A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, January 19, 2013

King Lear is Not for Kids

Over the holiday, I went back to Ames to visit some old teachers and Mr. Keane finally told me why he decided to do King Lear as our sophomore performance. That deserves some context. I've hiked the Grand Canyon, worked for a certifiably psychopathic boss, gotten lost in Berlin for three days, and managed to get a four point while I had mono, but acting in King Lear was truly the most harrowing experience of my life. You try doing a play about insanity and betrayal as a teenager.

It's true, I really wanted an explanation, but I wasn't looking for a confession. I'd put it behind me, and I figured, like King Lear itself, there really wasn't a good reason for it anyway. The admission came about in the most unnatural way possible -- one moment we were talking about jobs and the next he said, "It was a dare I had in college." He looked mildly ashamed of himself, which he should have been.

It was after hours and it was already dark outside. Mr. Keane's window looks out on the courtyard where I used to eat lunch with friends and I could see a few kids were still there, huddled in a tight circle talking about god knows what.

"A dare...?" I asked.

"A dare..." Mr. Keane said and nodded. He slouched in his chair, resting his forehead in his hand and I had to stop myself from laughing because he suddenly looked a lot like a photo I'd seen of Edwin Booth as Hamlet.

"It was senior year and my friends and I were sitting around at a party talking about Shakespeare because we were theatre majors and an old argument came up: can you teach Shakespeare to high schoolers? We were drinking and smoking pot, which tends to lead to silly promises..."

I looked over my shoulder to make sure that no one was standing at the door to the room. Mr. Keane didn't seem the least bit worried about anyone hearing. In fact, I'm not sure if he was talking to me at all.

"Um, Mr. Keane..." I said and, for first time, his formal name seemed awkward and I wondered if I should just call him Miles. "... Mr. Keane... are we really having this conversation?"

"Apparently we are," he verified. "I can get to the point and say that that was my first year teaching and I'm very sorry."

"You made Max sit in a corner and scream 'Please God don't make me crazy!' for ten minutes..." Max played King Lear. I've never seen anyone so deep in character. I've heard Max works for the Bank of America now.

"Yeah, I'm sorry about that. I stole that from a friend who was doing Proof." He took a sip of coffee and refilled my cup. In the whole year I sat in his classroom, I don't think I ever saw that pot empty.

"On the first rehearsal you made us all sit around and write out our worst memories-"

"Yeah, I-"

"-and then made the person next to us act it out." Try to imagine being sixteen years old, sitting next to the girl you have a crush on (playing Ophelia), and acting out the death of her uncle.

Mr. Keane hung his head. "That was a bad decision."

The head-hanging thing was too much. I'd forgiven him, if not forgotten, but now he was looking for sympathy and I wanted to get to the one that really stung. "You threw cast parties and didn't invite me."

There was a grimace on his face and he took a quick sip of coffee. "It was something Milos Forman did to the guy playing Salieri filming Amadeus."

"And this seemed like a good thing to do to a sixteen year old?"

"You did great in that play."

"I know I did, but that's not the point."

Every rehearsal I would get there and all the other actors would be talking about the fun they had at Gregory's or how they got together to watch different film versions of the play. Without me. The best part of high school theatre is the social aspect and I missed out on it completely. I later learned this was by Mr. Keane's design so that I would feel animosity toward the other actors while playing Edmund. Ever since then, I've always liked that character.

Mr. Keane nodded. "Well, I know it's not worth much, but I'm sorry and I was learning."

He was learning. It seemed like a feeble excuse when he said, but after a moment it took on greater meaning.  Mr. Keane, when he did that first play with us, was my age - fresh out of college and still susceptible to bouts of artistic insanity. At my job now, I meet teachers all the time and usually I think, "You're too young to be a teacher..." not realizing that I guess we've reached that age where we're expected to know something and pass it on.

We talked a little longer, Miles and I, but about nothing particularly memorable. He was "Miles" to me then and that meant he didn't have anything more to teach me. The lessons he did give me were accidental anyway. We said goodbye and I left Ames High feeling educated again.

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