Sept. 7-Oct. 16
1501 14th St., N.W.
People and plays. That’s what excites Michael Kahn lately.
During a recent appointment-filled morning at his favorite Dupont coffee shop, Kahn took time to share what’s currently on his always-full plate. As Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director for 30 years, Kahn is renowned for doing accessible, imaginative classic theater and for encouraging talented young directors to tackle these works. This hasn’t changed.
The upcoming theater season kicks off with STC’s out Associate Artistic Director Alan Paul’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Alan has done three incredible musicals in a row, so I wanted to give him a chance to direct Shakespeare,” Kahn says. “He has a passion about this play with some very specific ideas including an interracial family.”
In spring, South African director Liesl Tommy is staging “Macbeth” for STC. When Kahn initially approached Tommy to do the Scottish play, she wasn’t quite so well known as she has become since snagging a Tony Award nomination for directing “Eclipsed,” the first show written and directed exclusively by black women to be nominated for Tonys. Like Paul, Tommy has strong ideas about her Shakespeare assignment.
“At this point in my career,” Kahn says, “I’ll do the famous plays again only with people who feel passionately about a specific project.”
Interestingly, Kahn’s first directing gig of the season isn’t at STSC, but rather at Studio Theatre. When Studio’s Artistic Director David Muse invited Kahn to stage its season opener, Kahn agreed providing it was something by a woman that deals with gender and gender fluidity. Together they decided that “Cloud Nine,” the 1979 time- and gender-bending comedy by British playwright Caryl Churchill was the best choice.
“Not only is it brilliantly written, but it still has a lot to say and remains relevant, and it’s my first time directing Churchill,” he says.
The first act of “Cloud Nine” is set in British colonial Africa during Victorian times where the characters’ world is sort of falling apart. It’s farce, but in the farce there is despair. Act two jumps to post-sexual revolution 1970s London. The world has been cracked open and the characters are trying to cope with things in terms of gender, relationships and class. It’s not an easy adjustment for them.
“’Cloud Nine’ is theatrical and interesting to do. It’s a style exercise. Though it seems deceptively easy, Churchill’s prose is specific and carefully chosen. Unless you break it down and find the moments, it risks being uninteresting. That’s our challenge.”
When Kahn landed in D.C. in 1986, there was not much theater scene to speak of, he says. But that has changed a lot.
“I’m impressed at how institutions have grown and the how the work has become increasingly smart and theaters are doing plays are more complicated plays. I’m also aware that a lot of bright young people are choosing to make their careers here. Talented people used to leave because most local theaters couldn’t pay them a living wage. What concerns me is that while theaters have grown, the population hasn’t. Younger people in D.C. don’t have a theater tradition like they do in New York City. When you open a new restaurant here they come running, but they aren’t excited about discovering new theater in a new little place. I hope one day the desire to find new theater would hit town. I don’t know how to make that happen.”
Brooklyn born, Kahn 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 his friend Elizabeth Ashley. Over the years, Kahn maintained a parallel career as an educator, commuting to Manhattan as until 2006 as head of the Drama Division of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School where he continues to teach several weeks a year. He spends weekends in New York with his husband of a year Charles Mitchem, an interior design architect.
Kahn’s energy and work ethic is legendary. But he shrugs off the praise.
“I’ve always liked to have more than one job. I’m not sure if it’s in case I lose one, or if it’s because one job benefits from the other, but it’s something that I’ve always done. Now I’m happy to save my energy for Shakespeare Theatre Company — well almost all my energy.”