Season Two: Week 20

Friday / November 9
Written by Frannie

We continued our walk-through with Act III, scene ii — the first storm scene. Our Lear was off book for the entire scene! And so was our Fool, who was just given this role last week. While the performance consisted mainly of the actors standing in place while talking to one another, when it was over a number of people praised Lear for beginning to truly “find his voice.” I, for one, was sitting in the back of the bleachers and could hear every word he said.

At this point, there’s no detailed acting happening; we know that that will come later. But a man who recently re-joined the group had a question: “Can the Fool be funny?” Another man who just joined said that he’s a jester—of course he’s funny, even when he’s criticizing Lear. “But not in that scene,” our Lear said emphatically. “You ever been out in a serious storm? It ain’t no joke.” It’s so serious, said another man, that the Fool tells Lear he should go back to his daughters. “I see the Fool being, like… his guardian angel,” mused one man. We asked for clarification, and he said he meant that literally. “He’s there — he’s been sent — for a reason.” Something intriguing to explore!

We continued on, giving constructive criticism and sharing ideas as we went. One man called our Gloucester’s attention to the punctuation in the text; his emotional connection is palpable, but the lines don’t always come out with the right intention. We also pondered ways of making the relationship between Edmund and Gloucester clear. We started getting a little into the weeds on that, and I steered us back to the task at hand; we’ll get into the details later.

One thing we’re a little stuck on is how to communicate changes in location to the audience. While technical elements are no better here than at the women’s prison, we at least are in an auditorium there, which has a curtain we can open and close between scenes. At Parnall, we perform in the gym. Speaking specifically to the storm scenes, which take place at night, one man said, “We could do something cool with people lighting torches and show the transition that way.” The idea of stylizing all scene changes that way was exciting, and we’re going to keep exploring it.

After we ran Act III, scene v, one man suggested to our Cornwall, who just joined, that he let the character’s “drive for revenge” fuel his entrance, meaning that it required more urgency. “That’s a dastardly moment,” he said, “where two villains get together and conspire.” Our Edgar, as usual, fully committed to the emotional intensity and Poor Tom’s physicality, causing another man simply to shake his head after Act III, scene vi, saying, “[NAME}, you’re fucking awesome, man.”

The group walking through Act III, scene vii — the eye-gouging! — took some time to plan it out, which was merited, given how complicated the scene is. It was, of course, messy, but the blocking was logical and will serve as a good foundation for actually staging the scene. One standout moment had to do with our Gloucester’s commitment, rather than with the staging or even the play itself. As he sat “bound” to the chair, our Regan “hit” him upside the head. Gloucester reacted perfectly by jerking forward; this caused his script, which was balanced on his knee, to fall to the ground. He leaned toward it, but didn’t allow his arms to become “unbound,” grunting as he made the fruitless effort to reach it. We all laughed (and so did he), and Cornwall picked up the script and put it back on his knee.

We talked a bit about exactly when the violence happens, all of which is spelled out in the text and was easily found. We determined that our best bet will be to stage the whole scene, but merely to “shape” the combat; Patrick Hanley (our official combat coordinator) will then take their ideas and choreograph something we can do safely and consistently.

Another comment — and this was pertinent to the entire play — was that one of the guys said the scene had been executed so quickly that he’d had trouble catching anything. Others argued that the scene demands that the actors move quickly. “Let’s not forget,” said one man, “this is where things start ramping up. So the scenes are escalating and getting more intense. This is where it starts.” Yes, agreed the other man, but it had still gone too fast; he wanted to see more of the interpersonal dynamics and drama. He got kind of fired up as he explained this, and another man jokingly said, “That energy — everything you just did? I wanna see some of that in your character.” We all laughed.

We ended up clarifying that while the scene does need to be pretty fast-paced, we need to be sure that the language itself isn’t rushed. One man said that the key was for everyone to be sure that they enunciated the words properly. Some weren’t sure what that meant, and I rephrased what he’d said using the world “articulate”. Another man said that that was the wrong word to use in this context, and I fired back that it wasn’t, teasing him by asking why it would have been used in “all those acting and voice classes” I took in college. More on that later.

We moved on to the scene in which Gloucester, led by an old man, is reunited with Edgar (who doesn’t reveal his identity). Gloucester entered with his hat pulled over his eyes, rendering him sightless (other than being able to look down to his script). The guy playing the old man had been goofing around prior to this, but now he buckled down, assuming an active stance and staying very focused on his objective: protecting Gloucester. Gloucester and Edgar, as usual, fully committed to their emotional connections to the text and each other. When the scene ended, another man yelled, “Oh my GOSH!” His excitement propelled him out of his seat and around the gym. “[NAME]! My GOD!” he continued to rave before finally sitting back down.

