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M=Keeping the beat: Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer.

Drop Culture

John Thompson (Edmund), Kristin Wold (Cordelia) and Jonathan Epstein (King Lear) sit in the rehearsal hall chairs facing each other, knees interlocked. Their eyes initially look anywhere but at the actors nearest them. Tina Packer, artistic director of Shakespeare & Company and director of their first production of King Lear, joins the three actors, sitting slightly to the right of Epstein. According to the daily call sheet, the first hour of rehearsal today is for Beat 62; plays can be divided into “beats” around the exit or entrance of character(s) into a scene, making it easier to rehearse larger casts. Packer will be conducting Dropping In, a form of table work she created 30 years ago from her work at the Royal Shakespeare Company and refined in more than 25 years of directing and acting at Shakespeare & Company.

Packer takes the trio through some creative visualization so that the three are aware simultaneously of their present setting and the setting of Beat 62 (Edmunds’ interrogation of the captured Lear and his daughter Cordelia in Act V), then begins to “drop the text in,” speaking a word or key phrase of a line, asking a question, then waiting while the actor repeats the word or phrase.

They continue for the next three- quarters of an hour, words and lines stated, questions asked on the multiple levels of the words’ meanings, actors repeating the words and lines. With only the word or the line to answer the questions, the bodies and voices meld in response. Knees tighten on knees, hands clench thighs, bodies lean forward, and bodies seem to collapse into the chairs. Voices sometimes whisper in answer, or howl, squirm or cry.

Then they put the beat on its feet, “walking and feeding.” Packer feeds the lines to the three as they move around the hall, fielding the Dropping In questions. Eventually they end up downstage left against the window, Epstein protecting Wold from Thompson, Packer hurrying to keep up with the trio.

It is the Dropping In process that is the heart of Shakespeare & Company’s acclaim: “Each summer the finest theatre professionals trek up to the Berkshires to work with Tina Packer and one of the world’s most acclaimed Shakespeare festivals in the United States,” Vibhuti Patel wrote in Newsweek last year. New York Times critic Edward Rothstein noted that “Ms. Packer’s approach—connecting audiences with players, adventurously combining farce with solemnity, and paying homage both to contemporary tastes and classical ideals—is compelling.”

After 90 minutes they finish the beat by sharing observations: “I feel no sympathy, remorse. It’s a means to my ends. I’m on the precipice of being a king, and that’s the real power. That’s the ultimate,” Thompson says of the bastard Edmund at the pinnacle of his power. “I don’t want to go,” Wold states quietly of his Lear. Then four new actors arrive to begin Dropping In for Beat 68.

—James Yeara

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