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WVU’s ‘King Lear’ premieres live, on WVPB in March

Filming of King Lear

The West Virginia University School of Theatre & Dance invites the Morgantown community to enjoy a free live premier screening of their film version of Shakespeare’s most powerful play King Lear, Sunday March 6 at 7 p.m. in WVU’s Canady Creative Arts Center’s Lyle B Clay Theatre. The film was shot in 2021 in partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and will be broadcast on WVPB channels starting March 13. To find the WVPB channel near you, visit

The idea for the filming and broadcasting of King Lear came out of necessity for Jerry McGonigle, professor of acting and directing. “Covid hit and it became very clear that we were not coming back in the fall,” McGonigle said about WVU’s 2020-21 academic year. “There was not going to be public audiences for performances.”

With performing and production an essential component of theatre curriculum, McGonigle knew he had to get creative. A few phone calls later and WVPB was on board.  “Part of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s multifaceted mission is education. We see this as an opportunity to not only provide WVU students with the experience of attending a Shakespeare play, but to be able to extend that experience to the children and teachers throughout the whole state, and maybe even beyond.” McGonigle said.

To make King Lear TV ready, the School of Theatre & Dance created a TV studio out of the Gladys G Davis Theatre Theater in WVU’s Loulie, William and Valerie Canady Creative Arts Center. The cast, crew and production team spent three months rehearsing, performing and shooting their version of Shakespeare’s classic piece.  “We are approaching this production more like a TV or film production, and less like a play,” McGonigle said. We" are taking every single scene and shooting it separately and independently, which brings its own challenges. Our theatre design and technology students had to build a set that adds flexibility and can be reconfigured and moved around so the camera could be shooting anywhere in the theater and in any direction.”

Rehearsals began remotely in the fall of 2020, working with McGonigle to dig into the text and rework it for TV, while keeping the story clear and concise.  Working under strict COVID protocols they returned to the rehearsal hall/TV studio for five weeks in the spring to work out the acting, movement, and camera strategy.  And this was then followed by five weeks of shooting with the professionals from Public Broadcasting. 

The undergraduate and graduate student actors were joined by a professional guest artist to play the iconic title character.  McGonigle made a choice to examine the play with a significant variation from tradition,  “In our production, King Lear is a female and two of the other powerful characters in the play that are traditionally male are also played by females, There are many versions of King Lear and because of the timeless nature of Shakespeare’s plays the director and designers get to create the world that surrounds the play so I thought why not create a world where the woman king and her inner circle are as powerful as any man and are equally respected and revered.” 

Even with all the added challenges, McGonigle says the effort is worth it.  “We have really gone all out on this production, such as creating a monstrous storm compete with torrential rain in the theatre, and the students are getting an experience that I can’t say I have seen from any other university during this pandemic.” McGonigle said. “These students are getting a real window into the world of production and the West Virginia Public Broadcasting crew has been incredible with our students. Their level of professionalism in doing their jobs while showing our students the ropes has been great to watch. I think audiences will be impressed and thoroughly enjoy this unique theatrical event.”  Come share the experience by taking it in in front of the big screen, and meet members of the cast and crew.

King Lear premiere screening will be at 7 p.m. March 6 at WVU’s Canady Creative Arts Center. Admission is free and open to the public.