Review: Michael Kahn and Friends: Off the Record at Shakespeare Theatre Company

By Heather Rosen

On Wednesday evening, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) hosted the second of three talks honoring and reminiscing with the company’s retiring Artistic Director, Michael Kahn, titled “Michael Kahn and Friends: Off the Record”. Kahn, who will be succeeded by Simon Godwin (the current Associate Director at the Royal National Theatre) in August, was joined onstage by STC Affiliated Artist Tom Story (moderating), STC’s former managing director, Jessica Andrews, and 3 of the more prolific STC actors during Kahn’s 33 year tenure: Floyd King, Philip Goodwin and Wallace “Wally” Acton. The stories served up by the actors onstage and the two actors who sent a video tribute to Kahn - including celebrity Richard Thomas, who played the title role in Richard 2 - were not only entertaining, they also made me realize what an unbelievable gem we have in our backyard.


First some history: The Shakespeare Theatre Company started as the Folger Theatre Group in 1970, performing classical theatre at the Elizabethan style space located inside the Folger Shakespeare Library in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The Folger Library had been founded in 1932 by Standard Oil tycoon and Shakespeare materials collector Henry Clay Folger, and according to its website, this library has been the premier center for Shakespeare studies and resources outside of England.


In 1986, Michael Kahn was recruited from Julliard, where he was teaching, and from NYC theaters, where he was directing, to take the Folger Theatre Group to the next level. Kahn had a vision of what a great classical theatre should be, and in 1992, Kahn and Andrews took the first step in realizing that vision, moving the company to the newly-built theater space with more seating and an unobstructed view of the stage in what was formerly Lansburgh’s department store in Penn Quarter. Since the troupe was no longer performing at the Folger, Kahn also changed the company’s name to the Shakespeare Theatre troupe. Kahn and Andrews recalled the challenge of convincing their subscribers to come to Penn Quarter, which was then a transitional neighborhood that many people considered unsafe. According to Kahn, he and Andrews firmly believed “theatre can help make neighborhoods” and they assured subscribers that no one was going to let 451 theatre-goers be harmed. Apparently they were very convincing –they only lost 2 subscribers following the move. Of course, now the Penn Quarter neighborhood is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the District, thanks in large part to Kahn’s vision and determination.


As a “classical” theatre (versus a theatre devoted solely to Shakespeare’s works), many of STC’s productions are works by other playwrights  - for example, I reviewed "Vanity Fair" by William Thackeray earlier this year. What I had not before realized was that STC's mission is to present classical theatre in a modern/relatable and sometimes, controversial way. In their words, it is "...to present classic theatre of scope and size in an imaginative, skillful and accessible American style that honors the playwrights’ language and intentions while viewing their work through a 21st-century lens.”


Kahn spoke about this. He talked about the time that classical actor Patrick Stewart, who had already joined the cast of Star Trek, approached him about doing a version of Othello where Stewart was a Caucasian Othello and all of the other characters were black. Kahn said that he loved the idea in part because it changed the discussion of racism by replacing the black outsider with a white man living in a black society, but also because it provided more opportunities for black actors in DC. Then there was the time when STC’s production of The Oedipus Plays opened 2 days before 9/11. They decided to resume production 2 days after 9/11, at a time when much of DC was still shut down, and the grief of the character who was unable to bury her brother took on a whole new meaning.


The actors also shared anecdotes about working under Kahn, who was at times quite direct with the actors. Veteran actor Floyd King confessed that he has always had terrible stage fright, and shared that one time during previews, Kahn told him that his stage fright was apparent and needed to disappear before opening night. Another actor shared that Kahn told him that he has a resting “pissed off” face and he should work on changing that. Both said that in retrospect, they appreciated his candor. The actors also shared stories about working with some of the directors Kahn had hired over the years, including one who didn’t see eye to eye with any of the actors…or with Kahn.


Everyone on stage told their stories, some funny and relatable, and some more esoteric and technical, but at the end of the day, acting and the STC’s mission is exactly about the telling of the stories, which made this 3-part series (the last talk will take place on Monday, June 3rd) such a beautiful, fitting way to send off Michael Kahn. Kahn himself shared that one of the most profound moments of his time with STC was when they were performing The Oedipus Plays on a historic stage in Athens, Greece, and he suddenly realized that they were continuing the tradition of storytelling through theatre that started in Greece thousands of years ago.


On August 1st, Simon Godwin will continue that tradition of storytelling at STC. He has big shoes to fill, but I think it will be exciting to see and hear the modern, creative interpretations of the classics (especially the English classics) by a much younger, English artistic director. Godwin has already won several awards and he has notably directed Academy Award winning actor Ralph Fiennes in more than one show, so I expect that he will attract some great talent to STC. And if you haven’t been to STC’s newest theatre, Sidney Harman Hall, go – the all-glass building is gorgeous, the acoustics and line-of-sight at every seat is great, and located in Penn Quarter, it is surrounded by some of the best restaurants in the District.

Michael Kahn

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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