This started out as a story about Morgan McCabe, a wife of a colleague who is also a friend of a friend who used to have a job in the communications department at Purdue Calumet, before my other friend Corya had the same job who I met because her actor-director-playwright-collaborator-boyfriend is a friend of my actor-director-screenplay-writer-friend-friend Tim, because Tim and Jon were in the Police Academy movies together.
Corya Channing and Jon Lisbon Wood live in my neighborhood and once when I went to a party at their house I found out that they are kind of in-laws of my other friends who live somewhere up the Lake Michigan coast and I should know where but I mostly talk with Susan Wilczak about her work making public art. Susan also teaches in Holland, Michigan. Just about everyone who is an artist also teaches because you can't get by in life being an artist and not a teacher unless you have been in Police Academy movies...maybe. But I doubt it.
Then there is the Professor Tom Roach thing: which is that Morgan McCabe has known PUC Professor Roach since she was 10 years old. He is one of the greatest teachers of all-time whose class in Rhetoric and Mass Communications at Purdue Calumet was one of the best classes I've ever taken at any college anywhere in my life. (That was 2010.) I did a lot of very good work in that class and learned much more than I expected to learn.
Furthermore, I hated the class when I took it because I would get all wound up about everything when we had these very charged discussions. (The class was held on Tuesday nights and got out around 10.) If you are breathing fire and driving home in a snowstorm at 10:30, you are not going to be asleep until after midnight for sure. This is bad for someone like me who needs to be on my game at work fairly early in the morning.
One of the many things that people in class got wound up about was Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, which Dr. Roach dissected on a rhetorical basis. Not long afterward I became sort of obsessed, resulting in reading books about these people including Stacy Schiff's biography of Cleopatra, a bunch of trashy Roman history novels by Robert Harris and of course, Furious Love about Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the complete diary of Richard Burton and another incredibly trashy novel called Beautiful Ruins. Amazon pointed me to Beautiful Ruins somewhere along the line and I devoured that story---like an addict on a history-fantasy binge---and that novel turned out to be about Richard Burton's illegitimate son conceived in Rome while he was filming Cleopatra.
One of the features of this Baby Boomer era is one-to-zero degrees of separation you run into all the time. In the current Baby Boomer century more people our age are alive then dead. We know everybody and their brother, literally. And everyone is very, very busy.
So, even when Corya and some others put a bunch chairs in a circle, saying how surprising it was that they had formed a theater company and were now producing King Lear (often described as the most difficult play Shakespeare ever wrote) in Gary, I wasn't that surprised. It crossed my mind that the Gary part might sound surprising to some, but it's maybe the least surprising part of what's happening in this shopping-center-parking-lot -with-a-theater-in-the middle-of-it on Grant Street.
The most surprising thing was that these extremely involved people, up to their ears in everything including careers---Morgan is a full-time actress who is temporarily moving to Indianapolis to work with Indiana Rep in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, in mid-October---ever were able to get a schedule together and do this.
And how relevant the play is. To refresh your memory, King Lear, in around 800 B.C., decides on a succession plan where he will divide up his power, land and wealth between his three daughters, who of course have no-account husbands and various groups of hangers-on and ne'er do well friends. It goes bad. Everyone knows from experience succession plans go this way about half the time, especially when the succession plan calls for an alive King to give up the throne. When the King starts referring to his children as "unnatural hags," it's not going well.
Famously Time Magazine put a cartoon of Lyndon Johnson as King Lear on the cover when he was still president. I was thinking about this and the other King Lears I've known --- Bob Falls' production at Goodman with Stacy Keach playing a very Milosevic-like Lear was an odd one.
Norman Caplan, the director of Gary Shakespeare's King Lear hated that production so much he can't even talk about it. Norman has read the play at least 100 times and he loves King Lear more than anything. While, I didn't love the Eastern European version that much---those guys were pretty unhappy in an un-modern way about giving up on their primitive, tribal entitlements---there were some unforgettable moments in the production, for example, when the anti-Lear people drove a silver Cadillac onto the stage and were killing each other in the middle of a stainless steel kitchen at a convention center.
There was a much more sophisticated Lear with minimal special effects around the same time at Chicago Shakespeare, probably a more sane dramatic style. Norm the director says that if you read Harold Bloom's book on Shakespeare, Bloom didn't think anyone could do a decent job on King Lear. So I'm trying to process everything I remember about King Lear—and shut down the distraction of thinking about Harold Bloom, who was a legendary professor at the University of Chicago who wrote The Closing of the American Mind, which became a surprise hit in the 1970s. And then Norm says, “Richard Burton would never play King Lear. He didn't think he was up to it. He didn't think he could do the part.”
