Theatre professor stars in Nashville Shakespeare Festival: King Lear

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 11.03.24 AM

By Frances Marion Givhan

Executive Staff

In a few weeks’ time, the students and faculty of the Tennessee Williams Center will perform King Lear by William Shakespeare. They have painted the floor of the theatre, worked extensively on the Game of Thrones-esque costumes, and rehearsed for about a month. However, the actor who plays King Lear has engaged in the role for much longer. Professor David Landon, whose theatre classes at Sewanee emphasize Shakespeare’s precise use of rhetoric, accepted the role of King Lear at the Nashville Shakespeare Festival from artistic director Denise Hicks and celebrated a month of successful performances in January.

“When Denise asked me to do the role, I began to work almost immediately,” said Landon. In the past, Landon has worked extensively with the celebrated Shakespeare voice and text coach, Patsy Rodenburg, including doing intensive workshops on King Lear with her in New York. Like Rodenburg, he believes that “the way to creativity and discovery in a role is through obsession with technique and basic text work.” Landon does not think that an actor’s goal is to “do the role,” but to allow the role to emerge from deep within the self “as the words of the character are absorbed into the actor’s nervous system,” as Landon describes. Even after his work in Nashville, he frequently says his lines multiple times during Sewanee rehearsals, finding and embodying the meaning of the words as he remembers them.

Konstantin Stanislavsky, a Russian actor and theatre director, has a term “perezhivanie,” which means the momentto- moment experience of what the character feels. This idea helped Landon explore the character of Lear. “The actor’s task is to take the character’s ethical journey, to ‘live through the role’,” says Landon. “The joy of Lear for the actor is that his journey is such a powerful one.” At the beginning of the play, Lear declares to his court that his purpose is to “shake all cares and business from our age.” Landon focused on that verb, “shake,” because, as he says, King Lear shakes loose of ego, anger, pretension, and illusion, not only the burdens of governing a kingdom.

Students from Sewanee went to see the production to support their professor. Alena Kochinski (C’18), who has taken Landon’s classes, thought it was inspirational to see
the characteristics he attempts to teach present on stage. “He embodied these aspects so well during the show that for the duration of the play, he was no longer my professor,” said Kochinski, “He was Lear.”

Lily Davenport (C’16), who plays Regan in the Sewanee show, was also moved by Landon’s performance in Nashville. “The moment he walked onstage at the top of Act Three, when he’s lost his mind and is just howling at the elements, gave me chills,” says Davenport. She particularly enjoyed the lighting done for the storm scenes, where the work really stood out. The Sewanee production will be a “different animal,” according to Davenport, but she does not feel pressure to replicate it. “I prefer our set to theirs,” she says, “We’ll have the same Lear, but different cuts, different concept.”

The script that Sewanee is using for the production is the same one prepared by Denise Hicks. Professor Pete Smith, who is directing the Sewanee version of King Lear, restored some of the cuts made by Hicks due to the time constraints on the Nashville performance; the script continues to develop as rehearsals continue. Smith and Landon collaborate on Lear’s lines, working out which speeches need more emphasis and which do not add to the essence of the Sewanee production. Landon says that the biggest difference is using a thrust configuration in the black box theatre, when the Nashville Shakespeare Festival used a proscenium stage. In Sewanee’s version, the audience will be much closer to the action. “We’re in the middle of rehearsal,” says Landon, “so our production is still evolving from day to day.

“What a privilege!” he says, “to get two shots, back to back, at one of the greatest roles in theatre.”

Photo courtesy of