You’ve done a lot of lovely work on this scene since the last time. Tell me about it. What’s changed in your given circumstances?” With this gentle invitation, Michael Kahn lets his young actors initiate the discussion about the Romeo and Juliet scene they’ve just performed in his acting class at New York’s Juilliard School.
Romeo now thinks he’s been up all night, fretting about his love life. Kahn prods him–ever so diplomatically–to elaborate. “That’s not saying this is the right or wrong choice–this is a good choice for you. You’ve been up all night–what does that mean?” Romeo-turned-student hesitates, then offers, in heartfelt actorspeak: “I could have let that circumstance inform my body more.” Kahn deftly slips into the breach, that dread gap between intention and action familiar to actors everywhere, and begins to work. He rarely moves from his chair, but looks perpetually about to spring out of it: legs crossed, body bent forward in a line led by his chin, he’s amiably watchful, an animated owl with Jack Benny gestures and the compassionate habit of making regular eye contact with everyone in the room.
KAHN’S AT HOME IN THIS environment, which isn’t surprising considering he’s been a part of it since 1968, when the Juilliard School–already known for music and dance–first opened its doors to drama students. But his responsibilities at Juilliard, where he was recently named head of the drama division (succeeding Michael Langham), now extend beyond overseeing the welfare of his acting students to guiding the mission and future of one of the nation’s foremost acting conservatories. That’s in addition, remember, to his duties as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre (get the Folger off your tongue and out of your mental circuitry) in Washington, D.C., where he has just mounted Hamlet.
No stranger to the scheduling nightmares of a commuter career (“I’ve probably had three jobs at a time my whole life”), Kahn relishes the opportunity to provide Juilliard students with greater institutional links with the adjacent Lincoln Center Theatre Company as well as the Shakespeare Theatre. With Andre Bishop now serving as artistic director of the company next door, Kahn envisions Juilliard students as active participants in Lincoln Center’s developmental work, with student actors involved in readings and workshops. He also hopes to create half-year internships for third-year acting students at Juilliard’s more remote campus, the one at the Shakespeare Theatre, and perhaps at other regional theatres as well.
All this attention to professional theatre exposure is necessary, Kahn believes, in a culture where many fledgling actors haven’t even been to a play. “The very idea of acting in the theatre is not a given anymore,” Kahn laments. “One of my goals here is to introduce the idea that training for the theatre is the best insurance for a career as an actor. I’ve learned not to say too much about what I’m going to do–I’d rather wait until I’ve done it. But I do want to find ways of getting students to think in a different way, and that’s going to take a year or two to figure out.
“This is not to say I’m not aware of the reality that film and television are, indeed, how you pay your school bills, nor do I think there isn’t craft or even maybe art involved in sustaining a performance under those conditions. But it’s in the theatre that you can practice your art, be in control of your art. That for me is still the goal to strive for. I think we’ve taught people that process is a waste of time. We celebrate the cult of personality, we celebrate shortcuts, we celebrate a lot of things that are completely destructive to art. I think it’s the job of a school to get people to love process again, and that’s hard. People are impatient. I get a lot of telephone calls from people in their thirties who’ve made other choices, and who are no longer young, pretty or ‘box office,’ and who are rather desperate. The ones who have training have a chance.”
INTRODUCING A NEW generation of actors to the rigors and rewards of theatre training is only part of the challenge facing Juilliard on the rim of the 21st century, Kahn believes. First he has to convince his students that acting is not about behaving “naturally,” not about “playing a version of yourself”–the legacy of film and television exposure. This means there’s more work to be done with incoming students than there was a generation ago. Getting an actor to ground zero, in Kahn’s view, is no longer just a matter of getting rid of bad habits. It’s about introducing the “very idea of transformation, the idea of a literature beyond the contemporary, the idea of being comfortable with worlds that are not immediately perceptible to you.”
There are any number of ways to provide that initial openness and to cultivate it once it sprouts, Kahn insists, refusing to be drawn into the methodological warfare that has traditionally characterized the actor-training arena. “I’m quite passionate about the need for training,” he stresses, “but I totally disagree with the guru approach to it. When I was growing up, the arguments were about the Method as opposed to the Other, which seemed to mean anybody who went to England to study at RADA.” Calling such territorial in-fighting “unnecessary and counter-productive,” Kahn, in the spirit of the ’90s, preaches tolerance. “I think part of my job is to facilitate different ways of working toward the same goal, to encourage students to find their way almost dialectically through a variety of approaches. I think that’s actually a pretty good definition of what the training at Juilliard is.”
What about what the training at Juilliard isn’t? It isn’t exclusively classical, at least not in the sense that raises cultural diversity alarms. A classically trained actor, according to Kahn, is one who is prepared to “sustain a characterization for three hours at a time over six months, to play a wide variety of roles in which you are not really recognizable from play to play, to be as at home in Shakespeare as you are in Sam Shepard, and to work with avant-garde and traditional directors without losing your own technique.”
Kahn thinks of his students as “future colleagues,” a designation that’s frequently proved prophetic: Kevin Kline, Patti LuPone and Kelly McGillis are all former students. And though he credits his proteges with enriching his own perceptions about the craft of acting, he has little use for the notion, current in some discussions about training, that teachers and students ought to dismantle hierarchical structures and collaborate as peers. “I’m not sure I’d want to spend $20,000 to work with a peer, to be honest with you,” he manages to spit out between hiccups of laughter. “I tell my students, look, why don’t you try to learn this, and then you can throw it out or change it.
“I’m against the kind of teaching that is autocratic and unquestioned. I remember watching Lee Strasberg–who had a lot of very important things to give to people–spend two hours answering a question. He ended up talking about Duse and Beethoven, but he didn’t answer the question. I assume he didn’t know the answer at that particular moment. I learned that day to say, ‘I don’t have the answer.’ I would have a nervous breakdown if I thought I had to be infallible.”
KAHN INTERRUPTS A LAID-BACK confrontation from American Buffalo. “Are you playing something or are you feeling something?” “Feeling something,” one of the actors responds. “Can you turn that into something you’re playing?” Kahn hints, sounding for all the world like a parent who’s had to make the suggestion once too often. And oddly enough, that most elementary distinction seems to catch this young man off guard, and to prompt a wandering but earnest confessional–more Mamet-like in its intimations of hidden turmoil than the scene he’s just performed–about his ambitions as an actor and the common wisdom that getting a job is “all about how you look, anyway.” Kahn tosses a gauntlet of his own. “What if every young actor got out of school and said, ‘I’m not going to buy this’? People change things.” Including minds, once in a while.