Love, loss, and Lear

Dan Beaulieu brings a very personal Shakespeare play to the Millspace

The last thing Richard Beaulieu did was watch his son perform in a Shakespeare play.

Dan Beaulieu was the director of the summer 2012 production of “Much Ado About Nothing” at Prescott Park in Portsmouth. During the final performance over Labor Day Weekend, Beaulieu filled in for an absent cast member, playing the part of Dogberry. In a humorous twist for the show, the Beaulieus’ dog, Teddy, played Dogberry’s partner, Verges.

Richard Beaulieu had been excited about the show, and many family members and close friends were on hand for the closing night. Dan Beaulieu had already taken his bows and was backstage getting out of his costume when a close friend came rushing into the tent. “You need to come out right now,” he said. Bewildered, Beaulieu followed him outside.

“Dad was having a stroke in the park,” Beaulieu said in a recent interview.

Beaulieu spoke to his father briefly as he was taken to an ambulance, and a close family friend began praying with the stricken man.

“They started saying the ‘Our Father’ together, and during the ‘Our Father’ it just turned into gibberish, and then nothing,” Beaulieu said.

Richard Beaulieu died in the hospital a few hours later.

“But really, he was gone in the park,” Dan Beaulieu said. “He was into a coma and it was catastrophic, and it was over.”

The tragedy occurred just as Dan Beaulieu was rediscovering his passion for theater. After several years away from the stage, he had been making plans to start his own Shakespeare-focused theater company. After his father’s death, Beaulieu had to decide whether or not to move forward with those plans.

“Do I do this or do I not do this? What do we do?” he asked himself. “The theater community and the whole Portsmouth community was so supportive when this happened that it was like, of course I have to keep going, keep doing this.”

More than four years later, Seven Stages Shakespeare Company is doing more than ever. The group’s next show is one of special significance to Beaulieu, and one that he hopes will help him come to terms with his father’s death.

“Lear.,” an exploration of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” will be staged Nov. 3-13 at the Millspace in Newmarket.

The show goes on

By the time his father died in 2012, Dan Beaulieu was no stranger to tragedy. When Beaulieu was 17, his older brother Ricky died suddenly of heart failure. Health crises would become a recurring theme in the family.

Dan Beaulieu grew up in Hampton and went to St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Dover. He studied theater and dance at the University of New Hampshire and did a semester abroad in London, studying under UNH Prof. David Richman, a renowned Shakespeare scholar. The experience kindled his love for Shakespeare.

After college, Beaulieu moved to New York with the intention of pursuing theater professionally. But after only a few months in the city, his mother, Judi, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“That got me back home, and then it certainly changed the landscape of my life in terms of where I wanted to be, what I wanted to be doing,” he said.

His mother died in 2007. Beaulieu stayed with his father for the next year, immersing himself in the Seacoast theater scene.

Eventually, Beaulieu moved back to New York and got a job at a restaurant. For the next three years, he traveled back and forth between New York and New Hampshire to care for his father. He gave up theater completely.

It was the combination of Shakespeare and a close friend that got Beaulieu back on the stage. He had met Christine Penney while she was directing a production of “Julius Caesar” at The Players’ Ring in Portsmouth. Prior to auditioning, Beaulieu had requested to meet with Penney to talk about her vision for the show. What was supposed to be a five-minute chat turned into a two-hour conversation about Shakespeare, theater, and life.

In 2012, Penney asked Beaulieu to direct “Much Ado About Nothing” for the second season of Shakespeare in Prescott Park, a collaboration with the Prescott Park Arts Festival. Penney played Beatrice in the show.

“Dan is hands-down one of the best directors I have ever worked with,” Penney said in an email. “He has a truly unique gift to be able to speak to an artist in exactly the language that artist hears, thinks, feels, speaks, exists in.”

Dan Beaulieu with Deb Kinghorn

Beaulieu with Deb Kinghorn, who plays the title character in Lear. photo by M.Lavigne Photography

During the three weeks of rehearsals for “Much Ado,” the four-hour bus ride from New York became an exciting trip for Beaulieu.

“Suddenly theater was back in my life, and I was like, ‘Oh, right, this is why I’m on this planet,’” Beaulieu said. “And it was rewarding for my dad and I, because we got to talk about Shakespeare quite a bit and what I was working on.”

Beaulieu and Penney were so inspired by their work together that they started talking about forming their own theater company, one that would present Shakespeare’s work in unique and accessible ways.

