‘It’s not Queen Lear.’ How one woman approaches Shakespeare’s iconic role.

Despite her accomplished career onstage and as a playwright, Ellen McLaughlin was not prepared for the phone call from the artistic director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder asking her to take on the title role in “King Lear.”

She had multiple requirements for accepting the part: “We’re not changing the pronouns. I’m not gonna do it in a dress. It’s not Queen Lear. It’s not about the terrible things that happen when women get power,” she says. “If we do it right, there will come a point at which the audience will stop thinking about the fact that I’m not a man, and they’ll just watch an actor interpret a part.” 

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In “King Lear,” veteran actor Ellen McLaughlin has found both a “marvelous” role and a vehicle to help audiences consider how people care for one another.

Ms. McLaughlin hopes the casting doesn’t overshadow what she insists is Shakespeare’s “biggest” play. “I don’t think he takes on these huge metaphysical questions in any other play,” she says.

What she learns anew each evening she plays Lear “is that you never know anyone’s story until you try to deeply understand,” she says. “There’s no dismissing any human being because we’re all carrying these sorrows that are ineffable and that rule us to some extent. So, I feel like it expands me as a human being to attempt to understand such a great and complicated character.” 

When young Ellen McLaughlin was growing up in 1960s Washington, D.C., her parents would get dressed up – and get her dressed up, too – and take her to the iconic Arena Stage, which she calls “one of the first great regional theaters in America.” She saw masterpieces past and present: “Macbeth,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – and “King Lear.”

Though she now insists a 10-year-old has no business seeing a play with the madness and brutality of “King Lear,” she came out of that theater dreaming of someday playing Lear’s daughter Cordelia.

“And I did,” she says. But that was much later, after she’d become a professional actor. After she’d soared high over Broadway portraying the original Angel in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Angels in America.”

Why We Wrote This

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In “King Lear,” veteran actor Ellen McLaughlin has found both a “marvelous” role and a vehicle to help audiences consider how people care for one another.

Despite her accomplished career onstage and as a playwright – much of her extensive oeuvre has been produced around the world – she was not prepared for the phone call from Tim Orr, artistic director of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder, asking her to take on the title role in “King Lear.”

“Tim offered me the part, and he said to me afterwards, ‘Did you realize that you took a full minute to respond?’” Ms. McLaughlin says in a Zoom interview. She’d had no memory of that. Nor had she any inkling, as Mr. Orr told her later, that he was “sweating like a pig” waiting, hoping she would agree to play Shakespeare’s most larger-than-life male character.

Still, she hesitated. “Before I can say anything, I need to talk to the director,” she told him. “I don’t want to be in a production where we’re not in sync on how to do this thing.”