On a sunny spring morning the energetic and erudite members of Nashville Stagecraft’s production of The Mad King Lear that opens today (March 27) sit with ArtsNash to discuss their show. It runs in the 4th Story Theater at West End United Methodist Church through April 12.
The company’s Artistic Director JP Schuffman as well as Communications and Programming Director Sara Gaddis (playing Cordelia and Kent) have joined actors Tony Shannon (Gloucester), Jolinda Beck (The Fool), Heather Alexander (Goneril) and Phil Brady (King Lear) for the conversation. The cast also includes Tiana Turner as Regan, Kin Sullivan as Edgar, Kyle Marler as Edmund, and Zach Allen as Oswald.
How did the company begin? “We started the company in 2011 when we first came back from New York,” Schuffman says. “We did the Pop-Up Theatre Project, which was conceived as a way to produce shows quickly, and to make them accessible. We took short scenes and monologues to any public places we could think of.
“That’s developed into an outreach program for us. We spent the rest of that time working with other Nashville companies, learning the artistic landscape of the city. Middle of last year, we started producing a full season, developing shows that appealed to us. We’re excited to be working with so many great artists who share our love of the craft.”
Gaddis adds, “J.P. and I met in New York. We experienced so many styles of performance there, it provided a chance for us to narrow down our goals and determine what we really wanted to do, which was offer art to those who don’t have it at their doorstep. Nashville was already crackling with creative energy, and it was heartening to experience the Ten Minute Playhouse and The Ingram New Works Festival. New work is incredibly important. We’re doing three original pieces that provide great roles for women. Our company’s all about filling the spaces in theatre that don’t get that much attention.”
This isn’t your English teacher’s King Lear: Schuffman has – to use his term – “renovated” the show, calling it The Mad King Lear and updating it for the modern audience in the hope of presenting a work that maintains the Bard’s genius while making it accessible. Lear has been rarely performed in Nashville in recent decades – the most recent on-its-feet production involving any professionals here was a 2007 chamber adaptation by Point B Productions at Belmont University’s Little Theatre starring Samuel Whited (A Christmas Story at Tennessee Rep and Wind in the Willows at Nashville Children’s Theatre among many other credits) under the direction of Jeffrey Fracé.
What was Schuffman thinking about when he set pen to Shakespeare’s tragic tale? “I have renovated Shakespeare, and I chose that word specifically. I cut monologues, and contemporary jokes, and references to mythology that no one’s going to get. When you do Shakespeare a long time, you forget that it’s different for the audience. I just feel like most people, even intelligent, well-read people, have a hard time when the delivery is so fast and the language is so different.
“I did everything to maintain the accessible parts. That’s Shakespeare’s genius that so much of it still resonates with us. Anything that’s beautiful and colorful and relatable stayed in. (Nearly) half a millennium (Shakespeare was born 450 years ago this April) and the man’s work still touches us. But if you don’t get the language, it’s hard to care.
“I let Shakespeare do the heavy lifting: the theme’s the same, and the wording is very close. I spent eight months working on it, because I do love Shakespeare. The most important things in drama are character and plot. Having to work through a language barrier diminishes the effect of the drama. It doesn’t diminish the literature, but onstage, when decisions are made and actions are being taken, the audience needs to understand. I do want my audience to think, but not have to struggle with what the characters are saying.”
He is clearly focused on the end goal. “I have issues with the definition of culture in this society,” Schuffman says. “We have two kinds. The first is the kind you learn, such as fine art and theatre. There’s also real, everyday culture: football games, movies, even going on a date with someone. I don’t like it. I don’t think Shakespeare saw it that way. Theatre is about the exchange of ideas. It’s not something you should have to learn before you experience it.”
“I was apprehensive, I came to it from the ‘Holy Cows’ perspective,” Beck says. ”I thought, ‘the audience can do this.’ But I think JP’s show really is easier to understand, and will reach more people. The Fool is boiled down to a more specific statement.”
