Flatwater Shakespeare's Blog News

Friday, January 13, 2017

Glenda Jackson's Lear

Many readers might not know of Glenda Jackson's extraordinary work as a stage and screen actor before spending 23 years as a Member of the British Parliament. Along with her prior work in the great films mentioned below (and Sunday Bloody Sunday should be included), she needs to be recognized for her skill in comedy. This is perhaps best seen in House Calls, a charming bit of Southern Californian fluff from 1978 that successfully invokes Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn's romantic comedies, with Walter Matthau in the Tracy role. (Of course, Hepburn and Tracy themselves follow in the footsteps of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.)

So how does a great actor, with this kind of range, return to the stage after two decades and more? As King Lear. Here are excerpts from an insightful and appreciative review. (By the way, the photo also shows Rhys Ifans – best known in this country as Mycroft Holmes on Elementary – as the Fool.)

Glenda Jackson’s Great Lear – Fintan O'Toole
New York Review of Books; December 22, 2016
King Lear by William Shakespeare, directed by Deborah Warner
The Old Vic, London, October 25 – December 3, 2016

Jackson is a thrilling surfer of Shakespeare’s blank verse, able to stay on her feet while cresting its high waves and plunging down its slopes.

[ . . . ]

The obvious questions about Jackson’s choice of this particular role for her return to the stage are: Why a male character at all and why Lear in particular? There are sufficiently good answers in her previous career to make the choice logical and purposeful. In the first place, Jackson is at her best when she is acting at one remove. Because of her two Oscars (for Women in Love in 1969 and A Touch of Class in 1973) and her period as a Hollywood star, it is easy to forget that Jackson is a creature of the early 1960s theatrical avant-garde. She was a member of Charles Marowitz and Peter Brook’s famous Theatre of Cruelty experimental company in 1964, which itself belonged to a wider revolt against dominant notions of realism in the theater. While American actors were steeped in the Method, with its emphasis on the need for the performer to become fully immersed in the character, Brook in particular was interested in ideas of alienation, which is really just another word for distance: “Alienation [Brook writes] is the art of placing an action at a distance so that it can be judged objectively and so that it can be seen in relation to the world.”

Glenda Jackson is the great actor of distance, the one who brought alienation to the masses. The reason she often seems so exotic in Hollywood movies is that while her fellow actors are burying themselves deep in their characters, she is at a slight, almost imperceptible angle to hers. There is a gap in which Jackson’s own presence – sardonic, knowing, mysterious, and impossibly sexy – hovers like a kind of force field around the character.

That distance is more obvious when there is some clear barrier between the actor and the role, as there is when a woman plays the king. Two particular examples seem to have a special meaning for Jackson’s Lear. One is her breakthrough performance in 1964 in the production that crowned the Theatre of Cruelty season, Brook’s staging of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. Jackson played the assassin Charlotte Corday in a mesmerizing performance happily preserved in Brook’s subsequent film of the show. The distance is built into the role – Jackson plays a patient at the Charenton asylum who is in turn playing Corday in a production directed by another inmate, the Marquis de Sade. She is a narcoleptic, falling in and out of consciousness, moving like a sleepwalker, at once barely present and utterly unstoppable. One of the joys of Jackson’s Lear is that it circles back to this first great performance, returning to another character who moves in and out of rational consciousness, who is reduced to nothing, and who yet commands our utmost attention. It reconnects two ends of a life in the theater.

The other role that chimes with Jackson’s Lear is her Elizabeth I in the six-part BBC television costume drama Elizabeth R in 1971. Jackson is suitably commanding throughout, but she is at her most astonishing toward the very end of the series, when she is playing, at the age of thirty-five, an ancient, decrepit, half-demented monarch whose kingdom is slipping from her grasp. As if her own young age did not create enough of a distance, her Elizabeth is at this stage a grotesque, highly theatrical figure, her face a mask of white makeup, daubed with rouge and crookedly painted eyebrows, her high forehead and sharp nose making her sexless to the point of androgyny. There is a scene in which she stands silently for what we understand to be a very long time with her finger in her mouth, oblivious to the business around her, as much a somnambulist in her way as Charlotte Corday or, in his madness, Lear.

