Source Material | King Lear

by Taylor Giangregorio

Samantha Shay, creative director and founder of the theater collective known as Source Material has returned to the City of Angles after 5 years in Europe to premiere her take on Shakespeare’s play King Lear.

Shay spoke on experimenting as a director, “In directing King Lear, I wonder what the link is between past and future. Every revered artist, like Shakespeare, was traversing an unprecedented territory, and as a director, I want to challenge assumptions about a play: what it means to stage it vs. adapting it, and do it in front of an audience" 

In staging such a classical play, Source Material seeks to reintroduce a productive dialogue in regard to inclusivity and diversity displayed in the inner workings of American theater. Source Material seeks viewers that will surrender their thoughts and minds to the experimental play, see below for our interview with the director.

Your work has been an amalgamation of various artistic practices that all converge into a theatrical, what can we expect to see in your take on the classic?

Its not for me to tell other people what they will experience, that is where I make space for the audience to complete my work. The completion of my work lives in how and what the audience experiences. I am not there to tell them how to feel, but to give them space to feel something.

I like to make work that is interdisciplinary, but not for the sake of it, more so self expression by any means necessary. I was interested in regarding everything onstage as a tool of telling the story, and that anything onstage could become the central storyteller. Often when we see theatre, we see the text, and the psychological life of the play, played by the actors as the center. In this piece, anything and everything can be activated as a tool of storytelling: it could be a sound, image, gesture, rhythm, or even silence. I wanted to discover how I could dramaturgically represent a classical play through regarding all tools of expression.

Why did you decide this was the right time to get into directing your own play and why did you choose King Lear?

As a classically trained theatre artist who is also interested in performance art and for lack of a better term “experimental theatre”, I made a dangerous assumption that I didn’t fit in, and kind of ran away from the theatre community in the states. I got quite lonely, and realised I was undercutting myself by doing that. I was, in my behaviour, sending myself the message that I didn’t belong. In the same moment I realised that, I recognised that I carry a deep desire to see more aesthetically diverse theatre in the US. So I decided to direct a classical play in the US, not call it an original work, or adaptation, and ask myself what it means to direct a play in 2019.

I chose King Lear originally out of a gut impulse. When I first heard this text I wept, and felt so much personal resonance. It at first was a play about family, and the tragedy of incomplete relationships, and how a lack of love in one’s life is a catalyst for violence. It is about patriarchy, how that effects and oppresses all genders, and how we are conditioned, and have to constantly make the choice to become who we become. To me, it is about personal and systematic oppression. Its a true tragedy, and unbelievably timely. It has been powerful to explore, I don’t think I’ve ever made a piece so heavy, so uncomfortable, I’m proud of the bravery we have worked from as a team.

What has the process been in shifting your focus into the directorial side of the play? What have you been taught in this process?

Its been really exciting. I have learned that structuring a piece can be an intuitive process, structure and form are not always something to resist. I have a strong relationship to my intuition and going into the unknown, but the certainty of a dramaturgical structure can really hold us. Even though my staging of the work is quite transgressive, I sought to mirror Shakespeare’s five act structure. Walking that line between dangling over the void and letting the structure of a classical piece hold the work has been exciting. Finding that clarity has been fun and allowed for an adventurousness and agility I never imagined.

Is there something you picked up in directing that you never thought of?

The right collaborators are the ones who challenge me, encourage me to grow, and have space for me to do that. It isn’t just about my vision, its also about allowing my initial ideas to be expanded and owned by a team. One of my actors even said to me that she realised she was playing me as a child, I couldn’t believe it, it was so true. There is this feeling of not knowing where I end and another artist begins. I have a lot of actors in particular in this cast, who are incredible dramaturgs - they help me track the lines of storytelling, and show up with material and ideas that expand the horizons of the whole piece.  We are constantly running towards a common goal, and not afraid to admit when we are confused, or don’t have answers. We enjoy having the problems together. There is very little hesitation in our rehearsal room, there is a playfulness and ferocity I cherish, but also recognise that I welcomed that into the room, and consciously requested it. I encourage other directors to run their rehearsal rooms with this kind of clarity, kindness, rigor, and humility. 

With your own take on this version of King Lear are you using classic dialog or how are you presenting Shakespeare's work completely in your own view?

We are using classical text, and there is also original text the actors wrote. All of the music is original, and plays a big role. We wanted to have the musicality of Shakespeare’s verse reflected in the original music. We even have some physical gestures and beats in the music that reflect iambic pentameter! 

How did you choose to take the focus on to the disfranchised characters around King Lear?

It wasn’t a conscious choice, but I think the disenfranchised voices are the ones I identify with more on a personal level. So I gravitated toward that dramaturgical line. I was noticing how although I think Shakespeare wanted to tell a story about toxic masculinity, men still have the most airtime in the original 5 act structure of the play. However, when the women speak, their words are more impactful, and have greater consequence. What it takes a male character 3-5 scenes to say, a woman says in one monologue. Shakespeare’s women, especially in the later plays, always are the truth tellers. I can tell Shakespeare learned to be a feminist through out his life. To start from The Taming of the Shrew to King Lear or Winters’ Tale is to witness the awakening of a man, its so powerful to see in his writing. 

