Games of Chance U professor emeritus David Kranes has a legacy in plays, stories, novels—and casinos.

David Kranes was a silent boy. He was always on the sidelines, observing, rarely saying much. On Saturday mornings, he might go to Boston’s University Theater to see a Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, or Gene Autry film. The theater handed out silver dollars to a lucky few between showings. It was a big deal to kids in their early teens. But even if the young Kranes managed to snag a silver dollar at the theater, it’s a safe bet that he wouldn’t yap about it very much. He just wasn’t a talker.

Even today, decades later, Kranes is by no means a chatterbox. When he speaks, he chooses his words carefully, as if plucking the ripest fruit from the branch. He exudes an almost Zen-like air. His home on a hillside above the University of Utah, near Popperton Park, is spotless. He has spent a lifetime cultivating his powers of observation, and honing an ability to not just communicate, but to select the right word and the right phrase.

Now a professor emeritus at the University of Utah, Kranes taught at the U for 34 years until his retirement in 2001, and he has mentored many preeminent authors. As the founder and onetime artistic director of the Sundance Playwrights’ Lab, he has shepherded numerous award-winning plays (his own and the work of others) from page to stage, working with such celebrated playwrights as Tony Kushner and actors including Kathy Bates and John Malkovich. His own dramatic work has been produced nationally, including at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Mark Taper Forum. And as the author of seven novels and a handful of short story collections—including, most recently, The Legend’s Daughter, released in May— he has established himself as a writer with a distinctive and clear voice, with accolades including a Pushcart Prize and the Utah Governor’s Award in the Arts.

Yet Kranes himself will readily admit that reaching a point where he felt comfortable expressing himself was a long time coming. “Discovering that I could speak and what that speaking might mean to others may have saved my life on a number of occasions. I tried not to be a writer in various ways. So to somehow earn my own permission to speak was so vivifying and life-giving.”

Kranes grew up in Boston, where his father was a highly regarded physician and was for a time chief of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. His mother put aside her nursing career to raise Kranes. “Though my parents couldn’t be described as ‘power’ people, they were respected people of note in many ways, and their friends were ‘important’ people in the Boston/ Harvard/MIT community,” he says. “I remember a night when there were three Nobelists at our house for dinner. How would one ever dare to enter into that conversation?”

Under this kind of pressure, Kranes remained a reserved and quiet child, the kind of kid who kept his mouth clamped shut. “I stood at the edge of things, taking notes but believing I’d never measure up,” he says.

Living in the deep shadow cast by his father led him to enroll as a pre-med English major at Bowdoin College. But then he hit a wall. “I applied to med schools my senior year, but, in the late spring, realized, I can’t do this! I understood that my medical path was to please my father, who had always said, ‘Whatever you do, I’ll be pleased,’ but the unspoken message had been, ‘I’d be so happy if you chose medicine,’ ” Kranes recollects. “So I ditched med school and flailed for a couple of weeks, then decided, I love words. Lawyers use words. Lawyers are respected professionals.”

Photo by Tom Smart

Photo by Tom Smart

At 21, Kranes enrolled at Columbia University’s law school, where he flourished for a time. But the competitive nature of the school, with students clawing their way over one another to get into the best law firms in the country, began to wear on him. And his slate was full for another reason, as well. “I was trying to read a novel a day and write a sonnet a day, because I’d never get to do that once I graduated and started to practice,” he says. “And all that conspired into a breakdown. And after my head cleared from the breakdown, I saw that I’d best try to do what I loved, which was to write.”

He entered New York University and received a master’s degree in English. And the words wouldn’t stop: He wrote furiously, constantly. He also met and married his wife, Carol, during this time, and shortly after leaving NYU, he came to another crossroads. “I realized theater was more of a drive than poetry or fiction,” he says. “I’d had a few poems published; I’d had a story published; but I’d had a play optioned for off-Broadway production, and Yale was the place to go if you thought you might write for theater.”

So he hit Yale University’s Drama School in the mid-1960s, having finally found his niche. “[Yale] immersed me in the literature of world theater,” he says. “It gave me a laboratory in which to take seven of my plays through the entire process ending in production. It gave me a theater community of brilliant young theater people, such as director Jon Jory, actor Stacy Keach, and playwright John Guare, who actively stimulated one another when at Yale.”

