04 June 2010

Kirk Woodward’s 'King Lear' Journal

directing, [I’ve asked others to contribute “guest posts” to ROT from time to time, and Kirk has previously been generous enough to contribute a fascinating essay on playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“How America Eats: Food and Eating Habits in the Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks,” 5 October 2009). I’ve known Kirk since we were in college together and I was present for the beginning weeks of the work on the production of King Lear he describes below and knew most of the participants. Though I had to leave campus before the end of the rehearsals and the performances, which I never got to see, I did help build some of the set and props. ~Rick.]

When I first wanted to learn about theater, particularly about directing and acting, I spent a lot of time taking detailed notes on rehearsals I observed and participated in. The following is one such account. These are not stories of triumph, certainly not as far as my part in them is concerned; I had a lot to learn. At least I knew it.

I hope the mistakes recounted here will be of interest to those who have not directed or acted. They will probably bring a smile of recognition, also, to those who have. I hope I make it clear that there was good work done, as well.

I have de-identified my descriptions of people in this account. I suppose the participants themselves may remember some of these episodes, if they have better memories than I do; I would not have recalled most of it, if it weren’t for my notes, which I put down on paper about a week after the production closed.

The purpose of the following is to record what I remember of an interesting production of King Lear at a college theater in 1969. I was spending four months as a shop assistant in the theater, building scenery and so on. The director (and professor of theater) had given me that job after semesters in acting and directing and a month of theater study in England under him. Sometime in September he offered me a job in King Lear – stage manager, as I thought, but as things turned out I was assistant director.

The director respects Shakespeare, does not like him much, and is scared of him. His only previous Shakespeare production was Richard II four years ago. He says he loves that play because it’s so soft and sentimental! This might be his way of saying that he enjoys the characters and language. Three possible reasons he chose Lear: (1) He always picks the most difficult plays. (2) He saw the RSC’s production directed by Peter Brook. Originally he wanted to steal Lear’s entrance in that play: a huge box was carried on and opened, to reveal the King. (3) He loves the language and the emotionality of the play, as he indicated one day while listening to a recording of the piece. He knew he was doing the play by the end of the previous school year.

The director didn’t work at all on the play until his successful production of The Homecoming was completed the third week in October. We all then had to face the fact that the next production was to begin in about a week. Here is what he said about the play in advance: he hoped to train the actors in as natural and specific – as “anti-tragic” – diction as possible. He hoped to approach the play realistically from an acting standpoint, with the emotions grounded in the text and not based on some abstract idea of high serious drama. We all expected B to play Lear, although the director as always gave no indication which actors (if any) he had in mind.

B’s idea for the set (he was also the theater’s technical director) came to him during Homecoming: a series of platforms, with the top of the stage resembling a parapet, with the fronts of the platforms faced like stone. I asked the director if a platform arrangement was the way he had conceived of the play originally and he said yes.


As the rehearsal period – five weeks interrupted by Thanksgiving break – was so short and the play so monstrously long, the director decided to rehearse in two places, he working on one scene while I worked on the other. The green/dressing room upstairs was lined off for the purpose, although it is terribly small. We also ended up splitting the tryouts, which I recall as Tuesday and Wednesday, afternoon and evening. He ran the first session: a short welcoming speech and explanation of how the session would run; then groups reading specific scenes. I had chosen the scenes, which he approved immediately and without comment.

We read part of Act I Scene i from Lear’s first lines to midway in Kent’s speeches, and the end of the scene. We read the first Gloucester-Edmund scene; we read a mad scene, and we read part of the great “no cause” scene. In this scene during the first session, one actress gave a reading of Cordelia’s part which was the best acting done in the play until well into performances.

