Kenneth H. Washington’s title at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, director of company development, did not begin to describe the outsized role he played in the lives of scores of American actors.
A guru-like figure with a lilting, much-imitated accent that bore the pleasing cadences of his Louisiana roots, Washington helped many performers discover their true calling.
Washington, 68, died Wednesday at his apartment in Minneapolis. He had suffered kidney disease and was due to start dialysis on Monday, according to theater officials.
“He single-handedly changed the direction of my life,” said Broadway actor Santino Fontana, who starred in “Cinderella” last year in Times Square and also played Hamlet at the Guthrie. “I was 17 when I first met him at a scholarship competition in Florida. Ken was one of the judges. I was set on going into music at the University of Michigan. He told me, ‘I think you’re making a mistake.’ He guided me as my mentor, my friend, my role model ever since.”
Guthrie actor Lee Mark Nelson had similar memories. He first met Washington 27 years ago at the University of Utah, where Washington earned his doctorate in theater and was head of the BFA actor training program and Nelson was an incoming student.
“I was 18, and trying to figure out what to do with my life, and he was my guide,” said Nelson. “But Ken was much more than a mentor or teacher. He was family. We were expecting him to come over for Thanksgiving.”
Washington came to the Twin Cities shortly after Joe Dowling’s tenure began in late 1995. Washington had built a reputation as a choreographer and director of dances and plays on the regional circuit, including August Wilson’s “Fences” and “Two Trains Running.” But he was quickly becoming best known for working with young minds.
About 15 years ago, Washington started the Guthrie’s summer training program, which yearly brings a cohort of some of the best performing arts graduate students to the Twin Cities. He also taught juniors and seniors in the joint BFA program between the Guthrie and the University of Minnesota, a program that he was instrumental in establishing. And he had long directed and taught at both Juilliard and New York University.
He did similar mentoring and teaching at Utah, which in 2011 gave him a distinguished alumnus award. It was at Utah where he started training students in a style that Fontana described as one part Socrates, one part Yoda.
“He would prod you or provoke you or just go silent so that you could figure it out,” said Fontana. “And you do. He has a way of pulling things out of you that you don’t know you had in yourself.”
Many of his students would follow him across the country to New York, where he had long-standing teaching and directing relationships, and to Minneapolis.
One of those whom he influenced was Randy Reyes, artistic director of Mu Performing Arts.
“I first met him in Utah — I was a 17-year-old kid, and he accepted me on scholarship into his program,” said Reyes. “He was more than a teacher or mentor to me. He was my father figure and his death is a great personal loss.”
Washington was born in Arcadia, La., to English teacher mother, Pearl, and school principal father, Tracy. He graduated early from Southside High School in Ringgold, La., then attended Talladega (Ala.) College. He later studied broadcast communications in Syracuse before going to the University of Utah to work on a doctorate in dance. It was through ballet that he entered theater.
Director Marcela Lorca worked closely with Washington at the Guthrie, both as a director of the summer graduate students’ work and a teacher in the BFA program.
“He was singular, one of a kind,” she said.
For his part, Dowling has an abiding memory of Washington, whom he called “one of the most brilliant minds” he has ever met.
“Ken was always so gentle, so quiet, which could be mistaken for something else,” said Dowling. “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. Ken never said a single word. I thought I’d blown it. But I realized afterwards that Ken only spoke when he had something significant to say. ... I grew to appreciate the fact that whenever Ken talked, you got a lot of jewels and very little dross.”
Survivors include siblings Winifred Nelson, of Raleigh, N.C.; Ronnie Washington, of Houston; and Connie Hampton, of Arcadia, La. Funeral services are pending. A memorial service is being planned at the Guthrie.