Michael Kahn On Directing Theater, Ditching Exams Michael Kahn began directing plays as a child, and since then has become one of the most respected directors in classical theater. He formerly taught at New York's famed Julliard School. Now he's celebrating his 25 years leading the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. He speaks with Michel Martin about casting more actors of color, boosting culture in Washington and causing trouble as a college student.
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Michael Kahn On Directing Theater, Ditching Exams

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Michael Kahn On Directing Theater, Ditching Exams

Michael Kahn On Directing Theater, Ditching Exams

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk with those who have made a difference through their work.

And if you are a theater buff, especially of classical theater, then you must know about Michael Kahn. He's the former head of the drama division at New York's famed Julliard School. He's led theater companies in Connecticut and New Jersey, but he might be best known for his 25 years as the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company here in Washington, D.C., which even the London-based Economist has called one of the world's great Shakespearean theaters.

Here's a scene from Richard II, which Mr. Kahn directed.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Confess thy treasons ere thou fly the realm. Since thou hast far to go, bear not along the clogging burthen of a guilty soul.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As character) No, Bolingbroke. If ever I were a traitor, my name be blotted from the book of life and I from heaven banished as from hence.

MARTIN: As we said, this is his 25th year as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, so what better time to check in on Michael Kahn and get some wisdom from him? Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MICHAEL KAHN: Well, it's great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, I read - you know, always what we read is not true. But I read that your mother read Shakespeare to you as bedtime stories.

KAHN: That's actually true. My mother read Shakespeare to me. All the plays. So by the time I was nine or 10, I knew all those characters. She also read the Bible to me. She cut out all - what she thought were the sexy parts of the Bible, like the begats and everything, because she thought it was inappropriate, but she was sure there was nothing like that in Shakespeare. Little did she know how racy Shakespeare was when you really get down to it.

MARTIN: Did she - were you ever frightened by the stories? These stories can be quite - some of them can be very frightening.

KAHN: Yeah. There is a lot of...

MARTIN: They paint a picture of human behavior which is not always pretty, obviously, which is why it resonates and why it's true.

KAHN: No. I was never frightened. I think my imagination was captured as so many young people have come to our theater are captured by these incredible stories, and even if there's violence, there is such a reason, often, behind it or something about the character that makes you understand perhaps why somebody is violent and certainly why violence is not an appropriate response to problems.

MARTIN: I understand that you majored in English at Columbia University, but this is one of these other questions I've always been dying to ask you. Is it true that you were suspended after the first year for not taking any of your exams and that you...

KAHN: That's (unintelligible) true.

MARTIN: ...you actually had to be exempted from completing P.E. because you refused to go?

KAHN: Dear me. Well, I wasn't exempted from P.E. Yes, I was thrown out of school because I didn't take any exams, and actually, most of my professors gave me A's, but the health ed teacher and the ROTC teacher failed me, so when they checked that, they saw - well, I hadn't taken any exams. So they suspended me for a year, but after seven years of Columbia University, where I got the chance to do a lot of theater - as a matter of fact, I did my first Shakespeare. I did "Pericles" across the street at Barnard - I couldn't pass the science course.

I was already running a theater in New York City with four other extraordinary people, so in the very end I think they know at Columbia I cheated on my astrology - it wasn't astrology - botany exam. How many pistils and stamens and I wrote them on my palm. So when I finally got out, they called me up and said, oh, Mr. Kahn, you've passed science but you have six months of gym left. And I said, I'll commit suicide or you need to name the school after me, so they said we'll just graduate you. (Unintelligible) very happy you did.

It was a wonderful school, but I got involved in a lot of things, especially theater and New York and just was kind of not a good boy about those exams that particular year. I don't recommend it to anybody else, but it was fine for me.

MARTIN: What does it take to be a director? I mean, how does one give oneself permission to say I am going to direct, I am going to be in charge, I'm going to lead you in this and you're going to trust me to do so? What does it take to find that in oneself?

KAHN: I have a feeling that you're a lot better if you do have a deep understanding of other people and a sense of psychology, and probably wanting to be in charge. But it's a collaborative art. Everything you do is with a playwright, who is actually the primary artist, and then the actors who are the interpretive artists. And so it's my job, in a way, to bring my vision of the play, along with what the playwright intends and what the actors really can bring to it and what their personalities and their imaginations contribute. I'll start out the rehearsal process knowing more about the play than they will, and at the end of it, they will know more about their characters than I ever would.

MARTIN: The Shakespeare Theatre Company has grown so much since you arrived.

KAHN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean it used be housed at this tiny auditorium.


KAHN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Cute. Tiny. Sweet little...

KAHN: At the Folger for 200 seats. Right.