With at least 37 Shakespearean plays (there continues to be debate over exactly how many he wrote) to choose from, the company went with Lear. And for good reason, as JP explains: “The play is about a man who begins as a king, but learns to be compassionate. I’m drawn to classic tragedies. I don’t think they’re really written today, because of the enlightenment and the way we think of redeemability.
“But King Lear is not set against a classical background, so it speaks to modern sensibilities. Shakespeare was able to say so much in a way that modern audiences do understand, and there are things I could never communicate as well as he could, but I can translate it a little bit. You can still identify with these characters, universal stories that will be around as long as we talk about what it means to be a human being.”
Gaddis effusively explains her thoughts on updating the Bard: “Getting people to come to the theatre is so hard when you can watch a movie in your hands,” she says. “There are options far more immediate. Updating Shakespeare’s language dovetails with that. Most people don’t work against the problem of short attention spans and instant gratification. You can’t be musty dusty anymore.”
“On a personal level,” she adds, “relationships with your father are hard. In my very first scene, Lear says some awful things to Cordelia. As an actor, I have visceral memories of that kind of thing. It’s so universal, and realizing Shakespeare’s talking about that, it’s easy to see that he’s more than just some old white guy. He was a real person, and that dynamic stands out to me.”
“I think if nothing else, reducing the length of it has increased accessibility. Anybody who knows Lear is thinking, ‘Do I want to devote three full days of my life to watching this production?'” Shannon says about renovated text.
Community stage veteran Alexander offers this insight into the story: “I had never read King Lear before this. We went to the (Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s) Shakespeare Allowed! when they did Lear at the Public Library (March 1), and having read the original, I’m realizing that JP’s version is less convoluted. He boiled it down to its essence. The relationships are much clearer.
“If you take out the husbands, it’s down to the sibling rivalry. Lear loves Cordelia the most. Regan and Goneril grew up knowing it. And then he turns his power over to a child he has not favored. The moral is, ‘Treat your children well, they will be your jailers one day.’”
Brady, another local stage vet, is excited about the opportunity to play Lear himself. “When I thought about being in this play, I was intimidated, but one Christmas gift I got was the No Fear Shakespeare version of King Lear. As I read it, I’m thinking, ‘why didn’t he just say this?’ Then I go to the audition, and lo and behold, I’m gonna play this role. I’m doubtful at first, but JP’s text was pleasantly surprising. I could really understand it. I knew what was going on.”
He paused before answering a question about the characters and their tale. “I don’t know that I’d call Lear’s family dysfunctional, though they do overreact. It’s more like a nuclear implosion. King Lear says some really terrible things to people. For some reason, everyone says ‘that’s just how he is.’ It’s almost an “Everybody Loves Lear” kind of thing. But I think all the hyperbole of it is a way of saying ‘we really treat each other like crap, especially in families.’
“At my age, the theme really is about when people get older and become dependent on their children. They relinquish their power to someone else, and it was timely for me. I had a procedure in the hospital recently, and had to think about the living will, and what happens if something goes wrong. I also had a friend I worked with who’s just a little older, and now she’s in hospice. It all makes the play so much more poignant and significant.
“I think it’s impossible for anyone to come to the show and not find some aspect of it with which they relate. For Lear, he portrays every possible part of himself throughout the show: high and low, even the crazy. It’s like being drunk, he has no inhibitions, and everything’s coming out. People will be fascinated with the extremity of these characters, and to see Lear go from power and control, through being broken, and into enlightenment. He says, ‘What do you know, fool? Tell me!’ That defines his relationship with the fool, and how Lear only pretends to understand what’s going on.”
What might audiences take away from Nashville Stagecraft’s The Mad King Lear? “I think audiences will remember the craftsmanship of the actors, their authenticity in sharing what they have, the intimacy of it all the interaction of the characters and the space,” Shannon says. “People will have clear Shakespeare dropped in their laps, and they’ll love it.”
The Mad King Lear runs March 27 through April 12 in the 4th Story Theatre at West End United Methodist Church (2200 West End Ave.) at 7:00 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 2:00 PM. Tickets are available online by clicking here. In addition to their website check out their Facebook page as well.
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*Photos by JP Schuffman courtesy Nashville Stagecraft.