The DC theatre community lost one of its most admired, respected, and beloved members on June 9th. Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang was only 53 years old when she succumbed to cancer.
The outpouring of tributes on the Facebook page that had been created to keep her friends and colleagues updated on her condition were a spectacular testament to the many lives she touched.
There are many theatre artists who leave an impact on our community when they leave it. Elizabeth is one who (particularly as a teacher) influenced many, many people very profoundly. And, as someone who has been doing theatre in town for almost forty years, believe me: it is a rare person indeed about whom one never, ever has heard anyone say anything bad.
One of Elizabeth’s oldest friends is playwright/actor Allyson Currin. Ally sat down with me, after a long day at the end of a difficult week, to share some memories.
Who did you know first, Elizabeth or Stan [Kang, Elizabeth’s husband]?
“Elizabeth. We went to grad school together, at UVA. I was a third year MFA and Elizabeth was a first year MFA. We had one year of overlap at UVA. Then I went to Switzerland for a year to teach, and came back to DC, and she was here.
“I cast her in my first play that I had ever written: Dancing with Ourselves at Source, in the Festival. (Well, Rick Fiori [its director] cast her.) And then they put it in the season at Source. And she was brilliant.
“And then she was the lead in my subsequent three plays: Jitters, with John Dow and David Hilder; and then Amstel in Tel Aviv, I think, was second, with Melissa Flaim; and then Crash and Burns; that was at Church Street. (I might have the chronology wrong on that.)”
Did you write parts in your plays for her?
“After that first play? Hell, yeah. She was funny as hell, you know? She had the timing you can’t teach, coupled with her bravery onstage…and the fact that the comedy came from vulnerability was kind of staggering to me. And she always worked with audiences; audiences adored her. And she was very present onstage, too. She knew how to listen, you know? She met you where you were.
Was it, in a funny way, a loss to performing that she ended up focused so much on teaching as opposed to acting?
“That’s a really good question, because she wanted to act. She was cast in Hooded, in the original production, at Mosaic, but she got sick. And Jennifer Mendenhall graciously replaced her. And, in fact, she said to Elizabeth — and said to me, too — ‘I’m not going to do Jennifer Mendenhall doing this role. I’m going to do Elizabeth’s version of this.’ And then, in the remount, Marni Penning, of course, graciously stepped in.
“Yes, I think it was a damn loss. I forget which Post critic it was at the time who said of Elizabeth in my play Crash and Burns that her face melted about seven different ways when the guy in the play told her she was not the answer.
“And that’s kind of what she could do. She could be funny, and tragic, and melt at the same time. And I just don’t — I’m trying think of her equivalent onstage right now in DC and I can’t.
“Her technique was flawless, but you never saw it, because she was too busy listening, and being present in the moment. And she just made big, bold choices.”
Was Crash and Burns the only time you acted with her?
“No, no. She and I were in Goblin Market at Studio together, which is that Christina Rossetti poem from the 1880s. It’s a poem, so it was a movement piece, with a lot of music. It was non-realistic and poetic and high-brow and all that. There were eight women playing two characters in various incarnations. Except for those two, we were not onstage together a lot. I mostly just wrote for her.”
I don’t remember that she was acting a lot over the last fifteen years or so.
“She hasn’t. She hasn’t. Here’s the thing about Elizabeth. (I’m writing her eulogy, kind of as we speak.) She wasn’t just a good educator. She wasn’t just a great educator. She was a re-mark-a-ble educator. Remarkable.
“She was very dedicated to a lot of social justice issues, and that expressed itself in her art. She co-founded Educational Theatre Company. She worked with Street Sense in a partnership with ETC to create a new program called Devising Hope. Creative Age was an existing ETC program that she changed by paring students with seniors. (They devised new pieces from the shared stories, to tell them theatrically without co-opting each other’s stories.) And she was good at that. She was amazing at that.
“ETC has so many programs right now. I was in the original acting company — I wasn’t a founder — but it was me and Cody Nickell and Kate [Eastwood Norris] and, gosh, Michelle Shupe and Tim Getman and Stan and Elizabeth and Melissa Flaim and Tom Mallan and Hope Lambert, I think, and Michael Skinner — that was its original acting company.
“And ETC’s branched out. I mean, we were just taking Shakespeare scenes to elementary schools when we started, and it has become so much more complicated, and so much more layered, with summer camps, and the Creative Age program, and it’s become really an amazing thing.
“The Creative Age is a separate program within ETC with which she was involved, which paired college students — theatre students at GW — with senior citizens. And they perform these devised pieces that Elizabeth would direct, where they would share each other’s stories; not overtake them, but share them. Devising Hope pairs high school students with the homeless in the DC area to devise theatrical works. Elizabeth directed powerfully there.
“She missed acting. I know she did. But her life was quite full. And she had a family and a lot going on. It’s hard to raise kids in the theatre. She and Stan are both theatre and film people.
“Plus Elizabeth was teaching and directing at The George Washington University — we shared an office there forever, it seems — and she was such a valued member of the theatre faculty. I loved that I had such constant contact with her, and that our lives intersected so much, so constantly. For thirty years.
What made her such an effective and influential teacher?
“That’s a complicated question and a complicated answer. Elizabeth was somebody who had a lot of things that she had to work through in her youth, and I think that made her into an extraordinarily empathetic person.
