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Kershaw, Godot, Macbeth and me

Paul Kershaw’s influence crossed generations — but as collective as that influence was, it is also deeply personal for everyone who experienced it, myself included.
The cast of Paul Kershaw’s production of “Waiting for Godot,” at the Key City Theatre, January, 2015. Left to right: Barry Borgstrom (Estragon), Mark Casey (Lucky), Austin McAra (messenger), Dave Prinn (Pozzo), Barry Coulter (Vladimir). Stan Saliken photo

One of the greatest gifts Paul Kershaw gave me was my own severed head. More on that later.

This was only one of the many gifts the late Cranbrook teacher, mentor, director and producer — who passed away April 13 at the age of 89 —made available to me and to hundreds and hundreds of other students and would-be actors over the course of his long career as teacher and community playmaker, through the limitless theatricals he put on.

He was responsible for putting more people from the area on to a stage than anyone else, I would argue. By far.

Kershaw’s influence crossed generations — but as collective as that influence was, it was also deeply personal for everyone who experienced it, myself included.

If I count the people I have come to know in my 25 years in Cranbrook, I’m astounded at how many I met as part of a Paul Kershaw production. They may even be among the majority. And I wasn’t even in that many of his plays — a half dozen. But those experiences are among the most intense of my life, in terms of personal growth and consciousness expansion.

Most important among these personal experiences was Kershaw’s production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” in 2015. This was a typically bold choice of plays for him to do — the most famous play in the world, that no one can understand. My involvement in it changed the way I’ve thought about things. And I’ve never stopped thinking about that experience.

* * *

There were five us in that play: Mark Casey (Lucky), Dave Prinn (Pozzo), Barry Borgstrom (Estragon), me (Vladimir) and Austin McAra, then 11 years old, as the messenger boy.

We did four months of rehearsals, most of it pretty intense. All but the last two weeks of the rehearsal period were held in the director’s wood-working shop. We rehearsed as per usual, putting together separate blocks a week at a time.

When we started putting those separate blocks together, the play started to fight back. When we finally ran the entire play for the first time (two acts, with the second act being a strange mirror image of the first), I was exhausted afterwards. I was sweating, and coughing, and felt depressed. I wasn’t sure what I was doing anymore. The first act was especially hard, and remained so throughout the entire run.

The vocabulary in “Godot” is quite simple. But the dialogue can get very strange, and some lines make no sense at all against each other. And it comes rapid fire, with the rhythm and pace of a stand-up comedy routine.

Also, the dialogue has such a bizarre structure that if someone misses a cue — especially when the four main characters are interacting, then each actor could find himself in a completely different part of the play. This would happen to us on stage, with chaos resultiong, but we had to keep saying lines, trying to get back on the same page, literally. So, basically, we all had to learn each others’ lines as well as our own.

But if the play did take us sideways, and we kept delivering lines at a good pace, the drama worked just as well as far as the audience was concerned.

In the midst of this immense confusion, single words come breaking through, like rays through cloud cover. “Remember,” “memory,” “time,” “think,” “thinking,” “certain,” “inevitable …” These words are key to the play. It comments on the artificiality of memory, and asks if time even really exists for us. It also struck me that the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, may have been originally based on World War I veterans, their wits rubbled by post-traumatic stress disorder.

As we moved into the big theatre and the final dress rehearsals, the play started to come to life — a real life. I swear that something else came to life too. It’s like “Waiting for Godot” has some strange, dark, demonic life force of its own, which I’ve never seen the like of in any other play.

And far from “nothing ever happening,” as the play itself references, I think an awful lot happens. It’s very watchable — Pozzo and Lucky’s entrance is astonishing, both times. During our second dress rehearsal, in front of 35 high school students, I started seeing for the first time the play through an audience’s eyes, and when Pozzo and Lucky came on for the second time, my jaw dropped. I saw how dramatic it was. Suddenly that dark mirror image of the first act became clearer, and I felt a charge of electricity. I felt like the play was beginning to yield up its secrets. But it never did. I felt I was being buffeted by the play. And all the time there was this deep pit of subtext and metaphor below me, up from which suggestions of ideas would bubble whenever key words or phrases were mentioned.

During the last two shows, when I was giving Vladimir’s key speech at the end (“Was I sleeping while the others suffered?”), to my amazement I found myself starting to cry at the lines “at me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, ‘he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.’”

At that speech’s end, I had to rush over to the corner of the stage and worry and bat at my bowler hat to compose myself, which luckily was one of my recurring tics written into the play.

I’ve never been involved in anything remotely like it.

But when we were acting it, the characters really came to life, and I saw what an amazing creation “Waiting for Godot” is — a masterpiece. When the pace is right — i.e., quick — you can really see what a deceptively complex structure the play is based on. With one word, there can be an extreme mood swing, and a new vignette begins. Some of these are clownishly obvious, some are subtle.

I was expecting six people a night to come to a play like this in Cranbrook, but each night we got between 60 and 90. Not bad for a town our size. I consider it a fearless and forward thinking decision of Paul Kershaw’s to mount “Waiting for Godot,” and am grateful for the opportunity he gave me to be in it.

* * *

As to my severed head: Paul once offered me the role of Macbeth, in the eponymous Shakespeare play, another life-changing experience. Part of the preparation involved making a head that could be chopped off at play’s end. Paul created this by lying me on a table and pouring plaster over my head, in order to make a cast. I breathed through straws. Though much of the plaster — most of it — ran into my then long hair, where it hardened, a not unreasonable likeness of my face and head was the eventual result. Paul fixed up it with eyes and hair that he used for the wonderful rocking horses he built.

Trent Brereton was in the role of Macduff, Macbeth’s nemesis. Kershaw had fashioned two enormous steel broadswords, perfectly capable of killing each other with. He then choreographed a nasty sword fight for us (the timing of when to duck was key). Swinging heavy broadswords at each other, Trent and I fought our way off-stage, where Trent chopped off my head. He re-entered, my bloody severed head stuck on the point of his sword, shouting “Behold where stands th’usurper’s curséd head!” The audience always cheered, to my offstage bemusement.

I took my severed head home when the run ended, and gave it to my cousin as a souvenir of the play. For years, she kept it on top of her upright piano, and eventually it became entwined in a trailing vine plant, that also sat on the piano. Every time I saw it there, I imagined Macduff throwing Macbeth’s head away on to a Scottish moor, where through some enchantment it remained perfectly preserved over the years, becoming a landmark for small creatures, birds, insects, and little folk who lived amongst them, only three inches tall.

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998.
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