For Gretna teen, role in Shakespeare tragedy opens a new world

In Shakespeare’s day, Chloe Irwin wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play the role of Cordelia in “King Lear” because of her gender.

Today, it’s her age that causes comment as the Gretna 13-year-old performs the role in the current Nebraska Shakespeare on the Green production in Omaha.

“Chloe may be the youngest actor to ever play the role of Cordelia in a professional production,” said Vincent Carlson-Brown, Nebraska Shakespeare’s artistic director and a 1999 graduate of Gretna High School. “If there is a younger, I haven’t come across it. But Chloe is fiery, fierce and also generous and intelligent. Perfect for the role.

“She has enough bite to push around the big boys at the beginning of the play, but also she creates great empathy for the character. It makes ‘marrying her off,’ as well as the banishment, more cruel at the beginning, having Cordelia be so young. And the ending then, is also extremely painful. It’s heart wrenching.”

For Chloe, who has been performing on stage since age 7, the role is the chance of a lifetime.

“It’s a challenge. At first, it takes a bit to wrap my head around something so new,” said Chloe, a seventh-grader at Gretna Middle School. “I like it all. I’m learning a lot from doing it. The language, the movement, it’s all new.”

In “King Lear,” Chloe plays the king’s youngest — and favorite — daughter in a production set in a 10th century Norse empire. Cordelia refuses to play the king’s games and is banished. As the play progresses, Cordelia returns and attempts to save her father from the despair and torment he faces.

Chloe takes the tragedy in stride, largely because this is not her first experience with Shakespeare. Last summer she performed in the Nebraska Shakespeare production of “Macbeth,” which Carlson-Brown also directed.

For this season’s production of “King Lear,” the director decided he wanted to portray Cordelia younger than she ordinarily is portrayed, and knew Chloe would be perfect for the role — and not just because of her age.

“That she’s young is almost beside the point. It certainly is extremely meaningful to the character, and a major part of why she was cast in the role, but her youth is a non-factor in rehearsal. She has as much or more stage experience than some of her fellow actors, college educated and beyond,” Carlson-Brown said. “She is professional and courteous, diligent and creative, unknowingly hilarious and a delight to work with, plain and simple.”

For Chloe, the chance to work with adults who are professional actors is an opportunity she won’t soon forget, as is the experience of working with Carlson-Brown.

“He’s amazing,” Chloe said. “He has such wonderful vision.”

Carlson-Brown has spent time working with Chloe on her vocabulary, pronunciation, phrasing and delivery. The two also have discussed the role and the play. Through all of this, he has found her to be a quick study.

“She is one of the brightest actors I have worked with, regardless of age,” he said. “It is shocking how effortless she is with the language and inside a complicated character.”

Chloe’s love of theater began at an early age when she attended community theater performances with her grandmother.

“My grandma took me to shows,” Chloe said. “And I told her I could do that, too.”

Soon after, Chloe went to her first audition where she won a role in “A Christmas Carol.”

“There’s a lot of talented kids out there,” Chloe said. “It’s amazing. Hundreds and hundreds of kids were at the audition. It made me pretty nervous.”

After winning that first role at the age of 8, she has gone on to play the lead roles of Jessica in “Prancer” and Ramona in “Ramona Quimby” at the Rose Theater.

“I’ve never taken acting lessons,” said Chloe, who does take vocal lessons.

Chloe’s not sure if the theater and performing will be a career she pursues, but for now she’s enjoying every moment and learning as much as she can.

“This is an extremely tough role, opposite perhaps the most intense Shakespearean character (King Lear) in quite possibly, the most challenging tragedy that Shakespeare wrote,” Carlson-Brown said. “And she is one of the highlights of the production. I am excited for folks to see her in it. And I keep thinking about what I can have her play next.”

Nebraska Shakespeare on the Green’s summer production of “King Lear” will continue today, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at Elmwood Park, just south of the University of Nebraska at Omaha bell tower. For more information, visit the Nebraska Shakespeare website: nebraskashakespeare.com.

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