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What Will DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Do Without Founder Michael Kahn?

Feb 22, 2017

Michael Kahn, longtime artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company, will leave that position after the 2018-2019 season. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

On any given night, in the houses that Michael Kahn built, you could find yourself transported to Illyria or Bohemia, to Dunsinane or Athens. Next to you might be seated a justice of the Supreme Court or an accountant from Gaithersburg or an English teacher from Manassas — all slaking their classical thirsts.

Up on the stages of his Shakespeare Theatre Company, you were apt to encounter actors, nationally known or locally grown, scratching the same itch. One month it could be Stacy Keach in “King Lear” or Charlayne Woodard in “The Taming of the Shrew”; another it might be Nancy Robinette in a drama by Oscar Wilde or Tom Story in a comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

They, and you, have Kahn to thank for setting iambic pentameter to a Washington beat; for expanding by some impressive magnitude the District’s appreciation of Shakespeare and a slew of other playwrights of antiquity, the Renaissance, the Spanish Golden Age and beyond. A diet hewing to a Western palate, to be sure, but also one that often tried to extend the menu and expand the table of dramatic possibility. For that, the region owes this proud, cosmopolitan man of insight and taste its warmest congratulations.

Kahn revealed last week that he will be relinquishing his artistic directorship of the company at the end of the 2018-2019 season, an announcement that reduces by one major figure the number of Founding Fathers (and Mothers) running the region’s stages. Among the major companies, only Howard Shalwitz and Eric Schaeffer, both a generation or so younger than Kahn, remain. And yet, given the distance Washington theater has traveled since Kahn arrived in 1986, his departure won’t be quite the seismic event it might have been, even a few short years ago. Yes, for sentimental and, certainly, artistic reasons, the change at the top of the company will have a sizable impact. But because Washington has matured into a theater town with such a variegated constellation of companies, creating and presenting drama in every category, there’s little worry that on a personnel level, the inspirational vacuum can’t be filled.

Except, perhaps, at the very company Kahn will leave behind. As Nelson Pressley reported last week in these pages, Kahn has vowed to bequeath to the next artistic director a fiscally sound organization, with its accounts in order. But any longtime patron of the company, observing how the quality of its seasons has taken a hit over the past several years, has to be concerned about what has been sacrificed in the efforts to juggle programming in its two spaces, its longtime home in the Lansburgh Theatre on Seventh Street NW, and, since 2007, its larger, grander theater, the $89 million, 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall on F Street.