After obtaining a doctorate of fine arts, Kranes headed west to Utah, where his wife had been raised. He also believed the move would be beneficial for him. “I thought it would be a good thing to get away from the East Coast, where I felt the pressure to become one of the Nobelists sitting around my family’s dinner table.”

He came to the University of Utah in 1967, teaching classes in both the English and Theatre departments. Once at the U, he found that he loved teaching. “That surprised me, because the choice to teach was a cynical one,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘What job might I have that would allow me the most hours in a given day to be a writer?’ ”

Kranes found that mentoring young writers was as much a calling as his own efforts to craft fiction and drama. “I think it’s very hard to commit to making stuff out of words without feeling a little odd, strange, or outside the mainstream. You help the younger writers see it’s not necessarily solitary,” he says.

One of those students was Ron Carlson HBA’70 MA’72, now a professor in the Programs in Writing at the University of California at Irvine and an author of numerous short stories and novels. Carlson first met Kranes in 1968, soon after Kranes had arrived at the U. Carlson says that Kranes had a talent for coaxing writers from their shells. And Kranes’ own work opened Carlson’s eyes to new possibilities. “I found it fabulous, dense and angular, and full of surprising imagery like nothing I’d ever seen. It made me want to write, and the truth is that his prose still is a spur to my own work.” Another of Kranes’ former students is Jon Tuttle BS’82, now a professor at Francis Marion University, who compiled and edited David Kranes: Selected Plays, released in 2011. Tuttle says that Kranes was one of the most beloved professors at the U during the early 1980s, when he was taking courses from him. “What he’s best at is making you feel like you belong and have something to say,” Tuttle says. “And that’s the first thing I keep in mind when I’m talking to my own students. I try to listen. That’s Kranes.”

The music of Kranes’ work largely follows two recurring themes. Like poking at a sore tooth, Kranes returns again and again to the charged dynamic of fathers and sons, tussling over control and veiled emotions. The landscapes of the West, of Utah, Idaho, and Nevada, also have come to figure prominently in his work. “I think we all need distance as artists,” Kranes says. “When I first got to Utah, my writing was about the East. It took me about six years to begin writing about the West. And it was different from my East work, which was cooler and more observant. The West work began with wonder and newness and discovery, senses of rebirth and initiation. … What’s good and bad about the East for me is its constancy. The West, on the other hand, is inconstant, shifting, changing, new—both discoverable and rediscoverable.”

That process of discovery and rediscovery took an unexpected turn during one of Kranes’ exploratory trips soon after arriving from Yale. He was heading to Elko, Nevada, with some friends when they hit a snowstorm raging across the salt flats. The travelers stopped at the old State Line Casino in Wendover. Inside, Kranes happened to stand behind a man who was raking it in at the blackjack table. The gambler passed a silver dollar to Kranes and said, “Here. Good luck, kid.” Kranes was transported back to his days as a teen in Boston, where those silver dollars were handed out as prizes during the Gene Autry or Roy Rogers flicks.

That confluence of the past and the present ignited a fascination with casinos and the emotions they trigger. “In a casino, the idea of ‘are you a winner or are you a loser?’ gets compressed into a three-minute or five-minute span of time,” Kranes says. And it dovetailed perfectly with his work in theater. “I’ve always been hypersensitive to space, especially affective space—the way any given configuration of space makes you feel,” he says.

David Kranes directs a production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times at the U’s Babcock Theatre in March 1984. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

David Kranes directs a production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times at the U’s Babcock Theatre in March 1984. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

After that fateful night in Wendover, first came stories and plays based in Nevada and its casinos, and then his essay about casino space called “Playgrounds” appeared in a Las Vegas travel guide. The essay appeared at a time when casinos were largely dark, dank spaces with wildly patterned carpets, and without windows and clocks. Kranes argued that patrons would be more inclined to linger if these spaces were more welcoming, and he chose a handful of poorly designed properties as examples of what not to do, predicting their demise. His prognostications proved true, and soon thereafter, in the early 1980s, the casino CEOs came calling, and he began evaluating casino properties for their effectiveness in keeping gamblers in the seats. He urged the CEOs to open up their gaming spaces, allow natural light to flood the casino floors, and bring a sense of the natural world indoors.

