Season Three: Week 2

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“You can find a lot of yourself in all these characters.”

Tuesday / July 9 / 2019
Written by Matt

We walked into the chapel today and, instead of seeing the usual group of guys eagerly waiting for Shakespeare to start, we walked into an empty space. It didn’t take long to figure out that there was another event going on--actually, Governor Whitmer was there!

We weren’t sure if anyone would be able to show up, but soon enough one of our ensemble members who joined at the end of last season came in the building. “Honestly,” he told us, “I’m kind of surprised you’re here.” We assured him that not much stops Shakespeare from showing up in prison--if the facility is open, and we can safely make the drive, we’re there!

I actually really enjoy these days, when only a few people can show up. Of course, I’d rather have everyone there and do our usual Shakespeare work, but it’s also really nice just to chat. So we did! We covered everything from women’s tennis to the development of modern acting technique in Russia.

In the end, only three guys showed up. A former ensemble member also stopped by to say hi and give us an update. So we had a wonderful, free-wheeling conversation for the rest of the session.

It will be nice to see everyone again on Friday, but today’s meeting was a great thing for a hot day--just spending time talking to some of our ensemble members, especially since two of them have been in Shakespeare in Prison for less than a year, and one has only been in it for a week!

Friday / July 12 / 2019
Written by Frannie

It was back to business as usual today! After a long check in (we don’t limit this much at this point in the season, as we’re all getting to know each other), we played a rousing game of Zip Zap Zop, and then we settled in to read more of the play.

We picked up at Dennis’ entrance in Act I, scene i. The plan was to read while seated, but the man reading Oliver became so animated and energetic that he just had to stand and walk over to the man reading Charles. He continued either to pace around the circle or hover over Charles for the rest of the scene, and everything he did corresponded beautifully with the text.

All right, so what’s going on here?

“There was nothing malicious in the wrestler’s intent in showing up,” said one man, “He’s just telling [Oliver] that if they wrestle, he’ll hurt his brother. He’s one of the only neutral parties.” As for Oliver, another man said, “There’s definitely an opportunity—because his brother just claimed his share of the inheritance… [Oliver says,] ‘If you break his neck, don’t worry about it. It’s all good.”

Another man reminded us that Oliver says, essentially, “‘I hate my brother, but I don’t even know why’… It’s like he’s conflicted about why he hates his brother. I think that’s dope for a dynamic character.” There was a pause in the conversation, and this man turned to The Professor (that’s what the ensemble has started calling him) and said, “Get it, [Professor].”

The Professor clued us in to the indications of emotion in the language. “He used ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ with Charles, but never with his brother… That’s the only hate he has, is for his brother… When Oliver’s telling Charles how Machiavellian his brother is, he’s really talking about himself… It goes deep, and it’s not about the money, because then why’s he putting the middle brother through school? No, it’s because the people love Orlando. He can’t figure out why his brother gets this admiration and he doesn’t.”

“He’s envious,” another man responded. “‘I received all the training in the world, and they don’t love me the way they love him.’” Another nodded. “By denying his brother proper training and forcing him to interact with the rabble, he’s helped his brother become endeared to those he wants to be loved by… He’s helped his brother become what he wants to be.”

We put the scene on its feet. Afterward, I asked what we had learned. There was silence. “Well,” I said, “I learned that the scene is too damn long!” There was general agreement, and we chatted briefly about our process of making edits for performance. A newbie wondered if some of the exposition could be cut from the text and given via staging, which is a big part of it, and a veteran explained the process in a bit more detail. I added that, last season, I told WHV’s “Cut Queen” Emeritus (who is now on the outside) about how the guys made me do the first round of cuts on King Lear, and that she said, “Oh, tell them to suck it up.” They laughed, and one guy said, “That’s dope. I like her!”

One of the guys began to speak, and then stopped to make sure everyone knew why he was talking so much: “Usually when I speak up, I’m really just trying to analyze the character.” He directed our attention to a specific point in Oliver’s monologue. “Oliver stops paying attention to the conversation and just switches to how much he hates his brother. ‘Dismantle him!’ That’s coming from something personal, and that changes the whole sequence of the conversation.” Another man pointed out that Charles says, “I wrestle for my credit.” He suggested that maybe “as soon as [Oliver] hears that, he thinks, ‘Oh! I can use this for my advantage.’” The first man responded, “I think that was just awesome psychology.” Another man, who’d just read on his feet, rephrased Oliver’s words as, “‘Break him as much as you can.’” He paused and added, “Being in that scene… It made me really listen to what was being said.”

The Professor said, “I think the word play here is way more complex than in King Lear. The subtlety of it is more important than [what] they come out and say.” He cited the use of “thee/thou” vs. “you”, for example. This man thinks the whole thing is a set up: that Oliver’s been plotting it. “Oliver’s not no dummy, and this isn’t no spur-of-the-moment thing.” Another man shook his head in admiration and said, “That’s a dope interpretation.” I asked if it’s possible that there’s a combination of plotting and opportunity: perhaps Oliver had a vague idea of what to do about his brother, and it comes into focus during the conversation with Charles. All agreed to at least consider this. “He’s feeling out Charles,” one man said.

“Anyone else?” I asked before we moved on. “You don’t have to say anything, but we want you to know that you’re always welcome to.” One quiet newbie smiled and shifted in his seat a bit, explaining, “It’s out of my comfort zone, but it’s very interesting to me.” He said he felt like he was on the outside looking in; as he was seated in the bleachers and surrounded by others, I replied, “Seems to me like you’re on the inside looking around.” Then he actually said quite a lot, mainly that it seemed to him like “Shakespeare was pulling from the outside world.” He was astonished by how real the characters seemed.

