One of the ensemble members who recently joined the group took me aside and told me that she wanted to make sure I know that she has very bad anxiety and stage fright, and that’s why she’s been hanging back a bit. I assured her that we’ve had many people over the years who’ve worked through those challenges and accomplished a lot, and I suggested that she push herself just a bit out of her comfort zone rather than feeling pressure to dive in like many of the others. I also suggested that she let the group know how she’s feeling so that they will understand why she’s reticent, rather than anyone wrongfully assuming that she’s not dedicated or interested in the work. She did talk to the group, and they were, of course, very sympathetic.
We worked through several scenes tonight. When discussing Act Three Scene Two, in which Hastings ignores a warning from Lord Stanley and boasts about the execution of his enemies, we paused to analyze what all of this means. “It’s ironic that Hastings is so happy about the executions because he’s going to die,” said one woman. We decided that the reason there’s so much repetition in the scene is to make sure we’re set up for Hastings’ impending downfall. A woman who worked on Othello last year remarked, “It’s like all of those people saying ‘honest, honest Iago.’”
Act One Scene Three was pretty straightforward and didn’t engender discussion beyond clarifying the plot. In our brief discussion of Act Three Scene Four, one of the women remarked, “We have a Ratcliffe here. She’s a henchwoman.”
When the majority of the group decided to play an improv game, I took aside the woman who confided in me that she’s bored and gave her some additional resources about the history behind the play. She was pleased and excited to do the extra reading.
I then went to the back of the room with a longtime ensemble member who wanted to read me an essay she had written about her life. It is a powerful piece, describing intense trauma that she experienced as a child and the following self-destructive choices she made, culminating in the crime for which she is incarcerated. She also wrote about her journey in prison toward healing. When she finished reading, she began to cry, talking about how hard it is to revisit these old wounds, but how much writing about them helps. She emphatically stated that the reason she’s been able to do this is her involvement in our group. Being able to explore so much through the characters, learning about storytelling, gaining confidence and self-esteem, and learning how to more constructively express herself and manage conflict has been a game changer for her. She is nearly ready to share her experiences widely and make some kind of impact, hopefully with young girls facing the same challenges she faced.
This ensemble member has come a very long way from when I first met her. “I don’t think you can understand how much this has meant to me,” she said. “This group has changed me. You are my inspiration.”
“There could be no higher honor,” I replied. “This is what we hope the program can do for everyone. And I want you to know that you inspire me, too. Nearly every time I talk about the group, I mention you. You’ve grown so much.”
It was an intense but rewarding conversation. I am so thrilled that she’s taken these steps toward healing, and so honored that she’s shared so many details of her journey with me.
We began tonight with Act Three Scene Five, in which Richard and Buckingham begin their manipulation of those around them to give Richard the crown. Our discussion of the scene centered on the Lord Mayor, who is handily played.
“I picture him chubby and dumb as a brick,” said one woman. “He must be a wuss,” said another. “You can’t make that judgment,” said a woman who’s been in the group for several years. Kyle observed that the mayor could be reading between the lines. “I picture him as the Monopoly guy,” said one member. “Or the Mayor of the Munchkins,” said another.
A newer member suggested that the mayor acts the way he does because he doesn’t want Richard to hold anything against him later. After all, he is confronted by Hastings’ disembodied head in this scene. “I would run and get the hell out of Tewkesbury,” joked one woman.
Why do they fetch the doctor and the preacher, we pondered? A note in the Arden version of the play (which we use as a resource) says that these two were vocal advocates for Richard. “It’s like bringing your mom to court,” said one woman.
We moved on to Act Three Scene Six, in which a Scrivener tells the audience about how obviously false the proclamation against Hastings is. The scene is very brief. Why is it here, we asked? “This is where the story unfolds,” said one woman. “It’s getting us up to date, like the scene with the citizens,” said another.
“This is the first person to say it’s a fraud,” Kyle remarked. “Who’s he really talking to?” asked an ensemble member. “He wouldn’t talk to anyone who could say he’s the traitor.”
“Shakespeare does this all the time,” said a longtime member. Kyle added that when characters speak to the audience, they’re involving them without the possibility that they could impact the action of the play. “He’s speaking for everyone there,” said a newer member.
We moved on to Act Three Scene Seven, in which Richard and Buckingham again manipulate those around them and ultimately gain the throne for Richard. “It’s so slimy,” said one woman. The woman who played Iago last year mused, “Sometimes I think I like Richard better than Iago. Richard at least brings people into it – Iago acted by himself. Mad props to Richard – he gets people on his side.”
