Lawrence native makes career in theater

Kevin Kuhlke goes from newspaper boy to playwright, actor, director and head of prestigious New York drama program

Since leaving Lawrence 30 years ago, Kevin Kuhlke has ran the gamut in the world of theater.

Now chairman of the undergraduate drama department at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Kuhlke has been an actor, director, teacher and playwright.

"The thing I mostly do is teach at NYU," Kuhlke said. "My professional work has gone in cycles. I've acted and directed for 10 years. Now, I'm writing. Playwriting interests me the most right now."

Despite spending the past 23 years in New York, Kuhlke can't forget his 13 years living in Lawrence. His experiences during his time here influenced some of his writings and directing.

"I spent the formative years of my life there," said Kuhlke, 48. "Writers end up writing pretty much about what they got out of life between 10 and 16."

Kuhlke recently returned from Juneau, Alaska, where he was an artist in residence with Perseverance Theatre for the fifth time in two years. He held master classes, workshops and wrote a play, "Winesburg: Small Town Life." The play was loosely based on characters from Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio." The protagonist is a 17-year-old reporter from a small-town newspaper. The reporter becomes privy to stories about the lives of townspeople. In the process of the play, all the stories influence him and push him to leave town and become an artist.

Ironically, for three years as a youth, Kuhlke had a paper route for the Lawrence Journal-World.

"I had the route in the 900 block of Michigan to Missouri, the 800 block and 900 block of Missouri and the 700 block of Michigan," said Kuhlke. "Wow, I can't believe I remember that."

Early influence

Kuhlke never envisioned a career in theater. Born in San Antonio, Kuhlke was 4 years old in 1959 when his family moved to Lawrence after his father, William, became a professor in the theater and film department at Kansas University.

Inspired by guitarist Jim Stringer, Kuhlke was interested in music as a teenager.

"One of the most influential teachers I had in Lawrence was Jim Stringer," said Kuhlke, a 1972 Lawrence High School graduate. "He had a band called Tide. He was the idol of young guitar players in town. I was in a rock 'n' roll band. I studied with him, and he opened my eyes. If I really wanted to be good at music, he told me I should study Bach and listen to all this stuff that I never thought about listening to before.

"Because he was my idol, I listened to him. The whole idea of educating myself as an artist began with him. Originally, I wanted to go to music school. I got into a theater company and kept putting off music school."

Turning to theater

Kuhlke's interest in theater heightened when he left for Prescott College in Arizona.

"I had not thought I'd be going into theater because my father had done it," Kuhlke said. "As an adolescent, that was what I was not going to do. It wasn't until I went away to college in Arizona that I went to an experimental theater workshop for six weeks. There was a whole world of theater that I didn't know much about. I ended up joining a theater company run by Peter Clough, who I had seen direct at KU."

Kuhlke dropped out of Prescott after one year and bounced around between acting gigs. In 1978, Kuhlke formed a theater company and did a production at the Lawrence Arts Center, which used to be housed at the old Carnegie Library at Ninth and Vermont streets.

"The company didn't have a name, and we did one production," he said. "I liked the Carnegie Library because it was air-conditioned, which was a big deal when I was a kid. Most places weren't. The basement was very cool. I liked to go there and read."

Determined to get degree

After being away from school for awhile, Kuhlke was determined to acquire a degree.

"I acted for about seven years and came back to school at NYU," Kuhlke said. "There was a sense of unfinished business of getting my degree. I wanted to do that. I was living in New York. I knew a guy who ran the experimental theater wing. It seemed like a good place to go to finish and get my degree. A month after I graduated, he asked me to start teaching."

Kuhlke now lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, Mary Bitel, and 5-month-old son, William.

"I live so close to where I work, and you can get everything you need in the village," he said. "In a peculiar way, it feels like a small town."

For 10 years, Kuhlke was head of the experimental theater wing at Tisch School of Arts. He's in the second year of a six-year stint as chairman of the undergraduate department.

"I don't know what the next step will be," said Kuhlke, who last visited Lawrence in 1998 while helping his parents move to Seal Beach, Calif. "I don't know if I'll continue teaching and working professionally. It's been a great job in that it's allowed me to continue working professionally, acting, directing or writing."

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