Archive for Sunday, October 11, 1992

THEATER PROFESSOR SUMMONS COURAGE FOR FINAL ROLE

October 11, 1992

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Courage in actors and actresses, at least for William Kuhlke, goes far beyond overcoming stage fright. It means having the courage to be artists as well.

"You need to be daring,'' said Kuhlke, a longtime Kansas University professor of theater and film. "You have to have courage to make that leap. When an idea comes to you in rehearsal, you have to run with it, even if you make a fool of yourself.''

Kuhlke summons that courage one more time at KU in the role of Prospero in "The Tempest,'' which opens Friday at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall. Kuhlke has been teaching at KU for more than 30 years; he plans to retire at the end of the fall 1993 semester.

Shakespeare's Prospero is often seen as the Bard's own farewell message to the English stage. The play comes late in the canon and features the famous "break my staff'' speech where the wisened Prospero gives up magic and returns to civilization.

KUHLKE HIMSELF sees Prospero as a "neo-Platonic theurg,'' which means a wizard with a philosophical bent.

"The point is that as a neo-Platonic philosopher he knows that contemplation is the path to salvation,'' Kuhlke said during a recent interview in his office. "He's turned his mind toward pure intellect. He feels as many educators feel that enlightenment can make a man good.''

At KU, Kuhlke enlightens students through his improvisation, dramatic theory and Russian theater classes. He was rewarded for his effort with two KU distinguished teaching awards, the Chancellor's Career Teaching Award and the Byron T. Shutz Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1990.

He looks even more enlightened than usual now that he grew a beard for the role a beard he says he will shave off as soon as the play closes.

BORN IN THE Denver area, Kuhlke grew up dancing, singing and performing for various Colorado functions. He majored in a variety of subjects at Adams State College in Colorado, where he also worked extensively in theater, and he then entered the Army. The Army sent him to West Germany, where he monitored Yugoslavian troop movements on the radio. It was his first exposure to Slavic languages, which he later used to his advantage when he studied Russian theater.

Before the Army, he thought about becoming a high school teacher, but after the Army he chose to pursue his dream.

"When I was in Europe, I decided that life was too short to do anything besides what you really wanted to do, and I decided I wanted to act and teach theater in collge,'' he said. "So I applied to KU and enrolled there right after I got out of the Army.''

HE RECEIVED a master's degree from KU in 1959 and a doctorate in speech and drama from the University of Iowa in 1965. He began teaching as an assistant instructor in 1957.

During his years at KU, Kuhlke took on many challenging roles, including parts in "The Rainmaker,'' "Man of La Mancha'' and "Julius Caesar.'' His latest came in 1989, when he played opposite Moses Gunn in "I'm Not Rappaport.''

But his acting career took him to other stages as well, including the Capital Rep in Albany, N.Y. That's where he tackled the male lead in Edward Albee's searing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'', a part he said he considers his most successful, if not his favorite.

"It was a horrendous experience to go through it every night,'' he said. "It's a technically demanding role because you're on stage for almost three and a half hours. It's like a freight train.''

IN 1966, Kuhlke took a production of a musical revue called "An American Melody'' to Eastern Europe. Kip Niven, the guest director of the play, was one of the students who went along. Kuhlke and Niven since have visited frequently, and Kuhlke said he's pleased to be working with his friend.

"As a teacher, one hopes to see a day when your students can come back and teach you,'' Kuhlke said. "I've learned a lot about the play from Kip in the last month, and I find he's a gifted director, too.''

"The Tempest'' features a great many student actors with far less experience than Kuhlke commands. But that doesn't mean Kuhlke needs to hold back any while the rest of the cast finds its way through the script.

"WE TREAT each other as peers,'' he said. "I never have to wait for them to catch up, and I never have to hold back. The cast fills the room with a lot of energy, even when I feel my own energy flagging from time to time.''

At the moment, Kuhlke is pursuing a phased retirement, which means he teaches in the fall and then takes the spring off. He and his wife now split their time between Lawrence and a retirement community in California, which will prove to be a full-time retreat once he retires fully. And, like Prospero, he really does plan to break his staff when he finishes with "The Tempest'' no more acting.

"I'm looking for new experiences,'' he said. "I've done acting, directing and teaching, and I loved doing them, but I can imagine a day when I'm finding other skills to pursue.''

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