“Shakespeare writes real, complex, intricate people,” said a veteran, and another added, “You can find a lot of yourself in any of these characters.” Another man said that last year, he jumped to conclusions about the characters early on, but he listened when I encouraged him to withhold judgment and work toward empathy for all of them. “I remember that conversation,” another man said. “With Shakespeare, you can’t judge their actions because if you put your own judgments on it, you’re not playing the character. That’s what ‘empathize’ means—just allowing the character to come to life inside you.” The man turned to the guy who said he was out of his comfort zone and told him, “You are no longer on the outside looking in. Shakespeare grabbed you and brought you to the inside already.”

Another veteran shared that having that empathy for the characters is important throughout the process, but that he hadn’t fully grasped his character until the performance. “It became super personal, so there was no way to judge the character,” he said. Still another veteran broke in to encourage everyone to read this play and then read another, completely different, book—he said it would give them a new perspective that would enrich the experience. A newbie shared that he was a little overwhelmed by the text, and that it seemed like a lot of lines, but he liked it. “I’m catching on slowly,” he said, to which another man replied, “A dope interpretation.”

We moved on to Act I, scene ii, which initially features Celia, Rosalind, and Touchstone. Two men almost literally jumped at the chance to read the women, which was somewhat unexpected and very exciting! A third quickly volunteered to read Touchstone. Two of the guys pointed out that it’s a very eventful scene and lengthy scene, and we decided to do just the first section today. Almost immediately, we discovered inconsistencies between the No Fear and Arden editions, and the man playing Rosalind insisted that the others use Ardens—he has no patience with the No Fear. “Snob!” I said, and he laughed.

The scene was so funny. The guys playing the women performed together last season, and their comfort with each other and the text was apparent. Touchstone’s entrance and delivery only enhanced what was already happening, and even those who hadn’t read the scene ahead of time were cracking up throughout.

There truly wasn’t time for the kind of discussion these guys like to have, but the energy was high from their performance. “You know what?” I said, “The way you played Celia makes me want to play Celia! Let’s just rotate actors till we run out of time!” So that’s what we did, and it was a ton of fun.

After the second pass, the guy who read Rosalind came over to me, smiling, and said, “I don’t know why, but that was awkward, playing a woman.” I said that was natural and asked him if he knew why. “I don’t know,” he said. “It wasn’t uncomfortable, just awkward.” I suggested that he think on that some more, and I shared how much I love playing male characters: stepping inside a person who seemingly is so different from me, and finding that they aren’t, is fun and exciting. A veteran said that had been huge for him, too—that Shakespeare “did away with my preconceived notions about gender.” He’s learned that “gender isn’t a determining factor.” And he’s quite happy about it.

A few more guys performed the scene. One of them said afterward that he felt like he hadn’t done a good job, and that he was worried about the language. “Don’t worry about that,” a veteran quickly said. “The language is not a barrier. Don’t look at it as a barrier.”

“Hang on, hang on,” said the Rosalind mentioned above. “I figured it out. It’s not that I was uncomfortable being a woman in it—it just was trying to figure out the character I was reading with everybody moving around and all.” The man who read Celia first said that comfort would come with time and practice. “Me and [ensemble member]—while he was reading, I was listening to him… We had fun because we know how fun it is.” The man to whom he was referring said, “First time I read, I was like, ‘Yep, this ain’t for me. I’m quitting.’ But a couple guys came to me and said, ‘Just give it a try.’ I stayed with it. I trusted the process.”

And then a REALLY cool thing happened. One of the men, who had mostly been quiet, leaned over to me and said, “I wrote a poem just now while we were doing all this, and I’d like to read it to everyone.” Several ensemble members have joined facilitators in writing down observations (for our records AND this blog!), and he was one of them today. Here’s his poem:

A moment of time as it passes us by.
Words are spoken, we try to understand why.
We’re no longer looking in, we like seeing the past.
The characters are real, pleasing so fast.
We see online what Frannie writes,
A blog, a poem, everything so nice.
We talk, we talk, there’s no right answer,
We move on with earnest desire.
Don’t lower the status,
We want to see the movie,
Orange!
I want to read Orlando,
Not Marlon Brando.
I was amazing, I want to read.
Time is real short, hurry, hurry, read, read!

Coolest. Notes. Ever.

Season Three: Week 1

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“It gives me the urge to do better.”

Tuesday / July 2 / 2019
Written by Matt

First day back! Nerves! Butterflies! Trepidation! Just kidding… we were all just excited to be back at Parnall for the start of our third season!

It was a little bit sticky in the chapel today (summer!), but we soon forgot the discomfort; it was great to see everyone there--the familiar faces and the new ones. We wasted no time before jumping into check-in, which a couple of veterans explained to the newcomers. Several of our returning members brought us up to speed on their lives, telling us about finishing programs, participating in a talent show, anticipating parole, or seeing the parole board.

One of the new members wasted no time checking in. “Can a new guy have a check-in?” he asked. “Sure!” several people replied. He talked about seeing the parole board, and how their decision might affect what sort of role he’s able to play in the ensemble. We assured him that we’d work it out, but it was nice to hear that he was thinking so far ahead on the first day!

After check-in, we lowered our first ring of the season, which is always exciting. And, instead of the usual, rambly orientation, we had a packet all typed up and ready to go (thanks, Frannie!). More than anything, the packet helped us stay on-track and cover all of our bases. Of course, since this was our first try with an orientation packet, we forgot all sorts of things (thanks, Frannie?), which our veterans were happy to tell us all about, so we can get it better next time.

After orientation, we were all ready to play a game! We started with “Energy Around,” which is a classic name-game. I didn’t participate, since I was working out a way to distribute copies of our books, but it was clear from watching the game that it was a huge success--the best it had ever gone this early in the season, actually. And, really, this is a testament to the culture created by our veteran ensemble members. “Energy Around” requires a willingness to shed self-consciousness (it looks really silly) and communicate energetically with your whole body, which is hard to do right off the bat in a group of new people. But the newbies were swept up in the energy of the group, and given permission to let loose by the palpable trust that exists in that circle.

