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Actor Michael Kissin was speaking in his usual soft voice, so it was difficult to hear him over the coffee-shop din. Did he say he had just begun a “fake retirement” from his position as an associate theater professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College?
“Phased retirement,” he said. “I’m teaching half-time this fall. So when Barbara dangled this script, I thought this is perfect. I can teach a couple days, rehearse the play and still have time to go up and work on my cabin.”
More on the cabin later. Suffice it to say that Kissin’s hands reflected his maintenance projects. His hands also have been holding a script for “The Twenty-Seventh Man.” Barbara Brooks, artistic director of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company (MJTC), asked Kissin to consider the 2012 play by Nathan Englander, which opened Saturday in St Paul.
Kissin’s Twin Cities stage history goes back to 1980, when his college buddy Jack Reuler invited him to join the cast of the Warp Trilogy at Mixed Blood. He had planned to stay for a few months but never left. He worked for Reuler steadily at Mixed Blood and other professional theaters, hooked up the teaching job and probably reached his widest audience as the fiddle player in “A Christmas Carol” for 13 years at the Guthrie.
That gig ended five years ago when the Guthrie shifted gears on the annual holiday show. Kissin has directed many shows for MJTC but has not been on that stage since “Boychik,” a solo show in 2006.
Kissin finds “a strong streak of resonance” in “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” which is about Yiddish writers who were rounded up by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the early 1950s. Kissin’s ancestors on his father’s side were Russian Jews who were driven out of the country by Cossacks in the early 20th century.
“It’s interesting working on this piece because it’s based on historic events,” Kissin said. “Stalin murdered poets and believed that Yiddish culture threatened the Soviet system.”
Englander’s play puts the writers in a jail cell and then introduces a slightly mysterious figure (the 27th man) who is not a published writer. The others wonder what’s going on with this newcomer. Kissin plays the wise old codger of the group (“I’m 67 now”).
A summer nomad
Kissin, who has two grown children with his ex-wife Lia Rivamonte, lives on St. Paul’s West Side. But he tries his best to be nomadic. When his father died, Kissin took his inheritance and bought a tiny cabin on Little Bass Lake in northern Minnesota. Built on the model of a sauna, the cabin has the barest of essentials. Kissin explains that Finnish tradition is to build a sauna first, then add rooms.
“I haven’t gotten past the first phase,” he said with a laugh.
His mother’s relatives were among the original Finnish homesteaders of Embarrass, Minn. Kissin recalled taking summer trips from his home in Spokane, Wash., and visiting his mother’s family.
Kissin still hits the road in the summer. He was artistic director at Bemidji’s Paul Bunyan Playhouse (during which time he found his cabin), acted at L’Homme Dieu in Alexandria, directed at Minnesota Festival Theatre in Albert Lea and for the past several years has headed to Maine for a summer season at Acadia Rep. Twin Cities theater artists Andrew Mayer and Cheryl Willis run the place each year, and Kissin has found it irresistible. In fact, he has bought a one-bedroom carriage house on the coast at Bar Harbor, a nine-iron away from Kebo Valley Golf — the eighth-oldest course in the United States.
Kissin, who plays golf well, scolded himself during our conversation for not playing a round at the storied club last season.
Kinship for friends, theater
Kissin met Reuler at Pomona College near Los Angeles. “I met him on the first day of my freshman year and just glommed onto him,” Reuler said.
They are part of a group that has gathered every Thanksgiving for 30 years. In fact, Kissin taught a one-credit technical college course called “Mixed Blood.”
“One of the trick questions on the final was, ‘How did Mixed Blood get its name?’ ” Reuler said.
And the answer? Kissin was a propane truck driver in Berkeley, Calif., and would collect interesting posters he saw on his routes. Shortly before opening his theater company in 1975, Reuler was visiting Kissin and saw, above the bathroom toilet, a poster for a band.
“It said ‘Watch for the Mixed Blood sound’ of whatever the name of the band was, and the band looked like what I wanted my theater to look like,” Reuler said.
“I think he’s a terrific director who is underappreciated by the community. He has a quiet, gentle way about him.”
Kissin has been busier at Minnesota Jewish Theatre than at Mixed Blood in the past decade. Kissin appreciates MJTC’s mission. His Jewish father and Lutheran mother found a common worship spot with the Unitarians, but Kissin feels his father’s cultural history strongly.
“That’s why I feel a connection to this theater,” he said.