It's A WALK IN THE WOODS for Ken Sawyer to Direct Uniquely & Honestly

Gil Kaan

Writer, Registered Critic

A consistently, in-demand, creative force in the Los Angeles Theatre community, director Ken Sawyer will be directing his latest project A WALK IN THE WOODS beginning February 9, 2018 at the Actors Co-op Theatre Company‘s Crossley Theatre. Ken managed to carve out a few moments of his time between rehearsals of Lee Blessing‘s 1987 Pulitzer Prize finalist to answer a few of my inquisitive questions.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Ken! I have had the pleasure of seeing a number of your shows in the past.
Soooo, what cosmic forces brought you and A WALK IN THE WOODS together?
Several years ago, I did a three-person adaptation of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT for the Co-op. It was such a pleasure working with this supportive and dedicated company. In the years following, we toyed with other collaborations. Recently, I was in the middle of tech for an epic show called TROJAN BARBIE at USC. I adored it. But in the middle of a stressful moment I sighed, “Won’t someone just offer me a two-person, linear, one-set play?” Two weeks later, The Co-op called with A WALK IN THE WOODS.
A WALK IN THE WOODS was originally produced in 1988. Do you find it ironic (or sad) that a play about arms limitation negotiators is relevant today in 2018?

I find it scary. And it gives me pride to be part of the Arts. There are smart, aware, and empathetic writers like Mr. Blessing who can tap into concerns of their time… and, also highlight what is deeply human and, therefore, timeless. There are passages in this play that seem to be ripped from today’s headlines.
Your directorial resume includes musicals, drama, two-handers, in-the-round and more. Any preferences? Or do you like to mix it up from production to production?
I like telling stories. And I have been very lucky. I have been offered varied stories to tell. Whether it’s the personal true-life journey of a trans man from Sri Lanka, or a futuristic modern telling of Trojan women with a cast of 17 – if the story is compelling, if I feel I can tell it in a way no one else has, I’m in.
What aspects of a theatrical project make it so enticing for you, you just have to get involved? (script? cast? message?)

Just a gut feeling. A few years ago, I was presented with HIT THE WALL. It is the true story of the night in 1969 a gay bar called Stonewall was raided and a riot ensued. This riot sparked the gay rights movement. I passed on the play. A year later, it came around again. For some reason, it felt right. I wondered why I did not see the potential the year before. By pure chance after saying yes, Jon Imparato and The LGBT center scheduled the opening a week after the much hyped and protested Stonewall movie. The LA Times did a huge article on this. Also, gay rights sadly started to reverse. By doing the show a year later, it was a call to arms, not a period piece. It is my biggest hit to date. That was luck. And I have been very lucky stumbling into projects that hit a nerve.

You’re a Juilliard graduate and toured with John Housman’s Acting Company. When did you have that “But what I want to do is direct!” revelation?
I grew up in Texas on movies, not theatre. My original desire was to direct movies. But oddly at an early age, I thought in order to direct actors I’d have to know how they feel. I auditioned for plays locally. I guess I was good at it. That led to studying at The Dallas Performing Arts High School, which led to Juilliard. I always thought I’ll see this through, but “What I really want to do is direct!” The Road Theatre Company gave me my first chance to direct a play years later. And then, continued to give me opportunities to develop these skills. For that, I will be forever grateful.
Since you’ve been on both sides of the audition table, what advice would you give an anxious actor reading for you for their first time?
Do not try to second guess who I want you to be. Be you. Show me what YOU will bring that no one else will. I try to think out-of-the-box when I direct a play. I choose a play because I will direct it in a way no one else has. I like actors who come in with the same attitude. Show me what makes you unique.

