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Listen. Learn. Then lead.

As a playwright, Erik Ehn is about as unconventional as they come. He brings a similar spirit to his job as CalArts' theater school dean.

January 01, 2006|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

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."

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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.

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