Retiring professor takes final bow as lead in ‘King Lear’

Media Credit: Brooke Migdon | Hatchet Photographer

Alan Wade, a professor of theater, is playing the titular role in "King Lear" for his final GW performance before retiring.

At 8 p.m. last Wednesday, theater professor Alan Wade sat in the back row of the dimly-lit Betts Theater wearing a blue button-down shirt, khakis and a laurel wreath on his head. He had been watching students rehearsing onstage for about 30 minutes.

Then, all of a sudden, he was stumbling down the steps in the aisle, clutching a wad of leaves and tossing them up in the air, one-by-one. He paused a few times to growl at a crew member sitting in the audience or slap a leaf, but none of the audience members flinched. Some giggled. It’s the type of behavior they would expect from his disheveled character.

This week, Wade will play the titular role in a MainStage production of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to round out his 40 years of teaching at GW. Throughout his time as a professor, students and faculty have come to know Wade for his passion for the playwright.

For those who only have a vague recollection of the play from reading Sparknotes in high school, “King Lear” is the story of a British monarch who steps down to give control of his kingdom to his three daughters. As Lear’s family members meet their downfall betraying him and each other in their quests for power, the king descends into madness.

Wade and director Leslie Jacobson, also a theater professor, described it as “a mountain of a play.” They said they decided the play’s themes would make it a good choice to mark Wade’s retirement.

“Lear retires, though he dies at the end, his initial thought is retirement so it kind of fit into what I was doing,” Wade said. “I hope that at the end of the semester I’m still alive.”

Wade first took an interest in the playwright as a student at Northwestern University, thanks to a professor who he said “managed to make Shakespeare feel like a real human being.”

“It wasn’t just about his plays, it was about this guy from a small town who went to London and became a hit,” Wade said.

Since then, Wade has directed several MainStage productions of Shakespeare, and has taken the stage in a number of roles outside GW, from Petruchio in the comedy “The Taming of the Shrew” to Banquo in the tragedy “Macbeth.” He also traveled around the country in a one-man soliloquy tour, performing Shakespeare’s famous lengthy monologues at different colleges.

Wade oversaw the Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare program for freshman for six years until it was taken over by English professor Alexa Huang in 2014 and phased out starting last year.

Wade’s current and former students, who often call him by his first name, said his sense of humor and knowledge of Shakespeare leave a lasting impression on them.

Celeste Harrison, a technical theater Presidential Scholar of the Arts who graduated last year and assistant directed as well as stage managed for Wade, said he created a welcoming rehearsal environment where students felt “empowered to contribute.” Some of her favorite memories of Wade include his habit of taking his shoes off in the middle of rehearsal or the time he launched into a spot-on impression of Tigger in the middle of a conversation about “Winnie the Pooh.”

“He really makes you want to be in on the joke,” she said. “He’s always gonna be three steps ahead of the rest of a rehearsal room, but there’s such a playfulness about his style that you really feel like you’re in on it and it’s just such a joy.”

Will Low, a senior who will play the role of Edgar in “King Lear,” took his first acting class with Wade and is now in his last with the professor. Low, who is from England, described Wade as an “anglophile” whose knowledge of the country and its literature sometimes exceeds his own.

“He has this endless knowledge about England and I feel like I’m not a true Brit when he talks about it,” Low said.

Wade’s colleagues and former students will be watching as he takes a final bow. One of his former students, Maggie Contreras, said she is expecting about 90 alumni to attend a reception she has organized after one of the shows. Contreras, who graduated in 2006 and works as an actor and producer in Los Angeles, said Wade helped her land one of her first jobs.

Wade also said that the lighting and costume designers are alumni and the set designer, Bradley Sabelli, is a theater professor emeritus.

Jacobson and Wade, who attended Northwestern University at the same time while studying theater, have known each other for about 50 years. Having directed Wade before, Jacobson said when he’s on stage “there’s just something that makes you believe him.”

Jacobson said to end on this play makes sense for Wade, because it explores what happens when someone moves on from something that has been part of their identity for so many years.

“Whether you’ve been a king or a professor or a lawyer or you know whatever, that thing that we do that gives us our identity and maybe our sense of worth,” Jacobson said. “And then it’s time to pass it on to the next generation.”

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