Michael Kahn, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s risk-taker in chief

When you make a success of a major arts institution for 25 years, you can choose your own special projects for fun. What’s fun for Michael Kahn? Eugene O’Neill. “Strange Interlude,” an intellectual potboiler from 1928. In nine acts.

The seldom-revived Pulitzer-winning script, which begins Tuesday at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, features prickly dialogue plus heaps of subtext for the actors to speak directly to the audience. Kahn edited the script and directs.

“I know when Michael is having a good time,” says Ted van Griethuysen, who has acted for Kahn — now marking a quarter century running the STC, as respected a classical troupe as this country has — since the director came to Washington in 1986. “And he’s having a very good time.”

The imperious Kahn — tall, slender and ageless (meaning he declines to divulge his age) — smiles, shakes his handsome bald head and repeats an odd phrase: “There is no,” he says several times, meaning there is no other play quite like O’Neill’s dense psychological drama about the love life of a grief-stricken young woman, which originally ran five hours but is being tightened to more like three.

The hallmarks of Kahn’s tenure at the STC include spectacular growth: the company migrated from the 240-seat Folger to the 440-seat Lansburgh in 1992, then to the 774-seat Harman Hall in 2007. Also: superior design and acting, both from the first-rate core company and the name performers who have gravitated to it.

But the element facilitating all this may be Kahn’s delight in tall orders. “What he began,” van Griethuysen says, “he has still. He didn’t trade it in for something cheaper.”

“Strange Interlude” is just the latest case in point, a typical self-imposed challenge on the road that began just as Kahn — a Brooklyn-born only child, graduate of New York’s High School for the Performing Arts and Columbia University — felt his career hitting a wall in the 1980s. The STC would become Chapter 3 of Kahn’s professional life, following the off-Broadway scene (where he was mentored by Edward Albee and Joe Papp) and his running of two regional theaters (Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Theatre and Princeton’s McCarter Theatre), simultaneously for a while.

Freelancing again, he was nominated for a Tony for “Show Boat” in 1983. But he was also enduring bad reviews and taking on projects he didn’t like. He actually thought his directing days were numbered.

Then the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger called. Financially, the troupe was in trouble. Kahn was hired to turn it around. He told himself he would stay three years. But it was not until the third season that he had a big hit, directing Stacy Keach in “Richard III.”

“I mean, we were selling tickets,” Kahn says. “But I got some confidence in myself. So I’m very grateful that this theater came along when it did.”

More famous actors arrived — Kelly McGillis, Pat Carroll. The core company solidified. The shows began to sell out, and soon the Folger was too small. Moving meant a new commitment from the board, which had originally been devoted to Elizabethan theater in the great Shakespeare library.

“That would keep me here for any number of years, because I thought that was one of the most daring acts a board ever did,” Kahn says. “They were willing to move because there was a theater they cared about.”

A dramatic turnaround

The Lansburgh is the troupe’s smaller facility now, and its Penn Quarter neighborhood is thriving. Not so at the time: “It was a bold move,” says former mayor Anthony Williams, who contends that the troupe was pivotal in transforming the area. “The city was in a financial crisis when they moved to the Lansburgh. They made a big bet on the city.”

Safety was a concern. “People did say things like ‘I’ll be scared to go there,’” Kahn says. “And I remember saying, 440 people a night will be their own security.”

Although the opening show, “Much Ado About Nothing,” fell flat, it was at the Lansburgh that Kahn found his stride. He started the nontraditional casting habits that are now taken for granted. He outed himself as gay in an interview with The Post (at the time he was in a longtime relationship with New York psychotherapist Frank Donnelly, who died in 2001.) He enjoyed lunch as a special single guest of the Supreme Court justices. (”Even bigger than going to the White House,” he says.) The core acting company flourished. Name performers could be had, and sometimes came knocking; Patrick Stewart playing “Othello” was a case in point.

“It just got interesting,” Kahn recalls. “Really interesting. And I got somewhat more daring, I think.”

“He tackles monumentally difficult plays,” says Jane Greenwood, the “Strange Interlude” costume designer who has known Kahn since 1968.

Kahn had to coax patrons into cultivating a taste for the unfamiliar; the reading series and open rehearsals he instituted helped. David Muse, the current artistic director at the Studio Theatre, was associate artistic director under Kahn until two years ago, and he says that by now the STC audience is hardly interested in a rotating slate of Shakespeare’s easiest titles — “Hamlet” to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” to “Macbeth.”

“You couldn’t count on doing the hits and having the people come,” Muse says. “They had become sophisticated enough to have seen several productions of those plays.”

Have there been times when Kahn has felt he was testing the audience’s limits?

“Yeah,” Kahn says, “but they didn’t seem to be upset about it. And I got the feeling at a certain point that our core audience wanted that. I mean, I still think there’s a large conservative attitude in Washington in the arts, though it’s much less so than it was.”