“I remember sitting in the apartment in July 2012, talking about how the summer was going,” Penney said. “The essence of that conversation for both of us being, ‘Hey, we’ve got a pretty darn good thing going here. What do you say we do this year-round?’”

Beaulieu shared his plans with his father, saying he would be in New Hampshire more often and they’d get to spend more time together.

“He was tremendously excited, very proud,” Beaulieu said. “He was like, ‘Finally, you’re doing something that you’re good at and that you’re proud of. That makes me happy.’”

Losing his father during the encore performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” was devastating for Beaulieu, but he did not stay away from the theater long. Within a month and a half of his father’s death, he was acting in “Julius Caesar” for the second installment of ShakesBEERience, a play-reading series he and Penney launched at The Press Room in Portsmouth.

“I told myself that you can’t just pour everything into the theater and not let yourself grieve, but of course that’s exactly what I did,” Beaulieu said.

He and Penney forged ahead with their plans and founded Seven Stages Shakespeare Company, with ShakesBEERience as one of its signature programs. But the third ShakesBEERience was a play he had come to dread: “King Lear.” Mere weeks before his father’s death, Beaulieu and his dad had had a profound conversation about “Lear” that haunts him to this day.

God hates a coward

Over the last four years, Seven Stages Shakespeare Company has become a pillar of the Seacoast theater scene, earning a reputation for accessibility and originality. 2016 has been their busiest year yet. This spring, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the group convinced the city of Portsmouth to officially proclaim April 23 as Shakespeare Day. In June, they presented “Messenger Day,” during which they performed eight of Shakespeare’s historical plays in a single day on the grounds of Throwback Brewery in North Hampton. In October, they produced the U.S. premiere of “Being Shakespeare,” by renowned scholar Jonathan Bate, at West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth.

Producing the first-ever theater performance at the Millspace is a special privilege for Beaulieu. His father grew up in Newmarket and served as a police officer there. His father and grandfather built the town’s baseball field, Beaulieu Park. His grandparents founded L & M Variety, which is still open on Elm Street. The names of several of his uncles are on a World War II memorial by the Millspace. His brother and grandparents are buried in the town.

But when it came time to decide what play to produce at the Millspace, Beaulieu felt a twinge of panic.

“There was a moment of terror when I was like, ‘I know exactly what we have to do, and I don’t want to,’” he said.

In the summer of 2012, Beaulieu had come home one day to find his father sitting in his favorite chair, looking oddly pensive. When Beaulieu asked him what was wrong, his father posed an unusual question involving Beaulieu, his older sister Brigette, and his older brother Jeff.

“He said, ‘I’ve been thinking about you and Brigette and Jeff. Which one of you loves me the most?’ And in that moment my heart shattered, because I didn’t have an answer,” Beaulieu said. “So I thought for a second and I said, ‘You know dad, I have no idea. I can’t answer that question. But there’s a really good play about it.’”

The play, of course, was “King Lear,” in which the aging title character asks his three daughters to declare their love for him, vowing to bequeath the bulk of his kingdom to the daughter who loves him the most. Beaulieu had encouraged his father to attend the ShakesBEERience reading of “King Lear” that November, but he did not live long enough to take his son’s advice.

Beaulieu has been terrified of “King Lear” ever since. As he considered staging the show in Newmarket, he thought, “I really don’t want to go there. Life is kind of OK right now. I don’t want to pick that scab,” he said.

But Beaulieu’s trepidation was drowned out by the echo of his father’s old mantra: “God hates a coward.” He resolved to put on a different kind of “King Lear,” dropping the “King” from the title and keeping the focus on family.

“For me, if I’m thinking about my family, we’re not kings and queens. We’re not that at all,” he said. “I think ‘Lear’ in particular is about a family unit. So I wanted to drop the word ‘king’ off right away.”

While the play traditionally depicts Lear’s descent into madness, Beaulieu is looking at the story through the lens of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’re using the Millspace, which is this fantastically hollow, cavernous sound machine, to create what it might feel like to be inside someone’s head who is dealing with memory loss, identity loss, fragmentation,” he said.

Beaulieu hopes the show will provide some catharsis as he continues to grapple with the loss of his parents. He knows his father was proud of his plans for Seven Stages, and he feels he is doing meaningful work.

“Shakespeare suddenly has become a vocation as opposed to a hobby, or as opposed to a job,” he said. “We need to tell stories together, and not just stories of kings, but stories of fathers and stories of sons and stories of family. So that’s been sort of where I want to go with this. And it’s put a real charge in my heart.”

“Lear.” is on stage at the Millspace in Newmarket from Nov. 3-13. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.