When The Actor Originally Cast Fell Ill, Denice Hicks Stepped in To Play King Lear in January 2016

By: Nov. 21, 2023

News spread quickly among Nashville-area theaterati in January 2016: Denice Hicks would be taking the stage of Belmont University’s Troutt Theater to take on what could conceivably be her greatest theater challenge: Playing King Lear in the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s production of the Shakespeare tragedy which had opened a week earlier.

From offstage, Denice Hicks takes the stage
as King Lear in January 2016

For a woman who has faced one challenging role after another, perhaps none more vital than keeping NSF alive for more than a quarter century, Hicks as Lear could well be Nashville theater’s most significant event in 2016, even as January and the 2016 season were barely under way.

As Nashville Shakes’ artistic director – and perhaps more importantly as the director of this particularly epic version of King Lear – it came as little surprise to the people who know her and who have followed the arc of her amazing career that Hicks would take up the royal mantle of Shakespeare’s tragic monarch. David Landon, the noted Shakespearean actor who teaches at Sewanee’s University of the South, had fallen ill and had to leave the production after opening in order to attend to his health.

And while Hicks, her cast and crew pondered on what Landon’s illness meant for the production – which had settled in for a month’s long run at the Troutt Theatre, part of NSF’s annual wintertime sojourn indoors on the Belmont campus – the wheels began to turn to ensure the show’s success and, more to the point, to live up to the old theatrical adage that “the show must go on…”

During the course of a production meeting, during which the company considered their options, the choice of a replacement actor became clear, according to those in the meeting: Hicks should step into the role. And with her theatrical cohorts’ urging, she agreed to take on the role, script in hand, and after a put-in rehearsal, she ultimately stepped onstage last Wednesday as King Lear.

The response – a mix of surprise, amazement and excitement leavened by the reality of a petite woman taking on the towering legend of King Lear – was universal: “I have to get a ticket now,” the theaterati exclaimed, “to see Denice Hicks play this role!”

And for her NSF cohorts, Hicks’ decision and her subsequent performance, while the stuff of theatrical legend, comes off as just another day at the office. Denice Hicks, it should be noted, can do anything she puts her mind to…

A Nashville Theater Tribute: GIVING THANKS FOR DENICE CONTINUES Denice Hicks – a 2011 First Night Star Award winner – is a beloved member of the theater community, known throughout the world for her fearless leadership and inspiring vision. In her adopted hometown of Nashville (she first came here as a very young woman to perform at Opryland USA theme park), she is the very representation of art, someone whose achievement and exploits are something to which most people can only aspire. She is brave, courageous and honest – with her sights firmly set on what’s ahead, what she can do to fulfill the demands of her audience, her actors and all the unseen people who follow her career.

Shannon Hoppe (who plays Regan in King Lear): I am grateful to be in a community where we can embrace situations like this with such grace. I found this experience so inspiring. It pushes me to live more in the moment, be more present, and accept what is right in front of me. Denice's Lear is powerful, mad, and heartbreakingly beautiful. This will go down as one of those memories I'll cherish and never forget.

Christy Berryessa (dresser for the production): I suppose I should first say that I am always inspired by Denice Hicks. Even when she isn't playing King Lear on a moment’s notice she is one of the most inspiring people I know. She works so hard to tell the story of every play she is a part of producing. She cares so much about the integrity of these stories and these characters. I think it is that constant dedication that gave me such confidence in her ability to play Lear. I was devastated to lose David Landon, even for a couple of days. He is such an incredible Lear and it was hard at first to imagine the show without him. But then we made the decision to have Denice fill in and I immediately felt better.  

I didn’t have even a moment of doubt about that choice. I was so excited to see her Lear. And she is magnificent.

As a woman, I think what inspired me most about this event and this community was that no one questioned it on the basis of gender. No one said, “No, we have to have a man.” The decision was made on who knew our show the best, who we felt the safest with, and who could carry it off. That person was obviously Denice.