I was also interested in giving the voice of the disenfranchised the floor because I often see King Lear staged in this hyper sympathetic way, as if Lear is this poor misunderstood mad man, and when I read the play, that is not the case. He is an abusive father who leaves devastating damage on those closest to him. I personally think incest is alluded, and that there isn’t even much redemption in his reunion with Cordelia, its actually the abusive cycle repeating itself. There is a reason he says “lets away to prison” 

I didn’t want to stage a piece that was easily digestible, that is most certainly not what King Lear is to me. I wanted to be more ferocious about the truth of the violence I read in the play, and that meant letting the disenfranchised take the floor. Now, that doesn’t mean the disenfranchised fix the story… you will have to come and see what happens!

What was it about the characters that you felt needed to be expressed? Will there be a prime focus on his daughters?

Yes, there is most certainly a prime focus on the daughters, Edmund, Edgar, and the Fool. I also added an additional character, a mother, who is never mentioned in the original play. I have wondered, as this play takes place in a pre-Christian world, and Goddesses are invoked constantly, if Mother Nature is a part of the cast. It bears mentioning as well that this play was written under the rule of King James, a tyrannical leader who ordered the burning of “witches” aka women, queer people, POC, and those practicing the indigenous shamanic practices of Europe during this time. I’ve wondered, is Shakespeare commenting on the times when women were burned for being medicine women? It sounds like a possible tangent, but in close reading, its odd that Lear invokes a Goddess probably worshipped by “witches” in order to curse his daughters womb. I mean, thats many layers of disturbing and mysoginist. So… I got interested, if Mother Nature is a character, how the storm is the primary event that transfigures Lear.

 I was also curious to ask the question: What makes people violent? So there are scenes that travel back in time to the childhood of the daughters, and the audience will see their relationship with their mother. We had a lot of fun working with this idea, and I think it reveals a lot about what is in the text of the play, even though the material is our original devised scenes.

Is there a particular character that you feel you gave additional attention on presenting their narrative?

As I said, I created a mother character, which is a pretty big deal! But I also chose to have the same actor who plays Cordelia, play Edmund. At times the line between whether or not the actor is switching roles is confusing. I wanted to highlight the similarities between these two “banished children” - that a banished child could be the Cordelia, the virtuous good girl, or the villain (Edmund), and at any moment, choose to be that in the face of abuse. The role is played beautifully by Annelise Lawson.

Will this be a performance that is as physically driven as your past movement pieces?

Yes. Although this is the most text based work I’ve made. 

How much does costuming take part in this interpretation? Would you say this is a postmodernist take on that point?

Costuming does play a big part, especially in the Cordelia/Edmund role. The costume designer is Angela Trivino. We have been having a lot of conversations about gender in this piece, its been exciting to explore archetypes and assumptions about gender.

 I personally don’t know if I could say my work is postmodernist - it is most certainly outside the box of what most people think Shakespeare is, but I am truthfully a lover of the classics, and made my choices out of a deep faith to Shakespeare’s text, even if that means making a seemingly transgressive, contemporary, “post modern” choice. My idea of being faithful to a classic is to allow all that it stirs in me and my collaborators to live onstage, regardless of how its defined. Truthfully, most Shakespeare plays are not staged in alignment with how theatre was done in the Elizabethan world, the aesthetics used which are considered acceptable come from the last 150 years. So saying my staging is more “post modern” or experimental doesn’t really work for me.  My staging is just as faithful and true as anyone else’s, it just might not be what people are comfortable with. 

Maybe after I’ve finished the piece I’ll understand its existence in a greater context. Right now, its from my heart. As I read this question, I decided to google the definition of “postmodernism” and there it says that it is a “distrust of grand theories” and I cannot answer if I am distrustful of grand theories. Grand theories are grand for a reason, one might say. I like to think of myself as a link in the chain of my artistic ancestors and descendants. Standing on the ground of those whom have come before, and making a link towards the future, and always working from a ferocious, and open heart. So there is a trust and a distrust of grand theories… perhaps its all about somantics! 

Who else is collaborating on this project with you? 

Ah, a slew of amazing people, from many parts of the world:

Nini Julia Bang (Denmark), Ditte Berkeley (Spain), Bob Wicks (Canada), Stephanie Regina (US), Annemarie Debruijn (Netherlands), Annelise Lawson (US), Paloma Estévez (Chile), Melanie Waingarten (Argentina), Christine Ferriter (US), Angela Triviño (Columbia), Áslaug Magnúsdóttir (Iceland), Jófríður Ákadóttir (Iceland), Paul Evans (Sweden), and Gini Benson (US/Japan).

Source Material’s King Lear directed by Samantha Shay will be shown at The Bootleg Theater from April 11-13. Previews: April 10, 2019. Purchase tickets Here