Season Two: Week 3

Tuesday / July 10
 

During check in, a few of the big homies continued to gently push the others to share personal status updates, rather than jokes or the latest sports news, but it seems we’re not quite there yet. So one of our leaders brought up a couple of orders of business for us to deal with.

Last week, I met briefly with a few men who were interested in joining, including a couple alumni of Shakespeare Behind Bars, our much-loved inspiration program on the west side of the state (and in Kentucky). One of them was actually already on the callout today, but we still needed to check in with the ensemble to see if we all wanted to add these folks at this time.

Our group is already pretty large, but, because we’re working with two editions of the play, it seemed like there might be some wiggle room to bring these guys in if anyone else was willing to give up one or the other of his books. In a remarkable show of openness and generosity, the decision to welcome the new ensemble members was made without further discussion, and several men immediately volunteered to give away their books.

The same man then asked if we could take a little time to follow up on the conversation we had on the first day of the season about setting expectations or a “code of conduct” for the ensemble, building on the document we’ve used at the women’s prison. “We need to figure this out before we get too far into this,” he said. The main sticking point had been our attendance policy, and he felt that this has already been enough of an issue that we needed to put something in writing.

I explained what the policies (those of both the facility and the ensemble) at the women’s prison are, and reminded everyone that we’d already decided not to stick exactly to them—we just hadn’t yet determined our own policy. Many people said they wanted something more flexible, while still holding people accountable. One man said he thought there should be “repercussions” for excessive absences, and that word seemed to trigger a few others.

One man in particular bristled at the notion of imposing a lot of structure on the group. He said that they live with enough rigidity, and that this should be a place where they could be more free and relaxed; that with fixed rules can come harmful power dynamics. Another man and I broke in when we could to clarify that the document is a set of values rather than rules, and I briefly described how messy things had been in the women’s ensemble before we put everything in writing—and that we modify that document at least once per season.

This man seemed not to fully register what we were saying, maintaining that structure would negatively impact the experience, while others stood firm that we needed something to make people understand the kind of commitment the program requires. “I’m sure we can all agree that at one time we were dedicated to the wrong thing—that’s what got us here,” said one man. “Now let’s all dedicate ourselves to something positive… This is not just about us. It’s about the people that come after us, too.”

“If you have no structure, you have chaos,” said a member of the Original 12. He shared that, having been a part of the program from Day One, he’d seen the ensemble go from having almost no structure at first to this moment, when we’re actually putting something in writing, and he said that that evolving structure has definitely helped the process as it’s taken shape.

Another man built on that, emphasizing that these values weren’t being imposed on them by anyone. “We all had input in this,” he said, and I added that that’s the whole point: that the values and expectations come from within the ensemble, not from anyone else, and that they are always considered to be a working draft.

“We are setting the standard for groups to come,” said one man, saying that part of the reason for putting values in writing was to make sure that we all understand that the way we behave affects others. There was still some back-and-forth about the need to mitigate rigidity; I really think the loudness of the fans (it was very hot) was a big factor in the difficulty of this conversation. I gave a few examples of the challenges that can arise when dealing with situations where there are no established guidelines, and then we decided to take a few days to cool down, look over the women’s document, and make our decisions on Friday.

Before we moved on, a new member shared that he’s added the Six Directions to his daily routine. “It really helps,” he said, encouraging others to do the same. “It makes me feel better.”

Because it was so hot, we opted for another day largely spent reading in our circle. We picked it up at Act I, scene iii, in which Goneril speaks with Oswald about her anger with her father and desire to follow through on the plan she’d begun hatching with her sister. “This is the beginning of her plot against her father,” said one man. “This is her first move on the chessboard.”

“We can see the contrast in personalities in terms of Goneril… The true Goneril is starting to show,” said another man, referring to the platitudes she offered in the play’s first scene. Another guy said that we had seen her personality in that scene, and another said Lear probably knew this dark side of her already. I said that he might be right, and reminded everyone not to make assumptions: to keep combing through the text for clues. We talked a bit more about how Goneril might manipulate this situation, and then we decided to move on to the next scene.

As we doled out the parts that each person would read, I asked if, because of the fans’ volume, the readers could sit together so we could all hear them (and they each other) better. Instead, several people brought over an amp, to which they connected two microphones on stands, and they gathered around them to read on their feet.