When we were finished, we still had some time, and one of our returning members suggested that we play “Animal Sounds,” which is in the top-five silliest games in the whole dang arsenal of silly SIP games. He explained the game: an ensemble member stands in the middle of the circle, hands over eyes. He spins as the rest of the ensemble walks in a circle until he shouts “STOP!” and, eyes still covered, points out another ensemble member. “Make for me the sound of….” he says, and requests the sound of an animal in a situation (“an elephant taking a bubble bath,” for example, or “a nearsighted crow accidentally crashing his space shuttle into the International Space Station”). Based only on the sound, the person in the center has to guess who he’s singled out. It’s just as goofy as it sounds, and it was wonderful.

Everyone has having so much fun that we had to make a hasty exit when the time came. There was so much energy, so much enthusiasm and excitement in that room--we all felt warm as we left Parnall… and not just from the summer heat!


Friday / July 5 / 2019
Written by Frannie

We packed quite a bit into this second session! Here goes...

We began with our traditional Three Questions. This took quite a long time, as there are 23 people in the group right now. Here are some highlights:

1) What brings you to Shakespeare?

  • “You guys. I come back for the ensemble. Renewed passion.”

  • “I don’t know why I came to Shakespeare… I don’t like stuff like this at all.”

  • “Artistic outlet. I’m not sure if this is the right artistic outlet, but I thought I’d give it a try.”

  • “The heartfelt belief and earnesty and care that I’ve seen from outsiders who come in and bring this program to all of us… It means a lot that they come in here, and I believe in it.”

  • “I am back because Matt. Because Frannie. Because of all you guys. This lets me be who I am—an energetic weirdo. I actually do like that.”

  • “I saw these two bald guys who were sisters, and then everyone was killing each other. Looked like fun.”

  • “I’m typically not a good person—but here, I want to be a good person… There’s a drive to have integrity… help someone who needs help… I like having that environmentally integrated accountability.”

  • “I have a desire to feel whole.”

2) What do you hope to gain from this experience?

  • “A better understanding of people.”

  • “Confidence. I have an up-and-down self esteem.”

  • “I just started cracking into being vulnerable and opening up. I just want to dig deeper into that. Especially empathy. It was at a two—it’s probably up to a five or a six now.”

  • “The ability to be able to speak out.”

  • “To learn how to be more in touch with how I feel, and be more direct in how I express it.”

3) What is the gift you bring to the ensemble?

  • “I want everybody to succeed in whatever you’re doing… feel special.”

  • “If you guys want to get into the nerdy side of Shakespeare, I can help you with that.” (Another man: “His bunk is full of Shakespeare books. He has a Shakespeare dictionary.”)

  • “Myself. Sense of humor. Personality. Just me, overall.”

  • “I don’t know what I bring.” (Another man: “You’ll figure it out.”)

  • “Focus. Patience.”

  • “A sort of creativity. A little bit of an odd perspective—I see things from a different angle.”

  • “The example of leadership through a younger person that we really don’t see on the compound here… role model for young people here. And maybe older people!”

It was another muggy day, and we decided to dig into the play rather than sweating through a theatre game. No problem—and these guys were ready to DIG. We spent about an hour on just the first few pages—not even the entire first scene, but the first few pages of the first scene.

The man who read Orlando has been working away on his voice and diction for two years, and he launched into the opening monologue with gusto. When the speech ended, I called a hold. “I’m sorry,” I said, “But I can’t let this pass.” I locked eyes with the man and said, “You sound amazing.” He grinned and said, “Uh… thanks!” I said again that he sounded amazing. “That’s the best I’ve ever heard you. I could hear every word you said, I understood what you said, and your diction was great. All that hard work shows. You sound amazing.”

After I was done gushing, we started tossing around ideas about the text. “What’s he saying here?” I asked the group. “He’s upset,” someone said. “He’s saying his brother treats him like horseshit,” said another.

“No!” shouted a veteran, rising quickly to his feet. This guy barely spoke when we met him a year ago. “That’s where you’re wrong. He treats his brother like a commoner.” He paused, looking around the circle. “Damn—where’s [NAME]?” he said, referring to a member of the King Lear ensemble who is no longer in the group. “He always talked about pomp and circumstance…” He was interrupted briefly and sat back down, but then jumped into the discussion again, defining a bunch of words that were being misinterpreted—in just the two days since our last session, he’s already engaged in deep analysis of the text. Satisfied with his contribution, he fist-bumped with another ensemble member.

We read on, some of our “hammiest” members joyfully wending their way through the language—the one reading Oliver even threw out an improvised “Fut!” after his line, “What, boy!”

We paused again to make sure everyone was keeping up with the content and language (we do that a lot). “What’s going on with these brothers?” I asked, and the same man as before leapt to his feet. “NOT YOU!” I shouted. “We know you know all the answers. Let’s hear what everyone else thinks, and you can tell us what we missed.” He grinned bashfully and sat back down.

Another veteran took over. Referring us to Oliver’s lines, he said, “He talks to him like he’s some schmuck on the street.” Yes, we all agreed. And how does that affect Orlando? “That’s the way you’re gonna treat me? That’s the way I’m gonna act now. And then he slaps him!” exclaimed one man. “He got up in his face and grabbed him!” said another. “He knows he was bred to be something more than he’s being treated as,” said another.

“Oliver treats Adam and Orlando like they’re at the same level. Adam actually is a servant in the household, and Oliver treats him the same as his brother,” a newbie observed. “Oliver thinks Orlando will squander the inheritance,” suggested another. A veteran suggested that it might be more complicated. “There’s different levels of entitlement,” he said, “creating that boiling point of conflict.”

Another vet offered, “It’s not that he thinks he’s gonna squander the inheritance—he wants to keep it for himself.” As he took a breath, another member said, “That’s the insidious nature of greed: I’m being benevolent and magnanimous—you say it’s for the good of everyone else, when really it’s for yourself.” The veteran then politely pointed out that he’d been interrupted, accepted the other member’s apology, and gave the rest of his analysis (which I didn’t write down because I was excited about the way the interruption was handled!).

