Pictured: Theodore Swetz and Peggy Friesen in rehearsal for KING LEAR. Photo by Matt Sameck.
In this 3-part series, PerformInk takes you inside Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of KING LEAR through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past “Inside” articles click here
By Peggy Friesen
There are far fewer meaty roles for women in Shakespeare’s plays than for men, so when KCAT asked me to read for The Fool, a part usually played by a male actor, I jumped at the opportunity. It was the idea of Ed Stern, our original director, that Lear’s long-time companion and fool could be female. A few years ago I played Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” In that production, which was at a women’s college, many of the male roles were played unapologetically by women. In addition, I had multiple opportunities in the recent past to play characters of the opposite gender: several male roles in The Rep’s “Angels in America” and Henry in “The Fantasticks.” In Shakespeare’s day, of course, all the actors were male, the younger boys usually playing the female roles, so gender-bending theatrics were common.
The first day of rehearsal with Ryan Artzberger (who heroically stepped in on short notice to take over directing), I asked if in our production, the Fool was a man or a woman. His reply was that I would play him as myself (a woman), but we would not change any of the pronouns in the text. That didn’t really answer my question. I didn’t get any more indication of gender from our costumer, Caroline Allander, as her design had elements of both male and female aspects. From the very beginning, I felt I had the freedom to decide for myself how feminine or masculine the Fool would be.
Once we started working on our feet, however, I discovered that all that discussion on gender was completely beside the point. The Fool’s circumstances and intentions completely define his character – not his gender. Lear and his Fool are essentially left homeless in very short order, and the Fool (who always tells Lear the truth) blames Lear for their circumstances. Throughout their scenes, the Fool takes every opportunity to let Lear know how thoughtless he has been through righteous anger and frustration. But as the play continues, it is evident that there is also real love between these old companions, and when Lear’s sanity begins to slip, the Fool becomes his helpmate (along with Kent). If I honestly played the Fool’s intentions in every scene, the question of gender would be superfluous.
Then at one rehearsal last week, Ryan suggested a different tack, which propelled me (and the Fool) into a new direction. There was something lacking physically in my portrayal. I felt it too. The Fool seemed weak and ineffectual. He was smart and entertaining, like the Fool is usually played, but we wanted something more. He suggested a slightly different stance – more forward on my toes – more direct and unapologetic vocally – sort of an “I don’t give a damn what you think” attitude. Although Ryan did not say it, I felt like I had been playing the Fool too softly with perhaps too much femininity, and I needed to bring out more of a masculine edge. I started wearing boots to rehearsal, stood with my feet further apart, leaned forward. Suddenly, the Fool had an “attitude”, his intentions were much clearer, and he was a force with which to be reckoned.
It’s wonderful when an actor has time during rehearsals to make discoveries and try different tactics. We are fortunate that this rehearsal period is longer than the usual time allowed to prepare a production for the stage. With a longer gestation period, we have the luxury of trying different approaches and either failing or succeeding. In the weeks to come, who knows what new discoveries will be made. I expect there will be significant adjustments made when we get on the stage and set and when we start working in costume. That is what I love about acting on stage. The process is always fluid, always new, always responding to different stimuli, whether it is another actor’s/character’s action, a sound or lighting or costume designer’s choice, or ultimately, the audience.
Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is being presented by Kansas City Actors Theatre in partnership with the UMKC Theatre Department from October 13 – 22 at the Spencer Theater on the UMKC campus. Tickets are available at www.kcactors.org or by calling the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222.
Peggy Friesen is a Kansas City based actor who has performed with Kansas City Actors Theatre, the Unicorn Theatre, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Living Room, and The KC Rep, among others. She has also appeared in films from Ang Lee, Robert Altman, and Stephen Soderberg. She also plays both concert and Celtic harp.