Michael Kahn

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 120

You can learn a lot about Shakespeare, and how we perform his plays, by talking with Michael Kahn. Kahn has directed Off-Off-Broadway, Off-Broadway, and on Broadway. He directed Measure for Measure for Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park. He ran, at various points, the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, the McCarter Theatre, and the Acting Company. From 1992 – 2006, he was the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division of the Juilliard School. As a director and as a teacher, Kahn has helped to usher in a new style of Shakespearean acting, one that combines the psychologically-grounded American “Method” with a British emphasis on text, tone, and technique.

Now, after over thirty years as the artistic director of Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, Michael Kahn is retiring. As he was putting the finishing touches on The Orestia, the final production of his final season at STC, we brought him into the studio to talk about Shakespearean performance, Shakespeare’s continued relevance, and first reading Shakespeare with his mother. Michael Kahn is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, Sticher, Soundcloud, and NPR One.

From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published April 30, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Am Able to Instruct or Teach,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. With technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Andrew Bates at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Meg McCluskey and Archie Moore at Clean Cuts studios in Washington, DC. Audio clips from Shakespeare Theatre Company productions are from the James A. Taylor Collection of WAPAVA at the University of Maryland.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: If you could go back and watch a play from 1937, it would seem different.

[CLIP: Radio broadcast of Twelfth Night, 1937]

OLIVIA: Cesario, you do not keep promise with me.

VIOLA: Madam?

ORSINO: Gracious Olivia—

OLIVIA: What do you say, Cesario?

VIOLA: My lord would speak; my duty hushes me.

If it be to the old tune, my lord,
It is as fat and fulsome to mine ear
As howling after music.

WITMORE: Maybe kind of stiff. Maybe a little stagy.

[CLIP continues]

ORSINO: Still so cruel?
OLIVIA: Still so constant, lord.
What, to perverseness? You, uncivil lady.
Come, boy, with me. My thoughts are ripe in mischief.

WITMORE: Performing Shakespeare in America has changed. There are a handful of people we can thank for that, and we’re going to spend a half-an-hour with one now.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Theater director Michael Kahn first came here to Washington, DC in 1986. He’d done Shakespeare in the Park for Joe Papp and run the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut before then. And his mission here was to create a new company called the “Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library.” Thirty-three years later, as he prepares to retire, Michael Kahn’s mission to change Shakespeare performance in America has been accomplished. In 1992, the troupe left the Folger and changed its name to the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Over the years, STC and Michael Kahn have won a combined 100 Helen Hayes Awards (that’s the DC version of the Tonys) as well as an actual Tony in 2012 for regional theater.

But for all that success, we might say that Michael’s greater legacy will be not on stage, but in the classroom. Since 1968, Mr. Kahn has been a faculty member of the Drama Division at the Juilliard School in New York. For 25 years he was the division head. It’s there that he has helped to change the way Shakespeare is performed in the United States.

There’s a lot to be learned about Shakespeare from listening to Michael, so we were very happy when he agreed to come in recently for a conversation about his remarkable career.

We have the conversation for you now in this podcast episode, which we call “I Am Able to Instruct Or Teach.” Michael Kahn is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BOGAEV: Well, Michael, you worked in a number of cities before you came here to the Folger in 1986. How different is it to direct Shakespeare in Washington, DC? You know, in the nation's capital, where politics is just never far from anyone's mind?

KAHN: I think doing Shakespeare in Washington is a particular perk for me. I mean, I'd done Shakespeare many places in the country, but I found, one, the audiences are really used to listening, and then they pick up any kind of political thought, idea, and are very current and find resonance in Shakespeare, which I'd never found in audiences any place else.

BOGAEV: Does that influence how you think about the plays, and how you think about staging them, given that, I imagine, you're thinking about your audience?

KAHN: Well, I've always probably felt when I was doing Shakespeare that I was both honoring the playwright, you know, 450-years-old, and trying to see it through the times I live in. That doesn't mean setting it in modern dress, it just means those things in the plays that strike me, and any of us, as something that also connects to the world that I'm in, has always been important to me in staging the plays. What certainly has been different for me was, first of all, coming to the Folger, which was a small theater. I had been doing Shakespeare in huge theaters, and having the opportunity to work in an intimate setting gave me a new idea about what performance could be.

