Life in the Theater

The world of theater recently lost a giant. Ted Kazanoff, Brandeis icon, legendary teacher, distinguished actor and director, died on Oct. 21 at age 90. For two decades, he nurtured and molded the university’s theater arts department, helping to steward an embryonic endeavor into national prominence before he retired in 1992.

Kazanoff trained a generation of successful actors who work in film, television and theater around the country. Though he was best known in the Boston theater community, where many of his former students, including award-winning actor Annette Miller ’58, MFA’76; Eric Engel, MFA’86; and Mary C. Huntington, MFA’87, are leading figures, Kazanoff taught and inspired nationally known actors like Tony Goldwyn ’82 and Debra Messing ’90.

“Ted was a world-class teacher,” says Engel, artistic director of the Gloucester Stage Company and director of Sanders Theatre and College Theater Venues in the Office for the Arts at Harvard.

Other former students and colleagues echo that conviction. “I’ve worked with a lot of celebrated teachers over the years, but the singular voice inside my head every day at work — whether on a film set or onstage — is Ted’s,” says Goldwyn, who plays President Fitzgerald Grant in the TV series “Scandal.”

In an interview earlier this year with Hollywood Reporter awards analyst Scott Feinberg ’08, Messing said, “Ted Kazanoff was the one who made me decide to do this for my life.”

His classes could be a punishing exercise in soul-searching self-appraisal and personal risk taking. A commanding, even intimidating presence (he was 6 feet, 3 inches), with a deep, gruff voice, Kazanoff was known for his “razor-sharp focus and often unforgiving candor,” Engel says.

He employed an approach to acting that was simple, clear and uncompromising, drawing on techniques developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner. “He would use their tools to shake the actor up and get him out of his head,” says Mark Ellmore, MFA’92.

“With coffee cup in one hand and cigarette in the other, he would bellow, ‘What are you doing?’” remembers Engel. “He meant, ‘What are you doing — as an actor?’ He meant, ‘What is your intention?’ On one such occasion, a nervous actress replied, ‘I am trying not to cry.’ Ted put down his coffee, extinguished his cigarette and approached the student: ‘Now that, that is something we can work with. Trying not to cry, that’s an intention!’”

By some accounts, most — perhaps all — of Kazanoff’s students dissolved into tears at one point or another under his ferocious style. “He was tough on the outside, tough on his students, tough on himself,” notes Daniel Gidron ’66, MFA’68, who came back to Brandeis in 1976 as an artist in residence and taught in the theater arts department until 1994.

Susan Dibble, the Barbara Sherman ’54 and Malcolm L. Sherman Director of Theater Arts, who overlapped at Brandeis with Kazanoff for five years, puts it this way: “He embodied the power of honest acting, and he carried on the traditional teaching of acting as talking and listening, of being in the moment.”

“Knowing when a scene has gone awry, even knowing why it’s gone awry, is one thing; being able to fix it is something else altogether,” Engel says. “Ted was brilliant at identifying the precise moment where an actor’s intention was lost, or when two actors stopped connecting, or where the most interesting thread of a scene had been discarded. He was just as sharp and skilled at repairing those breakdowns.”

Kazanoff was unflagging in his support of his students beyond graduation — particularly those working in New England. Often, he would attend his former students’ Boston performances — and be immediately recognized in the audience by the size of his large head. After he saw former student Paula Plum appear in “Wit,” Kazanoff sent her a note (which she framed) congratulating her on her performance. “That was better than winning an Oscar,” says Plum, who this fall is directing a production of “The Glass Menagerie” at Brandeis’ Spingold Theater.

“He was dedicated to getting the best out of you,” says Huntington, the artistic director of the Nora Theatre Company in Cambridge, Mass., whom Kazanoff directed in “The Little Foxes” and “The Madwoman of Chaillot.”

Kazanoff’s directing credits include productions as varied as Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, Lillian Hellman and Harold Pinter. As an actor, he appeared in many theater productions, as well as in episodes of the TV series “Law and Order,” “Brooklyn Bridge” and “American Playhouse.”

Two years before his death, Kazanoff received the Independent Reviewers of New England award for his work in the theater. Former student Annette Miller introduced him at the ceremony. Although he had prepared an acceptance speech, she says, he declined to deliver it at the time, though he sent it to her later.

In it he wrote, “After all, it is that humanity, that love of life and people, that love of the world around, that is what the endeavor is all about, or, at least, it should be.”