Actor John Rensenhouse Reflects On Madness And Mortality As Shakespeare's King Lear

Jun 15, 2015

The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has graced Southmoreland Park for 23 seasons — and actor John Rensenhouse has been there for 10 of them. This year, he takes on the role of King Lear, with his volatile moods and ungrateful daughters. 

"He still wants to be king but he doesn’t want to do the work, so he is going to divide his kingdom up into three parts and give a part to each of his daughters," Rensenhouse says. 

"The youngest daughter, who he loves the most, refuses to participate in a little game he has set up by making them tell him how much they love him. And the one who loves him the most will get the biggest share of the land." 

For the first installment of a new monthly series called Actors Off-Script, John Rensenhouse met with KCUR's Steve Walker at a downtown hotel to talk about the challenges of playing the title role and his 35-year career as an actor. At about 6:30 p.m., after a day of rehearsals, Rensenhouse walked into the hotel restaurant and promptly ordered a chilled Sauvignon Blanc. 

Cheers!

"Thank you, Steve. Cheers. Long day."

This is the 8th day of rehearsal by my count, which is about halfway through until opening night. Is that right or am I off?

"Yeah, we’re about halfway there. And when we go into the park, it’s not so much about the acting. It’s about getting the technical — the sound cues, the lighting — right. And due to weather, often we will lose some time during that next week out there, so , I’m sort of programmed that by the end of this week, I’ve got to have it down or I’m going to be in trouble."

But you know your lines way, way before. You’ve known them since when?

"Well, it’s one thing to learn them out of the book but a totally different thing to actually speak them with other actors and in front of people. So you can say, ‘Oh, I’m great in the shower but I got out here and I forgot my lines.’ You know that’s a very common occurrence. ‘I knew my lines yesterday. What happened?’"

Is there part of the show you’re already really enjoying and will look forward to doing on any given night?

"Well, yes, and it’s actually the part we rehearsed today and I was happy we found some new things. Today we rehearsed the sequence of scenes when he goes crazy and is out on the heath in the storm during the night which starts with the very famous line, ‘Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!’ And I enjoy that scene because it’s such an emotional release and it’s like ‘Okay here I am, here we go’ and that’s gonna be fun."

Is it the build-up to the crazy or the full-tilt crazy that you’re really enjoying?

"Probably the full-tilt crazy (laughs). Come on. We’re all crazy and it’s fun to let your crazy out. 

For Rensenhouse, playing the role of a king who descends into madness strikes close to home. His father, who suffered from dementia, died recently.
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR

Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most notorious father characters, and last year you lost your own dad. Does that overlap or influence in any way how you’re tackling this guy?

"Uh, yeah. That’s a tough one. Yeah, of course it does. My dad suffered from dementia and I witnessed him losing his mind and faculties over a course of five or six years, and the frustration he had with that. And there’s a real modern line of thinking in terms of the play, King Lear, that, you know, this guy is suffering from Alzheimer's. He’s suffering from dementia. So taking a cue from when I watched my father has informed a lot of the play, and a lot of the shifts and not understandings are going to be my version of my father."

Another recent milestone —you turned 60, and you shared with me recently that you didn’t think you’d still be acting at this age. Why was that and what changed your mind and what were you thinking?

"Well, (laughs) I’ll tell you quite frankly, when I moved back, not knowing what the market was here, having lived in New York and Los Angeles, I really thought, well, okay, I won’t get that much acting work and I'll do something else. But when I moved back here, I kept getting calls from people I’d worked with previously around the country, saying, ‘Oh, John, we’re doing this. Would you want to come do this?’ Not wanting to ever say no, I’d say, ‘Sure.' So I actually found when I moved back here that I was actually busier than I’d ever been so that surprised me. I was in the right place after all." 

Heart of America Shakespeare Festival presents 'King Lear' June 16 through July 5 , Tuesday through Sunday evenings at Southmoreland Park, Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard and Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri. Gates open at 6 pm, with performances at 8 pm. 

The Actors Off-Script series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at sewalker@ku.edu