MARTIN: At the Folger for 200 seats, and now there's the $89 million Sidney Harman Hall, which offers 775 seats. There's also the other theater, the Landsburg, so it's kind of a camp, a sexy kind of complex.

KAHN: That's nice. Yes, it's a little complex.

MARTIN: And, well, what's interest though, about that is that people think of Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, as being a conservative-arts town. So not only have you sort of grown the institution as an institution just as in terms of the physical manifestation of it, but also the artistic risks.

There's something to be said for the fact that there's not a lot cutting-edge theater in Washington. There was none when I got here and there's a lot more developmental theaters doing new work and different kind of work. But when I got here 25 years ago, there were three theaters. And now we have about 65 theaters. So that the entire city has sort of embraced theatrical art in a way that very few other cities have, and we, I think it's very nice that people think that we had something to do with that.

KAHN: When I came here, I came to take over the Folger Theater, which was about to close. And I thought I'd come here for a couple of years because I loved Shakespeare, and I had done quite a bit of Shakespeare in my life, and I had stopped doing it because I thought I had nothing more to bring to it. But at a certain point in my life, I thought perhaps I did. And in a new theater, a small theater, and with some new ideas I had much gotten from my students at Julliard, and I thought I'd like to try working on Shakespeare again. And many things happened, and it actually outgrew the Folger Theater.

But along the way and before we moved to the Landsburg and when we moved to the Landsburg and then built the Harman, we were worried that it's part of the responsibility of the theater not just to do plays, but in a sense to bring the audience into those plays, and to increase the audience's knowledge and experience and willingness to see different kinds of theater and literature. And the audience has come along with us, so I don't feel our audience is conservative anymore. I feel they're actually willing and interested to see what else is available to them as an audience.

MARTIN: What about The Shakespeare Theatre Company just finished its run of "Fela!"

KAHN: Yes.

MARTIN: This is the musical about the late Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti...

KAHN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...who's known as Afro Beat music but also kind of really putting himself on the line for his political...

KAHN: Yeah. A great artist.

MARTIN: A great artist and for his stance for kind of freedom and dignity. Let's play a short clip from "Fela!."



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as Fela) I am Fela Anikulapo Kuti, he who carries death in his pouch, who no mortal can ever kill. So let's us turn Nigeria upside down. The police will try and suck me down, but the government won't dare come near me. I am the law and will do what I please, so yeah, man, make me your next black president. (Spoken in foreign language) .


MARTIN: How does that, putting on a play like that, fit into the vision of The Shakespeare Theatre Company? I think I may have even heard ask, some people might ask what is "Fela!" doing at The Shakespeare Theatre Company?

KAHN: Well, you know, "Fela!" had played on Broadway, and there's nobody I admire than Bill T. Jones, who directed and choreographed it, and there's no musician that I admire more than Fela. So when I knew that they were going to do a national tour, we thought it would be wonderful if we could present them first in Washington on their way to going around the country. They, part of the company had already been in the UK at the National Theatre.

And, you know, Shakespeare plays are also involved with great art, music or language, and extraordinary characters, so I thought it was very appropriate to be in Washington. Just the same way that we were very, very happy to bring the National Theatre of Scotland's "Black Watch," which was really about an extraordinary group of soldiers who were in Iraq. So one of the perks for me of not only doing classical theater but doing theater in Washington is to be able to bring contemporary pieces that speak to the world, and especially in a city that has a great deal to do with how things are acted out in the world's stage.

MARTIN: And another way in which scenes are acted out or that one of the things that you've done at The Shakespeare Theatre Company is multicultural casting. And I think I'm on firm ground when I say that you were doing this at a time when it was considered controversial. Some people – I remember seeing letters where people were, you know, offended by that. And I'd like that's...

KAHN: Isn't that strange to think that there was a time when that was true?

MARTIN: Yeah. And you've also done some interesting things, like for example with Patrick Stewart, who is, of course...

KAHN: White. Caucasian. Right.

MARTIN: White. White.

KAHN: In an all African-American production, right.

MARTIN: In an all African-American production of "Othello"...

KAHN: Right.

MARTIN: ...where he played "Othello." And I don't remember people being offended. But I do remember that this is the kind of thing that people – there are those who will say, you know, you're being politically correct or blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So talk to me about that.

KAHN: Well, let me say that...


KAHN: ...really, without thinking it was, to be honest with you, anything particular was just pleased to have the best actors I could have. And when I go to Washington the first person I auditioned was an extraordinary African-American actress name Franchelle Stewart Dorn. It never occurred to me to do anything else but have her the leading lady of the theater. So at that time that seemed odd to a lot of people.