One man, who has truly fabulous instincts, suggested that Edgar explore changing his voice and physicality during his asides to the audience. Ultimately, the specifics are something that the actor will need to figure out, and this man emphasized that the main thing is to make sure the difference is clear to the audience. He’s right.

At this point, the man who’d called me out on my use of “articulate” earlier suggested we place a bet on its definition. “And the stakes are 4.3!” exclaimed the man who is STILL agitating for that scene to be restored in our cut. “No!” I said. “We are not betting on anything! And that scene is CUT!” I’m not sure why or how this continues to be funny, but the ensemble isn’t quite through yet with the joke.

When we’d gotten through the next scene between Goneril and Albany, one man said, “This is an undercover, brutal scene.” He cited the way the characters speak to one another, and the man playing the former said he was working on chewing on lines like, “Milk-livered man”. I suggested that he let the words come out as slowly as they want — they’re written that way for a reason. Darting a glance at my vocabulary foe, I said, “You can’t ARTICULATE those sounds if you go too fast.” As that man cracked up, the proponent of 4.3 said, “You can’t ENUNCIATE.” I replied, “Right, because THEY’RE SYNONYMS IN THIS CONTEXT.” As the first challenger began to argue again, I said, “You can’t out-vocabulary me! I can totally out-do you on this.” He replied, “Oh, no you can’t.” The other man said, “Oh, no you shan’t.” “Thou canst not!” I exclaimed. “Thou liest!” (That’s one of Ariel’s lines in The Tempest, which has become a running joke in the women’s ensemble, so this response was automatic.)

Thankfully, some others intervened, and we got back to work. The man playing Regan said that he and Goneril want to wear some kind of corset, and that he’s working on drawing out his costume ideas so we’ll know we’re on the same page. “I want a t-shirt that says, ‘What happened to 4.3?’” said you-know-who. “Or a backdrop.” “It’s not getting old,” I said sarcastically. “Everyone is still all about this joke. You should keep going with it.”

The staging of Cordelia’s return basically worked, though the men agreed that her entrance needs more “oomph” so the audience will know how powerful she is. As a part of that, one man suggested that each army have a banner to make things even clearer. “Or we could keep 4.3,” said a certain someone. Nose in my notes, I replied, “Shut UP.”

We circled up to raise the ring, feeling good about how productive we’d been. We’ll be through this phase very soon, and then the real work of staging will begin. We’re ready.

Season Two: Week 19

Tuesday / October 30
Written by Matt

Today was the first day of our stumble-through of the entire play with all of the new members! This is exciting because it’s a chance for everyone in the ensemble to really dig into their characters (now that we’re cast!), and also because having fresh eyes on the play at this point will give us a good indication of whether we are telling the story clearly or not, and how we can tell it better. It’s also a challenge: to simultaneously read the lines, figure out where to move on the stage, begin to feel the language, and also, as the guys are constantly reminding each other, to speak up! It’s a challenge for the entire ensemble to stay focused and engaged even during long scenes in which many people don’t appear, and for the new guys to keep up with a story they don’t know yet, as the actors are all stumbling through it for the first time.

What better way to meet that challenge than Act I, scene i? Half a dozen critical plot points? Check. All but one of the major characters? Check. Huge traffic jams onstage? Check. Most of the characters have only a line or two during the entire scene and need to stand silently for twenty minutes? Check. Despite all of these challenges, a quick poll of the new guys showed how much the ensemble communicated even in this complex scene. One returning member described the dynamic between Goneril and Regan, and explained Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s honesty. A brand-new member was all over the politics of dividing the kingdom. Another new guy observed that Regan and Goneril “see that the king is slipping,” and filled in that Kent “tried to stick up for Cordelia, and he gets banished!” Messy and rough as the scene was, it was encouraging to hear that so much of it came across so clearly.

Edmund set up for Act I, scene ii, then opened by slinking, lizard-like, from behind his desk. He was all curves and soft lines, winding from one corner of the stage to another. With apparent relish and spite, he delivered the soliloquy as one part curse, one part confession. This is a man who has spent some time with those words, and it shows! Even better was his dynamic with Gloucester, his father, and Edgar, his brother, who was all straight lines to Edmund’s curves.

“Edmund is a maniacal son!” shouted one of our new members, when the scene was over. “He tricked ol’ Pops into believing his tomfoolery!” Another talked through his understanding of the plot, then came back to Edmund. “The bastard son,” he mused. “I feel his pain.”

We breezed through Act I, scene iii, and prepared for I.iv. Our Fool was not here today, so a brand-new member read in for him, and he was great! Funny, unafraid to sing, and instinctively able to become serious when the moment was right. Another highlight was Oswald, who was a wonderfully foppish coward, striking just the right balance between being insufferable and pitiable. In fact, Kent stopped in the middle of the scene to reflect: “Wait, so this is how we bond? By jumping this guy?”

