Michael Kahn Receives Honorary GW Degree

Legendary Shakespearean director founded the Academy for Classical Acting.

Michael Kahn, flanked by GW Provost Forrest Maltzman and ACA Director Alec Wild, accepts his honorary degree.
Michael Kahn, flanked by GW Provost Forrest Maltzman and ACA Director Alec Wild, accepts his honorary degree. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
July 29, 2019

By Ruth Steinhardt

The George Washington University bestowed an honorary doctorate of fine arts on Michael Kahn, who will retire this month after 33 years as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC).

Provost Forrest Maltzman presented the degree Sunday at a ceremony honoring this year’s graduates of the Academy for Classical Acting (ACA), an intensive one-year master’s program founded by Mr. Kahn in collaboration with GW.

“Mr. Kahn’s distinguished work in the arts demonstrates his embodiment of the university’s values of professional achievement and contributions to the public good,” Dr. Maltzman said.

Mr. Kahn is a pillar of East Coast theater, having begun as artistic director of what was then the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Library in 1986. From 1992 to 2006, he split his time between Washington, D.C., and New York City as head of the drama division of the Juilliard School. (Graduates of the Juilliard drama program during those years include actors Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain.)

He founded the ACA in cooperation with GW in 2000, feeling that American actors needed an institution of their own at which to intensively study Shakespeare and other classical dramatic texts.

“I’m very, very grateful to have been able to open this program, and for the enthusiasm with which the university has allowed me to do so,” Mr. Kahn said.

Mr. Kahn encouraged the group of graduates to cultivate courage, patience, diligence and curiosity in their careers as actors.

“I’ve had 50 years in this incredible profession and art, and if you’re lucky, sometimes those two things come together—but it’s not an easy life,” he said. “You need courage to accept failure as a challenge. There is plenty of failure in an actor’s life, and plenty of success. You need to take both, quite frankly, with an equal grain of salt.”

Leslie Jacobson, who stepped down this spring as head of GW’s theater and dance department, has been an ACA faculty member since its inception. At Sunday’s ceremony, she presented graduates with their GW medallions and diplomas and with a “creative license” from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.

Mr. Kahn’s design of an intensive training year for aspiring actors was a “game-changer” in the field of American classical acting, Ms. Jacobson said.

“The strength of the Academy for Classical Acting is that it is a dynamic, supple entity, which has welcomed new faculty and new ideas for 19 years, while retaining Michael’s original spirit and vision,” she said. “Luckily for me—very luckily for me—Michael brought his idea to GW.”

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