July 8 2009 12:00 AM

The life and work of Len Kluge



“I guess it still holds true if you put the right name on the marquee, you’ll fill the place up,” The Rev. Richard McKenzie told a near-full sanctuary at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Grand Ledge on Saturday. The crowd had gathered for the posthumous, directorial finale of actor, director, Spotlight Theatre founder and City Pulse theater critic Len Kluge, who died July 1 at age 63.

Over the course of the next two hours, in a service scripted by Kluge himself and left to his closest companions to carry out, friends and family took the podium between prayers and the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan to pay homage to their husband, friend, colleague, neighbor and teacher.

As in any good drama, there were laughter and tears. And there was a twist: Kluge had brought those in attendance together to share the vision he had had 33 years ago, when, in a dream, God told him his life was half over, “So you can do with the rest of it whatever you wish.” “I lived this dream for 30 years; I prepared myself and others for this moment and, finally, I wrote the message down to share with you, today,” said Kluge in a statement read by radio host Debra Hart, a former acting student of his. “It was a gift. Not to me, but for me to give to you. As God told me, I repeat to you. ‘I tell you this so you can do with it whatever you want.’”

From ‘Our Town’ to the big city

Leonhard H. Kluge was born Oct. 28, 1945, to Leonhard H. and Edna A. Kluge.
He grew up in Laveview, a small, agricultural community on Tamarack Lake, near the center of the Lower Peninsula. His older sister, Rhoda Kluge, said her brother was the typical “All-American boy” who loved the outdoors, riding bikes and playing baseball.

As he grew into a teenager, Kluge’s main interests were sports and music. Looking for something to do between baseball seasons during his junior year of high school, Kluge auditioned for a role in his school’s production of “Our Town,” and he was cast as the lead. It hooked the young man on drama for the rest of his life. “This is the time right after Kennedy was elected president. And my generation, meaning 15- and 16-year-olds at the time, was challenged by him and his words and his vision for this country,” Kluge told City Pulse in a 2003 interview. “I felt that tug. And somehow when I became involved in ‘Our Town’ . . . , I just fell head over heals for that whole idea that this is my way to contribute, the way to protest, dissent, voice opinion, hold up mirrors, affect injustice. Theater does all of this. That’s what hooked me and kept me hooked for 40 years.”

After high school, Kluge studied drama at Central Michigan University, before leaving early for New York in 1966, where he immersed himself in theater, studying method acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. “Most of his friends in New York were somehow involved either in the Academy or in various plays and productions,” said Rhoda Kluge, who moved there as well for a VISTA appointment. “He definitely matured; He developed a lot of new skills and took on heavier roles.”

Kluge’s New York acquaintances included classmate Cleavon Little and roommate Danny DeVito, a lifelong friend. When Kluge was 23, he won an off-Broadway OBIE Award for his performance in “The Man With the Flower in His Mouth,” in which he co-starred with DeVito. In the same year, his directorial debut, “Moving On,” was well received critically.

As his career began to take off, so did his thirst for alcohol, which Rhoda Kluge said came with the territory of being a New York thespian. “In those days you would go out after a play, or after rehearsal and drink for the rest of the evening,” she said. “None of us thought too much about it, until it really began to affect his work. He started to realize this was getting the upper hand. All of a sudden, it really started to affect him. He’d go home and get drunk and sort of pass out and go to sleep.”

Finally Kluge’s sister called home, and after a visit from his mother, he returned to Michigan in 1973.

In the Spotlight

Back in Michigan, Kluge kicked drinking and forwent acting opportunities in Los Angeles to return to CMU. He finished his bachelor’s in acting and earned a master’s in counseling, which he used in roles as director of Lansing’s affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism and then at Transition House in Flint in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

After a four-year break from the stage, he returned in 1981 to play Stanley Kowalski in a Lansing Civic Players’ production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and then directed and acted in several community theater productions in the Lansing area, including his first performance of “Clarence Darrow … A One-Man Show,” a role he reprised twice.

