Speech of Fire, 2019
Co-produced with Seoul Shakespeare Company, in rep with Garage
-Since Michael and I had done this show previously in 2013 (see below), I needed to do very little as a director for this run. Michael had made a few minor changes to the text, and we made the performances of the poem a little more colorful, but otherwise my job as director was just to support Michael by giving line notes and making sure everything was coming through clearly.
-I designed the lighting for this production, based on videos of previous productions, and operated sound and lights. We still had most of the physical items needed for the show from 2013 and previous productions, but I acquired new linoleum flooring and a new hospital curtain, and we used the hospital bed that I had originally purchased for King Lear, knowing that it could be used in The Orderly as well.
Seoul Shakespeare Company, 2019
King Lear Crowdfunding Video and Company Update
(Includes rehearsal footage and lots about directorial choices in the production, as well as our general goals and progress with the company)
This production marked my fifth and final year as artistic director of Seoul Shakespeare Company. Over the previous three years, serving as producer, text coach, designer, and actor in the productions directed by Michael Downey, I had been involved in casting, scheduling, etc., and Michael and I had established an overall house style for the company, so the switch from acting to directing was pretty comfortable.
I had long wanted to try creating a production of King Lear based on the aesthetics of gugak, Korean traditional music. The idea of using a hospital bed I believe came to me after The Orderly in 2013, so that the play would be set in a Korean hospital where the patient's mind mixed Korean and western stylistic elements.
-I based our text on the New Cambridge, which strictly follows the Folio version. I cut very little of the text, as I found while watching other productions and marking their cuts that the productions that cut the least were the clearest and the most fun. Instead of cutting, I emphasized keeping the pace up, which was already part of the company's house style under Michael's direction.
-I resisted the temptation to add in some of the more popular Quarto passages, although I did add in about 70 Quarto lines which I balanced by cutting 70 Folio lines. These Quarto lines were mostly lines that gave certain characters more to do, such as the fight between Gonerill and Albany. I also added in an Edgar speech from the Quarto at the end of the mock trial scene, because it helped bolster some themes in the play, explained why Edgar appears alone later, and gave time to highlight the Fool's despair leading to his desertion.
-I originally kept the very moving post-blinding dialogue between Gloucester's two servants, so that the actors playing the servants would have more chances to shine, but one of our Gloucester servants dropped out for grad school, my backup actor had a schedule change, and then it was too late to integrate a new actor with the rest of the ensemble, so in the end I combined the two servants into one role and cut the post-blinding dialogue, ending dramatically with Cornwall's death instead, as in the Folio version.
-One aspect of the Quarto that I kept and expanded on was the character of the "Knight," who appears in one scene in the Quarto but is changed to the "Gentleman" in the same scene in the Folio, and both versions contain "Gentleman" in various other scenes. While using the Folio for the lines, I changed the Gentleman character to Knight throughout the play, so that our wonderful actress Claudia could play the character as a woman, but still be a part of Lear's boy's club; being a knight allowed her to retain her gender while fitting in with the guys because of her occupation. This also set the precedent of female soldiers, which we later saw in Cordelia and her army.
-I also originally kept the Doctor character from the Quarto, as there was a talented actress whose soothing presence was perfect for the part, but she eventually dropped out of the show and so her lines were given back to the Knight/Gentleman, as in the Folio version.
-Whereas most productions that I have seen use the Quarto version of the first storm scene between Kent and Gentleman (Knight in our production), I kept the Folio version, as it made more sense to me (Cordelia has spies in Lear's kingdom, but hasn't actually landed yet) and would be nice to finally see staged.
-I kept the bare bones of the mock trial scene from the Quarto, because I like it, but kept it short.
-It seems to me that while the Quarto gives the impression that Lear's older daughters are taking advantage of his age, in the Folio they seem to genuinely fear him. This seems to me to be a deliberate change in the Folio to help justify their behavior towards him, so I was careful to remain faithful to the Folio version of these lines, not adding in any Quarto lines that would muddy this intention.
