Season Two: Week 12

Tuesday / September 11

Written by Matt.

We are reaching the end of King Lear! After checking in (all good things today), we set out to finish Act 4. We jumped right into reading, since we had left off in the middle of Act IV, scene vi, which is a sprawling, disjointed scene that we mostly finished last week.

As we got through the end of the scene, one of our most active members fixated on the connection between Edmund and Edgar--the ways in which they are similar while still being opposites. “Look at this!” he said, excitedly pointing at the page in his book, which is already dogeared from reading and rereading. “Edgar the legitimate is playing like he’s base, and Edmund the base-born is playing like he’s legitimate!” Another member brought us back to Edgar’s regret at killing Oswald from earlier in the scene and contrasted it with Edmund’s lack of empathy. “He’s not after vengeance,” another man agreed. “He’s not like the other ones that’ve been done wrong, and are only out for vengeance.”

After finishing this scene, several of the guys were eager to get to playing improv games. We played a simple game of Bus Stop (a variation of Hitchhiker) in which one character is waiting for a bus, and another comes and tries to get the first one to leave. It is a game of desire and motivation: the characters’ goals are opposed. After a few rounds, we stopped to ask what worked best for these little scenes. “Commitment to character,” immediately said one of the men. We moved on to Party Quirks, which they had tried for the first time last week, and which is more complicated. The “host” of the party was utterly confused by a few of them, including one whose “quirk,” improbably, was that he had balloons tied around his neck but very sticky feet. “Hey, uh, you invited me here,” he said, trying to help out, “and I feel like it was a trap.” He paused for a second. “A Venus Flytrap!”

We turned back to the play to finish Act IV. The scene, which reunites Lear and Cordelia at last, moves along quickly, but we paused often to reflect.

“I sense remorse from Lear,” said a longtime member, “and he seems apologetic.” Another noticed how much more coherent Lear is in this scene than in the last one. He has had time to sleep. One man was clearly affected by the language. “This verse here,” he said, “starting on line 45: You do me wrong to take me out o’the grave./Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.” He looked up. “My own tears scald do scald like molten lead. I’m sorry, dude, sometimes I hear things like that, and I just... “ he searched for the words for a moment. “I just love words, and-- he’s just so grief-stricken. The tears feel so hot they’re just burning trails into his cheeks.”

“Lear finally gets what he was looking for: redemption,” added a normally vocal member of the group who had been quietly contemplating the scene for some time. Another noted that Cordelia asks for Lear’s blessing. “It’s totally humbling,” added the one who had been brought up short by the earlier description. Then he added, “What’s with all these people clutching to their disguises?” We discussed a bit about the use of disguises, literal and metaphorical, in the play. One member connected the masks with our discussion last month of madness: “They had aspects of the madness in them from the beginning,” he noted, “and they disguised it. But they’re getting back to the madness at the end.” After discussing that idea a bit, he added, “The problem is that Lear has always related everything back to his being a king--not to being a father or a man. And now he can own up to his mistakes as a father, and as a man.”

“This reminds me of--wait, who’s that king in the Bible?” asked one of the men. Another, who is better versed in the text of the Bible than the rest of us, clarified gently that is was Nebuchadnezzar.

“Right! Nebuchadnezzar had to go because he was too proud, and he could only come back when he had humbled himself.”

At that moment, we ran out of time and rushed to put the ring back up. Each scene in Lear offers opportunities for reflection and self-reflection. The men (and facilitators!) in that room meet the challenge directly, and we are so looking forward to wrestling with the end of the play with them.

Friday / September 14

Written by Frannie.

After a rousing game of tape ball, we settled in to read Act V, scene i. One of the men sat down next to me and asked if this play was ever staged as “Queen Lear”, or with any (or all) genders reversed, and what I thought about it. I said that that’s done all the time, and that it’s not an invalid way to do it, but that my own feeling is that the play is heavily dependent on the psychology of men and power, and that father/daughter relationships are differently charged than other parent/child relationships. He said that he wasn’t sure that that was true, and that Goneril’s and Regan’s roles seemed very much in keeping with men’s jockeying for power. I reminded him that a major theme in this play is that things are topsy turvy — and, as a part of that, the women behave in stereotypically male ways. “But, you know, if you set this in a matriarchal society, you could flip it the opposite way, and that could be really interesting,” I said. “I didn’t even really think about all of this in depth,” he said, “But, yeah, gender is really big in this play. I’m gonna think some more about that.”

The guys really like reading scenes on their feet from the get-go, and, while this creates some challenges, it’s also a neat way to take stock of people’s comfort levels. Today, for example, two men who have often been hesitant to get on their feet immediately volunteered to play Goneril and Regan.

After summing up the scene’s events, I called our attention back to the exchange between Regan and Edmund right at the beginning. It’s quick, but it’s important to flesh out before we get to the final scene. At first we sort of danced around things — the scene is somewhat sexually charged, and, as with previous plays, it’s up to me as the female in the room to set the tone. This content is nothing to shy away from, and I never have, with the men or the women. In the first place, it’s in the play, and we can’t truly understand the play unless we cover all of our bases. It’s also an opportunity to engage intellectually (and maturely) about a subject that a lot of people haven’t ever been able to talk about in this way. It breaks down a lot of barriers for folks.

So, okay. What’s going on in this scene?

It’s clear that Regan is very attracted to Edmund and jealous of the possibility that her sister slept with him. When did this attraction and rivalry begin? People immediately saw it as being connected with power — perhaps it was when Edmund became Earl of Gloucester, or when Cornwall died, leaving Regan free to pursue Edmund. But attraction can precede action, we all agreed.

One man cautioned, “I feel like how you read it is more important than the words alone.” He said we should be reading between the lines — is this all about lust, or is there more going on? “Lust and obsession and possession — those things are powerful… You forget about that power stuff because you’re falling in love with that girl or that dude.”

Another man wasn’t so sure. “There’s no love there — they’re all just jockeying for power. It’s not even about lust. It’s about whatever they think is important to them at the time. They fight for these things, and once they’ve got it, they throw it away… It’s not enough… It’s not Edmund, it’s what he represents.” One man said, “It’s about the boy. The power is a byproduct.”

I questioned, too, the idea that these two are in love. “Look at the way they speak about each other… They’re objects to be ‘enjoyed.’ They don’t talk about each other as human beings, the way other lovers in Shakespeare do.”

Lust for sex and power can overwhelm, we all agreed. And I wondered if maybe Regan’s judgment was clouded. “There’s no strategic reason for Regan to kill Goneril — she’s not gonna marry Albany for his power. All she’ll gain is Edmund.” One man said, “Now that they have that power, they don’t need to scheme.” Another laughed and said, “Man, I grew up in a house full of female cousins and things. I know how this story ends.”

One man suggested that this was all part of Edmund’s plan to begin with — that Edmund is “straight out of The Art of Seduction,” and that he convinced the sisters to go after him and take each other out. “Did he convince them, or did they convince themselves?” asked another man. “They both just had this desire to have him. And at that point, it became a rivalry.” Another man chuckled and said, “He’s a rake, bro.”

I wondered about whether any of this was intentional on Edmund’s part, or if he’s along for the ride, taking opportunities as they come. “I see him totally in control of the situation,” one man said. “He’s that manipulative and deceitful… He gets a taste of that power, and he wants more and more and more and more. It’s not, he’s being taken for a ride. He’s pulling it in. Don’t think for one second that all his dreams aren’t coming true.” I said that I didn’t think the two things had to be mutually exclusive, but this clearly wasn’t part of the original plan, or he would have told us at the beginning of the play. He didn’t orchestrate Cornwall’s death. So, even if he was sleeping with one or both sisters prior to that, he couldn’t have anticipated the opportunity to marry one of them. Perhaps now he’s in control, but this stuff is unexpected.

Another man agreed, saying that Edmund’s only original goal was to get Edgar’s land. “Having a different title doesn’t change who you are, though,” he said. “When you have a viewpoint what it’s gonna be like… it doesn’t make those expectations true… He’s not quite at the end yet, so he’s still trying to figure out that plot… His whole thing was, ‘I don’t want to be seen as base. And if I get a bunch of power along the way, awesome.’” He continued, “He didn’t want to be king; he wanted to be acknowledged… If anyone’s had a sibling, where you feel like you’re living in their shadow, you know that you can get caught up… and you keep chasing it. They’re chasing an idea. Some people end up in prison, chasing those kinds of ideas.”

A lively debate ensued about Edmund’s motives: recognition, legitimacy, power. Matt pointed out that Edmund got what he wanted but lost the love of Gloucester along the way. I did a bit of a fast-forward to the final scene, when Edmund, finding out that the sisters died over him, says, “Yet Edmund was beloved,” and then tries to save Lear and Cordelia before he, himself, dies. So that’s probably part of it, too — a longing to be loved.

One man was particularly fired up, as he has been about Edmund since the beginning. It’s very clear that he has a strong connection to the character. As he literally leaned to the discussion, another man grinned at me and said, “I think he should play Edmund.” I grinned right back. Things could always change, but, more often than not, when the ensemble sees a connection like this, they clear the way for that person to play the role.

Back to the sisters. What is it they see in Edmund? One man said that Edmund seemed to the the opposite of their husbands, which plants the seeds of attraction in many cases. “He’s a bastard, too, remember,” I said. “He’s from the other side of the tracks. He’s different. He’s exotic.” Another man said, “YES. Exotic. That’s the word I was looking for!”

We decided to read Act V, scene ii, before we left, since it’s very brief: Gloucester alone as the battle rages off stage. I asked why everyone thought that it was written this way when other plays put the action of the battle right in front of the audience. One man, who is often unfocused or antagonistic, had an epiphany: “I don’t think the battle scenes are what make this play this play. It’s everything that happens around the battles.” People nodded in agreement, and one man said, “Good job, [NAME],” and walked over to give him a high five.

Another man expanded on that. “Why do you need battle scenes when you got battle scenes through the whole play: battles of the mind. Of the human psyche, of morality, of power and ideals…” The man whom I talked to at the beginning of the day said, “And gender.” The first man excitedly said, “And gender! You’re right!”

We decided to spend all of next week on the play’s final scene. And then we’ll see how much time we want to spend on exploration before we cast it.

Season Two: Week 11

Tuesday / September 4

Written by Matt

It was a little slow getting in today, which was a reminder of how lucky we’ve been at Parnall this year. It could be easy to take a speedy entry for granted, but we never do—or, we try not to!

We kept check-in short, and everyone was eager to dive into the play. As short as we kept the preliminaries, the men asked a bunch of questions—I was the only facilitator today, and I hadn’t been able to attend for a while, which provoked some good-natured ribbing and more earnest questions about how I’d been. After lowering the ring, we were off to read King Lear.

Act 4, scene 4, briefly re-introduces Cordelia, this time at the head of an army and invading her country of birth. The men all reacted to her power, and to her absence from the play between the first scene and now.

“Everybody got different ideas about her from the first scene,” recalled a new member, reminding us that our reactions ranged from admiration to frustration. “Me,” he grinned, “I think she was a Rockstar.” Another member quibbled a bit with that description. “See,” he said, “When I think Rockstar, I think, ‘Fuck yeah, good night, Seattle!’” and he mimed throwing a mic. He explained that he sees her power as quieter and less insistent than that.

Yet another man added that he believed Cordelia had been planning the invasion all along. Her decision to marry the king of France, he said, could be entirely explained by Cordelia’s desire to eventually invade and take revenge. There was some discussion of this point, before one member cut in with a question: “What was the king of France’s motivation to marry her?” Which caused four or five men to flip back to the first scene to remind us all of the circumstances. Ultimately, we were divided on the question of Cordelia’s motivations and perplexed by France’s.

These details could all be worked out in performance, several people noted, but one man felt like he was on to something. It was Cordelia’s genuineness that drew France to her, and also that allowed her to leave the stage for so long. “Everybody else was just putting up a front,” he said. “Cordelia was just who she was, so there was no reason to spend more time with her, to figure out who she really was.” She only really needed to return when the others had revealed their true characters.

One of the men was really struck by Cordelia’s care for her father, which pervades the language. “This really shows her compassion for her father, far more than any of her sisters could ever say.”

We moved on to Act 4, scene 5, in which Regan conspires to kill Gloucester and begins to realize (perhaps) Edmund’s betrayal of her. Several of the men were struck by her desire that Gloucester be dead and the description of people’s hearts turning against her and her sister after seeing the eyeless man wandering around.

“You have to be careful with that brutality,” explained one longtime member. “It’s like ISIS. They really split the Islamic community.” He went on to explain how the public brutality of ISIS had inspired some hardline support, but it mostly drove a wedge into the community. “Same thing with taking the eyes of Gloucester,” he said. “These people have seen killing. They have seen execution. But the eyes?” he shuddered. “They made a martyr out of him, and that turned the minds of the people against them.”

“It’s also because of what he stood for,” another chimed in, reminding us that Gloucester was well respected. “How he’s influencing people is what’s scaring her.” The man who had mentioned ISIS replied, “Yeah, but a lot of people are scared to kill someone political like that because then they become a martyr.”

Another man, who had been silent so far, took a big-picture approach. “When the people see that the ones leading them are ignoring them to the extent that they’re torturing people or arguing over who ‘gets’ Edmund, the people get mad!”

“Yeah,” yet another agreed, “sometimes, someone does something so vile that it rallies all these other people against them, and [Regan] would have been better throwing him in the moat or whatever.”

After an hour and a half of sustained seriousness, we were ready to get up and play some games! We played a couple of standard improv games, but in the middle of the session, a group of the men proposed a new improvised scene they had invented in recent days.

What they unfurled was chaotic and confusing but really brilliant. They set a scene (a motorcycle club) and assigned each person in the scene a character type or archetype. Then the “lead” in the group began improvising a monologue that laid out a conflict, calling on the others to jump in.

“You know [the outcasts from the club] broke the code,” he said.

“Yeah.” the men murmured.

“Yeah!” one shouted. “All four parts of the code!”

“All four!” the leader affirmed.

The one who had invented the four parts looped the others in. He pointed at one of the men. “We all know the code. Brother, what is the first part of the code?”

“Uhhh……” the unsuspecting man stalled, before going on to help invent the code.

The scene fell apart after four or five minutes, which partly obscured all of the things that were right with it. It was not only an ingenious and novel way to being fresh improv to the group—the man who invented it said that he really wanted to do some improv that wasn’t about getting laughs—but it also showed the sense of ownership and agency that these men have built up. They want to make Shakespeare in Prison their own, to leave their mark on it, and they empower each other to do that with abandon. The other ensemble members were open with their critiques, but generous with their praise, and not one person discouraged the activity or judged the men who had performed, and everyone said that they wanted to see more of that sort of work.

We went on to do other improv exercises, but that new “game” stood out as a great example of what the members of our ensemble can do to push themselves and each other. It happened in the space we have all created, but without any guidance or encouragement from facilitators.


Friday / September 7
Written by Frannie

We spent today on Act IV scene vi, a long scene in which Edgar convinces Gloucester that he’s at a cliff, Gloucester “kills himself”, Lear enters (mad?) and runs off, and, eventually Edgar kills Oswald. But we didn’t get to that last part of the scene — there was too much to talk about first.

We read bit by bit, pausing for the first time just as Gloucester kneels. Why is Edgar doing this? Maybe it’s to convince Gloucester not to kill himself, one man mused. “To get him to second guess himself.” A second man agreed, “It seems like he’s giving him another chance to say, ‘Eh, this might not be the best idea.”

But maybe not. Another man drew our attention to the language. “He’s talking heartfelt,” he said, and another man added, “It’s almost got a soothing cadence to it… ‘It’s okay, you can go. If that’s what you gotta do, you can go.’”

Another man thought that this was all to keep Gloucester from guessing Edgar’s identity. Another thought that guilt played into it somehow — that watching someone jump off a cliff would have to make one feel guilty. “But he didn’t lead him to a cliff,” one person responded. “I think there’s extreme sorrow for his father’s condition, but no guilt.” Another man added, “I think [Edgar] is living right in the moment, and that’s why his voice is slipping.”

We read on through Gloucester’s “fall” and Edgar’s interaction with him after. And we paused. “What kind of fall is this?” I asked everyone. “Remembering that this is a play… What does this look like? How do you see this being staged?”

One man thought there would be a physical cliff, and that it would be about five feet tall. Others said they, too, thought there would be something to fall from, but they didn’t agree on its height; one man said it should be very low, like when you miss the last step coming down the stairs. But does Gloucester actually, physically fall? One man said no — that it’s more a sense of disorientation; of not knowing what a fall like that would feel like if it truly happened.

Another man said, again, that he thought there should be something several feet high for Gloucester to fall from. But one man — who has emerged as a natural and respected leader in these discussions — said, “You’re not taking into account the actors — or even Gloucester. He’s just been traumatized… It’s like a placebo… You gotta understand his mental/emotional state… Think of all the stuff that built up to that fall.” I agreed, kneeling to see how it would feel to collapse just from there. I looked back through the text, pointing out that all of Gloucester’s language is about falling, shaking things off. “If you think about somebody jumping or leaping,” said one man, “there’s an energy behind it. But he’s kneeling and falling.” Another said, “You also have to look at the mixture of trauma… He could even pass out momentarily.”

