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Shakespeare in Washington

Michael Kahn and the Force of Will

Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Kahn, next to a bust of the Bard, calls the festival
Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Kahn, next to a bust of the Bard, calls the festival "a way of creating an awareness outside Washington that this is a cultural capital." (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007

Michael Kahn vividly remembers the summer evening 40 years ago when Joseph Papp told him his ideas about Shakespeare were lousy.

It was after a dress rehearsal of "Measure for Measure," the thorny Shakespearean morality tale that Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, had hired the young Kahn to direct in Central Park. Cocksure and eager to impress in his first assignment for Papp, Kahn decided to make "Measure" a modernistic black comedy and began filling dozens of index cards with scholarly tidbits and ideas for staging and casting.

He was overjoyed to be working in the park (even after Dustin Hoffman turned down Kahn's offer to play the lead). "It was the most exciting thing that ever happened in my life," the director says. Until the excruciating moment when an ashen-faced Papp -- who against Kahn's wishes had sat in on the rehearsal -- walked up and uttered five devastating words:

"Michael, this is all wrong."

Decades later, Kahn is sitting in his P Street apartment, with its views across the rooftops of Dupont Circle, ruminating on that painful encounter. For an impressionable director, Papp's verdict could have been crushing. But the unfazed Kahn stuck with his concept and even earned admiring reviews. On opening night, Papp had the grace to admit his condemnation had been premature -- although the impresario's pique, for whatever reason, endured.

"Joe," Kahn says, "never hired me again."

Reflecting on his youthful stubbornness, Kahn is wistful rather than full of self-reproach. When a welcome mat is pulled away, it seems, the resilient among us move on quickly to other doorsteps. The tussle with Shakespeare in the Park would intensify a passion, not extinguish it. And one of the more spirited and durable partnerships was forged between a certain Elizabethan genius and an American director who would go on to prominence running his own classical theater companies, including Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company.

That relationship attains new intensity with the Shakespeare in Washington festival, which began last night at the Kennedy Center with a reading of "Twelfth Night." As conceived by the Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser and curated by Kahn, the six-month festival is one of the most lavish explorations this nation has seen of Shakespeare and his impact on the arts. The 60 participating organizations include theater, dance and opera companies, museums, universities and music ensembles, most of them homegrown but some from as far as St. Petersburg and Tel Aviv.

The event is an extravagant expression of the capital's ongoing absorption in the Bard, as well as a showcase for the unique resources the city harbors, such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, a world-class repository of the playwright's work.

On some level, too, the festival is a reflection of the profound degree to which Kahn and his theater have influenced the psyche of the city. One can securely posit that without a classical company of the Shakespeare's caliber, the town would have neither a claim on, nor the wherewithal for, a celebration of this magnitude.

Edward Gero, a highly regarded classical actor who lives in Washington and has worked with Kahn ever since the director arrived here more than 20 years ago -- when the company was based at the Folger Library -- says Kahn's presence affirmed the city's aspirations as a haven for the classics. "He really brought a national spotlight to Washington," Gero says. "The energy and vigor he brought completely transformed the theater."

"I think the final measure of the success is the size of the audience, the depth of support of this work," says Landon Butler, who chairs the Shakespeare's board of trustees. "We've got a theater of 15,000 subscribers and 60 percent of the tickets sold in advance. It's really pretty extraordinary. We have more season ticket holders than the Capitals."

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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