Jackson’s Lear can be seen in some respects as a revisiting – even a fusion – of these performances. It would be misleading to describe Deborah Warner’s vibrant and fluent production as an homage to the Theatre of Cruelty, but it revels openly in the tradition of Peter Brook. Brook’s longtime collaborator Jean Kalman is codesigner with Warner, and the open white stage, white light, movable white panels, and self-evident effects (the scenes numbered for us in projections onto the stage, actors carrying chairs on and off, visual effects that display their own mechanics, the trappings of a rough rehearsal with which we begin, a playing up of Grand Guignol grotesqueries, as when Gloucester’s plucked-out eye is thrown into the audience) are all in the same alienating terrain as the Marat/Sade, as if Jackson were being consciously welcomed back to where she began.

The parallels with the declining Elizabeth, meanwhile, are obvious enough to be taken for granted. In a sense, Lear carries less distance for Jackson simply because both of them are “fourscore and upward.” Jackson is now acting her age, a rare enough feat with such a prodigious part. But a woman playing a man (without ever stooping to male impersonation) is itself enough to hold us slightly at bay and force us to be aware all the time of the performance as a performance.

Yet there is also a more specific logic behind the choice of Lear. If you think of words that attach themselves to Jackson’s acting, the one that comes first to mind is authority. And King Lear is all about authority. It moves from the ultimate display of royal power, Lear’s capricious parceling out of his kingdom as if were a personal possession, to the most scathing burlesque of authority in all literature, the mad Lear’s evocation of a beggar running from a farmer’s dog: “there thou mightst behold the great image of authority. A dog’s obeyed in office.” Hence the paradox of playing Lear: the greater the sense of authority the actor can convey, the more absurd it becomes when it empties out before our eyes and the more poignant seems its hollow wreckage. Jackson, elevated, commanding, distant, is as lofty a creature as we could imagine on stage, a mistress of the universe – and therefore wonderfully absurd and heartbreakingly poignant.

Jackson establishes her authority almost immediately in her opening scene with two gestures, one physical and one verbal. For much of her opening dialogue, she sits with her back to the audience. Alienation doesn’t come much more direct than that – we are rudely dismissed as people of no account. She is so wrapped up in the egotistical game of dividing up her kingdom and listening to the fulsome tributes of Regan and Goneril that she does not deign to speak in our direction. And in her first speech, Jackson takes a phrase of Lear’s that seems a matter of mere resignation – “while we/Unburdened crawl toward death” – and twists and elongates it into a jovial, sarcastic playfulness. Its meaning is reversed: this old man has no intention of crawling to, or before, anyone, even death itself. Already we are off on a roller-coaster ride. Over the following minutes, Jackson’s Lear is monstrously savage in banishing Cordelia, then blithely cheery in issuing decrees about the honors he will retain, then terrifying in his rage at the protesting Kent, then calmly indifferent again.

What is unfolding here is Jackson’s deeply intelligent reading of the dynamics of the play. The obvious way to think of Lear’s journey is along a line from control (at the beginning) to folly (giving up the kingship) to madness (on the heath). But Jackson gives us the sense of a Lear who is, in truth, already mad. She does not so much transform herself over the course of the play as transform herself moment to moment within it. She is magnificently unstable, switching and spinning in emotional pirouettes. And what she seems unhinged by is not the giving up of power but the experience of power itself.

In this play, power makes everybody crazy (Regan and Goneril, for example, suddenly go sex-mad), and Lear has had it for a long lifetime. The Lear she gives us from the start is someone whose mental, emotional, and ethical compass has been driven haywire by fawning and obedience. In this, the thought inevitably occurs that Jackson’s twenty-three years in politics, some of it on the fringes of the court of Tony Blair, have not been, from an artistic point of view, a total waste.

