Director Keith Powell Beyland laughs while watching a rehearsal of his two-member cast in “Lungs” on Wednesday at Portland Ballet. Powell Beyland suffered a stroke four years ago and has limited verbal skills, but is returning to directing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Theater director Keith Powell Beyland lost a lot when a stroke felled him four years ago. He lost the use of his right arm, he lost time to his recovery, and he lost the easy flow of language.

The language might be the cruelest loss of all. Beyland, 47, the founder of Portland’s Dramatic Repertory Company, built his life and career around an art form that depends on the exchange of words and the communication of nuanced ideas. He knows what he wants to say, but he can’t always get the words out.

This month, a little more than four years since the stroke, he directs the two-person relationship drama “Lungs” in the Studio Theater at Portland Stage, making up for his loss of verbal skills by communicating with actors and designers through gestures, body language and whatever words he can manage.

Every stage direction is a game of charades, said actor Rob Cameron, who stars in “Lungs” with Phoebe Parker. “Everything is truncated. It’s shrink-wrapped into bite-sized nuggets. He has to think the most laser-beam things to say to us, and we have to work with him to call it out of him, to get what it is,” Cameron said.

Impressed with Beyland’s valiance and determination, his collaborators say his return to the rehearsal room represents his personal resiliency, the spunky spirit of the theater company he created in 2010 and the collegial nature of Portland’s theater community. When the future of DRC was in doubt, Beyland’s friends and family helped mount shows and have formed an active nine-person board, expanding it from five members, to take care of the administrative details so Beyland can focus on his recovery, his first priority, and directing, his first love.

Those two interests serve each other. “It is very encouraging to be able to continue to create artistically, and know that, despite the limitations I may be experiencing at the moment, I am making progress,” he wrote in an email. “The resulting work, whether on stage or off, is key to my recovery. I feel very lucky to be able to continue doing what I love and have the support of my community as I do it.”

Directing also gives him the feeling of being in control, of which he has little when it comes to his speech.

“Lungs” is his second show as director since the stroke. He directed “The Flick” in June, and before that, eased his way back as a co-director of two productions, in 2017 and 2018.

“Keith was a one-man show before the stroke,” said Portland theater artist Bess Welden, who led the DRC board in the aftermath of the stroke and helped keep the company active. “He was the company. He did everything – marketing, directing and building the company based on his primary quality, which is that he loves plays so much that he cannot have them not be part of his day-to-day life. He is so inspired and fueled by what theater is and what plays do for us as human beings, he couldn’t let it go – thankfully, for the rest of us.”

“Lungs,” by playwright Duncan Macmillan, is about a couple who is contemplating having a child, but conflicted about the ethical aspects of bringing a child into the world and the effect of human behavior on climate change. It’s a play about personal morals, the life cycle of a relationship and the consequences of hope, betrayal and happenstance.

“We all have to make decisions that, while sometimes appear to be intimate or personal, can affect much more than we originally thought about,” Beyland wrote. “I like that there are no easy answers and ultimately no right or wrong, no yes or no.”

Like nearly all DRC plays, “Lungs” centers on language, the interplay of the words and the spaces between the words. It engages heart and mind, and challenges the audience to think broadly about the issues it raises. And like most DRC plays, it has never been produced in Maine. In nine seasons, DRC has produced 24 plays. The 25th, a world premiere of “The Mother” by Lynne Conner, will be staged in the spring with Lisa Muller-Jones directing. Nearly all have been state, regional or national premieres.

Beyland conducted most of this interview by email, with his wife, Vanessa, typing his responses. The stroke left him without the use of his right arm, including his hand. She does most of his typing, and he tells her if she has stated something incorrectly or if she needs to express something in a different way. “Keith can type shorter responses, but it is slow going with only one hand available,” she said.

Beyland suffered an acute ischemic stroke in September 2015. It left him with weakness on the right side of his body and with a condition known as aphasia, a language impairment that affects his ability to read, write and speak. Aphasia impairs a person’s ability to process language, but not intelligence.

“In my case, I usually understand what you are saying and I know what I want to communicate back to you, but I can’t always get the words out correctly or coherently,” he wrote. “I also have difficulties with numbers and the use of the keyboard – letters can get jumbled up – so I need assistance if I am typing more than a brief thought.”

Director Keith Powell Beyland watches as actors Phoebe Parker and Rob Cameron rehearse a scene from “Lungs.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In rehearsals, Beyland communicates through assistant director Lauren Stockless, whom he says “is wonderful at helping to get to the point of the matter.” During a recent rehearsal, Beyland opened a can Mountain Dew, placed it on a white folding table and took his place, standing off to the side. Stockless was seated at a table with the script and pad of paper for notes, facing the actors. Dixon was seated nearby.

“From the top,” Dixon asked.

“Yup,” Beyland responded. “From the top.”

The words come haltingly.

“I have to be very clear and direct with the actors and designers to get my vision across,” he wrote in an email. “That being said, everyone has been amazing in a sort of expanded game of charades that gets played out at each rehearsal. … But most often I just try to explain with whatever words and gestures I can summon up and the actors go with it. If it is not right, I let them know and we try again.”

When that communication works, there is a great sense of accomplishment, punctuated with bursts of laughter. But there is also a lot of frustration, anger and annoyance when he knows what he wants to say and can’t, leaving his cast and crew guessing. “Often I just have to stop, reset and try again. It can make me feel especially exasperated when a simple one- or two-word answer was needed and it takes 10 minutes to get it out. Anyone with speech impediment knows what I am talking about.”

His friend Peter Brown co-directed Beyland’s first attempt at his return to directing, in spring 2017 with the play “Venus in Fur.” Beyland pursued the rights to produce the play for a long time and had to postpone the production when he had the stroke. The play was personally important to Beyland, and was the first show that DRC tackled when Beyland was well enough to return to theater, a year-and-a-half after the stroke.

He knew it would be hard to begin again with that show, but he had specific, strong ideas.

Brown went into that assignment assuming he would support his friend, and ended up doing more directing than he had anticipated. “I thought it would be me helping him support his vision, which it was. But I had to take more the driver’s seat,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of words there at all, at that point in time.”

“It was wonderful to have Peter there to help convey my thoughts, as well as bring his vision of the script to the stage,” Beyland wrote.

Tess Van Horn co-directed the next show, “Cock,” last fall. Both of those experiences gave him the confidence “to take back the reigns,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do if theater and DRC were not in my life. Directing helps with speech therapy goals, communication skills and keeps me in contact with people that have embraced DRC and have become my theater family.”

Brown sat in on a post-mortem of “Cock” and said the cast agreed that Beyland’s limited speech did not interfere with his artistic vision.  “He was able to do the nitty-gritty. He was able to find a way,” Brown said. “People are much more patient with him than he is with himself.”


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