In 1982, Kluge directed and starred in what many consider a milestone production locally of “That Championship Season” at the Okemos Barn Theatre. The Jason Miller play about a reunion of Catholic high school basketball players and their coach 20 years after winning the state championship was darkly comic and edgy — not your typical community theater fare. “Nobody was doing a show like that,” said its star, Robert J. Robinson, a Grand Ledge attorney. “Len certainly has to be remembered for having the courage to perform it at that time. It was a stunning, stunning production. Every show sold out. People talked about that show for a long time.”

Soon Kluge and Robinson were talking about starting their own theater where shows like “That Championship Season” would be the norm. In 1983, they opened Spotlight Theatre with Kluge as artistic director and Robinson as executive director. They made their home in the Ledges Playhouse.

“[‘Championship Season] validated Len’s thinking about the kind of shows that could be done and would be accepted,” Robinson said. “One of the reasons we started Spotlight was so we could act and direct shows we wanted to do and we thought were important.”

Spotlight also offered drama instruction through its Actors Workshop, led by Kluge. “The workshop saw some of Len’s finest work, and it never saw an audience,” said Jeff Magnuson, a colleague and longtime friend of Kluge’s who came to the workshop in 1986.

In the workshop, Kluge directed his students with an intense focus on believability, vulnerability, listening, intellectual honesty, commitment to character and, most important, hard work. “Len never felt it enough to have talent,” Magnuson said. “You had to work your ass off.”

Kluge demanded honesty and accountability of his actors. If he thought you could give more to your role than you were, he would work on you until you did. A popular saying of Kluge’s when he wanted actors to put character first was, “Ain’t nobody ever wrote a play about you.”

While his demanding style turned some off, those close to him say he never held anyone to a standard to which he didn’t hold himself. What some saw as ego, those closest to Kluge insist was a drive to get past one’s self and concentrate on the work at hand. Few got closer to him than those in the theater and his workshops.

Amy Rickett remembered pulling up to Immanuel Lutheran Church in Grand Ledge for a Spotlight Theatre casting call in 1992 and seeing Kluge’s “Actor1” license plate on a black Porsche in the parking lot and thinking “Who the heck owns that car?”

When she got into the basement, she found Kluge, incredibly tan, white teeth, Yankees coat and yellow-tinted glasses. “I’m guessing that’s Actor1,” she recalled thinking.

After a couple of sessions with Kluge, Rickett said she realized his confidence could be mistaken for ego, but “it was never ego.” She recalled loud debates with Kluge, during which neither would let the other “off the hook.”

It was also at the theater that Kluge met the love of his life, Heather Lenartson, who joined the Actors Workshop in 1995. At first, she said, Kluge “didn’t really give two shits about me as an actor.”

Over time, though, they became good friends, and as their relationship grew, Kluge made it known that she was what he was looking for in a partner. “He told me at one point I was the person he’d been searching for all his life,” said Lenartson-Kluge, 40.  In September of 2002, the two were married.

Another side of Len Kluge

Though dedicated to serious works, Kluge had a quick, sometimes dark sense of humor, and was known to burst into coughing fits of laughter. He also had a penchant for on-stage practical jokes at Spotlight, such as strategically placing a “photo from the animal kingdom” within the pages of a book used as a stage prop, or appearing on the other side of a door on set in his underwear and a feather boa, just to get a reaction from his actors.

John Dale Smith, executive director of BoarsHead Theater, who worked as a music director for Kluge several times, recalled Kluge’s custom of putting some kind of nod to Spotlight Theatre or himself on stage during the final show of a production. During a run of “Grease” at Lansing Community College, which he had persuaded Kluge to direct, Smith said he gave specific instructions to the crew not to allow any such mementos. “During the opening number all these football player types come out, and one of the guys opens the locker and there’s Len’s Spotlight Theatre black jacket in the locker,” Smith said. “Then we had the [prop] car come out … and there was the Actor1 license plate. How he did that, I don’t know. He was so clever at pulling those things off. You wanted to be upset with him, but you couldn’t.”