It is one thing to read the play like this but quite another to embody that reading without making the whole thing incoherent and hollow. For if Lear changes from moment to moment, it can only be because there is nothing there to begin with, no fixed core of character to be revealed. This, precisely, is where the courage of Jackson’s performance lies. She is willing to risk a Lear who does not have a character but who must, rather, discover one. Instead of Cortázar’s “absolute presence” of the divine Glenda, she begins almost with an absolute absence. Her performance is a kind of double exposure: she exposes Lear’s emptiness and then exposes him to the suffering that will fill it. She gives us, against the grain of Lear’s claim that “nothing will come of nothing,” a nobody who becomes a somebody, albeit through the weight of his pain.

Jackson can do this because, uniquely, she is the mistress of each of the two traditions that were so much at odds when she began her career: the avant-garde and the classical. The avant-garde is against the imposition of too much coherence and in favor of a notion of theater as a sequence of separate moments, often in tension with each other. It was Brook, in his introduction to Marat/Sade, who described a play as “a series of impressions; little dabs, one after another, fragments of information or feeling . . . often several at a time, often crowding, jostling, overlapping one another.”

In this, Jackson’s Lear, emotionally fragmentary and crowded with constantly shifting moods, is perfectly Brookian. It is held together by oppositions that she keeps in the air simultaneously. One is between authority and insignificance, her extraordinary ability to retain the habit of commanding the space she occupies even as her place within it is shrinking to nothing. The other, closely related, is the opposition between her voice and her body. What we see and what we hear are very different, and it is this difference that opens up the gap through which, for all her rebarbative distance, sympathy enters in.

[ . . . ]

But just as this voice creates the strangeness of the avant-garde, it is also supremely classical. Jackson is a thrilling surfer of Shakespeare’s blank verse, able to stay on her feet while cresting its high waves and plunging down its slopes. And in the Old Vic, which was the theater of John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Laurence Olivier, one cannot avoid the thought that she is also their truest successor as a master of Shakespeare’s music.

There is an irony here: Jackson’s early place was with those like Brook who broke the old star system of Shakespeare productions dominated by a great man. Now she has managed simultaneously to reconnect us to the energies that broke that system and to give it one last glorious revival. Perhaps it is only a great woman who could dare to restore the lost theater of the great men.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Shakespeare & Love!

A guest post from Kelly Medwick, FSC Board Member
(originally posted on Firespring's culture blog, 12/20/2016) http://culture.firespring.com/blog/post/shakespeare-love

Every love story has a history—some richer than others. We met in a bar, or online, or during a teeth cleaning or after a steel cage match.

For me and my husband Mike, our history began in the late 16th Century. If it wasn’t for Shakespeare and our college English professor’s Shakespeare theatre company, we would have never met. And the same goes for about a dozen couples and families we know and love.

So, Doc (Dr. Erath to hoi polloi) at the College of New Jersey was a founding director of a nonprofit repertory theatre originally called Shakespeare ‘69. It incorporated the following year and changed its name to the more PG-rated Shakespeare ‘70. It’s still rockin’ today.

It was a invitation-only company, and as fortune would have it, I got invited. 

During an Early Modern Drama class, Doc asked me to live read a passage from an 18th Century satirical play called She Stoops to Conquer. Turns out, I was (and am) pretty good at both stooping and conquering, and became the show’s intern – an esteemed position with the title “head peon.” I bonded with the cast and crew, and as that show was wrapping up, I was feeling blue that I’d be going back to spending my free time doing things like personal grooming and laundry. 

The company was abuzz about the summer outdoor performance of Much Ado About Nothing. I wasn’t expecting to be asked to play a role. I was just a peon, after all.

But then Doc asked me to play Hero. The ingenue. I was so shocked, I thought he was joking. Then his wife Gail, our costumer, pulled me aside and started wrapping measuring tape around the parts that matter to dressmakers, and I knew this was going down for real. 

I’d already gotten to know Mike from She Stoops. He was given a part plus stage management duties for Much Ado. He had come up through the head peon ranks as well. Several of us former peons, as well as the local pros, hung out quite a bit. We had a gift for cracking each other up. Practicing witty banter has its social benefits.

About 10 years later, both Mike and I had moved on. Work, studies, and personal life took us away from the stage. But then we both found ourselves in Nebraska. He was in grad school, I had moved for work and a reboot on life. We went on a date to see Henry V at UNL. Then we both performed with a newly formed group called Flatwater Shakespeare Company in As You Like It. We were married a few years later. He proposed back home at the Open Air Theatre in Jersey. And we honeymooned in London, of course.

