Actor-director Kenny Leon's first guest appearance at MIT was in The Director's Craft, a class taught by Professor Janet Sonenberg. Dressed in freshly ironed blue work shirt and jeans, he strode into Kresge rehearsal room B, his charismatic presence transforming the ordinary basement space into a waiting stage.
Mr. Leon, winner of MIT's Eugene McDermott Award for 1996, visited the Institute last week to complete a high-speed, high-intensity artist-in-residence commitment here.
The Eugene McDermott Award is presented annually by the Council for the Arts at MIT to an artist not affiliated with MIT whose work, while hailed in its particular discipline, is unfamiliar to the general public. The recipient must agree to a residency at MIT. Previous McDermott Award winners have included photographer Jeff Wall, musician Tan Dun and conceptual artist Agnes Denes.
Mr. Leon, artistic director of The Alliance Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, is in Boston to direct the Huntington Theater's production of Blues for an Alabama Sky.
His advice to Professor Sonenberg's class boiled down to the same advice that famed South African playwright Athol Fugard once gave him: Be yourself. Remember to laugh. And trust the action.
"Three things make a play great: the actors' faith and trust in each other as people and as performers, their faith and trust in the director, and their faith and trust in the play," he told the group of about 20 students.
A great play is not made, he assured the group, by actors trying to guess what directors want, by directors trying to guess what producers want, and so on up the theater-job food chain. Instead, he encouraged young dramatists to go for honesty and impact--the "magic," as Mr. Leon called it it.
"The magic of a play doesn't come from our ideas," he said. "It doesn't come from memorizing lines. The magic is when you get up and add physicality. As a director, I want to empower actors to make choices authentic to themselves. I want the play to come off the page."
To Mr. Leon, plays that belong off the page and on the stage include works from every multicultural source. Raised by his grandmother in rural Florida and later bused to an affluent white high school, Mr. Leon has deeply held, personal roots in the black American experience.
TRYING TO DIVERSIFY
In 1990, when he was appointed artistic director of the Alliance Theater, he was one of only three black artistic directors of a major American regional theater. (The other two were Ricardo Khan at Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, NJ, and Lloyd Richards, who retired from the Yale Repertory Theater in 1991.) His goals of diversifying the actors, audience and Alliance board were met with ambivalence by both white and black Atlantans.
Since then, Mr. Leon has received kudos from the arts and theater worlds. Before receiving the MIT award, he won the 1993-94 Connecticut Critic Circle Award for Best Director, a Morehouse College Candle in the Dark Award and a Bronze Jubilee Award for Theatre Excellence. He has also diversified the staff, board and program at the Alliance Theater.
Switching seamlessly from conversing to directing at last week's MIT class, Mr. Leon watched intently as three students silently performed a peasant-beating scene from Nothing Sacred. In no time, he was back with the magic, the real engine of drama, the body in space.
"Speed it up, speed it all up," he encouraged the trio. "And be the motorcycle. Don't be the person riding the motorcycle. Be the motorcycle!"
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 19, 1997.