When Ted van Griethuysen arrived in Washington in 1987 to play the flamboyant Don Armado in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Love’s Labor’s Lost, he didn’t expect to stay past closing night. “Coming to Washington back then meant you were desperate for work,” he says. But Michael Kahn’s first season as Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director signaled Washington’s evolution into a theater town. Van Griethuysen (pronounced “van gree-tie-sen”) returned the next season. Thirty-five years of experience in the classics—and a mellifluous voice—made him an ideal match for Kahn’s growing company. DC became home.
The actor stuck with the classics for more than a decade until Joy Zinoman, then head of Studio Theatre, came calling. She cast van Griethuysen in Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom, a role that demanded new artistic risks. “I don’t believe Ted was appreciated for the total artist he is,” Zinoman says. “He had to get rid of the crowns and the capes. At Studio, he was literally stark naked in a theater of just 200 people.”
Playing the tortured Thomas Dunne, a policeman loyal to the British crown during the Irish uprising of the 1920s, van Griethuysen balanced insanity with poignant clarity. Zinoman saw it as a turning point: “I like to believe that that’s when he began to tap into this amazing, simple, spontaneous ability to create contemporary characters at very close range.”
Shakespeare Theatre’s Kahn concurs: “It used to be a fond joke that Ted needed a lot of rings on his fingers and a big cloak in order to act, but that’s no longer true. Working in both worlds has brought his classical work to a more human level.”
The Steward of Christendom garnered the actor, now 77, the second of six Helen Hayes Awards and a new artistic home. Under Zinoman, he’d explore some of the 20th century’s great playwrights—Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Samuel Beckett. Under Kahn, he tackled the classics, from King Lear to Falstaff. “If you can do Shakespeare, you can do anything,” van Griethuysen says. “Find the ‘you’ in Shakespeare, the you from which all your emotional life stems, and you’ll find it with much more ease in a contemporary play.”
Van Griethuysen’s apartment in DC’s Penn Quarter is filled with mementos of his life and of artists he admires: photos of long-forgotten stars, a Victorian toy theater, and a framed Stage magazine with Lynn Fontanne on the cover. “He’s part of that generation that knew and believed in a continuum of actors,” Kahn says. “He knows the great actors who have done his roles before. He studies them. A lot of young actors don’t.”
Van Griethuysen’s own history began in Ponca City, Oklahoma, where he almost made his theatrical debut in the first grade. “I played an elf but got very sick and couldn’t go on,” he recalls. “I realized later that I got sick because I was only in the chorus. I hit my stride in the second grade playing the King of the Vowels.”
While a drama student at the University of Texas, van Griethuysen studied with Ben Iden Payne, the first of three teachers who would shape his life. Under Payne’s direction, he spent one summer performing at the Old Globe in San Diego and another at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
In London on a Fulbright scholarship in 1956, van Griethuysen introduced himself to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s master costumer, who introduced him to Peter Brook, a director who’d make history with his 1964 production of Marat/Sade and a trapeze-swinging Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970. Quickly proving his mettle as a production assistant, van Griethuysen became Brook’s liaison to the costume, scenery, and prop shops for The Tempest with Sir John Gielgud. “During the final run-through, he was magic,” van Griethuysen says of Gielgud. “He was Sir John, he was Shakespeare, and he was Prospero. I thought, ‘Well, that’s that.’ It took years to get past my memories of Sir John to find my own Prospero.”
Decades later, he got that chance at Shakespeare Theatre—twice. “When we did it at the Folger [the company’s original home], it was a crashing disappointment,” he says of a 1989 production. He returned to the role in 1997 at the new location at the Lansburgh. Prior to rehearsals for the ’97 production, he wrote a three-page letter to director Garland Wright detailing his thoughts about the play—and received an 11-page response. “I wasn’t sure I understood everything he wrote,” the actor says, “but I knew this was someone I could work with.” Wright, too, was returning to familiar territory. His letter reads, “I come back to The Tempest to revisit the subject of art and art-making and to test who I have become as an artist in the intervening time.”
For van Griethuysen, the production proved a definitive experience: “The result was so good and I was so happy that I thought, ‘I never need to do this play again.’ ”
When Van Griethuysen came to Washington, he had appeared on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s Romulus and John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence and shared the stage with the likes of Cyril Ritchard and Nicol Williamson. His regional work included an early stint at the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, where he was beaten nightly by Katharine Hepburn’s Cleopatra.
More important, a member of the cast introduced him to aesthetic realism, a philosophy based on the reconciliation of opposites. Its founder, Eli Siegel, would become the second pivotal teacher in van Griethuysen’s life. “I would not have gotten to the place I have without aesthetic realism,” the actor says. “Mr. Siegel illuminated Shakespeare for me as only a real poet could do.”