To our policymakers who feel the arts should be eliminated or defunded, I say, a plague on both your houses. Shakespeare, and his patrons and devotees, are economic drivers. His works have produced laughter, tears, joy, heartbreak, love – not to mention couples, families and children . . . households. As Benedick wisely declares in Much Ado: the world must be peopled. We enthusiastically responded.

Doc was our best man at our wedding, not only because he was the matchmaker, but because we knew that the play was the thing, and that must be honored. It was the thing for so many of us. I now serve on the Flatwater Shakespeare board, and Mike and my son are steady volunteers. We support this because Shakespeare has a way of connecting people, and in this day and age, we can’t imagine a better thing to support.

Kelly Medwick is a member of the Flatwater Shakespeare Company Board of Directors and Vice President of Business Development for Firespring, which provides a range of integrated print, creative, website, and IT services for non-profits, small-to-moderate businesses, and large enterprises. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Becky Boesen -- FSC's New Executive Artistic Director!

The Flatwater Shakespeare Company, based in Lincoln, Nebraska, is pleased to announce that Becky Boesen is its new Executive Artistic Director. She succeeds founding Artistic Director Bob Hall in the leadership of the not-for-profit organization.

Ms. Boesen brings an extensive resume as an administrator, producer, director, and playwright – as well as actor – to the job. Her past projects include original works such as In My Daughter's Name, Puddin' and the Grumble, and Catherland, and also directing Arthur Miller's The Crucible in a site-specific production at the Sheldon Museum auditorium. She is one of the founders of BLIXT, which now coordinates the Lincoln Arts Council's education and outreach initiatives, and has served as Creative Services Specialist with the Lied Center for the Performing Arts in Lincoln.

“I'm honored,” says Ms. Boesen, “to be selected as Executive Artistic Director of the Flatwater Shakespeare Company. I’ve had the joyful experience of acting and directing for Flatwater Shakespeare, and now again, find myself a direct beneficiary of the standard of excellence and achievement established by Bob Hall. I'm thrilled at this opportunity to add my own artistic vision to such an important Lincoln institution, and offer an ongoing promise of making the often hilarious, frequently heartbreaking, and ultimately timeless work of William Shakespeare accessible to every person in our beautiful community.”

Ms. Boesen has been an artistic associate with Flatwater Shakespeare throughout the company's history. During one of the first uses of Wyuka Stables as a performance space, she appeared as Maria in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, directed by Mr. Hall. After playing Arsinoe in Hall's adaptation of Moliere's The Misanthrope and Mrs. Page in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, she directed Flatwater Shakespeare's third summer touring production, a 1980s-themed Much Ado About Nothing.

Mr. Hall has extended his congratulations to Ms. Boesen on being selected by Flatwater Shakespeare's Board of Directors. “I wish her all success,” he says, “and will provide whatever support that might be wanted.” Flatwater Shakespeare's Board will work with Ms. Boesen in finalizing plans for the company's 2017 season, which will include another citywide tour and a Swan Theatre production.

Flatwater Shakespeare's mission is to entertain and educate audiences in Lincoln and surrounding communities through Shakespeare and other high quality theater productions. The company is especially committed to connecting youth, non-traditional audiences, and under-represented groups with the dramatic arts. Accessible and exciting productions of Shakespeare's plays can broaden the base for all theater audiences, enhance appreciation for the arts more widely, and facilitate meaningful dialogue across many social divides. Shakespeare's plays were selected by the National Endowment for the Arts as providing the richest “common ground” for American communities – a quality made evident in Flatwater Shakespeare's recent production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Tom Crew, and its series of talkbacks addressing such issues as ethnic stereotypes, religious prejudice, and forms of discrimination.

Photo Credit: Christine Doell

Sunday, November 20, 2016

FSC's First Shakespeare Quiz Night!

Thanks to all who participated in FSC's first Shakespeare Quiz Night! 

Profound appreciation to Diane Gonzolas and Tim Scholl, our quiz masters, and to Andrew Fuller and everyone else at Rock Island Social Club for letting us take over the place.

