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'As big as life gets': Kevin Kline calls Shakespearean verse a 'most extraordinary gift'

'As big as life gets': Kevin Kline calls Shakespearean verse a 'most extraordinary gift'

Award-winning actor and former St. Louisan Kevin Kline visited Washington University recently to discuss the art of Shakespearean acting and to offer some career advice to performing arts students.

About 150 University acting majors and faculty members joined the tall, amicable actor in the Drama Studio, Room 208 Mallinckrodt Center, for the three-hour workshop Jan. 12.

Kline, who grew up in Clayton and attended Priory School, was in town for a family reunion. He made time for the workshop at the request of Henry I. Schvey, Ph.D., professor of drama and of comparative literature and chair of the Performing Arts Department in Arts and Sciences.

During the workshop, Kline answered questions from the group, worked with several students on passages from Shakespeare's plays, and discussed his deep passion for the works. Kline admitted, however, that his initial exposure to Shakespeare was less than inspiring.

"It was all completely incomprehensible to me," Kline said of the works he read in school. "I was fearful of the language. You had to look up every third word."

He recalled experiencing his first live performance of a Shakespeare play as a high school student. The production was "King Lear" and was staged in Edison Theatre.

"I walked out at intermission," Kline said.

Despite these early misgivings, Kline eventually developed a deep love for the works. He graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington with a bachelor's degree in acting and completed graduate studies in drama at The Juilliard School in New York. It was in New York in 1972 that he joined the highly regarded Acting Company, run by actor John Houseman. The company took Shakespeare to audiences across the country -- including those at Washington University.

Kline's roles as Hamlet and Romeo, among others, won rave reviews from audiences and critics alike. Even after forging a successful career in Hollywood -- with such cinema hits as "The Big Chill," "A Fish Called Wanda," "Dave" and "French Kiss" -- Kline continues to perform Shakespeare at every possible opportunity.

"I realize, in retrospect, I was the kind of audience that I have to convert now," Kline told the group. "You have to make the audience listen. The problem is the language; it's arcane and archaic. Our job as actors is to make it real -- make it happen.

"The most extraordinary gift any actor can have is to say these (Shakespeare's) words," Kline continued. "It's talking, but it happens to be poetry. Poetry is passion; it's written in a highly emotional state. I don't want to say it's bigger than life. It's as big as life gets."

Despite the "four-to-five-second attention span" of most people today, Shakespeare is more popular than ever, Kline said. He noted that there are a wealth of summer festivals and theater companies that perform the plays throughout the country. He told the budding actors to jump at every opportunity they can to perform Shakespeare, even if it means sitting around in someone's living room reading verse.

"It's a muscle that must be exercised," Kline said.

The Performing Arts Department will exercise that muscle with a production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," scheduled for April and to be directed by Schvey.

Schvey called Kline, who has won Tony and Oscar awards for his work, "one of the best and most versatile actors of our time." Schvey said the workshop with the actor was invaluable to the students and exceeded his highest expectations.

"I thought it was inspiring," Schvey said. "It's amazing that someone with that kind of celebrity can still remain not only accessible but in touch with what makes the art form work. He is such a gifted teacher."

Junior Ben Crabtree, a 20-year-old acting major from Ladue, volunteered to work with Kline on a passage from "Romeo and Juliet." Kline repeatedly stopped the young actor, who was reciting Romeo's lines, and urged him to find the deeper meaning and feeling in the words. Afterward, flushed with excitement, Crabtree described the experience as "fantastic."

"It was an amazing opportunity to work with such a gifted, talented man," Crabtree said. "I was experiencing greatness in my chosen field."

-- Neal Learner

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