One of the men, who absolutely loves reading and performing Shakespeare, had volunteered to read Kent, but then he left the playing area and sat back down with me. I realized he had given his part to one of the new guys. “Man, that was so generous. I’m impressed,” I said. He smiled and said, “He looked so eager.” I got pulled into a brief conversation with someone else, and when I turned around, he was standing at one of the mics again—and so was the new guy. I waited to see what was going on.

It turned out that he and another man had divided the Fool’s lines so they could share the role, which was interesting and a lot of fun for them. The man reading Kent wore his shirt pulled up like a hood throughout the scene, since Kent is in disguise, and absolutely gloried in the comedy he found. When Lear said, “Who wouldst thou serve?” this man chuckled delightedly before saying, “You.” We all laughed, too.

We made a deal that, for now, we wouldn’t spend a ton of time dissecting the Fool’s speeches, since many of them are incredibly complex, and we don’t want to get bogged down. And we didn’t need to in order to get exactly what was going on. “By him being a jester and telling the truth, people will overlook it. But he’s speaking the truth,” said one man. From whom can Lear stand to hear the truth? We’re keeping an eye on it.

There is quite a bit that happens in this scene, but most of the conversation centered around Goneril and her treatment of Lear. “She’s hiding the truth, and yet hiding some of it because of who the king really is,” said one man, referring to the specific complaints she makes. “She’s scolding him, kind of like a child having a temper tantrum,” said another. “I kind of feel like Goneril was hiding her nefarious scheme by kicking him out for a reason that seems valid,” said another man. “This bitch is tripping,” one person jokingly said, and another responded as Lear, saying, “Oh, man, what the fuck did I just do?!”

Then one man asked if Albany was in on the scheme. Several said yes, while others expressed doubt, and still others said absolutely not. “If you look at that initial exchange between Albany and Goneril, it’s apparent who wears the pants in that relationship. It’s not Albany,” said one person.

“I think Lear’s starting to realize how lonely he’s gonna be,” said one man.

At this point, most of the ensemble played around with some improv while one of the big homies and I gave the new guys a quick orientation. They were pretty excited about it all and very happy to be there.
 

Friday / July 13

Frannie spent nearly all of today’s session in one-on-ones with various ensemble members. Here’s are Matt’s notes about what he and the rest of the group did!

We read two short scenes today, and each had a significant moment for understanding the play and its characters. Despite the heat—and it was hot!—they wanted to stumble through the scenes on their feet instead of sitting in a circle and reading.

In the first, 1.5, Lear banters with the Fool. The former king has just stormed out of Goneril's house, and the audience has come to understand just how completely Lear has given up his power. The Fool comments on Lear's impotence with a series of jokes and riddles, and Lear plays along. The ensemble stopped here to discuss. Why would Lear play along with his Fool's jokes, which are made at his expense and are cutting, even cruel? A few men brought up the unique role of the fool in medieval courts, and the important agreement that was made: the Fool was allowed to say what others could not, and this allowed the king to hear the truth. One said that, in this sense, the arrangement benefited both king and fool. Another said that it also benefited the public, since the fool could speak truth to power in a way that any other citizen would be killed for doing.

We all stopped again at Lear's puzzling line: "O let me not be mad; not mad." One member, who has become a natural leader of discussion, broke down the implications of Lear's thought: "Well, there are kind of two options," he offered. "Either he's crazy, and he's just starting to realize it, or he's not crazy yet, but he realizes that it's a threat for him."

The men launched into a spirited discussion of Lear's madness, one of the classic issues for any group to address when reading or acting King Lear. Several of them began scouring the footnotes in their Arden Shakespeare editions for clues, and others flipped back to the first scene or to the scene with Lear and Goneril for hints of Lear's madness or sanity. A few minutes later, the same man who had broken down the options before revised his canny statement: "Actually, it's like there are four options. Those two each have two others. If he's insane when he says it, he could be realizing it or just worrying about it without realizing it. And if he's not insane, he could be just worrying about it, or he could think he's insane." It was a sophisticated reading of an important moment. The ensemble was not through discussing the potential evidence for their interpretations (and the ramifications for the rest of the play!) for almost fifteen minutes.

The second scene, 2.1, focuses on Edmund's clever betrayal of his brother. He goes so far as to stage a fight between himself and Edgar, all the while convincing both Edgar and their father of his loyalty to them. The men focused on how calculated and smooth Edmund is in his betrayal, and the lengths he goes to. When Edmund cuts himself, to fake a sword-fight wound, several men talked about how far a person will go to further a deception. They didn't go further—yet!—with this idea, as time was getting late, but many of them clearly identify with Edmond, at the same as they revile him.

