Michael Kahn Muses on Shakespeare and Power

“I’ve always liked being in charge,” said Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, responding to a question from Georgetowner arts writer Gary Tischler about the difference between directing a play and running a theater company.

Kahn, who said he knew he wanted to be a director at age 5 (and got his first chance in first grade), was the featured guest at Georgetown Media Group’s March 9 Cultural Leadership Breakfast at the George Town Club, sponsored by Bonhams.

Last month, Kahn announced that he would step down in the summer of 2019, completing 33 years in the position. He came to D.C. after a career in New York — Off-Off-Broadway, Off-Broadway and on Broadway — and at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, and the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.

When he arrived at what was then the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, he didn’t care for the already-planned season and tossed it out. Then and since, he said, the organization has supported him every step of the way. They have been big steps: moving to the Lansburgh Theatre in 1992 and creating the Harman Center for the Arts in 2007. He stayed so long, he said, because he and his staff seemed to come up with a new idea — the Shakespeare Theatre Free For All program and the Academy of Classical Acting, for example — year after year.

But after having done every play he wanted to, and repeatedly reinventing the company, he realized it was time for someone else, with his or her own vision, to take over. “I don’t have another reinvention,” he said. And he wanted the new artistic director to have more time than he did to plan his or her own first season.

Washington was a big change from New York. A longtime faculty member at the Juilliard School, later heading its drama division, Kahn said he never had to buy a drink when he went out in New York; all the waiters were his former acting students. In D.C., however, “they were all law students” — at least until recently.

The city isn’t the same city it was 20 or even 15 years ago, he said. The Shakespeare Theatre Company gets some of the credit for Penn Quarter’s revival. These days, he noted, the company couldn’t afford to rent office and storage space downtown.

One of the themes of his conversation with Tischler was Shakespeare’s exploration of power, leadership and politics. “We always seem to do ‘Richard III’ during primary season,” Kahn commented, also relating how during the Vietnam War he directed a “Henry V” that emphasized the king’s immoral acts rather than his inspiring speeches; Laurence Olivier had done the opposite in his World War II-era movie version. Now, Kahn said, he better understood “the compromises one makes to be a great leader.”

Coming up April 25 through May 28 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is a production of “Macbeth” set in Africa and directed by Liesl Tommy, who grew up in Cape Town. A Kahn-directed production of “The School for Lies” by David Ives, based on Moliere’s “Misanthrope,” will follow, starting May 30.

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