Matt pointed out, too, that Gloucester had asked to be taken to this specific cliff, and that he probably already knew what it looked like. “Has anyone ever been to a funeral before?” asked one man. “He made this finality with himself… Maybe he’s a little disappointed that he’s still alive.” Another said, “How about this one: how many people have come to prison who have lived a traumatic experience and years later still haven’t accepted it?”

One of the guys added that the power of the mind can make the body do things it usually can’t; i.e., a mother lifting a car off her child or a paraplegic suddenly walking in order to save someone from danger. “When you’re committed, you’re committed, and he’s committed,” said one man. “All that pain is just stewing with him right there.” Coffey added that, in a way, Edgar makes himself the edge of the cliff by both suggesting its presence and taking it away.

Just before we began the section when Lear enters, I asked the group to keep in mind that — no matter each person’s interpretation of the character’s madness, senility, dementia, or whatever — the guy also hasn’t slept in quite awhile, and, because it’s in the text, that has to be a part of our interpretation of this scene. Sleep deprivation is also a great “way in” to Lear’s state of mind for pretty much everyone, even if they haven’t experienced it to this extent. The proverbial light bulb turned on for a few people — I could see it without them even speaking. One guy said, “If you go more than three days without sleep, you’ll begin to speak and act not like yourself.” Another person, who was addicted to meth for a long time, said that he often stayed awake for days on end — sometimes for upwards of a week; once for more than two weeks. “Even when you wake back up after you fall asleep, everything is different,” he said. Another added that it feels like extreme jet lag, and the first man continued, “Your mind is rewired, so my mind works different from yours now… I’ve been away from that for three years now, and I’m still not right.” He rarely sleeps more than a few hours a night — he just can’t do it.

“It’s worth remembering that Lear is suffering from several levels of madness here,” said one man. “Him putting the crown on is crowning his madness, adding a layer.” Another said, “He’s clearly not as mad as you would think he’d be — he’s dropping a lot of little dimes here.”

Another man, whose love for this play is seriously explosive, said, “Lear is trying to navigate that cloud of madness… In Lear’s madness, he can see the truth of things, and in Gloucester’s blindness, he can feel the truth of things… [Lear’s] feelings cue that storm that he was going through. But [Gloucester’s] feelings are bringing him to reality.”

Another man said, “It’s the thinking that drives you crazy,” and then he and the guy to whom he was responding got into a bit of a debate about the primacy of thinking/feeling. Is it the thinking about a situation that controls your perceptions, or your feelings? After a few minutes of this, a third man said, “How about, instead of focusing on the emotion, we focus on the trigger?” What is the immediate cause of the reaction?

“Back to Shakespeare’s poking at aristocracy,” said the man who’d been practically jumping out of his seat. “When you strip away the prettiness… It’s all about showing the humanity. They’ve all got pretty things to hide their ugliness. Gloucester is road-weary, bleeding from his eye sockets — and, without his eyes, this is probably the purest form of himself he’s ever been in his life. Lear, mad and ranting — this is the purest he’s ever been.” Another man added, “People, instead of living life, think that living according to an image, role, or title is life… you take it away, and they don’t know who they are.”

One of the guys called our attention to Lear’s “every inch a king” line, relating it to something he learned about “toxic masculinity” in a class: that men generally identify by their jobs, whereas women identify by their relationships. “We get caught up in what we do, not necessarily in who we are,” he said. Another man shook his head and said, “Poor Lear. He needs a hug.” The first man continued, “He’s holding onto his title to the bitter, bitter end… It’s like — you catch air, and you’re up there for a second, but then you’re right back down under there. It’s like a broken fucking merry-go-round.”

Another man nodded. “You see guys here walking around, trying to hold onto something that they were once and they just ain’t anymore… It’s men. We get wrapped up in these titles, and we get bent out of shape when they get stripped from us.” Another added, “And that’s without the power.” The first man chuckled and said, “Lear had a horrible 401k program…”

After a bit of a laugh, one of the guys refocused us. “Have you ever been to a high school reunion and seen that guy who’s stuck in high school?” he asked. I snorted and said, “Dude, you don’t have to go to a reunion to see that.” As we laughed, another ensemble member said he thought he might be one of those guys, but not in a bad way. When he was a teenager and young adult, he played music incessantly, but that ended when he was incarcerated. “I went 10 years without touching an instrument. When I got to Level I finally, the first guitar I touched, I choked up a little bit. First band I was in was Mariachi.” We all started giggling, without judgment — we knew he played hardcore punk before prison, and no one would ever expect Mariachi to be what helped him restore that part of himself. But there it is. That’s what did it.

Another ensemble member redirected us back to Lear and his clinging to his title, even when his crown is made only of flowers. “He was the most powerful person in Britain… Think how hard it would be to switch that off.” But what can anyone do? “The worst thing you can tell someone with dementia is, ‘No.’” said another man. And being king is core to Lear’s identity. And his rage at having that taken from him in any way leads to a misogynistic rant.

“We start identifying with a lot of chauvinist stuff real early on,” said one of the men. Another man said he thought that’s why men have a harder time expressing themselves than women, and that we’ve probably seen that through SIP. I said, “Well, it’s interesting you should say that, because — and we haven’t been working with men that long, but this is what we’ve observed so far — you guys are actually much better at that than most of the women we’ve worked with.” Many of the guys expressed surprise, even shock, but then the man who’d spoken of identifying with “chauvinist stuff” reminded everyone that the vast majority of incarcerated women have been abused, and that abuse often takes people’s voices from them. A kind of a hush fell over the room, and I said that that does seem to be true: that one of the toughest things for us to get the women to do is to put their needs, wants, and feelings into words and to say them — to believe they can trust others to care enough to listen. With the guys, at least so far, it’s as if they just need permission to express emotion, and then it’s hard to stop the flow of words.

Another man wondered if at least some of that might be because women are socialized in such a way that they are afraid, even subconsciously, of screwing up in public — that they don’t trust that their words will be taken without judgment, and maybe they don’t trust that others won’t criticize them or add, inaccurately, to what they said. Men, he said, don’t have that same concern — they are almost looking for someone to articulate their feelings better than they can. They don’t mind having their words rephrased.

The man who’d spoken of abuse now reminded us of how hard it would have been to be a woman in Elizabethan times, and how smart women had to be just to survive. They didn’t have the option of going to war or challenging someone to a duel, he said, so they had to think and manipulate and convince. It made them less trusting of others, and, perhaps, it led to a cycle of men trusting them less as well.

That’s essentially where we ended things for the day. I continue to be completely blown away by the depth — and breadth — of these conversations. This discussion got so intense and fascinating and exhilarating that I stopped taking notes — and I never do that. Being in a room full of such brilliance drives home what many of us (inside and out) know to be true: that dismissing incarcerated people out of hand because they are currently invisible, or returned citizens because they made bad decisions in the past, is, simply put, bananas. There are folks behind those walls who have so much to give, and who want so much to offer it. We’re fools if we don’t take them up on that — if we don’t at least give them a chance.

/endrant

Season Two: Week 10

Tuesday / August 28
 

Since today marked the beginning of our tenth week, we spent our time on a sort of program check-in. This began with setting some goals in terms of our timeline: we’ll finish reading the play by the end of Week 13, and we’ll spend no more than three weeks exploring it on our feet before casting. We will spend less time on these things if we start to feel like we’re spinning our wheels, but we want to be sure that a) we don’t feel rushed in group discussions and b) everyone has a chance to read the characters they’re interested in playing.

The conversation then turned to “airing” concerns that folks have had about some group dynamics. These have been brought to my attention, one-on-one, by a few “representatives”, but I felt that they really needed to be addressed by the entire ensemble since they affect everyone. I gave the group a heads up on Friday so they’d have the weekend to gather their thoughts, and there was some tension in the room as we geared up for the discussion. This is something that many of our ensemble members hadn’t done before, so we took a few minutes to talk through strategies to help things go smoothly: think about what you’re communicating physically (i.e., don’t cross your arms), and keep in mind that we all have the same objectives: to keep our ensemble strong and the program working well. Be honest, open, and compassionate. Speak and listen respectfully — don’t get defensive. Let people know if they’re coming off in a way you know they don’t intend.

Some of what we talked about requires confidentiality, but I think it’s important to write a bit about the conversation because it’s such an important part of our process — and because it went so well, even when it was tough. So here we go.

The first thing that was discussed was that a few ensemble members sometimes seem to be bossing us around or otherwise dictating what that we’re doing. These ensemble members, addressed by name, explained that they don’t mean to come off that way, apologized, and explained that everything they do is in service of the ensemble. Now that we know what their concerns are, we can “police” ourselves more. They promised to be more transparent going forward.

There was also talk about staying respectful of others at all times. One thing that people have noticed is that sometimes when one person is sharing for awhile or a discussion is lasting a long time, others exhale loudly or talk under their breath. It makes people feel like they can’t share, and we can’t have that.

There was also some concern about the number (and length) of one-on-one conversations with facilitators. This is a tough one to navigate because those conversations are so vital to our process — people need to know they can come to facilitators with individual concerns and goals in order to make sure everyone has the support they need. What we really needed was to talk openly about this — what people perceive vs. what’s actually happening — and for all of us to keep these things in mind so we can limit the length and frequency of some of those conversations. We’re going to try to leave some dedicated time at the end of each session for individual/small group work and chats with facilitators, and we’ll see if that helps.

The conversation then turned to something very important, and that’s safeguarding against creating any perception of “over-familiarity” with female facilitators. There has not been a single interaction that was inappropriate, but I think it’s right for us, as an ensemble, to be vigilant about anything that could give others the impression that there is.

It’s about boundaries, one person said: those that the facility sets, your own, and those of others. “We should be working on this as men, not just as prisoners,” he said, noting that a lack of such regard contributed to some of their incarceration. “Being a prisoner doesn’t mean you’re less than a person,” said one man, further saying that even though staff have authority over them, it doesn’t take the onus off of them to, again, “police” themselves.

Another man said he was glad we were talking about this, and that we should continue to openly communicate, but that we need to make sure we’re not blowing things out of proportion. He had a point, but others who’ve been down longer impressed upon him that misperceptions really can lead to programs being shut down, so, even if we know there’s nothing inappropriate going on, we need to always keep outside perspectives in mind.

I asked the guys to let me know if there’s ever anything I do that could contribute to others’ getting the wrong idea — that I don’t know all the ins and outs of prison, and I need help to make sure I’m just as accountable as everyone else. I told them that I really appreciated being a part of this conversation because it gave me vital perspective, and I asked if we could make this part of our orientation every time we add new people — with female facilitators in the room. All agreed; it will also keep male ensemble members accountable in terms of their own actions.

“I really appreciate how productive this was, even though it took our whole time,” one man said as we gathered to raise the ring. The feeling in the room was definitely one of relief, and I think we accomplished a lot. It was exactly the kind of conversation we wanted: respectful, clear, and compassionate. All of this will really enhance our work going forward.
 

Friday / August 31
 

We got back to the play today, beginning with Act IV, scene ii: Albany’s confrontation with Goneril and learning about what happened to Gloucester.

Our initial reaction was that Albany has had it with Goneril — that he was pretty passive before, but now he’s back with a vengeance. And as for Goneril and Edmund, “it’s like sharks with blood in the water,” said one man. “Now that they’ve got a taste, they’re not just plotting — they’re doing.” And now there is jealousy at play between Goneril and Regan over their relationships with Edmund.

And now Cordelia is back, and she’s got an army behind her. A few of the guys said that Cordelia had seemed “soft and gentle” before, but now she’s tough. Others disagreed, and I suggested that we look for clues in the language. The words themselves can often tell you that. We found that Cordelia’s language in the first scene is very “flowy”, while (jumping ahead just a bit), it’s more biting when she returns. I said that this is why you’ve gotta read these plays out loud — much of this fails to come through unless you’re speaking it.

One of the guys said he was confused because he thought that Cordelia was being defiant in the beginning, and he wasn’t sure how to square that with the language being what it is. “Cordelia’s not defiant,” said one man, “She just doesn’t have the gift of speech. She even says it.” Another disagreed slightly. “She was being defiant, period, by saying, ‘Nothing.’” Still another  gave his take: “She’s not defiant. She’s just not an ass-kisser.” He continued, “Are you soft if you’re standing up to your father?”

“I wonder if that’s what [Lear] liked about her in the first place,” mused one man. “But in this particular moment, it’s like a values situation… I think he expected some sort of gratitude for it… He did say she’s his favorite, and I’m pretty sure she’s not changing who she is in this moment.” Another man agreed. “Each personality expresses themselves in their own way, and it’s not always easy for one personality to understand what the other’s saying.”

Another man said this could apply to Goneril in IV.ii. Albany’s line, “Thou changed and self-covered thing, for shame / Be-monster not thy feature,” indicates either that she’s changed or that he didn’t truly see who she was before. Most thought it was the latter, and this man began listing all the people in the play who had similar illusions about others. “Is there a single relationship in this play where both people see each other truly?” I asked. The answer came back: no.

“It’s the duality of man,” said one person, “all the way through this whole play.” Another said, “If you don’t ever look at yourself for who you are… Even in prison, you see people on autopilot here, and they’re not looking at themselves.” You get stuck, he said. And when you don’t see things truly, it’s easy to be betrayed, said another. “Lear’s heart got ripped out; Gloucester’s eyes got plucked out. Because of betrayal.”

I ventured that the opposite happens for Albany: the other side of “out with the old, in with the new” is that he’s liberated to rule in an entirely different way by the end of the play. Connecting this with the first part of our discussion (including being fascinated by the word “milquetoast”), one of the guys, said, “I don’t think Albany was a milquetoast. He was one of those guys that just goes with the flow until something showed him he had to stand up. You can be passive and not be a milquetoast.” He likened this to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. At a certain point, they had just had it, and it spurred them to action.

We moved on to Act IV, scene iii, in which a messenger describes Cordelia’s emotional reaction to the description of Lear’s current state. I have never been a huge fan of this scene, and I’m not alone. It’s not in the Folio, and it can really disrupt the play’s momentum. I also just have never thought it was necessary, and that I’d rather see and hear Cordelia for herself than hear her described by someone else in a way that elevates her to near-saintly status. But something I truly love about SIP is how others, coming from a completely different place, often alter my perspective  on things like this. And that’s what happened.

We finished reading, and one of the guys leaned back in his chair and said, “That is sooooooo good!” I asked him why. He said it was the language itself. “The way he’s describing what she’s feeling: sunshine and rain… smiles and tears… pearls from diamonds… I got these images that were coming through.” He grinned at one of the others and said, “It’s Duality Day!” This guy is a poet himself, and he just couldn’t stop. “A diamond is beautiful because of its clarity,” he said. “A pearl is not clear and is beautiful. They’re opposites, but they’re still both beautiful.”

“There’s a parallel, too,” said another man. “Both require massive amounts of pressure to be created.” Another man broke in to clarify the process of creating a pearl, and, to avoid a long tangent, we agreed to agree that both are created by outside forces. “Think about the pressure she’s been going through,” the man continued. “Reading this letter, it’s literally leaking out through her tears… ‘All this pressure, I can’t contain it anymore.’”

The first man continued to freak out, pointing out that the language itself — “Just look at the punctuation” — creates the effect, as well as the ideas. He couldn’t believe that it would ever be cut, and I explained that it’s really a theatrical issue and has nothing to do with what he was finding. I said that there are ways of conveying what we learn from the scene without staging the scene itself, but that I now had a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for it because of his enthusiasm. There is just no end to this play’s depth.

“The thing I like about Shakespeare and Lear is — how does can something so old carry over to our age now? The reason why it carries from then to now is because human nature has never changed,” said one man. “Being human never changes. King Lear shows us that, no matter our clothes or dress, labels or titles we put on ourselves or others — including being in prison — it doesn’t alter or change the nature of being. Shakespeare writes of being human, taking note of the politics in his era… yet it all applies in still being human because we are human. So these words will continue, even from now, no matter its subterfuge or masking.”

“I think humanity has gotten worse,” said one man dolefully. He said that there’s so much violence around us, and in the news, but no one cares. “We’ve become so detached from what can be called ‘humanity’ that we’re all like Goneril and Regan.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s worse because of how women and children are treated now,” said another man. “Back then, they had no laws about domestic violence, no child labor laws. A lot of that has changed, and it’s gotten better. It’s just more people in the world, and the things he was talking about then are still relevant now.” He continued, “Shakespeare gets to the deep root of humanity — the core of what it means to be human — and we get so caught up in the other stuff that we forget how to be human.”

“I like to think of things as circular,” said another person. “Right now things are bad out there, but there have been countless times when things have been bad.” He cited slavery, brutality against Native Americans, and other atrocities. “You can see a lot of people fall in Shakespeare — you can see the state of mind and environment altering completely any landscape in which [certain things] erode morality… What I like in Shakespeare is what people can be, and what makes them dissolve… But I really think things are circular. At some point it will come back, and we will return.”

