was `The Tempest' and one was `Gypsy.'
"Well, I hesitated because I hadn't really directed a lot of musicals or Shakespeare, but then Jack said Bill would be Prospero in `The Tempest,' and I said I'd be there.''
DELBERT UNRUH, KU professor of theater and film, is designing the lights and scenery, and Erik Bruce, a senior, is designing the costumes.
"The Tempest'' tells the tale of the magician-philosopher Prospero, who long ago was exiled from Milan to an uncharted island. There he raised his daughter, Miranda, with the help of the beastly Caliban and the spritely Ariel.
He commands a storm to rise on the seas, which brings his old enemies onto his island.
"I think it's filled with theatrical magic, glorious poetry, and it's a simple story about an old magician with a beautiful daughter,'' Niven said in a recent interview. "He has the potential to seek vengeance against the people who wrong him, because he has spirits and monsters at his disposal. But instead he discovers that might is not right, and there is room for forgiveness and reconciliation. He chooses to move on in life. I think that's a profound message that resonates today.''
In directing "The Tempest,'' Niven said he stuck close to the original script. He made very few cuts, and he intends to make no great philosophical interpretation of the play.
"I'm not a big-concept kind of director,'' he said. "Nor am I attempting to re-create the Old Globe productions.''
NIVEN WORKED extensively with student actors before, mainly as a an actor and visiting artist at schools such as the University of Tulsa. He teaches audition workshops at KU during his stay, and he said he enjoys teaching and working with students.
"I'm aware of the limits of college actors, but I'm also aware of the rewards of working with them,'' he said.
Born in Kansas City, Niven grew up in Prairie Village and graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School. Like many actors, he at one point contemplated entering the clergy Niven is Episcopalian. But he decided he was more of a performer than a padre.
"In high school I was trying to decide between acting and the ministry,'' he said. "What I discovered was what I liked about the ministry was the preaching and rituals on Sunday.''
AFTER A FUTILE year at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., where most of the theater department had quit and gone to rival Trinity University just before he enrolled, Niven went to KU, where he met Kuhlke.
In 1965, Kuhlke created a show called "An American Melody,'' in which Niven performed. The cast took to Eastern Europe in 1966, long before such jaunts were fashionable. Niven said that trip forged bonds between the participants that persist to this day.
"Bill put together a show that would display 100 years of American history and 100 years of American folk music,'' he said. "Then in 1966 we took it for two months to tour Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania in an exchange with the State Department. Bill was along to act as chaperone. It was a glorious experience.''
NIVEN GRADUATED in 1968, then served for two years in the Army, including a stint in Vietnam. After his discharge, he went to Los Angeles and started on a film career that threw him into a variety of roles and films.
"I did everything,'' he said. "I was in `Magnum Force' with Clint Eastwood, `Earthquake,' `The Hindenburg,' `Midway.' I also did movies of the week, and I had parts in series episodes. I did everything but have a continuous role in a series. I had a continuing role in `The Waltons,' but my part started the last year it was on, so I was in only three or four episodes.''
While he was in Los Angeles, he worked for a small theater company that produced the first production of "The Gin Game,'' which went on to Broadway. In the mid-1980s he returned to New York City and began working in theater. His New York work included appearances "Chess'' and in the 1991 musical flop "Nick and Nora,'' based on the "Thin Man'' mystery novels.
THE TROUBLED musical underwent many rewrites before its opening, but Niven's part more or less survived intact. Niven played a prime suspect in a murder mystery. After appearing in the opening minutes of the show, the character turns up dead.
"Because I had an important part, they couldn't cut me out,'' he said. "But because I died I couldn't really appear in other scenes, so my part was unaffected during the rewrites. So I had a great time working in the company of wonderful actors.''
Niven was married twice, to fellow alum Susan Tyndall, who died in 1981, and TV star Linda Lavin, from whom he is divorced. He said he is committed to New York until his daughter graduates from high school; but after that, he said he may want to return to the Lawrence and Kansas City area.
"I'M HAVING a great time back here,'' he said. "I still have friends in Kansas City, and it feels good to be back here. I love it that the football team is winning. I feel I've spent a lot of my life in Los Angeles and New York, which are both exciting places, but I haven't felt what I could feel here.''
"The Tempest'' will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. next Sunday, and again at 8 p.m. Oct. 22 to 24 at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall. Tickets are available at the Murphy Hall Box Office.