Aside from that, the tryouts were grim. B, reading Lear, used a hollow, rhetorical, more-or-less senseless reading which when asked he labeled “stage-English.” He had no real competition except a student half his size with muddy diction. The women were limited in numbers: the director’s wife; another faculty wife; the actress mentioned above; and a faculty wife from another campus whom the director read but refused to take seriously. We saw no Edmund developing. The director finally recruited a student who hadn’t planned to try out, being mildly uninterested in the production; he read once, the second night, and was cast. The outstanding Fool, a brilliant school radical and character, the director ruled out as undependable. The part finally went to a stocky fellow the director felt could be worked with. I handled the second and third sessions while the director watched; he ran the final one. We saw a possible Kent, who then decided he wanted out; we settled on a tall, steady, not-very-fast-moving student, the president of the drama group.

When I say “we,” I mean that the director, who agonizes over casting, had a preliminary list drawn up Thursday morning; I listened to him debate out loud his alternatives and agreed with his decisions. The actress who had read so well was indeed Cordelia, with the two faculty wives as the two other sisters. B was Lear; his competition, Gloucester. France was a burly young philosophy professor with no theatrical experience at all, but interested. Cornwall was a speech student and a fine speaker; Albany was one of the director’s acting students with no stage experience. The school’s talent pool doesn’t have much depth; the director believes in his ability to develop inexperienced actors for parts, and in The Homecoming he had done so in three of the six parts with great success. One of the Homecoming graduates was Edgar. The director was pleased with the cast, all in all, and said so. The tryout experience drove me batty; I can remember waking up in the middle of the night hearing flat readings in my mind.

The actual rehearsal period can be divided into sections: Before line memorization; after line memorization; last stretch.


The director’s blocking didn’t come easily to him. Once he suggested that I block the last scene for him; he was joking but he was also having trouble. He used a model of the set and moved chessmen around on it. The blocking was not naturalistic but, well, pictorial (not “symbolic” either, as the director insisted, e.g., characters didn’t stand on higher levels during moments of emotional superiority). He knew that not everything he plotted would work on the tiny Troubadour stage, and by George it didn’t. “It’s the nature of the animal,” he said. The director isn’t an English professor. He refuses to discuss plays in abstract terms. We did talk about form and pace, and to clarify that I must talk, a little academically, about the play itself.


Lear, the very summit of drama, is also the most eccentrically shaped, curiously laid-out, unwieldy piece of theater extant. If it were not the kind of play it is, its tone and temper would be different and we would suffer irreparable loss, but in considering the play for production one must come to terms with all the obstacles Shakespeare has thrown in the director’s way. They are many and well known. Among them:

(1) The amount of heavy acting required for the play is not a drawback; by itself a mad scene can be played by any good large-scaled actor. But Shakespeare has maliciously constructed Lear’s role differently from every other great role. Normally an actor adds layers to a role as the evening progresses. Lear, however, must be entirely visible at the first moment he is seen. Other performances resemble the inflation of a balloon, but Lear resembles taking pieces out of a mountain. Some of the pieces:

He must love his daughters.
He must be willing to crush his daughter Cordelia.
He must be capable of unjust actions to his closest supporters.
He must possess keen anger against injustice (Act IV Scene v).
He must possess an unreasoning and hot temper.
He must be capable of comforting and showing compassion.

And so on. There is no indication that Lear’s character alters as the play progresses; what does alter is the side of the character he reveals at a given moment. The actor who can make the audience believe at one glance that he embodies all Lear’s contradictory aspects, and who can then display single aspects while still maintaining the whole . . . has never lived.

(2) The play contains elements of the two least-intrinsically worthy forms of drama afoot: the all-out melodrama and the well-made play. Granted the melodrama can be redeemed; Shaw points out what an uninteresting thug Macbeth, for example, “really” is without his glorious language. The Scribian aspect is more puzzling. How much of the play is taken up with exchanges of letters, with people standing around discussing what has happened someplace else! Granted, again, that these characteristics of Scribe serve the same thematic purpose for Shakespeare as the conversations within conversations serve Plato in the Dialogues – a way of reminding us where we are. Still, they are a bitch for the director.