Season Two: Week 2

Tuesday / July 3   

 

It was a very hot day, and it was clear as we gathered that, while we were all eager to work, today would not be a day for much physical activity. We checked in, talked a bit, and decided to just sit and read the play, being sure to take at least one break to stretch and walk around a little. One man shared that he’d begun to see images as he read: an apocalyptic look  “almost like civilization is restarting itself.” Quite a few of us liked that idea as an inspiration for our staging, and we’re going to keep it in mind as we work through the rest of the play.

We picked it back up at Act I, scene ii, which begins with Edmund’s soliloquy about his own labeling as a bastard and his decision to manipulate his father into giving him the land belonging to his “legitimate” brother Edmund. Many ensemble members were vocal about their feelings of connection with the scene in general, and with this speech in particular.

“He’s trippin’,” said one man the moment I paused the reading to discuss. “Yeah,” I replied. “What’s he so upset about?”

“Look at me. I’m built just like they are, if not better than them,” said one person. “Why can he say he’s better? He’s been involved in people’s downfalls. He’s not better,” said another man. “He’s looking for empathy. He’s looking for respect from the audience… Looking at where he’s coming from,”  said another man. A fourth built on that: “He wants them to see themselves from his perspective.”

“He is a slick character,” said one man. “I feel like Edmund’s playing both sides of the coin.” A man who participated in our past two workshops quickly agreed, saying, “He reminds me strongly of Iago… Iago, he got stepped over for a higher position…. With Edmund, it’s basically the same thing. He’s doing the same thing that Iago did.”

“He’s also like Sebastian,” said a man who was part of our Tempest ensemble, but not that of Othello. “To a point,” responded the first man, “But the attitude with Sebastian was a lot different… Edmund and Iago, they could be the same person… With Sebastian, the context is different.” We talked a bit about how one can see the archetype of this character evolving throughout Shakespeare’s career as a playwright; I specifically cited Richard III and Iago as Edmund’s predecessors, and we talked about what differentiates each one. Sebastian, we concluded, didn’t have the same impetus for his actions as those other three, at least the way our ensemble interpreted the texts.

Back to Edmund. “He’s very Machiavellian,” said one man. “A lot of characters are talking about the stars and moon,” said another. "But he doesn’t just want this. He feels like he deserves this. Not what he wants — what he deserves.” Another nodded in agreement, saying, “He feels he’s entitled — what’s rightfully yours should be rightfully mine… I'll be cunning and deceitful to get what’s rightfully mine.”

“I put all this work in, and you’re gonna give it to some little kid who didn’t put any work in?” said the man who’d likened Edmund to Iago. Another said, “I can only imagine having the prize right in front of your face — that breeds so much malice.” Another shook his head and said, “It’s similar to what some of us go through in here… Some of us are here because of family.”

The man who’d brought up Machiavelli said, “The most powerful thing over all this is cunning… That’s what makes him so dangerous. That’s why I said he was Machiavellian”

Another man said that he thought that Shakespeare’s villains are often, paradoxically, the “good guys.” And that’s when one of the men stated, quite plainly, that Edmund is a villain. Several ensemble members quietly but immediately bristled. I asked him what he meant. “Every one of us is a villian; every one of us is a good person,” he said. (It was actually a more detailed response, but as I was actively engaged, I didn’t write all of it down.) I asked if what he meant was that each of us has the potential for both villainy and goodness, and he nodded. I then asked if perhaps we were getting hung up on the language we were using. “What about saying, ‘Edmund is a person who does villainous things?’” I asked. “Because he does try to do something good in the end, right? So he also has the capacity to do things that are not villainous.”

“We, more than any other group, are perfect examples of that,” said one man. “We all did something to get us here. We have made mistakes, but we are not all villains.”

Facilitator Matt pointed out that, unlike Richard III, who famously says, “I am determined to be a villain,” Edmund says no such thing. As several people had already pointed out, Edmund wants what he believes should be his; his objective is to get his brother’s land. Richard’s is to create chaos in general, and Iago’s is to get revenge on one person (or perhaps two, if we include Cassio).

“Don’t be labeling him, man,” said one person. “It’s like me. Yes, I’ve done things that were wrong, but is my story done yet?  You can’t just label people like that. You’ve gotta do away with labels.”

“I think so,” I responded. “And, in terms of theatre, anyway, labeling doesn’t help. If we label Edmund as a villain, we miss out on the complexity that leads him to try to redeem himself in the end. Then we can’t tell his story well, and if we can’t do that, we can’t fully understand the play. We rob ourselves of that opportunity.”

