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21st century tech keeps 17th century play alive, thanks to Seattle teens

caption: The cast of Penguin Productions' new version of Shakespeare's "King Lear" rehearse via Zoom with director Shana Bestock, second row, second from left
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The cast of Penguin Productions' new version of Shakespeare's "King Lear" rehearse via Zoom with director Shana Bestock, second row, second from left
photo courtesy Shana Bestock

When Governor Jay Inslee announced his stay-at-home order in mid-March, theater artist Shana Bestock knew she had two choices: cancel her youth drama program’s spring production, or move it online.

The self-avowed technophobe says the answer was clear.

“I hate the idea of rehearsing on a computer screen,” Bestock said. “But I was able to put that aside and say ‘but we’re doing something, and something is better than nothing.’”

She’s paraphrasing a line from her company, Penguin Productions', current rendition of William Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear.”

Twice a week, Bestock and a dozen young actors convene rehearsals over the online meeting platform Zoom. Sadie Gingold is a 16-year-old cast member and veteran of other Penguin shows. She says it initially felt odd to deliver her lines to the camera on her laptop, instead of to another actor.

“But you can still see them,” Gingold said. “And you can still feel the chemistry and the emotions when they’re talking.”

Instead of concentrating on how to move across the stage, the cast is focused on Shakespeare’s text; that alone provides a challenge for the teens.

“King Lear” is a 400-year-old play about an aging autocrat with no male heir. He decides he will leave his realm to one of his three daughters, but first they must demonstrate their love for him.

Two of the young women fawn over their father; the third refuses to lie, driving Lear to madness and his daughter to a dreadful fate.

“It’s a show about sanity, about losing control,” Gingold said.

King Lear shares many traits with the current American president, according to actor Aaron Sterne, who plays the title character.

“The leader, when they’re put through situations of great stress, if the leader crumbles, then the whole country crumbles,” Sterne said.

Its contemporary relevance is one of the reasons director Bestock chose to produce “King Lear," this spring. She never imagined the additional challenges a pandemic would impose on her and her crew. But Bestock says she's become more proficient with the technology, acknowledging that it lends a different type of intimacy to her rehearsals.

The twice-weekly rehearsals, even if they’re online, also provide some structure for the teens in these uncertain times.

Cora Pearlstein, a 14-year old actor, says it’s the only normal thing in her life right now.

“It’s really nice to sit down for two hours, and maybe I’m stressed because I didn’t memorize my lines, but at least I’m not stressed about a literal pandemic that we’re in.”

The cast and director Bestock will continue rehearsals through mid-May. They had planned to perform for a live audience, but given the ongoing social gathering restrictions, they’ll videotape a performance via Zoom. Opening night, May 23, will be streamed online. As another impresario once said, the show must go on.

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