BWW Feature: MICHAEL KAHN & FRIENDS, Off The Record At The Shakespeare Theatre Of Washington
The fun of an evening such as this week's "Michael Kahn & Friends, Off the Record: The Lansburgh Years, 1992-2007" derives from the relaxed, unscripted content provided by those who usually offer scripts to an audience. The three actors and one former administrative colleague who joined Kahn at the Harman Wednesday to visit memory lane required little prompting by moderator Tom Story to recall and reminisce about their work with the Shakespeare Theatre Company during the Lansburgh Years. Once Story asked each to remember his/her first meeting with Michael Kahn, a series of photos of past productions drove the evening of anecdotes.
Jessica Andrews joined the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) in 1990 as Managing Director. She'd worked briefly with Kahn before he was tapped as Artistic Director when the company was still at the cramped Folger Theatre. Andrews described her walkthrough with Kahn of the partially completed Lansburgh building. The potential of the new theatre's shell was evident, but it didn't have a trap. (Kahn cheerfully interjected the reminder that there has to be a place to bury Ophelia!) After tweaking the architecture, the company moved to its 7th Street home with almost twice as many seats as Folger, an ample backstage, and a loft into which some scenery could fly. Kahn smiled mischievously when he recalled suggesting re-naming the company "Shakespeare Theatre Company No Longer at the Folger"; that was of course too long, and the STC opened in May, 1992 with Measure for Measure.
Actors Philip Goodwin, Floyd King, and Wallace Acton played many different roles as company members during the Lansburgh years. Acton's work in Henry VI earned him a Helen Hayes award in 1997; Goodwin won the award in 2000 in the title role of Timon of Athens; King's shelf of Helen Hayes awards includes STC productions of All's Well that Ends Well (1988) and Twelfth Night (2008).
During the evening, each actor praised Kahn's directing style and working methods and expressed gratitude for the variety of opportunities provided by the STC. The word "collaborative" came up more than once, and, for his part, Kahn repeatedly hailed these three actors and many others in the production photographs projected above the participants, saying that he felt blessed to have worked with so many "flawless" performers.
Acton and Kahn described at length the conversational way they figured out the ending of Henry VI, in which Goodwin played the title role and Acton was cast as Richard, the son of York and eventual Richard III. It wasn't until the tech that they worked out Acton's stunning sprint from the stage, up the aisle, and out the lobby door, slamming it in the process. Creativity for the actors is not a customary by-product of the tech (short for "technical rehearsal"); its focus is cues, scenery, costumes, lights, and it stars the stage manager and running crew; the actors, for one run-through only, also ran. But Acton could still vividly recall the excitement of the work that he and Kahn managed that day.
Goodwin collaborated with Kahn on adapting that Henry VI script because he had previously done the role un-cut (it's three five act plays!) at New York's Theatre for a New Audience. Kahn pointed out how Goodwin excelled at depicting kings such as Henry VI and King John, "the runts of the litter," Kahn called them. He said that Goodwin could always find the strengths buried deeply in these men who seemed weak on Shakespeare's surface. Goodwin had a charming recollection upon seeing a photo of himself as Prospero in the production of The Tempest in the 2004-05 Lansburgh season. In the image, Prospero elegantly raises one arm towards Ariel, played by Daniel Breaker. That was no regal stance nor noble gesture, said Goodwin with an ironic smile. Breaker was swaying in the breeze, and if Goodwin hadn't put a hand up to stop him, Ariel would have been addressing the upstage wall, face out of sight and back to the audience.
Goodwin added another "tech" story, enchantingly describing how the King John (1998) company painstakingly, and at long last, put together their complicated Act I finale for the first time during the tech, diligently concluding a lengthy battle choreographed in slo-mo by fight director David Leong. They nailed it. But director Kahn had no chance to react; instead, the silence was broken, for the only time in tech history, by lighting designer Howell Binkley's usually sleeping dog, who barked his way from under Binkley's seat in the house to the edge of the stage, where he planted his fore-paws and kept barking at the actors. Kahn finished Goodwin's story, telling the listeners that the only note he could give was "well, I think we got that right."
King, who played the Fool in King Lear (1999), told of fitting familiar tunes to Shakespeare's words to use as place-holders in rehearsal until original music arrived. King sang the Bard's texts to "The Star Spangled Banner" and "Don't Cry for me, Argentina," and Kahn loved it and kept it. ("Actors think of stuff," added Kahn to King's storytelling.) King's memories of hauling Mother Courage's cart around the stage in the eponymous 1993 production led to a sensational story about the late Pat Carroll. In the title role, Carroll had to sing often; Brecht, like Shakespeare, often punctuated his texts with musical interludes. One night in performance, Carroll forgot the words to a song. King demonstrated hilariously how Carroll rhythmically fit nonsense syllables into the tunes and kept right on singing--disaster averted. "FIVE TIMES," King roared, continuing to act out Carroll's actions as she forgot all five verses of the song. The audience gave her a standing ovation, but the next actor to enter, Fran Dorn (currently appearing in Kahn's final production, The Oresteia) made it onstage on time, but couldn't talk while weeping with laughter. King said that it took them a couple of minutes to get the show going again.
Kahn said how glad he was to have had the chance to direct several of Shakespeare's plays more than once. And his goal always was to make sure that no production resembled another. Patrick Stewart gave him the idea for the 1997 Othello, featuring Sir Patrick and a cast of African American actors.
Kahn was treated to two video tributes, the first from Richard Thomas who played Richard II at the Lansburgh in 1993 and the second from Myk Watford who described starting work for Kahn as an intern and then graduating to a role in a previously unproduced play by Tennessee Williams, directed by Kahn when the STC presented Five by Tenn at the Kennedy Center in 2003.
Finally, Kahn reflected on the production of Oedipus Rex in 2001 which the company took to Athens in 2003. In late summer, it's too hot to work outdoors in Greece, and the Theatre of Herodes Atticus lies at the foot of the Acropolis. "So we rehearsed at night," Kahn continued. He said that he and the company could feel 4000 years of tradition in a space that seemed holy. The Parthenon, which is illuminated at night, could be seen above by the cast while onstage, and Kahn spoke of feeling part of a continuum of people who have been telling stories for millennia.
Michael Kahn and The Shakespeare Theatre continue to tell stories. Aeschylus' The Oresteia, adapted by Ellen McLaughlin, runs at the Harman Center through June 2; the final off the record evening with Kahn and friends, which Kahn calls "the long goodbye," takes place on June 3. For Oresteia tickets, contact the box office: STCBox@ShakespeareTheatre.org