Hearty congratulations to the winning team (pictured above) --

Melissa Wilson (alumna of the Nebraska Girls Shakespeare Company), 

Nathan Norcross (currently taking the helm at The Haymarket Theatre), 

Stephen Charest (longtime supporter and practitioner of the dramatic arts), 

Margy Ryan (associate artist with Flatwater Shakespeare even before we officially became Flatwater Shakespeare).

(That's Jesse Snider in the background, admiring their skills.)

Keep brushing up your Shakespeare (start quoting him now) -- we'll be doing this again!

And how did our quiz masters comport themselves? Perpend for thyself!

Many thanks to Michelle Zinke for the photos!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Kudos to Richard Nielsen!

A recent issue of the Southeast Community College Alumni News offers a “Meet Our Faculty” feature on Flatwater Shakespeare mainstay Richard Nielsen. We are delighted that Dick is receiving some well-deserved recognition in his academic community for his artistic achievements and for his skill in integrating theatrical insights and techniques into effective teaching. Click on the picture or see page 8 of the complete issue: https://www.southeast.edu/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=22674

In the article, Dick mentions the plays that include his favorite roles. Here, we'd like to highlight some of those roles.

2004: Caliban in The Tempest. Vulnerable but still dangerous, Dick's amphibious monster (costume design by Jan Stauffer) could be charming and tender.

2007: The Fool in King Lear. Genuinely funny, as well as brutally honest and touchingly loyal to Lear and to Cordelia.

2009: The title role in Julius Caesar. Charismatic and remote; commanding but petulant.

2015: Polonius in Hamlet. Clinging to authority at court and in his own family – and someone who, we are reminded, once portrayed Julius Caesar on stage.

2016: Antonio in The Merchant of Venice (another title role). A rich, maddening mix of sincere self-sacrifice and smug self-righteousness.

Many thanks, Dick, for your dedicated, insightful, and vital work for FSC and SCC!

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

New Executive Director Search!

Flatwater Shakespeare Friends, 

As many of you know, Bob Hall, our founder, is retiring at the end of 2016. The Board of Directors is seeking an Executive Director for the organization.
The position is a 1/4 time position, with a flexible schedule. The amount of hours vary each week vary depending on production and administration needs. 

More information is included in the job posting that follows. 

To apply, please send a cover letter and resume to Search Committee at flatwatershakespearecompany@gmail.com by November 1.
Flatwater Shakespeare is small nonprofit theatre company in Lincoln, Nebraska that produces 2-3 productions a year, plus a youth production. For more information about Flatwater Shakespeare, visit www.flatwatershakespearecompany.org
Flatwater Shakespeare Company Job Description

Overview of Flatwater Shakespeare Company:
Flatwater Shakespeare Company is a private theatre company in Lincoln, NE that was formed in 2001 and incorporated in 2004. The focus is high quality productions of Shakespeare and other classical works. Flatwater duties are managed by a dedicated part time staff, an active board, and volunteers. Flatwater does not have a building/facility. The majority of productions have been held at The Swan Theatre at The Stables at Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln. Other productions have been produced at Haymarket Theatre, Lincoln Community Playhouse, and Johnny Carson Theatre/Lied Center. For the past eleven years, Flatwater has had a summer youth production. In 2011, we began Flatwater Free Shakespeare, a summer tour which takes Shakespeare to local parks and outdoor venues in Lincoln. These performances are supported through donations and small grants. In addition to the youth production and Flatwater Free Shakespeare, we produce either a spring or a fall show (and sometimes both).

Position Title: Executive Director
Reports to: Flatwater Board of Directors
Hours: Quarter-time position, Contract Labor
Supervises/coordinates with: Board Executive Team and other staff
Salary range: $6,000-$8,000 annually, depending on experience

General Summary: This position serves as the leader, the “face” of Flatwater.