[CLIP: Hamlet, Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2018. Michael Urie is Hamlet. Kelsey Rainwater is Guildenstern, and Ryan Spahn is Rosencrantz. The two courtiers—Hamlet’s college buddies, greet him with the Wittenburg alma mater.]

Proudly we hail you, our dear alma mater,
Noblest home of the right and the true.
Hallowed your hallways and verdant your pastures,
Sing, cheer, and shout for the green, white, and blue.

GUILDENSTERN: My honored lord.

ROSENCRANTZ: My most dear lord.

HAMLET: My excellent good friends! How do you both?

ROSENCRANTZ: As the indifferent children of the earth.

Happy in that we are not overhappy.
On Fortune’s cap, we are not the very button.

HAMLET: Nor the soles of her shoe?

ROSENCRANTZ: Neither, my lord.

HAMLET: Then you live about her waist. . .

BOGAEV: Well, it's interesting because I wondered if that sense of intimacy also plays into the idea that in your audience you have people who know power intimately, and people who think about power, and people who are kings and kingmakers. Which comes back to my initial question—I mean, I noticed that you had a Supreme Court justice on your stage once.

KAHN: Well, actually, we've actually had the Supreme Court. Justice Kennedy did that Trial...

[CLIP: a host welcomes a panel of Supreme Court justices to the Shakespeare Theater Company.]

You will all welcome our distinguished, distinguished bench: from the United States Supreme Court, we’ll have our longtime participants, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Elena Kagan, and from the Supreme Court of Canada, a new and very welcome guest. . .

KAHN: Justice Kennedy did that Trial of Hamlet, which we first did at the Supreme Court in another chamber, and then did it several times on our stage after. But there was a time when, for one night each season, we invited the Supreme Court to play a role, and we sent over speech teachers, I sent over costumers, and we rehearsed. And they were in, the first time was in Henry V, and Chief Justice Rehnquist played the chorus, and Justice O'Connor was playing the queen of France. We rehearsed her scene, and she was, you know, really quite good in it. Henry was being played by Harry Hamlin. He's about to do the peace treaty between France and England, and he's about to leave the stage with the French, and he said, "Will you go with us, or will you stay here?” And she said, "No, I will go with you. Perhaps a woman's voice may do some good.” That was not the whole line, but Justice O'Connor stopped at that moment to immense applause.

BOGAEV: Well, that's what I mean, exactly, that Shakespeare has a way of just echoing with such strength and speaking to the moment.

KAHN: It's always been, you know, I'm always surprised when there's an editorial in the Washington Post or something like that says, you know, how surprising it is that this particular production is so relevant, and I don't pretend that I don't know that. I mean, there's rarely been an election or a primary where we haven't done Richard III or Coriolanus. But I'm aware that some of the audience are actually people who do have some position or say in how things are. I don't pretend that somebody coming to a play can change their entire worldview, but I do know that Shakespeare does make you think, and it's always been my hope that these people who do have a chance to make serious decisions for all of us would reflect upon some the issues in a play as they think about how they're going to vote or how they're going to legislate. We've had the most interesting responses to plays because of that. When we were doing Timon of Athens...

BOGAEV: That was in the '90s, but you set it in the '80s.

KAHN:  Yeah. Which is, you know, a play that many people haven't seen but which I came to love. It's really about a rich man who has a great many friends and everybody loves him, and then he loses all his money and becomes a pariah, and then becomes very angry and rails against the world. I got a letter with all of somebody's subscriptions cut up. She wrote me saying that she was giving up her subscription because I was trying to change the national election. And I thought how wonderful that could be. But she said, "Because you're making fun of Reaganomics.” I thought, well, I hadn't really thought about that, I was just doing a play about a society that's had a boom and then a bust, and we were in the middle of having another boom, and I wanted people to remember that a bust usually follows a boom. But I wrote her back and said, "You know, I'm very sorry that you feel this way and are going to give up your subscription, but I have to tell you that when you write to me that a 450-year-old play can upset you this much, and mean so much to you politically, it gives me a good reason to get up in the morning and go to rehearse."

