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Ask University of Utah theater students in the 1980s and 1990s what teacher had the most impact, and the answer is invariably Kenneth Washington.

"I don't think I have ever run into a student that hasn't said, 'Kenneth Washington changed my life, or affected me in ways I'll never be able to repay,' " says Anne Cullimore Decker, who taught on the theater faculty with Washington.

He became something of a guru to many acting students, says Marilyn Holt, who led the department during Washington's tenure.

Now Washington is returning to town as one of six recipients being honored by the University of Utah College of Fine Arts on Wednesday at Kingsbury Hall. (see sidebar).

Former students confirm the high praise. "He had this incredibly clear way of getting into a person and getting them to find truth in their work," says Jason Bowcutt, who participated in an internship program that Washington initiated with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. "He was never a spoon feeder in your education; he was always asking questions that would lead you to make discoveries."

"He is focused on the questions of people and characters, and he allows a student, by asking the right questions, to come up with the answer," says Michelle O'Neill, a member of the Guthrie Theater acting company. "I think it makes students question not only who they are as characters but who they are in the world."

The only person who might disagree is Washington. "He's not somebody with a huge ego, not concerned with getting praise or pleasing people," O'Neill says. "He's much more concerned about the student and that student's journey."

Washington was an innovator at the U., launching a more formalized Actor Training Program. When he began teaching theater classes as a graduate student, the program was in its infancy (he recalls that only eight students auditioned the first year he sat in) and the emphasis was on musical theater.

Washington helped to raise the program's visibility by participating in American College Theatre Festival competitions and through internship programs, such as with D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre. Mark Handley's "Idioglossia," premiered in the Babcock Theatre in 1985 and played at the Kennedy Center as a finalist in the American College Theatre Festival, the only production from Utah ever to do so.

Holt recalls how Washington launched an auditions tour for seniors. With the help of a three-week, unlimited-mileage Eastern Airlines ticket, Washington bundled students off to the Humana Festival in Louisville, the Denver Theatre Center, ACT in San Francisco and the Guthrie, among others. "The kids made contacts that were just invaluable," Holt says.

"He brought so much of what was happening in the world of theater — what was current, what was being written — and asked you to explore these new things," O'Neill recalls.

Washington expanded students' vision, along with the awareness of Utah audiences, through the productions he chose to direct, including new plays by unknown playwrights such as Timothy Mason or local authors like David Kranes.

"I look at my directing as teaching as well," Washington says. "I tell people all the time I had my own lab [at Utah] because I was teaching students in acting classes, and I was also getting to direct them. You see your teaching — what it has to do with what they are called on to do in an actual show. It helps you understand how and what to teach by going from one to the other."

In 1996, Joe Dowling, artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre, created a position that was perfect for Washington: director of company development. Washington travels to MFA programs auditioning students for the Guthrie's summer workshop. The effort is aimed "to make sure they know there are places other than New York and L.A. where actors live and make livings," Washington says.

Washington recalls his time at the U. as filled with opportunity but others might say he made his own luck. "He came in and would look at things and have an instinct about what could be, what was best, and would try it," Decker says.

U. Fine Arts Awards

P The University of Utah College of Fine Arts will honor six alumni in its annual ceremony. Daniel Beaty will give the keynote address, "Pain to Power."

When • 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.

Info • The ceremony is free.

Also • Kenneth Washington will participate in a Q&A session, moderated by Anne Cullimore Decker, at the Babcock Theatre on campus at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. The session is free. —

U. arts honorees

Kenneth Washington • Graduated with a Ph.D. in theater in 1977 and directed the Actors Training Program; now director of company development at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and has directed more than 90 productions around the country.

Christine Kunewa Walker • Graduated in 1986 with a degree in film and media arts; now president of New Globe Films and an award-winning producer of independent films.

Bart Robinson Cook • Former student in the ballet department; earned a reputation as one of the finest dancers in the country and is the former principal dancer and ballet master with the New York City Ballet.

Richard Winn Taylor II • Graduated in 1967 with a degree in art and art history; has worked in live-action direction, production design, special effects and computer-generated imagery.

Celena Shafer • Graduated from the music department in 1999; she is a soprano recognized for her exceptional voice, acting and technique in operatic, orchestral and recital performances.

Bill Evans • Graduated with a modern-dance degree in 1970; noted as a Renaissance man in dance, juggling the roles of performer, teacher, choreographer, lecturer, administrator, writer and consultant.