There'd been a move to integrate companies really in the '50s. And then during the '60s I think African-American actors felt that they should not appear in plays in a desire to have more African-American writing. There was some question, maybe even August Wilson, who I totally, totally respect, said he didn't think African-American actors should be in plays by whites. And I thought that was allowing a lot of people to miss some pretty extraordinary opportunities, but I understood why.

But when I got here in the '80s, I just thought the best actors for the best parts. And I'm very lucky because I've been able to have Andre Braugher and I've had Avery Brooks over and over again and I had Franchelle and Wendell Pierce, just lots and lots of people doing all kinds of parts.

You know, theater, the great thing about Shakespeare for instance, is that Shakespeare wrote for everybody and he wrote about everybody in his own society, and I think that theater should reflect the society it lives in. And not only that, it should make some good suggestions to the society that it lives in about how it might be a better society.

MARTIN: How do you remain fresh and excited at this stage of your life having done so many things?

KAHN: By making things very hard for myself.


KAHN: You know, I think when I look back on the 25 years I've been here, it's been really about challenging myself in the theater and the community and, you know, how to make better plays, how to create - how to do plays that people don't think they know about and maybe not want to see, how to look at a play in a different way that might illuminate the play, according to the author but in a way that's particularly special or particularly resonant with the community, or how do you bring school children, not just in by buses to the school, but how you go into schools replace the sort of dearth of arts education and get young people interested in literature and politics through theater. And then how do you do plays that you don't think you can do?

So I'm about to do "Strange Interlude," a play I've thought about doing for 20 years by Eugene O'Neill, and I'm not sure I know how to do it, which is the one thing that keeps me fresh. Because I can't go in there and go okay, I'm going to pull out this little bag of tricks or this little thing I did in the last play, you just did, you know, a bit of "Richard II" there. And I did "Richard II," that's the third "Richard II" I've done in my life, and what's interesting to me is that none of them were alike. I think the last one was the best because I actually began to understand the character. So I challenge myself and when I don't challenge myself I could get lazy or distracted and lose my energy. So, but theater is so difficult it's really hard not to challenge yourself.


KAHN: But it's fun.

MARTIN: You know, we often ask women this, but I'm going to ask you this, is that many people are interested in how you can have a full professional life in the way that you had and done so many things and touched so many people's lives, but having a life for yourself. And I know that you had - I hope you don't mind my mentioning. You had...

KAHN: No. Go ahead.

MARTIN: You were partnered for many years...

KAHN: For 24 years.

MARTIN: ...for 24 years and lost your partner right after September 11th...

KAHN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...who was working as a grief counselor...

KAHN: Was working at the World Trade Center.

MARTIN: Right, at the World Trade Center. And, but I did, and I'm sorry for your loss. But I do want to ask, how, do you have some advice for people who want to have some sort of a life?

KAHN: Well, I think it would be fair to say that, you know, if Frank was still alive and he was here he would say that the relationship suffered from the amount of work that I did. I don't know if you actually can have a complete professional life and a complete personal life. I don't know if you can. I would say that I didn't although, when the time was for my personal life I had a very good time. But for many, many, many, many, many years of my life, my work and the kind of work I did at where I did it often got it the city in which my partner was living or I was originally living - took me away a lot. And I think then you have to make more room out of your professional life for your personal life. I'd have to say that if I had children I would've had to make other decisions because I certainly wouldn't have gone out of town so much. I might not have taken this job in Washington.

MARTIN: You don't have children but you have many, many students. And I'm thinking that there might be somebody listening to our conversation who would love to learn from you. So I'm going to ask - finish by asking, do you have some wisdom to share?

KAHN: A life in the arts is actually one of the most satisfying lives you can have. You use all of your muscles, your intelligence, your physicality, your spirituality, your understanding, your, you know. And if you want to be an artist, be one. But if you want to do anything else, please do it because in addition to all the wonderfulness about being an artist it's a very difficult profession where you have to develop a lot of strength to take criticism and failure. But if it's what you want and there's nothing else but this that you want to do, go ahead and do it and you'll be terrific at it and maybe you'll make a real contribution to the world you live in.

MARTIN: Michael Kahn is celebrating his 25th year, perhaps it's we who are celebrating, his 25th year as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. Michael Kahn, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KAHN: Well, thank you. I had a great time, Michel.

MARTIN: And remember, with TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. And in the coming weeks, we are looking to speak with leaders of the arts around the country. If there are arts leaders or institutions in your community who you'd like us to meet, please tell us more about them. You could call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that number is 202-842-3522. Please remember to leave us your name. You can also follow us on Facebook and find us on Twitter. Just look for TELL ME MORE/NPR.

And that's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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