Picture director Steve Vaughan, wearing tall Wellington boots and covered head to toe in mud, clomping through a swamp in search of the perfect prop.
This scene, which bore a striking resemblance to Shakespeare's famous tale of an unhinged King Lear wandering across the heath, played out early this spring in Vaughan's muddy Grand Island backyard.
And while some might well question the sanity of director who spent months uprooting saplings to use in his organic production of "Lear" opening June 21 at Shakespeare in Delaware Park, there was a method to this particular brand of theatrical madness.
"I foolishly, in a fit of immature temper-tantrums, made a decision that I didn't want metal on the stage," said Vaughan, who has spent decades choreographing sword fights as a veteran fight director. "Some of that has to do with the fact that I do swords all the time and I wanted to try to do something different for the fight scenes. But even more important than that, I wanted to create new culture."
Steve Vaughan, director of Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s production of King Lear, made his own weapons from wood he dug up in his Grand Island back yard. This guy is dedicated. pic.twitter.com/b0m2sXqgAr
— Colin Dabkowski (@colindabkowski) June 14, 2018
To that end, Vaughan dug up a dozen or so young trees from his backyard. He carved the root ball into a bludgeon and whittled down the shaft of the tree into a smooth surface. Finally, he sharpened the end of the tree into a sharp point so it could be used as a kind of primitive weapon.
The characters in Vaughan's production of "Lear" will wield what he called these mace-spear-staffs instead of the traditional swords Shakespeare fans are used to seeing. They'll dance around piles of bleached cow bones in a pair of primitive ceremonies. And their world of sticks and stones, completely devoid of metal, will hearken back to an organic time and place where tribal fealties and family ties took precedence.
The approach, said Vaughan, was an attempt to emphasize the mythological nature of a story that, unlike some of Shakespeare's most famous plays, has no basis in history.
"I wanted to separate what we know of as real-world history from the mythology of the fable, so I made up this world where there's no metal," he said. "I made up a world where everything is made out of sticks and stones. We created our own culture, our own world."
Without the traditional trappings of clanking steel and clashing armor, the cast is free to focus on the essential elements of this story about an aging king's complicated relationship with his daughters and tenuous grasp on reality.
"I don't want anyone to be thinking about history. I want it to be about the story of families: this is what happens when families dysfunction," Vaughan said. "And it's a story as old as time."
Taking the lead role is Tom Loughlin, a Shakespeare in Delaware Park veteran who recently retired from his longtime post as a professor of acting and directing at SUNY College at Fredonia. Loughlin said he feels young enough to meet the role's energetic requirements, but old enough to appreciate some of the character's struggles.
"One of the greatest challenges in the role is, if you're not careful with Lear, you can just play him as a raging maniac," Loughlin said. His performance focuses instead on "finding the various elements where he shows other aspects of his character, his vulnerability, his weaknesses, his own sense of failure in terms of how he begins to perceive what's happening in the moment."
Vaughan's elemental world, which gives Shakespeare's most mythological play a deeply mythological setting, works well with Loughlin's interpretation.
"It gives the play more mythical overtones," Loughlin said. "When you see this no-metal world, where everything is wood, everything is rock, everything is organic, that really hearkens to a sense of everything being totally human, but raised to a certain kind of mythology."
"King Lear" opens at 7:30 p.m. June 21 and runs through July 15 in Delaware Park. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is free. Call 856-4533 or visit shakespeareindelawarepark.org.