Another woman agreed. “Iago lied and tricked people – Richard gets people to work with him.” The first woman added, “The motives are different, too. Iago was doing it out of ambition and spite. Richard wants power.” The second woman asked, “Do you think because he’s a lord, he’s used to having people do things for him?” The first woman nodded her head, saying, “He’s entitled.”
Another woman from last year’s group said, “I think Iago’s more personal – he knows people’s weaknesses and digs deep into their souls and feelings. He plays specific people against others. Richard’s like, ‘Off with their head. If you’re not with me, you’re dead.’ Everybody hates Richard. When he does things, it’s obvious. Iago tricked people – Richard just has them killed.”
Richard’s physical deformity came up again. “It could be a body image thing,” said one woman. “Maybe he doesn’t look that bad to other people.”
We returned to the comparison with Iago. Kyle mentioned the contempt with which Iago held Cassio, and one of last year’s members chimed in, “Prattle without practice!” That’s a direct quote from the play, and evidence that it’s not just me who gets the language stuck in her head!
The discussion continued. I returned to the opening soliloquy and asked the group if they feel that, based on that language, Richard is bored and doesn’t fit in well in peace time. We mused on that a bit. Then the conversation turned personal.
“Sometimes I do want power,” said one woman. “I do things just to see if I could. There are things I want to accomplish. I’m not sure Richard wants to accomplish anything. As far as him being bored, I get that.” Another woman added, “He just wants to be somebody.”
“How tall was he? Maybe he had a Napoleon complex,” volunteered one woman. “He’s got a complex for sure,” responded the woman who posited that he wants to be somebody. “Do you think he got what he wanted in the end? I mean here we are talking about him. He’s somebody.”
I suggested that we refrain from judging Richard in black and white terms – that we will be better served by analyzing him as a multi-faceted human being. Several group members remarked how similar that is to how they feel about being judged.
“As felons, we bring a different view to this,” said one woman. “We know each other and ourselves… Society has thrown us way. You see things with us you otherwise wouldn’t see. Other people in society don’t understand. I look at friends who are drug addicts and see what led them there. The judging of character is a slippery slope. We’re gonna go out there and get judged, too.”
“Us judging them is like someone looking at our files,” said another woman.
“I’m stuck on what you said,” said another member to the first woman. “We’re all something to that effect, but in here I’ll never know you as that drug addict robber. To me you’re not.”
The first woman agreed. “Here I’m another person because we’re all on that level. But when I go home, I have to check that. For those of us that are going home soon, we have to remember that. But don’t forget who you are in here.”
The woman to whom this was a response said, “If we want people to know the real us, we have to be the real us.”
“The world is so judgmental,” said a longtime ensemble member. “If it’s not us as prisoners, it’s gonna be somebody else – lesbian, etc. If I wasn’t here, and I was posting pictures on social media, people would be saying something. In here, we have the opportunity to share who we really are.”
“We’re more than our crimes,” said another woman. Another added, “What we did yesterday is yesterday. It’s where you go from here.”
Kyle asked what would happen if they met Richard in prison. “Oh, we have,” said one woman, and everyone laughed. “We know Richards and reformed Richards,” said another. Kyle asked if there is hope that all Richards can be reformed. The group pondered this.
“I don’t want to be in the mix of the ghosts,” joked one woman. “When you’re around them, you realize they’re different,” one woman said more seriously. The first woman continued, “Some people use Richard as a character to keep up a wall.”
One woman talked about finding a good place to sit in the day room, and what she’d do if the only seat was near a Richard. “If Richard is respectful, I’ll sit there all day next to him.”
“We form preconceived notions, but we find out she’s pretending to be a Richard because of her situation,” said the woman who talked about Richard being used to keep up a wall.
Another woman said, “The Richard in my unit doesn’t like people who see her as Richard. She’ll plot against you… If you play the game and let her run the show, then you’re okay.” Another woman knew whom she was talking about. “She scares me,” she said. “I’ve seen the things she’s done to people, and I’m like, you can have it.” Kyle responded that that sounds a lot like the mayor.
“Sometimes if we don’t know better, we don’t do better,” said one woman.
Another woman remarked that someone serving a life sentence is more likely to be a Richard. This was met with some pushback. “If they’ve spent their whole lives here, it’s gonna change them,” said one woman. “You just don’t know what they’ve been through.”
Our conversation lasted until the very last minute of our meeting. We ended on a positive note, despite the disagreement over lifers being more likely to be Richards. Everyone is excited to continue the discussion next week.