With theaters still closed last spring, West Virginia Public Broadcasting collaborated with West Virginia University’s School of Theater & Dance to create an opportunity for their students by filming a production of King Lear.
The film will be broadcast on WVPB channels starting March 13. To find the WVPB channel near you, visit wvpublic.org
Chris Schulz spoke with director Jerry McGonigal about the unique production process.
Schulz: Professor Jerry McGonigal, thank you so much for joining me today. Why King Lear of all the different plays that you could have put on?
Mcgonigle: It was supposed to be originally a part of our season. You know, we do five or six shows every year. Those are chosen for a lot of different reasons, which students we have, and what are the educational needs.
It was pithy, challenging, and it also created an opportunity for us to bring in a guest artist. So quite often, we like to bring in a professional actor to work alongside. Well, then COVID came, and it was pretty clear, it wasn’t going to be good in terms of public performance.
Schulz: You chose to do a full film production and treat this like a movie. What went into that decision?
Mcgonigle: I think even my colleagues would agree with me that I complicate things a lot, because I always feel like it’s the best experience for the students. And everybody around the country was facing the same thing. How do we give them a production experience, when we can’t even have an audience come in the theater? So I don’t really know why, except that ambition and the rise to a challenge. I don’t know, I thought it would be a lot more fun.
And over the last probably eight to 10 years, I’ve incorporated a lot more acting for the camera in our training for young actors. We also really steeped them in Shakespeare. Mainly because if you can handle the language of Shakespeare, you can handle almost anything. So I thought, ”My God, this is an opportunity to do both.” To bring all of the training from the camera class, and the Shakespeare class into one room.
Before you know it, I’m standing in a room with all the WNPB crew and cameras everywhere and microphones and lights, and the students are right in the middle of that doing Shakespeare in front of a camera. I mean, I don’t think it could be cooler than that. I just thought it was an incredible experience for them.
And these guys I’m working with, Larry and Aaron and Chuck and the gang. They’re just amazing. I trusted them every single bit of the way. And actually, that was one of the other things in terms of what happened in the room that was pretty special, too. John and Jason, the camera people, were right there with students, showing them how things worked. And the students were like, enthralled by it. And they were so patient. It was the perfect relationship of professionals and students. And I hope we get to do it again.
Schulz: What can you tell us about the production? I mean, how was it you know, with COVID restrictions, and then also the added requirements of filming?
Mcgonigle: It was crazy. We followed all of the guidelines that were in place for the Screen Actors Guild.
I never saw the actors’ faces perform the piece until the camera was rolling. We rehearsed for about four weeks in the fall on Zoom. And then we did five weeks of rehearsal to prepare for shooting where I staged it and had to figure out, Larry and I, the director of photography, consulting on how to shoot it, and how do I block it? But we did all that in masks.
The actors get on stage, we’re in the middle of a TV studio kind of feel. And then the assistant director says, “Okay, masks off.” Literally, I’m watching the monitor while they’re acting and for the first time I’m saying, “Oh, that’s the facial expression on their face while they’re acting.” I haven’t been able to see that.
There were probably 70 people interacting in and out of the room over the course of a week of shooting, including actors, technicians. We did not have one infection. We did not have one person.
Schulz: It’s been a year since you went through all that and all the filming. How are you feeling to see it next week on the screen?
Mcgonigle: I’m really excited. The post production period has been a real challenge too, composing music and sound effects. But when you put those finishing touches on and then there’s music, and then there’s sound effects. And you suddenly go, “Oh my God, this just came to life.” It’s really exciting.
It’s amazing that we made it to the end. We frankly thought that at any point, we could be deep into act five, and something could happen and we’d have to shut down and never get to finish it. So when we made it to the finish line, I was like “Oh my, this is amazing.”
So now to see it all put together is…There’s a rush that you get as a director when the audience comes at opening night, it’s mixed with incredible nerves. I get that rush when I see what we’ve cut together. And to see these some young actors put together some pretty fine performances. I’m proud of them.
Schulz: What do you think the audience is going to get from seeing this production and the story of King Lear?
McGonigle: Yeah, it’s about leadership. It’s about leadership that falls apart. It seemed kind of appropriate for today. It’s very much about the responsibility of leadership, it’s about the responsibility of passing on power, and giving up power, which is another theme in our world today.
But in some ways, it’s like a family drama. And we’re doing it in the midst of a pandemic, you know, that we’d never seen before, and it was kind of surreal. This king is going mad and we’re all struggling to breathe with our masks on while we’re making it. It just seemed kind of timely and appropriate.
One of the parts of this experience that I think will become even more important once this airs on TV: this is now accessible to students throughout West Virginia.
This is now something that was made here. I think it’s really good for West Virginia to see ourselves not just as a coal mining state or beautiful mountain state, but that we are also a state full of artists and that we can make something like this.
If I do a play at the Creative Arts Center, a little over 1,000 people got to see that play. This is limitless. We’re creating all kinds of resources for teachers. So there’s an educational component.
I’m just really excited about the idea, it really makes me happy inside to think about students in a classroom watching this or sitting at home with their parents, or even parents in the southern part of the state getting to see this. And I think it’s really good for our state to know that we can do this kind of thing.