MINNEAPOLIS: Kenneth Washington was more than just the director of company development at the Guthrie Theater. To his coworkers, students and friends, he was like another father. For those lucky to know him, it was a somber Thanksgiving weekend with Washington’s passing on Nov. 26, following a battle with kidney disease. He was 68.
With his death, Washington leaves behind a mourning theatre family and many students who attribute their acting careers to him and his out-of-the-box teaching methods.
“I was 17 when I first met him at a scholarship competition in Florida, and Ken was one of the judges,” Broadway actor Santino Fontana told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune; Fontana played Prince Topher in Cinderella on Broadway last year and played Hamlet at the Guthrie. “I was set on going into music at the University of Michigan, and he told me, ‘I think you’re making a mistake.’ He guided me as my mentor, my friend, my role model ever since. He singlehandedly changed the direction of my life.”
A native of Arcadia, La., Washington entered the world of theatre while attending the University of Utah for a doctorate in dance. It was in Utah that he began molding young performers—a mission he continued at the Guthrie when he arrived in 1995 there with a reputation for his choreography and direction in resident theatres.
Soon after starting at the Guthrie, Washington established the theatre’s summer training program, which brings in a group of the best performing arts graduate student to the Twin Cities. He also took on a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, teaching the junior and senior BFA acting classes as a part of the partnership between the Guthrie and the university.
In the 19 years Washington was with the Guthrie, the theatre embraced him wholeheartedly. He was the quiet observer at the Guthrie who never said a harsh thing about anyone, and sometimes nothing at all—which could be mistaken for aloofness, said Joe Dowling, the Guthrie’s artistic director.
“When I met him the first time to talk about this new department we were creating around him, I outlined at great length what I thought it should be and Ken never said a single word,” Dowling told the Star-Tribune. “I thought I’d blown it, but I realized afterwards that Ken only spoke when he had something significant to say, and I grew to appreciate the fact that whenever Ken talked, you got a lot of jewels and very little dross.”
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