“He’s not the only one,” said one man. “Each character is playing off the weakness of the other one… Let’s see if we can get what we need as well as taking out everyone else that’s vulnerable at the same time.”

We took a break and then decided to spend some time exploring that incredible monologue. After reminding each other to remember that acting makes us vulnerable, and talking over how to give criticism constructively, our first volunteer got to his feet to read.

I think he took that leap in response to my jokingly telling him during our break that I wasn’t going to “let him off the hook.” He’s really, really good at this (analysis AND acting), and he’s been hanging back thus far in this workshop. So now he dove in. He gave a solid reading, but it was mostly an intellectual one. I asked him afterward how he felt. “Not good,” he said. “Everything I thought I should draw on, I didn’t.”

It turned out that a lot of this was because he’d felt like he needed to yell to be heard over the fans. One of the group’s leaders immediately pointed at the people sitting beside a couple of the fans, saying, “Hey, turn those off. I know it’s hot in here, but we’ve gotta give the art form a chance to work.” No one complained. The man who’d just read gave it another go, focusing on making eye contact with us to really land his intentions. When I asked him how he felt this time, he said he felt a little better. We all agreed. “I believe you explored the deeper part of the emotions. You hit more of the core part of it,” said one man. Another said he’d appreciated it more with the added nuance. “It’s like, does it sound like it’s being read, or does it sound like it’s being expressed? You want it to sound like it’s being expressed, and that’s what it started to sound like.”

Another man, who is fairly new to the ensemble, gave some detailed feedback that was honestly kind of startling to hear from someone with so little experience. “You gotta appreciate the language a little more,” he said. “How do those words taste in your mouth? ‘Bastard?’ ‘Baseness?’ It should be like acid you’re spitting out… These are words that have plagued him for years — ‘Base! Base!’ These are things that, when he hears them, it makes him cringe.” By the end of the session, this man had offered up so much nuanced insight that Matt and I remarked to each other that he could probably lead the program himself if he wanted to.

A second man volunteered to go next. He has a powerful voice, and he took his time, allowing his emotional connection to the material to begin to come through. I asked him how it had felt. “Liberating,” he replied. I asked him why. “When I was going through it, I was trying to put myself where he was at and feel the pain that he was expressing. And I also tried to use silence as a character—you know, with the punctuation and the pauses…”

Another said he’d loved that vocal variety, and it seemed to enhance the performance for the actor. “You went somewhere else completely. You were not here,” he said. The man who’d read said, “I kinda felt his pain, too, ‘cause I was picked on as a kid a lot, and I had to take myself back there for a bit—not to live there, but to… I don’t know… I guess, to channel it.”

I glanced at Matt, who raised his eyebrows at me; it was the second time in five minutes that someone had unknowingly stolen words out of my mouth. I said to this man, “You just described the ‘magic as if’ that we use so much,” and I proceeded to build on what he’d said to explain it to the entire ensemble. And then the man who’d given the note about language earlier said, “I really appreciate the way you savor the words.”

Before he performed again, I asked him if, even with his striving to connect emotionally, he’d still been wearing a mask. He said he had, and I asked if I could challenge him to drop it just a bit this time. “You don’t have to take it off,” I said. “But see if you can let us feel a little more of what you’re feeling.” He gave it a try, and it was a success. “Yes, you’re right. There was a mask there. There was a wall there,” he said. “Your emotions and where your mind goes is in control of your body.”

Another man, who’s been with us since the fall and has fallen in love with acting, read next. At first, he turned from person to person, but then he stopped and just read in place. I asked him how it had felt. “Not great,” he replied. He said he’d been focusing on his breath, and that the deep breathing had made him dizzy, which is why he’d disconnected. “Yeah,” said the man who’d been first to perform, “But you gave me an idea that makes me almost want to do it again… That play with the words — Baseness. Bastardy. Base. Base! You kind of did a skittery thing… It reminds me of someone who’s on the brink of snapping… You were having a meltdown and then got yourself back together.”

“His tone was different from the other two,” said another man. “[Fourth guy’s] was all his anger — you could feel his rage. [Second guy’s] was more of a feeling of his sadness… You should be able to feel his anger and his sadness, and also his fear and isolation.”

I challenged the man who’d gotten dizzy to slow himself down by really thinking about things before he said them, and he said afterward that it had felt “a little better” because he’d taken that time. “When you take the time and really let the words resonate, it makes it make more sense,” he said.