Afterwards, we were a little short on time, but we started to talk about what we wanted our concept to look like. A bunch of the guys wanted to make it dark, or even post-apocalyptic (Zombie Lear was a suggestion floated, presumably in jest). Circling back to the scene we had just watched, one of the new guys was floored by the stand-in Fool’s performance.

“Man, the fool was funny!” he exclaimed, then, more seriously, “He was about… the truth.”

Friday / November 2
Written by Frannie

Check-in was solid today, with several people following up on things they said on Tuesday that they thought may have been misinterpreted (they weren’t), and with a really cool share from one of our new members. He said, “I’ll bring a brief glimpse on how Shakespeare is helping me,” explaining that when he told his wife over the phone about the group, she went out and got a copy of King Lear so she could read it, giving them something new to talk about and connect over. He is delighted, and so are we! “You know a good way to test if she’s actually reading?” joked one man. “Call her up and tell her she’s a real Regan, and see what she says!”

I brought in our rehearsal scripts today. They contain made massive cuts, made by me per the guys’ request. We decided to start using the scripts for our “walk-through”, rather than the book. Nearly all the guys were excited about how much of the work of reducing the play is already done, but one man has, for months, made no bones about how attached he is to 4.3, while I have made no bones about how inessential it is in performance. “There’s something missing, Frannie,” he taunted me, waving his script. “Oh, is there?” I teased back. “THERE’S SOMETHING MISSING,” he returned, to which I replied, “BECAUSE WE DON’T NEED IT TO MOVE THE PLOT ALONG AND WE ONLY HAVE 90 MINUTES TO PERFORM THIS PLAY.” A few minutes went by, and, as some others prepared to work 1.5, he sarcastically said, “I really don’t like this.” “I really don’t care,” I replied, to a huge burst of laughter from him and some others. I’m actually not sure I’ve heard those particular guys belly-laugh like that before, so I guess it was a good joke!

1.5 centers on Lear and the Fool, and, though significantly cut down in our script, retains its core. (This is a good cut, if I do say so myself, though we have further to go.) After we ran it, I asked if we’d made any discoveries or had any thoughts. “This is the moment where Lear is starting to second-guess himself,” said our Lear. I asked him what he thought Lear’s objective was. “He wants to be told that it’s all right,” he responded. When I asked the man playing the Fool the same question, he replied, “He wants to tell him that it’s gonna be the same with the other daughter.” Pretty cool considering how complex the language in this scene is, and the fact that this man has only been in the ensemble for a couple of weeks. Another man asked if the scene could, perhaps, be cut altogether, but there was no consensus, and we decided to table it for now. Our Kent asked if we’d noticed that he’d taken Lear’s letter, as directed, to Goneril (who was sitting in the bleachers). “It was supposed to go to Regan, though,” said Lear. “Oh,” said Kent. “I gave the letter to your other daughter. You’re gonna have to cut my head off.”

We breezed through the next few scenes, taking note of where we needed to plug in some servants, a few lines we could definitely cut, and other lines that will be up for debate later.

When we got to Edgar’s first soliloquy, the man playing that role took a moment to psych himself up, took a deep breath… and launched into it full throttle, completely off book and completely engaged. He breathed on the punctuation, lingered on certain words to paint pictures, directly appealed to the audience, and gave himself fully over to the physicality of a man on the run, hiding in the woods, completely bewildered and desperate. When he arrived at the final line (“Edgar I nothing am.”), he sustained that end beat before relaxing back into his normal posture.

“Holy CRAP,” a few of us said, while others let out the breath they’d been holding or grunted or cheered or clapped or simply sat back in admiration. One of the new guys said, “Man, I really felt it.” I asked him why. “Because I see the shame he’s feeling… That he’s in such a low position…” Another man excitedly cut him off, saying, “He was about to go to prison.” This man further gushed that—though he has self-described ADD and often has trouble staying focused—the pace at which Edgar had gone, and the time he’d given himself to breathe, allowed all of us to keep up and follow what he was saying.

Another man praised the strong eye contact with which Edgar had engaged the audience (“That made it personal,” he said), and the first man who’d commented agreed, “It drew me into the character.” The man who’d cut him off before followed up again, saying, “For a second there, I thought I was at a professional theatre.”