Another man built on all of this, referencing TV, the internet, and social media in particular. “We’re desensitized by our own nature… We’re able to get so much input that, in Shakespeare’s day, they wouldn’t have had… We’ve become desensitized to all those things that should appall us most about our own nature.” He said that the environment we’re in forces us to adapt, and that can be a really bad thing. “Because I know that about myself, the one thing I fear most about myself is me. Because I know what I’m capable of in a given situation.”

There was a bit of an interpersonal kerfuffle at this point, with one man reacting to another’s saying that he thought he was a “verbal bully” till he got to know him better. This first man has a lot of challenges when communicating, all of which he owns, is working on, and frequently apologizes for. He also gets frustrated when people laugh at what he says because he’s usually not trying to be funny. He was pretty upset. I said that he didn’t need to worry about any of that in our circle — that he’s been very clear and honest about all of it, and that we’ve learned that we need to listen to exactly what he’s saying and not read anything into it. I said that he speaks the unvarnished truth, and most people don’t, so we’re not used to it. I said, too, that people laughing may not mean that they think he’s funny; laughter often comes from a place of recognition or discomfort, and he often calls us (and people in general) on things that we’re not used to hearing called out with no filter, and we laugh because we know he’s right. Another man said, “Oh, yes! I’ve been trying to articulate that for years, and it’s so true. Thank you.” Another man said, too, that the man who was upset wants to define and articulate emotions, which is great, but not everyone wants to do that, and his input can come off as offensive. But we know it’s not meant to be. We just need to all be patient with each other.

Another man said there needs to be communication about that. “I am who others perceive me to be in that moment — to them,” he said. “I need them to tell me that so I can correct it if that’s not what I meant.”

One of the men grinned at me, nodding his head at those who’d been talking, and said, “A lot of the characters in the play are being revealed without any audition. I’m excited about this.”

Season Two: Week 9

Tuesday / August 21 / 2018
 

Today’s check-in got a little heated when we somehow drifted into a conversation about a person’s potential vs. the opportunity for them to pursue that potential. This is a really sensitive subject for a lot of people, and it got to a point where we simply weren’t listening to each other. And we’ve been listening to each other so well lately that it compounded the frustration. Eventually I asked that we table the conversation, journal about it, and come back to it when we’re all calmer.

We stood and lowered the ring, but the tension lingered, and a few people left. Others drifted to distant parts of the room. That’s an unusual physical dynamic for us, and not something I wanted to give a chance to take root. As the saying goes, drastic times call for drastic measures. “Let’s circle back up, guys!” I called out to the room. “I’ve got a really stupid game for us to play! You’ll love it.”

There are many names and variations of this game, but the one I fall back on is “Animal Sounds.” It is among the best ensemble-building games I’ve played, and it hasn’t failed me yet. We circle up with one person in the middle. That person closes their eyes, extends their arm straight ahead with a pointed finger, and turns to their right. Those in the circle walk to their right. Eventually the person in the center stops, the circle stops, and whomever is being pointed at has to make whatever sound the person in the center demands. It could be as simple as, “Make for me the sound of an angry elephant.” Or it could be ridiculous: “Make for me the sound of a zebra who’s running late for work but hasn’t had his coffee yet and is stuck in a traffic jam.” The person in the center, eyes still closed, has to guess who’s making the sound. If they guess right, the two switch places. If not, the person in the center takes another spin.

The game completely dispelled the negative energy—I even managed to loop in the guys who’d been standing aside, venting to each other, and within 15 minutes we were ready to move on.

We arrived at Act III, scene vii, in which Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes and is mortally wounded by a servant who is, in turn, killed by Regan. This is probably my favorite scene in the play—I just love the writing of it and the way it suddenly, brutally pushes the play into an even more chaotic and disoriented—but somehow more lyrical—place. The guys all knew this was coming—I have made no bones about how much I love this scene—and when no one volunteered to read Cornwall, I was all over it.

But we’d gotten really silly with Animal Sounds, and I was admittedly giddy about reading this character in this scene. Having decided as an ensemble to read on our feet, we all got pretty loopy with it. At one point I said, “What is this, King Lear featuring the Three Stooges?” As we sat down to discuss, I apologized for my part in the zaniness and said it might not be a bad idea to read it again once we’d talked a bit.

One of the men said it seemed like the eye-gouging was Cornwall’s way of letting out his anger. “It’s like an angry mob. Once you get a mob mentality, it’s really hard to stop.” Another guy thought it was more intentional. “They were getting rid of an obstacle to all their little plans… ‘We gotta get rid of this guy and keep him from becoming a threat.’”

Another ensemble member said he thought the fast pacing of the writing was appropriate for the level of violence in the scene, and he especially liked the way in which Cornwall’s servant jumped in. The servants are “a voice of patience,” mused one man. But Cornwall and Regan… “Suddenly they are who they really are,” said another man. “They’re actually getting their hands dirty this time. Their true nature comes out. It’s one thing to do what people say—it’s another to actually do the action.”

The man who’d just read Regan asked if we could pause there and run the scene again, this time taking it seriously. We did, and though there were moments that were still a little goofy (“Man, you can move REALLY far after you’ve been stabbed, huh, Frannie?”), we definitely got more of the scene’s impact.

“There is a lot of symbolism in this scene,” said one man, citing Gloucester’s eyes (perception) and beard (honor, loyalty, and respect). Yes—and those themes carry us through the whole play; Gloucester’s been talking about his vision practically since his first entrance.

“Are we seeing a power taking off?” asked one man, who said that he hadn’t read ahead and didn’t know where things would end. “Does it lead to something bigger?” Another man nodded, saying, “It’s out with the old and in with the new.” He re-emphasized, “They’re getting their hands dirty; they’re not just plotting.” The first man then asked what we thought about Regan’s motivation in killing the servant, and a number of ensemble members said that they thought a lot of it was due to class: how dare a peasant threaten a noble? The second man said this was also a symptom of “out with the old, in with the new”: the servants are turning on the masters.

“They’re eliminating the people who can’t help them any further as they’re trying to eliminate Lear,” said one man. “Oh, interesting. You think they’re trying to eliminate Lear?” I asked. Another man nodded, saying, “Their endgame is to kill Lear… They’re trying to find a way to justify it.” Lear was just as rash as these two, a couple of men said.

But one man disagreed. “Did you see Lear plucking anybody’s eyes out?” he said. “He ruled… This is a new way of doing things.” He pointed out that Lear wasn’t totally rash even in banishing Cordelia and Kent—he gave them both time to get away. And the threats may have been impotent in any case. Lear has been stripped of everything, whereas Cornwall and Regan have back up, said another man. “Their fear is palpable, but they don’t know what to do with it.” The first man replied, “They don’t know how to rule,” and the second man said, “Exactly.”

One of the guys asked if these characters reminded anyone of characters we might have seen on TV. None of us could come up with any. One guy said he thought it was kind of a pointless question, but I said that I didn’t think it was: that pop culture can provide archetypes as much as anything else, and if that kind of parallel would provide an “in,” we should explore it. Another man said the closest parallel he could think of would be to Cinderella’s step-sisters, and another said he wouldn’t go too far with that—that those sisters are one-dimensional, and these are more complex. We need to dig through the text to find more clues.

One of the guys reiterated that he couldn’t think of any parallels to TV characters, and another said maybe we ought to be thinking more in terms of real people. He said he’d been thinking that MC Hammer’s “rise and fall” story has a lot of parallels to Lear’s.

“It could be as simple as a family reunion,” said one man, describing the types of relationships and backstabbing that can exist within families. “These characters start something but seem to be seeking their own end,” he mused. “The ones that are more flexible continue on.”

Another man tried to draw a parallel between the play’s characters and The Wizard of Oz. After at least a solid minute of humoring him, I said, “I feel like you’re reaching,” and we all cracked up (including him). He then began an attempt to link the play with Star Wars, which people immediately rejected. One man said he didn’t really like those movies, and there was a bit of an uproar. It was more or less decided that no one is allowed to dislike Star Wars or Harry Potter. In case you were wondering.

I brought us back to Goneril and Regan. “This really is an important question for us,” I said. “If we’re going to tell an authentic story, we can’t look at them as merely being evil. We have to look deeper.” One man said, “But we really don’t know anything. Do we just make it up?” I held up my book. “We have to really comb through this text and find clues, and then we build on those. And we may not ever land on an interpretation as an ensemble, but whoever plays these roles will have to agree on something. So… What are the given circumstances? What do we know about these two?”

Here’s what we came up with:

  • It’s significant that their mother is neither in the play, nor is she referred to more than once (or in any detail). What does it mean? Given the age gap between them and Cordelia, is it possible that their mother was not the same as hers? Or that their mother died giving birth to her? Or could it have been something else?
  • Their relationship with their father is very cold. Does this have anything to do with the absent mother, or is something else going on?
  • They are both attracted to Edmund and end up fighting over him.

We also know that we need to consider the way Shakespeare wrote the characters’ language—how does it want to be spoken, and what features of it can inform our interpretation? And, of course, we need to pay detailed attention to the plot.

“Are there people who just study Shakespeare?” asked one man. There sure are, a number of people replied. One man joked that there are literally “doctors of Shakespeare” and wondered how they’d do in a medical emergency. “But wouldn’t it be awesome to have someone here who, that’s all they do?” pressed the first man. “It would be,” I said, “And we certainly don’t shut out that academic perspective—that’s why we love the Arden!—but it has no more value than any perspective in this room. There’s no question that people who study Shakespeare love it, but study like that can put you in as much of a box as anything else.” I shared how eager some of the “experts” at the Shakespeare in Prisons Conference were to learn prisoners’ perspectives on the plays, which we all thought was pretty cool.

One of the men got us back on topic, suggesting that the marriage between Lear and the women’s mother could  have been arranged—and that that could have led to an emotional disconnect. “So… why is Cordelia Lear’s favorite?” asked one man. Another ensemble member posited that if Cordelia had a different mother, and Lear really loved her, and she died in childbirth, that could lead to him doting on that child. Another man said, “Maybe the the first two were supposed to be boys and came out girls… I mean, their names are not feminine. And Cordelia’s is. So maybe she’s the only one who isn’t some kind of disappointment.”

The man who’d asked about scholars of Shakespeare said he thought it kind of sucked that we won’t ever have solid answers to these questions. Two of the men emphatically (and simultaneously) said, “No! That’s the best part.” One leaned forward and said, “Look at the discussions we’re having. We get to make these plays our own because we bring our own perspectives to ’em—no one has to tell us the answers, because we take ’em from our own lives.”
 

Friday / August 24 / 2018
 

We started off the day by welcoming Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh as guests to our ensemble. They’re writing a book about finding common ground in America, and we were absolutely thrilled to contribute to the conversation. More on that below…

Before our check-in, we checked in about our check-ins! These have been lasting a really long time lately, which is largely a result of us collectively going down various rabbit holes that lead us far from whatever was initially shared. Some of these conversations have been really interesting, but they’re really not what check-in is for. I reminded everyone that, ideally, this should take no longer than 15 minutes and should consist of important personal status updates: what’s going on with you today that we need to know about? This could range from good news to bad, or statements like, “I’m having a lousy day, so if I’m a little short, don’t take it personally.” Sharing important facility-wide news (i.e., new programs and policies) is also appropriate. By keeping check-ins brief most of the time, we ensure that we have the patience for those times when someone really needs a while to share and get emotional support. But if we always spend the first half hour of our sessions in rambling conversations, people won’t let us know when they could really use more time.

And then we had a solid check-in (notwithstanding a few friendly admonitions). One of the men, spurred on by another, shared a powerful spoken word piece. It represented this man’s (ultimately futile) attempt to explain prison life to people “on the outs,” and I hope it reaches a wide audience some day. It was very moving.

We got down to business by reading Act IV, scene i, in which Edgar encounters his father, now blind and being led by an old man, and agrees to take him to a cliff. Though the reading was a little rough (they love doing these on their feet, but it’s challenging for folks who haven’t read ahead), we were all still deeply moved. It’s an incredible scene.

It can be hard to get the conversation going when the scene is as emotional as this one. I asked if anyone had any thoughts. One of the men said, somewhat haltingly, that he could relate to seeing a parent laid low like that, and that he could imagine how Edgar feels. Another silence. I asked if we could take it back to the top of the scene, and I asked what they thought was going on in Edgar’s soliloquy. The illusions are stripped away, said one man, and it feels better this way. Another agreed.

Another long pause.

“Question,” said one of the guys. “Why does he still identify himself to Gloucester as Poor Tom if he knows he’s about to kill himself?” Another replied, “Edgar has a plan. He’s nervous about seeing his father, and he doesn’t know exactly what he’s gonna do, but he’s got a plan.” Again, people were very quiet. This really is a tough scene.

“Well… does he identify himself as Poor Tom?” I asked. “No,” said someone else, “The Old Man does.” I nodded. “Right. And Edgar knows he’ll be executed if he’s found out, so does he have a choice about pretending as long as the Old Man is there? And, if not, when would be a good time to reveal himself to his father? I don’t know.”

One of the men said he thought Edgar vacillates before being identified—that he wants to reveal himself. “He’s just heard Gloucester going on about missing his son, and then the Old Man cuts in and identifies him as Poor Tom,” he said. “What’s he gonna do?”

“This is part of the human experience, right?” I said gently. “Knowing you have a choice to make, and then someone else coming in and taking that decision away from you? Making it for you?” There wasn’t really a response to that, but I didn’t expect there to be. Too much to unpack there, for now, anyway.

There was a little confusion about all of Edgar’s lines about “worse” and “the worst”, and we took a minute to clarify what he’s saying: that he thought things were as bad as they could get, and then they got worse—so who knows how bad it could get? “Pretty fucking bad,” said a man who’s read the whole play.

But Edgar doesn’t sit in it. “He’s taking responsibility for his father,” said one man. “He’s gonna do these things for his father, knowing that’s his father—knowing he wanted him to be killed.” Another man said, “He made himself a conscious being to Gloucester by answering, ‘Do you know Dover?’”

Coffey pointed out the significance of the line, “Who’s there?” She said that that line generally carries a lot of weight in Shakespeare’s plays, and that it demands a true response: Who am I? “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” I said, quoting one of Lear’s lines. “It’s that way through the whole play,” said one of the guys. It sure is, I said. Which means we’ve gotta keep watching out for that theme. Who am I?

There was another pause. (This is when I’m apt to take a heavier hand in our sessions—when we’ve clearly hit on sensitive material, and no one is quite sure how to transition from one thing to the next.) “Can I bring our attention, real quick, to a couple of iconic lines in this scene? Phrases that strike people, over and over, for hundreds of years, are generally worth paying attention to.” We began with “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.”

“He means it’s chaos,” said one man. “The gods are just killing people for fun.” He began to share how this was like his outlook on religion, and I quickly steered it back to the play: this is a core theme in Lear, but it need not have anything to do with our personal religious beliefs. Shakespeare wrote what he wrote, and we can keep it within that context.

Returning to the text, one man said, “That’s not a statement all on its own, though. Let’s look at the lead-up to that.” He read the passage up to those lines. “Yeah, it’s…” he sat forward in his seat. “Now he’s blind and he’s looking back at his actions—” he broke off, shook his head, and excitedly continued, “This is crazy. He’s blind. And he’s looking back at his actions… I cast my son aside, and then I saw this man, a worm… I just cast my son aside…” He shook his head again, overwhelmed.

Another man said the point, too, is that there is no reason for any of this. It’s just chaos. He likened it to the way people try to analyze school shootings, and people who commit those acts. “Why? Why? Sometimes there isn’t any reason.” The first man nodded, saying, “It’s the carelessness with which we handle each other.”

One of the men drew our attention to the fact that, as a group, we’d arrived at an interpretation that matched the “translation” in the No Fear edition almost word for word. “I know this doesn’t have as much detail as the Arden,” he said, “But I like to read the actual text, and then look at this, and see if it confirms my interpretation.” Another man agreed, saying it’s also helpful when he gets stuck. I shared that these are precisely the reasons we use the No Fears—not as authoritative texts, but to make sure we can all keep up with the plot and overall content.

Coming back to Gloucester, one man said, “It took vulnerability for him to say that in the first place… The frailty of human life... “ He cited worms as being, to most people, among the lowest forms of life. But can we ever truly understand a worm? Or vice versa? Another man said that that definitely applies to people who are perceived as “low.” But even the lowest forms of life serve a purpose. “They see them as worms because they don’t take the time to see [the value they have] in the first place.”

“What’s the other iconic line?” asked one of the men. “On the next page,” I said. “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” One of the men said, “The blind are leading the blind.” I replied, “Not the blind—madmen. Crazy people are leading people who can’t see. That’s the time’s plague.”

A number of people sighed audibly. “We all know that, for sure,” said one person. “It’s happened at times throughout history and in our lives,” said another. Angrily, then, one man said, “It’s fucked up all the time, though, when someone who’s not right in the head is leading us.” To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what he was referencing—it could have been prison, or another situation in his life—but it was clear that a number of people took it as a reference to current events and called a hold so we wouldn’t drift into a partisan political conversation. “I didn’t hear anyone say anything about Trump,” said one man sardonically, to which several people replied, “Dude, seriously! Let’s move on.”