Then the man who’d given those great notes about the taste of the words got up to read. He paced back and forth a little, his delivery quiet and intense. When I asked him how it had felt, he said, “Exhilarating… I relate a lot to the character… Being outside and trying to work your way in—to find a way to fit in—that whole mind state is very intense.”

It had come across that way to us as well, but he wanted a challenge before he tried it again. “Try really focusing on your objective,” I suggested. “Remember that the character wants empathy. That means you have to make us feel what you feel. I don’t empathize with someone because of what they think; I empathize because of what they feel. Speak from your heart to our hearts.” He smiled wryly and said, “Aw, you’re trying to make me cry.” I smiled and said, “You don’t have to cry to speak heart to heart. Just make us feel what you feel.”

His second performance was slower and more intense than the first, as he took the time to make eye contact with each of us, the hurt in those words taking clear precedence over the anger. When he finished, we were silent. He slowly sat down in his chair, and we all just breathed together for a moment. Quietly, I asked him how it had felt. After a pause, he wiped an eye on his sleeve, looked up, smiled, and said, “Dope.”

“It was dope,” I replied, and the rest of the ensemble took it from there. One man said, “I think Edmund is an interesting character from that perspective—from so much sadness… You don’t see too many characters who do these evil things from a sad place.” The man who’d read said, “Well, that’s just it. I remember, as a kid, I run up on this dog that got hit by a car, and he bit me. But he didn’t bite me because he was bad. He bit me because he was hurt.”

The last man to read naturally built from that place of hurt to one of incredible anger. We all responded strongly to it and asked what it had felt like. He said it had felt good. “It was an outlet — a way to express some of the frustration I’ve felt all my life. I called it up, and I let it go.”

“I loved the venom,” said one man. “It started kinda sad, and then it moved to extreme anger,” said another. “It took the sadness and changed it… to the most hateful anger.”

The man who’d given the “dope” reading replied, “Even in his anger and malicious intent, I believe that he still loves his brother; he still loves his dad… But it comes from a place of hurt more than a place of anger.” The man who’d just read agreed, saying, “He’s more angry at society and the confines that it has put him in. He loves his father, his brother, his family—but he’s angry that they participate in keeping him in that box. He’s going to do whatever he has to do to get out of the box that society has put him in.” The other man nodded and said, “He’s in this box. He’s bigger than this box. He’s bigger than this place.” Another said, “I don’t think he’s an angry guy. I think that comes from somewhere else.”

There were many others who wanted to read, but we’d run out of time. We agreed to come back on Friday and keep taking turns with the piece till everyone who wanted to perform had done so. It has so clearly struck a chord that I’m happy to linger there for as long as we need to, and it seems like we’re unanimous in that feeling.
 

Friday / July 6
 

After a rousing game of tape ball and a check-in (including a performance of an original poem!), we moved over to the gym, where we proceeded to do a legit acting warm up. That was something we’d decided to do at the end of our last meeting; we wanted to be well-prepped to continue working on Edmund’s soliloquy at the top of I.ii.

After some physical warm ups, articulation exercises, and The Ring, I led the group through Chekhov’s Six Directions exercise. Usually I’m met with some pushback on this, no matter what group I’m in, but today there was literally none. No one protested, everyone participated, and no one complained. This is remarkable across the board and speaks to the quiet and compassionate leadership of the big homies, the trust and camaraderie that has already been built, and the new guys’ willingness to dive into new experiences. Pretty sure the culture of this program is becoming set. Pretty excited about that.

We circled up to work monologues, and that was all we did for the next two hours. It didn’t get boring for even a second.

The first man to volunteer had been absent a bit but was egged on by a friend to get up there anyway. He gave a very strong reading, using a vaguely “British” dialect. I asked him how it had felt. “It was cool. It was different,” he said. “I’ve never done that before.” We all applauded this first time on stage! “Big props for just jumping into it,” said one man, while another simply said it was “awesome”, and still another praised him for not stumbling over any of the words.

I asked him about that dialect, and he said he had just kind of heard it in his head. I asked if that was because he was used to hearing Shakespeare spoken that way, and he said it was. I shared with the group what I always do: that there is no wrong dialect for Shakespeare, and this usually works best when we use our own voices.

Another man said, “I wanna challenge you… I seen his arrogance, but I wanna see his anger.” Another agreed and said, “It was real cocky — you making the audience feel a feeling, and that’s the most important thing to do.”

