Life in the Theater
by Trey Graham
Michael Kahn tells a good storyhardly
surprising, since hes 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 doesnt want to discuss.
Take his age: I think I turned
30 the year Mick Jagger said dont 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.
Hes laughing, and the familiar
puckish smile is in evidence, but theres a serious
issue behind the joke. Nowadays, after years of mischievous
evasion, I fudge my age partly because of tradition
its also true that at a certain age, people just
assume that youve kinda lost it one way or the
other. And I havent. So I just dont 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 60s, steered Connecticuts
American Shakespeare Theatre and then New Jerseys
McCarter Theater to national prominence, then relocated
to Washington, DC, where for the past 20 years hes
been building what the Wall Street Journal has called
the nations foremost Shakespeare company.
Home-team boosterism, you say? Ask the London-based
Economist, which named Kahns 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 worlds
three great Shakespearean theatres.
The only one who bitches about
me in public is Robin Williams, Kahn laughs. Theyre
friendly enough, he clarifies quickly, but Williams
memories of his time at New Yorks famed Juilliard
School, where Kahn headed the drama division until last
year, apparently arent all that fond.
The Juilliard program, one of the worlds
most illustrious theatrical training grounds, has been
Kahns teaching home since its inception in 1968.
Hes 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
Hot-this-minute TV stars, including
Marcia Cross (the actress behind icily desperate housewife
Bree Van de Kamp), Michael Urie (who plays Ugly Bettys
wickedly queeny Mark), and Spamalots Tony Award-winner
Sara Ramirez (who recently traded Broadway for Greys
Anatomy) have all studied with Kahn as well.
Its typical of Kahn, though, that
hes less likely to talk about his role in their
careers than theirs in his. Im working as
well now as Ive 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.
got stories about everyone from Tennessee Williams to
Dixie Carter, but I never think Im witty
enough. So I go to a dinner party, and if Im feeling
good, I can be good at the table. But if Im uncomfortable,
and I dont talk, I think Im hopeless.
Even when it comes to praise for the institution hes
built, hes reluctant to wreathe himself in the
laurels others offer. He laughs, a wry, self-deprecating
noise. Ive done enough Greek plays to know
If work is in Washington and New York
and also in whatever city Kahns third career as
an opera director takes him, wheres home? Some
say its where you hang your hat, in which case
Kahn has three homesalong with a knack for choosing
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. Its neat, sleek, and
lined with books alphabetized, by subject,
notes Kahn, who confesses to a Virgos organized-and-tidy