Essential Job Functions:
1. Develop and implement a financial plan to ensure stability and growth of the organization
a. Secure corporate support for the summer tour
b. Provide support to the Operations Manager in the development of proposals
c. Coordinate the development of the budget for the fiscal year
2. Play a key role in short and long-term strategic planning with a focus on continuing the existing
high-quality productions
3. Manage and support operations staff
4. Work with staff and board on community outreach activities
5. Participate in public relations activities to provide a high level of visibility for Flatwater
6. Work with the board to identify the season
7. Hire and manage guest directors and key production staff, including budget oversight
8. Work with the Executive Committee as needed

Education and Experience:
Experience and involvement with Shakespearean productions
BA in a related field preferred
Ability to work with funders to gather financial support for the organization
Experience with a nonprofit organization
Understanding of nonprofit rules and regulations

Working Conditions:
This is a quarter time position, with flexible hours. Certain times of the year will be busier than others, depending on the production schedule and fundraising needs. Flatwater Shakespeare does not have a building; tasks will need to be done at one’s home or at designated venues. There will be required meetings, including with potential funders, board and committee meetings, and events. Current contract staff include: Operations Manager, Production Manager, PR/Events Coordinator, and Website Manager. Dr. Stephen Buhler, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, coordinates Facebook and the blog (volunteer), and serves as Dramaturg. 


Michelle Zinke
Chair, FSC Board of Directors

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Looking Back at *Merchant*

A friend of Flatwater Shakespeare shared her impressions of the last performance of The Merchant of Venice -- 

The play was beautifully done. The 1890s era was an interesting choice for the setting – the costumes were very fun and the period still felt in harmony with Shakespeare’s language.

Here are some of my favorite things in the production.

The relationships between all the characters, especially:

Antonio and Shylock – they were really the perfect foils for each other;

Antonio and Bassanio – they really messed with the line between platonic and romantic love, and in my mind that was how it should be, since the text certainly gives that impression;

Shylock and Jessica – even though Jessica is a relatively minor character, you can see that her part in the story is still important, and that her betrayal later actually hurt Shylock and was not just an excuse for his revenge; the moment when she hugged him before he left for dinner at Antonio's house was played very well.

I also really liked:

The scene with Launcelot Gobbo and his father – the comedic timing was impeccable, and Bassanio's patience wearing thin was really effective.

Gratiano’s jumping full-on into Bassanio's arms after Bassanio chose the right casket; no profound significance here (except a hint of how important the choice was for Gratiano, too) – it was just really funny.

Shylock's “hath not a Jew eyes' speech” – this was the first time I had ever heard it spoken both with hurt/anger and with bone-deep grief; very powerful -- I cried.

The romances – which were sweet but not overdone.

The trial scene – Antonio being at Shylock's mercy and yet still retaining his feeling of arrogant moral superiority was perfectly done; Portia was a wonderful doctor of the law, not retreating an inch, despite how close Shylock was to her in his anger; the tragic irony of Antonio being saved by Portia and then, despite seeing Shylock in the very position he himself had just occupied, deciding to ignore Portia's “quality of mercy” speech and to strip Shylock of the one thing he had not yet lost – his Jewish identity. I cried here too, especially when Shylock was forced to beg for his life on his hands and knees.

The ending scene, with Portia and Nerissa getting the better of their new husbands and forcing them to treat them as equal partners, not as things to be won, owned, or idolized. And Bassanio crawling across the stage to Portia, trying to make up the loss of the ring, was hilarious.

The actors’ reactions to other people's lines: I love that about live theatre – you get to see all the people in a scene rather than just the participants in a dialogue; it makes the story more personal, more real.

Overall, it was excellently performed. I would have probably embarrassed myself in front of the actors by gushing about it to them, especially the man who played Shylock, Patrick Lambrecht. However, I had to leave before getting a chance to see them.

Congratulations to Tom Crew and his creative team for an exceptional The Merchant of Venice! Many thanks to all who attended -- including the friend who wrote this lovely appreciation immediately after a show -- and to all supported the production.  Special thanks go to our partners in providing opportunities to discuss the play, its themes, and its implications for our own times: Ms. Nancy Coren, Professor Sarah Kelen, Professor Carole Levin, Rabbi Craig Lewis, and Professor Scott Stanfield. 

Photo: Patrick Lambrecht as Shylock in Flatwater Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, directed by Tom Crew. Photo Credit: Jourdan Guenther