“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #2

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

68 Fahrenheit never felt so good.

Emerging from Houston Airport in our woolly hats, scarves and gloves, it was quickly apparent that we weren’t in Illinois any more, Toto. Having spent the weekend in a polar Chicago (braving the snow and ice to check out the jawdropping Art Institute, shows at Steppenwolf and Second City, and a Bulls game: we DID Chicago) it was a huge relief to be surrounded by air that wasn’t actively wanting to hurt our faces.

But once heavy sweaters and boots had been exchanged for t-shirts and sneakers, there were a couple of rather pressing responsibilities to deal with. Firstly, we had our first classes and workshops to teach. Secondly, there was the small matter of actually opening the play we’ve been working on for the last six weeks…

The range of topics covered by AFTLS classes is vast and, in the best possible way, challenging. This week alone we have covered- among other things- comedy improv, Tennessee Williams, directing photographic models, Shakespeare’s London, directing actors for film, critical reading of texts, and costume design for the stage. Fred and I had a fascinating session with some chamber musicians at the magnificent Shepherd School of Music, working on entrances, exits and taking the stage at recitals- and in return, had our mind blown by Hindemith’s Wind Quintet (check out the fifth movement, and you’re welcome).

The facilities available to US students continue to leave me wide-eyed. The Shepherd School, for example, has both a concert hall and a recital room, and a 1500-seater opera house is under construction. Our venue for this week’s opening performances of King Lear was the 475-seater Hamman Hall, a fantastic space which would make most UK drama students weep with envy.

And so, finally, we got to tell this story to a paying audience- and what an audience! For all three performances at Rice we had dream crowds. They were attentive, responsive, involved, and very free with their applause. After the Friday night performance, Fred, Richard and I were already starting a debrief in the wings when we noticed frantic signaling from stage management because the clapping hadn’t abated and we needed to take another curtain call. To have such a generous audience response is unbelievably helpful in the neurotic early stages of a run: we owe our Rice audiences a real debt of gratitude.

While I’m on the thanks (‘my mum, my dad, my agent and the Academy…’) it would be remiss not to mention Abigail, Claire and Sierra, our superb student stage management team who interpreted our regularly-rewritten prompt copy superbly. We don’t have many lighting effects but they’re important ones, and they were executed with a real feel for the rhythm of the show.

And as a running-time nerd- the kind of person who can get excited three months into a run if thirty seconds is taken off an act- I was delighted that by Saturday night our playing time was 2hrs 35mins. For comparison, last time I was in King Lear our first half alone was 1hr52… and the first stagger-through of this production broke the three hour mark. King Lear is such a vast play that the leaner we can make it, the better.

Speaking of lean… I’m glad I chose drawstring trousers for my costume. Houston, it turns out, is good, good eating. Carry on like this and I’ll have to book myself an extra seat on the plane home.

“King Lear” Spring 2019 Tour – Entry #1

By Jonathan Dryden Taylor

The flying time from London Heathrow to Chicago O’Hare is nine hours, or, to put it another way, approximately three and a quarter performances of King Lear. But for our company, those nine hours represented more than just the passage of time.

There’s always a point in any production where you begin to realize that rehearsal isn’t just an end in itself; that you’ll have to be putting this work in front of other people at some point. Of course, you always know on an intellectual level that you’re creating work to be seen, but there’s something seductively private about a rehearsal room that can sometimes prevent that knowledge being absorbed emotionally. It can come as a shock when you finally have a full-bodied realization that, before too long, what has been an empty room will become an auditorium full of people.

Traveling to another continent really helps that moment to arrive quicker, it turns out! And once we’d arrived in Notre Dame, what had been a private group of five in London, rehearsing on our own without a director or stage manager, became gratefully absorbed into the wider AFTLS family. Finally getting to meet the people who help the organization to run so smoothly has given us a very welcome support network, but also reminded us that the first public performances are just round the corner.

Unpacking the suitcase containing the whole production in our new rehearsal room on campus helped us ground ourselves in these new surroundings. We may be five thousand miles away from where we first got this play on its feet, but finding all the costumes and props we’d gathered together over the last five weeks was an instant visual reminder of the work we’d already put in.

When there’s any kind of interruption of the rehearsal process- and a transatlantic flight is quite an interruption- there’s always a nagging fear that momentum might be lost, that you won’t quite pick up from where you left off. Fortunately once we started tentatively dipping our toes back in the choppy waters of King Lear, we were not only able to consolidate the work we’d done in London, but we found it was beginning to develop, to gather the kind of pace and energy any production needs as it approaches its first performance.

Maybe those nine hours in the air had allowed some of our ideas to percolate from our short-term memory into the long-term, maybe the excitement of arriving at Notre Dame had given a shot of adrenalin, maybe the approach of opening night had focused and concentrated our minds. Maybe it was a combination of all three. But whatever the reason, our play was energizingly and reassuringly taking shape.

But while it’s good to know that this production travels robustly, as we gear up to take it from coast to coast, that’s not enough. It’s our job now to take our solid but skeletal structure and flesh it out. Colour it in. Bring it to life.