Art Talk with Michael Kahn, Artistic Director, Shakespeare Theatre Company
Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, photo by Scott Suchma
"[Y]ou have to be as uncompromising as you possibly can about who you think you are, and to fight for that, in bad times and good times." --- Michael Kahn
Having established himself as a premier artistic director at various theater companies, in 1986 Michael Kahn was called to Washington, DC to oversee the fledgling Folger Theatre. Planning just to stay a few years, Kahn ended up staying 25 years instead, directing the theater company through name changes and relocations, all leading to the latest achievement: the 2012 Tony Award for Regional Theatre, to be awarded to the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) at the award ceremonies on June 10.
Kahn has worked hard to make the STC one of the top regional theater companies in the country. Upon arriving in DC, he changed the name of the company to Shakespeare Theatre and in 1992 moved the company to the Lansburgh Theatre in the Penn Quarter, helping to drive the economic revitalization of that area of the city. In 2000, George Washington University teamed with STC to offer MFA degrees in classical acting. In 2007, STC opened a new performing arts space, the Sidney Harman Hall. Since its establishment in 1986, STC has hosted approximately 2.5 million people at its roughly 150 productions, with an additional 600,000 attending the company’s annual free summer Shakespeare production. The STC has won 78 Helen Hayes Awards to date, more than any other DC-area theater.
We chatted with Kahn last week about the upcoming Tony Award, what it means to be an artistic director, and what it means to be a regional theater.
NEA: Congratulations on winning the Tony Award for Regional Theatre---what was your initial reaction to receiving the award?
MICHAEL KAHN: We were very pleased. I particularly like being recognized this year because it represents the not-for-profit part of the theater that so many of the plays and musicals that are being nominated started in.
NEA: How would you describe the Shakespeare Theatre Company in five words or less?
KAHN: That’s hard. I never had to talk about the Shakespeare Theatre in five words or less. I don’t think any theater can describe itself in five words. I can say that the Shakespeare Theatre is an ambitious classical theater that continually challenges itself.
NEA: Can you tell us what it means to be a “regional” theater?
KAHN: A regional theater is very much based in the community, and it’s responsive and responsible to the community. However, living in Washington, which has a transient population almost every time it has a new administration, I think of us as a regional theater in an international city. For me, that’s quite exciting.
So much of our audience might find it quite exciting to be dealing with the issues of the great classical plays [that] are actually the same issues that we are dealing with as a city in Washington. When you do Shakespeare, you can deal with issues of power and politics, and war and evil and good, all the same issues.
NEA: One of the events that you do that seems specifically DC-centric is the Mock Trial, where lawyers argue on behalf of characters and issues from classic plays.
KAHN: I think [Supreme Court Justice Anthony] Kennedy came up with the original idea. The first mock trial we did was in a chamber of the Supreme Court (not THE chamber, but another chamber). He presided over it; it was whether Hamlet killed Polonius or not, whether he was crazy or not. It was very interesting because the lawyers for the defense and prosecution can only use the text of the play as the basis for what they are arguing. I picked the jury out of the people who were there (but [Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Ginsburg said she had to be the foreman), and the verdict came out that not only was Hamlet guilty of the murder of Polonius, but Ruth and the jury insisted that he be indicted for the murder of Ophelia too.
[The mock trials are] based on some idea that happens in the plays. Those ideas are ones that very important right now---like we did one on [Ibsen’s] Enemy of the People about whistle-blowing; Henry V’s invasion of France was about just or unjust invasions; Malvolio’s imprisonment, about cruel and inhuman punishment, came out the same time as the waterboarding discussion. They’re very funny but they also bring a great deal of conversation about what is going on.
NEA: You have been at the STC for a long time---25 years. What’s unique about the theater that has kept you there for all this time?
KAHN: I was brought down to save the Folger Theatre---the theater was at the Folger Shakespeare Library and was about to close. I came down thinking, “Let’s see what I can do.” I was curious to see if the [theater company] could be turned around in some way.
Four years later we outgrew that space and realized that the theater company was more important than the space. So we moved to another space, we got the Lansburgh Theatre, and each year there’s been something new: let’s do more plays, let’s start an actor’s workshop, let’s go to the schools more, and eventually there were so many challenges each year that were so exciting. Then as we began to expand the repertoire to do plays that people didn’t know so well, the excitement of being able to do the plays that I always wanted to do has kept me there. It’s still true. We’re about to do [Friedrich] Shiller’s Wallenstein, adapted by Robert Pinsky---I mean, where else could I do that? It’s been a very supportive city and audience, and I’m very grateful.
NEA: Can you tell us a little bit about what the artistic director of a theater does?
KAHN: The buck stops with the artistic director. It just does. That means developing a vision for the theater first of all, and explaining that vision, keeping the core values of the theater in the forefront. One of the things that I have always been grateful to this theater for is about the art. On the stage it has always been first and foremost everyone’s concern. And then there comes community outreach and education, but everything we have done has been related to the art on the stage. For years we would start things we didn’t have funding for, but we did them anyway.
[As artistic director,] I pick the season, I pick the directors, I’m sort of the spokesman for the theater most of the time, and now that we’re doing international work I’m the person who goes and looks for things [in other countries to show at the Shakespeare Theatre]. I think that in this case it’s keeping the core mission of the theater alive and being open to new ideas.
NEA: Looking forward, what’s in store for STC’s future?
KAHN: There are, of course, a lot of artists I would like to work with, and most know who they are. At the Tonys lunch [on May 31] I had a very good time seeing a bunch of artists I like very much saying, “We really need to work together.” It was very nice.
I’m pleased we’re beginning to commission major writers to adapt and translate classic plays that are not part of the American repertoire. We got David Ives to adopt the comedy by Pierre Corneille, The Liar, which no one had ever seen and was a great success for us. Robert Pinsky is doing Wallenstein by Schiller. We’re talking to a major poet about doing a new adaptation of Oresteia.
We’d like our work to be seen by people outside of Washington, DC. At this moment we are bringing in productions from Europe, but we’re also screening National Theater live [from London]. I would like to see us be able to do that, sending out our productions through the technology, across the country. That’s something we’re working on and that I would very much like to have.
NEA: And do you have any advice for other theaters in terms of becoming a successful theater like the STC?
KAHN: I think you have to define who you are---and that definition can change---but you have to be as uncompromising as you possibly can about who you think you are, and to fight for that, in bad times and good times.