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Shapiro discusses his unique directing style used for King Lear


An interview with the director of the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble's King Lear.


BRUCE SHAPIRO, artist in residence at Tufts University, is directing the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble's production of King Lear. This is his fourth year as artist in residence at Tufts. He has just finished directing his own adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel A Handmaid's Tale, and previously directed both Largo Desolato by Vaclav Havel and All's Well That Ends Well at Tufts.

It is Shapiro's unique directing style which has drawn most public attention. Joseph L. Vanderway '89, who is playing King Lear in the ensemble's production, described Shapiro's technique as one allowing a particularly visual expression of text. In the very physically demanding role of Lear, Vanderway plays a pivotal role in Shapiro's distinctive approach to performance.

To focus a performer's attention on expressing the meaning of the text, Shapiro follows a rubric, dividing text and characters into three categories: index, symbol, and icon. He describes the approach: "Iconicity is the formal miming of meaning. It is a self-contained approach to understanding the meaning of a play." The principles, according to Shapiro, were first proposed by the 19th century philosopher Charles Pierce.

He explains that, in his terminology, an "index" is a feature of the play essential to the plot. A "symbol" is a metaphor of an element within the play, while an "icon" is an image referring to a body of knowledge outside the play. Shapiro cites biblical reference in the play as a particular type of icon.

Within King Lear, Shapiro regards the character of Lear himself as the principal element, and so as the main index. Vanderway, playing the index, says he finds Shapiro's framework especially useful for picturing Lear's images of torment in nature. Shapiro points out, however, that Lear is not restricted rigidly by the classification, as his lines reflect features of index, symbol, and icon. Other elements of the play also have dual roles in the classification, Shapiro adds. So he sees his technique as a production tool and a way to develop actors' techniques, rather than as a method of textual analysis.

A certain conflict between the verbal and the visual always exists, concedes Shapiro. But he adds that there is always the need to develop actors' abilities in both areas -- Vanderway recalls the earlier part of the rehearsal period being spent on voice technique alone.

Shapiro feels that the language in Shakespeare can make the indexes, symbols, and icons more difficult to recognize, but stresses that it does not make Shakespeare more difficult to play. He has directed two Shakespeare productions before, and has appeared in several others.