A Peek Behind the (Virtual) Curtain of King Lear

Ever since we announced that SF Shakes would move forward with a virtual production of King Lear, there have been quite a few questions about how exactly a live-streamed, virtual production would work. Well, today, your resident nerdy literary interns will endeavor to explain as best we can, starting with a creative dramatization of the process.

A Day In the Life of a Virtual Theater Actor

You tap your fingers against your leg, gauging if your camera is in the same place or if the dog had knocked it askew during the night. You can’t tell, which means you have to dig out your measuring tape again. At this point, you should really just stop putting it away. The large greenscreen on its tripod stands is pushed back against the wall and softboxes and umbrella lights fill the rest of the tiny room. You have managed to place everything with just enough room to make a dramatic exit to the left before you have to crouch down out of view and crawl back to the other side for your next entrance. One familiar thing is the scattering of blue tape on the floor marking your positions, though the additional tape on the walls to mark sightlines is a new experience.

Measurements all once again to specifications, you open your laptop. Mentally running through your tech checklist, you open Zoom, adjusting your audio and camera settings. Soon your screen fills with boxes full of greenscreens and familiar faces, a smile stretches across your face. Time to work. 

Reciting your line, you stare at the empty wall in front of you, adjusting your body movements to hopefully keep them all in the camera angle. “How’s my sightline?”

“Look a bit higher and a smidgen downstage,” Elizabeth, the director, explains. You move slowly. “Perfect.”

Another piece of painter’s tape is added to your wall. Smoothing the tape you feel the hollowness of the empty room around you. You miss the energy of the actors you work with. Regardless, it doesn’t squash your excitement and anticipation of creating something special–even with a pandemic affecting the country. This is something new and exciting, a challenge you are determine to rise up and face. 

Your scene is done, and you are curious to see how the blocking for the next one will go. You aren’t in the next scene at all, so you don’t have to worry about your camera being in the composite layer, so you sink down in front of your computer to watch. Lear, the Fool, and Kent appear on scree; Neal, the Technical Director, layers each of their camera images together. The scene starts and the three actors act all alone in their separate spaces. Technology provides the illusion that they are together, each movement perfectly placed to mimic touch and interaction. It is immensely reassuring to watch and see the scene come to life, to see the illusion being created.

Soon it will all come together, Neal, will create the composite of images, taking the individual camera feeds and layering them together, incorporating backgrounds over the greenscreens and sending them out to be streamed live to YouTube for all the world to see. Together with ingenuity and tech, they would create a 100% remote performance of King Lear. Your parents have never been able to travel to witness one of your performances before and now they would get the chance to watch you from the comfort of their living rooms. You grin with excitement for the challenges and long hours of tedious adjustments to come. Your camera has to be perfectly placed, your audio correct, your lighting just right, your movements perfectly timed; it’s a lot to keep track of. This is going to be fun.

This is a new medium that brings with it many new challenges, but we are nevertheless excited to share this experience with you! Here is a brief explanation of the process of how we bring our actors from their individual locations to be streamed live to you in your homes. 

  • It starts with all thirteen of our actors at home in front of their green screen setups which look something like the diagram below (though several of our actors have to adjust this according to their individual environments).
  • Before hopping on Zoom for rehearsal, they each also have to check their camera, green screen, and lighting and positioned exactly in their specified places (accurate to ½”) in their space. Nearly a dozen video and audio software settings need to be set, and all external light needs to be blocked out (as do children and pets!)
  • Next, we head to Zoom, where a sea of green screens awaits. Here, the actors turn on their cameras in a specific order. This ensures that the image of each actor is in the same location every time.
  • Since none of our actors are in the same space (some are cities away from each other), their interactions are quite different. A large chunk of rehearsal time is dedicated to creating accurate sightlines so it seems as though everyone is looking at their scene partners and making eye-contact while, in reality, everyone is acting in their individual space. This new medium has resulted in the actors having to be highly adaptive, learning to perform a complex dance with their partners in another space, and rely on sound cues for timing. Some scenes, like fights, have music with heavy rhythms to help keep time.
Jessica Powell*, Phil Lowery*, Cassidy Brown*, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong*, Melissa Oritz*, Diana Lauren Jones, Yohana Ansari-Thomas, Ron Chapman, Sharon Huff, David Everett Moore* (* indicates member of AEA)
  • From Zoom, Neal, our Technical Director, uses software to capture the images of each actor (this is why the order is so important) before using a compositing technology to crop and layer the images, creating a virtual space with layers and an illusion of a unified, 3-D space.
Ron Chapman (Edmund) and Phil Lowery* (Gloucester)
  • To do so, we use specialized broadcasting software that allows us to take the combined images of our actors and stream it live on YouTube for you, our lovely audience!

We know that this can be a lot to take in, especially because it is so far and away from what we know as live theatre. So, as I’m sure many of you would like to know, what exactly does this mean for the SF Shakes you know and love?

