A Playwright for Our Town

By Michael Khan, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company (THE WASHINGTON POST, 06/01/07):

Every day this city deals with the epic problems of our age, many of them the same problems that Shakespeare explored in his plays: obsession with power, succession and the true qualities of leadership. This is a city where power ebbs and flows. One side is in, another out. People rise and just as quickly they fall, mimicking the rise and fall of Shakespeare’s princes.

This is a city full of current and retired government and military employees attuned to the power of political rhetoric and the strategies and devices practiced by all parties in the constant jockeying for position. Shakespeare’s battles and those who fought them are readily studied as part of military training and in leadership seminars.

Washington is also home to the greatest Shakespeare library in the world, the Folger Shakespeare Library, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Scholars engaged in Renaissance study anywhere in the world cannot do without the resources of the Folger collection.

The capital region is thus positioned as the best place in North America to celebrate the genius of Shakespeare, which we will begin doing tonight with a free reading of “Twelfth Night” at the Kennedy Center.

Shakespeare in Washington was conceived 2 1/2 years ago by Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He invited me to curate the festival, and I have greatly enjoyed dealing with so many local, regional and international arts groups. The celebration includes more than 60 cultural organizations offering over 100 events, which adds up to more than 500 performances.

I have been astonished at the openness of museums to adjust exhibition schedules, reexamine their own collections and in some cases borrow works of art, as well as artistic directors’ willingness to alter their seasons to include a work written or influenced by Shakespeare. More importantly, all have sought to collaborate with their fellow institutions.

This festival, which includes stage performances, exhibitions and lectures, many of them free, has shown that area arts institutions are willing to work together. This celebration is both international and regional and is laying the groundwork for future collaborations. It has provided us with a forum to inform people everywhere about the extraordinary quality of the arts in our city.

Shakespeare has been a constant part of my life since I was 5, when my mother read me all of his plays. Each time I direct one of those plays, I am awed by his achievement. This extraordinary playwright is credited with writing 38 plays, four long poems and 154 sonnets of astonishing psychological and philosophical insight, full of exquisite language. He created characters of great dimension, exploring the many faces of humanity without judgment. He transcended time and place by examining universal issues of family, power, first love and last love, vibrant youth and waning old age, and man’s relationship to an uncertain universe.

Perhaps the performances will spark an important conversation in Washington between the great works of the past and our turbulent present. Regardless, through the Shakespeare in Washington celebration, I hope that audiences will find the sense of wonder and discovery in his work that has inspired so many.