Hidden Room Theatre Resurrects King Lear

The once-popular but now obscure revision of Shakespeare's play by Nahum Tate is revived, complete with happy ending

Ryan Crowder (l) as Lear and Joseph Garlock perform Tate's revision at the American Shakespeare Center. (Photo by Pat Jarrett / Courtesy of Hidden Room Theatre)

In a secret room in Downtown Austin, Beth Burns and company are resuscitating King Lear. Oh, not the one from your high school English class. Not the gut-wrenching, head-in-the-oven saga of devastating proportions. This ain't your mama's Lear. Or Shakespeare's, for that matter. This Lear is more of a fairy tale – a 1681 revision of the Elizabethan play by Nahum Tate that dominated the stage for 157 years before being consigned to oblivion. Burns and her team in the Hidden Room Theatre have been focused on a mystery: the unexplored practices of Restoration theatre. So they're reviving this King Lear we've never seen as an example of that period's drama, presenting it in its full Restoration glory, though no one quite knows what that is. And their first stop with it was the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va. That might seem a bit daunting, but fresh off a UK tour (playing such venues as, ahem, the Globe), this tribe is undeterred by the unfamiliar. Actually, it's kind of Hidden Room's thing.

"This particular type of acting has not been done in our era," Burns says. There is no manual, no standard operating procedure for Restoration theatrical practices, and few companies are exploring this work. So Burns and Tiffany Stern, professor of early modern drama at Oxford University and Hidden Room's head of research, have been pooling historical sources for clues, referencing a 1710 book titled The Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton, which claims to be based on manuscripts by the actor who first played Lear in Tate's version, and surviving documents such as prompt books, reviews, anti-theatrical diatribes, and paintings and engravings of the era's famous actors in the "poses" for which they were known – along with a healthy dose of imagination – to help solve the mystery.

What Was Once Old is New Again

The Restoration period's preoccupation with all things beautiful and graceful made manifest new standards onstage, including precisely rehearsed physical gestures and a melodic delivery of text. Burns compares the Elizabethan elocution style ("like riding a horse") to the hypothesized Restoration style ("like riding a bird"). A Restoration actor's talent rested not on the believability of his/her performance, but on the grace and beauty of his/her gestures. Observing a Lear rehearsal via Skype, Stern weighs in, her British accent cautioning: "The show feels very now." And there's the rub: For today's thespians, trained in the pursuit of realism, the Restoration's hyper-performative style is a challenge, reverting even the most adept actor (and Burns has collected quite a few) to the mindset of a beginner.

In Lear's titular role is Ryan Crowder, a Hidden Room regular and producing artistic director of Penfold Theatre Company. An unlikely choice by current casting standards – he's playing a man well over twice his age – Crowder likens Restoration performance to ballet, where "emotion is taken into the physical realm." With feet in fifth position, graceful arms, and hands – lots of hands – Burns' actors rehearse characters twofold: the late 17th century versions of their actor-selves, living under the societal conditions of the time, and the "in the play" characters those actors portray. Insisting that actions be grounded in truth, Burns asks her actors to "start from a place of honesty," then add the layer of the "best guess of what Restoration actors would do." Robert Matney, Hidden Room actor and director of technology, playfully sets the performance goal as "Restoration Kabuki." As he points out a theatrical gesture of the era used to denote "enthusiastic agreement" – two thumbs up – the archaic society feels accessible. This gesticular acting represents the emotional sign language of the time, which, though foreign to us as a theatrical aesthetic, is telling of the Restoration's popular culture. Burns furthers the importance of historical projects: "Discoveries are still being made that shift our understanding of what the roots of modern theatre looked like. That understanding matters deeply because it tells us more about ourselves and how we tell our own stories."

Happy Endings and New Beginnings

Tate's Lear offers a lesson in both anthropology and literary archaeology. The restoration of Charles II (dubbed the "Merry Monarch") to England's throne in 1660 marked a new era. After an 18-year ban, the theatres were reopened and women were allowed onstage. Reeling from years of division and unrest, society begged, "Enough doom and gloom," and sought graceful and polite delights. Thus, Tate – England's future Poet Laureate – took it on himself to "fix" Shakespeare's woeful King Lear to suit Restoration aesthetics (light, romantic, not everyone dies). Blowing the mind of many a Shakespeare nerd (present company included), Stern says, "Tate's adapted Lear is almost unknown now and never performed; although perversely it is on that adapted play that some of Shakespeare's popularity rests. So Hidden Room's production will provide a unique opportunity to see one of Shakespeare's most popular plays in its historically most popular form." This fact is almost inconceivable: Tate's revision dominated stages longer than Shakespeare's original ever has. Imagine if the Hallmark Channel remade Game of Thrones, and its PG-rated version ruled Sunday nights for the next 200 years. And then it disappeared into oblivion.