The second time he read, he dropped the dialect almost completely, and he really sank into that anger with, “Why brand they us with base?” When he was done, I asked my usual question. “It was different… challenging… Jumping into the character in a different way — I can see now that there’s a lot of ways you can play a character.”

The others praised him again. “I didn’t see the mask at first,” said one man. “The first one felt like you were putting the character on you. But the second time, it felt like you were jumping into the character — like it came from you.” Another agreed, saying that it felt like he’d jumped into the deep end for the first time. A third said it had seemed rehearsed the first time through, but natural the second “because you weren’t trying.”

One of the Original 12 got up to read. He is so talented, but he often gets in his own way by holding back on what we all know he can do. Still, he was the first of us to use a physical letter as a prop, and he landed most of his intentions… although he rarely looked up from the piece of paper on which he’d written the lines (because he doesn’t like holding a book). Immediately, the others rallied to call him out on holding back, and to pump him up. “You need to give it more emotion,” said one. “You hit kind of a stale note — you kind of sounded the same, like one note the whole way through,” said another, and another (guess who?) piggybacked by saying, “Yeah, you gotta really taste those words, man.”

“How would you feel if it was you?” another man asked, and a hush fell. “Have you ever had to live with a label you didn’t like?” I heard various sounds of identification from people throughout the circle — they sure freaking have. “Use it,” he concluded.

The man read again, and this time he definitely allowed himself to go further. “I was able to dig a little more emotion out of it,” he said. He looked down at his hands. “I’m shaking a little bit.” He had used that “magic as if” to gain a foothold on the piece, and we could tell. “It was unleashed,” said one man admiringly. “The first time felt really tethered, like you were walking on a dog on a leash. But that time it was like you let that dog go.”

Another man then volunteered. He began somewhat quickly and got tongue tied; we all encouraged him to start over and take his time. He played Caliban in The Tempest and is quite gifted with the language, and I reminded him to honor the punctuation. He did, and it was a very good read.

He wasn’t satisfied, though. “Going over it in my head in the cell or at work was a lot easier.” I asked him why. “Because you’re not opening yourself up to ridicule at at all,” he replied, and many of us nodded.

The guys asked him to “untether”, to let go of what he’d rehearsed, and to ride the wave. “You did a great job as Caliban,” said a newbie who saw the show. “But Caliban’s your comfort zone. And Edmund ain’t Caliban.”

His second read was much more fluid and natural. “When I made the conscious thing of pulling away from the way I did Caliban, it made it easier to see how he is.” He said, adding that it’s tough to let go of Caliban because of the ways in which he relates to that character. But he is intent on finding many different characters to play.

The man who played the Boatswain in The Tempest went next. As he got up, many of us jokingly made pirate sounds — we just loved the way he played that character — but that unfortunately led to his beginning the piece in the pirate voice! We all laughed (including him) and encouraged him to shake it off. “Just talk to us,” I said. It was immediately more organic, and he played with the language in a way that was fun to listen to.

“I’m holding back somehow,” he said when he’d finished. “I thought about it different from the way I did it… I thought my voice was somehow supposed to sound different.” He cited an actor whose voice he could kind of hear saying the words, but another man gently cut him off, saying, “Just think in terms of how you’d do it.” The man who’d read brought up another professional actor and was drowned out after a few seconds by a chorus of friendly voices saying, “What about you?” “We wanna see how you do it.”

He tried it sitting down, saying afterward, “I’m one step closer, but I haven’t made it to the slushie machine yet.” We all laughed; we knew what he meant. “The moment that you stopped thinking — that’s when the emphasis on the words really came out,” offered one man.

Next up was a newbie who had some theatre experience in high school. His reading was confident and connected. “It felt good,” he said. “The first go-around always is a little shaky… I just let the emotions come out however they wanted to.” We asked him what he’d found. “I need you to feel how raw it is,” he said. “I feel like while I’m telling you guys why I’m doing it, I’m also telling myself why I’m doing it.”

One man said that it had been good, but it had been pretty much all at the same level of intensity. He suggested that he start lower so he could build, and further suggested that he break the piece up into units (my acting jargon; his idea). Another man suggested that he play the piece for comedy, which a number of people vocally rejected. I said that it was an interesting thought, and that this likely could be played for comedy (if we hearken back to that archetype, Richard III and Iago both have a dark sense of humor) — but that it doesn’t have to be, and this was one of those things on which we’d all have to agree that no one was wrong!