Another man mentioned that there tends to be a hierarchy in the relationships between siblings, and a lot of heads started nodding. “Oliver is the oldest. Maybe it’s the way he was raised,” mused one man. “Maybe his father treated him poorly like that, and when he had to take responsibility, he used his father as a model.”

Another man asked if the text indicated the brothers’ age difference, sharing some of his experience growing up with much older siblings. “They have a particular mindset and treat the rest of us a certain way,” he said. The man next to him said, “When there’s a big gap, there’s always that ‘I hold authority over you—I’m gonna treat you like trash ‘cause I’m the oldest.’” Another man agreed, saying Oliver “even feels extremely superior to the family servant who served his dad… Oliver’s got some real authority issues.”

“I noticed that what we just read had its own mini-climax,” said a veteran. After scribbling down “DAMMIT HE’S DOING IT ALREADY”, I let him finish his sentence and said, “HOW DO YOU KEEP DOING THAT?” This is the guy who, last season, kept inventing acting techniques for himself that are common in acting training—but he’s never had any acting training. He smiled. “Because you’re right,” I said. “It’s called a unit or a beat. And… I hate you.” He laughed and explained the mini-climax he’d found: “All this verbal sparring between the brothers… but the trick of the thing is that [Orlando] didn’t back down, showing that this isn’t the end of this fight.”

“We missed the whole first part of what Orlando said at the beginning!” our resident scholar burst out. Reminding us of the resentment Orlando has toward Oliver, he said, “Orlando is so close to turning into Edmund… but then the roles switch, and Oliver is Edmund. But you see how he could have gone down Edmund’s path. He’s not trying to go down no Machiavellian way. Edmund is Edgar now—they switched.” Two of the veterans asked him to explain what he meant to the new guys, many of whom aren’t familiar with King Lear.

I noticed, then, that with his old “sparring” partner gone, this man was engaging mostly with the youngest member of our ensemble, who enthusiastically listened, nodded, and offered his own point of view. This is incredibly cool: there is a roughly 25-year age gap between these guys, and the younger one was not this assertive last year (though he was always enthusiastic). “Not to challenge what you’re saying,” he said, “but do you think he already showed signs of having that frustration?... That he was already willing to go there with his brother?”

“No,” the older guy said, “He just tells you what he feels.” This man who sat mostly silent this time last year now could not stop talking, the words coming out so fast that I gave up on taking notes. “You’re really excited to be back, aren’t you?” I said. “Oh, yeah, I sure am,” he replied.

“You got me thinking about the parents in Lear,” said another man, comparing the familial conflict that is featured in each play. “It’s different from Lear because you’re thrown right into it,” said another man. “There’s no leadership, there’s no nothing. You get this guy’s feelings right off. It moves fast… It’s not like it leaves off until 3.4. This stuff happens before 1.2!”

“Orlando is just fed up. You don’t give me my respect, I’m gonna beat that ass,” said one man, totally tickled by Orlando’s approach. This led to a conversation about what Orlando says about his relationship with his father. “There’s an underlying current here, where you can tell how this father felt about his boys… You get a glimpse that he maybe babied the little brother somewhat… and the oldest brother feels like he didn’t get the privilege due the eldest son. ‘You thought you was the special one—I’ma show you how special you was.’”

“Maybe the father saw something that wasn’t there, or maybe something that he only showed to his brother,” said one man. Another man said that that was digging too deep, and the first man countered, essentially, that every character needs a backstory. A third man said, “It feels like the older brother simply got more because of his station—not because he was loved more. And the younger brother is more like his father... [Oliver] wants to have these controls and be able to keep him down by any means necessary. Orlando just wants what he was promised.” A fourth man nodded, “And that plays in later on—he’s a bad mofo.” The third man added, “It even says something in there about taking after the father.” The fourth man then quoted the text to support the interpretation, and the man next to me leaned back in his chair and said, “I like that!”

“With siblings, who always seems to fall through the cracks? The middle brother!” said another man. “So why is the oldest worried about the youngest?... I know as the oldest, I was always put on the back burner.” Another guy said he thought it was more that the oldest has more responsibilities. “I can relate,” said yet another man. “I was the baby brother, and my brothers beat the shit outta me every day… When I stopped taking it and beat them up, it was a whole different power dynamic.”

“Orlando seems to be better liked in general by people, and Oliver is jealous of that,” said another man. “But you really only see Adam and the two brothers,” said another, and the first man said, yes, that’s who he was talking about. He was just kind of extrapolating from there.

An older member observed that “we have 20 different dynamics and scenarios” based on our own experiences. “We know one is younger, and we know one is older,” he said, reminding us that that’s all that’s in the text, at least at this point in the play.

We had just a few minutes left, and the conversation sped up as we approached the end of the session. Again, I couldn’t keep up, so I don’t know exactly how we got there, but one of the veterans closed the conversation with a callback to his earlier comparison between this year’s play and last: “That’s what makes Orlando different from Edmund—he never said he hated his father. He just said, ‘You ain’t treating me right.’”

Holy moly. That was a good first week.

Season Two: Performances and Wrap Up

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“I came here for Shakespeare, but I found family.”

PERFORMANCES AND WRAP UP

Written by Frannie

April 5, 2019: Performance #1

Though a number of ensemble members had planned on setting up the set and equipment for our first performance this morning, circumstances prevented them from doing so. When the facilitators arrived at the gym at 12:30pm, every member of the ensemble was driven and focused, achieving what they’d anticipated to be a three-hour set-up in just 20 minutes. In the midst of this, I encouraged everyone to use the stress to focus and to fuel their performances—to resist the urge to scramble or let anxiety overtake them. As each person nodded back, I wondered if I’d needed to say anything at all: these guys are pros.

