Interview by Laryssa Schoeck, BritGrad 2020 Registrar
Originally posted: 6 March, 2020
It is with great excitement we look forward to a screening at BritGrad of the independent film Lear’s Shadow, written and directed by Brian Elerding. Brian is an actor, director, and writer from California. He is a co-founder and artistic director of The Ensemble Shakespeare Theater in Pasadena. Read on for what Brian had to share about his artistic goals, his contemporary connection to Shakespeare, and his thoughts on what academics can learn from creative approaches to Shakespeare.
Laryssa: To start off, can you give us a bit of background about your company, Ensemble Shakespeare Theater, and what your artistic aims are?
Brian: Our goal with The Ensemble Shakespeare Theater is to fire up people’s empathy and get our audiences excited not only about Shakespeare, but also about appreciating multiple points of view. I think Shakespeare was brilliant at thinking like many people, and his plays reflect a real understanding of the complexities of life. Fred Cross and I started the Ensemble with a couple friends back in 2013 as a sort of escape, I suppose. We were all working actors in Hollywood, but were looking for something with more substance than the commercials, TV shows and movies we were doing for a living. The initial idea was just to make a little side project with our favorite people, but we partnered with a local botanical garden and then found a physical space in Pasadena, and the company had a very humble and natural growth from there. We didn’t really expect to do much more than short films until Lear’s Shadow. It just lent itself so well to filming that we thought “we’ve got to at least try it”, so I called in some favors from my friends in film production: director of photography Lars Lindstrom, and producer Asia LeMasters. All of a sudden this humble company had a legit film! It was very exciting, but shouldn’t have been surprising to me, given the caliber of folks involved.
Laryssa: Lear’s Shadow weaves sections of Shakespeare’s text in with contemporary dialogue. What were the challenges of writing and/or directing this piece that has two very different and very distinct writing styles?
Brian: I’m a very mission-driven person, and so writing Lear’s Shadow was actually very simple once I figured out what it was about. I read Lear probably a dozen times in a row just to have enough familiarity with it to draw from when I needed to for the story. So you’ll see that the action I’ve included from Lear compliments what’s happening between Jack and Stephen in the film. It’s not like a 1-to-1 thing – the story of Jack and Stephen doesn’t perfectly mirror Lear, obviously – but my hope is that recontextualizing those chunks of Lear helps the characters in their journeys, and hopefully can bring out new things for folks who know it well. And for anyone who doesn’t know Lear, there’s enough context from the Jack/Stephen storyline to be able to enjoy it. Directing it was a pleasure because I got to work with fantastic actors (David Blue, Fred Cross, and Katie Peabody) who do plenty of classical and contemporary work. David Blue and Fred Cross are both so adept at both styles of writing in the film, both so clever with words in real life, and both so curious as actors that my primary job as a director was just to say: “yeah, more of that!” I mainly stayed out of the way, and worked with DP Lars Lindstrom on figuring out the technical side of telling the story. There’s a fun thing we did in the filming that I can share in the live Q&A after the screening, but don’t want people to be looking for while they’re watching the film.
Laryssa: How do you connect your work with Shakespeare to contemporary audiences? And (without giving too much of the plot away) what contemporary connections did you make with King Lear when creating Lear’s Shadow?
Brian: Connecting Shakespeare to contemporary audiences is, I believe, the same for any author or playwright. You can’t just have a gimmick; you really have to have a whole mindset that focuses on what you want your audience to get from their experience. I think you have to build a relationship with your audience and show them you’re interested in telling raw stories, prove to them you’re willing to be vulnerable, and constantly challenge yourself and them. If you do that with any writer, or, for that matter, any art form, you’ll have people who are willing to go along with you on a journey.
Laryssa: How much is your work in theatre and film influenced by academic study of Shakespeare?
Brian: My work with the Ensemble is often influenced by academic studies of Shakespeare. I’m indebted to Marvin Rosenberg’s The Masks of King Lear for several moments in Lear’s Shadow. John Barton isn’t necessarily an “academic” since he was most famous as a practitioner, but I’m also heavily indebted to his writing on the philosophy and practice of acting Shakespeare. Keep an eye out for several John Barton references throughout Lear’s Shadow, including a costume choice (see the photo below) and a literal namecheck. One of my favorite Shakespeare scholars, Rob Clare, came to a rehearsal and spent some time chatting with the actors, and he’s wonderful when it comes to translating the academic into practical application.
Laryssa: What do you think academics can learn from creative approaches to Shakespeare?
Brian: Sometimes when I find myself getting stuck in cerebral concerns about Shakespeare, I try to keep in mind that the man had to compete with bears fighting dogs right down the street, and he did really well. This tells me that he was excellent at creating and sustaining dramatic tension in his plays. If you’re ever wondering why he wrote something, or why he chose a particular word or phrase, try it through a filter of “which explanation would help create or sustain tension”, and you’ll probably find a good answer. I sometimes see people that twist themselves into knots finding the most obscure literary references to try to come up with new ways of reading Shakespeare, but if you’re not chasing excitement and revelation in the work, you might be missing the forest for the trees.
Laryssa: And lastly… who’s your favorite Lear?
Brian: I’m loyal to my actors, so of course my favorite Lear is Fred Cross.