“But Elizabeth spent a lot of time [long pause] mastering empathy [smaller pause] and getting things done. And that’s, to me, the essence of her. And she partnered extremely well with Stan, who was, and is, an amazing husband to her.
“I guess all those things collided, in a way, to make her a person completely primed to meet students where they were. She was the queen of saying, ‘Okay, I see what you’re bringing.’ She didn’t judge, ever, ever, ever, ever; she never judged.
“Her energy was constant. I should have such energy.
“She regarded the classroom as a sacred space, and that’s something she and I talked about all the time, because I agree with her on that: that the classroom is not about the professor or the teacher, ever. It’s about the person who’s trying to learn. And everybody’s trying to learn something different, so you have to measure each person in a kind way and figure out how to serve them.
“And that worked with Elizabeth; with high school students and college students and senior citizens and the homeless. She met people with humility and listening skills. She was really good at that. Really, really good at that.
[At this point, we talked about a few things regarding the progress of the disease that Ally asked me to keep between us.]
So she was profoundly unlucky. But, the good news is, and here’s the part you can put in the article: she was diagnosed in 2016. And I was her go-to sub at GW for any class she needed me to teach. [This year,] I did not teach one class for her. I think Stan taught one, and, other than that, she never missed a class, and she turned her grades in at the middle of May. And that’s when she started to decline. And then it happened really fast.
I recall working with their daughter Jamie on an ETC/WSC collaboration a few years ago. Is Jamie interested in theatre?
“She is. Jamie and Eli [their son] are both very interested in ETC, are interested in performing. Jamie is thinking about maybe pursuing it at UVA, which is where she’s headed — full scholarship in the Fall. Eli’s fourteen, so who knows where he’ll go. But they’ve always been heavily involved in ETC. They are a performing family.
I remember their wedding. [I knew Stan better than I knew Elizabeth; Stan had been an acting company member at WSC, performing there frequently, beginning when he was Demetrius opposite my Lysander in 1994.]
“You were there, at her wedding? I was a bridesmaid. There was a thunderstorm and the power lines were down. It was a mess. Pepco came. The band wouldn’t play, because they didn’t get a secured power line. Rick Fiori was directing the wedding. Yeah, that was nuts. And then the power lines got solved and the sun came out and four hours later they got married. And it was a beautiful service. It was crazy! It was crazy!
Wasn’t it close to here? [Our chat took place at Chevy Chase Lounge on upper Connecticut Avenue.]
“Yes, it was in Chevy Chase, Maryland.”
I’m not as close to the family as you are, but Stan invited me into the Facebook group. From posts there, I felt as if she was dealing with her situation with remarkable grace.
“Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. I mean, she and Mel [Melissa Flaim] and I have these girls’ nights out, just for years and years, the three of us. I guess it was probably in — end of April, maybe? Mid-April? We went to a little place on MacArthur Boulevard and had a nice dinner.
“And she was just being so zen about everything — while being worried about her children and her husband and everything else. And she could still talk then and still drive then.
“And she said, ‘Okay, girls. If this takes me down, I’ve lived a good life. I’m cool.’ And we were, like, ‘Oh, stop it.’ No, Mel was cool; but I was, like, ‘Stop saying it. You’re not dying.’ She said, ‘No? Well, when I die,’ and I said, ‘Don’t say when! Don’t say when. Say if!’ And she was, like, ‘Okay, Currin, if you need me to say if then we’ll say if. But I’m saying when.’
“And we had a really frank conversation about it.
“All this is super personal. So. What was your question? Blech. We’re, like, in a morass of, like…It’s really hard. It’s been a long week.
“The good news is that, you know, her best friends were there; most of her best friends were there the day she died. And her family was there with her, and her kids were there with her, her husband was there with her, and she died very peacefully.
“It’s just wrong, is all. It’s just really wrong. She was the brightest, most sparkling, amazing, talented light.
“Why do we lose good people?”
On Sunday, June 24th, Elizabeth’s friends and family gathered to remember her. It was an extraordinarily special tribute to the extraordinary person at its center. (The event was live-streamed [click on Archives] and can be experienced on the website of Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. I recommend it to you — it will provoke laughter, tears, and thought; it was a truly lovely service.)
In addition to Ally Currin, speakers included Melissa Flaim, who spoke of and read from The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck, Elizabeth’s favorite, oft-read book, that had been such an inspiration to her.
Her family spoke. Her son Eli shared a moving story about holding her hand toward the end, and demonstrated grace and wit that were a testament to his parents. “She felt everything I felt,” her daughter Jamie said, Elizabeth’s empathy being a theme that strung together so many of the memories. Husband Stan spoke of her “peering into us and seeing what we could be.”
Tom Mallan, a long-time friend and colleague, discussing her work with students, seniors, and the homeless, told of her talent for “turning people into artists, and artists into people.”
In an email, Stan singled out Devising Hope, the ETC program that pairs students with the homeless to create devised theatre pieces. “Devising Hope…is her legacy to ETC and the program she loved the most. She created the program and it was her baby.”
Janet Kopenhaver interviewed Elizabeth about Devising Hope for the Embracing Arlington Arts broadcast on WERA 96.7 FM, and I will close with the link to that interview with Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang:
Elizabeth was also interviewed about ETC’s Creative Age program on WERA 96.7 FM’s Aging Matters broadcast.