For Michael Kahn '61,
All the World Truly Is a Stage
By Shira J. Boss '93
Michael Kahn ’61 started directing plays as a boy, and in
the decades since has become one of the most respected directors
in classical theater.
Last year, The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., celebrated
Kahn’s 15-year anniversary as artistic director. At a spring
awards gala hosted by actors Patrick Stewart and Christine Baranski,
Kahn was given the theater company’s William Shakespeare Award
(“the Will Award”), which recognizes a person who has
made a significant contribution to classical theater in America.
Kahn also is a highly-regarded acting teacher who directs the
drama division of the Juilliard School, where he has taught for
more than 30 years. In addition, he has been recognized for contributing
to the community: In the summer of 1991, he created D.C.’s
Shakespeare Theatre Free for All, inspired by the free New York
Shakespeare Festival in Central Park.
Kahn, who radiates an imposing personality through his penetrating
eyes and naked pate, has earned an international reputation in theater
for the originality of his productions and his dedication to Shakespeare.
“He’s the best interpreter of Shakespeare in the country,”
says actress Jane Alexander, former chairman of the National Endowment
for the Arts.
As artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre, Kahn has directed
more than 20 Shakespeare productions, including lesser-known works
such as King John, as well as plays by Eugene O’Neill,
Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen. He has been nominated
for a Tony Award and has won five prestigious Helen Hayes Awards
for Outstanding Director. “He mounts the plays beautifully,
with clear interpretations and fine actors,” Alexander says.
“You don’t usually see that [in the U.S.].”
Kahn’s career at The Shakespeare Theatre has coincided with
a renewed interest in the bard. In his 15 years at the company’s
helm, Kahn has expanded its subscriber base from 3,000 to 17,500
and a $1.5 million budget to its current $11 million budget.
Kahn’s attachment to Shakespeare was formed in childhood.
“My mother read Shakespeare to me as bedtime stories when
I was 6 and 7,” he notes. As an adult, Kahn is drawn to the
complexity of Shakespeare’s plays. “I like doing challenging
things,” he says. Other plays he has directed also are complicated
— the Oedipus trilogy, for example, and plays by Bertolt Brecht.
“I find Shakespeare to be the most rewarding,” Kahn
says. “It’s bigger than I am, considerably. It’s
smarter than I am, more complex than I am. You have to use all of
the muscles you have intellectually, physically and emotionally
to come up to the play.” With some plays, Kahn says he does
it, and it’s over. “When I do a Shakespeare play, it’s
like climbing a big mountain. You don’t ever get to the top.”
Kahn works as intensely with student actors as with those in his
productions. “One thing that is overshadowed by his professional
career is his incredible dedication to education,” says Joseph
Polisi, president of Juilliard. “Michael is known as one of
the most prominent individuals in his field, but he’s also
known as one of the most prominent educators in the field. As a
teacher, he has a long track record of working with young actors
and developing their crafts and imaginations.”
In addition to directing the theater program at Juilliard, Kahn
created and headed an actors’ training program and theatre
company, The Chautauqua Conservatory; founded and directs the Shakespeare
Theatre Academy for Classical Acting, a graduate program at The
George Washington University; and has taught at the Circle in the
Square Theatre School, Princeton and NYU. Among his former students
are William Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Kevin Kline, Kelly McGillis, Christopher
Reeve and Robin Williams. For his teaching, Kahn was awarded the
John Houseman Award for Commitment and Dedication to the Development
of Young American Actors in 1988.
Kahn always wanted to be a director and got his start in second
grade when he directed his first play, Humpty Dumpty. He
then formed a theater company with classmates and put on plays in
the garden, to which they charged admission. It was never Kahn’s
aim to get on the stage, however. “I teach acting and am a
good acting teacher, but never enjoyed doing it myself,” he
says. “I like figuring out the plays and how to tell them
the most interesting way, and after I do that, I don’t enjoy
doing the acting. I know how to work with the tools that I’m
given, which are actors.”
Kahn, who entered with the Class of 1959, says he came to Columbia
because he didn’t want to study theater anymore — the
Brooklyn native had graduated from the city’s High School
for the Performing Arts. But once on campus, the English major turned
into a bit of a rebel. He was suspended after his first year for
not having taken any of his exams (“I was always busy doing
something else,” he says). After he returned and finished
his other degree requirements, he was finally exempted from completing
P.E.: He had failed one semester of it through non-attendance and
staunchly refused to enroll in another.
Kahn was influenced by the English and French departments, especially
Professors Andrew Schaap, who taught Shakespeare and was Kahn’s
adviser, and Eric Bentley, and directed much of his energy toward
the stage. He directed several campus plays, starting with Pericles
— his first Shakespeare — and then Peer Gynt,
Le Petit Prince and others. Andy Warhol, with whom Kahn was
friendly, designed the set for one. Playwright Terrence McNally
’60 acted in most of the productions and wrote a Varsity
Show that Kahn directed. Edward Kleban ’59, later Pulitzer
Prize-winning lyricist of A Chorus Line, also was aboard,
as was future film director Brian DePalma ’62. During his
senior year — which took him three years to complete —
Kahn and three friends founded The Writer’s Stage, a downtown
theater company with the purpose of supporting new writing.
In addition to his off-off-Broadway directing after graduation,
Kahn directed Adrienne Kennedy’s Obie Award-winning play,
Funnyhouse of a Negro, produced by Edward Albee, at the Circle
in the Square workshop. Joseph Papp, founder of The Public Theater/New
York Shakespeare Festival, discovered Kahn at that production and
invited him to stage Measure for Measure in Central Park.
That led to Broadway productions and an appointment in 1969 as artistic
director at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn.,
with a simultaneous appointment as producing director of the McCarter
Theater in Princeton, N.J., from 1974. Highlights of his Broadway
credits include Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Elizabeth
Ashley and Show Boat starring Donald O’Connor, for
which Kahn earned a Tony nomination.
Kahn divides his time among his home in D.C., a house in Connecticut
and his apartment near Lincoln Center. Sometimes the days themselves
are split, with Kahn teaching at Juilliard during the day and rehearsing
a play in D.C. in the evening. “I’ve always had two
jobs at once. I seem to thrive on it,” he says.
Shira J. Boss ’93 is a contributing writer to Columbia
College Today and numerous other publications.