Dennis Krausnick, actor and playwright who helped found Shakespeare & Company, dies at 76

Dennis Krausnick (center) rehearsed playing Polonius, with Jason Asprey as Hamlet and Tina Packer as Gertrude in Lenox.
Dennis Krausnick (center) rehearsed playing Polonius, with Jason Asprey as Hamlet and Tina Packer as Gertrude in Lenox.(Globe photo/file 2006)

As a playwright and director, and particularly as an actor and teacher of actors, Dennis Krausnick stressed the resonating importance of the voice.

“I do think that the voice is essential, that training the voice to be an instrument of revelation . . . is essential to who it is that we are,” he once told an interviewer while discussing Shakespeare & Company, which he helped found in Lenox 40 years ago.

Mr. Krausnick, who was 76 when he died Nov. 26 in his Stockbridge home of prostate cancer, taught thousands of students during his decades with Shakespeare & Company. He also directed or acted in countless productions, along with writing or adapting more than 40 plays.


The actor’s voice, he added in the interview posted on the company’s website, is especially important as performers communicate with their audiences.

“Acting, in my book, is 95 percent revelation — is revealing, revealing, revealing,” he said. “And it’s in that moment of recognition on the part of the audience — that that’s part of who I am when they see it on the stage — that makes theater a transformative experience.”

Off stage, Mr. Krausnick had a resume and life story as intriguing as any character he portrayed. After boyhood in western Nebraska, he became an ordained Jesuit priest with master’s degrees in French and acting.

He left the order a few years after meeting Tina Packer, the legendary founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. Mainstays of the group, they were a couple for 25 years before marrying in 1998.

As a writer, meanwhile, Mr. Krausnick devoted part of his last weeks to finalizing two books: his poetry collection “White Flash” and a nonfiction book, “Elizabethan World Picture(s),” in which he muses about the physical and psychological perspectives of Shakespeare’s characters.


In Shakespeare & Company’s early years, Mr. Krausnick played a key role in keeping the group going. “He was really the unsung hero,” Packer said of the many times he stepped in as managing director, often with no time to prepare, when creative differences led the previous one to abruptly depart.

“In the first 15 years of the company, I spent as much time managing as I spent on the artistic side of things,” he recalled in the recorded interview

No worse for the managerial wear, he wrote as prolifically as he acted, basing many of his adaptations on fiction by Edith Wharton or Henry James — including two staged just last year.

“Much of what Shakespeare & Company strives to be in the world can be traced to Dennis,” Kevin G. Coleman, the organization’s director of education, said in a statement. “The theatre artists he inspired and encouraged over the years can hardly be counted.”

Mr. Krausnick’s legacy as an instructor reaches around the world into theater companies where those he trained now work. “He not only loved to teach actors and students, he loved to teach teachers,” Packer said.

Even though he had to schedule teaching stints at colleges around his commitment to Shakespeare & Company, those positions took him far from the Berkshires. He had taught at Boston University and Emerson College, at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Washington, and at many other schools nationally and abroad. He formerly held the Bingham chair in humanities at the University of Louisville.


“Of course, he had all those degrees, so nobody could say, ‘Oh, he’s just a feckless actor,’ ” Packer said with a chuckle. “And he was just this super teacher and got results from what he did.”

Mr. Krausnick was a Designated Linklater voice teacher — a credential accrued by those trained in a program created by Shakespeare & Company cofounder Kristin Linklater. At Shakespeare & Company, he was the director of actor training.

“As far as I know, I think we’re the only theater company in the country that has a director of actor training,” he said in the recorded interview. “And I think that that bespeaks something of Shakespeare & Company’s focus on what it is that we do and why we’re here.”

Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1942, Dennis Krausnick was the sixth of seven siblings. He grew up in Scottsbluff, Neb., “on a five-acre farm where they grew their own food,” Packer said. His parents were Leo Krausnick, a meat inspector, and Naomi McVeigh.

When Mr. Krausnick graduated from high school, his parents were wary of his hopes to study writing in college, so at 19 he entered the Society of Jesus. He graduated from St. Louis University, a Jesuit school, with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and letters, and received a master’s in French from McGill University in Montreal.

While studying at New York University for a master’s of fine arts in acting, he met Packer, who was teaching there. Sitting in a cafe writing one day, “I looked up and saw this bloke crossing over the road and I thought, ‘I bet that’s my Jesuit student.’ ”


Subsequently, “I went and twisted my ankle, which I tend to do when I’m under stress, and then he had to take me everywhere,” she recalled. “And that’s how we became friends over and above the class. He helped me hobble around, thinking, ‘How’s Tina going to get up those stairs?’”

Mr. Krausnick “was a priest when he decided maybe he wanted to make theater and me his life,” which made for a more complicated early relationship, she said. Beginning anew with Packer meant departing from an established path.

“He had to un-Jesuit himself, or un-priest himself,” she said, a multiyear process that was challenging logistically and emotionally.

“He loved the life of service, he loved the teaching part of the Jesuits, he loved the intellectual community, but in the end he loved Shakespeare more. And I suppose you could say he loved me more,” she added with a laugh. “Me and Will Shakespeare, bound up in one.”

In addition to Packer, Mr. Krausnick leaves his stepson, Martin Jason Asprey of Lenox, an actor and Shakespeare & Company member; two brothers, Tom of Troy, Mich., and Mike of Dublin, Calif.; a sister who is a nun, Sister Josine of Duluth, Minn.; and an aunt who Packer said was like a sibling to Mr. Krausnick, Sister Joan McVeigh of Columbus, Ohio.


A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. June 24 on the Shakespeare & Company campus in Lenox.

As his illness became more serious, Mr. Krausnick established the Dennis Krausnick Fellowship Fund to help support diversity in the ranks of the company’s Actor Training Program.

Though his title portrayal in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” drew praise — on the Berkshire Fine Arts website in 2012, Charles Giuliano put it “on the short list” of the “greatest performances during our era” — Mr. Krausnick “loved playing eccentric men” such as Polonius in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Packer said.

And when he performed in his own plays, Mr. Krausnick so thoroughly inhabited the role of the author Henry James that when he went off script, “you couldn’t tell whether he was actually embellishing the text,” Packer said — as the playwright, he sometimes chose to do so — “or whether he’d forgotten his lines and just kept on talking.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard Follow him on Twitter @BryanMarquard.