The man who’d read did so again, and he definitely took that suggestion of building energy to heart. “I felt like I was just pacing myself through it, taking as much advice as possible. It felt good,” he said.

The next man to read took his time, and it was a very calm and even reading. “It felt alright,” he said. “I can kind of relate to the inferiority complex he has from his father having children with somebody else.” One man encouraged him not to “be afraid of movement”; another praised him for making all of his words understood while asking him not to hold back so much emotionally. He did so on his second read and said it felt a little better, but holding the book was definitely an encumbrance.

It was my turn next (some have greatness thrust upon them… or something…). I had memorized the piece; I was already familiar with it, it’s short, and I would always much rather work without script in hand. I took a moment to prep as I always do (to encourage others if they want to do the same), and then I turned to the group, looking around the circle before I began. I hadn’t rehearsed it much — I’d just been taking in the others’ work and ideas — and it felt a lot like riding a roller coaster with rusty brakes; when things started building up, it was tough to calm them back down. It’s a great piece and reminded me of some of the things I miss most about acting.

The guys’ feedback was nearly all positive, though I welcomed criticism (and eventually got it). They were intrigued by the highs and lows that I found, as well as the variety of emotions that came bubbling to the surface as I worked my way through. Though we all knew intellectually that the character is complex, thus far we hadn’t been able to see it in performance. I assured them that this was not because I’m a better actor than anyone else, but simply because I’ve had more practice at being spontaneous and not holding back. I reminded them that my interpretation is only one, that it isn’t authoritative, and that I still needed criticism. At which point a certain person advised me that I had mostly gotten the taste of the words, but that there were a few phrases that had been too bland. Point taken.

We didn’t have much time left, so, rather than go a second time, I handed things off to a man who hadn’t read yet. His performance was unique: measured, quiet, beleaguered. Without even waiting to be asked, he said, “My interpretation is slightly different. He’s just tired… Growing up [mixed ethnicity], being a half person… It’s tiresome. I don’t even see him as mad or cunning. He’s just tired.”

That definitely came through. A couple of the guys looked at each other, smiling a little; then one said to the group, “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” This would make anyone angry, some said: being discriminated against. One man asked how old Edmund is, which none of us knew offhand, and said that if he were young, he didn’t buy this kind of anger. This man is white, and many of the men in the group who are ethnic or racial minorities rolled their eyes. In an effort to keep things from getting heated, I said, “Well, I don’t know. I think being discriminated against and made to feel ‘other’ is enraging at any age. It sometimes doesn’t take much at all for that anger to bubble over, even when we’re young. I know that was true for me.”

Another man drifted into the conversation; he hadn’t been listening closely, as he was trying to work all of this out. “There’s something different, though… Since I came from double bastardhood — never met my grandfather or my father — being raised only by a woman, the anger doesn’t come out always like a man… Mine usually comes out in the form of communication.”

“It’s still a battle,” said the man who’d just read. “I don’t see him as trying to confront him… He’s willing to accept his status if people would let him accept it.” And, we all agreed, no matter what Edmund does, he’ll never get that land unless he resorts to plotting.

We raised The Ring back up and began to leave. One new member came over to me and said he was looking forward to performing and was sad we’d run out of time. “You wanna go first on Tuesday?” I asked. He smiled and said he did.

Season Two: Week 1

Friday / June 22

 


Hello, and welcome to Shakespeare in Prison’s first full season at Parnall! We learned a lot during our pilot year, and we’re ready to build on that and see how this works moving forward. We’ll update this blog each week (unless things get really hectic — then it might get a little delayed). We hope you’ll read along and take this ride with us. King Lear! Here we go.

 

As we walked across the yard to the chapel, we heard a couple of voices calling our names. We looked over to see some of the guys headed toward the same destination, and we all waved excitedly. Matt and I have been absolutely champing at the bit to get going, and it’s clear that we weren’t the only ones!

That buoyant energy carried over as ensemble members, old and new, streamed into the building. We’re starting with 30 people, per the ensemble’s decision. It’s a BIG group, but, today anyway, it wasn’t chaotic in the least. Returning members — “big homies”, they’re calling themselves — had held an informational meeting earlier in the week, during which they drove home the culture they’ve developed: one of warmth, mutual respect, camaraderie, dedication, and professionalism.