(3) It’s hard to think of another Shakespeare play where so many central characters do nothing for literally hundreds of lines of blank verse except stand and listen. Kent especially comes to mind in this respect. This suggests a possible style of production: a murky world where characters drift in and out of focus, becoming no more than shadows as others take the center.

(4) Finally and very important, the play has no “theatrical shape,” that is, no progression of currents, now dense and buffeting, now lighter and relieved by a little humor. Or, if it does have some sort of shape of this kind, we didn’t discover it and the director wondered aloud if he ought to invent and impose one. The play has enormous weight. We decided to pace it moment by moment.


There were four blocking rehearsals. They dragged, as blocking rehearsals do, and unsettling signs appeared early. The worst was that no one in the cast seemed to be doing any work on the play at all outside of rehearsals. Lear especially gave curiously unintelligent readings, more thunder than anything else. At this stage of work an actor can say, “I’m just reading the lines now, wait until we finish writing in the blocking, then I’ll start to act.” Lear said just that. There was also a melancholy air around rehearsals. A number of people had small parts but had to wait hours in order to do them. A few, like Edmund, didn’t like anything much that was going on. Several others were dreadfully uncertain about how well they could act now that they got the chance.

An English professor cut the script – not enough, I thought; I would be inclined to cut until the play had a shape, even at the risk of being a Henry Irving in the matter. The director, less craven, took the recommended cuts, which were basically lines in the Quarto not found in the Folio.

We alternated who used the stage and the upstairs. The director directed more scenes since he took the ones where no doubling was possible, except on a handful of occasions, and he directed the entire fifth act. His chief concerns, perhaps, are two: making the actor penetrate the sense of what he says, and pacing. He appears to believe that a solid characterization follows on the actor’s understanding of his lines; afterwards, even if the tempo has to be induced artificially, a beginning actor can then be guided into a good performance.


Lear had to be begged to make even the most rudimentary sense of his lines. I directed the first rehearsal of Act III Scene vi. After we had gone through it once I asked him what was happening in the passage beginning at line 79. “He’s getting angry,” said Lear after a moment’s looking at the words. In fact he’s getting sleepy. This kind of problem usually led to rant and at one point it was disastrous. In the great speech “O reason not the need,” Lear delivered it as “O reason – not the need,” thus turning the major theme of the play completely on its head. Lear’s enunciation was none too clear at this stage, either.


The difficulty with Cordelia’s role is that it’s not a role at all but a function. It has no transitions except in Act IV Scene vii. Act IV Scene iv is an aria and should almost be set to music. Cordelia had enormous trouble with that speech until she finally relaxed in it. I over-directed her one night and nearly destroyed, at least for the moment, her natural sense of pace, which is good, a real gift. The experience made me gun-shy. (The director commented that as he becomes more experienced he gives less and less direction.) Cordelia’s remaining speeches are all set-pieces. She never talks directly to France at all. Those speeches require, perhaps, not acting but character, which the actress supplied. She had a wonderful moment where one could see in her eyes the awful realization that she too would have to say something to her father about her love – a moment for choice.

With Goneril and Regan the problem is to keep them from overacting early, and we didn’t really even try. The two became the Awful Sisters fairly early, but circumstances and their own weaknesses make them evil, they aren’t born that way. Cordelia in theory should perhaps seem more dislikable than the other two in the first scene; she certainly is catty, while the others say, first, nice things, and, later, accurate things.

The actress playing Goneril gives an impression of supremely scornful intellect; she plays evil well but has difficulty shading it. She also felt extremely uneasy about her role despite quite a bit of experience; I was never certain why, and she never lost her apprehension. Regan, on the other hand, is an emotional actress who was in danger of losing her ability to make specific responses on stage. One night in Act IV Scene v she did her part mechanically. I told her so and she agreed. Then she did it again and it was still mechanical, but this time she felt better about it and was upset that I didn’t agree.