BOGAEV: Exactly, exactly. It does seem that infusing your work with political consciousness would come so naturally to you, no matter whether you're in Washington, DC or any other city in the country. I'm thinking that is because you came of age in the 1950s, and that was one of the most revolutionary decades in American entertainment. You had the birth of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and rock ’n’ roll was happening, and sexual revolution was just around the corner. I'm curious, where were you on that countercultural continuum when you got started in theater, and how did that revolutionary time shape your interest in and your approach to Shakespeare?

KAHN: To be honest with you, I was part of all of that. The first play that I did as the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater at Stratford, Connecticut happened during the Vietnam War. When I realized I was going to do Henry V, first I hadn't really wanted to do it because I thought of it as a very nationalistic, jingoistic piece of theater, but then I read the play again and I thought, "Well, my gosh, here is a leader who kills some of his prisoners against the rules of engagement, who allows the Church—which doesn't want to pay tithes to him or give him money—they suggest that he should go to war into France…" and I thought, "Oh, there's a lot of really ugly things going on in this play.” So, I did the play as an anti-war play.

We were on Broadway with it and at the end of the show, the cast left the stage with candles and we went to Times Square with a vigil. So, from the very beginning, somehow politics and playmaking were the same to me. I've always wanted to do a play that had something to say, and so I turned to Shakespeare and was very lucky in that Joe Papp, you mentioned, in the New York Public Theater, gave me my first job directing Measure for Measure. I found a playwright whose interest in what's going on in the world, and interest in what's going on inside of people, and what's going on in families, and your relationship to the universe, and every possible, both. . . power versus, you know, the private life, the political life—every issue was with this playwright.

[CLIP: Love’s Labor’s Lost, Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2006. Amir Arison is King Ferdinand of Navarre, Claire Lautier is the Princess of France.]

Dear Princess, were not his requests so far
From reason’s yielding, your fair self should make
A yielding ’gainst some reason in my breast,
And go well satisfied to France again.

You do the King my father too much wrong,
And wrong the reputation of your name,
In so unseeming to confess receipt
Of that which hath so faithfully been paid.

I do protest I never heard of it;
And if you prove it, I’ll repay it back
Or yield up Aquitaine.

We arrest your word.—

KAHN: And so, I spent much of my life challenged by working with Shakespeare over these years.

BOGAEV: I know, at the time, a book that was really influential was Shakespeare, Our Contemporary by Jan Kott. And that was about the time you were coming up; I know all of you guys read it and it was, for you, personally influential. So, remind us, what was the thesis of that book and what did it mean to you and to, really, your whole generation in theater?

KAHN: Well, I think Jan Kott talked about Shakespeare as our... It was called Shakespeare, Our Contemporary. But he made all of us feel that there was, in Shakespeare, something that related very strongly to the situation we would find ourselves in in the world as we saw it and lived it at the time, and gave us the freedom to see it that way. Of course, I was influenced by everything. I was influenced by Brecht in a huge way, I was influenced by the Kabuki, but I was also influenced by Stanislavski. So, for me at the time, it was a very rich mine of cultural influences. I started out as an avant garde director, so it's very odd that I'm having this conversation with you 50 years later.

BOGAEV: Well, who didn't in the '60s? But how did you take that really rich mix of influences and apply it to Shakespeare? Because you're really part of shaping a modern American style to Shakespearean performance, and particularly the work that you've done at Juilliard. What was the American approach when you started your career, and how clear was your own vision of what it could be and how you could develop it?

KAHN: First thing was to talk about how to speak Shakespeare. When I was entering the theater, there were two kind of actors; there was the classical actor, who basically had studied in England, or people like Morris Evans and Judith Anderson, who'd come from England and had careers in America.

[CLIP: Judith Anderson in Medea, 1959.]

MEDEA: Sire, grant me a few hours yet. One day to prepare in, one little day, before I go out of Corinth forever.

KAHN: And then there was the new American style, which was basically called the Method, which was very emotionally connected, very physically connected, but very much not using the text.

[CLIP: Marlon Brando as Antony in Julius Caesar, 1953.]

Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war,
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds…

KAHN: As a matter of fact, when I went to high school to take an acting class, we were always told that the text wasn't important, it was the subtext that was important.

BOGAEV: Right, the text is just the tip of the iceberg.

KAHN: That's exactly... Did you go to acting school?

BOGAEV: I have heard this, yes.