“This play could easily be named ‘Edgar and Gloucester’,” said one man. “Their relationship is so intense, it could definitely carry the play.” Another man said that the theme of familial relationships runs throughout the play and extends to practically every character. Even the Fool, he said, is like Lear’s nephew—he calls Lear “‘nuncle.” One of the men (antagonistically, I think), said that that didn’t mean they had a familial relationship. The other man said, “Yes, it does—’nuncle is a term of endearment. Lear loves him.” Another man said, though, that Lear doesn’t treat the Fool like he does his own family—he’s much kinder to the Fool.

“That don’t mean Lear don’t love the others,” said one man. “You ask any cop—domestic violence is one of the scariest things police can get called to because there’s so much emotion.” The violence tends to be more extreme than that between strangers, he said, and that applies to Lear’s abuse of Cordelia and Kent. But with the Fool, it’s a little different. “[The Fool] is like Lear shoulda been… His good self is right there, telling him, ‘This is how you shoulda been acting.’”

Another man added, “It’s about perceptions… [Being a jester] gives the Fool allowance [to be honest], where Cordelia doesn’t have that allowance… The Fool is expected to act like that.” I agreed: it could be that Lear’s affection for all is equal (or similar), but the Fool’s delivery is what allows him to be treated differently.

The conversation turned to Gloucester. One of the guys said, “Isn’t it amazing how everybody who thinks about suicide thinks it’s gonna make things better?” Someone else said that suicide is selfish. The guy next to me inhaled sharply and quietly said, “I hate this conversation.” I broke in for a moment to ask everyone to be sensitive—that this theme is in the play, so we need to talk about it, but that we need to bear in mind what a difficult subject it is for many people.

One of the men said he didn’t think Gloucester is necessarily thinking about much of anything. “When you’re carrying a burden, and it gets to be so heavy… Your first instinct is, ‘I just wanna drop that weight’… They want to be done, right then and there.”

Two of the guys shared candidly about their experiences, and the discomfort began to be palpable again. “Thank you so much for sharing this with us,” I said. “I’m not sure that what you’re describing is what’s happening with Gloucester, though. Again, we need to talk about suicide because it’s part of the play, but we need to make sure that’s where our focus stays. How can my experience inform our interpretation, whether it was different or similar?” A few people said things like, “Yes,” and “Thank  you,” under their breath. One man smiled incredulously and said, “It’s crazy that this was written in the 1600s, and we still think the same things… I think he wrote about kindness and humanity. He was teaching people how to be more human.”

Building off of what I’d said, one of the guys said, “You could take the conviction of what [NAME] was saying and put that into the play… There’s no other way to interpret his experience, but we put it into the context of the play, and that way no one’s feelings get hurt.”

Maybe Gloucester believes that his grief can lead to redemption in the form of jumping off the cliff, one man said. “You mean, like, atonement?” asked another. “Yeah… or like, a closure to him,” said the first man. “You seek to bring closure to the people around you before you do it,” said another man, referring to Gloucester’s wish to see Edgar. “He wants to say, ‘I’m sorry. What I did to you was wrong’... When you get to that point, it’s really hard for anyone to bring you back from.”

But that’s not really what’s going on with Gloucester either, a few people said, and then those who hadn’t read ahead pointed out that the motivation really isn’t clear in this scene. But it will be the next time we see Gloucester, so we decided to table the conversation till we get back to him.

We switched gears so the guys could answer some questions from our guests. Here are just a few of the things that they shared.

What did you learn about yourselves in the Shakespeare group?

  • Our common ground is our emotions. We can all relate to emotions.
  • “You’re almost forced to leave who you are outside this room when you walk in the door,” said one man. Another guy asked, “Have you not found your group of friends has diversified since? … Our subcultures look on us with confusion. I had to test my courage to step outside of that.” Courage means ignoring the razzing, he said. The first guy said yes, and, “I’m glad you used the word courage… I got a lot of flack about this group. I’ve had to have the courage to weed people out, or it’s strengthened bonds with others.”
  • “Coming to this group is a way to express my own identity… because it’s Shakespeare. He wrote about human identity… In here, not only can you express yourself, but you can grow… There’s aspects of me that have changed. Everybody in here has aspects that have changed."
  • “There’s nothing we can’t use to become kinder… This living is so hard, how can we be anything but loving? I can’t be one way over here and the other way over there. I can’t do it. This is changing me.”
  • “Shakespeare is a catalyst. It provides the tools we need to do better.”

What does it take to have redemption in your own life?

  • “I call it the a-ha factor. That moment when you realize you gotta do something different with your life… In order for me to have redemption, I have to do things exactly opposite than the way I’ve usually done them… I have to step outside myself.”
  • “To me, redemption is about continuing… It’s not about undoing what you’ve done, it’s about moving past that… Not burying it… but moving forward and saying, ‘That’s what I’ve done, and I’m never gonna do it again.’” It’s not up and out: it’s through.
  • “It’s really about self-worth. We can’t show out what we don’t know. I can’t love if I don’t know love.”
  • “We’re able to teach each other infinitely, almost… because of the dynamic diversity in this group, we’re able to teach each other something we could never get anywhere else.”

Before we left, a man who’d refrained from checking in called me over to the diagram he’d drawn on the board. It was of an atom. “I wanted to show you this because what you’ve been saying is wrong,” he said. He pointed to the nucleus. “This right here is the axis of the entire atom. None of these things out here can exist without the nucleus. So when you say you’re no more important than anybody else, that’s actually total bullshit.”

“I see what you’re saying,” I said, “And I will cop to being the nucleus, because I know that this program doesn’t exist without me; even physically, I know you guys can’t meet without a facilitator being here.” He nodded and said, “You see?” I said, “But hang on a second. Being essential doesn’t make the nucleus any more important than any other part of the atom—it’s just the anchor. The atom still needs all of its other parts to be what it is, and the nucleus can’t fulfill any of those functions.”

“Okay… okay…” he said slowly, looking at the diagram and then back at me. “But the nucleus still runs things,” he said. “You see what I’m saying? It’s still more important.” I smiled and said, “Okay, fine. Administratively, I’m the most important because I’m the one who knows how to do all that stuff. But in terms of what we do in this room, my opinion is no more important than anybody else’s. I know you don’t want to believe me, but, truly, my ideas are very rarely the best. The most important features of this program were thought up by other ensemble members.” He raised an eyebrow and said, “Seriously?” I said, “Yeah, for real. This program here is still new, and it’s not happening much here yet, but over in the women’s ensemble, my ideas are constantly being modified or shot down entirely. Dude, the structure of this season, here, right now, was a modification of my idea by this ensemble. That’s what I mean when I say my opinion holds no more value than any other.”

He smiled and said, “Okay. I’ve got it now. I’m gonna shoot down your ideas more, don’t worry.” As he erased the board, I said, “Good. I’m looking forward to it.”

Season Two: Week 8

Tuesday / August 14
 

The first order of business today was deciding that we are not going to take a break in September as originally planned. We can’t even really remember why we talked about doing that, and none of us want to do it, so we’re not!

Our goal for the day was to do a couple of monologues and then get back to reading, but things didn’t go quite the way we anticipated. The man who’s been on my case about performing a monologue went first just to make me do one. He did part of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man…”, but he hadn’t had access to the entire piece, so it was lacking some context that would have been helpful. I had a Complete Works with me, found the piece in it for him, and handed it over so he could read the whole thing.

I warned everyone that I was going to take a few minutes to prep using some of Michael Chekhov’s techniques to physically call up whatI needed to perform Hermione’s “Sir, spare your threats…” from The Winter’s Tale. My performance went all right, but I didn’t feel fully connected, particularly later in the piece (when my scene partner noticed a change in my pacing). The guys gave a lot of positive feedback, though. “I hate to see people cry; maybe it’s prison,” said one person. “But seeing what you did really touched me… I felt it 100%.” Another ensemble member said, “I could feel the horror of it… but when you stood up, it was more empowerment than sorrow.”

Which led me to ask for some legit constructive criticism (though I was glad they enjoyed it!). The note that struck a chord with a number of people was about my physicality (which, admittedly, felt awkward to me). Two people said they thought that my head had moved too much, given how stiff my posture was; another suggested that I combat that with a little more movement. Another man said he didn’t agree; that the movements of my head reminded him of women in his life when they’d been upset. Another said that it rang true for him, too, but for a different reason: it reminded him of the “shaking” and overall lack of movement he remembers from interacting with Holocaust survivors in his youth. Building on that, one of the men who was concerned about how stiff I was said that we could still see those people breathing hard from pent up emotion, so that was an element I could add.

One of the guys—whom, for the sake of clarity, we’ll call Poet A—then said, “You said you feed off other people’s energy, right, Frannie? Want me to do something of mine to charge up the room?” Of course we did. He performed an original spoken word piece—an absolutely beautiful, gritty, sad narration of and reflection on all the things in his life that led him to this point: incarcerated for several more years and trying desperately to find a new identity. “What inspired you to write that?” asked one man. The author replied, “That’s my monologue… That’s all the things that actually happened to me… It’s those snapshots, you know?”

Two men said that they liked this—and spoken word like this—more than they like rap; they feel it’s more authentic. Another man objected to that, saying, “That is hip hop, man. That’s where it started… You’re just not listening to the right rap.” One of the guys clarified that he does like rap, he just doesn’t like it when it’s shallow or inauthentic, “like what some of these guys on the yard are doing.”

People identified with the piece on a very deep level. One man said he particularly connected with the feeling of being left alone. “You expressed it in a way I’ve always wanted to, but haven’t been able to,” he said. Another said, “That was amazing. I’m not the biggest fan of rap and poetry, but as soon as you started talking, I was hanging on every word of it.” A third man—whom we’ll call Poet B—said he related to the feeling of isolation, particularly as a result of substance abuse. “I’m an ex-junkie… I understand the abandonment, being dragged through the gutters and everything…” He also spoke of being in the hole, and how that intensified those feelings for him. “I can definitely relate,” he said.

Poet A said he’d been nervous to perform this piece because of how vulnerable he had to make himself. “I can tell you all day who [NICKNAME] is, but if I try to tell you who [NAME] is, I’m lost.”

Another man broke in. “I know [NAME] just from the little bit of time we’ve spent together in here. I know you.” He described Poet A as kind, generous, talented, and funny. Everyone agreed. They asked him what he was doing about getting his work out there, and he said he’s been published in PCAP’s annual review twice, but he’s suspicious of others who’ve reached out to him.

Poet B then hesitantly volunteered to read something of his own. “It’s kind of long,” he said apologetically, saying that he’d written it during an extended stay in solitary confinement. It was extremely powerful—gut-wrenching—and he occasionally had to pause to keep his crying in check. He apologized several times for “being a pussy”, to which a number of people responded, “You’re a human being, man.”

When he’d finished reading, he apologized again, and, again, nearly everyone vocally and passionately reassured him that he had nothing to apologize for—that he’s a human being, and human beings cry. He emphasized that part of what made him feel so terrible (“I even lost it there for awhile.”) was the fact that he “wrote and wrote and wrote” letters to friends and family on the outside, and no one wrote back. Two other men said they’d had similar experiences in solitary; one said that his empathy ran so deep that it had been difficult for him to hear what Poet B so perfectly articulated. Poet B then apologized again for getting emotional, to which several people responded that it takes more strength to show emotion than to hide it, and that he was in a safe place for that.

One man said he’d spent about six months in the hole early in his bit and had shared that same sense of physical isolation. Poet B said that it wasn’t the physical setting as much as being cut off from others while dealing with his addiction. He looked up at Poet A and said he felt a kinship with him because they’d shared that struggle: one with heroin, and the other with meth. Poet A agreed—the emotional connection between them at that moment was palpable—and said he’d been so affected by the piece that he couldn’t sit still; he’d had to walk around the room a bit while he listened.

The two of them broke the tension, then, by joking that they’d really only shared these things “to give Frannie gas” for my monologue, to which I sarcastically responded, “Yeah, I’m getting nothing out of this,” to some much-needed laughter. But we couldn’t really let ourselves off the hook—this ensemble is full to bursting with people determined to make huge changes in their lives, and that includes being able to talk honestly about their emotions.

“Being able to talk gives emotional closure,” said one man. Not talking “feels like walking on glass, but smiling like everything’s fine.” He said their writing had inspired him to maybe do some writing, himself—to find a way to express everything he’s feeling. Poet A encouraged him, saying, “It validates who you are when people mirror who you are, because it shows you’re not the exception—the pariah. You’re not alone. You’re human. You might be damaged a little bit, but you’re human.” Poet B said they were all bonded through shared suffering.

Then one of the guys asked me if I “felt it” when Poet B was reading. I replied (carefully—always carefully) that I felt deep empathy, and that I recognized those emotions as much as I could from my experience, my understanding of people, and my knowledge of this man in particular. I turned to him and said, “But I haven’t had the experience you’ve had—I haven’t lived what you just described—and I would never say that I know that feeling. Because I don’t.” Poet B replied that no one in the outside world could understand, and the others agreed. I said that this is part of the value of sharing what they’ve experienced and learned—that, even spending as much time with incarcerated people as I do, I still only have a glimmer of understanding of what they go through, and that most people on the outside have even less knowledge than that. Several others agreed, saying that when they’re ready, they all should share their experiences. Even if people never understand, at least these storytellers will have been humanized.

There was a slight lull, and a younger ensemble member asked, “Can I make a fool of myself?” He is a somewhat prolific poet and had been inspired by these two men to write his own piece right then and there. He performed it for us. It was a beautiful, raw piece about his “rise and fall,” and we absolutely loved it. “I don’t know how y’all do that,” said one man to these three writers, shaking his head. “I wish I could do that. Y’all better watch y’all notebooks.” Why? “Because I’m gonna steal y’all notebooks!”

They asked if I was ready to perform again. Honestly, I was exhausted, but so is Hermione, so I gave it a go. I felt even more disconnected this time—like I’d come close to the target but hadn’t hit it. Several people said they’d noticed that, but that my physicality had been better (I’d started sitting down and stood up midway through). They asked why I thought it wasn’t working, and I said that I wasn’t quite sure—it’s a piece that’s full of contradictions (weakness vs. strength, sadness vs. anger, etc.) and I was finding it difficult to strike a balance. Two of them said that it was probably tough for me to portray vulnerability because “that’s just not who you are.” I said, “You think I’m never vulnerable?” There was a pause. “I’m like anyone else—it’s just not something I broadcast. That’s honestly one of my roadblocks as an actor: I have a very hard time allowing myself to be vulnerable in front of others.”

Several people mused a bit on the contradictions in the piece and said they understood why that would be so difficult to navigate. But there were elements that worked. “It’s more like you were having a last stand kind of thing,” said one man, and another suggested that I lean more heavily on the character’s defiance—that’s what he found compelling.

We only had about 15 minutes left at that point, and we decided to use the time to play a game and lift each other up. We chose “Hot Spot”, a game I recently rediscovered. We stood in a circle, clapping, snapping, and singing along as one person at a time jumped into the center and sang a song, being tagged out by another person inspired to sing something else. This game is a ton of fun, and very silly. We left on a high note, rocked by the emotional afternoon we’d just had, but better for having bonded, once again, so strongly with one another.
 

Friday / August 17


Today we were thrilled to welcome two new people to our ensemble: Catherine Coffey, who is one of our facilitator apprentices, and Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars.

Without planning or even discussing it, we found ourselves going around the circle, introducing ourselves and sharing why we’d joined the group. Of the 22 people present, only six had signed up without having been recruited—and most of those were people who’d seen one of our performances and were intrigued by the camaraderie they saw. Seven people had been recruited by a single person—and he had initially been tricked into joining!

As we walked over to the gym, I chatted with the man who’d read the piece about his time in solitary. Some of his experience may be included in an upcoming book, and I told him I wasn’t surprised: he’s got a great story. “Except for the part when I cried all over the place last time,” he said ruefully. “Are you kidding?” I said. “That’s a great part of the story! You don’t feel good about it?” He said he wasn’t sure; that it had “opened a new wound.” I repeated that: a new wound? “No—I guess it reopened an old wound.” But he said he felt better having let it out… He just felt weird about crying because guys in prison don’t do that around each other. As he said that, another man caught up with us, and I said, “Well, I don’t know. I think you’ve found a safe place to express your feelings. Let’s ask [NAME]. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen tears all over this guy’s face.” He shrugged, smiled, and nodded.

It turned out that we couldn’t meet in the gym, so we walked over to another building and settled into a classroom. We finished up our check-in, learning that one of the men is working on translating some Shakespeare into ASL, and that all of the college students in our group made the dean’s list! As we lowered the Ring, we noticed that the clock was making a chirping sound over and over. As soon as we’d silently finished the exercise, one of the guys said, “Man, that thing is annoying! I felt like I was killing Tweetie!”

We circled up and read Act III, scene iii, on its feet. It was a little tough for some of us to follow the scene’s logic (this is the “mock trial”), but we all agreed that we loved Edgar’s closing soliloquy. One man interpreted it as Edgar wanting to help Lear. Another said it’s more about Edgar’s empathy for Lear making his situation bearable: everything is relative, he said, likening it to the length of one’s sentence. “For some guys coming in, 15 months is a real long time. But for me, looking at three years left—I’m more than halfway through my sentence, so that doesn’t feel like a real long time.” Another man noted that this soliloquy a show of compassion that, thus far at least, is rare in this play.

