At first glance, Graham Smith resembles a famous picture of William Shakespeare: bald on the crown, flowing hair cut in a deep fringe below that, neatly trimmed beard, impish twinkle in the eye. He's just three years older than the Bard of Avon was when he died, around his 52nd birthday.
On second look, he suggests the white-maned, assertive, outspoken King Lear, and that's most apt: He has played the self-destructive monarch over two long runs and brings his ever-changing interpretation to Spirit Square tonight.
This version by Collaborative Arts Theatre unites one of Charlotte's best-known - and, for the last decade, least-seen - actors with a company that has recently stepped up its game.
Smith and wife Audrey Brown, a professional stage manager, bought a house in NoDa before the city knew what that abbreviation meant. He spent more than 20 years with Charlotte Repertory Theatre, including the time it was known as Actors Contemporary Ensemble. But since 1997, he's done most of his work at People's Light & Theatre in Philadelphia and come to High Point for summer gigs with N.C. Shakespeare Festival.
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Collaborative has grown over five seasons into a company that produces modern plays during the fall-spring season but is best known for summer Shakespeare. It has done "Julius Caesar" and "Othello," but "Lear" stands in another tragedic class: It's as if furniture movers specializing in sofas decided to shift a grand piano.
"We didn't know until last season if audiences would sit through a heavy drama," says artistic director Elise Wilkinson, who plays Lear's daughter Regan. "But 'Othello' had great attendance. ...
"We couldn't do 'Lear' without knowing we had someone who could handle that role. So Graham had to clear his schedule with the Shakespeare Festival before he said yes." (As it happened, that festival did no Shakespeare at all this fall.)
Except for last year's "Women of Will," an imported production, Collaborative has never done a play with two Equity actors. (Stephen T. Ware plays the Earl of Gloucester.) Nor has it had a four-week rehearsal or so intense a performance slate: six shows over five days, Wednesday through Sunday, for two weeks.
As if that weren't enough, the first director quit after two rough rehearsals. Into the breach stepped Tim Ross, who has plenty of experience - he lately did a thoughtful "Glass Menagerie" at Theatre Charlotte - but who is also playing the major role of Edmund, Gloucester's conniving son.
A shared challenge
This means the adjective in Collaborative's name has never mattered more than now.
"I have more experience with Shakespeare, so I can lead by example and raise the bar a bit," says Smith. An example: "In normal speech, we let the end of the line drop. Here the (vocal) energy has to go all the way to the end of a line, so the next actor can pick it up. Part of my job is to help with that.
"The people around me are bringing their whole selves to this play. Sometimes that's more desirable than people who've done lots of acting and think they know everything."
Smith came to the drama at Davidson College in the 1970s, when a humanities professor said the lead was too hard for any actor. ("I thought, 'Hmmm. Maybe that's a play I want to be in.' ")
"Lear" resonated deeply when Smith played the Fool to Earle Hyman's old-school, grandly outsized king in 1993 at the Shakespeare Festival. As he waited to lead Hyman onstage, he heard the old man mutter, "Too late, too late." He had waited too long to tackle the part.
"It's the problem of Juliet in reverse," says Smith. "By the time you understand the ideas of 'Romeo and Juliet,' you can't portray a girl of 14. With Lear, you're playing a man in his 80s who has to make all those long speeches, then carry Cordelia onstage for the last scene."
Jetting from Lear to Lear
Smith undertook his first Lear in 2008 at N.C. Shakespeare Festival, when he was still "working on the machinery: the vocal effects, the muscular demands. That limited my understanding of the part." His second came in spring 2010 at People's Light, and he focused on smaller points within speeches.
So how's it different now?
"My wife, who has seen me do it 42 times, says I now have an older sensibility in the role. It's more vulnerable. The bones of the speeches are in there, so I can embrace the ambiguities. It's more like jazz, where you're able to improvise once you know the melody.
"An artist always reaches for something just beyond his grasp. We're grappling with a play ... that is so big you can never get all of it. How well we grapple with it is what makes the event worth watching."