KAHN: Because that's exactly what they said—Which I've even said, when I started teaching. So, for me, it was how to meld those two things. I believed very much in the way of dealing with the text, of having real clarity, which required a lot of technique, having melody in your voice, having tones, but also not acting from the head up. And trying to add to that, or incorporating that, into what I think was very American, which was real emotional connection to the character you were playing or to the situation that you were in and a very physical life on stage.

[CLIP: Hamlet, Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2018. Michael Urie is Hamlet. Kelsey Rainwater is Guildenstern, and Ryan Spahn is Rosencrantz.]

HAMLET: Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, come, deal justly with me. Come, come; nay, speak.

GUILDENSTERN: What should we say, my lord?

HAMLET: Anything but to th’ purpose. You were sent for, and there is a kind of confession in your looks which your modesties have not craft enough to color. I know the good king and queen have sent for you.

ROSENCRANTZ: To what end, my lord?

HAMLET: That you must teach me. But let me conjure you by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer can charge you withal:

BOGAEV: Which was very different from the British.

KAHN: Very. Very, at the time.

BOGAEV: Which was very text-based and about the beautiful, the poetry.

KAHN: That's right. At the same time that I was starting to direct, I was invited by John Houseman to be the acting teacher of this new school at Juilliard. Because the school was actually devoted to creating actors in America that could do, with hubris, everything. You could do everything from Sam Shepard to Shakespeare. At that time they left out things like August Wilson; it was very much a, sort of, white organization. And I was very devoted to that, because that's what I felt I needed as a director. So, that became, in a way, what I saw as an American style. As American actors began to appreciate the text and develop a technique to go with it, they became quite, quite good at doing Shakespeare. I think the Brits became very interested in what Americans were doing in terms of emotional connection and moment-to-moment acting. I think the acting in the two different areas are much closer together now.

BOGAEV: Would you say, though, there's still an American style of Shakespeare, or have the two grown so similar there isn't really a distinction?

KAHN: Well, I think there's generational changing. An older generation and a younger generation speak Shakespeare differently.

[CLIP: Hamlet, Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2018. Michael Urie is Hamlet. Ryan Spahn is Rosencrantz.]

HAMLET: I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth—


HAMLET: —forgone all custom of exercises, and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

KAHN: I just did a production of Hamlet, and we had a group of English actors playing Claudius and Gertrude, and I was very interested in finding a conversational way to speak Shakespeare, because even I had changed my mind in the last five years about the way audiences hear Shakespeare. If it is too plummy, if it is too performed, it becomes foreign. So, is there a way to keep the meter and the verse and the sense, but to make it more conversational?

[Clip continues]

HAMLET: What players are they?

ROSENCRANTZ: Even those you were wont to take delight in, the tragedians of the city.

HAMLET: Do they hold the same estimation they did? Are they so followed?

ROSENCRANTZ: No, indeed are they not.

HAMLET: How comes it so? Do they grow rusty?

ROSENCRANTZ: Nay, but there is, sir, a company of children that are most tyrannically clapped for ’t. These are now the fashion.

HAMLET: Do the boys carry it away?

ROSENCRANTZ: Ay, that they do, my lord.

HAMLET: It is not very strange; for my uncle is King of Denmark, and those that would make mocks at him while my father lived give twenty, forty, fifty, a hundred dollars apiece for his picture in little.

KAHN: I think that that's where we are all going now, which is to make Shakespeare sound really human, but still try to keep the music and still try to keep the verse. And that's tough.

BOGAEV: That is the ultimate test. And I'm thinking of something that you said, oh, many years now, to our producer, Richard Paul. You said that, “I think Americans are as good at Shakespeare as anybody.” And one reason you thought that is because the performance style of the American musical, that it's energetic, and that a song is a big aria. We're good at that. It sounds like your thinking has evolved in the 15 years since you told him that.

KAHN: Well, of course, that was musical theater. But what I meant then, and I still do, is that the energy that goes into meaning the words in a musical—because, what is a musical book? It's a series of telegrams, you know, ransom notes, I used to say, delivered by characters to move the plot further. The lyrics of a song are immensely important because much of the character comes through the lyrics. So, that attention to the meaning of words, that energy... and please don't misunderstand me when I say there's a conversational style. It doesn't mean it has... It has to be done with energy. It's not about talking like this, that you can't follow anything I'm saying. It is getting it out, but getting it out without being overly ornamental. Or, you know, if you listen to Eleanor Roosevelt talk—and we all, you know, my parents worshiped every time Eleanor Roosevelt would speak on the radio. If you listen to her now, you would think, "My God, she's such a false person. What a phony she is."

BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] Yeah, it's hard on the ears.

KAHN: She wasn't. She wasn't; she just was speaking in the elocutionary way that she was taught. That was the way people spoke when they were supposed to speak well.

BOGAEV: So, as a director, how do you get people to inhabit Shakespearean language in that intimate, conversational, "every day I talk like this" way?

KAHN: Well, now, I don't want to simplify what I said, because what the actors are doing to sound conversational is not the way they talk over the dinner table.

BOGAEV: Well, no, and it's hugely complex, as you said, so how do you get there?

KAHN: Well, first of all, I feel very strongly, and this is something that I think I probably do almost to a fault, is usually ask the actors, "What did you just say?” And they will give me a paraphrase of a sentence, you know, and I'll say, "No, no, that's not what you said. That's not what you said. That may be what you think you said, or you may think what it means, but that's not what it means. Let's go by the... Let's see, what does that word mean? What does that word mean? Why is that word there?” Shakespeare didn't put it there just because he needed, you know, to fill up a line of iambic pentameter. He put it there as a great poet, a great writer, he chose that word. So, first of all, you have to know exactly what you're saying and why you're saying it.

[CLIP: Hamlet, Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2018. Michael Urie is Hamlet.]

To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

KAHN: That's what I do. But if you don't have good consonants, you don't have final endings, you drop your voice at the end of a line, all those things, it won't make any difference, because you have to know all of those things first. It's not about going slow to make a point, it's not about going so fast that you can't follow it. Acting Shakespeare is the Olympics of acting, no matter whether you make it conversational or you decide to make it, you know, something else. But when I say conversational, I mean, how do you do that in an 800-seat theater?

[CLIP continues]

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

BOGAEV: I want to pick up on something we were talking about earlier, which is politics and relevance in Shakespeare. Many of the actors and the directors who come on this podcast say something very similar to the point you were making, that what makes Shakespeare's plays endure is that they can always be reinterpreted in the time that they're being produced. But there's always that line of how far to take your interpretation in terms of straying from the text, or straying from intent. So, how do you think about intent and how do you make those decisions?

KAHN: I think you have to understand what the intent of the play is. But Shakespeare is not a moralist. The reason that Shakespeare has lived for this many years is he doesn't have a point to make about politics. He doesn't have a point to make about love. He has an investigation of those. So, if you are investigating it along with him, you are in the intent of the author.

BOGAEV: Well, let's talk about this in the case of, or give an example. And you were talking about Measure for Measure before, but we didn't talk about the staging of it. When you staged that play, it was right in the middle of the NEA controversy over the arts and political funding. So, how did the politics of that figure into your production? What changed?

KAHN: Well, first of all, that was the third production of that play I had done. First one I had done in the Park, second one I had done at Stratford, and this was the third one and I had done it here. I, of course, wanted the sense of censorship to be clear. I did things like had paintings being burnt and all kinds of things like that.

But the first time I did the play, I thought of Angelo as a completely Tartuffian, unredeemable character. By the time I got around to doing it here, even though we were in the middle of the NEA controversy—and so I felt that was partly why I did the play—I also understood that the question in the play was, one, how does a leader deal with a society that seems to be out of control, or is it? So I saw in Angelo both his hypocrisy, but also his desire to try to solve a problem that the Duke left him with. I began to understand, as I did when I did Henry V again, that the intent of those plays it to show both sides of what happens. So I set it in a place where the recognition of what was going on with the NEA Four, and all the speeches I was making, you know, about Piss Christ as freedom of expression, was also about somebody who... How do you try to figure out what's the way all through this?

BOGAEV: Makes me want to see you put on Measure for Measure again, and this time...

KAHN: [LAUGHS] Never, never, never, never, never. But you know, that's the terrible thing. Every one of these plays would be relevant again almost all the time. Some are more relevant than others, based on what's going on.

BOGAEV: It also goes back to what we were talking about with that seminal text from Jan Kott, that character isn't fixed, that it is always the gray area that Shakespeare is exploring.