I’m not sure how this started, but someone brought up Lear’s being egocentric, and another man challenged him on his use of the word. These two have been intellectually sparring pretty regularly, and the first man smiled and said, “Are we gonna argue semantics again?” We all laughed, including the guy who’d started the debate. Another gently clarified: “We perceive others to be more egocentric than we, ourselves, are. There, is that good?” It was.

One of the guys built on that, saying that Lear is in the room with people who love him, but he’s fixated on the people who don’t. “We deal with that a lot, don’t we?” said one person. “This scene is a crossroads for all these characters,” said another man, gazing down at his book.

One of the guys said, “I think we’ve stumbled on the secret to socialization… [Lear] really just wanted validation from his daughters—and not fake validation, but real validation… And that’s the secret to socialization. You gotta validate people, and you gotta do it honestly.” I didn’t write down the rest of what he said, but there was something that struck people as funny, and he responded that he wasn’t sure why they thought he was joking. Another man stepped in, saying, “I feel what you’re saying—you’re making a good point. A lot of people laugh at what you say, but they don’t really hear what you say. I feel you, though.” The others agreed. The man thanked him and said that he appreciates that they know he’s not trying to be funny, and that they value his opinion.

Curt said that what he finds interesting in this scene is that one character is going mad, while another is pretending to be mad. Which character is more or less real? One of the guys reminded us of the talk we had about illusion vs. reality. He said that he thought the byproduct of emotional turmoil seems like madness, and “I think he’s going through what a lot of us have dealt with when our pride got taken from us.”

“Whenever I felt like I was going downhill, it made me a better person,” said one man. “Stepping back and looking at King Lear—how he’s yelling at the storm… he’s realizing his own demise, and that’s what’s causing him to descend into madness… I wouldn’t say losing control and going mad aren’t the same thing.”

Another man said that the delusion of madness is madness. He shared that when he was in the hole, he knew that one of the guys there was faking (as opposed to those who were actually losing their minds), and that this guy “actually ate his own feces—which is mad in itself.” Sadly, no one even blinked. This isn’t anything new or surprising to them. “If you’re really trying that hard to feign madness, you are mad.” He likened it to the prep I’d done on Tuesday, to which I responded, “And I felt like I needed ten minutes more!” Dryly, he said, “That’s your own madness where you think nothing you do is ever good enough.” Lots of laughter. “Point taken,” I said, jotting this all down.

Another man, who’d been listening intently but not sharing, said, “I relate to Edmund in real life, being a bastard child, but also a bastard in the situation I’m in, and having to feign madness… If I peek out from behind that madness, I’m gonna be discovered… Once you pretend for so long— I find myself very committed to the act of pretending to be mad; I’m beginning to become mad—something I was pretending to be. The difference becomes hard to see. You can’t see your way out, and the madness begins to take over. I have to find a way out of that before it cascades into what I’m actually trying to do… It’s becoming more natural now because the madness is actually starting to take over.” One of the guys gently responded, “Madness is a matter of perception to those who are around you.” He said that Edgar is trying to stay in control but perceived to be mad (i.e., “cloaked”), while Lear is actually losing control.

Another man said, “I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum.” He shared that he’d been committed to a mental hospital for a time when he was younger after suffering a psychotic break, and what he’d seen in that institution colored his thoughts about all this. “True madness is something you can’t pull yourself out of… You can poke your head up to catch a breath, but madness will pull you back down… You can’t fully grasp not being that way after you’ve been there so long… I believe [Lear’s paranoia] is the worst kind of madness… because you’re going to snap off at somebody… But I believe putting on the cloak of madness is always worse than falling in.”

“Madness was my whole entire life before I came to prison—not caring about the effect of my actions. That was my Lear,” said another man. “When I came to the penitentiary, I could choose to be Lear or choose to be Edgar… to continue to hurt people and hold that cloak over me… It’s a choice every day I have to make for myself.” Curt responded, though, that Edgar is using “madness” for good, which is dissimilar from that man’s experience.

Another man said, “I’m a product of my environment, and my environment when I was growing up was bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. Real bad… What got me here was that madness—what I didn’t know.” He said that at a certain point, he knew he had to make a change. He also said that he didn’t think Lear was born in an illusion; that everything he knew coming to an end was simply shattering. He also disagreed with Curt’s interpretation of the scene as dealing in polarities. “Lear is just having  a really bad nervous breakdown,” he said. “And only a king would know how it feels.”

He wasn’t the only one who felt that way; another man said he thought that Lear’s madness comes from grief. The realization that no one loves him, and that no one can help him, which he understands because of his experience in solitary confinement. “He feels isolated from the love of others. I went through it, too,” he said. Another ensemble member agreed, saying, “Maybe he’s not going through madness, it’s just this intense pain—because this got thrown in his face… and it blew up.” Yet another man built on that, “The madness is that they’re trying to cling on to what they already know isn’t true.”

One of the guys said some of the answers are in Edgar’s first soliloquy. He read parts of it aloud. “He’s mentally preparing for madness… He lets go of who he has to be in order to survive… He’s got a lot of mental fortitude to be able to go there, and then go back to ‘This is who I am.’”

One of the men then suggested that we do some monologues. Since there wasn’t much time left, we decided to try something new and do them “rapid-fire”: leaving discussion for next time to allow as many people as possible to have a turn. The man who’d suggested this asked another ensemble member to do Edgar’s first soliloquy so he could “feed off his energy.” That ensemble member complied, and then the first man gave Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” a go. He already knew the piece; it seemed like he needed to do it. And it was beautiful.

The guys then demanded that Matt perform (to be fair, he’d been warned), and he chose Hamlet’s “O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt…” He went up on lines in a big way, and, as he tried to get back on track, the ensemble quietly encouraged him as he would have done for them. A few suggested that he start over, and he did. He got stuck again and, not wanting to take up all of our time, said, “I’m gonna tap out.” He got a lot of applause anyway! “I learned more with that than I have with a  lot of things because of how you stuck with that,” said one man.

Then another guy stood up, saying, “Disclaimer: I’ve never done this one before.” He took a breath and launched into “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” By the time he got to the first “Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,” he was totally locked in. He had no context for this piece—he hadn’t read the play, and we hadn’t even really talked about it—and yet he totally “got” it. It was thrilling. Another man performed “To be, or not to be…” using a prop “dagger” he’d made by rolling up a newspaper. He’s been working hard on this piece, and it shows—he was so grounded and focused that he didn’t even react when an officer walked through the room.

And then we wrapped up, thanking Curt for joining us even as he thanked us for allowing him into the circle.

Season Two: Week 7

Tuesday / August 7
 

One of the guys pulled me aside right when we arrived today. He wanted to let me know that he’d had a good talk with a staff member about how he could work to ensure SIP’s longevity at this facility. He said that the structure of the program makes it unique, and that its being long term means that the men who’ve got more time to do will be the ones to shape it; and that’s something he’s committed to doing. I couldn’t have been happier to hear it. He has a natural ability to interpret and articulate his interpretations of Shakespeare; but, more than that, his empathy and compassion for others, exemplified in the way he explains things and navigates discussions, will provide invaluable support of others’ goals even as he pursues his own.

After check-in and the ring, we decided to play a game for a bit. I introduced “Beat Poet”, which has several variations but essentially asks each actor to free-associate in the form of a poem or spoken word piece—which is encouraged to be bad!

It started off pretty silly. Facilitator Kyle volunteered to go first, and was given the title suggestion of “The Ant”. His poem was… interesting. When he finished, we asked him to share about the experience. “I want the words to speak for themselves,” he said, to a big laugh. The next bunch of poems worked to varying degrees; one person had to stop and start over because going with his instincts was so difficult, while other pieces were pretty cohesive, and one man embraced stream-of-consciousness so fully that the poem ended with a plea to another ensemble member to give him the answers for their accounting homework.

Some poems went in interesting directions. One called “Caterpillar Graveyard” became a meditation on stunted growth: caterpillars that should have been butterflies but were, instead, dead in a graveyard. Another, called “Blades of Grass in Trash Cans”, found the actor fully invested in making it performance art, which he attributed to past experience in dance groups. “I connect the verse to the actual moves,” he said, stating that he loves doing this kind of thing “just to have fun with it. To be free.” He added, “Movement inspires thought as well,” and invited all of us to explore that more for ourselves.

And then things got kind of serious. Poems with titles like “Soda Pop Murder”, “Spicy Meatballs”, “Purple Shoelaces”, “Mirror”, and “Blinded” were all thoughtful and personal, and a couple were legitimately good poems.

“It’s hard to do this ‘cause it’s pointless,” said one man. I said that that was interesting; that, yes, the poems themselves might be pointless, but I asked everyone what they thought the point of the game might be. The ideas came back: spontaneity, inspiration, exploration, problem-solving, creativity, and support of the ensemble. “It gives one person the confidence they need to stand up in front of one person. Twenty people. It gives them the courage to stand up in front of 1,000 people,” said one man. He turned to a man who joined the group last fall. “You were from a much higher security level, right? But you’re here… You know what I’m saying?”

Another man added that he thought the goals included relaxation and chemistry. “Not only does it build confidence in here, but it builds confidence out there [on the yard]... It doesn’t stop when you go out the door.” He talked specifically about being able to express feelings and assert oneself in a constructive way. Another said, “It gives us the confidence to express that safely.”

Another man said that “this is reminiscent” of the kind of stream-of-consciousness work that one is often asked to do in therapy (which is part of why he didn’t like it). He then asked if audience size really makes a difference in one’s confidence—if there’s a magic number at which a crowd is no longer “small.” There were a variety of opinions, with most people saying that it’s a subjective, personal thing that isn’t quantifiable. It’s the quality of large vs. small, as opposed to a literal number. It’s not logical, it’s emotional, and it depends on your level of comfort with what you’re doing.

One man asked what everyone’s biggest fear is in terms of performing. One person immediately said that it’s the fear that people will think he’s not doing a good job. Another said, “Mine is dropping my lines as soon as I connect with someone” during a soliloquy. One man suggested that he look above people’s heads, and this man said, no, he wants to challenge himself to get over it. Another man said he’d read poetry for an audience before, but he’d never done theatre. He said he had a speech impediment as a child, and his biggest fear is always that people won’t understand him.

“Fear allows us to check our motivation,” said one person. “Why are we doing this? Self-esteem. It drives us to push ourselves forward and keep going 100%.” Another man said that you might not need self-esteem to do that; you might want to work on not caring about what other people think. “You gotta give people power to harm you,” he said.

Kyle and I shared that much fear comes from doing something private in a public space, which requires vulnerability. We want to find a way to express emotions that are true, but not real—and that takes practice. “We always have these conversations when Kyle is here,” said one man. “Kyle takes it deep.”

We read Act III scene iii of our play, with the readers on their feet. We spent all of last week on monologues, and the first comments after this reading were performance-based. I asked everyone to take it back to the text: let’s figure out what’s going on, read this whole play, and get into the weeds of performance later.

“Edmund’s a scurvy little fellow,” said one man. “He’s not playing any games, dude. He’s going straight for the jugular.” Another man asked us whom we thought had sent Gloucester’s letter, sharing that he thought it was Cordelia. One man suddenly sat up straight and said, “The letter thing—it’s a little like the handkerchief thing in Othello.” I asked him to say more about that. He explained the context to those who hadn’t read the play, saying it was “proof that she was messing around, when she really wasn’t.”

“There’s no bounds, no loyalty,” said another man. “His father is already making him legitimate, but it’s not enough… He just keeps reaching for more and more.” Another added, “Most people who win the lottery go broke within five years… Once you get a taste of power, it’s insatiable. It’s never enough.”

Looking ahead to Act III scene iv, we decided to leave it for our next meeting, rather than interrupting it, since it’s so long. Instead, a couple of guys volunteered to work on monologues.

The first man to read had been building up to this for awhile, including all of the work he did during the Tempest workshop. He is very intimidated by performing, but he’s committed to pushing himself to get better at it. He chose one of Brutus’ speeches from Julius Caesar and gave a solid, straightforward reading. He said afterward that he’d done the piece when he was 14, but this was “night and day” because now he has some experience with Shakespeare. One man asked if he “felt like [he] put a lot of emotion into that.” The man said no, but it’s not an emotional piece. Another man suggested that, even if that’s the case, he could go for a “more conflicted feeling.” The man who asked about emotion said that it was clear the reader had a good intellectual grasp of the material, but it had been reading rather than acting. “But you got up here and did it,” said a man who’s been in the group longer. “And you never would have done that before.” I asked the man who’d performed if he could have seen himself doing this when he joined. “No,” he said firmly. “So this is huge,” I said, and we all gave him a big round of applause.

The next man to perform worked with Edgar’s first soliloquy. He took a few moments to prepare, and then he dove in, taking his time, and really feeling it. He was shaking; it was intense. When he finished, nearly everyone said, “YEAH.” He said he had wanted more anger, but he was feeling calm today and couldn’t quite get there. “There’s a frustration in Edgar that I kind of relate to,” he said. “He’s being targeted, he’s being labeled, but he doesn’t know where it’s coming from. There’s an anger to him… He doesn’t know where to go with it. This bedlam is fake; he’s conflicted between the two.”

One man said he liked how this interpretation contrasted with the last one we saw. “He made it his own apart from [NAME’s]. [NAME] set a bar, and then he raised it up with his performance.” Another man said, “You hit it on the nail as far as I was thinking of it.” He said it brought us back to the theme of pride and a fall from nobility. “When we first started reading, I passed judgment on everyone. But reading it and seeing it starts to change my perspective… but you can’t just shake that off in two weeks.”

Another man said, “The time that you took to set that scene—the imagery… You salivated on every single word and tone—it really brought me into it… That was amazing.” Another said, “I was sweating. And it’s not ‘cause the fans are off.” Another man pointed out, “Even when you got soft and quiet, we could hear everything you were saying because we were so in tune with you.”

Kyle then did a piece from Julius Caesar that was new to him. He didn’t like how it went, but the others encouraged him. One in particular said he appreciated that Kyle kept going, even when he lost lines. “It shows everyone else here that you hiccuped, and it makes us feel like it’s not a big deal.”

Before we left, the group unanimously said that I would have to do a monologue on Friday. I said I would, but I didn’t want to be the only one, and I didn’t want to go first. They turned their attention to a fairly quiet man, who said he’d consider doing a piece from Julius Caesar that he likes, but he wanted to go before me because, “If I’m gonna bomb this, I’m gonna bomb this real good.”
 

Friday / August 10


After we’d settled in, before we began our reading, one of the men asked if he could give me some constructive criticism, which, of course, I welcomed. Last week, I’d admonished another person and myself for talking too much during group feedback, and this man wanted to tell me that that was wrong, at least in my case. “A lot of us take this stuff really seriously, and you’re usually the only professional here, so we want your feedback. Every time.” This was unanimous, so I thanked him for the criticism and said I would do what they were asking.

We read Act III scene iv, in which, during the storm, Lear, the Fool, and Kent discover Edgar in disguise as a madman; Gloucester then shows up and guides them to shelter. It’s an intense and complicated scene. One man said that Lear feels like the storm is justice—that he didn’t treat his subjects with compassion, and now he’s suffering like them. “He’s coming to see how the other side lives,” said another.

We got a little hung up on Lear’s actions: is he ripping up his clothes or tearing them off? And how do we portray that, given our limitations (the need to wear costumes over clothing, etc.). “How do we preserve the sanctity of the play?” asked one man, and I suggested that it’s really more about the way we decide to tell the story, rather than the text being sacrosanct. We tossed out a few ideas of how some of this could be accomplished, and then we moved on—these conversations are really better had once the whole play has been read.

A few people wondered if Edgar is playing a part, or if he’s actually crazy. We found our answer in the text: when no one is listening, Edgar snaps from prose back into verse. It’s just a really good act. He has to do this well because his life is at stake.

“Anybody notice how Edgar got super nervous when his father came into the room?” asked one man. “He was really trying to show that he was this person… I can sense a nervousness in the words, like, ‘Is my dad gonna recognize me?’” Another said, “It’s a form of mirroring, too… He’s trying to show him that, ‘Hey, hey—I’m here, too. You’re not alone in this.’” Another man pointed out that the language definitely changes from having a certain arrogance to being total nonsense.

One of the guys asked if this was ever done with multiple people playing Edgar (one person per disguise). I said I wasn’t sure, but if we decide to go that route, we need to make very certain that what we’re doing is clear to the audience. There are so many possibilities. I brought up Peter Brook’s “empty space” and said that the benefit of performing in the gym is that, without a physical stage, we have a ton of options. One person described how we’d defined the playing space for The Tempest. Another said, “Sometimes having no stage is the best thing.” He talked about starting with an idea and then going from there to get the best result. “It’s like drawing… If you do a rough outline and slowly fill in as you go, you’ll end up with a piece of artwork.”

