We began our session by reflecting on the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary that we watched last week. The first thing that was noted was how amazing it was for the men to be able to perform for friends and family, which is something that we are not allowed to do. There was also an extremely positive reaction to one man’s journey to healing through a character who had many similarities to his own experiences. The women were also impressed by the honesty in the men’s acting.
One question was whether it is harder for men to play women than for women to play men. “It’s harder for men to put down their guard and be vulnerable. Women are strong when they toughen up,” said one woman. “Where else could I play Lord Capulet?” said a longtime member. “You get used to it. But women are more accepting.”
We talked a bit about the changes in physicality that are necessary when playing a different gender. We talked about how women are socialized to be quiet, take up little space with their bodies, and make themselves appear to be weak. We contrasted that with men’s physicality and talked about working together to become physically more powerful as we work with our play.
Several men in the film share the crimes that they committed. One woman said, “It was depressing, hearing what they did. The guy who killed his wife… I killed someone, but it was an accident. But I still get labeled.” Another woman said, “To watch them and to hear what they did but to still have this sense of liking them because of who they are… It’s a journey of learning about myself.”
“They weren’t who they used to be when they committed the crime,” said one person. We talked about balancing the scales – as one man in the film says, looking at the totality of a person’s life rather than simply the worst thing they’ve ever done.
Another woman remarked that she finds most crimes forgivable, but that it is hard to forgive crimes against children. She said it in a way that sounded judgmental, and another woman jumped in, gently but firmly reminding her not to judge people who’ve committed crimes against children because there may be people who’ve committed those crimes in our group, and we don’t want them to feel alienated. “Consider what you say,” said another woman, “But don’t censor anyone.”
Another woman said she is looking forward to getting feedback on her acting the way the men in the documentary provide it for one another. Several people commented on how inspiring it was to see how invested in each other the men were.
“It’s nice to see other people living the way that we are,” said someone. “It makes me feel better to know that other people are just as miserable as I am.” We talked about the changes the men undergo, despite their circumstances. “I want to be better than I was before,” said one woman. “Shakespeare keeps me out of trouble,” said another woman in her third year of the program. “You learn how to care about yourself and other people.”
We then returned to our play, reading and discussing Act Four, scene three, in which Tyrrel tells the audience of the killing of the princes and the killers’ remorse, and Richard has no such feelings as he prepares for a larger conflict.
“In Othello, the death was more shocking. It’s expected in this play,” said one woman. “We barely know these characters, too,” said another person. “I felt bad for Desdemona.” I posed the question: Why do we really only get to know Richard? Is he isolated on purpose? “He’s isolated from the first soliloquy,” said one woman. “The power causes you to isolate yourself,” said another.
As people left, I pulled aside one member of the group who has been pretty caustic and argumentative so far this season. I asked her if she realized how prickly she’s been, and she sheepishly said she did. I told her that I know she doesn’t want to be censored, but there are ways of expressing her opinions without being hostile. “You want to play Richard, right?” I asked. She nodded. “Then you have to give everyone a reason to cast you in that role,” I continued. She agreed that she need to start “playing nice.” I encouraged her to treat it like an acting exercise when it gets tough: her goal is to play Richard, and she needs to use tactics to get what she wants, the same way an actor does in a play. She was in total agreement and said she felt better having talked about it, and that she is confident she can adjust her behavior going forward.
Tonight we worked on Act Four, scene four, in which the women of the play mourn the loss of the princes, the Duchess reproves Richard for his actions, Richard pursues a marriage with his niece through Elizabeth, and Richard prepares for battle with Richmond. It’s quite a long scene!
We talked about Margaret’s speeches to Elizabeth in this scene and remarked how, despite being very harsh, she seems now to respect Elizabeth. “It’s a sisterhood of misery,” said one woman. “Margaret doesn’t gloat because Elizabeth talks about the curse being fulfilled,” said another. “She says to take your misery and sorrow and sharpen them like a sword… and kill Richard with it,” reflected someone else. “That’s what miserable people do anyway,” mused another participant. “They amplify their grief.”
We then discussed the way that the Duchess talks to Richard. “How can a child not entertain these things when a mother says them? Think about the impact this woman had on this child’s life. She made him the person that he is,” said one person. “Maybe he’s so heartless because he was treated so heartlessly.”
The woman sitting next to me said quietly that she relates to Elizabeth because she has two sons who were taken away from her. She said she is getting stronger, and is going to fight to get them back.
Regarding Richard, one woman said, “I wish you guys could all read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It’s so Richard. If you’re weak, you’re supposed to act strong.” She further reflected, “Doesn’t this happen to all gangsters? You do all this horrific shit, and then at the end you regret what you’ve done.”
Does Richard care about having killed children, we pondered? Several people agreed that he has an addict mentality – that he’s in pursuit of “pleasure, now,” and doesn’t think too far ahead.
“I don’t like the way some of these people react to Richard,” said one woman. “This play irritates me.”
There is a lot going on in this play, and many opinions being voiced. It is going to be a real challenge to work through all of these ideas as we begin to put the play on its feet, which is going to be soon. We may never all agree on everything, and many aspects of interpretation will ultimately be up to the people playing the roles. For now, though, all interpretations are on the table.