Kent mixed theater with activism

Former Director of Theater at La Verne Steven Kent died July 12 at the age of 74. During his 50 years working in theater, Kent won three Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards. / file photo by Christopher Guzman
Former Director of Theater at La Verne Steven Kent died July 12 at the age of 74. During his 50 years working in theater, Kent won three Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards. / file photo by Christopher Guzman

Aryn Plax
News Editor

Steven Kent, who recently retired from his position as the University’s director of theater, died July 12 in his Los Angeles home. He was 74.

Mr. Kent founded the Company Theater, an experimental theater in 1967, and the Provisional Theater in 1972.

As a political theater, the Provisional Theater produced staunchly anti-Vietnam plays and collaborated with other social justice minded groups, like El Teatro Campesino, a theater troupe founded as part of the United Farmworkers Union.

Alma Martinez, associate professor of theater, worked with El Teatro Campesino when the Provisional Theater put on plays supporting the removal of troops from Vietnam.

“With Steve, when I first saw his company perform, it was amazing,” Martinez said.

“It was eye opening, that theater could be that fearless. Here we are at that time, as far as the Vietnam War and our participation, it was that theater could literally go ‘against government policy’, that it could be that outspoken. I knew that with El Teatro Campesino and farming, but now we’re talking about the Vietnam War itself. I remember seeing them and watching how they took very complex ideas, they streamlined it and made it interesting, compelling as theater while giving you information that was vital to understanding this complex political situation.”

In addition to anti-Vietnam War activism, he was an activist for racial justice.

Kent was also a spokesperson for gay rights in the United States and Croatia, where he directed six productions in the national theater.

“I think that, coming out as a gay man in the late 1960s and early 1970s and really being influenced by the anti-war movement, he realized social justice was a huge issue, and he addressed it,” Professor Emeritus of Theater David Flaten said. “There’s a combination of spirituality and social justice that we wrote into our departmental creed, our mission statement.”

In 1992, Mr. Kent became the University’s director of theater at Flaten’s invitation. Prior to working full-time at the University, he staged productions at USC.

Throughout his career at ULV, Kent directed 15 productions. His first was Jim Grimsley’s “White People,” whose production was pulled at the onset of the Los Angeles riots. Flaten described “White People” as a play that asked the question, “What is white culture?”

When Mr. Kent first worked for the University, Sean Dillon, professor of theater, developed the initial impression of Mr. Kent as a passionate and energetic director who resonated with his students and colleagues.

“Steve had a way of connecting to the personality and the humanity of the actor and communicated with people on a level that was kind of unexpectedly perceptive,” Dillon said. “He knew how to get the most out of people, not just as much as they thought they could do, but he saw the potential in people that he was working with and he could push them in ways that made them realize they could do more than they expected.”

Mallorie Johnson, sophomore theater major, took Mr. Kent’s Theater Acting and Performance class and said she was initially “terrified” when she first took the class.

“My high school theater teacher worked with Steve in the past and he always kind of held him as a legend in the theater world, and he really truly is, and I was terrified that he was going to think that I wasn’t good enough, and I was unteachable, but none of that was true.”

Mr. Kent’s decline in health from Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses made him unable to return to work in the spring 2017 semester. He had planned to produce “Daytrips” by Jo Carson, about a woman taking care of her mother with Alzheimer’s disease.

Aryn Plax can be reached at aryn.plax@laverne.edu.

Christopher Guzman

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