We circled up for a brief check-in and pep talk, and it was clear that we were ready to go. Whatever was about to happen on stage, whether it worked or not, “we’ve got each other’s backs out there,” and we knew we could roll with the punches. As one member said, “I’m a man… in a dress… in a men’s prison. Let’s go.”

“I don’t know, man,” said one of the guys, hopping back and forth a little, “I’m kinda freaking out.” I assured everyone that it’s normal to feel that way before a performance, especially the first one. “If you’re anxious, it’s because you care,” I said, to which one man replied, “I care a LOT!” I suggested, again, that we use our nerves to drive the performance—we still weren’t positive that we could get from beginning to end in the allotted time.

One man stepped into the circle before we lowered our ring. “It is far easier to destroy than to create,” he said, gazing at each man in turn. “And we’ve created something here, together. Let’s show everyone our creation.”

As with most first performances, there were a number of hiccups—some barely noticeable, others leaving huge gaps in dialogue and/or truncating scenes—but we pushed through, and our audience was rapt. Most leaned forward, arms resting on their knees, eyes glued to the actors. They laughed at the Fool’s jokes—a testament to that actor’s skill with the language.

At one point, the overhead fans turned on unexpectedly. As one of our “crew” members quickly (and calmly) went over to an officer to see if they could be turned off, the ensemble didn’t miss a beat, simply encouraging each other to project their voices more. Nobody panicked. Our Lear in particular roared over the sound of both the fans and the rain, and many of us stopped and just listened to him, remembering how quiet and reserved he was when the season began in July. When the fans shut off, there was a palpable feeling of relief—and when they turned on again, the sound was met with smiles and ruefully shaken heads.

We arrived at the scene in which Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes and is mortally wounded in a sword fight with a servant. The men went at it with the exact right intensity, and many in the audience audibly groaned, squirming in their seats. One of them looked over at me (I was watching at this point), grimacing and shaking his head for a moment before completely refocusing on the weeping, wailing Gloucester.

During the scene in which Lear, the Fool, Edgar, and Kent shelter in place, those of us backstage heard the table on stage suddenly crash to the ground, which is something that had never happened in rehearsal. Our ears perked up, and, when the lines continued without a hitch, one of the guys looked at me, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know what that was, but I hope it worked!” It turned out to have been Lear knocking over the table—in character—and we asked him later if maybe he could let us in on his plans in the future!

Every now and then, our momentum began to slow, but we didn’t get bogged down. Each time someone entered, they brought a burst of energy with them, and we finished our play right at the 95-minute mark—which was what I’d called the other day, and which I definitely brought to everyone’s attention. I gotta gloat SOMEtimes!

April 6, 2019: Performance #2

The facility allowed us to keep the set and equipment set up in the gym between performances (which was MUCH appreciated), so things were much calmer when facilitators arrived today. The jittery feeling that preceded our first performance was gone entirely, though some folks had friends in the audience whose reactions they were particularly anxious about.

The feedback from our first audience, the guys said, was phenomenal. Many of the mistakes we’d thought were glaringly obvious turned out to have worked as part of the show, and one of the actors who’d had the most trouble with lines was cited as having had the best performance in the entire cast. “I screwed up that good,” he joked. An ensemble member who’s taken on a backstage role said, “I was hoping to see a good show yesterday. I didn’t—I saw a great show.”

One man said he’d been surprised by how calm he’d stayed when the lines seemed to leave his head. “I felt lost, like– you forget your lines– and I was like, ‘Oh, shit.” Then I looked at you guys’ characters, and the look in your eyes of, ‘You got this,’ and I got through it.”

Our audience was much larger today, but just as engaged. Even when a number of them had to (or chose to) leave early, they were as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. One of our facilitators, taking notes from the audience, noted, “Honestly—some of these men look like teenaged girls watching a rom com. (Stereotypical but true.).”

Powered by the success of our first performance and the engagement of our audience, the ensemble dug deeper into the characters and the text, making fewer mistakes and finding more moments of clarity and connection. Though some new road bumps popped up unexpectedly, we covered well for each other and didn’t let those moments take down the whole show.

“‘Good’ is, in fact not a good word to describe Lear’s performance,” wrote a facilitator in the audience. “He is miraculous. Stupendous. Undeniably top-notch. Stellar. Watching him is life-changing.” His transformation has been, perhaps, the most dramatic of any ensemble member this season. Forgotten lines be damned. Product be damned. The man has worked an incredibly hard-won miracle within himself, and his commitment to the process has led the way for everyone else.

As we gathered after the show to talk briefly before leaving for the day, a “crew” member told us that he’d teared up multiple times. When a few of them tried to shrug that off, he doubled down on what he’d said. “You guys gotta understand: this is a play. This isn’t real. So, when you touch somebody on that level, it’s personal. It’s personal.” One of the men responded by flopping down onto the floor in the center of the circle. But he quickly got back up to help the rest of us lift that protective ring of positive energy together.

April 7, 2019: Performance #3

“The sky is the limit,” one man said to the circle as we finished sharing the (effusive) feedback the second performance had gotten. “Let’s nail this one today!”

We drove through the performance, our pace finally consistent and our energy (even backstage) focused on giving our best performance yet for an audience that reacted verbally to many of the play’s most “on-point” moments.

That said, it was during this performance that it became abundantly clear how much we were held back by shaky line memorization and reliance on cue cards. People who’d worked their tails off all season found themselves lost onstage, fumbling with their cards, unable to figure out where they were when the lines were paraphrased or out of order. One scene in particular went completely off the rails, and, while the guys managed the chaos well, it was a learning moment for the entire ensemble.

Even so, it was a very successful performance! During our brief post-show Q&A, an audience member jokingly asked Lear how long it had taken him “to get that howl out.” As Lear smilingly replied, “A long time,” several other ensemble members shouted, “NINE MONTHS!” Before we closed, one ensemble member made a point of encouraging those in the audience to sign up for the program. “We accept everybody,” he said, “no matter what’s wrong with you.” A couple of us (myself included), said, “Hey!” He made a calming gesture with his hands and said, “You all know what I mean. Everybody who wants to join, we want you.”