  • Well, the most obvious is that due to the pandemic we can no longer participate in some of those awesome Free Shakes traditions; no picnics with friends, no outdoor stage, and setting (though you can get creative and make your own!), and (of course) no actual park. However, never fear! Our engagement team is working hard to try and bring a sense of normalcy and togetherness, through this new virtual medium. We can all still be a community that enjoys theater and talks about Shakespeare, even when so many of us are so far apart.
  • In addition, there’s a new disconnect between the actors and the audience. Normally, the performance feeds off of audience engagement (laughs, gasps of shock, etc.). In this new (virtual) space, however, our actors don’t have this interaction, which could affect the overall energy of the show. More than ever we will need active participation from our audience—you can engage in the live chat showing SF Shakes your support and love. We have the chance to create a great virtual community during our live performances!
  • We also have the rare opportunity to explore technology in ways we have never before been able to. We want to be clear, Lear will still be performed and streamed live, but because we are virtual, we can do some pretty interesting things. For one, we can change “camera views”. This means we can have multiple different composites of different groups of actors, creating the illusion of a different camera angle. This allows specific characters to be the main focus with other actors being off screening. We can easily shift camera to show those actors for their reactions and lines, a bit like you see in movies. This helps with overcrowding in our virtual space. We can also change scenery with a click of a button to a wide range of virtual backgrounds.
  • Suffice to say we are all in a new space with new rules and we are excited to explore it and share what we have created with you!

King Lear: Synopsis

A Kingdom Divided

Upon her retirement, King Lear decides to divide the kingdom among her daughters so that she might “unburdened crawl towards death.” Lear makes her daughters earn their inheritance by performing declarations of flattery. Cunning Goneril and Regan play along, win their portions, and are married off to the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall respectively. However, Cordelia, the youngest and most beloved daughter, refuses to speak such false flattery. This enrages Lear resulting in Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France, disinherited and banished from the country. In a moment of bravery, the Earl of Kent, Lear’s trusted and faithful advisor, condemns Lear’s rash decisions and is exiled for his trouble, but returns to court disguised as Caius, a servant loyal to Lear.

Lear declares she will retain her rank in name only and will live alternately with Goneril and Regan, maintaining a retinue of only 100 men; but Lear’s retirement does not go as planned as Goneril and Regan begin to exert power over her in humiliating ways. This forces Lear  to comprehend her diminished state of power and respect. Lear’s court Fool berates her for her foolishness. 

“Sharper than a serpent’s tooth”

In a closely related subplot, more conflict arises from the question of inheritance. The Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund resents his illegitimate status and plots to gain his father’s fortune by framing his virtuous older brother Edgar. Edmund falsifies a letter from his brother, detailing Edgar’s wishes to usurp their father. Faking an attack from Edgar, Edmund forces his older brother into hiding. Gloucester falls for the ploy and proclaims his legitimate son an outlaw and grants his inheritance to cunning Edmund.

At Gloucester’s home, Kent disguised as Caius is placed in the stocks by Regan and Cornwall for a quarrel with Goneril’s servant, Oswald. Upon her arrival at the estate, Lear flies into a rage at this appalling treatment of her servant. Lear expects Regan to side with her against Goneril, but Regan is just as disdainful of her mother’s behavior. Both daughters declare they will not allow Lear to retain more than twenty-five men. Cursing her daughters, Lear rushes out into the storm accompanied by faithful Kent and her wise but mocking Fool. Gloucester denounces the treatment of the King by Goneril and Regan and goes out in search of her to inform her of Cordelia’s imminent arrival with an invading army from France intended to restore Lear’s position.

The play reaches its highpoint in the midst of the storm as Lear suffers a complete breakdown. Having lost all her power and familial relationships, she begins to comprehend her own failures and experience some of her first moments of empathy. 

Familial Dysfunction

Edmund betrays his father, revealing Gloucester’s knowledge of an impending invasion to reinstate Lear. Gloucester is declared a traitor and has his eyes gouged out. A servant reacts to such gruesome torture and attacks Cornwall, giving her a mortal wound. Regan informs Gloucester that he trusted in the wrong son and was betrayed by Edmund. Edgar, who in exile has donned the disguise of Tom o’ Bedlam, eventually finds his blinded father wandering outside. Gloucester begs Tom to lead him to a nearby cliff so he can end his life. Tom simulates leading his father to the cliff, and then, pretending to be someone new, swears his father has miraculously survived the fall.

Albany becomes aware of the family’s ever-increasing corruption and he and Goneril fight. Regan, newly widowed, and Goneril, finding her husband cowardly, both set their lustful sights on the bastard Edmund.

Still recovering from her emotional breakdown in the storm, Lear finds herself in the care of Cordelia, newly arrived from France. Lear begins to regain her senses and begs for forgiveness. The reunion is short-lived as Cordelia and Lear are quickly taken prisoner by the sisters’ armies. Edmund orders the King and Cordelia killed. 

Goneril’s pursuit of Edmund is divulged and Albany charges them both with treason. Regan, who has also declared her intent to marry Edmund, falls ill and is escorted off stage. Edmund demands a trial by combat and fights a disguised Edgar. Edgar deals Edmund a fatal wound before removing his disguise. He reveals the fate of their father who died from joy and grief upon learning of Edgar’s true identity. Regan’s illness and subsequent death is reported to be the result of her sister poisoning her, and Goneril commits suicide. Just before death, Edmund reveals his execution orders for Cordelia and Lear. His warning comes too late, and Lear stumbles on stage carrying the corpse of Cordelia. Lear, overwhelmed by all that has happened and filled with grief, dies. Kent, determined to follow Lear even to the grave, declines the request to lead the country, leaving Edgar alone to offer hope.