Slings and arrows

During this period, Kahn — who has long maintained residences in Dupont Circle and in Manhattan’s Dakota building (plus a place in Connecticut) — also ran Juilliard’s drama division; established the Academy of Classical Acting here; and occasionally directed off-site. Early in the last decade, the STC seemed robust enough for the expansion into the Harman. The city sank $20 million into the $89 million project; Williams says the sum was justified because of what a bustling new theater across from Verizon Center could contribute to the neighborhood, but also because of the “good feeling” the STC generated with its education and outreach efforts. “Michael Kahn’s general citizenship was at such a high level,” Williams says.

True to form, Kahn inaugurated the Harman with a challenging repertory that included his own staging of Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine.” The reception was less than rapturous, and again he was a little rattled.

“You would do ‘Hamlet’ with a star to open the Harman, and maybe I should’ve,” he says. “But I didn’t. I mean, I thought, dammit, we’re who we are.” Less than a year after the 2007 opening, the economy tanked.

Kahn says two things that may help explain how he has soldiered through the ups and downs for 25 years. The first: “I guess I have an entrepreneurial side. I don’t know where it came from, but I guess I do have it.”

Then there’s this:

“In the beginning, I thought just doing a play was interesting. But eventually I didn’t find that. Doing a play on Broadway is exciting for one day, before the opening. The rest of it is like anything else, except the pressure is huge, and the amount of money the producers have put in is huge, and everybody is hysterical.

“But I remember in college — I was born in New York, and I thought, of course, I’d be working in New York and on Broadway. What else would I be thinking of? And I remember walking down the Theater District and going by all the marquees, which at one time was like magic for me . . . And I looked at everything, and I thought, There’s nothing here that I would like to have done except ‘Night of the Iguana.’ And I had a real sense that this was not going to be my life.

“That,” Kahn says, “was college. And in college, the plays I directed were ‘Pericles’ and ‘Peer Gynt.’ Which I picked.”

The Michael Kahn Show

Part of the staying power, then, of running a theater like the STC in a city like Washington is the freedom to choose your challenges. The other part was something he responded to the first time he ran a troupe: “The whole thing was more important than my play.”

Kahn has no plans to exit “the whole thing” just yet, though lately he has been conspicuously inviting his core of young-ish familiars to direct for the company. He adds that he aims to get the $20-million-a-year STC in stable financial shape (“which is happening”) before handing it off. “I think it’s necessary for the next person who comes in to have a vision, and to have that vision realized before anybody says —” At this point Kahn rasps “ack, ack,” and makes a slashing gesture at his throat.

The STC is still under his command for now, and word is that Kahn is still a firm taskmaster, even if Muse reports “a lovely softening” to some of the director’s edges. Van Griethuysen, who is playing the troubled young woman’s father in “Strange Interlude,” says Kahn is “more forgiving of error, without tolerating it. He can’t stand it if you’re not doing your best.”

“The leopards don’t change their spots,” Greenwood laughs. She remembers her initial reaction to Kahn: “Large and handsome. Very opinionated . . . He’s very charming. He’s entertaining. And he makes your mind work.”

Greenwood suggests what Kahn really wants to do is host a Charlie Rose-style chat show; Kahn, who taped an episode of “Charlie Rose” recently, confirms. “I love it,” he says. He adds, with a vengeful emphasis on the final word, “I’m not going to retire.”

Well, then: next? Perhaps a gig at the Studio two seasons from now, “If I can find the play that I only want to do there.” And what’s this on Kahn’s STC docket for next season — another tall order? A new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s 1799 free-verse trilogy “Wallenstein”?

Kahn grins: “You got it.”

Merry and tragical! tedious and brief! Michael Kahn on the ups and downs at Shakespeare Theatre

Highlights:

1991 — Free for All debuts at Carter Barron Amphitheatre with “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” “The first Free for All out there was one of the greatest days, when people started running down the aisles, and 4,000 people were watching a play.”

1996 — “Henry VI,” Shakespeare’s seldom-staged trilogy, edited by Kahn into a single evening. “It was the excitement of being able to work on text that allowed me to be writer, but not a writer.”

2003 — touring the Oedipus Plays to Athens. “You had to rehearse at night because it was too hot during the day, and all of a sudden the moon would go over the Acropolis. And we thought: We’re part of something that’s 4,000 years old.”

Setbacks

1987 — “The Witch of Edmonton,” opening Kahn’s second season at the Folger. “It was just dismissed entirely. I was really concerned whether this place and me was the right fit.”

1992 — “Much Ado About Nothing” opens the Lansburgh. “Not a [bleeping] laugh during the opening night. A very good friend of mine said, ‘Well, Michael, the flowers in the lobby are beautiful.’”

2007-08Harman Center: As the $89 million facility opened, the recession hit. The entire staff was furloughed for a period in 2009. “Those years were hard.”

Strange Interlude

by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Michael Kahn. Tuesday through April 29 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

 
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