“Dude, so did I,” I said. “That is exactly how you want your Shakespeare,” I continued. “Remember how I’ve said that technique without heart is super boring? What was incredible about what you just did was that it was so much heart—it was so honest; nothing on it—the technique almost doesn’t matter. You don’t need much technique work anyway because you’re working so beautifully with the language and engaging us so deeply.” This man is quite humble, and his only visible reaction was to smile and nod his head, absorbing all that we said, and joking that the real reason the piece had worked so well was because he has the perfect long, bushy hair to muss up for it. (He does.)

We went on a bit of a tangent, then, about blocking—positions and movement on stage—as a couple of guys threw out some ideas, and I demonstrated how right-on they were, providing the theatre vocabulary for all they said. “So you’re just following your instincts?” asked one man. “No, man. It’s a system,” said another, intrigued. “It’s both,” I said. “Your instincts as an actor will almost always be right, or they’ll lead us in the right direction. Those of us watching will be see things a little differently and guide from there.”

We moved along, arriving at the end of 3.1 just before the end of our session. In this brief scene, Kent meets with the knight who’s been accompanying Lear and sends him to Cordelia with a message. Our Lear, watching from the side, said, “I forgot how important this scene was.” I asked him what he meant. “Because this sets up everything after this,” he explained. He shook his head. “I forgot about this scene! It sets up everything.” Another man asked if maybe it could be cut down, though, since it’s mostly a descriptive monologue, which can be a little rough on an audience. Our Lear emphatically said no, citing the strength of our Kent’s performance. “He makes you wanna listen to him,” he said, hearkening back to when this same man performed a monologue from The Merchant of Venice which, though most of the ensemble was unfamiliar with the play, we had all nonetheless been able to follow.

We played a silly circle game with the few minutes we had left. As we gathered our things, the man with whom I will apparently be sparring for the rest of the season came up to me. “Hey, just FYI. I’m going to get a ‘4:3’ tattooed right here,” he said, gesturing to his forearm. “Do it,” I replied. “That scene is still cut!”

Season Two: Week 18

Tuesday / October 23
Written by Matt

Apparently, the title of today’s episode of Shakespeare in Prison is “To Be a Shoe…” That title is courtesy of our special (and returning, but no less special for it) guest, Vanessa, and (no spoilers!), you’ll have to read to the end to find out what prompted it...

This day’s session began with an important but tense conversation about who gets added to the ensemble and how. This particular discussion has been a long time coming, and having these sorts of difficult conversations openly and honestly is really crucial to building trust among the members--showing ourselves that we are capable of having an open dialogue about tough issues without becoming divided or losing the sense of safety in the ensemble.

In all, the conversation emphasized how seriously people take our ensemble and how jealously they guard the ensemble’s norms. “This is a family,” many of the men reminded us. Sometimes families need to work out disagreements. Each member of the ensemble needs to work with the others, whether or not they are compatible or even like each other--and that takes, above all, trust.

This is our first full-length season at Parnall. We have already spent longer on King Lear than on any previous play at Parnall. So we’re feeling out what it’s like to work for this long on a single project here. In the past, we have perhaps been able to more easily ignore interpersonal issues or frustrations with people and processes; it was only for three months at a time, and there was precious little time to spend working through our issues--we needed to put up a play! But as the season lengthens and the ensemble itself matures, problems arise and must be dealt with. How we deal with them is important for how the group develops in the future.

Everyone was exhausted by the end of this conversation, and we brought down the ring to re-center the ensemble. Frannie passed out cast lists. There were no surprises, since the list had been worked out in advance, but it felt good to see the list in print. Things are never totally final--there’s always some chaos and a few changes before performance--but getting the cast list feels like a major step forward each season.

We finished with a game suggested by Vanessa. “Freeze-frame” involves a series of tableaus, in which a group of actors create a still scene. The challenge is to tell a complete story with five different tableaus. Someone from the performing group instructs the audience to close their eyes, then they assemble their tableau and tell the audience to open their eyes. We broke into three groups of five to try it out. Vanessa described how she had once played a shoe in a round of freeze frame. “A shoe?” someone asked. “A shoe!” she replied, “Oh! To be a shoe…”

The challenge today was to tell the story of King Lear in five freeze-frames. It was a wonderful and instructive exercise. Many of the groups chose the same “scene,” but had totally different takes on that scene. Some groups chose different scenes (two groups had Lear raging at the storm, but one had Lear, Fool, and Edgar huddled together in the hovel). Not only was it a brilliant way to bring us all together around the play again, but it yielded a few very compelling stage pictures, and sent several of us off thinking about all the ways that these pivotal scenes could be blocked. And, importantly, the tableaus showcased the ensemble members’ bone-deep knowledge of the play’s characters and story.

