The Mighty Kahn


Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company for the past 30 years — who announced on Feb. 13 his plans to retire — doesn’t really have a bucket list.

That’s probably because what Kahn has accomplished here, in this city and with this company, has pretty much fulfilled his ambitions, dreams and expectations.

“I don’t really have any thoughts about doing plays that I haven’t done. There’s no big task, no regrets or unfulfilled plan or anything like that,” he said. “I think by the time a new person is hired, I like to think they’ll be in a position to fulfill and bring their own ideas and visions to the task, and that they’ll be about the future of the theater moving forward.”

Mind you, Kahn, whose impact has been enormous and far-reaching, isn’t retiring just yet. The summer of 2019, when he plans to depart, is more than two years away.

Much sooner, on March 9, he will be the featured guest at Georgetown Media Group’s next Cultural Leadership Breakfast at the George Town Club. Kahn is the 18th speaker in the series, which began in 2014. Admission to the 8 a.m. event is $25, $20 for George Town Club members. To RSVP, email richard@georgetowner.com.

Kahn, who married interior-design architect Charles Mitchem in May of 2015 (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiating), had been mulling over his professional transition for a couple of years. “You’re looking for the right time. It takes at least a year before a new person comes in to put together their own season.”

His own experience was different. Kahn arrived in Washington in 1986 as a confirmed New Yorker, mainly to help stabilize — or more accurately rescue — what was then called the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library. He did so with aplomb, energy and style, with memorable productions of “Richard III,” “The Merchant of Venice” and many others. Some of the casts were headed by major stars of the screen, including Patrick Stewart, Stacy Keach and Kelly McGillis.

McGillis — at the height of her movie star fame (“Witness” and “Top Gun”) — became a mainstay of Kahn’s company, with turns in “The Merchant of Venice,” “Twelfth Night” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” among others. “It wasn’t about stars,” Kahn said. “It was, then, about finding the best actors for the roles, and they were the best actors.”

Kahn moved the company downtown to the Lansburgh Theatre on 7th Street NW when the effort made him a pioneer, along with restaurateur Jose Andres, ACCENTS who opened his Jaleo around the same time.

“You would not recognize the area then. It was not that far removed from the riots. There was a bar across the street and some sex shops, I believe. It was a rundown area,” he said. That was already six years after Kahn had arrived in Washington, probably longer than he had expected to stay.

“We are looking at 30 years,” Kahn said. “If anybody had told me I would be here for 30 years, well, I had no idea and no intention to do that. It wasn’t my style. I thought, well, maybe a few years, maybe two or three or more, and things didn’t turn out that way.”

What did turn out was a Washington institution, complete with powerful adjunct parts and the innovative spirit of Kahn himself. In his retirement statement, Kahn said: “From the day I arrived in Washington, I have been determined to make this city a destination for lovers of theater and performing arts. I wanted to make STC accessible to all and introduce new audiences to classic theater.”

Among his innovations have been the annual Shakespeare Free For All, originally at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, from which nearly 700,000 theatergoers have benefited, and the popular “Text Alive!” program, which saw the company going into classrooms and bringing students to the stage. He formed the Academy for Classical Acting at George Washington University, and its graduates have filled the ranks of regional theater communities — including Washington’s — with gifted and experienced actors.

“When I first came here, there was not that large a body of actors to choose from. We had Ted [van Griethuysen] and Floyd [King] and Fran [Franchelle Stewart Dorn]. But we have a large, and gifted group of actors now, like Holly Twyford and Ed [Gero].”

Kahn and then Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser were the guiding forces behind a citywide Shakespeare in Washington Festival in 2007, in which some 40 cultural organizations, encompassing theatre, dance and music, took part. It went on for about half a year. “We started out thinking in terms not quite that large or for that long a time, but it had a momentum of its own,” Kahn said.

Under Kahn, the Shakespeare Theatre Company — which went from the Folger to the Lansburgh and added its Sidney Harman Hall centerpiece in 2007 — won a Tony for outstanding regional theater company in 2012. Productions he directed, including “The Oedipus Trilogy,” have toured nationally and internationally.

He hasn’t lost his directorial knack or desire, either. Last year’s double bill of “The Critic” and “The Real Inspector Hound” were sharp exercises in classic, fast-paced wit and comedy — not to mention the helter-skelter but stylish “The Metromaniacs.”

“We’ve done a lot of Shakespeare plays that people had not seen before,” he said. “I can’t say that I’ve done all the plays — ‘The Comedy of Errors,’ for instance, I didn’t see the need, and ‘The Tempest.’” But, to be clear: “I don’t have a bucket list. I think I’ve done most of what I wanted to do, and I thought it was just the right time for me to retire.”

Watching Kahn, and watching Kahn’s work over the years, you realize that perhaps three fourths of what you know about or have experienced of Shakespeare comes from him. That’s probably true of at least a couple generations of Washington-area theatergoers. You remember his personal flair for humor, his intelligence, the complete march through the history plays, his gift for finding the heart of Tennessee Williams.

Actors respect him for the ages. As Elizabeth Ashley explained when she took over the lead role in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” after the death of Dixie Carter: “Michael called me. When the mighty Kahn calls, you go.”

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