Say “Macbeth” while sitting next to Lon Bumgarner in a theater, and conversation halts. “You need to go outside now,” he says, face blanched and eyes fixed. “Turn around three times, spit and curse. Then I will let you back in here.”
You think he must be kidding. You smile.
He is not kidding.
And when you come back, he relates mishaps that have plagued people who took the Scottish play’s name in vain. The most distinguished British thespians, he says, honor this centuries-old curse. They sew a piece of wood – maybe something as small as a Scrabble tile – into their costumes, so it touches their bodies whenever they speak that terrible name.
As he starts his fifth decade, he’s beginning to look a little like the Bard of Avon: A receding hairline on a prominent forehead, the right arrangement of mustache and beard. Suggest a resemblance to the famous portrait, and he asks, “Which one? The Chandos portrait is what you see most often. But scholars have recently discovered the Cobb portrait,” and sure enough, he pulls it up on his cellphone.
There you have Lon Bumgarner, who has done more than any Charlottean to connect people to Shakespeare over the last three decades. He’s a blend of scholarship and superstition, wisdom and whimsy, minutiae and motivation.
Destiny catches up with him
He never meant to become a bardolator. He collected an M.F.A. from the University of Southern California film school, expecting to write or produce movies.
But fate had other ideas. So he’s teaching acting at UNC Charlotte – including proper Shakespearean style – ferrying students over to England for intensive study, working with the Shakespeare in Action Center at UNCC and touring Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s high schools now with “Twelfth Night,” which he cut to about an hour and cast with his UNCC students.
How did all this happen? Was it his sixth-grade exposure to Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a favorite with teens?
“No, I didn’t care about Shakespeare then. But it had a brief nude scene. When you’re 13, everything counts.”
Was it an inspirational teacher?
“I do remember Ann Carver being the first person to bring Shakespeare down off the mountain, when I studied with her at UNCC in the early ’80s. She’d say things like ‘Lear thinks he should be a big-K king, when he should really be a little-d daddy.’ That made sense to me.
“I had a yearlong research project to do, so I decided to produce and direct ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ I went to the Army-Navy store and bought a bunch of camouflage (netting) left over from the Vietnam War, spending my own money at $13 a bundle. We had to rehearse from midnight to 2 a.m. to get it ready.”
The great epiphany
Ultimately, Bumgarner’s awakening came at 20, via his gluteus maximus.
“For the first time, UNCC had organized a trip for students to London and Stratford in the summer: weeks of time for $1,200. We’d eat lunch in a garden at Shakespeare’s house in Stratford and study in a building next door. I went to the church where he was buried to ponder his grave. I developed a rancid British accent.
“We had to ‘visualize’ speeches by putting pictures of all the nouns in them on posters. I was doing one from ‘Dream’ and snatching up the plants I saw around me for illustrations. And I realized Shakespeare must have been in that very spot, looking at plants and putting them into his speeches. My butt was sitting right where his butt had been. And I was addicted.”
Addiction was not alien to his personality, Bumgarner says: “I’ve always had this inner geek. As a kid, it was monster movies. Then it was comics – not comic books, comic strips. At 11, I was going to write a history of American comic strips.”
But this new addiction led to Charlotte Shakespeare Company, after he graduated from UNCC. He was getting an M.F.A. in theater from Virginia Commonwealth University and came home the first summer, only to find fellow Shakespeareans “flipping burgers and selling pot.” Why not put on a play? A free play outdoors, as Joe Papp did in New York’s Central Park?
“We didn’t have to pay royalties. We didn’t have to rent a theater. We wouldn’t charge because nobody would come,” he remembers thinking. But people did.
They kept coming for eight years, until the company collapsed in 1991. Bumgarner points to a lack of funding: Parks and Recreation departments here and in other counties were rebuilding territories after Hurricane Hugo, and the Arts & Science Council wanted CSC to merge with some other group (possibly Charlotte Repertory Theatre) for increased efficiency.
A false start toward film
Then came the Los Angeles interval, when “someone broke into my car almost weekly,” he worked as a grunt in the department that estimates features’ budgets at Twentieth Century Fox, and he pulled together budgets for fellow USC students’ projects. His class there included future directors Breck Eisner (“The Crazies”) and Edoardo Ponti (“Coming & Going”).
He returned to Charlotte to produce commercials, started a Sunday acting class that has now gone on for 15 years (www.filmactorsstudio.net), joined the UNCC faculty as a lecturer in 2003 and worked his way up to assistant professor.
And all the time, the Bard beckoned.
Bumgarner coordinated the visit to UNCC last October by Actors from the London Stage, a quintet that dazzled his students and the community at large with a minimalist version of “The Tempest.”
That visit was sponsored by The Shakespeare in Action Center, a group headed by UNCC professor Andrew Hartley. It’s exploring 36 Shakespeare plays in various ways over six years, leading up to the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016; Bumgarner is the organization’s secretary.
The hard (and not-so-hard) Bard
The group’s emblem is a poster of the mighty-muscled author, crouched like an action-film superhero. It hung at the edge of Myers Park High School’s stage this month during the “Twelfth Night” tour.
A narrator introduced characters while actors walked behind a screen, striking an attitude or seizing a prop that let the audience identify them. The troupe roared and tumbled through a shipwreck behind that screen with the aid of no special effects; the audience sat respectfully, perhaps straining a bit to follow the sly humor.
“I never underestimate these actors,” says Bumgarner. “They learned their lines over Christmas and came back and had a perfect rehearsal. Putting that on display is the hard part. To see them take that leap, to put in that little bit of behavioral spice at the right moment onstage – that’s the beauty of Shakespeare, and they find it.
“The battle to get college students interested in Shakespeare never changes, though. Some of them already hate him when they come to that first monologue in the general acting class. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten calmer, and I’ve realized I can’t shove him down people’s throats. I can only offer to open their eyes.”