“It was the convergence of the two—the study of affective space and the fascination about Nevada’s images and surreality—which led to the casino consulting,” he recollects. “I was off and running on a consulting jaunt, which has taken me across the country and to Estonia, Lithuania, and Lake Como. Who was I to say no?”

In addition to the casino gig, he also was busy working with Robert Redford’s Sundance Playwrights’ Lab. “I had had a film project in the first Sundance Film Lab,” Kranes says. “The next year, I was approached and asked if I would like to create a Playwrights’ Lab which had the same developmental mission elements as the Film Lab.” He founded the new lab and worked with it for more than a decade, and although he is not involved currently, he still has a keen interest in its development. “I’m working on a book which tries to frame the first 14 years of the Sundance Playwrights’ Lab,” he says. “It was an inspired place and process, and I’m trying to record a sense of that.”

Today, Kranes is also facing a new challenge. In July 2012, he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. “The treatment has gone very, very well, but there have been side effects,” he says. One side effect of the medication has been periods of crippling mental depression, which have brought a new degree of gravity and urgency to his writing. “I wrote a kind of journal called ‘Writing Myself Well’ and, as hard as I could, tried to use the process of writing and what it ignited in me to not stay in that darkness.”

He now believes the cancer will soon be in remission, and he still has a lot of writing he wants to do. He looks forward to spending as much time as he can with his two grown sons. He also has been rediscovering old stories he produced many years ago but squirreled away in filing cabinets. “Sometimes I put them in the drawer and forget about them,” he says. “I’ve been a poor marketer of my own work. It doesn’t serve me well professionally, but there’s always been this drive to do the next one and the next one.”

In addition to his new story collection The Legend’s Daughter, his latest work includes two novels (resurrected from the depths of those file cabinets), which will be coming out later in the year. As he sits in his house recollecting the work to be done, he leans back and folds his hands together. “I’ve also started sketching a play titled Final Episode,” he says, “a title which, at my age, speaks for itself.” Then he’s quiet, grinning from ear to ear. These days, he is quite comfortable with his own silence. He has a lifetime of stories that do the talking.

— Jason Matthew Smith is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City and a former editor of Continuum.

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4 thoughts on “Games of Chance

  • Ahhhhhh, what an inspiration David Kranes was during my time as an English major at the U prior to graduating in 1970. I found myself so enamored of his teaching, his hurried, sometimes disheveled appearance as he arrived to classes. I squeezed in an extra class from him that I did not belong in, “Shakespeare for non-English majors..” (I was an English major). He assigned us each to do a paper on Shakespeare that incorporated an aspect of our chosen field of study. My paper was “Ghosts and Shakespeare.” What fun I had researching that paper! I remember this class and how he inspired me and gave me confidence in my own writing.
    I honor him for his contribution to my education. I am still inspired by his enthusiasm, four decades later.

  • David was very kind and supportive to an introverted underclassman many years ago. He richly deserved the teaching awards which were bestowed upon him by both students and peers. The black-and-whites from the photo gallery are how I remember him when I was a student.

    When he lived on Michigan Avenue, he had a group of students at his house to spend an evening. Carol was warm and gracious, and if I remember correctly, a teacher as well. He told us he liked living there because he had his very own heath he could go out on and rage, like Lear. (A small creek bounded the property.)

    Best wishes for full remission of his bone marrow disease.

  • My first class at the University was David’s examination of the poetics of space. It marked me. I had dropped out of a Seven Sisters school back east and thought I was just biding my time in order to ski for a season in Utah. I never looked back after that. His classes were like crack… He offered a powerful theory of creativity: that in order to create, you have to destroy. And then he used himself as an example. He taught me a lot about literature and theory and structure and drama. He carefully imprinted for me how language works. He inspired me to read beyond without ever demanding it of me. But what I value most was the personal David he offered his students. He is a brave man capable of putting his most vulnerable self out for examination by the daftest of us students. I know that quality will get him through his cancer.

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