Visiting Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies
Erik Ehn, the new head of the playwriting program at Brown, believes that theater should rely on the science and art of hospitality. “Theater is about taking care of bodies in space. Theater has more in common with a dinner or a conversation than it does with a novel or a tract. And when setting up a dinner party you want to make sure that the invitations have gone out widely and you’re not speaking to a restricted crowd.”
Ehn is not talking about dinner theater.
His own plays, 60 of which have been produced in theaters around the country and abroad, are experimental and abstract. They challenge his audiences with stories of violence, genocide, and faith. “My interest is in populations at risk, or responding to violence or to kinds of brokenness; people farming the extreme edges of spirituality. Those are the kind of situations that demand a play.” Even so, Ehn says his writing is infused with hope. “I’m very joyful as a writer. The subject matter is difficult, but I have such faith in the ongoing conversation and in the community that builds around social idealism that writing is light for me, even though it’s serious.”
As a young boy, Ehn became involved in the vibrant community theater scene in Croton, N.Y. He continued acting as an undergraduate at Yale, but began writing when he realized his unhappiness as an actor. “I loved the theater but I was in the wrong place. During my sophomore year I reprioritized my creative energies and I haven’t looked back since.”
A further revelation came shortly after he received his M.F.A. in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, when he realized he “was writing for a Broadway that didn’t exist anymore.” Ehn remembers that “it was completely unnatural and I was writing very badly. So I had to rebuild my understanding of what theater was for.”
Ehn says he found his authentic voice when he began to stress social concerns and experiment with form, both in terms of how plays are written and how they are produced. Maria Kizito, which opened at 7 Stages in Atlanta in 2004, tells the story of a nun who aided Hutu militants in killing ethnic Tutsis who had sought sanctuary at her convent during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His Saint Plays explores the lives of Catholic saints in an ongoing cycle of short productions.
Over the years, Ehn has mixed writing with administrative work. His most recent home has been the School of Theatre at the California Institute of the Arts, where he directed the playwriting program and then served as dean for three years. He has also taught at the University of Iowa, University of California–San Diego, University of San Francisco, and Princeton University in addition to a stint as a literary manager at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
He has been a recipient of a Rockefeller Grant, a McKnight Fellowship and a Whiting Award, all significant recognitions in the playwriting world.
During summers, Ehn can be found in countries like Belarus, Serbia, Bosnia, and Uganda, where he brings faculty, students, and other playwrights together to study genocide and explore the role of art in healing.
His aspirations for himself and his students at Brown sound both simple and demanding. “My hope is that my students will graduate having become more of themselves. That will require patience and self-forgiveness and fearlessness. It asks of me that I provide them with the liberal arts idea of the maximum of resources, with a minimum of predetermination.”
“We are,” Ehn adds, “all at the same table together.”