When Michael Kahn came to Washington in 1986, he intended to stay for two years tops. The plan was to share his theater expertise for a while and then get back to his life in New York and continue teaching and staging plays and operas.
But luckily for local theatergoers, things played out very differently. Instead, Kahn remained in town as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater Company (STC) where he’s currently gearing up for the classical troupe’s 25th anniversary season.
Seated at a long conference table in STC’s busy administration offices on Capitol Hill, Kahn explains how he initially came to D.C. to help save the then-failing Folger Theatre and stayed on when he was named artistic director of a newly created Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger. Later he orchestrated the Shakespeare Theatre’s move to the larger Landsburgh location, adopted the STC name and more recently helped to expand the company’s home with the grand 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall.
“I took the job happily but not for a moment along the way did I think I was in for the long haul,” says Kahn, who is gay. “I’d think about leaving but then something interesting would always come up — an expanded season, the educational program, the STC Free-For-All [a terrific Washington tradition that annually offers free performances of a Shakespearean classic to the general public] and, or course, I’m glad I stuck around.”
Over the years, Kahn has successfully pursued STC’s core mission of doing classic theater “in an accessible, skillful, imaginative, American style that honors playwrights’ language and intentions while viewing their plays through a 21st-century lens.” In doing so, he’s created arguably the nation’s premier classical company and emerged as one of America’s foremost directors of Shakespeare.
Kahn alone selects the STC’s titles and directors. For the upcoming milestone season that kicks off in late August, Kahn wants to make things a little special. In addition to seven plays (a mix of dramas and comedies), he plans to celebrate the Bard with a pair of musicals performed in concert-style staging: Rodgers and Hart’s “The Boys from Syracuse,” a late-1930s swing version of “The Comedy of Errors;” and John Guare’s rock opera “Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
As a special anniversary treat to himself, Kahn will direct Eugene O’Neil’s “Strange Interlude,” a famously difficult play about love and deception that he’s longed to stage for years. He also plans to work with some of his favorite actors (many of whom can’t be named until contracts are signed), as well as two former STC associate directors who’ve made good outside of the nest – P.J. Paparelli (artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Company since 2007) and successful New York-based freelance director Ethan McSweeny — who’ll stage “The Two Gentlemen From Verona” (the original non-musical) and “Much Ado About Nothing,” respectively.
D.C. native McSweeny met Kahn while still a secondary student at St. Albans School. He invited the director to speak to his drama club and Kahn agreed. During college and after, he interned with Kahn at STC, and at just 22, he was named the company’s resident assistant director.
“My four years at STC were graduate school for me,” McSweeny says. “I think directing is a craft that’s learned from watching a master craftsman like Michael in action. He doesn’t dictate. He just does it.
“Michael is also a tough teacher. With him, you’ve got to bring your A game,” McSweeny adds. “We alums of Kahn all maintain high standards — we inherited that from Michael. But in addition to the stick there’s the carrot: Michael can be a torrent of creative passion and it’s thrilling to be in the vortex with him.”
The school of Kahn isn’t reserved exclusively for promising directors. Actors have benefited as well. Via phone from New York, Veanne Cox, a delightful, versatile actor who rapidly has become an STC regular, recounts how six or so years ago Kahn happened to catch her playing the very dramatic part of a woman dying from cancer, and afterward matter-of-factly commented that she was made for Restoration Comedy. The story still makes Cox laugh, and she is quick to add that soon after Kahn cast her in STC’s production of the classic comedy “The Beaux Stratagem” and changed her life.
“Prior to knowing Michael I’d done very little classical theater,” Cox — who memorably appeared as the heckler in a “Seinfeld” episode — says. “Because of him, my career is flourishing in new ways. My best work experiences have been at STC, better than Broadway and off-Broadway. [In the fall, Cox is slated to return to STC as Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing.”] The actors are exquisite to work with, and D.C. audiences are better educated than New York audiences about the works. Because of Michael, they understand language and themes. He has trained them how to appreciate and understand classical theater.”
STC is not Kahn’s first act, far from it. He began his career in New York in the ‘60s, directing for gay playwright Edward Albee and Joseph Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park. His Broadway successes include revivals of “Showboat,” “The Royal Family” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (starring a young and gorgeous Elizabeth Ashley). He’s also earned excellent reviews staging opera and regional theater. Before coming to Washington, he was artistic director for the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn.; producing director for the McCarter Theatre; and founder and head of The Chautauqua Conservatory Theater. In addition, Kahn maintained a parallel career as an educator, commuting to Manhattan as head of the Drama Division of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School until 2006. He has won multiple Helen Hayes Awards for his STC work, and is frequently honored by the LGBT community.
Repeatedly, Kahn’s skills and impressive vitae have and continue to lure well-known actors like Elizabeth Ashley, Stacy Keach, Kelly McGillis and the late Dixie Carter to STC. He enjoys working with big names. Usually, Kahn says, big names become famous because they’re good.
“Well, not always,” he backtracks. “Anyone who waits in line at a supermarket can’t help but know Kim Kardashian, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be working with her any time soon.”
Growing up in Brooklyn as an only child with “all the vices and problems that that entails,” Khan was just 5 when his Russian immigrant mother introduced him to the works of Shakespeare. He attended High School for the Performing Arts and went on to Columbia University where he directed plays for the French club (a pre-famous Andy Warhol designed the set for one of the productions). Kahn came out early. He never struggled with his sexual orientation, only unrequited love. As a young man he carried an unreciprocated torch for gay playwright Terrence McNally. He outed himself to the Washington Post in 1986 and believes a lot of conservative society’s problems with the arts is, in fact, subterranean homophobia. Lately he’s come to the conclusion that good direction requires sensitivity, and whether it comes from a gay or straight person makes little difference.
Kahn says it’s possible to have a relationship despite an all-consuming professional life, but you pay a price: “With me here and Frank [Donnelly, Kahn’s late, longtime partner] in New York, we were often apart. I wasn’t there when he died.” A psychotherapist, Donnelly died in his sleep shortly after 9-11. He’d spent his last days counseling those who had lost loved ones in the World Trade Center collapse.
When asked if he’s in a relationship now, Kahn replies playfully, “Yes, at least that’s what it says on Facebook.”
And does he miss working in New York?
“I could never do in New York what I do here,” he says. “I’d be in a 200-seat theater with a much smaller budget. They’re just not interested in lesser known shows like Musset’s ‘Lorenzaccio” from our  season, or David Ives’ adaptation of Regnard’s 1706 masterpiece ‘The Heir Apparent’ that we’re doing in the fall.”
Highfalutin legacy talk isn’t Kahn’s style; however, he will say that he “really wants to make sure the theater is in a good financial position so anyone who wants to take over [his] job will also want to stay.” But for today, Kahn continues doing what he does best — thinking of ways to bring more high quality, classical theater to Washington.