A Q&A WITH KING LEAR'S RICHARD MAYNARD
You are taking on the major role of King Lear. What have been some of your favorite past roles to play and why?
I think my favorite role thus far was playing Big Daddy in Tennessee William's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. That had never been on my bucket list, but it was one of the most enjoyable roles I've played because I seemed to trip into the core of that character early on and it was fairly easy sailing after that. That's what you look for as an actor - a role which you can connect with. It's hard to explain, just something you know when you get there. And, oftentimes, it's not the role you thought you always wanted to play. For most roles, you have to work at achieving that bond, and sometimes, never quite make it. You can still be good, but it's just not as much fun. As an actor, I look for something that can trigger that connection. I never know exactly where that will come from. Sometimes, it never does. For Big Daddy, it was the accent. Once I had that down (I worked with local poet and Mississippi-born Jim Autry a lot on it), I could get into the rhythm of William's dialogue, which led me to the core of the character. That's one thing many actors miss. Listen to the words that the playwright gives you - and I mean really listen to them! - and that will lead you where you need to go instead of imposing on the character what you think he or she should be. Another favorite role for me was the first production of RTI as a company - Joe Kellar in Arthur Miller's All My Sons. The "character trigger" for that role was the way he got out of a chair, kind of slowly like he had back problems from years of manual labor. It was just a little thing, nothing major. I got that from watching a 1980's film of the play, starring James Whitmore in the role. Now, there is nothing even remotely similar to me and James Whitmore, but that was the one thing I picked out of watching his performance that was a trigger for me. And I had James Serpento as a director to guide me. Other roles I've enjoyed playing are Scrooge and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. I probably never will, but I'd like to have another shot at Shylock. When we did it two summers ago, there was too much going on with my duties as Managing Director of RTI to fully focus on the role. But, I think I did all right. No "trigger" though, just an interpretation of a man who was not going to a victim of the anti-semitism in that world.
King Lear is one of the most iconic roles in all of theatre - what is it like/what does it mean to you to take on this role?
Yes, it is an iconic role, but an actor can't think about that or he/she will be too intimidated to do the job. I've always said you do the classics at your own peril, because anyone who knows the play will have his/her own ideas of how the play or the role should be done. I've always dreamed of playing Lear, but for obvious reasons, I needed to reach a certain age and life experience to even attempt it. When Brad Dell (the director) asked me to do it, my first thought was "Am I worthy?", since it is one of the most revered roles in the Shakespeare canon. When I finally answered my own question with "Probably not, but how many actors are?", I felt more confident about taking on this challenge. The play will live on forever. I can put my print on it for local audiences. That's all one can expect.
In what ways do you see this role and play as relatable to modern audiences and our contemporary world?
This question always bugs me a bit because the assumption seems to be that if a play is not "relatable" to our modern world, then it's not worth doing. What if it's not specifically relatable to our times? What if it's just relatable to a time gone by? If it's a compelling enough story and written well-enough, it's still worth doing. We don't put that same criteria on classical music, for instance. Who asks if Mozart is relatable? His music is beautiful and moving, so of course, it's relevant. The same criteria should hold for drama, or any art form. If it's done well, it is worth doing on its own terms.
But, to try to answer the question about how relatable King Lear is to our contemporary worlds, it is about growing old, ageism, the expectations of an older generation towards the one following, and, of course, dementia, which I think Lear definitely suffers from. It's also about the breakdown of order, which is a theme with both plots of the play. That is an issue which definitely should reverberate with modern audiences because there is this anxiety and insecurity in the U.S., and throughout the world, today. I think that has really come to the forefront in this election cycle. And like with any play that rises to "classic" or "iconic" stature, it's just a well-constructed, entertaining story that has attracted audiences for 400 years.
What most excites you about playing this role? What is the biggest challenge of playing King Lear?
Well, my wife keeps warning me not to embarrass her, so that's definitely a challenge! Lear is a quixotic character. He can go from one emotion to the next in a nano-second. That trait is obvious from the first scene. The challenge is to make sure those emotions are motivated, or we just have shouting matches and then tears. Lear has a quick fuse and that's not a stretch for me. But, his anger comes out of immense frustration, fear, impotency, which reduces him him tears. How to play that, especially the final scenes with Cordelia, will be a big challenge. But, I have a lot of help from Shakespeare if I just listen.
Another challenge is the lines. He has a lot of them, but that doesn't worry me. As with any Shakespeare, you also have to be aware of the verse and how to use it so that it sounds like language and not a sing-song delivery or oratorical recitation. And then, there's the syntax. Shakespeare messes with word order for the sake of poetry. At times, the lines sound almost like Yoda in Star Wars. Here's an example. In Act I; Sc 4, Lear finds Kent in shackles. He asks him, "What's he that hath so much thy place mistook...?" In modern English, it would be more natural to say, "What's he that hath mistook thy place so much....?" But, it doesn't sound as good that way. You can find examples of that all through the play. It's just another challenge that you don't have in more modern drama.
And, finally, remembering who your character is in the play in order for the larger story to be told. That's a bit easier to keep track of in this play. Since Lear is the title character, so much of the story is about him.
Why do enjoy performing and in particular performing with Repertory Theater of Iowa?
I've gone in-and-out about enjoying being an actor my whole life, but it keeps drawing me back. When I've stopped enjoying it, I've stopped doing it. That happened for about 12 years when I moved from New York to take a teaching job (not in theatre) at the University of Arkansas in the '90's and early 2000's. It was not until I returned to Iowa that I got back into theatre. So, after all these years, I still don't really know why theatre excites me. Maybe it's just because acting is something I do reasonably well. I know I love going to theatre. It can be the most gratifying experience when the play is well done, and most excruciating when it isn't.
Working with RTI is an easier question to answer. When I came back to Des Moines and considered rejoining the theatre community, I told myself if I was going to do it in this venue without monetary or career rewards, then I wanted to do the plays I wanted to do and with the people I wanted to do them with. That's why I teamed up with Joseph Leonardi in 2007 when RTI was a theatre, but not a company. I suggested the theatre needed to do something different, and that having a resident company of local theatre artists with the ambition of becoming a resident professional theatre here in central Iowa would certainly be unique. And then, if we did something no one else was doing, namely focusing on the classics, then that might give us our niche in the local theatre community. Working with this group of players has been a joy. If the play is the thing, then it really doesn't matter where you do it as long as it's a body of work you can be proud of. And I think that we as a company have achieved that. We've had some outstanding productions, a lot of very good ones, and maybe a couple that weren't so good, but our record and contribution to theatre in Des Moines cannot be refuted. It's not unlike a sports team. If you work with the same players a lot, you get to know each other in ways that you don't when you are acting with a new cast for every production. That can be fun, too, but the closeness you build over the years with a band of players has much better chance of achieving a holistic theatrical experience for everyone. For this actor, that is a career worth having.
Is there anything else you would like to add about this upcoming experience?
King Lear isn't done that much around here, so this may be the only chance audiences have of seeing it anytime soon. We're early in the rehearsal process, but I feel we have the makings of a very memorable production. I hope audiences come. Pray for good weather for the week of June 13 - 19!