Edmund, who hadn’t wanted to be in the play and didn’t like the director’s approach to it, is experienced, took direction well, and gave the best performance I’ve seen from him. (He tends to be thoughtless.) He only needed occasional toning-down.

Edgar, however, although also talented, played all polish and no substance until well into rehearsals, when the director finally forced him to build and build the Poor Tom scenes until they had some variety, some depth, and some madness. Even so he tended to ignore the meaning of phrases in his Edgar scenes, giving them all about the same significance.

Gloucester almost became a total disaster. He apparently began with the idea of “playing an old man.” His speech became clouded and inarticulate, he dragged every word, and his character seemed entirely without spine. I tried to show him that Gloucester’s actions reveal him as, not weak, but as not quite bright enough for Edmund. I recommended guts for the old man. It was the director who saved him, though, by beating a tempo on the stage with his fist and making him follow it.


Our Kent never responded at all and he missed, with excuses, a couple of rehearsals. More below. Albany couldn’t act worth anything, to start with. One night we all realized that he was coming along. The director credited me with the success at the time; I am inclined to credit the actor himself, who had the sense to see what we meant about listening on stage and respond. Afterwards his limitations were largely technical: uncertainty about how to move, and a whopping Southern accent. Cornwall, the rhetorician, had a steely, extravagant voice and he certainly was evil, but he tended to overpower everyone else with his intensity. He was fun to hear.


Lear could not memorize his lines at all. The director broke his own inflexible rule and allowed Lear to carry his book on stage after the others had put theirs down. The director did not, however, allow prompting after the limit, except when things came to an absolute and utter standstill. This exception to the book rule caused some grumbling among the cast.

I began spending half the day with Lear trying to get his lines into him, continuing through dinner. We did this until dress rehearsal night, and would have gone on through performances if we both hadn’t been so tired of it. I believe Lear could not memorize his lines because he had never read the play and had no idea what it was about, so he had nothing with which to associate the lines.

The last of the week before Thanksgiving, the director went to New York on unavoidable business, leaving me to run rehearsals. The next day we discovered that Kent was leaving school early because of personal problems, and that he would not attend another rehearsal until after the holidays. We gave out that he was sick and debated whether or not to tell the director. We finally did. The director decided to wait and hope for the best, but Kent left the cast and we quickly cast the student who had read once and then decided he didn’t want to be in the play.

I cut Kent’s lines in half – something I had wanted to do anyway. The new Kent picked up the part quickly and easily. A romantic actor by nature, he tended to play the role like a figure from Robin Hood’s days, but he gave a badly needed dose of spirit, and he fit the role. His was among the best performances, although one part, where he pushes back the men who would put his legs in the stocks and then puts them in himself, was so melodramatic I could hardly stand it. Still, it’s Kent.


The director worked with Cordelia, France, and Edgar over Thanksgiving vacation. (France never did conquer his scene, which after all is a difficult one. He had no sense of spontaneity. Once he tried, however, just after the gorgeous – but heavy – costumes from the Lincoln Center production had arrived. On his “Fairest Cordelia” speech he took off his crown and held it in his hand, like a hat.)

After vacation the cast, with exceptions, seemed to be going through the play by rote. The director had been waiting for some time for the right moment in which to introduce an improvisation. One dreary and draggy night he stopped the run-through and assigned a new routine:

I want you, in character, to define a space for yourself on stage. Then, in character, I want you to act out, without words, the events leading up to and including your death, if you die in the play; or the end of the play, if you don’t.

They did, over about half an hour. They were thrown back on whatever memories, lessons, skills they had. I saw clearly for the first time how personality exists to fill a void which nevertheless can always be recalled, and I was shaken all the way through. (“I didn’t think you’d lose your objectivity,” the director said.) Then a second improvisation:

In your character, without words, concentrate and feel your [character’s] way through the entire play. Then when I give the signal, walk past the dead Lear and react vocally and physically.