A man who left the group earlier this season was in the audience today. When I saw him, I couldn’t help but wave excitedly—he made some very important contributions when he was part of the ensemble and was always a joy to work with. As the ensemble packed up the props and got out of costume, I walked over to shake his hand and check in. He said he was wowed by what he’d seen, adding that it had changed his perspective on the group as a whole. “You know,” he said, “I left because it didn’t feel like family. But watching everyone up there—I was like, ‘That is a family.’ And I want to be part of that family again.” I grinned and said, “So we’ll see you in July?” He gave me a mocking look, like I’d said something truly asinine, and replied, “Oh, you know I already signed up!”

April 8, 2019: Performance #4

There was a bit of heaviness in the air as we set up and circled up for our final performance. I was grateful that we had a little more time than usual to check in before our audience arrived.

One of the men said, “My mom called and said she wishes that family could be there to support me. I told her it’s okay: my family is here to support me.’” The rest of us nodded earnestly—by the final performance, the strength of the bonds created in the ensemble become clearer than ever before. “We have a birthright of dignity,” said one man, “and we want to raise the awareness of humane treatment for all of us.” Turning to the subject of the performance itself, one of our younger members rubbed his hands together in anticipation, saying, “I’m ready for it. Let’s get it.”

“I remember when the program first came here,” one man said. “I’m very proud of what this program has become. I didn’t think the bar could be raised, but it was. 95% of you remember your lines!” We laughed. “It was always a lotta scripts onstage before.” He became more solemn. “But seriously, though. Y’all should be proud. I’m glad we pushed through the trauma, the tears, the I’m-never-coming-back-again—the just-kidding-can-I-come-back–” We laughed again. He turned to the facilitators. “Thank you for coming and giving us this.”

We talked a bit more before another ensemble member brought it back to that same sentiment, putting it in his own words—acknowledging (between the lines) that he hadn’t been the easiest to work with, that he’d stuck with it even when he was most angry, and that the ensemble had accepted and valued his involvement no matter how aggravated they felt. “I want to thank everyone for the hard work, hours memorizing lines, the fall-outs, the fall-back-ins… Each one of you is great, and you have a light inside you, burning bright. Let’s show these guys our light.”

The audience began to arrive, and we drifted into small pockets of people, chatting and preparing for the performance. One man made a point of thanking a facilitator for bringing in the costumes, and for putting so much thought into them. In this setting, costumes are about much, much more than the look of the show. “When I wear these regular clothes,” he said with the weight of more than a decade spent behind bars, “It’s like, ‘Oh, this is how it’s supposed to feel.”

Nothing could shake our focus today. Even the men using cue cards hardly missed a beat. The energy in the room was electric, and everyone’s performance intensified. Vanessa, a past WHV facilitator who visited this ensemble twice earlier in the season, was sitting front-row-center, alternately beaming and weeping—the best audience member in the history of audience members, in my opinion. A number of the guys commented on it to me. One said, “Holy shit. Can you imagine if she’d been in the audience for the first show?” And another: “You feel that energy we got? She’s feeding that energy. That’s all her.” I promised to try to twist her arm into coming to every single performance from now on (at both facilities). Wish me luck!

As we stood to take our final bows, the audience rose to their feet, cheering, a few wiping away tears. Before we started the usual Q&A, the wonderful librarian Sarah Gebert, our staff partner, rose to say a few words. She spoke of the skills developed in a program like this, and of the ensemble’s drive to work through “personal and public conflict” to fully commit to the process from beginning to end. I thanked her “for making this happen” (which is not hyperbole), and then several ensemble members demanded that all facilitators (including Vanessa) and Sarah come to the stage. Several took turns speaking about what the program means to them, and of the depth of their gratitude (which I am fully aware I will never truly understand). “You come in here, and you treat us like real people,” said one of the men. “You make us feel human in this environment, where we’re seen by most as numbers and crimes. You believe that we can be good people—you demand that we be good people. And some of us aren’t, or we weren’t. But because you come in from the outside, and you see us as humans, and you believe that we are good, it makes us want to be good. We want to be the people you believe we can be. We become those people. And that’s because of you.”

It was a struggle to get everyone to take off the costumes and put the props away. Some went quietly and efficiently about their business, but others lingered, waiting until it was absolutely necessary to put away those “sacred objects” for the last time. Anyone who’s done any type of theatre will tell you there’s a letdown after the final performance—like the air going out of a balloon—but this was different. There had been some tears during the post-show speeches (one man later commented that he’d never seen so many grown men crying in one place), but now the tears flowed more freely, as ensemble members realized—many for the first time—the ephemeral nature of this art form. This King Lear will never exist again—even if we’d been able to take video, it wouldn’t truly capture it—and, though the program will continue and many members will be part of it for some time yet, this ensemble as a whole will soon exist only in our memories and the bonds we’ve forged with each other.

Several ensemble members took me aside individually, both before and after the show, to briefly share what their experience had meant, and to thank me. I thanked them right back! I had worked with one man through seemingly endless challenges as he sought—amid widespread disbelief and distrust from others—to make some truly radical changes in himself. Now he shook my hand, tears welling up in his eyes. A long, long hand shake. “Thank you, Frannie, for believing in me,” he said, his voice breaking. “For helping me find that part of myself– to heal what’s broken in me–” That was all he could say, and it was enough. I silently nodded, affirming that no words were needed—they couldn’t have matched the gratitude in his eyes, anyway. I saw him wandering through the gym a few minutes later, tears streaming down his cheeks.

