Tonight during our check in, one of our new participants shared that her daughter, inspired by her work in Shakespeare, has begun acting at her school. Her daughter was excited about someday working on lines with her mother, and this ensemble member beamed as she told us.
We continued our reading of the play, beginning with Act II, scene i, in which a dying Edward IV makes peace between fighting lords and is informed about his brother Clarence’s death. Our big question was: do they mean what they say when they make this peace? “I would still be suspicious,” said one woman. We talked about all of the factions and betrayals in the Wars of the Roses. “This is like… Wednesday to them,” said one participant.
We moved on to Act II, scene ii, in which Clarence’s children, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth mourn their losses – and Richard and Buckingham put the wheels in motion to kidnap the young prince and take power for themselves.
We talked about how easily people are manipulated in this scene, and throughout the play. “Richard would have to have weak people around to do his bidding. He wouldn’t want strong people around,” reflected one woman.
“I feel like Shakespeare was in prison,” observed another woman. “All this is the same shit we go through all the time – the intrigue, the lies, the people, nobody taking responsibility for their own actions…”
We were tired of sitting still by this point and got up to play a circle game. This proved to be a welcome break.
I went over to a couple of longtime ensemble members and asked how they were doing. “I feel like I haven’t gotten to talk to you very much,” I said. “There are just so many more people in the group than usual!” They said it’s okay, and that it is a good thing to have such a large group. We’ve never seen this many people join and then stick with it!
Then one of our newer members mentioned that she has been having a little trouble keeping up. We discussed some ideas of how to make this easier, since others said they were also having trouble. One ensemble member suggested that everyone read the entire play in contemporary English and then in the original language. Another reassured the newer members, saying, “We’re going to go through this so many times by June, you’ll know it by heart. I can still quote the handkerchief scene [from Othello] and I wasn’t even in it.”
Another returning member said, “We’re just as lost right now as you are. With Othello, we were confused, and now I could tell you the story beginning to end without looking.”
A woman who has been in the group for four years talked about how putting the play on its feet will lead to a deeper understanding. “All the emotions come,” she said. “It’s like a supernatural power.”
In the end, we agreed to stop more frequently during our reading to make sure everyone is keeping up to speed. I will also be bringing in a scene-by-scene synopsis of the play for those who do not have time to read much outside of our meetings. This seems like a good compromise.
Tonight began with a question from a new member of the group about how we handle casting. I responded that we’ve tried a different method each year – that we have been able to do it via discussion some years, by anonymous voting another year, and last year with casual auditions followed by anonymous voting. I mentioned that each of these methods have proved to be problematic in some way, and we’re always open to new ideas. “I like the voting,” said one woman who was in the group last year. “It avoids ganging up and hurting feelings.” Another returning member said that she thought the facilitators should do the casting. I responded that this has the potential to be very problematic, as it would change the dynamic in the group and go against our policy of avoiding a hierarchy as much as possible.
We decided to leave the topic for now, and someone suggested that as we move through the play, we begin by reading the scene synopsis and then reading the Shakespeare. This idea was embraced by everyone.
We began with Act II, scene iii, in which three citizens discuss the death of Edward IV and their mistrust of Richard. There was a pause after the reading. “What do you think about this scene?” I asked. “I think we can cut the whole thing,” responded one participant.
“We probably can,” I said, as others nodded their heads. “But why is the scene in the play? We need to understand that before we make the decision to get rid of it.”
“Is it like a subliminal message? In the background?” asked one woman. “It’s what the people are saying,” said another. “But why is it important to hear what they’re saying?” I pushed.
“I see a motion picture,” said one participant, “where stuff’s going on, and then… It’s like when the newspaper spins, and they’re out on the street, and we see this conversation.” The first woman exclaimed, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
The question arose of whether we might be able to do something creative with the scene rather than cutting it completely. A longtime member said, “The play shows what this scene is all about. We can cut it.” Another said, “I don’t think it’s gonna hurt or help.” We will revisit the issue when we are more familiar with the play.
We moved on through Act II, scene iv, and then to Act III, scene i. The former didn’t engender much discussion, but the latter did.
We explored the idea that Prince Edward could not claim sanctuary because of his inability to make informed, adult decisions. We were divided on whether or not this is fair, and whether or not the characters in the play grasp what’s going on. “If they didn’t want to kill him, they wouldn’t want to get him out of sanctuary,” one woman pointed out.
We then discussed the back and forth between Richard and the princes. Someone commented that the scene has a lot of wordplay and is fairly long. “It shows their relationship – our uncle picks on us a little bit,” said one woman. “He’s a bastard,” said another about Richard. “He knows he’s going to kill him.”
We talked about the way in which the children interact with Richard – they seem to lack respect. “I think it’s a reflection of what the kids hear from their parents – they have no respect for [Richard] at all,” said one person. Another observed, “You know how boys are. They didn’t like to be called little.”
The conversation shifted to Richard’s promise to Buckingham, with which, of course, he does not follow through. “Poor guy,” I said, “He chose the wrong side.” That got some push back from several ensemble members. “It’s karma,” said one. “What goes around comes around.”
As the group moved into an improv game, I sat down with the woman who’d gotten so upset during the game last Friday and had been absent Tuesday. I asked her to tell me what’s going on – she’s seemed restless and upset a lot. “I’m just bored,” she said. “This play isn’t that interesting to me. Othello was so opaque, and this play is transparent.” I said that they are very different plays – that this play isn’t on the same level in terms of complexity. “We need to find you a way in,” I said. “Is there anything that interests you in the play?” She said that she is interested in Richard himself, and I suggested that she focus on that. I encouraged her to read ahead in the play – even to read it multiple times, since we’re moving too slowly for her in our group reading. “Then you can be the expert in the room – the mentor,” I said. She also said that she is interested in the history, and I promised to find more in-depth historical background for her to read up on. We promised to keep communicating with each other, and she seemed to feel a lot better after our conversation, even joining in the game.
It can be very difficult to strike the right balance when working with people from such diverse backgrounds, with so many different learning styles. We try our best to make everyone happy, but sometimes our compromises leave people feeling unsatisfied. I hope that this woman will enjoy the group more with her new approach, and I’m going to keep an eye on it to make sure we don’t lose her along the way.