- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2001

All Michael Kahn wants for his 15th anniversary as artistic director at the Shakespeare Theatre is another theater. Or two.

"Two new spaces would be wonderful, wouldn't it?" he asks, his arching eyebrows so dramatic they could have been drawn by Al Hirschfeld. "Then we could have a rotating repertory and use the smallest theater for more experimental pieces."

For now, he's content with the Seventh Street space and creating a 2001-02 season that will be a big, wrapped present for Washington audiences. To that end, the season will welcome back cherished actors — Avery Brooks heading the cast of "Oedipus," Kelly McGillis in the title role in "The Duchess of Malfi," Elizabeth Ashley starring in "The Little Foxes" and Wallace Acton as "Hamlet" — as well as getting the most out of company members such as Ted van Griethuysen, Emery Battis and Floyd King.

"I thought, 'Why don't we do a season of great masterpieces with great people and guest artists?'" he says. His 15th anniversary season will open Aug. 28 with "Oedipus," a work Mr. Kahn says he fears.

"It is the play," he says. "But then I began thinking of setting it in ancient Africa with Avery Brooks and responding to the primitive qualities of the plays, so now I am thinking it could be wonderful. I am still scared, but scared is good for me."

Another production he is excited about is "The Duchess of Malfi" (Jan. 22, 2002 through March 10, 2002). "Jacobean tragedy is my secret pleasure. I love it," he says.

"Romeo and Juliet" (March 26, 2002 to May 19, 2002) will be directed by Londoner Rachel Kavanaugh. When Mr. Kahn met her, she stated "Romeo and Juliet" was the Shakespeare play about which she was most passionate. "She's young and loves that age," he says.

With Gale Edwards directing Wally Acton in "Hamlet" (Nov. 6 to Jan. 6, 2002) and Elizabeth Ashley in "The Little Foxes" (June 4, 2002 to July 28, 2002), "it is a womanly season. I like that," he says.

Mr. Kahn, who admits to running on sugar and all the things that are bad form these days, also teaches acting at Juilliard School in New York City (he directs the school's Drama Division). He also is gearing up for the second year of the Shakespeare Theatre Academy of Classical Acting on Eighth Street SE (which is affiliated with George Washington University) and trying to assemble what he calls "an interesting group of younger actors to take their place alongside Floyd and Ted."

"I am hoping Robert Sella and Enid Graham will attach themselves to the theater," he says. Mr. Sella and Miss Graham, you might recall, were Don Carlos and Elizabeth of Valois in the recently closed production of "Don Carlos."

Sitting down for a chat seems an extravagance for Mr. Kahn. But in-between ringing phones and tightly sandwiched meetings, he pauses to reflect on his 15 years as artistic director of what the Wall Street Journal calls "the nation's foremost Shakespeare company."

"I honestly thought I might last five years at the very most," the Brooklyn native says. "When I started here, the theater was affiliated with the Folger Shakespeare Library and there was lots of good will, but a very small budget and infrastructure, and a limited number of Equity actors."

In order to survive, the theater had made major budget cuts. Mr. Kahn is a bit sheepish when he concedes that he was on the National Endowment for the Arts panel that defunded the Folger Theater. "And then [the theater] asked me to come down to Washington to answer questions about classical theater. Four or five months later, they offered me the job."

When he joined the theater in 1986, he says, he was not interested in saving the Folger. "I wanted to create a first-rate Shakespeare theater in America. We had a theater that needed saving, not a theater space. The first thing we needed to do was increase the rehearsal time and space and increase the budget," Mr. Kahn says.

Under his command, the theater grew to the Shakespeare Theatre's current 16,000 subscribers and an annual budget of $6 million.

It began to get a reputation for well-thought-out, scintillating productions, which included Pat Carroll as the first female Falstaff in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Stacy Keach in "Richard III" and Miss McGillis in "Twelfth Night." Through the years, tongues have wagged that Mr. Kahn was creating a star-vehicle theater, in which big names such as Hal Holbrook, Richard Thomas, Miss Ashley, Dixie Carter, Harry Hamlin and Joan Van Ark were used to create a buzz and publicity.

"I hate when people say that," he says. "I don't think an actor should be penalized for being famous. Many of these people have classical training. Why shouldn't they be on the stage?"

Four years later, the company had outgrown the Folger. "There was a certain amount of fear and trepidation on the board's part, naturally," he notes. "But I was excited about creating a significant classical theater, so I didn't want to leave. We had already grown so much in size and quality."