Beyond theater, Kluge enjoyed baseball, good cigars, good coffee and good food. He wrote extensively on yellow legal pads, often while sitting on his screen porch. He was also an avid music fan, with a recent obsession with Bob Dylan.

Whether it was a card he’d found and saved for you or a personal note or letter, Kluge had a natural ability at finding ways to show those around him he cared for them. In the minds of those who had to carry out his final wishes, Kluge’s self-scripted memorial service was just one more way of making sure they were taken care of.

Everyone’s a critic

After Spotlight closed in 2005, Kluge became a theater critic for City Pulse. In his reviews, Kluge hammered on the same ideas he had tried to instill in his students. Recurring criticisms were that actors didn’t listen to each other or weren’t believable. He couldn’t stand melodrama or arbitrary gestures, and he pulled few, if any, punches (examples of which appear with this story at www.lansingcitypulse.com).

Rhoda Kluge remembers encouraging her brother to continue being honest in his criticism, despite derision from those in the local theater community who took his reviews for personal attacks. “He was worried what some of the actors and directors would think of him,” Rhoda Kluge said. “I said that’s the role of a critic; if they can’t handle it, that’s their problem, not your problem.”

Not all of Kluge’s reviews were negative, but many were, and the sharper the criticism, the more memorable they were. Kristine Thatcher, BoarsHead Theater’s artistic director who directed Kluge in his last leading role in 2006’s “Unnecessary Farce,” said she and others fondly called him “Poison Pen Len” as they gathered around the box office to read his latest review.

In a statement read by Magnuson at Kluge’s funeral, friend and BoarsHead founder John Peakes wrote, “Had he gone for it, I think he would have been a super theater critic for The New York Times. His theater reviews for City Pulse were incisive, incredibly informed and intelligent, revealing, knowledgeable and non-compromising. As good theater reviews as I ever read.”

“He just really hated the idea that you were entitled to applause just for showing up,” wrote Lawrence Cosentino, a City Pulse staff writer and former Arts & Entertainment editor, on the day Kluge died. “That’s a small-town idea, and Len worked very hard to push Lansing away from small-town ideas.”

Curtain call

Over the last 12 months, Kluge’s health kept him from reviewing many shows. He had warned from the beginning of the 2008-’09 theater season that he was experiencing debilitating pain at unpredictable times, and any assignments he could agree to would have to be on a tentative basis.

The last review Kluge wrote was of BoarsHead Theater’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” which ran on Feb. 4, 2009. The assignment had originally been given to a different critic, but in retrospect, it seems to have been a fitting final critique. In the review, Kluge asserts that everything about the show had been just “fine” — everything except the performance of “Unnecessary Farce” co-star and friend Carmen Decker, which he called “overwhelmingly transcendent.”

In mid-April, Kluge was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood that weakens the bones, which required him to undergo hip replacement surgery. Still, Kluge was optimistic about his recovery, and he even agreed to the possibility of a story on his condition, if it would focus on the work the various doctors and specialists were doing to treat him.

In May, Kluge’s health took a turn for the worse. On June 25, after 40 days in the hospital, he checked out to spend his last days at his west Lansing home with his wife and cat. He wanted to sit on his screen porch, smoke one last cigar and go “home.” He died at 12:20 a.m. July 1.

At Saturday’s memorial service, Decker, addressing Kluge, shared how she had told her friend that once he was “squared away,” she intended to play a concert for him, either on the guitar or the autoharp, which she said had a slight problem staying in tune.

“I was making progress. I hate to think you ducked out,” she said. “I go on practicing. At sometime that concert will be played.”

Before leaving the podium, Decker left her friend with these parting sentiments, harkening back to his first time on stage: “Like the last line of ‘Our Town,’ you get a good rest now, OK?”