We moved on to monologues, with the man who’d said he was “gonna bomb this real good” going first, reading Antony’s “O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth” from Julius Caesar. He was extremely nervous and said, “If I pass out—just leave me there!” He also said that his knees were sweating. He got through it, though, and at the end, without even pausing to breathe, he said, “HOLY SHIT!” and literally spun around as we all applauded. “It felt weird,” he said. “I don’t like talking in front of people.” Especially this many people; it makes him want to blend in.

“It breaks a barrier though, right?” said a man who’s struggled with the same thing. “What you basically just did was put a nice, big piece of duct tape on you, and you ripped it off,” said another. Several people shared advice about how not to let the audience intimidate or distract him. “I’m proud of you,” said one man. “I am, too,” said another, and we all applauded again.

One of the men challenged him to “give it more emotion,” particularly at the end. He was still quite nervous, and I suggested that he pick one focus point and shut out everything else. He decided it should be the guy who’d challenged him. (This man is just incredible about supporting and encouraging the others, and we all deeply appreciate it.) He didn’t end up looking up at all, but his voice was more engaged and powerful, and he built the intensity beautifully—step by step, like going up a ladder. It rose to a fever pitch and went out on the same “HOLY SHIT” as the first one. We absolutely loved it and lavished him with praise. One person said that the effort had “paid off exponentially.”

That man was the next to perform, using a compilation of various expressions of grief from Shakespeare. It was clear that he connected with the material, which he delivered in a seemingly effortless way. There were moments, though, when he disconnected, and he seized on those immediately when he’d finished. He hadn’t done it the way he’d wanted to, and that bothered him because he feels the piece very deeply and has used it to help process his own feelings.

One of the men said that feeling disconnected is a feeling. He expanded on that, but unfortunately the acoustics were such that I couldn’t get more than the gist of what he said. The man who’d read, though, responded that losing the words shut off his emotions. Another man broke in to say that there had been a breakthrough anyway because he’d showed emotions, something no one had been expecting.

The guys asked me to do something, and, because we had only a few minutes left, I chose Richard III’s opening soliloquy in hopes that it would go all right with just a moment or two of prep—I hate feeling rushed and didn’t want to do one of the tougher pieces they’d requested. I felt okay about how it went, but not great; I’d felt intellectually connected, but not emotionally (probably because I knew we were down to the wire). The guys seemed to like it, though. One of them said that when he’d seen the piece done before, it had been by a man who’d been very theatrical about it. He liked the way I’d done it—which was more conversational—better. “The words fit with your face, if you know what I mean,” he said. “Like… you looked the way you were saying you felt. It felt truthful. I liked that.”

That said, they told me I would have to do one of the others on Tuesday, which, again, I said I would if I wasn’t the only one and if we had more than five minutes left. We shall see…

Guest Blog: Vanessa Sawson

July 24 / 2018
 

I had the pleasure and honor of joining the Shakespeare in Prison team at Parnall Correctional Facility while they continue their work on King Lear. I worked with Frannie on The Taming of the Shrew at the women's facility in Ypsilanti, and she was also my director in King Lear a few years ago (but it feels like yesterday).

Even though I had some experience under my belt, I always get butterflies when meeting new groups of people and facilitating workshops. Little did I know, I was focused on the wrong things. Luckily, I was about to meet a group who would not only welcome and accept me, but would teach me what being a facilitator is all about.

I walked into the space where they usually meet: the chapel. Yessss — I love theatre in churches. We opened the door to hear roars of laughter, along with a game of tape ball already in progress. Yessss — my kind of peeps! They saw us, and we were immediately invited over to join and play.

A solid tape ball: well-constructed. Just in case you don't play tape ball: it's a game of wonderfulness that artists play to warm up before rehearsal or performances. All you gotta do is keep the ball in the air. Anyone who plays knows that playing with a very large group is problematic in terms of getting high numbers. However, tape ball isn't just about numbers but about the plays — how it happens, the sweet saves, the great set-ups, and that's what we aim for... Oh, and also to get 100 million hits on the ball.

After some solid rounds, we circled up to lift and walk into the ring, where we all came together to trust, focus, suspend our disbelief, and play. As we did this, the amount of concentration was clear — you could have heard a pin drop. In fact, there was a loud noise of furniture moving in the back of the room from someone not in our group, and no one looked back or up — we just focused on our task. If we began to rush, Frannie spoke up to remind us, "Let's not leave anyone behind."

We continued, and lifted that ring, and BAM! We were ready to work and circled up for check-in. The circle was assembled with chairs by the group almost immediately — there was no lagging in getting started. They were ready to work and — yaaaaa — I was, too!  

"We thought acting was lying but it's telling the truth, finding the truth...." That was a quote from the person sitting next to me. Right at the top of our work session. That's how our discussion began. My jaw dropped. What a relief! YES! From there on out, excellent nuggets of insight about the play, life, and people were revealed by almost everyone! Here are some of my favorites that I recorded for my own personal quote book...

"[Lear] is losing his pride.  It hurts to not be top dog...a king without power.."

This was said by someone while we discussed the madness of King Lear — the unfolding of it and how it happens. Pin-pointing the events that link the story together. It was great work to build a foundation before they start tackling character development and staging.

Someone spoke up and said, "The storm is like Lear's frame of mind...his logic." And then more piped up, "Storms build... there's reasons it happens... it doesn't just come from nowhere."  In using the image of storm, we were able to see Lear's madness build in a similar way... Whoever plays Lear will have this wonderful discussion to keep in mind as they make their acting choices.

Frannie, who had been only nudging them when needed, sat across from me and took notes as well. I observed her listening and writing a lot, and not speaking a lot. A sign of a good leader. She would step in a few times when needed — to focus us when we got off track in Discussionland. When they would get up on their feet to do a scene, sometimes staging would get muddy (I mean, it's only their first time going through, to be expected but then we lose meaning and risk losing our focus). She would stop the scene and go back to basics: ask them who they were talking to and to take time with the words and breathe.

That advice did wonders for the team. And brought more clarity to the scene. I was stunned! That's all it takes. Just a nudge. No need to set off fireworks or infuse energy... just simple and clear.

Back to the storm. Frannie said, "We have to earn the storm." Oh ya. Great note. They all got on board for that. Earning the storm means we have to figure out which events are important to highlight and make that extra clear to the audience... so when that storm comes... everyone will be on the edge of their seats, knowing exactly what's going on but unable wait to see what happens next. There's a word for it… oh ya, SUSPENSE!

As the scene partners continued their work, I looked around the room to see where everyone's attention was. Did anyone check out? Is anyone feeling bored or left out? I scanned the room with these thoughts — and every single person had their focus on the text. Every person was following along, reacting out loud or to themselves — enjoying and taking it all in. EXCELLENT.  My worries, again, were far from where they needed to be.

Our focus of discussion switched to Goneril and Regan, Lear’s two "evil" daughters. "They aren't monsters," someone said, "they are people."

Someone else agreed with, "You have to have empathy. You have to figure out why they are doing what they are doing." We talked about villains in movies or plays or books... they behave badly, but why? Where does it come from? Asking why is important in art. In order to be specific and communicate a clear idea, one must ask these questions, and that's what they were doing. AUDITIONS HAVEN'T EVEN HAPPENED yet, and they are so prepared.

This excites me as a team member. I want to be a on a team with people who are prepared and want to be there. That's what we all want, right? Because these discussions are happening in the group before roles are cast, it gives everyone an opportunity to express their thoughts and ideas together, so when it comes time to tackle their characters, they will have an abundance of ideas to draw from.

To end our session, we brought down the ring and chatted just a bit. Some came up to me to thank me for being there, some wanted to ask about being an actor for a living, and some wanted to discuss who they were auditioning for. I could have stayed and chatted for hours. The good news is... THEY WANT ME TO COME BACK! And I cannot wait. I have so much more to learn from them. 

Season Two: Week 6

Tuesday / July 31
 

Today was the last day for an ensemble member who is about to parole, and we took our time with check-in to make sure he knew that he has our support. After we lowered the ring, we gave “wooshes” (uplifting energy) to a few ensemble members, and then Kyle led a game while I checked in with a couple of people.

We had talked about working on monologues today, and that’s exactly what we did. One of the guys volunteered to go first, saying that he was doing this “to goad [NAME] into doing one that he doesn’t want to do.” He performed his piece and then shared that he has a tough time with acting because he’s not good with emotion. He quickly touched base with a man who had shared a lot during check-in to make sure he hadn’t inadvertently hurt his feelings. (He hadn’t.)

The guy who’d been “goaded” went next. He’d been working on Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” and the effort definitely showed. His performance was thoughtful without being hyper-emotional, which was a conscious choice on his part. He said that he thought his pauses had been too long, and we disagreed. The pauses had let us keep up and process the ideas with him. One of the men shared something he learned as a young athlete: that we should avoid slouching. “You’ll get a better breath if you sit up more,” he said. Another man said it had been great, but, “I want you to live in those sentences,” which we clarified as meaning that there could be more spontaneity.

He went through the piece a second time, standing rather than sitting. He flubbed a few lines, but he didn’t break character, and it was great. One of the men drew a parallel between Hamlet’s speech and one person’s check-in that had been sort of a stream of consciousness trying to work something out. The man who drew that parallel then volunteered to do Hamlet’s “Speak the speech…” which he learned years ago but hadn’t tried in a while. His delivery was beautiful—relaxed and natural—but he was rusty on the lines. We encouraged him to re-familiarize himself with the piece so he could have more fun with it when he works it again.

Then a man who has mostly been quiet volunteered to go. He had been working on the “St. Crispin's Day” speech from Henry V, which a relative on the outside sent him to encourage his interest in Shakespeare. He loves the play and particularly latched on to this speech. He went through it at a good pace, with a clear intellectual understanding of the words and a nice, loud voice. Several people expressed their excitement at seeing this man up on his feet, reading with such confidence. “I’m shocked,” said one man. “I appreciated that. It was a breath of fresh air.” One man said he’d loved the performance, but that it needed to be slowed down in order to have more impact. We decided to do an exercise in which the rest of us played the army, not wanting to go into battle, so that he would really have to convince us. Half of us were on our feet by the end of the speech, but it had taken that long for us to feel motivated. Why? Because, we all agreed, there hadn’t been enough urgency had until nearly the end. Jokingly, he said, “I was running out of lines!” and we encouraged him to keep with that feeling and intensify it. “You don’t have to be loud and boisterous to have urgency,” said one man. “When you were convinced, I was convinced.”

Another ensemble member volunteered to work on Edgar’s first soliloquy. He took a few moments to prep and then ran to a chair, getting on all fours and going through the speech in an extremely frantic and emotional way. We all applauded when he’d finished. “Can I reach the bar you set last time before you raise it again?” one man joked, referring to how much we’d loved this man’s last performance. Another mused, “I understood the panic, but I never really took into consideration—everything has been stripped from him. He must be unbelievably terrified and sad.” Another added, “What am I willing to do to survive?” Another man said (much more beautifully than this, but I didn’t get it verbatim) that he thought that Shakespeare wanted to do more than just tell good stories: he wanted to teach us what it is to be human.

Still honoring what this man had done, we shared that his sobbing had caused us to lose some of the words. I asked him if he thought he could keep what he’d discovered and allow the words to be clearer, and he said he thought he could just by slowing down. I asked if he wanted to try it again, and he smiled and said it had taken a lot out of him, but, yes, he wanted to do it again. I suggested that he do a little acting exercise in which he’d imagine a threshold over which he could step in and out of the playing space, enabling him to leave whatever emotions came up on the stage.

This second attempt was even more rattling than the first, and we definitely could understand more of the words. I wasn’t super close to where he was performing, but I’m pretty sure there were a few tears; at the very least, he was emotional enough that he had to take a moment to shake it off after crossing the threshold he’d imagined. “Can you tell us about that?” I asked. “I totally lost sense, to be honest with you, of where I was in the moment… The feeling of being abandoned and unloved…” reminded him, he said, of how he’d felt when he’d first been incarcerated. “When I first went to quarantine,  I cried and cried—I didn’t know if I was going to get out… It’s the most forsaken place you can ever be.” He said that it was “a horrible place to live in, even for a few moments.” I quickly went through ways in which we can access emotions on stage without reliving past trauma and emphasized how important it is for us to take care of ourselves and each other as we do so. We want to see clear and recognizable emotions that make sense in the characters’ context, and we’ll do that better if we’re not telling our own stories. He agreed. “When I was in quarantine, I felt sorry for myself. But I put myself there—it’s a different kind of turmoil. Not knowing why is a big deal.” One man thanked this ensemble member for “going there,” saying, “That definitely had a whole new perspective on what I got out of that scene with Edgar… It made more sense the way you did it… You brought out something I didn’t see, and I appreciate that.” I joined in, thanking him for knocking down that fence; it’s hard for anybody to go there until somebody goes there.

Another man volunteered to read Edmund’s first soliloquy, which we know he loves. It was a strong reading. “I read it in the cell all the time,” he said. “I read the scene and then come back to this monologue. I understand completely what he is—talking to his higher power about why he hasn’t protected him. I draw so heavy on what he’s saying. It’s a lifetime thing.” We all agreed that that had come through, but we hadn’t been able to totally connect. One man said he thought that a lot of that was because of how much this man swayed and paced without intention. Stillness would be helpful, I agreed, and I also challenged him a little. “You’re the one who’s always talking about tasting the words,” I said, a little playfully. “The words are like acid, right? I’m just saying… Maybe you might want to take your own notes. Maybe…” He grinned and said he would.

His second attempt was incredibly organic and powerful. We were riveted. When he finished, the room was silent. He looked at me and said, “Woo!” He walked to his chair, shaking it off, saying, “My hands are tingling!” I asked him what it had been like, and he said it had been much more of what he’d wanted. “I’m the one who says to live in the language, so thank you for calling me out on my bullshit,” he said. Another man said, “The words are— you believe them. They’re your words.” Another passionately agreed. “I felt it from the moment you started speaking… You had it nailed on the head.”

Someone suggested that we continue working on monologues on Friday, although a number of people joked that they didn’t know how they could top those last two performances. “Well, well, well,” I said. “It seems the gauntlet has been laid.” All agreed.

Gauntlet laid. Challenge accepted!
 

Friday / August 3
 

Today, I was told, was to be The Monologue Olympics. A number of people had something prepared. That said, one of the guys shared that he was getting bored with the monologues; that it seemed like a lot of repetition, and he wanted to do more improv. Many people were irritated by his irritation, but one man suggested that he compromise by improvising a monologue, rather than working from a script. Another man said that the first man probably was not alone in being bored, but that he should try doing a monologue himself. He said that he’d been bored during a lengthy check-in recently, but he realized that that wasn’t fair and challenged himself to stay. “I decided to be on his side. To hear him as a human being and to be empathetic with him.” He continued, “Try and do the thing you don’t want to do, and see if you become like everybody else.” Another man reminded the first man that we’re not just here to have fun—we’re here to learn. A fourth person said he hadn’t liked the monologue work till he’d done one, and now he really enjoys them. Another guy said that “repetition is part of life,” and that the variety was found in living the character. He cited Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet at the Public Theater: knowing what every word means “and what it means to the character, and what it means to you, now that you own it.”

At that point, one man said that, while we were on the topic of monologues and structure, he wanted to know what we thought about beginning with monologues on Tuesday so that a man who’s had to be absent a lot for classes could see a couple (something he said he was sad to be missing). We all agreed to do that, did a warm up, and sat back down to work some monologues.

The first man to work had chosen Edgar’s monologue in 5.3, in which he challenges his brother to a duel. It was a good reading, but he moved around a lot without much impetus. “Can I lay down a challenge?” said one man. “Let’s not dance.” The man went through the speech again, and it was much more powerful. “As soon as you rooted yourself, you became confrontational—you were really picking a fight,” said another man. It turned out that the man who’d read chose the piece because he “isn’t a confrontational person” and felt that this would give him a way of doing what he “should have done more of” when he was bullied as a child.

The next man had chosen Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech from The Merchant of Venice. He prefaced his performance by telling us that, while he hadn’t read the play, none of the other pieces in the monologue collection he’d looked at spoke to him. He said he knew that, in the play, Shylock is speaking to another actor, but he was choosing to work this as a soliloquy and interact with the audience. He took a moment to prepare, and then he began the piece.

My note simply reads, “Ooof.” It was an incredibly truthful and reflective interpretation of a very challenging piece, and we were wowed. “I really enjoyed that one because it’s an emotional rollercoaster: there’s pain, anger, bewilderment, sadness. There’s even humor,” he said. Someone asked why the piece spoke to him. “The one thing I associated with was my difference. My being so different… I’ve battled with this since I was a kid.” He shared what it had felt like, growing up mixed. “That, as well as my faults, has pushed me away from others… It’s like, ‘I’m proud to be a Jew, but I’m not.’”

Another man said that he understood that connection; that he’s also mixed, and, “That’s why I sought you out.” He has read the play, and he continued, “I think I had a block as far as how well you did that, because I was thinking about The Merchant of Venice. But I loved how you put yourself into it—you usually have a kind of armor up. But here you were, being vulnerable up there; the only place you can be vulnerable—up there.” Another said, “Where you drew that from really took me to where you were at… It really reached me and affected me.”

I asked if he wanted to do it again, and he said he did. I reinforced that we had all felt his connection to the text—and I challenged him to connect more with us. Rather than looking down between thoughts, I suggested, he could keep his eyes on us. “Don’t let us off the hook,” I said.