In 1992, the Shakespeare Theatre moved to its new, larger space in the Landsburgh building (450 Seventh Street NW). The inaugural production was "Much Ado About Nothing" with David Selby and Miss McGillis.

"That was a milestone for me," Mr. Kahn says. "When I got [to Washington] it was Arena Stage. Period."

Nearly 10 years later, the Shakespeare Theatre is once again experiencing growing pains. "We're the only major theater in D.C. with one space," he says. "My goals are to do more repertory, make tickets available to young people and to make the theater more of a destination for out-of-towners. I am not sure we can do that with one stage.

Landon Butler, board chairman at the Shakespeare Theatre, calls Mr. Kahn "a terrific leader."

"He knows what the next step is. He has articulated the vision of the new theater," Mr. Butler says.

Mr. Kahn rarely is satisfied. He said in an interview 14 years ago that "I never feel terribly wonderful about any play that I do."

Does that still hold true? "Am I ever satisfied? No," he says. "But I probably now have done more productions that I feel good about than I used to. I always feel the urge to go back and fix something, but that is the nature of theater, I guess."

Although vestiges of Mr. Kahn's reputation as a perfectionist remain, he says he has mellowed. Now, he says, his emphasis is on "truer theater that is not fussy."

"I guess you could say I've gone from a big-concept person to a detail person. And I am much more willing to throw bad ideas out right away."

Miss McGillis says that "Michael is much more mellow, much more self-assured. Everybody gets upset about something, but he doesn't allow that to get in the way."

Mr. Kahn credits his less-harsh attitude to years of teaching. "I think I understand actors better. When I started out I thought, 'What can a play do for me?' Now, I think of what I can do for the play," he says. "I've become very interested in the playwright's mind and in the moments between characters — what is not said."

Mr. Kahn beseeches his students, "Don't rush these moments, don't rush the beat to leap into your next speech."

"From teaching I have learned that," he says. "I ask my students, 'What did that person just say to you? What did they just do?'"

With this meticulous attention to performance, Mr. Kahn has earned the reputation of being an actor's director. "I've never thought of it that way," he says. "I think like a moment-by-moment actor, and I am a good editor of an actor's work."

Mr. Butler agrees. "That is definitely true. When Michael is directing there is absolute control in the room. He never raises his voice and has a light touch, but there is no doubt who is at the helm."

Mr. Van Griethuysen, who is in his 50th year in the theater and has spent 14 years working with Mr. Kahn, says that "Michael is at his best when you come into rehearsal with loads of ideas."

"I write him a letter filled with my thoughts and ideas on a character, since he doesn't provide you with a character. Michael feels it is not his job."

Miss McGillis has been a fan of Mr. Kahn's since he was her teacher at Juilliard. "You are always able to have a discussion with him," she says. "We all work on the play together to make the language as clear as possible. And he always has a vision, which I really love."

She also admires him for "having faith in what I do."

"Even when I am lost for the first five rehearsals, he is patient. He has seen me grow up and he knows more about me than I do. He'll always push me into a place I think I can't go — and I am grateful for that."

Mr. Van Griethuysen says his first impression of Mr. Kahn was that he was very tall. "I knew of him as a hot item, sort of an enfant terrible. But he is what made me inclined to stay, since the Folger was thought of as a bit of a joke by New York actors. I could tell after the first season that something was stirring."

Mr. Kahn, he says, is extremely exacting. "He is one of the few directors who still does Shakespeare in a way that is recognizable. He can also be extremely stubborn. Michael doesn't like to revisit plays — once they're done, they're done.

"It took me three years to convince him to do 'King Lear' again. First he asked me if I would do Lear in modern dress, knowing my strong opinions on that subject. I am not fond of Shakespeare in modern dress. Then he said, 'What about a deaf Cordelia?' and I knew he was hooked."

Like Miss McGillis, Mr. Van Griethuysen is grateful the director pushes him in unexpected ways. "'Henry IV' was a turning point for me. On the last dress rehearsal, I got a note that Michael was in the lobby. He said to me, 'I'm scared. I don't know what you are doing.' Then I knew I had slipped into something more comfortable for me. He pushed me back to where I should be, where it was not safe."

Mr. Kahn can be tough as nails, Mr. Van Griethuysen concedes, but he also has another side. "My wife died a year and a half ago, and he worked with me through that. He was extremely tender with me, and very, very kind. Of course, in some ways he utilized what had happened to me, how it changed me as an actor. I'm crazy about him."


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