Bringing Lear back to life: No Lear Shakespeare

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Photo by Kimberly Williams

By Frances Marion Givhan

Executive Staff

The cancellation of Shakespeare’s King Lear left disbelieving, surprised, and tearful faces on the actors gathered in the Tennessee Williams Center lobby. They had one more night before tech rehearsal, when the costumes, set, sound effects, and actors would all come together for a run through of the production. When Professor and director Pete Smith walked in and announced that their Lear, Professor David Landon, had fallen ill and was in the hospital, silence absorbed the room.

“It was a total shock,” says Lily Davenport (C’16), who played Lear’s middle daughter Regan. “I felt concerned for DL [Landon] and disappointed and frustrated that the hard work of the cast and crew would not see the light of day.”

“I thought Pete was pulling our legs and that Dr. Landon would come bouncing out into the crowd of actors,” says Will Burton-Edwards (C’18). “The most striking thing was that this cardinal rule – ‘the show must go on’ – this thing that’s been ingrained in all of our psyches since we first touched a curtain, broke.”

A magical thing emerged from the premature withdrawal of the show, however. Professor Virginia Craighill sent an email to a few members of the cast expressing the English department’s devastation at King Lear’s cancellation. Most of the professors’ English 101 syllabi included attending a performance of King Lear, so Craighill asked the actors if they could perform at least one or two scenes for the students to watch.

Thus, No Lear Shakespeare emerged.

Davenport, with her “co-conspirator” Burton-Edwards, set forth to scrounge whatever remnants of King Lear the actors and crew could in order to create a semi-coherent performance. Not even a performance, but an open rehearsal that would allow the actors and the set, costume, and hair designers to show off their work. Davenport and Burton-Edwards made a detailed list of what scenes the cast could perform in what order, and they discussed how they would handle transitions between scenes. Despite the actors having made plans to fill the empty void that would have been performance week, the idea of two open rehearsals on Tuesday and Wednesday evening brought most of the cast back to the Proctors Hill theatre to open the casket of King Lear.

“I hoped we would have an audience,” says Davenport. “In moments of optimism, I hoped that we could create something beautiful, something valuable in and of itself.”

Even with short-term notice, the open rehearsals brought in a full and engaged audience of students, faculty, and community members. Though the set remained unfinished and lacked the special elements of lighting and sound effects, the actors wore complete costumes, hair, and makeup, thanks to the tireless work of the costume shop and the hair and makeup designer, Danielle Silfies (C’19).

The stripped down nature of the rehearsals removed some of the professional pressure from the audience and actors. Charlotte La Nasa (C’16) played her role as Lear’s Fool and as narrator, guiding the audience through the context of the scenes with sparks of humor, jabs at the actors, and a Bota-box of wine in her hand. Audrey Tchoukoua (C’16) sassily restarted his character Edmund’s famous monologue “Thou, Nature, art my goddess” when people straggled late into the theatre; Huntre Woolwine (C’16) stripped down to his briefs as Edmund’s brother Edgar, pretending to be crazy; and Tcoukoua and Elise Anderson (C’16) gave a surprising performance as lovers through an intense make out session that left some of his stage makeup on her nose and cheeks.

“Exposing ourselves in a non-performance setting really allowed us all to connect to the audience in a different way than we would have otherwise,” says Burton-Edwards. He liked that the informal setting allowed the actors the freedom to embellish and to cherish certain moments more than they would have.

Many of the actors marveled backstage at the consequences of removing King Lear from the context of the story. As the central character, he ties the entire plot together; without him, the actors worked mostly with subplots. The result: much, much more humor. Davenport describes, “We gave the audience permission to laugh at us. The serious moments were serious – you could hear a pin drop during Audrey’s first monologue, or Huntre’s – but humor lay at the heart of our connection with the audience, and that was really fantastic.”

While most of the main characters die by the end of the play (Regan, Goneril, Edmund, Gloucester), Burton-Edwards’s death as his character Oswald managed to capture more of the humorous theme of the rehearsals. His physical comedy during the performances set him apart from the more serious characters, and the loud outcry of “Slave, thou hast slain me!” caused everyone to burst into laughter.

“But seriously,” says Burton-Edwards, “my favorite death is probably Oswald. I had fun!”

The night of the second and last open rehearsal, the cast had the pleasure to announce that David Landon had returned home from the hospital and was making his way to a full recovery. Though the Sewanee Theatre could not have their full performances of King Lear, No Lear Shakespeare offered the cast and crew to find closure in their work. Burton-Edwards says, “It was far from the scholarly experience the English department probably wanted, but it was exactly what we needed.”

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