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MICHAEL KAHN
A Life in the Theater
by Trey Graham

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Michael Kahn tells a good story—hardly surprising, since he’s a theater veteran with a reputation for staging superlative productions of Shakespeare. What is surprising, and surprisingly charming, is how much he visibly enjoys telling stories. Even, it turns out, about things he supposedly doesn’t want to discuss.

Take his age: “I think I turned 30 the year Mick Jagger said don’t trust anybody over 30, so I stayed 30 for quite a few years.” That early bit of foolery, he says drolly, “has of course made my real age somewhat complicated.”

He’s laughing, and the familiar puckish smile is in evidence, but there’s a serious issue behind the joke. Nowadays, after years of mischievous evasion, “I fudge my age partly because of tradition…but it’s also true that at a certain age, people just assume that you’ve kinda lost it one way or the other. And I haven’t. So I just don’t talk about my age.”

Suffice it to say that for four decades, Michael Kahn has been carving out a substantial place for himself in the annals of American theater. He made his Broadway debut in the late 60’s, steered Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Theatre and then New Jersey’s McCarter Theater to national prominence, then relocated to Washington, DC, where for the past 20 years he’s been building what the Wall Street Journal has called “the nation’s foremost Shakespeare company.” Home-team boosterism, you say? Ask the London-based Economist, which named Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre Company (www.shakespearetheatre.org), with its sumptuously produced five-show season, its 15,000 subscribers, and its $15 million annual budget, “one of the world’s three great Shakespearean theatres.”

“The only one who bitches about me in public is Robin Williams,” Kahn laughs. They’re friendly enough, he clarifies quickly, but Williams’ memories of his time at New York’s famed Juilliard School, where Kahn headed the drama division until last year, apparently aren’t all that fond.

The Juilliard program, one of the world’s most illustrious theatrical training grounds, has been Kahn’s teaching home since its inception in 1968. He’s taught acting at NYU and Circle in the Square as well, and the list of his former students reads like a red carpet lineup: Kevin Spacey, Laura Linney, Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone, William Hurt, Christine Baranski, Christopher Reeve, Frances Conroy, Harvey Keitel, Ving Rhames.

Hot-this-minute TV stars, including Marcia Cross (the actress behind icily desperate housewife Bree Van de Kamp), Michael Urie (who plays Ugly Betty’s wickedly queeny Mark), and Spamalot’s Tony Award-winner Sara Ramirez (who recently traded Broadway for Grey’s Anatomy) have all studied with Kahn as well.

It’s typical of Kahn, though, that he’s less likely to talk about his role in their careers than theirs in his. “I’m working as well now as I’ve ever worked,” he says. “Partly because I have more skill, but partly because I still have a lot of curiosity. I think a lot of my curiosity comes from working so many years with young people.”

Kahn’s got stories about everyone from Tennessee Williams to Dixie Carter, but “I never think I’m witty enough. So I go to a dinner party, and if I’m feeling good, I can be good at the table. But if I’m uncomfortable, and I don’t talk, I think I’m hopeless.” Even when it comes to praise for the institution he’s built, he’s reluctant to wreathe himself in the laurels others offer. He laughs, a wry, self-deprecating noise. “I’ve done enough Greek plays to know about hubris.”

If work is in Washington and New York and also in whatever city Kahn’s third career as an opera director takes him, where’s home? Some say it’s where you hang your hat, in which case Kahn has three homes—along with a knack for choosing picturesque addresses.

His DC apartment, in the heart of the Dupont Circle gayborhood, is in the very building where Watergate scribe Bob Woodward famously plopped a flowerpot out on the balcony to warn Deep Throat that it was time for another midnight chat. It’s neat, sleek, and lined with books “alphabetized, by subject,” notes Kahn, who confesses to a Virgo’s organized-and-tidy inclinations.

Continued
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