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by Kevin Loring
When the The Ecstasy of Rita Joe opened at the Vancouver Playhouse in 1967, after a pregnant pause, Canadian Theatre was born. It was at this time that, Actor/ Director/Producer John Juliani approached his dear friend August “Augie” Schellenberg about how wonderful Chief Dan George would be as King Lear; and the idea of an all-Aboriginal Lear was born.
“They asked Chief Dan George if he’d do it.
But Dan George said No.
We asked him, why not? It’s a good part.
Dan laughed and shook his head, Too many lines, too many lines.”
- August Schellenberg
August vowed that one day he would play Lear with a cast of Aboriginal actors and for the next four decades he and John tried to piece that dream together. The most immediate and obvious obstacle at the time was the lack of Professional Aboriginal Actors with the chops to pull off such an ambitious production.
I first heard about the “ Native Lear” in 2009 while working with August on the Western Canada Theatre / National Arts Centre co-production of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. Directed by Yvette Nolan, this production of Rita Joe, billed as the 50th Anniversary production, is the first and only production directed by an Aboriginal director ever to be featured on the main stage of the National Arts Centre, Theatre Hall.
During the run Augie would tell us stories about his dream of doing an all Native Lear. A lot has changed since 1967. Today we certainly have the actors to pull it off. What we needed was a director; brave enough to take it on and more importantly a producer with the resources to accomplish such a bold and ambitious production. It was clear to us that if anyone were going to do an Aboriginal Lear, it would be Peter Hinton at the National Arts Centre of Canada. We just had to convince him that it was as good an idea as we all thought it was.
Augie met briefly with Peter during the run of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, and pitched the idea, but he left the meeting feeling that Peter wasn’t all that interested.
While I was a member of the National Arts Centre English Theatre Acting Company in 2010-11, I made a point to remind Peter Hinton and Paula Danckert, the company dramaturge, about the Native Lear. In my research I came across a series of Manga versions of Shakespearean Plays written by Post Modernist Professor Richard Appignanesi. One of the Manga’s featured a Mohican Lear. I brought the book to Dankert in the hope that it would inspire them, to see the merit of such a production. The dramaturgy of the Manga was quite sound. The narrative fit neatly into the context of a North America where the French, the English, and the Native tribes at relatively equal strength and the Colonial Powers vying for land and title. To me the comic book presented an example of how this story might fit an Aboriginal cast.
Whether or not the comic book influenced them, I don’t know. However, it is one of many reference books sitting in the rehearsal hall today. And at long last August Schellenberg is playing King Lear with all Aboriginal cast supporting him, and John Juliani’s son, Alessandro, is designing the sound for the show.
An Aboriginal community group called the Four Nations Exchange is also part of the production. Making up the “village” are twenty-seven community members, add that to the cast of thirteen and there will be forty Aboriginal actors on the main stage of the National Arts Centre on opening night!
The rehearsals have been electric, demanding, exhilarating. Everyone is meeting the challenges that the text requires, the weird Shakespearean syntax, the emotional scale of the piece and the mountainous speeches. For Tantoo Cardinal (Regan) and Billy Merasty (Gloucester) English is their second language! We are all excited and terrified of the enormity of this show. And we all recognize the significance of it.
I am humbled to be amongst the artists in the room.
I have never felt so honoured to be a theatre artist. For me, playing Edmund in this production is the role of a lifetime. I can only imagine what is like for August, to have carried this dream for so long to finally be doing it, in the best possible way. In the rehearsal hall the other day, we had all the village members and the speaking actors together rehearsing Act 1 scene 1 for the first time. The large rehearsal hall at the NAC was full. August came over to me before we were about to begin, he had this sheepish grin on his face and he asked me if this was what I envisioned when we were talking about doing Lear in 2009. I looked around the room, people were preparing themselves, smoke from the smudge bowl was filling the rehearsal hall and billowing down the halls of the NAC; forty smiling, laughing, beautiful, Aboriginal people gathered in a circle for one purpose: to tell one of the greatest stories ever told.
Was this what I envisioned?
“No Augie.” I said, “I couldn’t have imagined this in my wildest dreams.”
National Arts Centre’s productions of King Lear runs May 8 – 26, 2012. For tickets call 1-888-991-2787 (ARTS) or click here.