Now that you are on the directing side of the audition table, what would you have changed in your younger self’s audition process way back when?
I was sent on major auditions when I first arrived in L.A. with a Juilliard pedigree. Sexy, young leading man. I kept bombing auditions. My agent called me in. She said your feedback is, “You are handsome, you are smart, you are a good actor…” They can’t put their finger on it, because you are not gay, but you have no sexuality. At the time, I was in the closet. I thought if it was discovered I was gay, my acting career would be over. It was the 80’s. There was something I was not dealing with in my life that blocked my acting. I went to every audition wanting to please them, not confident in who I was and what I bring to the table. Ironic. I got pulled back into acting somewhat recently. Six months ago, I was pursued and signed by a commercial agent, and have been put on avail for three commercials so far. I go in. Show ‘em who I am, then go back to my life. If I’m who you want, great. If I’m not the right combo, fine. Be confident in who you are and what makes you unique and honest.

You’ve worked with theatre newbies, established working actors, as well as, marquee names. How do you balance the delicate egos of all these artistic personalities? Any secret to your success in handling fragile ids to get the results you want on stage?
Listen and watch. Good actors are collaborators whether they are students or stars. They want to be seen as unique with a voice (which is why I cast them). Inspire them. Give them an interesting box to play in. Then watch them play. Observe how they overcome challenges you set for them. Listen to what they say. Then steal the best of what you observe and hear. My job is to get the entire team excited about the story and the way I want to tell it. My vision becomes our vision.
Last year I worked with Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner in adapting THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE for a twelve-person cast. I was working with two artistic geniuses on a classic they were extremely close to. OMG! What an honor this was, but also what pressure. And, yet, they were so loving and giving. We would sit down and just be artists trying to figure out how to tell a story in a new way. As with any relationship, it’s all about respect and communication.

As a founding member of the Road Theatre Company in 1991, you must now be familiar with the behind the scenes mechanics of starting/running a theatre company. What do you remember of that time in 1991?
Wow! The landscape of Los Angeles theatre has changed so much since I was on that artistic board. Theatre in the early days of The Road Theatre was a no-man’s land. We started in an industrial complex deep in Van Nuys. But, in that complex, we made the rules. We would beg, borrow, and steal to put on new plays – plays we cared about that no one else had the guts to present. I have to hand it to Taylor Gilbert (artistic director of The Road Theatre). She was part of a movement who had a vision for a thriving theatre community. I remember when she arranged for the company to move to from Van Nuys to a creepy building on Lankershim. We thought, “What the hell are we doing?” Now that sketchy hood is the thriving NoHo Arts District. I wish I could take credit for that vision. But that was Taylor. I was just lucky she gave me a canvas to explore my artistic passions.Can you pinpoint the various elements of progress you have seen in the L.A. theatre community since you first became actively involved?

When I first arrived here, theatre was a showcase for actors to get into movies. Now that is no longer the case. We have directors, actors, designers, and producers who are true artists mounting projects because they are passionate about what they are creating, not because it is a means to another end.What questions/feelings/reactions would you like the Actors Co-op Crossley audience to leave with after experiencing your A WALK IN THE WOODS?

Last night a friend came to see a run-through. After we went out to dinner, he said, “You know the more I think about your show, the more I like it. It deals with so many things we are thinking about now as a nation, but through the eyes of two good people who are just trying to make sense of it all. We need a play like this right now. We need hope.” If this is the reaction of most of the people seeing our show, I will once again be a very lucky man.
Thank you again, Ken! I look forward to seeing you work your directorial magic on Lee Blessing’s piece.
For A WALK IN THE WOODS ticket availability through March 18, 2018; log onto

Gil Kaan, a former Managing Editor of the now-defunct Genre magazine, has had the privilege of photographing and interviewing some major divas in his career, including Ann-Margret, Diana Ross, Faye Dunaway, Carol Channing, Shirley MacLaine, Catherine Deneuve, Liza Minnelli, Sandra Bernhard, Anna Nicole Smith, Margaret Cho, and three Catwomen—Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar. He had the fortuitous opportunity to conduct Lily Tomlin’s coming out interview. Gil has since reviewed movies and theatre for a number of local and national outlets.
A photo montage of Gil’s Halloween Carnavale photos through the last decade was recently included in the WeHo@ 25 juried exhibition.