Friday / October 26
Written by Frannie

During today’s check-in, the man who’s been cast as Gloucester shared that he “had lunch and dinner with Gloucester last night.” We all laughed and asked what he meant. He said he’d imagined Gloucester sitting with him, having a conversation. “I had to spoon feed him half of the meal… It’s great to take time and get to know your character better,” he said. “You just added a whole new element to psychoanalyzing our characters,” said another man. People seemed genuinely excited by the idea. What a cool thing to have come up with on his own!

We added some new members today and spent just about all of our time on introductions, orientation, and continuing to try to resolve the issues that came up on Tuesday. Most of that was either confidential or, in terms of the orientation, not super-exciting reading for this blog, but here are a few great quotes that came out of our traditional three questions:

From a member who participated during our pilot year, and who has just returned: “I have this time to get back to you guys… I like this. It’s fun, and it kept me out of trouble. I never wanted to leave, I just wasn’t mentally there. So I came back… I felt lost without you guys.”

From a new member who was in the audience when a current member performed a monologue in another class: “That excitement he has every time he talks about this — I want that excitement because it’s kind of contagious. I want to infect everyone with the excitement of life.”

And from current members, re-upping their answers to these questions:

“This was an opportunity to challenge myself to be more than just a number or an inmate… I figured it was time to start being the person that I know I am, not who I’m perceived as.”

“I was tricked into it at first, but I’m kinda obsessed with it now… At first, it was a project, to work on myself. I did a lot of time at higher levels, in isolation… I needed to step out of my box… Now it’s the friendship and the family we have. It’s helped me out during a lot of hard times.”

“Originally, I just wanted something fun to do… It’s still fun, but now it’s the camaraderie and community I get out of it… This is my escape. This is where I get to be a real human being… It’s helped me better learn to interact with a more diverse group.”

On Tuesday, we’ll begin walking through the play in chronological order to give our cast some new ideas, and to catch our new members up on the play itself. Phase II has begun!

Season Two: Week 17

Tuesday / October 16
Written by Matt

Word had gotten around that TCM was airing a film version of King Lear, so a lot of the guys had made time to see it. They were, sad to say, not impressed. “Anybody in this room could do any part in that play better than they did,” said one. Everyone generally agreed with that statement, although a few pushed back to mention individual moments that worked well. Apparently, PBS is re-running a series on Shakespeare’s plays, and the guys were all trading notes on which ones to watch. One of them expressed surprise that The Merchant of Venice was a comedy. “All I knew of it was, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed’ and all that,” he said, referring to the powerful rendition of Shylock’s famous monologue delivered over the summer by one of the men.

After lowering the ring, we went straight into exploring Act IV, scene i, in which Edgar is reunited with his blinded father but does not reveal his identity. The scene is multi-layered and somber, and mostly passes between two main characters: Gloucester and Edgar. Two of the men had been practicing the scene over the weekend, and they roped in another man to play the Old Man. The man who played Gloucester is a veteran of the group, and he wanted to plan out the scene with his partners… and plan he did! After five or ten minutes, it was clear he was getting far too intellectual about the entire thing. He worried about about how to act blind and whether we’d be able to hear his voice if he got quiet. I went up to him and encouraged him not to worry so specifically about how to act like he had no eyes and just to focus on Gloucester’s utter dependence on others--he cannot see, sure, but he also cannot identify others without his eyes. He can’t even move without guidance--without direct physical connection with another person, Gloucester is completely lost.

This seemed to free him up a bit, and the first run-through, though rough, had a lot of really affecting moments. After stumbling through it, the men in the audience jumped in to ask questions. “What’s your interpretation?” asked one of the guys to the man playing Edgar, who replied that he felt like Edgar was playing two or three different characters himself. The man who played Gloucester said, “As soon as [the old man, who had been guiding him] walked away, I felt like I was swimming, like I didn’t have nothing to hold onto.”

Still, one member maintained, the emotion of the scene wasn’t connecting with the audience. “So,” said another, “what do you want the audience to feel?” The man playing Edgar talked about feeling torn between the desire for resolution and safety and the desire for self-preservation and control. If Edgar reveals himself, he is in danger, but if he doesn’t he is stuck in the persona of Tom and unable to connect with his father.

After another run-through, the men all seemed more comfortable with the roles. One of the guys specifically complimented Edgar on his vocal performance. Maria asked why Gloucester picks Edgar over his loyal servant. A member replied, “He thinks the Old Man will try to talk him out of it. Tom will just lead him to the cliff.” Another man piped up, “No one will be there to pick sides for him.” The first agreed, “Yeah, nobody to say, ‘You did this wrong or that wrong.’ You just got a dude to help you out.” A third man added, “Gloucester is at a point where he doesn’t want any more emotional connections.”

