The Face of King Lear

These past two weeks Calvin Theatre company put on a version of King Lear but with a bit of a twist. They performed the traditional shakespearean play, but through the characters of clowns.

In order to produce such a creative play it took quite a monumental effort behind the scenes. I looked at two such areas that helped produce the play, the costume department and the actors themselves.

I spoke to Maggie Ferntheil — senior theatre major and assistant costume designer for King Lear, who described the many challenges that took to produce the costumes.

To make the clown costumes, the costume department originally used white knit, but when the actors tried on their costumes they were stretched too big. They then discovered that white knit stretches when it is hung up, so they had to circumvent this by putting the costumes in baskets.

The make up process was also very creative, Maggie took neutral pictures of the actors faces and designed a clown pattern specifically for their facial features. Before the show each face takes up to half an hour to do.

For the make-up department, eyebrows presented an interesting challenge. They couldn’t pencil in the eyebrows with regular make up, because the hair would still stick up and still be seen. So they used a make-up technique used be drag queens, they used a glue stick to glue down the hair and then cover it with make up.

Another challenge they faced was pinning the wigs into place, so as to not see the hair underneath. The heavier and larger wigs took up to 40 bobby pins to lock into place.

Before the show the team of 3 make up artists and 2 costume designers and 2 costume work to make the actors into their characters.

Stephanie Sandberg sought out a space for the actors to really create a personality for their characters in Lear, and so the costume designers could not design the costumes until after a casting and one or two rehearsals. So that the actors could have the freedom to discover their characters they would be playing.

So the actors would describe how they imagined their character and then it was up to costume department to bring those characters to life. For example the lead actor Sam imagined his King Lear with a big coat and a fur collar. It was up to Maggie’s and the other costume designers to make that character come to life with a hint of pragmatism, so the fur was out and a bedazzled elizabethan collar was in.

I also spoke to Emily Wetzle, who played the role of Goneril the oldest daughter of King Lear, about this processes of discovery.

She described the process of discovering her character as “otherworldly.”

The actors were not given their clown character rather Stephanie Sanberg wanted the actors to discover their characters and let it be a representation of them and their personality. Therefore there were workshops with professional clowns in which the actors were given a space to discover.

“With a scripted character there is something basic to work with, but with clowning you have to give birth and create it,” Wetzle commented on the processes.

“We were to lay down on the floor and pretend that you are waking up for the first time and everything is new. You had to interact with the world with these new eyes. By doing this exercise without expectations, it opened the door to see how this clown saw the world,” Wetzle describing one such workshop.

The clown is a representation of the person. Wetzle described how some clowns even emerged because of how they interacted with other clowns. One clown became a bully, not because of the actor’s personality, but because it was simply how the actor saw his clown interacting with the other clowns.

Wetzle described her own clown as curious and innocent, similar to her personality. But in other ways there is a mix of personality and role in the play, like how her clown is is courageous and stands up for others.

Wetzle saw the whole processes of working with clowns as very illuminating.

“The clown shows us real humanity, how silly we really are” The reaction of a clown magnifies our own humanity,” Wetzle commented, giving the example of the mixed tragedy with which we might view a clown. For example of we see the clown try to pick up a mountain of objects it is almost comical, but in another sense it is very tragic to see her struggle.

“The clown lives only in the present; a clown never dies. It doesn’t know suffering,” Wetzle said. That is why it is so interesting to see how the innocence of the clown and the tragedy of King Lear interact.

And if “clowns can only live in the present, it begs the question, what happens to the clowns after the play has ended?”