Today we put King Lear to bed and gave his crown to the ocean. We’ve lived with him for more than five years, having started thinking about doing this production while we were writing Galahad’s Fool. In that novel, a puppeteer is confronting making new work solo after losing his life-partner, and that requires him to invent some novel staging methods. He taught them to us, and we were hooked. If Albert could do Galahad’s quest solo, we could do King Lear with two people.
It took us about a year of monastic dedication to create this production: editing the text to 100 minutes, creating and costuming a large cast of puppets, designing the set, creating the sound score, and solving the problem of making all the tech run from an on-stage laptop. We had a deliriously sweaty set of previews in our home studio in March of 2015, then opened it at the Emerald Tablet Gallery in San Francisco in April. It hit the road in May at the San Diego Puppetry Festival, and was off and running.
We’ve done sixty-six performances in twelve states, including one insanely satisfying house concert. Finally, after literally years of trying to find workable dates, we landed a three-weekend run right here at our beloved Main Stage West, and recognized this as a gift and a sign. Time to lay this to rest.
When you know it’s the last performance, you hear and feel everything with a new intensity. We had a magnificent audience supporting us, and we brought a couple of bottles of Prosecco to thank them during lobby-chat afterward. Then, this morning, we dismantled everything, stuffed it in the Prius, and brought it home. We’d already imagined a ritual of putting it to rest.
We went to the ocean, to our customary picnic spot on a high bluff, ate sushi and drank sake, let the sound of the waves wash us clean, then climbed down the sketchy path to the rocky beach. We had Lear’s rope-crown and the tiny knife that bears witness to the death of Goneril. Before casting them into the water, we spoke in unison these words of Lear’s reunion with his beloved daughter:
Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep: we’ll see ’em starve
Sunday was the final performance of our Lear after a 12-performance run in Sebastopol, capping a tour over a two-year span. Small audiences here, as expected: music and politics and wineries bring out the public, not our unbranded brand of theatre. And yet each audience could not have offered more deeply-felt response. As I’ve said a number of times, for us it’s more difficult every year to get audiences, and yet the response of those who come is stronger than ever.
The production is little changed from its premiere, and yet it’s grown immeasurably in these two years. Sunday’s show was one of our best. After the show, someone asked, “Why shut it down? You ought to be on PBS.”
Well, sure, I think we deserve fame. And while our affections for our theatrical creations aren’t quite the same as for our children, they still partake of that: we want them to grow and flourish. That’s why we’ve always focused on touring—despite a few side trips into producing a regular “season”—to keep a show growing into its childhood, its teens, its maturity. Dessie was with us nine years; Macbeth over a span of fifteen; Marie Antoinette with separate stagings in Lancaster, New York, and Philadelphia; and some of our short sketches have played for twenty to forty years. Every performance is like each day when your kids are growing up: the joy, the crises, the perpetual challenge, the sudden illuminations. You can try to freeze that in a snapshot or a video, but that’s not the same as the doing.
So, back to the question. Many answers. We’re 75 and 77, and it’s a monster to perform, even when you’re not having to do a four-hour setup, 100-minute performance, and 90-minute strike for a one-night stand. We wanted to close it at its peak, not when it’s fizzling down into senility. We have new projects: a novel being published next spring; a new show in its early stages and designed for house concerts, which we love; another novel in its third rewrite and another in conceptual stage. Not to mention a garden and a couple of three-month-old kittens known collectively as the Catafanatics, a.k.a. Shadow and Garfunkel. And Lear is now on DVD—which lacks the danger and sweat of a live performance, but still worth watching and hopefully a way to give life to the vision.
But the question has unintended resonance. Why are you folks unknown? Why, after a professional career of 47 years, 57 of working together, do you draw an audience of thirty in your own town? Why, creating hardscrabble social-issues drama, classical puppetry, public radio series, videos, mainstream plays for regional theatres, hundreds of short sketches, and touring 36 states, are you now wanting to play house concerts and write novels?
I dunno. That’s life. We’ve never stuck to one item on the menu: our work has been all the dishes at the potluck. We’re lousy salesmen. We put 99% into creation, 1% into promotion: a bad idea, like having 20 children and not even remembering their names, much less how you’re going to send them all to college.
I guess it comes down to what compels you. A story takes hold, and you need to give it form. Then you birth it on stage or page or the broadcast waves. Then you try to find its audience and see if you can make it pay the bills. Belatedly, you think how it fits your “career”—making the most of a success, checking the trends of the marketplace. At a certain age, though, you forget about career. Or even if you don’t, I do. It’s the story I care about, and the making of the story. I still want audiences. I still want publishers. I still want readers. I still want those people saying Fantastic! Thank you! Amazing!—which is what they did with Lear. But for myself, I can stay alive only when pregnant, and that’s where I need to be now.