Written by Frannie
As has happened every year, we’ve recently lost a few ensemble members due to excessive absences. We began tonight by figuring out how to plug those casting holes.
When I discussed the possibility that we might have to do this with a small group last week, one woman who frequently talks about her lack of confidence and fear of performing mentioned that she might want to play Clarence, one of the vacated roles. I said that I was excited to hear that, that we would make our decisions as a group, and to keep thinking it over. Moments later, a woman who hadn’t heard that exchange mentioned to me that she was interested in playing Clarence – she’s been looking for more roles to take on for a while, and I have encouraged her to jump in when there was an opportunity. I thanked her for doing exactly what we talked about and mentioned that this other woman was also interested, reminding this woman, too, that our decisions would be made as a group. “Oh,” she said thoughtfully, “That’s really great that she wants to do that.”
Tonight, as we began discussing our casting options, the first thing that second woman said was, “I’d like to play Brakenbury.” We all nodded and wrote that down, thanking her for taking it on. As we did that, the first woman leaned over to me and whispered, “I’d like to play Clarence.” I whispered back, “I think you should say that to the group.” She then announced her intention to the ensemble, and everyone burst into applause, smiling and making sure she knew how proud we are of her, and how happy we are that she is taking on such a challenge. It is a very big step.
We then dove back into the ghost scene. Three ensemble members had edited the scene down to “the meat” – eliminating all lines that seemed non-essential. Another woman had drawn diagrams of her blocking ideas. We spent the next hour putting all of this together, including new ideas that were sparked by the discussion, and finding ways of honoring many individual ideas in our final concept. In our version of this scene:
• Richard and Richmond are sleeping, one on either side of the stage.
• Buckingham enters, holding a mask over his face that is white with a red X over the mouth (to reflect the voices of the ghosts that have been silenced), and says, “Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow.”
• Ten more ghosts enter from various parts of the theatre, whispering, “Despair and die.” They also carry masks.
• The ghosts circle around Richard, saying lines that we’ve culled from the text. They then move to circle around Richmond in a “figure eight” pattern, say some lines to him, and, as they exit, Buckingham delivers his final lines.
We were pretty satisfied with this idea, but then one woman wondered aloud if having only one conceptual scene like this in the play would be strange and out of place. She had a good point. I asked the group if there were other opportunities in the play to bring in the masks. The ideas started flowing, and what we ended up with is that we will introduce the masks in our yet-to-be-written prologue, making it clear that the masks symbolize death, and then whenever someone in the play is about to exit to his or her death, ghosts carrying masks will enter, give that person a mask, and escort him or her off.
It was an exciting evening, to be sure. I was tasked with taking all of these ideas and coalescing them into a written scene. The goal is for me to write it over the next week, and for us to stage it next Tuesday.
Written by Kyle
Tonight started off on the slower side as there was a small turnout at the outset, with our Richard and Richmond both absent at the start. We decided that we would start in Act 5, with Buckingham’s monologue just before he is killed. This monologue is easily one of my favorites in this play, and, I dare say, one of my favorites in the canon. It is a profound moment when the Duke of Buckingham, who has been Richard’s right hand man and chief co-conspirator, is betrayed by Richard and suffers the same fate he has been so quick to inflict on others. There is a solemn moment before he is executed when he simultaneously muses on how the tables have turned and subtly takes responsibility for his actions. It’s contemplative, yet sobering, and the Bard at his best. It takes on a different dynamic in the context of the prison; it deals so explicitly with committing a crime and accepting the consequences, I almost felt nervous giving her notes and coaching her through it. Principally, the actor and I had to tease out an objective, which meant we had to nail down whom she is addressing. We tried it different ways, each with its own implications: If she is talking to the jailor on stage with her, what does that mean? If she is talking to herself, what does that mean? If she is talking to God, what does that mean? If she is talking to the ghosts of those she murdered, what does that mean? It seems a little tedious but I found the conversation to be really incredible. For whatever reason it was not much of a group activity, and to be honest I feel badly that I didn’t try to include the group more.
After working that scene, we moved backwards to Act 4, scene 4, with Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess. This is another fascinating scene, in which the play’s major women find common ground in their hate for Richard. The houses of Lancaster and York have done unspeakable deeds to one another, but history doesn’t seem to matter in light of the present terror Richard has inflicted on both. It’s a somber scene, and the characters have a lot of negative things to say to one another; line for line there are much more of those than of reconciliation, so it was difficult at times to even imagine bringing it to the forefront.
There was a pretty significant disagreement between the actor playing Elizabeth and the actor playing Margaret about just how the scene should go. ‘Elizabeth’ thought there should be more reconciliation sooner, and ‘Margaret’ didn’t think there should be any at all. I felt like there was a push from the actors for me to give them direction and be the tiebreaker, but I couldn’t. That seems to be a real sticking point with a lot of the ensemble this year: collaboration takes time. Democracy is more rewarding, but infinitely more cumbersome than a dictatorship. To their credit, most professional rehearsal rooms are run like a dictatorship; no matter how giving or collaborative a director can be, at the end of the day they have the option to pull rank on the actors. It’s my experience that good directors pull rank sparingly, but lead the cast when necessary. It’s quick and clean, but not one of the core values of Shakespeare in Prison; we have a commitment to collaboration, and it may not be timely, but ultimately it is what is most rewarding. We spent the rest of the session on this one scene, which is only a few pages long. One ensemble member even got frustrated with us at one point, saying that the performance was looming and we didn’t have time for this kind of debate. I disagreed, and urged the actors to keep muddling through. In the end, we found a way in which everyone felt content with the scene. Collaboration is not always easy, and not always timely, but it achieves the program’s aims such that real changes begin to take hold in our participants. With Act 4, scene 4, it was definitely worth the wait. The actors were able to show so much range, and such a clear journey from start to finish that is has become one of the scenes I really look forward to seeing in production.