For better or worse, a veteran volunteered a new member to do the scene in a different way. They decided to play the Old Man and Gloucester, and another new member took Edgar. In the end, the scene was a mess. The two who stood up first had not been following the scene closely, and took a lot of time stumbling over words. It was the first time that one of them had read for a major role, which was exciting, but he admitted at the end that he was just doing it to humor the ensemble. We gave him a big round of applause for his bravery, and for his solid instincts--he did a pretty good job embodying Gloucester’s helplessness--but he was relieved to sit back down. The man who played Edgar, however, clearly connected with that character. One of the men pointed to him and said, “I can see that you want to react off of something.” He said that the other man was a “physical actor” and needed other “physical actors” to react to. And then he picked them: the man who played Gloucester the first time, and Frannie.

This time through, something really amazing happened. It was still rough, but there were moments of beauty and truth between the actors. After Frannie (as the Old Man) left the stage, there was heartbreaking connection between Gloucester and Edgar, as they clung to each other, and yet were ultimately unable to connect because of Edgar’s ruse. And, just as importantly, the men felt instantly connected to those characters. “That felt natural,” said Edgar afterwards.

The other men were stunned. “That was perfect. The reactions, the way the words hit,” said one. The man who had suggested that trio nodded vigorously, saying, “If the books hadn’t been there, you could have filmed it.”

Gloucester said, “I mean, first of all, good job, Shakespeare!” He talked about letting himself fall into the natural rhythms of the text. “I was just reading,” said Edgar. “What do I want? What am I feeling? How’s he reacting? I’ll react to him.”

This was a tough act to follow, but we ran through Act IV, scene vii in the final minutes of our time. In this scene, Lear and Cordelia are finally reunited, coming together to form the emotional core of the final few scenes of the play. After the run-through, no one on stage was satisfied. The man who played Cordelia was first to speak: “I was afraid to put too much emotion into it. I didn’t want to become a blubbery ball up here!” We encouraged him to be as blubbery as he wanted, but it often takes a long time to work that deeply into the scene.

“All the attention is on Lear,” noted the man who had played Edgar in the previous scene. “The doctor is worried about his patient, Cordelia is worried about her father, and Kent is worried about his friend and master.” He added that he envisions Kent as Lear’s “loyal Basset Hound,” which made us all laugh. The man who played Kent commented on how he both wants to reveal himself to Lear and understands that it is not time--echoing the dynamic with Edgar and Gloucester in the previous scene. “And, remember,” added another man, “Kent is Cordelia’s link to Lear.”

After running through the scene one more time--and hitting a lot of the emotional moments just right--we all agreed that we were ready to cast the play on Friday. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been living for so long with this play that casting it will be a letdown, but we’re all ready, and the ensemble is eager to move on and get ready to put up this play!

Friday / October 19
Written by Matt

It was cold today in the gym! In fact, one of the guys checked in just to mention that it was cold. Perhaps because of the air temperature, there was not much fussing around before we began casting the play.

Every season presents a new and interesting casting challenge. Sometimes, it’s easy, and we can do it in fifteen minutes just by talking. Sometimes, we have to do an anonymous ballot. Occasionally, there’s drama. Usually, there’s not. Today, casting went relatively smoothly. For Lear, only one man put his name in, which was as much an acknowledgement by the ensemble of his connection with the role as anything else. Sometimes, we choose roles. Sometimes, roles choose us--we need them, and we can’t avoid that call. It has been clear for weeks, if not months, that this man is being called to play Lear, and no one was going to deny him that. Most of the roles came more or less this way. The man who played Edgar so effectively on Tuesday was welcomed into that role without competition--testament to, among other things, how brilliantly he stepped into Edgar’s body earlier this week. The few roles that had competition were sorted out by brief “sidebar” conversations, and no one seemed upset by the process. Given how deeply these men are connected to the play and how many of them there are, this is pretty amazing. It never ceases to amaze me how our members wind up with the roles they need--and the roles the team needs.

When we were done, though, there was a blank beside Cornwall’s name. Somehow, we had managed to cast everyone without filling in this meaty role. The veteran ensemble member, one of the original twelve, who had been organizing the casting, ruefully admitted that he had been lying low, half-hoping not to be cast. In short order, he found his name beside Cornwall’s. This was an exciting development in its own way. He has been drafted into important roles in the past, but this will be his first time playing someone so villainous and extreme. Frannie told him to say, “Out, vile jelly, where’s thy lustre now?” He obliged, and everyone applauded.

We ended the session playing a few rounds of Party Quirks, a classic improv game. It was a good release from all that sitting around in the cold and working hard to cast the show. As one of the men said in the middle of a round of the game, “I gotta say, these people are all acting a little peculiar.”