We had only a few minutes left, as an officer kindly reminded us, and the group gathered together one last time. One of the guys lovingly kicked the facilitators out of the circle, and the men spread their arms across each other’s shoulders, urging each other to hold onto this feeling of collective accomplishment and brotherhood. The officer, honoring the moment and doing her job, let us know we had just one minute. With a “1, 2, 3 — SHAKESPEARE,” the guys let the facilitators back in, and we quickly threw the ring into the air. We had to rush out, but we knew we’d be back the next day to, in Edgar’s words, “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

April 9, 2019: Wrap Up

Click here for more photos.

When facilitators arrived at the chapel, we were greeted at the door by an ensemble member with a huge smile on his face, and we found the rest of the group already circling up, grinning, laughing, and reminiscing about the past four days. After we’d taken care of a bit of “business,” we launched into our season wrap up.

This is always among my favorite days of the season, even though there’s some sadness as the process comes to its end. Each wrap up session has taken on its own format over the years—some have been largely about tackling logistical challenges to help things go smoother next time, while others have been more freewheeling and emotional. This one, as it turns out, was best encapsulated by one of the men about 90 minutes in:

“On the real, though, y’all are super emo, man.”

I don’t know that any narrative could properly describe the intensity and magnitude of what was said, heard, felt, and experienced in that room, and I’m not going to dishonor it with what would surely be a feeble attempt. What I will say is that we began with one communal roll of tissue (some preemptively torn by those who knew they’d need it), and we ended with two significantly depleted rolls and many crumpled wads of tissue held in our hands or piled in our laps.

There were many powerful moments of connection and eloquence, some represented in the quotes below. But what really struck me during this wrap up was the emphasis, nearly across the board, on how this season has changed ensemble members’ ideas about manhood—what it can truly mean to “be a man” and not “our idea of what a man has to be.” The profoundness with which these men were rocked by the work they did together and the changes they see in each other—the gravity of this experience for men in particular—is something I don’t think I can fully appreciate. But, my god, is it ever an honor to have been in that room while so many wept, describing how they’d thought of themselves, and other men, and masculinity before—and how completely transformed their perspectives are now. They have learned from each other how to be better men. They have learned from each other that they are better men.

As I told them before we left (I’ll say more when I see them again soon—it was far more important for me to listen today), that room was full of heroes. Of people who’ve pulled off heroics, with stakes I can’t comprehend, who, simply by doing the work, have radically altered the perception of who they are and can be—both for themselves and others—and who’ve trusted me enough to let me be part of that process. To work alongside people who are so determined to fight through stereotypes and trauma to regain their humanity and reshape their identities—the gratitude I feel can be overwhelming. And it certainly was today.

Here is some of what they shared:

“The imperfection of perfection—that’s what this play has meant for me. We were never perfect, but we were great. We looked out for each other… I didn’t sleep well last night. I was so filled with emotion—I felt such pride and joy. And it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way about myself. Thank you for teaching me to be human again.”

“We’re impacting people in a positive way. So, kudos to you guys—we’re having a positive impact in a very negative environment.”

“All of you guys here have moved and inspired me. [Another man: (sotto) ‘That’s what’s up.’] I’m gonna remember these memories forever, and I want you guys to know that. It’s hard for me to express how much it means...” [breaks down crying, motions for someone else to speak.]

“This experience has been extremely humbling… Whatever a person’s politics or whatever, twice a week we put that aside and come together… [The facilitators] fostered that environment for us to be exactly who we are, exactly where we are. My ego always gets in my way, but I trusted the process, and that I’m gonna come out the other side. And you guys help me step out of my own way… I get a clear lens to look at myself in a new light, and I want to thank you guys for that. You helped make me a better me.”

“I love this—being here. When I ever was going to leave, it’s because I felt like I wasn’t wanted. But this is my most favorite time here… I like all you guys. That’s not normal for me. I usually don’t like anyone. I feel like I should be here.”

“I’ve been in here over 20 years. Feeling is hard… When you finally start feeling again, you realize you never stopped. You just stopped expressing it.”

“I was very antisocial. I didn’t like being around people. I never had no serious relationships… I’d cut them off before they got in too deep… I have a huge issue with trust. But even with all that going on, [Frannie] said, ‘Trust the process,’ so I trusted the process… This thing touched me more than– it put some life on it, if that makes sense… Thanks for supporting me and showing me what friendship is all about.”

“I’m kind of a goofball. It’s not like I don’t like emotion, it’s just that it has its place. It’s one of the irritating things about coming in here… [laughs, then gets serious] This group is needy to me, but I get it… I was starved for affection growing up, so I don’t know what to do with it. But that is something that I’m learning now.”

“What the program is:

  • Building integrity.

  • Teaches to nurture.

  • Have faith.

  • Listen, not just memorize. Listen with more than just ears.

  • Have understanding.

  • Give commitment.

  • Encourage one another.

  • Reproduce all that for the next one.”

“I’m glad I got to experience this with you guys, and this has helped propel what I’m gonna do when I get home… This was my trial by fire. This is my family right here. Not many people get these opportunities, to go through a fire and not get burned, but [we did this]... It’s really dope, honestly, and I love you all. You guys are so cool… I’ll never give up on what this has created. I’ll forever try to help from the outside.”

“You should try it. It’s not what you think… It’s a chance to be a part of a family, not just a group of people… It helped me to see myself as a human being, not a waste of space to be ignored… I thought it’d be something I’d enjoy, but when I got here, it was so much more than I thought it would be. At one of the lowest points of my life, [SIP] gave me the courage to move forward… It’s taught me not to let first impressions rule my opinion of people.”

“We might not all get along, but we all come together. It’s like a puzzle—the picture isn’t complete until everything is there. If you’re missing just one piece, it all falls apart. We came together, and the picture was complete. We weren’t missing any pieces.”

“I didn’t know where I’d fit into the puzzle… It’s been years and years since I’ve been myself. I don’t have to act a certain way to fit in here. It feels refreshing to me to have people who like me for who I am, and not for who they think I am or who I used to be.”