I thought I knew a lot about Richard Burton, but I did not know that.
Norm Caplan, who lives in Gary-Miller Beach full-time now, (even though he used to have a company in Pennsylvania and worked at the University of Chicago) organized this theater. He called around and found Mark Baer, assistant professor of acting and directing at IUN, who had IUN space available. (Space is frequently the main obstacle when putting on a play, any play.) And then he called Corya because she's at Purdue and Corya brought Jon and Corya knew Morgan. Then around May of 2013 Gary Shakespeare had an open audition. Whenever you are doing King Lear with 11 major characters in at least five scenes and 25 scenes to go through, you have a casting situation.
Many of the characters have a lot of the lines to learn. The dilemma of casting the title role can be an issue in a community theater production. Where was an actor for a role Richard Burton couldn't handle going to come from? Well, it turned out that Steve Rohe, who lives in Porter and has directed many plays himself including August: Osage County, at Fourth Street Theater two years ago in Chesterton, has wanted to play King Lear and never got the chance. (Steve's about as close as you get to perfect for the King Lear role.) And he was one of the 25-30 people who walked into the audition.
As Corya says, that was unexpected you don't usually get so many good actors at a try-out and there's unconventional casting, but that's cool.
“The women playing Goneril and Regan (two of King Lear's daughters) are 50-60,” Morgan explains. “We're such a disparate group of community theater stalwarts, students who have never had an opportunity to perform in a Shakespeare play" and veteran performers with two-page single-spaced resumes like Morgan.
“Now that we're doing it I love it even more,” Norm says. “because of the razzle dazzle. I love the poetry and the ideas and finally getting at the humor.”
Morgan likes the 800 BC aspect, “They were already in the Iron Age,” she explains. Our semi-circle gets lost in the whole Shakespeare conversation for awhile, this is like taking a bath in a big, communal tub. The relevance of Shakespeare in the modern world, etc. Corya says, “I give Norm a lot of credit for taking on this project, it's very ambitious.”
Someone else, maybe Jon says that they are “trying to make the best possible Lear. We never want to be satisfied. There is no end to how far you can explore this play.”
“I'm always asking a lot of the actors,” Norm says. “Everybody's got to strive hard to be great, that will be one of the things that helps this company flourish. “
Corya says that at this time in life, when she is finally old enough to understand, she's not as worried about things. She still has energy. “Gary put Shakespeare together, (Actually Norm, Corya, Mark and Morgan started the company over breakfast at Great Lakes Cafe last Spring.) and we have a Facebook page and people from all over the country are talking about this. I think Gary's a difficult place to do anything, but the more time I spend getting out of my shell I see the community's effervescence. There's a lot of energy to be tapped here. “
Morgan points out that “Shakespeare is always writing about people facing the most difficult circumstances. Like Amelia in Winter's Tale is in one of the worst situation anyone could be in in their lives.”
It's near six o'clock when our semi-circle has to break up so the assembled crew can put up these Stonehenge-like slabs of scenery. A few of the actors are wearing semi-costumes tonight. I see another person I know, Jim Nowacki, who is notorious in Gary for having very strong opinions and making those opinions known to as many people as possible in ways that some consider obnoxious. Through some long scenes as Kent, one of Lear's guys, Nowacki spends a lot of stage time locked in a stockade.
The actors warm up there voices and their bodies. Most, even the over-50 majority, hang in through this ordeal right up until the crew starts modified push-ups. As the lights go down and the rehearsal starts at the start of Act II, Anne Paradise, who plays the Fool leans in and says, that she doesn't believe any of that junk about Shakespeare not writing his plays. “He wrote them all,” which I happen to agree with. But we don't get a chance to talk about this much because Nowacki is already headed for the stockade.
A couple of days later I'm talking to Morgan on the phone and I'm figuring out why she is such a pro and I wanted to do a story about her in the first place. Morgan has a sense of wonder about this production that she probably has about every show she does. Her re-telling of the semi-dress-rehearsal the previous Friday at the theater does not lack drama. The power went out. The air-conditioning shut down. Dark and hot, the rehearsal went on as planned. “Opening a theater company in this area was something that people might have thought was unattainable. If it was not something that I could accomplish I could let go of it. So when it happened and when we found this rich talent pool and hopefully an audience here that will appreciate what we're doing, it is a surprise.
“The people in Shakespeare's plays are trying to solve the situation they're in. That's why the arts are very important. The problems solved in a scene are like the problems you solve in real life. When you're doing Shakespeare the action is always on the word. Shakespeare pushes people towards discovery.”
Self discovery as well as community discovery so we'll see.