This time when he arrived at the line, “I am a Jew,” his voice broke, tears welling up and then trickling down as he continued. I looked around and saw that he wasn’t the only one feeling intensely emotional. When he finished, there was a brief silence as he wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and then several people said, “Yeah, buddy,” as we all applauded and thanked him. One man said, “I’ve got tears all over my face!”

“I love watching you act, all the time,” said one man. “You just achieve this depth. I wish I could go that deep.” The man who’d read, clearly floored, said, “That means a lot, because I’d say the same thing about you.” Another ensemble member praised him for keeping us so connected. “You looked at us, and, like she said, you didn’t let us off the hook.” Another man agreed, and said he had loved the pauses when the man who’d read was simply making eye contact with us.

One man excitedly and emotionally said he couldn’t believe how deeply he’d felt the piece. He said that when he was a kid, “I was put in the box of being a bully when, in actuality, I was being bullied.” And he said he’d done what Shylock does: he’d taken revenge. “Am I not human?” he said, quoting a text he hadn’t heard before today. “I always have trouble expressing this, but watching you—it moved me,” he said tearfully. “That’s what acting is supposed to do,” another quietly replied. “It’s supposed to move people.”

The man who’d read said, “When I practiced the memorization of it, I had to internalize it… When he says, ‘Because I’m a Jew,’ I actually broke down on the bed… because I remembered why I was bullied: because of not accepted. Just because I was me.”

The man who’d commented earlier about being hung up on his interpretation of the play asked, “Did you notice that that time you made more word mistakes? You got about 18 of the words wrong.” He continued, “But it was arguably a better performance… This is where I’m broken at, is emotional connection. But when you were up there and connecting with us, it didn’t matter, the words you were saying.” One man said this reminded him of what Vanessa shared last week about her experience of seeing King Lear in Russia—that she didn’t need to understand the words because the acting was so powerful and clear. “What drove us to see us in you, and share the same feelings.. the second time, that empathy transcended into compassion.  It transcended everything,” said someone else.

Another ensemble member then rose to share a poem he’d written. He’s shared his work with us before, and he’s extremely well-loved and respected, so everyone immediately quieted and gave him all of their focus. He reminded us that he has a difficult time allowing himself to be vulnerable, but that he trusts this group. And then he read a gorgeous, aching, angry, and incredibly sad poem about his experience of being locked up for an extremely long time, lacking the ability to fully articulate or express his emotions and not having a space in which to learn to do that, and his fear of being fully institutionalized—his fear of being unable to break out of that.

He wept as he read, and many of us were crying, too, by the time he finished. We thanked him for sharing something so intimate with us. “It’s really hard in this prison to find even one person who cares how you feel,” said one person. “And for you to come here and share something like that—that’s deep.”

“A lot of us grew up here,” said the man who’d read. “I’ve been down since I was a teenager, and I’ve got more memories in here than I do on the outside. And now my memories from being free are being replaced by prison memories. In my dreams, the places and situations, I see a C.O. here and an inmate there. And there’s a sadness there. There’s a loss.” He continued, “Feeling so much, and not understanding what the feelings are, so it all comes out as anger. That just frustrates me even more.” He said that that’s what makes prison so violent: people keep all of their feelings bottled up, and then they just explode, often for seemingly trivial reasons.

“I’ve been here since I was a teenager, too,” said another man. “And if there’s a silver lining to all of this, it’s that at least you can still feel. I can’t feel anything at all.”

“All that we are absorbing in here—it won’t go to waste,” said another ensemble member. “There is someone out there waiting to hear our stories. Your story, and your story, and your story, and your story, and your story.”

The last man to read had initially wanted to work on Lear’s first monologue during the storm, but he said he couldn’t get the anger out. Instead, he’d decided to read one of Napoleon's letters to Josephine, in which he rails against her supposed infidelity. He read the first five words or so, and then had to stop, overcome with emotion. He turned to the man who’d read his own poem and said, “I’m sorry; you got me all messed up.” He took a deep breath and began again. This man’s stated objective is to become more comfortable with being vulnerable, starting simply by pushing himself to read aloud in front of others. His reading was clear, and he showed glimmers of emotion, particularly on certain words and phrases that seemed to resonate with him.

When he finished, he began to sit back down, and multiple people said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” and “You’re not sitting down yet!” One man smiled and said, “We’ve got questions!” They asked what had made him choose the piece, noting how he’d seemed to begin to connect and then backed off. He said the content rang true for him, and that he loved the language—it reminded him of Lord Byron, his favorite poet.

“Don’t you think these people back then—Shakespeare and all—would have been a lot less flowing if they had emojis?” asked one man, to a burst of laughter. We left on a high note, even with the emotional depth we’d experienced. One man said he understood that we need to return to the play, but that he hoped we could have more monologue days. “I’m learning so much,” he said.

Season Two: Week 5

Tuesday / July 24
 

It was a joy to welcome Vanessa Sawson to the circle today! Vanessa was a facilitator in the women’s ensemble several years ago, and she’ll be joining us when she can going forward.

When we walked in, most of the guys were circled up and playing tape ball—and we jumped right in. It was awesome to see Vanessa fold into the group like that, so easily. During check-in, as she enthusiastically described what it was like to see King Lear in Russia, one of the guys leaned over to me and said, “You know when you’re looking for new facilitators? That’s who we need: it’s her.” He shared that with the ensemble, too, and they agreed. The rest of check-in was similarly high energy. One of the guys chuckled and said, “I find it ironic that I come to a drama group to escape the drama.” Another replied, “No drama here—just Shakespeare!” 

We started reading Act II, scene iv, in which Lear arrives at Regan’s home, sees Kent in the stocks, and becomes more and more upset as Goneril and Regan defy and betray him. One of the men asked if we could work in a proscenium set up, rather than in a circle, and I reminded everyone that the reason we work that way for a while is so that people who are intimidated by a traditional set up will feel safer and volunteer more. This method also removes the pressure of creating aesthetically pleasing stage pictures: our focus is just to connect with one another. We decided to read the scene on our feet in the circle, stopping and starting to be sure we’d all be on the same page.

Regarding Lear’s reaction to seeing Kent in the stocks, one man said that he saw the exchange as a comedic tug of war. Another man emphatically said that that’s not what’s going on; that Lear is shocked and in disbelief. I suggested we take it back to the text to figure it out, and there are clear indications there that Lear is incredibly upset. “Lear takes talking to himself as a meditation, almost… He was saying it before, but now we’re seeing it,” one man said.

“The Fool hates Lear. He thinks he’s a joke,” said another. “Does that mean he hates him?” I asked. “Maybe not,” he replied, “But he thinks he’s a joke.” No one agreed with him about the Fool hating Lear—he’s just a truth teller, they said. “A true friend will tell you the truth,” said one person.

“We’re underestimating the power of pride,” said another man. “This dude was a king, and now he’s turned low… Of course he’s upset, because his pride is hurt so bad—and from his own people… There’s a lot of emotion going on. Of course he’s choked up.” Another agreed, “His ego got popped.”

One man asked what the story of Lear’s downfall was, in terms of actual history. I reminded everyone that Shakespeare took vast liberties when his plays were drawn from actual events, so, while it’s great to have that information, we often have to set it aside. Another man said that the historical context of when the play was written matters more. “It comes in like that for a reason,” he said. “He flipped it to show what bullshit that social structure was from the beginning.”

We picked up our books and kept going. There was a widespread vocal reaction to Lear’s lines, “Those wicked creatures yet do look well favoured/When others are more wicked; not being the worst/Stands in some rank of praise.” That one hit home.

“They’re picking him apart,” said one man. “He’s so upset, he loses his logic,” said another. Another man pointed out that Lear is now being treated the same way as Edmund has for his whole life. It’s like the storm in Act III, said one man. “Storms don’t just come out of nowhere. They build up. We see them coming.”

Another man agreed, taking it back to pride. “One time it’s about his boy in the stocks, but everything else is about him. It’s that pride… Pride is a bad dude. You got guys in here that’d rather be maxed out than let down their pride, and that’s crazy. But that’s pride.” Another man asked the ensemble if we thought that Donald Trump would have a similar reaction if his daughter did something like this, and I quickly said that that was a good question, and one we could talk about if we felt like we could keep it strictly to personality (since we leave partisan politics at the door). There was some tension in the room, and another man said he did think it was a personal, not a political thing, and that any person of power might have a similar reaction. A third man redirected the conversation to the more general idea of how older people handle being disrespected: of wanting to preserve their pride and morals without “tearing into a kid.”

The conversation moved on. One man said he thought that Goneril and Regan began to resent their father after they got married (assuming he chose their husbands), and that they’re following his example. Another man added that the women are definitely in charge, saying, “I see Cornwall as wrapped around Regan’s finger.” Everyone agreed, and I asked, “What about Albany? He’s not even in this scene. Where is he, and what does that tell us?”

“He’s back at the house,” said one of the guys. “Goneril and Regan are very strong-willed women, and they have things in hand—to say the least. He’s housesitting.” We all agreed that the two of them don’t behave the way women normally would in that time. “They don’t give a damn about what the culture says is right or wrong,” said one person. “‘We’re going to get what we want’—no matter what is standing in their way.”

Another man said he liked that way of thinking about them because it helped him to empathize with their situation. “They’re not just monsters,” he said. Another guy agreed, saying that likening the sisters to Edmund, as someone had earlier in the session, was what helped him. “[They parallel Edmund because] Edmund was working from a place of hurt… These girls don’t have a mother. Where’s the mother at?… Cordelia was doted on, but not them… I find it easier when I parallel them to Edmund."

Another man said we could easily find evidence in the text, though, that this is nothing new for these women—they’re just taking it to the next level. “The skill with which they handle their father is not new,” he said. “They know exactly what to do [with Lear], so you can assume they weren’t forced into any marriage… They’re used to getting their way. They chose men who were subservient to them… Lear’s starting to realize that he’s a joke… because they don’t need him anymore. But he’s always been a joke.”

Vanessa brought up how high the stakes are in this scene, and I brought it back to a comment one of the men had made when Kent was put in the stocks: that the play was building in its desperation. “The next time we see Lear, he’ll be out in the storm,” I said. “And you’re right: that doesn’t come out of nowhere. There’s a steady build, and we need to keep that in mind as we figure out how we want to tell the story. We’ve gotta earn the storm.”

Someone brought up fear as being central to this scene. “If they didn’t have fear,” one man said, “They wouldn’t be trying to take away all this stuff from him.” Another man agreed but said he thought it was more about anger. “They see the opportunity to strip him completely as they have been their whole lives… They’re getting even.”

Another guy said it’s both. “This scene is all about fear. Anger is always caused by something else… They’re afraid of his men, so they’re trying to take his men… He sees them trying, and it makes him afraid, which leads to anger." Another man nodded, saying, “He’s king—we gotta strip him of everything… It’s not just his knights… I think that what they’re stripping away is his title as king.” A third man built on that: “The knights are the representation of what he is. It’s not the numbers. It’s the icon.”

Someone else didn’t quite agree. “You gave this to us, and we want you to know that we’re in control,” he said. “Never at any time do I believe it’s fear. It’s more of a power struggle.”

There was a question about why Lear’s knights would be sticking around at all. Most of us thought it’s a money thing, while others thought it has to do with loyalty, or simply having food and lodging. “No one knows,” said one man. “Maybe that’s what the fear is.” Is Lear used to being surrounded by “yes men?” Who is he left with at the end of this scene, as compared to the first one? Fifty knights left at a pop once Goneril made it known she wasn’t going to put up with them—or with Lear.

We decided to read the scene on its feet again, switching up the people who’d be reading. I volunteered to play Cornwall, which was new for me! We took our time and focused on connecting with the text and each other.

I’ve spent a lot of time with this play, but I hadn’t realized just how impotent Cornwall is in this scene till I literally walked in his shoes. I kept trying to break in—the text seemed to want me to—and just couldn’t manage to make myself part of the conversation until Gloucester came back at the end, and even then the women dominated the scene. It felt like a gender thing—it felt exactly the way I’ve felt many times in groups of men when I KNEW I could contribute something useful to a conversation or a project, and it was so interesting to be a woman-playing-a-man having that experience with two men-playing-women. It also made Cornwall’s increasing brutality ring true in a totally new way for me.

I shared that with the group when we’d finished reading—I love when I learn something new just from working with them, and I always let them know. One of the men asked how it felt, as Frannie, to be glad the women have a voice but to be playing a man in that situation. “It makes me feel that gender is irrelevant,” I said. And, I said, it reinforced the value not judging a character and staying open—that’s how you learn your way in.

“If you understand everything, you can forgive anything,” said one man. Empathy. It is always about empathy.
 

Friday / July 27
 

Today marked the return of Kyle Grant to the men’s ensemble! Kyle led our pilot last summer, and the members of the Original 12 who are still in the group were overjoyed to see him. One of them felt the need to apologize to the group for “fangirl-ing.”

One of the men began a lively discussion during check-in about social constructs, which proved to foreshadow the rest of the session. We moved to the gym, played a game, and sat down to read. At first, the energy in the room felt low. But, boy oh boy, did it ever pick up.

We arrived at the first of the scenes in which Lear is out in the storm. There was silence when we finished, till one man simply said, “It’s sad.” Another man said it reminded him of his first heartbreak: “I remember the first time a woman ever broke my heart. I remember how it felt. All those feelings… It was horrible… You know, and you’re like, ‘Why you hurt me so bad,’ like 30 times. You think the world is ending… I feel for him… I really feel for him.”

“He almost seems to pity the Fool and Kent a bit,” said one man. Another jokingly responded, “So you’re saying he pities the fool.” That got a good laugh. “This is the first time I think I’ve seen Lear actually show affection for the Fool… He was actually concerned for the Fool’s wellbeing. I thought it was pretty dope,” said one man. Another man took it a step further: “He’s realizing that things are different now. Lear is mortal man, not king—look at all these people suffering because of things he did.” Someone else likened the situation to one he experienced when some of his relatives had to take care of an elderly family member, and how awful it had seemed for that person as he lost control of his mind and body. “When you old, think about how hard that is on a person. You go crazy.”

“Storms serve two purposes: destruction and rebirth,” said another person. “In the midst of the storm, in the midst of all this, he found some hope.” Another agreed, saying that Lear might have seen this coming but been in denial. Another man said he wasn’t sure. “We gotta go back to what [NAME] was saying the other day about pride… I believe he wholeheartedly had faith in his rearing as a king that his daughters would dote on him, and now he’s left with a peasant and a fool… That’s a sad situation.” Kyle suggested that all Lear’s really losing is the illusion that things were otherwise than they are.

And then philosophy class began.

“You don’t know if people giving you what you want because of fear… Now he don’t have anything to give ‘em, he’s seeing the truth of everything now,” said one man.  “Reality isn’t based on our perceptions. Our perceptions are based on how we view reality," said a man who I’m going to call Philosopher A for the purposes of describing this discussion. “Yeah, but I’m talking about subjective truth,” said another, and they went back and forth for a minute or so.

One of the men said that when we put the scene on its feet, we shouldn’t “look at this with any kind of hindsight bias.” He said that before prison, many of them were “presented with a metaphorical storm,” and they should draw on that experience. Lear doesn’t know where this is going, and we need to keep that in mind. He likened it to Othello’s struggle. I said that there are definitely similarities, the big difference between Lear and Othello being that this play is incredibly theatrical and the other isn’t. I brought up, again, the insistent emotional build of this play, and the need for whoever plays Lear to give himself over to that theatricality and chaos—without reliving trauma—in order to tell the story truthfully. That person needs to trust that the ensemble to take care of him, and we all need to be ready to do it. Kyle added that even though there’s no magic in Lear (as in Macbeth and The Tempest), “it’s at that pitch.”

He then asked if Lear is better off with the illusion of love or the reality of unlove. One man said the reality is better, but his point got kind of muddled. Philosopher A said, “Which is better: everything or nothing? … You gotta choose the best illusion and go with it.” He brought up patricians and plebeians, giving a really good explanation of how patricians couldn’t understand how plebeians could be so happy, when they themselves were often dissatisfied. This guy is very well read, and he’s great at breaking down what he’s talking about without talking down to people.

Another man essentially told Philosopher A to hold his horses and took it back to the question Kyle had asked. “If you pertain it to Lear, that’s one thing. But if you bring it out… That could go on forever." Kyle clarified that he had asked the question specifically about Lear. I said that I thought the reality is worse than it has to be because Lear won’t let anyone help him.

Philosopher A said that the only way Lear could be better off is “if there’s some other benefit,” meaning redemption or another existential breakthrough. “Torment is a state of consciousness,” he said, stating again that it’s all about perception.

Another man agreed. “Better off in the reality you created for yourself… Now it’s crashing down around him… The illusion when he was on top of the world and everybody was happy…” Now everyone’s illusions are shattered—not just Lear’s. He likened this to The Matrix and did a condensed, one-man version of the “choose which pill” scene. “I was the happiest thing running around till you gave me that goddamn red pill. Now everything’s apeshit.”