We put the ring back up when the time came, ready to get to work on rehearsing the play in earnest. I always think of casting as the biggest turning point in a season of Shakespeare in Prison; it’s when our members transition from analyzing and thinking through the play generally to deepening their connection to a single character, exploring the humanity of their role. And the nature of the collaboration changes, too, as we work together to create a performance. It’s exciting to move into this phase during our first full season at Parnall!

Season Two: Week 16

Tuesday / October 9
Written by Matt

Today opened with an emotional check-in from an original member. He has been a quiet but important presence in our ensemble for a long time now, happier working behind the scenes than out in front. But all the guys respect him and his role, and when he speaks, they listen. He shared some of the work he’s been doing outside of Shakespeare in Prison, much of which was very personal. Afterwards, everyone offered him support and encouragement. Sometimes these displays of emotion, especially from such a central member of the ensemble, can help model constructive emotional connection. “Normally,” said one of the guys, “I’m uncomfortable when people are emotional, but I wasn’t with you.”

Always tenacious, the group wanted to revisit the beginning of Act II, scene ii, which had caused us some frustration on Friday. Specifically, one of the guys wanted to try a different take on Kent, who initiates the fight. What if, he wondered, Kent is actually torn between wanting to fight Oswald and wanting to walk away? The scene is so short that he was able to run through it a few times, gaining in confidence each time. Still, the scene wasn’t coming together convincingly. “No offense,” said one of the other members after watching it one last time, “but I can tell you never picked a fight.” The man playing Kent acknowledged that he was working against type, and we rotated two new people in.

Up next was a member who has been mostly sitting on the sidelines when we put scenes up on their feet to play Kent. And Frannie jumped in to play Oswald. It was immediately a different take on the scene. Almost the first words out of Kent’s mouth, “I love thee not,” were rendered so naturally and almost comically that everyone burst out laughing. “I love thee…” he said, and paused. “Not.” At the end of the scene, though, Frannie said that she hadn’t felt in danger enough to fully commit to shouting for help, as Oswald does. “Oh!” he said. “I was trying not to get too far away from myself, but maybe I should bring in more danger.” Actually, this is one of the less obvious benefits of working through these scenes with facilitators. Often--especially with the men’s ensemble--our members are understandably hesitant to act in any way threatening, even in a scene that manifestly requires a threat to be made. But working through these scenes in rehearsal, with a clear understanding that they are allowed to step into this zone under the right conditions, we allow people to safely open up a part of themselves that is often stifled and wrapped up.

The man playing Kent had no time to tap into his “danger,” though, as Frannie slipped right behind him at the beginning of the scene and out the door. “Dude!” she said. “You let me go in the house!” The next time through, he moved to block her, spitting his lines at her as she scurried between the pews in our chapel meeting place. The effect was one part menacing and one part comical. In the end, Frannie made a break for it as the scene ended, just as Cornwall and his entourage entered. The spectators were enthusiastic. “You was punching with your body!” exclaimed one who was excited about Kent’s body language.

When two new guys got up, Frannie clarified the objectives of the characters: Oswald wants to go into Gloucester’s house; Kent wants to stop him. This both clarified the situation and resulted in some pretty hilarious circling around on stage as Oswald tried to scurry into “the house.” At one point, Kent had Oswald backed up against a potted plant. Still, it was beginning to work in terms of bringing clarity and purpose to the scene. When Kent tried to apologize for missing lines, Frannie made a Shakespeare Pronouncement, forbidding anyone from apologize for making line mistakes. We usually have to make this pronouncement at least once a season--going up or stumbling on lines is the easiest sort of mistake to fixate on, and the one that is least problematic, at least at this stage.

On one last time through, we decided to run the scene through after the entrance of Cornwall and the others from the house and continue up until Kent is placed in the stocks. The entrance was surprisingly intense--one man came striding over the pews!--and the “show” was stolen by a feisty Regan and a Cornwall who can only be described as… sassy! But his sassiness had a sharp undercurrent of danger, which had several people excited about the possibilities of a sassy Cornwall (I made him say “Out, vile jelly!” in sassy-Cornwall style). On the subject of eye-gouging, one of the guys said he had made a prop eyeball out of a ping-pong ball. Frannie was intrigued, but asked everyone to strategize about “how to use that without making it funny.” After a beat, one man said, “So--no paddles, then?”

We closed by thinking about what sort of concept we want for our design. This was a necessarily free-wheeling discussion, since we haven’t talked about it before. One man who has expressed interest in playing Lear, though, had an idea. Perhaps characters (or factions) could be assigned different colors. And he had a vision of Lear beginning the play in a bright, multi-colored outfit that would be “swirly--because he’s in flux, you know?” But over the course of the play, he envisioned Lear losing each colorful article of clothing one-by-one, until, at last, “he’s just all grey. No color left.”

