Randall Duk Kim’s eyes light up as he exclaims about the remarkable times we live in, with new advancements in science, cosmology, astronomy – his mind, it seems, is always searching curiously for the exciting, the unexplainable. But the twinkle as he ponders the idea of dark matter making up 98 percent of the universe is nothing compared to the joy he effuses when discussing what lies at the heart of his life’s work as an actor, director and teacher: the essential stories of Greek and Shakespearean drama.
“In our education system the humanities are being phased out, but how else are we going to know how to use our science and mathematics? It’s through stories that we begin to grapple with philosophy, with morality, with ethics,” declares Kim, who for the past two years has spearheaded the Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s efforts to bring theatre to high schools in Hawaii. “Now it comes from television where it’s all good guys/bad guys, with no moral judgment at play, as opposed to Hamlet, who really has to wrestle with his conscience over that decision to kill the king.
The simple, truthful gesture
“I want the children of our country to have access to these stories. There’s a whole generation, maybe two, who haven’t seen them done just simply, as a tale. If they can be exposed to these plays at a very early age, then by the time they get to high school, it’s no big thing. Shakespeare’s not boring, or intimidating – he’s a good storyteller.”
Perhaps it’s Kim’s search for simplicity, for the honest, truthful gesture, as well as his interest in focusing squarely on a play’s larger moral questions, that have led him to reject performing the classics in updated versions. “I don’t like to see King Lear stepping out of a limousine, or Julius Caesar getting gunned down. Give me that rugged old king from the dark ages; give me Hamlet from his time-don’t make him a spoiled brat in modem terms.” He wants to be swept away into a world different from his own, and “Iet the story tell us that things haven’t changed. It’s much more interesting to recognize the differences. Then we can see more clearly the similarities to our own time.”
Raised on a flower farm in Hawaii, Kim was turned on to the classics after seeing Group Theatre veteran Morris Carnovsky play Shylock in San Diego. Years later, after attending the University of Hawaii and New York University, Kim had the chance to work with Carnovsky, who, then in his 90s, was still teaching and directing. He remains the greatest influence on Kim’s own work, conveying to him “an intense desire for the work to be truthful, something profoundly meaningful.” What’s the most important lesson he learned from Carnovsky? “Be simple.”
Along with two longtime friends and collaborators, Anne Occhiogrosso and Charles Bright, Kim founded the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis. more than 15 years ago, in an effort to realize his dream of a repertory company that would live, work and train together, and present Shakespeare uncut and unadapted. The actors trained in tai chi, modern dance, martial arts, speech and acting; but when funding cuts came, the first thing to go was the training. Far from an added luxury, Kim sees this training as essential to nurturing a long-term commitment to the art of acting, especially in a modem world full of more lucrative possibilities for actors.
Now Kim is back in Hawaii with his partners at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth on a grant from the National Theatre Artists Residency Program, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by Theatre Communications Group, and is launching one more fight to build a classical repertory company in Hawaii. But his work in the schools may be the most important and fulfilling for him to date. His company teaches drama by presenting a program of classical scenes in the schools, then explores them with the teachers and students. Next year, they will mount three full productions.
“The stories excite the students to use their imaginations, and stimulate their curiosity,” Kim explains. “Storytelling is fundamental to our survival.” As both actor and teacher, Kim’s methods involve extensive research and total immersion in another time and place. In scene work, he encourages students to understand the dilemmas characters find themselves in, and to respond both rationally and emotionally.
A mask actor
Though he feels solidly committed to teaching, there are still a handful of roles Kim longs to play: Lear, Oedipus, Othello, Hecuba… Hecuba? “Aren’t we to encourage ourselves towards greater compassion and understanding of each other? What better way than by stepping into somebody else’s shoes? Why not Othello-or Medea? I don’t know that I could be better than an actress, but I would like the opportunity,… I’m a mask actor. When I don makeup, it’s to provide a home for the spirit of the character to enter into. It’s almost like mediumship, in a way. And the entire costume is my mask, not just the face.”
Tell a story, don a mask: There’s a purity at the heart of Kim’s beliefs that reaches back to the origins of drama itself. He expresses a sadness for what we’ve already lost as a society, but he conveys an even stronger hope for what humankind can achieve at its best. And as an eternal student, he is living proof of the value of education: “Every character I’ve played has taught me something about myself. The way I see it, I’m in training for the rest of my life. What I learn can never come to an end.”