I also love that we didn’t try to change Lear’s gender. We didn’t make Lear into a Queen. This is just an actor who happens to be a woman, playing a character who happens to be a man. And guess what? We are still telling the story of a man and his family. It doesn’t matter that Denice is a woman and I love getting to see that happen.

Amanda Card (Cordelia): David Landon, our original King Lear, and Denice Hicks, our King Lear until David Landon is well enough to join us again, have been my biggest artistic champions. David Landon was my mentor and acting teacher at Sewanee: The University of the South, and his artistic philosophy, his curiosity, and his ever present clown heart (I mean that as the highest compliment possible) changed me profoundly as an actor and a person.

Similarly, years before that, Denice accepted me into NSF's apprentice company shortly after my brother died from cancer, and took me under her wing like she has so many broken people who need art to heal them. From that point on, anytime I would ask her to let me be involved in something artistic, she has always said, enthusiastically, "YES!" She is the best example of "yes, and" – in the way she lives, in the way she creates – she's the bravest actor I've ever seen. And King Lear is probably the scariest role for any actor out there. Who better to step in?

David Landon's Lear has been magnificent, but when he had to go to the hospital, the cast and crew – unanimously, I'm pretty sure – knew that Denice was who we wanted to rule the Lear kingdom in his absence. I think Denice did not see this as clearly as we did – how perfect and brave and moving she would most definitely be in the role. She called us to the theater and asked the cash and crew, "what do you think we should do?" – another testament to her collaborative artistic philosophy – and you could hear various ones of us, seated in the theater, separately but almost unanimously shouting YOU! YOU! WE WANT YOU!

Once she knew that she had been elected the new Lear, she jumped in - and when I say she jumped in, I mean she became Lear completely, immediately, fully. It was so brave. And to get to play Cordelia to two of the greatest artists I have ever known as Lear? I'm just about the luckiest girl in the world.

These performances are a testament to the Nashville theater community's "we're all in this together" spirit, and to the very beautiful influence that Denice has had here. I will remember her performances as Lear for the rest of my life. I think this is a theater story that the whole cast will be telling for the rest of our lives!

Brian Russell (Gloucester): Denice went into this production saying "when you have a Lear, you do the show"...whodathunk we had or would need two? I'm realizing it is part out of necessity (there's not much time at all to rehearse another Lear) and part out of financial need to keep the show up and running, but the choice nonetheless is sound and wise. She's been down this androgynous, gender-bending road before with the Festival, so the more serious challenge for her becomes channeling the specter of age and the ensuing "madness" within the character.  and all the while juggling scripts. This is not altogether a difficult thing to do, especially when Dee has been so instrumental in the shaping of the show already. Casts tend to be way more on their toes and physically eager to get the actor on-book in the right spots, giving more credence than ever to the old show biz adage "the show must go on.” But it is Lear, it is daunting and a huge challenge for any actor. Lucky for us and our audiences, the seasoned attack of the text and the beauty of the portrayal is purely and uniquely Dee.

Taylor Novak (Burgundy): It's truly inspiring. She's absolutely triumphant in the role. I remember a specific moment in the show today, actually. One of the King’s lines in response to the question, "Is't not the king?" is, "ay, every inch a king." I heard her say it with such conviction and honesty that not only did I believe it, but it struck a chord in me, yet again proving that gender had no importance or relevance in the statement. It was a moment that moved me and I hope it did the same for many others.

I hope this whole experience makes a bold statement and an impact on gender fluidity and the women in theatre in Nashville. I feel we can finally start taking those steps forward we've been so afraid to take.


Nettie Kraft (Goneril): Getting to watch Denice step into the role of Lear has been a master class in professionalism. When she asked us for our thoughts on who could help while David was out the cast was unanimous that it should be Denice. She knows the play, she knows us, and she knows the character. I have always thought that Lear could easily be played by a woman, the play isn't so much about fathers and daughters to me as parents and children, the fears different generations may have about each other. Gender swapping doesn't matter. She's making us all so proud. Even with a script in hand the amount of play and active listening she's doing are creating a powerful performance. Theatrical magic. A really unique opportunity to see an actor work in the moment. It's raised all the stakes for everyone. What a great team to be with.