Cate Garrison’s Thoughts on Observing the First Read of Lear’s Follies

Among her many other accomplishments, Cate Garrison is a former theatre critic, loves the theatre and serves on the Board of Directors of Portland Shakespeare Project and on its Artistic Council.

One thing that excites a live-theatre junky like me is the realization that plays are never fully complete, even long after the author has tweaked a last word, or penned a final stage direction.  Directors, even if they play straight (a choice in itself), inevitably make their conceptual mark, and actors bring changes by their very physicality, their inflexion, posture, voice, body, soul.  But more, the audience member, in the magic of the darkened room, adds personal insights, through recollection, reminiscence, resonance, sophistication or innocence, that all shape the experience for each solitary individual, however collectively shared.  No performance can fully resemble another, either in fact (though great actors can come close), or in perception, making every shared breath, every exhalation and inspiration…literal and metaphorical… new, truthful, and real.  No wonder live theatre seems more honest, to me and others like me, than the so-called “real world.”

To be given the chance to witness the creation of a new play, almost from its very beginning, is therefore a live-theatre junky’s dream.  So I was thrilled to sit in on the first table read of an exciting project commissioned by Portland Shakespeare Project (true to its mission statement of developing new works based on the classics, as well as producing those great works themselves), to whit, an adaptation of King Lear, by the extremely talented local playwright, Cynthia Whitcomb.

It’s hard to describe the moment when words leap off the page for the first time, and become speech in the mouths of real people…characters who until that moment are simply lines on a piece of paper, or visions in a mind’s eye.  I can only imagine how the author must feel.  A friend of mine who is also a playwright once said to me, looking towards a similar first table-read, “How exciting to see how it may take its first breath!”  Those words, “how it may take,” sum up that feeling of the unknown, of the leap of faith that an author takes when handing over a script.  Certainly, that first breath will be different from the breath the playwright had imagined, just as it is different for a mere onlooker, like me, who  simply reads through the script beforehand, or for the actors who hear their fellow cast members give voice to the characters with whom they will act and interact.  But when the dialogue is natural and honest, as is Ms. Whitcomb’s, the actors (and boy, there were some gifted folk involved the day this reading happened) simply do not stumble…the words ring out, and resonate; Ms. Whitcomb’s ear is true.  I don’t want to spoil the fun by giving the names of all likely to be involved when this work is produced at the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works.  But I can tell you that Tobias Anderson read the role of Ms. Whitcomb’s “Lear,” and already, that first day, I had goose bumps.

I say “Lear,” in inverted commas, because this work (which currently has the working title of “Lear’s Follies”) is both Shakespeare’s story, and something quite different…something that should grow in its own right, and stand alone. Adaptations can do many things.  They can simply retell the story in, say, modern dress and modern parlance. Or they can take aspects of originals and translate them into something new.  In this work, Ms. Whitcomb does a bit of both. The great themes and motifs of the original Lear are all there…from blindness both metaphysical and literal, to anger, remorse, redemption, by way of paternal and filial misunderstanding, forgiveness and love. But settings are transposed, relationships altered, broad statements become hints, and hints take on the mantle of importance. We see a family with whom we can identify, in our time (or our recent past), with resonances of the here and now.

So the first breaths of “Lear’s Follies” have been taken, and the first words all spoken aloud. But this wonderful new being is still growing, and developing, in the hands of Ms. Whitcomb herself, of the actors who read, and of PSP’s Artistic Director, Michael Mendelson, who already is beginning to shape the final vision. And through the process of Fertile Ground it will grow and change more, in the presence of avid theatre-goers like me, and, I hope, like you.  We all have our work to do.  I hope very much that you will be excited to join us in this fascinating process of development, in which we all can play our essential parts.  And finally, I hope you will sit with us in that magical, darkened room that is the theatre, and lend your imaginative presence to this living creature, even after the talented wordsmith Ms. Whitcomb has put down her pen for the final time, and blotted her last line.