They did this too. By now I thought it was too much – too much tragedy. The director didn’t think so, and apparently he was right, because the next night the energy level improved greatly. The director referred to the exercises whenever he wanted to increase the energy level in subsequent rehearsals.

B himself (Lear) choreographed the sword fights, and he had a hard time keeping the fighters from overplaying and ruining the swords, as well as risking injury. He wanted them to make music with the clanging of the swords (he’d forged the hilts himself). Instead they hacked, cutting deep gashes in the blades. Amateur actors tend to mistake emotion for technique; on nights when the cast felt good the fights were (unnecessarily) frightening. Edgar and Edmund missed a beat in the fight on the first performance, with the result that one of them nearly lost a leg.

I skipped technical rehearsal, figuring I wouldn’t be needed. The next night was the first I knew of several of the director’s inventions. Three stand out. After Gloucester’s eyes are put out, two servants have a short scene. Neither of the two was an experienced actor and the scene was unsatisfactory. The director found a simple solution. After Cornwall’s court leaves, the lights go out. The two servants enter carrying a torch and do their scene in near-darkness. Then the lights go on again. . . .

Another problem was the Old Man who helps the blinded Gloucester. The director turned this actor, also inexperienced, into Long John Silver, with a limp, a crutch, and growling voice. . . .

But the very best was the “No cause” scene. Lear lies UR on highest platform, dressed in white. When Cordelia and the doctor go up to him, the lights go down downstage, the sky becomes a bright red, clouds float across it, soft recorder music (from the RSC production) begins to play. There’s the music and the poor old man and the clouds and the pretty girl and good Kent and it’s absolutely irresistible. People cried at the first performance. I was so astonished when I first saw it that I laughed out loud, and the director and I chattered merrily away while the actors tried to concentrate. It’s a trick, but a splendid one, mechanical in the extreme but not unjustified.


Performances always tell the truth. They are what they are. The audience at the first performance was pleased beyond words, but we saw all the faults, which were: technical; faults of pacing and transition; faults, always, of meaning; and occasional muffs. The good thing about it was that it kept moving. Our version was plenty long and we had only one intermission (between Acts III and IV) but we sustained the weight of the play. But strictly speaking a lot of it didn’t make any sense – was un-interpreted – and the director and I found out, by asking people, that no one could say what the production was about. Apparently it just was. This may be all right.

The second night was a real mistake, like many second novels. Cordelia’s crown didn’t fall off, as it had before, but everything else went wrong. The second half was strictly mechanical. Lear’s precarious hold on his lines gave way, and in his last scene with Cordelia he made the famous speech

And we’ll wear out, within a walled prison,
Pacts and sects of good, strong people . . .

(not exactly the right words), which took us all back to the days when he would forget all his lines in mid-scene and exit shouting “Go, go, my people!” Cordelia looked positively glad to go to prison. The audience seemed puzzled.

On the third night, however, everything held together and it was the best of the performances. It almost lived up to the promise of Lear’s splendid slow entrance to the RSC score in Act I Scene i while all the court bows. The fool and mad scenes went well; the blinding was intentionally horrifying; Lear was convincing and occasionally moving; Cordelia, who as an actress has great emotional directness, was as good as her first stunning reading in tryouts.

I watched the fourth performance but could barely face it, staying only because of my favorite scenes, those with Edgar and those with Cordelia, and finding it hard even to sit through those. I’d seen the production too often. The director says he enjoys rehearsals more than performances; he’d do only rehearsals if it weren’t for the actors, he says, which is probably a half-truth. “We know how good it was,” the director said.

[Kirk Woodward’s a playwright and director, among other accomplishments, and I’ve mentioned his children’s plays in the past (see “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Children's Theater in America,” ROT, 25 November 2009). His book, The Art of Writing Reviews (http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272), on which I commented on ROT (4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009), was published in June 2009. Kirk’s works are available through his own website, http://spiceplays.com/index.html. His previous contribution to ROT was a report on the performance of David Mamet’s Race (3 May).]

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