One man brought up Buddha and the hardship he chose to live with. Someone else said, “But he had a choice. He chose that." And another said, “Lear had a choice. Jesus had a choice. Moses had a choice… and they all chose reality.” But Philosopher A said that Lear didn’t have a choice—“This was smashed on him.”

One man said we shouldn’t underestimate human nature under the power of a delusion, citing work he’d done with Alzheimer’s patients. He learned that it was much better to play along with their delusions because they’d get really upset if you told them they were wrong. “When it’s not a choice, the human reaction to that is to crush it.”

Another man said, “This is a thought here that everyone should be able to relate to, being in prison.” Another exclaimed, “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” As I feverishly scribbled notes, I heard a bunch of people say things like, “coping strategy!” and “wake up call!” The first man said he’s been down since he was very young. “At some point, you find out what you’re made of. If you can cope with reality or not. At one point, I thought I couldn’t. But now I know I can. I’m a lot better off now as a 40-something year old man, than that teenager I used to be. Instead of letting it crush me, I found I was pretty stubborn, pretty resilient, and I got back up. I didn’t let it keep crushing me…”

Philosopher A said he appreciated that, but he was clearly impatient with all this subjectivity and took it back to logic. Another man tried to articulate an argument, then gave an example instead: “Frannie can’t speak into my world saying, ‘He’s better off for having gone to prison’… Not knowing where I was at before, she couldn’t see my reality… We’re almost arguing a moot point.” Philosopher A exclaimed, “Right!” The man continued, “We are imposing our reality on his situation. And to me that’s not feasible… Clearly he was better off before [the betrayals, the storm, etc.]… Knowledge is a great responsibility and weight upon a person’s shoulders.”

I stepped in, because it was becoming circular, to say that we were having a philosophical conversation about a text that isn’t philosophy and wasn’t written by a philosopher. That it’s a good thing to have the objective viewpoint, but as artists we have to be able to “as if” this, because empathy is about feelings, not intellect. There is no one right or wrong answer. One man said that it’s like the perspective people who come in from the outside have on life in prison, and vice versa. We can have empathy for each other, but we don’t actually know the experience. Kyle talked about conversations with ensemble members, and how he always responds to “You know what I mean?” with “As much as I can, yes." I suggested that we use philosophy as a guidepost, but not the final word.

Kyle’s book was lying open, face down, on the bleachers between one of the guys and him. That ensemble member said that he could only see the front cover, and Kyle could only see the back cover, but it was still the same book, even though they saw it differently. BOOM.

Another man returned to the idea of whether reality is better than illusion, even if the process of enlightenment is painful. He said that he wanted to fight it when he was locked up, but “now would go through all that to be the person I am now.” He described how rough it was, how he just recently had huge epiphany, and joining SIP was among the results of that. If this were five years ago, he never would have been in this group. “When you start seeing humanity—start seeing the beauty in people—I don’t wanna go back to what I was before.”

Another person said he could relate to Lear because, “At least for me, there was always at least one person saying, ‘Dude, this is not a good idea.’ … [And he would respond] ‘Watch this.’ Knee deep in shit. Bitchin’ and moanin’ because I’m knee deep in shit.” Another ensemble member agreed. “Before my bubble got popped, I was content in my misery… I was content in my mess because I didn’t realize it was a mess… And when you realize it—that’s a world of hurt, man… I feel that Lear was happier before. Was he better off? We can argue forever about that. But he was definitely happier before.”

“My reality check made me a much better person and much happier,” said another man. He described the lifestyle he had, even as a young teenager, which led to a drug addiction that took a long time to kick. He told us how long he’s been sober and got a big round of applause.

But another man wasn’t sure that these were solid parallels to Lear’s experience. Everyone described an awakening that led them to better their lives, “but nowhere in this is he going back up. He’s on a downward slide.” One person said the benefit in all of this for Lear is finding the love for/from Cordelia.

I went on a little bit of a rant (I really, really love this play) about how EVERYONE in this play has the blinders ripped off (or gouged out!). Someone said the only person who isn’t under an illusion is the Fool; Kyle added that he’s the only one to see it and the only one who can’t do anything about it.

Then Kyle mentioned that we hadn’t even talked about the language, so we started doing just that! Simply speaking the words as I talked through the music in Lear’s first monologue made me so overwhelmed I had to stand up and shake it off. The intensity of that emotion kind of took me by surprise. We then discussed the technical need to have good breath support because all of this needs to be heard over a storm.

Ring up. Session over.  As people left, a lot of them told me through facial expressions, gestures, or statements that it had been an amazing experience. A few said their “creative juices were flowing.”

It. Was. So. Good.

Season Two: Week 4

Tuesday / July 17
 

During check-in, one man shared that he and some of the others have been talking about how some of the guys read aloud often, while others haven’t at all. “We’re a group, so we can all help in this,” he said. “We can find the balance.” He explained that we needed to find a way to encourage folks who haven’t been reading and ask the others to “slow down a little.”

There was general agreement. One man said, “I’m an introverted, isolated, don’t-like-being-around-people person… I’m trying to get way outside of my comfort zone and read a lot.” He said that he liked the challenge but still had trepidation about volunteering much. Another man said that he agreed that we should encourage more “reclusive” people, but we needed to find a way to do that without pushing too hard.

One man said he thought it would help if each person gave himself a “daily challenge”: a little something to work on each day that wasn’t totally comfortable. “The landscape and texture of everything would look completely different,” he said. Another man built on that, saying that that could be done even outside of regular meetings, and that there wasn’t any reason why they couldn’t read some lines together on the yard to build comfort. He said he’d been wanting to organize something for that weekend and asked anyone interested to let him know.

“As individuals, we need to evaluate why we joined Shakespeare in the first place,” said a man who liked the idea of the daily challenge. “We need to remind ourselves and see if we’re meeting those goals.” Another man didn’t understand why we were even having the conversation. “Is this a hidden message?” he asked. “Why don’t they just do it?”

The man who’d suggested gathering to read on the yard explained, “If you put me on blast and I’m a reclusive person, I might shut down more.” Another agreed, saying, “It’s gotta be on their time.” The first man explained, from a first-person perspective, what it would feel like to be pushed too much. I added my two cents: that this is part of why working over such a long period is so beneficial. It gives people who hold back at first ample time to gain the confidence they need to dive in. Sometimes it takes weeks, and sometimes it takes months. But if people feel supported, rather than pressured, they make strides that are often mind-blowing.

“All of these things are like a puzzle,” said one man. “It all builds to an individual and what they get out of the group.” He spoke of the challenges—and benefits—of having such a diverse group of people together in one room, and he asked if we were familiar with the term “communication bias.” I didn’t get every word, but he explained it as having to do with different backgrounds and learned behaviors making communication difficult. He praised a few men, who’d checked in about things affecting them that might impact their interactions that day, for warning us rather than assuming that we would be able to pick up on their cues ourselves. He encouraged everyone to be transparent, but also to push themselves. “Unless you’re truly not up to it, when she says make a better circle, make a better circle… Do [the improv] because it’s opening you up and bringing your energy into the room. Don’t sit off to the side—it sets a bad precedent.” He used himself as an example, saying that the reading is his least favorite part of the process, but he knows it’s useful, so he participates. “Everybody should take a turn to read. Everybody should participate, however minimal. We should all come into these things that she’s asking us to do… This is how we get to know each other… You have to participate in these activities. That’s the only way we’re gonna build camaraderie.”

There was a request to play the question game, which is played sitting in a circle, asking questions of the person next to you and listening without answering. It’s always a lot of fun, and this time was no different. It’s great for working on quick thinking and bonding with the ensemble.

We settled in to read Act I scene ii, and, per our conversation, began by asking if anyone who hadn’t yet wanted to read. We then asked if anyone who hadn’t read much wanted to, and then we opened it up to the whole group. We got a good mix that way!

This is the scene in which Kent berates Oswald and is subsequently put in the stocks by Cornwall and Regan, over Gloucester’s objections. “Why is Edmund even there?” asked one person. “He’s there to be a shield if necessary,” said someone else. I put it out there that some of Shakespeare’s characters do a lot of good lurking, and that this would probably become clear to us. Another man focused on Gloucester’s words and actions in the scene. “Gloucester is starting to get a picture of what’s going on—what Regan and Cornwall is trying to put down on their father… He becomes more of a patriot because of it,” he said.

Another man shook his head, grinning from ear to ear, and said, “I just love this scene.” Another person asked him why. He paused before he replied, “How much of a dick Kent is being to Oswald—for a good cause.” Another man nodded, saying, “All the little scenes are starting to boil over, and now you’re starting to see the action.”

Another man steered us back to Kent, who he said seemed to be taking out his anger on Oswald. “It’s something bigger than Oswald. It’s on Oswald, but it’s at the whole house.” Someone else pointed out that Kent taunts Regan and Cornwall in this scene, too. A man who is generally pretty quiet said, “It seems like there’s a strategy to it, though. He wants to draw all of Lear’s enemies out.”

One of the men said he envisioned Kent continuing to fight while being put in the stocks. He grinned and looked over at an ensemble member whom he’s known for quite some time. “Reminds me of someone I know a few years ago being carted off for running his mouth, still kicking and screaming as they dragged him off.” The other guy, sat up straight and, with an elegant air, said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.”

I imagine that that exchange seems pretty dark on the one hand, and glib on the other, but I have to say that, in that moment, it was neither. It was a gentle, funny way of acknowledging the growth this person has experienced since the days when that anecdote would have been anything but a joke. He’s calm and patient now, an avid learner and an excellent mentor. Sometimes the best way to call that kind of thing to everyone’s attention, and to praise it, is with a joke.

After the laughter died down a bit, I returned to the comment that had been made about Kent drawing out Lear’s enemies. “I think you’re onto something,” I said to the man who’d said it. “There’s a strategy here, for sure… What’s Lear going to do when he sees Kent in the stocks?” Someone pointed out what an insult it would be for one of his people to be humiliated like that, and another man said that it might make Lear reclaim his power. But can he reclaim it? Someone else said that it was too late; that all this would serve to do would be to expose Lear’s enemies’ motives so he could see the truth.

We got the scene on its feet, the actors in the center of our circle. Though it doesn’t always happen this way, the actors ended up standing in a circle, too, which meant that, while we didn’t get a stage picture, they were able to connect with each other better than they might have otherwise. When the man reading Kent said, “I have seen better faces in my time than stands on any shoulder that I see before me at this instant,” a man sitting in the circle totally cracked up. The man reading Regan snuck behind Cornwall and popped out for her lines, which was both creepy and funny. His enthusiasm for the character is palpable, and he makes no bones about it, which is fabulous not only because he’s having such a good time, but because he’s clearing the way for others to get excited about the play’s female characters.

We only had a few minutes left after the scene’s end, so we quickly touched base about how it had gone. One of the new members commented on how much he appreciated the big homies reading on their feet. He said that their level of comfort made everyone else feel more relaxed. Seems like, at least for today, we found that balance we’d wanted to strike.
 

Friday / July 20
 

After today’s check in, there was a general feeling of antsiness in the ensemble, so we played a game of Energy Around to get ourselves more focused. As always, it was fun and refreshing. After we lowered our ring, a couple of the guys suggested we play Freeze, and, oh man, I’m so glad they did.

It honestly was so much fun that I didn’t take notes. People let their imaginations run wild, messed with each other in the best possible way, made adjustments when needed, and swooped in to rescue scenes that were getting bogged down. Finally, one of the men tagged into a scene, only to launch into the dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. His scene partner made a valiant effort to join the dance, or to do anything other than laugh, but in the end he couldn’t, and neither could we. Laughing and applauding, we called the game and gathered up to reflect on how it had gone.

“What made it work well?” I asked. “Just being ourselves,” one man instantly responded. “When guys took it far left,” said another, meaning those moments when people said and did the most ridiculous things.   
                
We all agreed that our favorite moment had been when one man tagged into a two-men-in-a-car scene, pointed up and to the right and yelled, “Come on! Let’s go get the dragon!” The other man, looked in that direction and, without missing a beat, totally deadpan, said, “I’m not going over there if there’s a dragon over there.” We loved it so much because he’d said yes as an actor even as his character said no. It sparked a lot of ideas. And it was hilarious.

Another man said that it had really slowed down whenever the scene took place in a car (and somehow a LOT of these scenes took place in cars). That said, no scene ever completely died. “The best part was the team work,” said one man. “People were brainstorming on how to come in and save it.” That was what made it entertaining, too. “Each and every person had a different tone and set a different environment for it,” said another man.

One of the men took it back to our performances of The Tempest: how, when he skipped some of his lines, his scene partner covered so well that no one in the audience knew anything was missing. I noted how beautifully the man who played Ferdinand rolled with the punches when I took over the role of Miranda in the home stretch, even when my interpretation was completely different from the man who’d played the role before me.

We somehow launched into a friendly debate about the merits of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, about which, it seems, most people have strong feelings. One man shut down the arguments (mostly about the quality of the acting) by saying, rightly, that the thing that makes that film great is how accessible it makes the material: the modern day setting, including the weapons, makes it relevant. It did for him. Several others said it did for them, too.

“It’s kind of like how we took The Tempest and turned it into our own thing,” said one man, and then, of course we had to take a minute for our Caliban to do his signature dance. “Because you guys were having fun, the audience was having fun,” said one man.

So those were two “ins” to Shakespeare: a modern day Romeo and Juliet and a really fun Tempest. One man said his interest was sparked by the flashback scenes in The Highlander (the series, not the movie: let’s be very clear on that). For others, it was West Side Story or O.

We decided to spend the rest of our time working on Edgar’s first soliloquy. It’s a pretty complex piece with unfamiliar language and syntax, and it took some work to get into. The first person who read on his feet didn’t like what he had done; he hadn’t fully understood the words and couldn’t connect. We went back through it. As we discussed “poor Tom” and why this would be an effective disguise, one of the men likened it to the way many of us have dealt with homeless people. “It ain’t even that we don’t see them,” he said. “We don’t want to look at them.”

I asked the man who’d read to give himself a literal running start for his second try, only beginning when he was ready and a bit out of breath. His jogging was too casual for one man, who dutifully began to chase him through the gymnasium. When he came to rest by a chair, he read the piece, and it was much more connected. “I get it way better now,” he said. “He’s in the dope house, and the cops are right down the street.” We all agreed. The man who’d chased him said that his being out of breath helped us understand the piece more—that it “put another element on it.”

Another man, who has been pushing himself to read when he’s up to it, and who has been open about how far out of his wheelhouse this is, read next. It was definitely a reading, rather than a performance; he immediately acknowledged that and said that just reading it had felt good, and that his focus had been trying not to rush. “I’m just glad you got up there and did it,” said another guy, and we all agreed.

I want to draw a little attention to this exchange as an example of someone perfectly embracing our value of not holding every ensemble member to the same standard: acknowledging and honoring that each person has their own goals. The man who gave this encouragement, just for reading, is someone whose goals include honing his skill as an actor; he does a lot of reading, rehearsing, and improvising on his own time, in addition to the work he does with us. But he doesn’t hold anyone else to the standards he’s set for himself. He was genuinely happy and impressed that this other man simply stood and read the piece. He’s invested in his success, whatever that looks like.

The man read again, saying happily that he “felt more vulnerable—that’s something I’m working on.” He said he was concerned that he wasn’t saying the words correctly, and we all told him to let that go—”that’s just the way you say the words.”

Another man read, and, while it was clear that he understood the language and content, he paced back and forth so much that we lost the sense of the piece overall. We talked about how more movement doesn’t necessarily equal more interesting, and it would be better if he only moved when he felt he absolutely had to. One man pointed out the need for stillness in such a situation. “I’ve ran from the police—been chased through the woods. Once I find my safe place, I’m listening to everything— I’m listening to the trees, I’m listening to the creek over there…” There was more, but my pen wasn’t moving quickly enough to catch it all! He made a very strong case for being still and listening, though.

One man reminded us that Edgar was a nobleman who is now the lowest of the low. “That’s the psychological change he’s gotta go through to go from here [up high] to here [down low].” The man read a second time, and it was much more effective. “It came out from his heart instead of just his voice,” said one person.

We got into a brief discussion about how interesting it is that Edgar could be delivering this speech while Kent remains in the stocks elsewhere on the stage. What could that tell us? They’re both outcasts, of course. But one man pointed out that Kent disguises himself out of a desire to serve, while Edgar does so simply for survival. Another said that placing both outcasts on stage simultaneously would build our sense of desperation, and another asked if this is the play’s climax. Oh, no, those of us who’ve read the whole play said. This is only the second act of a very long, messy play.

One more man read the piece, seated the entire time. It was an emotional reading, and he said it had felt good: “I conveyed what I intended without feeling stiff or rehearsed.” Another man asked, “Can you visualize the difference between affecting drama and feeling drama?” And the guy who’d read responded thoughtfully that he could, and that he’d felt it more than he’d affected it. “I thought about a time when I was running for my life… That’s where I was in my mind—that’s where I went mentally.” He said that the cops had come very close to where he was hiding. “When somebody walks that close to you and doesn’t find you—that’s intense.”

So we ended the week with a bang! I can’t believe this is only week four of this season. Hang on to your hats, folks...