Shakespeare Theater embarks on major revamp

When Michael Kahn took over as artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s, Shakespeare Theater 15 years ago, his goals were as grand as the plays that would fill his stage: to create a healthy and vibrant operation that would present the highest-caliber classical theater, worthy of comparison to the best productions in London and New York.

As the company begins the largest fund-raising drive in its history, the company can pride itself on having become established as an important force in the capital’s culture.

Its 450-seat theater in downtown D.C. operates at greater than 90% capacity, supported by a record 17,500 subscribers. An $11 million annual budget draws from an enviable mix of foundations, corporations and individuals.

It enables Kahn to present lavish plays on a scale previously not seen in this city by a regional theater, with casts that typically include nationally prominent actors.

Extensive education and outreach programs, including an Academy for Classical Acting at George Washington University, help prime the pump for new audiences and actors.

Now for act two. Kahn & Co. are finalizing plans to launch a $76 million fund-raising campaign to create an endowment and build an 850-seat theater a few blocks from their Seventh Street facility. If the Shakespeare wins a $30 million tax break from the city, as expected, the new theater will be part of an office building project slated for completion by 2005. It will become the Shakespeare’s new home, allowing it to use its current Lansburgh Theater for a variety of other projects.

Kahn also intends to take his shows on the road occasionally, performing within a variety of co-production arrangements. “We are looking at opportunities to tour productions both nationally and internationally,” he says.

An important step in that direction was made recently when the theater hired Nicholas T. Goldsborough to become its managing director, succeeding Sam Sweet, who departed last year. Goldsborough, who won the post in a national search, previously was vice president of the Music Center of Los Angeles County, the performing arts complex that will include the Walt Disney Concert Hall, future home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His particular strengths are fund-raising and education.

For Goldsborough, the new post offers terrific challenges and the return to a favorite city, where he once worked for Arena Stage.

“There is nothing like the Shakespeare Theater in this country,” he says. “To have a year-round company doing work at this level is extraordinary.”

Goldsborough returns to a far more vibrant theater scene than when he left in the 1970s, one that includes scores of professional theaters where a cadre of versatile actors can live and work.

He says he also is heartened that “William Shakespeare is great box office,” supported locally by a diverse and passionate audience. It is drawn by the theater’s dependable selection of plays by the Bard as well as playwrights who either influenced Shakespeare or were influenced by him.

Kahn often lures well-known performers to his stage, including Patrick Stewart, Elizabeth Ashley, Stacy Keach, Pat Carroll, Richard Thomas and Avery Brooks. Its current production, a lavish version of “The Duchess of Malfi,” features Kelly McGillis, a frequent visitor to the theater, in the title role. The season began with “The Oedipus Plays,” a single-evening adaptation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone.” It finishes with “Romeo and Juliet,” to be staged by Rachel Kavanaugh, and Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” featuring Ashley, who last appeared here in Kahn’s 1997 production of “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

These are busy days for Kahn, 62, who continues to juggle his responsibilities with those as director of the drama division of Gotham’s Juilliard School. Kahn has been a member of the Juilliard faculty since 1968. He will be honored by its board this year with the annual Will Award for lifetime achievement. Past recipients include Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith, Patrick Stewart, Kenneth Branagh and Joseph Papp.

Goldsborough says his primary goal for the next five years is to build an international reputation for the company, one that would make D.C. a destination for classical theater. The second-stage project will assist the effort by helping expand offerings and become a base for a planned national branding campaign.

Neither Kahn nor Goldsborough has the slightest doubt they’ll achieve the goal. “We intend to build the great classical theater of the U.S.,” Goldsborough says confidently. And why not? After all, he says, “American actors are every bit as good as English actors.”

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