In advance of a visit from one of the few remaining first editions of Shakespeare’s complete works, Louisville’s Shakes-splosion continues this weekend as one of the Bard’s most lauded plays, “King Lear,” comes to the University of Louisville Playhouse, courtesy of their African-American Theatre Program, with help from Commonwealth Theatre Center (CTC).
The two teaching institutions will share Shakespeare with their students and audiences starting Thursday, Nov. 10, while “space teaching” and performing.
“Space teaching” is CTC’s practice of putting students on stage with teachers and professionals actors to show the young ones how the professionals get it done. The production also will give Louisville an uncommonly diverse Lear, with the titular role and many others played by people of color, including students and teachers.
Insider caught up with UofL’s Baron Kelly, who plays Lear; CTC’s Jennifer Pennington, the director of the play; and Bailey Lomax, a senior at Silver Creek High School and one of four CTC students getting an early taste of the collegiate stage in this production.
Kelly, the head of acting at UofL’s African-American Theatre Program, was originally acquainted with CTC artistic director Charlie Sexton through friends of friends.
“He went to school with some people I know. Just one of those things,” said Kelly, whose time at UofL has been marked by his efforts to strengthen the program’s ties with the arts community outside of the university. “I love the work CTC has done, and that’s what attracted me to it.”
After Kelly attended a performance of “Henry IV” at CTC, in which Sexton space taught by performing the role of Falstaff, the two began discussing a collaboration between their organizations and the possibility of Kelly doing a little space teaching with his students at the university, inviting some students from CTC to join them.
Kelly took the concept to the theater department and UofL, and also came up with the idea to tackle one of Shakespeare’s most demanding roles.
“I thought, ‘If I’m going to do something with the students, why don’t we go for the big guns?,’ and I asked if they’d be interested in doing ‘Lear,’” said Kelly.
Sexton agreed and suggested the director be chosen from the faculty at CTC, many of whom frequently work in the theater scene outside of Louisville. He introduced Kelly to members of the CTC staff, and Kelly recalled hitting it off with Pennington. “Jennifer and I met, we clicked, and that’s just how it happened,” he said.
After Pennington agreed to direct “King Lear,” she was offered a role in Kentucky Shakespeare‘s first ever fall production, “Titus Andronicus,” adding another twirl to the Shakes-nado. Pennington said Sexton supports his teachers and directors working outside CTC.
“Charlie understands the importance of his staff being professionals in the community, which I’m very grateful for,” she explained, adding she told Sexton as soon as she received the offer. “I’ve been asked to do Tamora, and he said, ‘You have to do it.’”
The strong ties between artistic organizations represent a sea change in the way nonprofits are operating. Gone are the days of hunkering down with your audience and your donors; collaboration is the new name of the game, and Louisville’s arts organizations and universities are playing hard.
The immersion in the canon of Shakespeare is a rich opportunity for the actors, students and teachers, but it’s even more exciting for Shakespeare fans and soon-to-be fans.
Lomax got her first taste of Shakespeare at the age of 12, shortly after attending her first classes at Walden Theatre, CTC’s precursor.
“I was super shy, had the worst stage fright in the world, and after the first day, I went and got in my mom’s car and said, ‘Mom, I don’t wanna go back, I quit,’” she recalls. “She was, like, ‘No, we paid for this, you’re going back,’ and thank god she did.”
One of Lomax’s first classes was in Shakespeare, and before she knew it, she was handed a script and told to perform.
“They cast me in a scene from ‘Richard III.’ I went up there and apparently scared the crap of everybody in the room,” said Lomax, describing those strange moments familiar to many actors, when the terror and adrenaline come together to pull a performance out of them. “And from that point on, I’ve been utterly in love with (Shakespeare) and everything he has given us.”
Lomax believes working with professionals and teachers isn’t all that different from a normal show with other high schoolers — after all, acting is acting.
“Everyone is going through their own process,” she said. “What I love to do is just sit back and watch everyone do warmups, the personal things they do. Some people stretch, a couple people get into child’s pose and stay there for 15 minutes, and so with that, you pick up on what works and what doesn’t work.”
Students from UofL’s African-American Theatre Program also will be on stage, which will lead to a very diverse production of “King Lear,” including Kelly’s turn in the titular role.
“I’ve been going around saying it’s like UofL’s version of ‘Hamilton,’” said Kelly, referencing the Broadway hit that re-imagines events of the Revolutionary War with people of color in lead roles. He said it’s important for students of color to see actors of color on stage. “Hopefully the demographic of the audience will be reflected on the stage.”
Catch this collaboration on stage Nov. 10-14 and 17-20. Shows are at 8 p.m., and with Sundays matinees at 3 p.m. Tickets range from $12-$15. The UofL Playhouse is located at 1911 S. Third St.