After more than three decades running Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and turning a struggling operation into one of the nation’s preeminent classical troupes, Michael Kahn will step down at the end of the 2018-2019 season, the STC announced Monday night.
Kahn will leave having made Shakespeare a native language in the nation’s capital, and having done more to reshape and elevate D.C. theater than anyone since the late Arena Stage founder Zelda Fichandler. With the instincts of a Manhattan showman, Kahn catapulted classics to the head of the class by building monuments and creating institutions: The $89 million, roughly 775-seat Harman Hall, which opened in 2007, and the 451-seat Lansburgh Theatre are the city’s two biggest new stages, and relocating his company into the Lansburgh from the 240-seat Folger Shakespeare Library in 1992 spearheaded the revitalization of Penn Quarter.
“It was a bold move,” former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams told The Washington Post in 2012. “They made a big bet on the city.”
The crown will pass slowly to allow for a year’s search, and for Kahn’s successor to be able to plan the 2019-2020 season independently.
“It’s important to say who you are in the first season as best you can,” Kahn said in an interview before Monday’s public announcement. “And for us, you have to choose the plays about a year and a half in advance, and budget them.”
So why retire now? Kahn, who got married only two years ago at age 77 to New York designer Charles Mitchem in a ceremony presided over by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, continues to direct at a brisk rate even outside his company. His dashing staging of Caryl Churchill’s gender-bender “Cloud 9” opened the current season at Studio Theatre, and he just revisited his STC production of the 17th-century farce “The Liar” for Manhattan’s small Classic Stage Company. Kahn also took his gleeful production of “The Metromaniacs” to San Diego’s Old Globe theater and his comic double bill of “The Critic” and “The Real Inspector Hound” to Minnesota’s Guthrie — all within the past two seasons.
“I enjoyed that,” Kahn says in his Barracks Row office, “and I enjoyed doing ‘The Liar’ in New York five blocks from where I began my career — five blocks from La Mama, from the 4th Street Theater, 12 blocks from Caffé Cino. It was the East Village, and in a theater about the size of this room. It was a nice busy year for me.
“But,” he adds, “there are not a lot of plays that I want to do that I haven’t done. I can’t see myself just going around directing.”
Kahn arrived in Washington in 1986 after tenures with the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn., and the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. The troupe then known as Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger was on the ropes, but under Kahn’s entrepreneurial hand the company swiftly raised the artistic bar and brightened the marquee with such luminaries as Kelly McGillis (an early mainstay) and Patrick Stewart (a race-reversed Othello).
“These are the most difficult plays in the world,” Kahn told The Post when he first took the job. “They are also the best. And they demand the best talent.”
If Kahn was accused of relying too much on star casting early on, he also developed a stable of performers who earned reputations as Washington’s leading actors. Along the way, Kahn established a new graduate-level Academy of Classical Acting and a summertime Free for All that ran for years at Carter Barron Amphitheater as Washington’s answer to Shakespeare in the Park; it continues each August at the Harman.
Retirement has been on Kahn’s mind for a few years. But the dramatically expanded STC’s unsteady footing — the Harman opened just before the economy cratered — compelled him to wait. During the past few seasons, he has right-sized the operation, cutting back on the number of productions and reining in budgets.
STC Executive Director Chris Jennings says the company has been planning for this transition, balancing the books the past two seasons and building a cash reserve “so a new artistic director can take risks.”
“I wanted to leave this theater in good enough shape that anybody would want the job if they were asked,” Kahn says.
The job for the next leader won’t be about the kind of exponential growth that Kahn drove in tandem with the explosion of theater that has marked Washington since his arrival. (STC continues to consolidate its infrastructure, which is currently strewn across the city.) The taste at the STC — winner of the 2012 regional theater Tony Award — has been surprisingly catholic and unfailingly sophisticated, ranging from the Kahn-directed “Oedipus Plays” that toured Greece to such edgy recent British imports as Headlong’s “1984” (now Broadway bound) and Tricycle Theatre’s “The Great Game: Afghanistan” (with STC providing a special performance for Pentagon staffers).
The STC’s ambition consistently has been the biggest in town: The internationally noted citywide Shakespeare in Washington festival that Kahn curated in 2007 turned out to be a blueprint for D.C. theater’s current collective claim to fame, the industry-leading surge of premieres via the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Even that project creating new plays turned into a coup for Kahn as his classical troupe debuted Yael Farber’s adaptation of “Salome,” a prestige hit (and runaway winner at the most recent Helen Hayes Awards) that makes its European debut in May at London’s National Theatre.
“Some of it is isolated opportunities, and some of it is a desire to open it up,” Kahn says of choices that stretch well beyond a parade of “Macbeths” and “Midsummer Night’s Dreams.” Now playing in the Harman is a new production of Mike Bartlett’s recent London and Broadway hit “King Charles III,” directed by David Muse, former STC associate artistic director and current Studio head. Kahn says that the roster of now mid-career talent that has passed through his hands is a point of pride — and a ready starting point for the search committee that he won’t advise.
Next up is Manhattan’s Elevator Repair Service with “The Select” (a stage adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”) . . . and, of course, the troupe has made hay with its recent forays into musicals. Next season, current STC associate artistic director Alan Paul directs “Camelot.”
“Just to do a musical is not necessarily what I think the theater has to do every year, although it’s pleased a lot of people,” says Kahn, who notes that the company may have just about exhausted the list of first-class musicals that square with its mission. “But I don’t feel a compromise at all. . . . The quality of the theater is high, whether people like something or not, and that’s very important to me. The loyalty to the ambition and the quality of the work is strong. I don’t think that we’re in any way stuck, and that’s a tribute to everybody. And we have an international reputation: When I go to England and other places in Europe, people know all about us. I think that’s something major for the city.”
The original press release about Kahn’s retirement read that he would be taking time to teach and direct. He crossed that out. “I don’t know,” he says several times when asked about plans after he steps away. He mentions signing up with some sort of nonprofit group that would align with his liberal social and political interests — a position Kahn made plain by spurring the topical “Theatrical Selections” reading series among several D.C. companies as the election heated up. (Kahn’s choice: Bertolt Brecht’s furious satire of a thug coming to power, “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.”)
“I don’t know what I could offer except my time,” says Kahn, who will direct “Hamlet” and a double bill of Harold Pinter’s “The Collection” and “The Lover” at STC next season. “I think I accomplished everything I set out to do for the theater when I got here. And I certainly accomplished more for myself than I ever imagined, in terms of being able to do pretty much every play I ever wanted to do, or have an influence on a community, lead a group of artists, build two theaters.”
One dilemma to resolve: how to retain his Washington friendships, since he is likely to live full time in New York.
“This is a very hard place to stay when you are not who you used to be,” Kahn says with a laugh. “I’ve seen too many former agency directors or people in politics who hang around after their job, and they used to be who they were, but they aren’t anymore. That’s a big Washington thing. I don’t want to add that to my possible distress.”