Lear in the Age of Trump

The un-common stagecraft of Jamie Rocha Allan

By Gwenyfar Rohler

Jamie Rocha Allan smiles and tells me that his middle name is pronounced ROSH-ah. “It’s Portuguese,” he explains. “We went back every year.” His mother’s family is from a small village south of Lisbon, where Allan visited until he was in his early 20s. “I never thought of myself as being English because I was the child of immigrants. When I was in London — being sort of Mediterranean — people who were properly, like, ‘pasty English’ were always saying to me, ‘Where are you from? You sound like a Londoner, but you sort of don’t look English.’” He laughs and then recounts that when he moved to the United States, his wife informed him that his voice and English identity would now be his most defining feature.

Perhaps it is that sense of straddling two worlds that makes Shakespeare so interesting to Allan. Picture William Shakespeare, a 16th- century man from the sticks (Stratford-Upon-Avon) hustling to make a living in the big city of London. He is at best a country hick with a grammar-school education and apprenticeship as a glove maker, swimming in the sea of the snobbish cultural metropolis of London. “For me it’s like learning about him as the man, or just sort of as a human being, that is infinitely more interesting. I think the mistake with Shakespeare, where you miss out on something, is treating the Complete Works as a holy book and not seeing him as fallible,” Allan explains. “I love the idea of him just being this geezer who’s like, ‘Look, I write for money. Just tell me what you want and you can have it, as long as you pay.’” Perhaps that sentiment isn’t so far off for a freelance theater director in search of a gig. Currently based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Allan is spending this winter in Wilmington as the guest director for Dram Tree Shakespeare’s production of King Lear, which opens this month at McEachern’s Warehouse on Front Street.

“I think it’s one of those shows with Shakespeare that’s really fascinating. It‘s kind of in the middle of being known and unknown,” Allan notes. “It’s not on the greatest hits roster like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, but it’s not Pericles or Cymbeline either. King Lear kind of lives somewhere in the middle.”

Allan acknowledges that he has heard a lot of talk about the appropriateness of King Lear in the age of Trump, “Aging lunatic and none of his family like him. . . no, I see that. Initially my instinct was about setting it in modern-day England — it’s like Shakespeare Brexit — dividing the country.” But the more he thought about it, the more the script called to him to look at the setting The Bard gave it — 8th-century pagan England, a time of chieftains when violence was the natural tool of ambition: “By presenting something that has. . . distance from you, it allows you more mental space to project something onto it,” Allan explains. A space between identities of the civilized world we have become and the violence that lurks just under our skin.

Like many directors, Allan began life as an actor. His mother signed him up for an acting class at the age of 10. Neither of them expected it to set the course for the rest of his life. By his mid-teens he was doing some assistant directing and running the acting classes for the younger kids in the program. That led to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (Judi Dench and Laurence Olivier’s alma mater).

“I had a chance to do a little bit of directing while I was there. Then I came up and started a small sort of company, touring stuff around schools and colleges with a friend of mine,” he recalls. “We made kind of educational theater. It was great — he mostly wrote and I directed and then we were in it. It was mostly two-man shows, and we would turn up with a couple of rucksacks with all the set in it.”

Allan attributes much of his outlook as a director to these experiences. All the technical effects in the world cannot save a bad production: “If you don’t have a show in the rehearsal room, then you don’t have a show. If the heart isn’t there. . . that’s what you really quickly learn because there is no bullshit with (performing for) teenagers.”

But he wasn’t getting many roles in shows he didn’t produce. “I was mainly getting cast as a drug dealer or a terrorist,” he concedes. “You know that’s slightly reductive given what I want to play.” But when directing a show, he could explore all the roles — not just the one he was cast in. Like when he directed an all-female production of Medea. “High-born men as the main characters and working-class people as the comic relief,” he waves a hand dismissively, “doesn’t really do it for me. I think in a way I’ve always wanted to put chorus and ensemble at the heart of the work.” So at each performance the cast would select a different performer to portray Medea that time, making the story not singular but universal.

After grad school he landed an assistant director position at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). “I was at the RSC for just over a year, it was 2012. . . At the time Michael Boyd was the artistic director,” Allan notes. “One of the first things he said to me was, ‘Do you know what amateur means?’

“I was like, ‘I’ve got an idea.’ and he says ‘No, do you know what the word means?’ ‘No,’ I said. He told me, ‘For the love of.’”

Allan pauses, clearly struck by the memory and the lesson. “That is really beautiful.”

Dram Tree Shakespeare’s production of King Lear will take place from March 8 to 25 at McEachern’s Warehouse, 121 S. Front Street, Wilmington. For more information, call 910-726-3545. For tickets: 800-838-3006.

Gwenyfar Rohler spends her days managing her family’s bookstore on Front Street.

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