-There are many things to say about this play as every moment contains choices, but I'll select a few big ones here, the ones that I consider to be hypotheses about the play that we tried out in this production
-In watching other productions of the play and lots of interviews with actors and directors of famous productions, I was struck by two questions that two very famous directors brought up and couldn't solve at the time. The first question, posed by a very famous director, was why Lear splits up the kingdom in the first place. It was mentioned by many actors in the production as a question that they were never able to solve. The second question, by an equally famous director, was why Cordelia can't just play along in the love test. One production that sought to answer the second question quite clearly was the Almeida Theatre's 2012 production starring Jonathan Pryce, which made it clear that Lear had been molesting his two older daughters in private, while Cordelia appeared to have managed to keep him at an appropriate arm's length, and that in the love test he sought to publicly display his inappropriate relationship with them, seemingly oblivious to the wrongness of it. Cordelia's refusal to participate made absolute sense in this production, and the relationship between Lear and each of the three daughters was very clear. It was a very interesting choice, and brought up lots of interesting implications in the text throughout the play. However, I don't think it's the original intention of the play and it still doesn't solve the first question. I wanted to try to uncover an answer to both questions, as a sort of hypothesis to put on stage. I started with the question of why he breaks up the kingdom. If he hadn't broken up the kingdom, it would probably have gone to Gonerill/Albany, and as we see throughout the play, Lear's relationship with Gonerill is quite fraught. My hypothesis in our production is this: that Lear has worked out a way to cheat Gonerill out of the kingdom and give as much as he can to Cordelia through this love test. He is hoping/expecting Gonerill to crash and burn in the love test (and he puts her on the spot by making her go first, in the middle of a verse line), and Cordelia to pass with flying colors, and he has already partitioned the kingdom into three unequal parts: small corners of land for Gonerill and Regan, and the rest of the kingdom (including his palace, where he plans to retire in comfort) going to Cordelia, which he can justify through the love test. In our production we made this clear in the unrolling of the clearly unequal map, in Lear's nod to Cordelia when he says "conferring them on younger strengths," and in his removing his own crown and preparing to put it on Cordelia, whereas the other two daughters each got a tiara handed to them by the Fool. This favoritism and the clear inappropriateness of the favoritism in going against the normal rules of hereditary succession is the reason Cordelia cannot in good conscience choose to participate. This also explains Lear's extreme anger at Cordelia's refusal, because she has ruined his carefully laid-out plan and he is powerless to fix it. I even suggest that Lear's original intention may have been either to have Cordelia marry Burgundy and live in his (Lear's) palace, or to refuse both her suitors and set her up as an unmarried queen (like Elizabeth I) in his palace. This hypothesis also helps explain why Lear is homeless and living with Gonerill and Regan instead of in his old palace: the palace is now in disputed territory, which Lear has told Albany and Cornwall to work out amongst themselves, causing conflict between them and the threat of war over this territory.
-Throughout the play, one goal was to make the story as clear as possible. To help clarify locations and relationships, I gave each household (Lear, Gloucester, Gonerill/Albany, and Regan/Cornwall) its own costume color scheme. One frequent point of confusion in this play is the abundance of letters, one of which appears multiple times in the play. To help the audience, I put each letter in a Korean-style fabric envelope, roughly of the color of the person who sent it. The important letter that appears multiple times was in a red envelope to help it stand out.
-King Lear has a reputation for being extremely bleak, but I do not see it this way. I suspect the reason for this perception is the play's history. For a long time, it was performed in a bastardized form with a happy ending, and it wasn't until the early twentieth century that the original play became popular. At this time, bleak absurdist plays were in vogue, and famous stagings of Lear were influenced by this trend. As a result, people have associated Lear with bleak absurdism despite its other possibilities. In auditions for our production, I quickly found that in the hands of actors who had just done several Shakespeare comedies, the play was actually quite fun, despite its tragedy. I see it as cathartic, rather than bleak, and about parents and children rediscovering love just in time, before it's too late. I find that quite beautiful and moving.
-When we first started rehearsing, I had the idea of an opening and closing in a Korean hospital in which an old man is on his death bed and refusing to see his estranged daughter. He falls into a dream (the main play), and then wakes up and finally lets her into the room. By the time we actually rehearsed the play's opening and closing, I had changed it, as I didn't want the audience to see the daughter in the beginning. In the final version, the man is alone in the hospital room at the beginning of the play. His heartbeat slows down and he drifts into the world of the play. When he awakens, his daughter rushes in with a suitcase, having arrived just in time to be with him in his last moments (just as in Lear Cordelia arrives in time to be with her father, and Gloucester is finally reunited with Edgar, causing his heart to burst with joy and grief). I felt this version was less preachy, more bittersweet, and would resonate with our largely expat audiences, who regularly deal with the fear of missing the passing of a family member. During COVID, people everywhere have had to deal with that same fear, so this ending feels particularly meaningful now.