KAHN: Well that was, you know, we inherited… certainly people of my generation inherited the sort of remnants of a Victoria idea, and also an idea from scholars, that character was fixed, you know, you behaved one way. In a way, it's sort of like seeing characters as humors, as they were in the medieval theater. Modern literature begins to teach us that there is no such thing as fixed character. Now, you'd think we would have learned that from ourselves. If I met your girlfriend, and your mother, and your teacher, and your enemy, and they didn't mention your name, but they talked about you, they would be talking about five different people. Shakespeare knew that.

I mean, the extraordinary thing about Shakespeare is that he seems to have known everything. And I think he knew everything because I think he understood what goes on in a human being. He seems to have understood psychology way before psychology. He understood that character changes. If you allow a production to do that too, it's human. I'm glad you reminded me of that. I have my little copy of Shakespeare, Our Contemporary sitting up on my shelf, with that scribble of a Shakespeare head on the cover, but I haven't looked at it in ages.

BOGAEV: You came to Shakespeare so young. I didn't know this before I started reading about you. What's your first Shakespeare memory?

KAHN: Well, maybe you didn't read this, but my mother was a Russian immigrant. She came over when she was about five, and basically self-schooled. By the time I came along, she was running a dress shop, but before that, I understand from relatives, she was a Bohemian in the Village. I would have loved to have known her then, but I didn't.

BOGAEV: Me too.

KAHN: But she would come home and she would read to me. She had read... We lived in Brooklyn and she read a book by Betty Smith called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And in it, the Irish mother, Francie, reads to her daughter Shakespeare. So, my mother read me Shakespeare every night. Not Charles and Mary Lamb, not Shakespeare for kids. Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: So, those were your bedtime stories.

KAHN: Those were my bedtime stories. And then she read the Bible to me. Now, my mother never censored anything in Shakespeare, because it was Shakespeare, of course, it was, you know, how could it? There was nothing vulgar in Shakespeare. But the Bible, she was very careful not to read me Song of Solomon and things like that. Little did she know how bawdy Shakespeare really was.

BOGAEV: I was gonna say, yeah.

KAHN: She had no idea because, like so many other people, Shakespeare's not like that. So, that brings up why so many people never saw the real Shakespeare for hundreds of years. We, growing up, sort of were the recipients of the end of that Victorian idea of Shakespeare, and it wasn't really until, yes, the '50s and the '60s when we could break through that.

BOGAEV: That explains so much of how you became a Shakespeare... I mean, of course, as we know, you've done many, many other plays and playwrights and staged their works, but it does explain, I think, a connection to Shakespeare that others can't claim. Because when you think of your bedtime stories, when you hear a certain voice, a certain writer over and over again as a child, it becomes, really, your fantasy world, right? You must have known Hamlet and Shakespearean characters almost like that inner, that kind of, invisible playmate one has when one's young.

KAHN: I did, actually. I mean, we're all grateful that the Bible didn't turn me into a priest. I'm grateful.

BOGAEV: We are too. Your audiences.

KAHN: You wouldn't be talking to me; I'd be on another station.

BOGAEV: Another podcast entirely.

KAHN: Discussing serious issues in the Catholic Church, yes, I know.

BOGAEV: So, that was your fantasy world.

KAHN: Well, the theater was my fantasy world, it wasn't just Shakespeare. It was the Ice Show. I directed my first play when I was six. And when I was about eight or nine I never wanted to do anything ever else, ever. And I never have, and I never did.

BOGAEV: I am so grateful you did all the work that you did. And I'm so grateful you came on our podcast, thank you so much for this.

KAHN: Well, thanks for having me, Barbara, it was a pleasure.


WITMORE: Michael Kahn is retiring this year as Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, DC. He was the Richard Rodgers Director of the Drama Division of the Juilliard School from 1992 to 2006 and he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2013. Michael Kahn was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “I Am Able to Instruct or Teach,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Andrew Bates at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Meg McCluskey and Archie Moore at Clean Cuts studios in Washington, DC. The Shakespeare Theatre Company audio clips you heard came from the James A. Taylor Collection of WAPAVA at the University of Maryland.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. You can also visit us in person. If you find yourself in Washington, DC, we hope you’ll come over to the Folger. We’re right here on Capitol Hill. Come see a performance in our Elizabethan theater and come face to face with one of our First Folios—the first printed collection of Shakespeare's plays. We hope to see you. And thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.