Michael Kahn On Directing Theater, Ditching Exams

Nov 1, 2011

Michael Kahn's theater passion sparked at a young age, and it has taken him to the highest ranks of classical theater. He's the former head of the drama division at New York's famed Juilliard School, has led theater companies in Connecticut and New Jersey, and has staged widely-acclaimed productions on- and off-Broadway. Now he's celebrating his 25 years as the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. — which the London-based The Economist deemed one of the world's great Shakespearean theaters.

He joined Tell Me More host Michel Martin for an in-studio interview.

Interview Highlights

On Shakespeare plays as bedtime stories

Michael Kahn: "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 ... because she thought it was inappropriate. But she was sure there was nothing like that in Shakespeare, so I got the completely unexpurgated Shakespeare. ... Little did she know how racy Shakespeare is when you get down to it.

"I was never frightened [by some Shakespeare 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 someone is violent, and certainly why violence is not an appropriate response to problems."

On skipping exams, getting suspended and cheating at Columbia University

Kahn: "Most of my professors gave me As, 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 ... I couldn't pass the science course. I was already running a theater in New York City with four other extraordinary people. So at the very end, I think they know at Columbia I cheated on my ... botany exam.

"So when I finally got out, they called me up and said, 'Oh Mr. Kahn, you 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.'"

On directing and working with writers, actors

Kahn: "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.

"It's a collaborative art. Everything you do is with a playwright, who's the primary artist, and then the actors, who are the interpretive artists. ... I'll start out the rehearsal process knowing more about the play than they will, and by the end of it, they will know more about their characters than I ever would."

On expanding the Shakespeare Theatre Company's size and artistry

Kahn: "When I got here 25 years ago, there were three theaters. And now we have about 65 theaters. So the entire city has embraced theatrical art in a way that very few other cities have.

"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 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, I thought I'd like to try working on Shakespeare again. And many things happened, and it actually outgrew the Folger Theater.

"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."

On bringing FELA! to the Shakespeare Theatre Company

Kahn: "FELA! had played on Broadway and there's nobody I admire more than Bill T. Jones, who directed and choreographed it, and there's no musician I admire more than Fela [Kuti]. So when I knew that they were going to do a national tour, we thought it'd be wonderful if we could present them first in Washington on their way to going around the country.

"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 Theater of Scotland's Black Watch, which was really about an extraordinary group of soldiers who were in Iraq."

On multi-cultural casting

Kahn: "There had been a move to integrate companies, really in the 50s. And then during the 60s, I think African-American actors felt they should not appear in plays in a desire to have more African-American writing. ... August Wilson — who I totally, totally respect — said he didn't think African-American actors shouldn't 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.'

"Shakespeare wrote for everybody and he wrote about everybody in his own society. ... And I think theater should make some good suggestions in the society that it lives in about how it might be a better society."

On prioritizing work over his personal life

Kahn: "I don't know if you actually can have a complete professional life and complete personal life. ... 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, many years of my life, my work and the kind of work I did, and where I did it was often not in the city in which my partner was living. ... I think then you have to make more room out of your professional life for your professional life. You have to know when you have to let your professional life be done."

On giving wisdom to young theater aficionados

Kahn: "A life in the arts is one of the most satisfying lives you can have. You use all of your muscles: your intelligence, your physicality, your spirituality, your understanding. ... And if you want to be an artist, be one. But if you want to anything else, please do it. Because in addition to all the wonderfulness about art, it's a very difficult profession. We 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."

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