"[Tate's Lear] illustrates part of our Restoration selves: what we enjoyed and what we could not stomach," offers Burns. While much of Shakespeare's original language and devices remain intact, Tate took the liberty of modifying the plot and tone of the play. "Tate described Shakespeare's Lear as 'a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht,'" says Stern. "He removed rude words, innuendo (when he spotted it), repetitions, politically sensitive moments, vicious images, and spiky or difficult verse." Also missing entirely from Tate's Lear are the character of the Fool and the massive body count with which Shakespeare's version closes. It is through this retelling that we are able to see how art imitates life by Restoration standards: In the end, "The heroes don't die, they get laid," quoth Matney – and the audience is awarded a happy ending. (Two thumbs up.)

Exploring Uncharted Territory is the Hidden Room's Modus Operandi

Propelled by the mysteries and anomalies of the past, Burns steers her "theatrical curiosity shop" with what Matney calls "playful esotericism." The Hidden Room's critically acclaimed tradition of experimentation steeped in scholarship began in 2010 with an Original Practices staging of The Taming of the Shrew featuring elaborate 16th century costumes and, true to the time, an all-male cast (with Ryan Crowder garnering every local theatre award for his portrayal of Kate the shrew). Burns continued the O.P.-inspired approach – much to the heartache of actresses all over Austin – with 2012's Rose Rage, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy. At the Blackfriars Conference in 2013, the Hidden Room premiered its most recent success, Der Bestrafte Brudermord, an 18th century Hamlet puppet play of mysterious origins – the research of which marked the beginning of the company's partnership with Stern. Taking a text from the academic realm to the performance realm provided the scholar a laboratory to test hypotheses, and the resulting production was rewarded with an invitation to perform at the Globe Theatre earlier this year.

Attempting to bridge the gap between past and future, Burns searches for a sweet spot where scholarship meets practice and ingenuity. Projects that reveal a moment in time are accompanied by her constant desire to push the medium of theatre forward. "We started with a desire to link the past, present, and future of theatre by focusing on original practices classics, interactive and immersive technologies, intriguing new works, digital performance, and rarely done oddities," recalls the Hidden Room matriarch. "Our hope was to link people through theatre both over geographical and temporal distances."

Paradoxically, the Hidden Room also has one foot firmly planted in the future. A SXSW Interactive panelist, Burns presented The Girl With Time in Her Eyes, an interactive digital play, at the 2013 conference. Two years earlier, utilizing video conferencing and early social media trends to label meta data (aka the hashtag) the Hidden Room team conceived You Wouldn't Know Her/Him, a play performed simultaneously in Austin and London with actors and audiences in both cities interacting. While designing the tech required for this groundbreaking interaction, Matney says the company also realized it was unpacking a new performance technique: "acting for the compressed data stream." This is a recurring theme in the Hidden Room's innovative body of work: attempting to discover entirely new (or unearthing old) techniques specific to each show's moment in time.

Re-animation and Revelations

"We are giving our best guesses, because we don't really know," Burns admits of her company's foray into Restoration style. "In trying to rediscover or resurrect 'dead art forms,' we often stumble upon something fresh that we've never seen before." At the crux of her second experiment with Burns and company, Stern says: "Hidden Room's production, re-establishing late 17th century methods, will show us a different, forgotten form of acting; a different, forgotten form of Lear – and by extension, will give us a new way of thinking about both." Burns' fascination with unveiling oddities of theatre history is perfectly situated in the Hidden Room's frequent home: the mysterious, stately York Rite Masonic Temple. In a room that lends itself generously to the milieu of days gone by, a court setup with audience on opposite sides of the playspace, red carpets and thrones, ornate details, and cryptic symbols all allude to the presence of a secret sorcery and a mystery's reveal.

With the Hidden Room's current level of success, however, it looks like the secret's already out. Continued support rolls in from overseas – manifesting, in part, in the form of Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper, head of research and higher education at the Globe and the Hidden Room's newest board member. Dates are set for a return of Der Bestrafte Brudermord to the Bard's home-boards and the British Library next July. Burns alludes to a possible UK tour of The History of King Lear and a collaboration with Eric Colleary, curator of theatre and performance for the Harry Ransom Center, on a staging of Richard III using the original prompt book from John Wilkes Booth's 1861 production as its main source. Exposing the venturesome spirit that drives her to these theatrical curios, Burns declares, "I love wiping off some dusty glass and revealing a hidden jewel. I live for that stuff."

The History of King Lear (revised by Nahum Tate) runs Nov. 6-29, Fri.-Sat., 8pm; Sun., 5pm, at the York Rite Masonic Temple, 311 W. Seventh. Industry Night Thu., Nov. 12, 8pm. For more info, visit www.hiddenroomtheatre.com.

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The Hidden Room Theatre, Beth Burns, Tiffany Stern, Nahum Tate, Restoration theatre, Shakespeare, King Lear, Ryan Crowder, Robert Matney, American Shakespeare Center, Harry Ransom Center, Globe Theatre

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