Entertainment, On A High Note

Uniquely Nashville Arts: Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s “King Lear”

Fathers and daughters. Sibling rivalries. What tears people apart and brings them together. It’s all part of the human experience and it’s the thematic stuff amplified in Shakespearean genius—and presented in a “Nashville way” through the work of local talent and thoughtful collaboration.

The Nashville Shakespeare Festival is currently featuring a production of “King Lear” for its ninth annual Winter Shakespeare season at Belmont University’s Troutt Theater. “The story is extremely relevant in today’s world and we’re thrilled to finally bring the story to life for Nashville audiences,” said artistic director Denice Hicks. “The show will be the city’s first full, professional production of the famous tragedy and it will feature live, original music.”

David Landon, professor of theatre arts at the University of the South at Sewanee, was cast as King Lear, a role he has studied for decades. Landon has played leading roles at the Heritage Repertory Company, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the New York Shakespeare Festival, as well as roles in film and television. (In the inadvertent temporary absence of Landon, Hicks herself has played the lead role of King Lear for some of the performances.)

“Sports & Entertainment Nashville” spoke with Hicks about “King Lear,” its relevance and how she developed the play for a Nashville audience:

David Landon, professor of theatre arts at the University of the South at Sewanee, plays the role of King Lear. PHOTO COURTESY NASHVILLE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

David Landon, professor of theatre arts at the University of the South at Sewanee, plays the role of King Lear. PHOTO BY RICK MALKIN

S&E: How did the decision to present “King Lear” come about? 

Hicks: “King Lear” is a masterpiece of a play. Teachers have been requesting it since we started presenting our Winter Shakespeare shows in 2008 and when I met David Landon, I knew he’d make a great Lear. He and I talked about it in 2014 and I scheduled it for the 2016 Winter Shakespeare.

I know so many people who are currently dealing with the stresses of caring for aging parents and grandparents and dealing with mental illness in loved ones, and that is just what this play is all about. Fathers, daughters and sons, sibling rivalry, and the way that a will, or lack of one, can tear a family apart.  Of course this story unfolds in a Shakespearean manner, but at its heart, it’s about family.  It’s about life and love and death.  It’s about us.

S&E: What universal themes emerge in the play and what’s the take away for a general audience?

Hicks: I hope that people think about how much more important relationships are than material wealth or property. I hope they realize that each individual life is short, but in the bigger picture, life and love goes on. I hope they consider how important patience is when dealing with someone with dementia, or someone who is struggling with the difficulties of aging.

S&E: What makes the Nashville Shakespeare Festival such a vital component of the arts and community engagement for Nashville?

Hicks: I’ve always said that culture comes from within a community, so it is a high priority for us to employ local theater artists, musicians and technicians. Most of our fundraising goes to supporting local theatre professionals, which maintains the quality of the casting pool for the other professional theaters as well. We now have some of the best American actors living and working here in Nashville. Artistically, presenting the plays of Shakespeare require an intense amount of creativity. We always search for the relevance of each play before conceptualizing, designing and casting.  We always ask the question: Why this play, here and now?  The answers regarding “King Lear” were all about the stresses that families are dealing with these days.

Though written centuries ago, many of the themes present in Shakespeare's "King Lear" are still relevant today. PHOTO COURTESY NASHVILLE SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

Though written centuries ago, many of the themes present in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” are still relevant today. PHOTO BY RICK MALKIN

BY RICK MALKIN

S&E: You and your collaborators have always made interesting choices as to how to direct and present Shakespeare’s plays. Can you speak a little about how you decided to present “King Lear,” and to what considerations you have as you plan upcoming performances for the Nashville community?

Hicks: I consider telling the story as well as possible to be the most important part of our production. That means setting it in a time and place that illuminates certain themes, working with the best designers possible and hiring extraordinary actors.  Our “King Lear” is set “long ago and far away” not because that is when the real King Lear lived, but because part of the message of this play is that people haven’t really changed much in thousands of years. Children still drive their parents crazy and parents still drive their children crazy. Siblings still get jealous of parental attention and domestic wars still break out over property and wealth.

Shakespeare’s characters are larger than life, but at their heart they are painfully human. They speak in heightened, poetic language, which conveys truths that are more accurate than can be expressed in simpler language. It’s impossible to get everything from one experience with Shakespeare’s plays and poems, but if you have patience, you’ll find that there are magnificent worlds to be discovered within the works. And if you listen and watch carefully, you’ll see yourself and everybody you know on stage. We hold the mirror up to Nashville.

S&E: Producing Shakespeare’s plays in Music City also provides you artistic opportunities, doesn’t it?

Hicks: As we have with “King Lear,” live, original music is an important aspect of the Shakespeare Festival’s shows. We’re fortunate to have composer Rolin Mains playing his original music during every performance of “King Lear.” Next summer, we’re bringing the beloved David Olney back to play Aegeon in “The Comedy of Errors,” which will be set in an Ephesus that looks a lot like Nashville in the late 1960s.

Performances of “King Lear” run through January 31 at Belmont’s Troutt Theater. To attend a show or for more information, visit the official website or call 615-255-2273.

In addition, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare in the Park 2016 will present two shows: “Macbeth” and “The Comedy of Errors,” running in repertory from Aug. 11 – Sept. 18, 2016.