Friday / October 12
Written by Frannie

We decided to stick to the plan we came up with on Tuesday, engaging in a solid acting/vocal warm up and settling in to put the latter part of Act V scene iii on its feet: from Edgar’s entrance through to the bitter end. We figured out who would play each role and talked through some of the scene’s logistics: everyone wanted to see if we could go from beginning to end without stopping.

The man playing Lear talked aside with Matt during this, asking for a reminder about what the deal is with the howls. Are they actual words? Sounds? Where are they directed? There are a number of options. Matt encouraged him to try them out to see what clicked — and to fully commit to whatever he decided to do. I sat down beside them at that point, and the man asked me a similar question: is it a literal howl? “Not necessarily,” I said. “It’s a long, open vowel — more of an expression of emotion than a literal word — and he gives it to you four times.” The man said, “So is it, like, a sound of anguish?” I nodded. “Yes. He’s in absolute agony.” The man took a deep breath, gave us a wry smile, and got up off the bench to go prepare.

I encouraged everyone to stay focused, even if things went a little off, and to sustain their energy even if we needed to call a hold. That way, I said, we’d get a much better idea of how the scene flows.

And then they launched into it. Though there was some roughness due to our never having done this scene on its feet, quite a few things worked or gave us an idea of how they could work. We felt ourselves — on stage and off — completely drawn in. The man who entered with the news about Goneril’s suicide read his lines in a complete panic, which upped the ante for everyone else. Albany frequently failed to pick up his cues, but that was due to his investment in the scene: at point, for example, he became totally absorbed in looking at the sisters’ bodies — which were just one of the guys’ jackets and my cardigan, laid beside one another on the floor.

Lear hesitated on his entrance, and I reminded those on stage to sustain their energy and give him the time he needed. Finally he entered, hitting the “ow” in “howl” but not letting loose completely (which honestly would have been too much to ask at this point). He rushed the language a bit (as did Kent), but a few lines seemed to really hit home: his voice became more resonant on “No, no, no, no life,” and he grabbed Edgar’s knee on, “Do you see this?”

The scene ended, and we began to breathe again. How to debrief, even, on such an emotional scene? It was tough to get the conversation going. Finally the man who’d read Edmund said, “I hate that Edmund takes so long to die.” I asked him why, and he said it was because he was on stage for so long, just lying there, that he hadn’t know what he should have been doing. I said that he wasn’t alone — Shakespeare leaves characters hanging around on stage all the time with no lines or action — and that, at those times, the most important thing to do is simply to listen and react. In this scene, that’s especially paramount for Edmund as the lead up to his change of heart. Another man described the process by which someone dies of sepsis after having been stabbed and suggested using that to help stay occupied during that time.

The man who’d read Albany said, “I felt like, ‘This is all happening way too fast,’ and then I saw my dead wife, and I was like, ‘Damn.’” Which explained why he missed that cue!

We talked, too, about breathing on the punctuation to make sure we don’t rush or fight the text. The language gets choppy here for a reason — the playwright wants us to slow down. We talked through a few more details, and then it was time for round two.

The scene began to live a little more as people took their time and really used the language. Now that they’d done the scene once, knowing it on the page as they do, they began to intuit all sorts of details. Before Albany’s line, “No tearing, lady,” the man playing Goneril leaped forward and snatched at the letter. Albany maintained his sense of horror while staying more on top of cues, Edgar and Edmund sank deeper into their lines, and people functioning as messengers managed to be less distracting.

When Lear entered this time, he was closely followed by a messenger who quietly wept. Lear fed off this energy — I think they planned it, but it could have been spontaneous — and, though the howls were still truncated, he definitely gave himself more vocal freedom than he had before. Both he and Kent slowed down and honored the punctuation more, and it greatly enhanced the scene for everyone. It was truly moving, and a testament to just how good this play is: we wouldn’t have to alter what anyone had done much at all to arrive at an effective staging.

I asked the group how the scene had gone. “The second time, we were all really in tune with each other,” said one man. Everyone agreed: having more familiarity meant they could connect more with the text and everyone else on stage. There were a few technical questions about projecting one’s voice in a lower register and how to maintain focus when a character is physically wounded, but the consensus was that the whole thing had worked overall. “I like the commitment,” said one man. We talked a bit more about how having that connection — that ability to build on one another’s work — is the key to acting and telling a good story with a play.

Before we left, we decided to take one more day to explore a scene or two, and then to cast the play next Friday. We’re ready. Some of these roles very clearly belong to people who personally identify with them; the rest of the casting hasn’t made itself clear, and it’s impossible to know how it’ll go. I’m hopeful that it will be the same peaceful process as the last one, but things have gotten contentious in the women’s ensemble in the past. So we’ll see!