Greetings from NYC. I write this from the same laptop whereupon, for the past three weeks, I have been attempting to be a regular presence in the rehearsals for YOUNG LEAR, a piece that uses KING LEAR to tell the story of a patriarch’s decline and its effect on his five adult children, which I am co-directing with Athens-based director, Ioli Andreadi. This attempt at being a regular presence resulted in mixed success. I should say that I am not physically there for a number of reasons, most of them financial and practical, but from what I understand, the WWL directors who are in Rome are facing their own list of financial and practical challenges in trying to get this festival off the ground in the next few days (some things in the theatre truly are universal!).
Speaking of universal, the payoff of this years lab for me is having the opportunity to develop a theatre piece based on a text that was written over 400 years ago and is having *such* a moment right now. There have been over six major productions of KING LEAR this past season (and another one happening right now in NYC). And those are just the ones being done in English speaking countries. In our peice, YOUNG LEAR, five adult siblings sit in a hospital waiting room, awaiting word on the status of their father. They don’t have the words to discuss the complexities of their feelings: Feelings about each other, their father, death, their familial connection, or lack thereof. So, like anyone who has ever quoted a movie when trying to tell their partner that they love them, or lifted a motivational monologue from a TV show when trying to fire up a crowd, or only been able to communicate peacefully with certain co-workers by reciting famous bits from the acts of stand up comedians, in a moment of great emotional crisis, when words fail, we watch these siblings turn to something already written down (in this case, Act II, scene iv of KING LEAR) so that they have something to say what they can’t say to each other. And through the text, or, as we’ve been calling it in rehearsals, “the game of LEAR,” the various truths come out. So, I suppose that even though never having enough time or money is a universal theatre truth, certain stories that we fight so hard to tell in the theatre (despite that universal truth), are worth the Sisyphean struggle because certain stories contain the universe. And KING LEAR is one of those stories.
One of the revelations that I had about our piece came to me while trying to explain to friends and colleagues in New York what I am up to — if you are reading this and are not in the theatre, know that “what are you working on?” is as ubiquitous of a question in the theatre world as “what do you do?” is in the world of dinner party conversation (and woe unto you if you don’t have an answer ready). And no, I didn’t quote a movie or TV show or Eddie Izzard bit (although maybe I should have), but in explaining that I was working on an adaptation of KING LEAR that used the text to explore the relationship between a generation of adult children and their aging parents, but that it was happening in Rome, and I was very much *not* in Rome, I came upon something that added to the universality of LEAR. At least for me.
When Ioli and I met this summer when, through one of those happy coincidences, my last job brought me to Greece for two weeks, we sat by the waters of the Aegean and talked about why there were so many LEARs. What is it about the state of America (and potentially Canada and Britain — but I wont speak for the rest of the world) that unleashes this current needs for LEAR? On the one hand, so many of our treasured actors are reaching the age where they can (and should) play Lear. But my revelation concerned something, again, more universal, about communication and what we use to fill the void when we cannot say what we need to say. Our elders are dying. That, in the end, is what elders do. And when that generation is gone, someday, we’ll be next. No doubt a very nihilistic way of looking at the circle of life (and one that is dependent on how you think about death) but when you strip away the poetry, that is what is happening. So in a moment that could so easily lack poetry, at least while you’re in it, it makes sense for this family, and for all of us to turn to poetry (as that, to me, is what Shakespeare is), as a means of elegantly expressing what we lack the elegance to express.
I have not been able to be in rehearsals and our best laid plans of using technology to beam me (or at least, my face) into the rehearsal room has not panned out as planned. I am unable to really communicate with my team, because I am not there. I am unable to really communicate with this piece, because I am not there. So this piece that is about needing to connect and communicate but failing and using the words of a 400-year-old text that is, in and of itself, about a major communication failure, is being co-directed by someone who is depending on an old technology for understanding and expressing feelings (Shakespeare) to overcome the challenges presented by of modern technology. The frustrations of distance and time and money. How universal.
I won’t be there to see how the process pays off, but I can use this modern technology to express feelings of gratitude for my wonderful cast and my amazing co-director.
– Annie Levy, New York City