-For this production, we started out with a movement and ensemble workshop and a text workshop for the (almost) full cast. (One or two cast members had scheduling conflicts.)
-Throughout the play I strongly encouraged the actors to phrase with line endings rather than with punctuation, and to push through the middle of lines to balance. This was effective in creating a pulse and forward momentum and created interesting dynamics.
-We emphasized moving in curves rather than straight lines.
-We did movement and ensemble warmups before each full run (in the last month or so of rehearsals) and performance, and some movement and ensemble work was incorporated into the performance itself during the transition from the hospital to the world of Lear. The movement and ensemble techniques were based on training I had done with Ben Crystal in the summer of 2018. I had originally wanted to use some basic Korean traditional dance movement in the opening of the show, but the ensemble movement was more practical and effective, and more suited to the music that I ended up using.
-As in every SSC production, time was both plentiful and scarce. Because we have to work around the actors' schedules (including work schedules and the winter vacation season, when many people leave the country to visit their families) we rehearse for about 13 hours per week (with not everyone there at any given time) usually for about 14 weeks. During the Lear rehearsal season, several of our cast members were in another play with a conflicting rehearsal schedule, making it impossible to do their scenes on Saturdays, and they had to miss a full month of our rehearsals during the run of the other show. Knowing this might happen, I had scheduled extra time into the rehearsal period so that altogether we rehearsed Lear for nearly six months. However, due to actors' schedules I recall there was only one 45-minute time in the entire 6 months that we were able to have the entire cast together before our tech day. (I believe another 45- or 90-minute time block popped up unexpectedly when an actor had a scheduling change, but that was it.) Rehearsal time is also always very scarce once we move into the theater.
-I had created the schedules for the previous three years' productions and was familiar with a typical rehearsal timeline for us and visualizing the overall process. I designed the schedule based on actor availability, working on each scene separately until the last month or so. Like Michael in previous productions, I started the process for each scene with a few basic blocking ideas (entrance and exit points, since one scene's exit overlapped with the next scene's entrance and had to be balanced and feel right from transition to transition). We'd first read the scene sitting down, just to get any initial nagging questions out of the way. Then we'd try on our feet and see what felt right, trying out different things and letting blocking take shape over time. (Most scenes ended up with definite blocking, although in the scene in which Lear and Edgar meet and are both raving mad, there was a section of the scene in which the actors were to "balance the space," rather than hit specific blocking points. By the performances, this section had naturally settled into more of a pattern.) We worked on the text using a variety of text techniques. We frequently used Harold Guskin's "taking it off the page" technique to make new discoveries and bring depth and authenticity to the lines, and then we would get up and I would feed each line to the actors (verse line by verse line in the case of verse, to subtly get the actors accustomed to the thoughts correlating to the verse lines) and we'd see what felt right without scripts in hand that way. Then we would keep working at it, gradually getting off book and making more discoveries. In the last month or so of rehearsals before moving into the theatre, we did a full run of the show at each rehearsal (missing a few actors each time) and then worked any specific scenes or moments after the run. Once we got into the theatre, the focus shifted to the technical aspects of the show, which was hard on the actors as we had little rehearsal time in the theatre and it was my first time lighting a show.
-See other sections of "Theatre Producing, Directing, Designing" for details about other aspects of the show (costumes, sound, lighting, and producing).
Probationary Theatre Company at the White Box Theatre, 2013
In association with The Rebel Alliance
Photos by Liam Mitchinson
-This is Michael Downey's solo play, which he wrote and first performed in New Zealand in 2006 as the debut production for The Rebel Alliance, the theatre company he co-founded with Anders Falstie-Jensen, the show's original director. The Orderly toured New Zealand for a number of years, and it was adapted for Radio New Zealand in 2019. As such, Michael knew the play well, and there were already-existing designs, which had been video recorded for archival purposes. We adapted the show's design for the very small White Box Theatre, based on previous versions of the show, with the help of White Box Theatre owner Liam, who also did much of the sourcing of the show's most difficult items (the hospital bed, hospital curtain, and linoleum flooring), while Michael and I found the rest.
-This was my first experience directing. Michael rehearsed alone for a period of time, and then I came in to be the audience's eye and be on book. We changed the order of one scene, to keep the flow of the play's energy and clarify the story, and I did a lot of detailed work on hitting the play's more delicate emotional points, but most of the directing credit still goes to Anders's original work.