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What Made Me: Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn

How Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director learned to love the bard.

Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

The quote: Between the ages of 16 and 35, I kept a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay in my wallet. It goes: “My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— / It gives a lovely light!” It made me feel it was okay to be doing what I was doing—living somewhat extravagantly and on the edge.

The books: My mother was a Russian immigrant born in a field. Her first marriage was to a bookseller in Brooklyn who gave her a lot of books. She brought the books with her when she married my father. When I was six, she read me Shakespeare every night and I knew then that I wanted to be a director.

The epiphany: I was walking through the theater district one day in college, and I looked up at all the marquees and realized there wasn’t a single play on Broadway I wanted to direct. My life changed because of that—I started working in regional theater and doing the plays I wanted to do.

The failure: My first big Broadway flop taught me that I could survive. I directed a musical—Here’s Where I Belong, based on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden—that lasted only for opening night. We were very young, none of us knew what we were doing, and it was a very painful experience. I went home and threw things but I didn’t die, and I went on to my next show. That’s life.

This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

Related: Shakespeare Theatre Company and Kennedy Center Get Tony Nods 

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