“I came here for Shakespeare, but I found family… I never thought it would be possible to connect with males that way… When I first stepped into the room, I was scared. But someone told me that if you’re going to do something, do it while you’re scared… As time went on, I felt myself growing with each push from each one of you. This room gave me the hope and the strength I needed to push through… This will be part of my life forever. It’s a part of me now.”

“Frannie—you called a lot of BS on me. Those things—I had those challenges in my personal life, too: being authentic, being vulnerable, saying, ‘I have problems, too…’”

“Thank you for allowing us to come in and just be human beings, and not expecting anything else from us.”

“On the real, though—y’all are super emo, man.” [Everyone laughs.] “But it makes you see how valuable the program is—and y’all gotta take care of it… Keep on pushin’, pass that torch to the newcomers.”

“We all crossed paths for a reason. Shakespeare created this… I don’t make friends—I make family.”

“This program really pulled me out of the box… I been staring at concrete walls for so long, and razor wire fences. But this showed me that there is green grass. There are blue skies. I’m more than a number.”

“This is the easiest I’ve made friends in a long time. You are all family.”

“I’m anxious to see the next chapter for you all. The way this impacts people… It’s going to be larger than life.”



That’s it for Season Two.

See you in July.

Season Two: Week 41

Tuesday / April 2 / 2019
Written by Matt

“You have not done Shakespeare until you’ve helped a man into a dress.”

Final dress rehearsal! Nerves! Mistakes! Frantic saves! People stepping up! People falling down! A runaway band of knights who almost steal the scene from Lear and Goneril!

Today’s run was a blur as we tried to put together all of the pieces in our final run before we have an audience. As so often happens in all sorts of theatres, the final dress was a little rough. We got through the play, and we never had to call a hard stop to totally fix something, but it was close! In Act I scene iv, our knights (of which I am one and definitely guilty) got a little carried away with the “disordered rabble” that makes Goneril’s house “like a riotous inn.” A stern talking-to by Frannie and a few stink-eyes from Lear were all it took to clean up our act, but it was a miracle that Lear and Goneril were able to soldier through it.

A little later on, Kent’s stocks got mixed up in a scene change, and it took some quick thinking on the fly by an imperious Cornwall to save the day. (“Fetch forth the stocks! No! Put them there! Not there! THERE!”)

Tensions rose and fell backstage, as people rushed to cover for each other and then vented their frustrations at someone who missed a cue or a scene partner or a facilitator or anyone else who happened to be sitting around. You know--usual dress rehearsal stuff!

Amidst the chaos, there were some beautiful moments, though. The servant who fights Cornwall in Act III, scene vii made no noise after his onstage death. But just as Frannie was about the make a note to tell him to make some sort of “death sound,” a guy sitting next to her and watching began to grin and say to himself, “That’s good.” Silent it remained.

And, in a brilliant, emotional touch to the final scene, Edgar brought Gloucester’s bloody blindfold with him when he entered. After the fight, as the brothers reconcile and he is recounting their father’s death, Edgar presented Edmund with the blindfold. Both Edgar’s gesture and Edmund’s reaction were beautiful gut-punches.

The moment was a reminder that, although SIP is not about seeking artistic achievement, our ensemble members often come up with artistically beautiful ideas, the more so for their completely organic origins. Edgar needed no director to come up with that gesture as a poignant marker of loss and connection; it came from the work he has done to understand his character and the play.

As we put up the ring, the frustration seemed to dissipate a bit. The next time we gather, it will be to perform for an audience!

Season Two: Week 40

DPT_SiP_PARNELL_022619-8220.jpg

“We don’t make friends. We make family.”

Tuesday / March 26 / 2019
Written by Matt

We made it to Week 40, y’all! Longtime readers of the blog will know what that means… very little to write about! During performances and dress rehearsals, facilitators become full members of the cast and crew--we’re just trying to hold it all together like everybody else.

As usual, we got thrown a curveball in the home stretch (which is a terribly mixed baseball metaphor, but let’s move on from that). Our Cordelia had to leave the ensemble at the last minute. Not only is this sort of last-minute chaos completely par for the course (because, suddenly, we’re playing golf), but the role that opens up also always seems to be the one best suited to be filled by Frannie, no matter how deep our bench is (sportball!). It’s happened all but two years with the women, and here at Parnall, Frannie’s had to step in at the last second to take on Desdemona (in Othello) and Miranda (in The Tempest). So it is only fitting that, of all roles to open up, the one that presented itself was Cordelia.

Partly as a practical measure and partly as a challenge to the guys who are still using scripts, Frannie arrived off-book for her role. And, to be honest, having facilitators onstage always gives our ensemble members a boost of energy. So it was today… maybe too much energy! In her re-appearance scene in Act IV, Cordelia interacts with soldiers, a gentleman, and a messenger. But her command to search for her father was apparently so convincing that everybody exited together, leaving Frannie alone onstage. She turned her dialogue into an impromptu soliloquy (I think it went something like, “Um… Alack, dear father… There’s a war! The scene’s over!”).

Despite the chaos--and especially for a first dress rehearsal--today’s run went remarkably well. The guys are good at rolling with the punches. We all need to get better with our lines, but we’ve got a really solid group this season.

Friday / March 29 / 2019
Written by Coffey

We had another great run of the show today, but this time with a special guest! Detroit Public Theatre’s own Sarah Clare Corporandy was our audience and, with new eyes on the stage, the men stepped up their game. We shaved 15 minutes off of the overall run time, scene changes got smoother, there was no noise coming from backstage, and the men were prompt and clear when calling for line. Technical improvements aside, the men were clearly settling into the world of the play and began making space in that world for their characters. It was beautiful to watch the actors, for the most part, lose concern for where they would exit next and give in to the power of the play. I was on book for them and my eyes were repeatedly drawn away from the script and onto the stage. The play has more life in it with every run, and that life carried the play past the occasional missed entrance and forgotten line. In the words of one of our actors, “When we were bad, we were good. When we were good, we were great!”