And we began with exactly that energy. One of the men, who joined us late in the last workshop, got everyone to quiet down and focus, asking us to go around the circle to introduce and share a bit about ourselves. “This is my place to express myself in a creative way,” he said before gesturing to the next person to take his turn. There was a lot of laughter as each person shared, with the big homies leading the way, reminiscing and cracking inside jokes while being extremely welcoming to the newbies. Several said they were back to spend more time with “the fam”; others stressed the importance of always giving 100%. “This is my third play, so I bring 300%”, added one man. The ensemble demanded that our Caliban do his signature dance, which was met with resounding applause. And when another returning member said that he hadn’t done much in the last workshop, two others insisted that he had, making a big production out of listing all the things he’d taken care of that nobody else could have (or, in some cases, wanted to!).

“I gotta really emphasize this,” said another man. “Once you’re in this group, you gotta think about how your actions on the yard impact other people.” He spoke about how disheartening it was to lose people during the last workshop due to misconducts. “When you get in trouble, it’s not just about you. You’re letting the brothers down,” he said emphatically.

The man who played the Captain in The Tempest walked in and was greeted by a chorus of Arrrrrrghs, hearkening back to his incredibly engaging interpretation of the character as a pirate. He smiled and laughed, happy to be back. A new member shared that he had experience with King Lear, in high school; that he knew what was coming and was looking forward to getting out of his comfort zone. “This play…” he said, looking at his book and shaking his head. He looked around at the group. “If you’re not up for a challenge, you might as well hit the door.”

After intros were finished, we circled up for our first game of tape ball! For the uninitiated, this is a game in which everyone stands in a circle, hitting a ball made of crumpled up paper and tape in the air, keeping it going for as long as possible. And no one can hit the ball twice in a row. It’s not an easy game, and it’s often more challenging with a large group like this. We ended up standing in two concentric circles and got to a high of 46 — not bad at all for day one!

We sat back down to get started on our read. Before we began, I reiterated what some had already said about the ensemble needing to be a safe space, specifically citing the themes and subject matter of the play as things that could trigger intense conversations. “People need to feel safe to share as much as they want, or not to share at all, but just to stay in the room,” I said. Building off of that, a returning member jumped in to say that, in addition to being able to talk about themselves without fear of judgment, they need to be able to be themselves without fear of judgment. “I’m just gonna say it,” he said, leaning forward, looking each person in the eye, “We all know that [NAME—someone who was not in the room] is a homosexual. That has to be okay in here. We all have to be accepting of that, because that’s who he is. And if you’ve got a problem with that, no disrespect, but you should probably just leave.” No one left. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see every person’s face, but I definitely saw a lot of agreement, and I heard some, too.

Matt and I spoke afterward about how impressive and moving that was. For one thing, it took guts for this guy to be so frank about something so sensitive. For another, he’s a pretty new member, and this showed how much ownership he already has of the program, and how respected he already is as a leader. For another, he mentioned a specific person rather than making a blanket statement, so no one could say they didn’t know who he meant. And, for yet another thing, to do all of this — to be so open and vulnerable about protecting an LGBTQ person’s right to be open and vulnerable — in a prison setting? Breathtaking.

With that, we began to read aloud together. It didn’t take more than ten minutes for the conversation to start flowing; already, King Lear is taking us places. “Wait, wait, wait,” said one man, interrupting the scene. “Why is he questioning his daughters at all? The relationship between a father and his daughter is sacred. He shouldn’t have to question their love.” Another man suggested that Lear might be a narcissist. I asked the group if the public setting makes a difference. “If the daughters won’t express their love in the court, it’s a sign of disrespect. It’s the power structure, man,” said one person. “Public eye… Everything they do reflects on him,” said another. Still, the first man insisted that Lear shouldn’t even be asking the question; this clearly hit a nerve for him.

One man said that in those times of intrigue, Lear probably didn’t know whom he could trust. Another man built on that. “Any of you guys ever watch The Royals?” He asked. He described the show a bit for those who hadn’t. A man who had seen the show added, “Power corrupts everything. There’s no more love when power’s at stake.” The man who’d described the show nodded, saying, “Look at it back then, and look at it right now. What’s the roots of all evil? Money.”

Another man said, “There’s a tone being set… Everybody’s watching. If they’re not going to respect you, why would your followers?” Another agreed, pointing out that Cordelia addresses her father as “your majesty”, implying a lack of intimacy, at least in this setting. One person said that we should keep in mind that the bond between a king and his daughter wouldn’t have been the same as for most people now; that others would have been raising the children for someone so high up the hierarchy.

It’s about keeping the power in the family, a few men said. “Just think about The Godfather.” Some drew direct parallels between this situation and some well-known, contemporary wealthy people. “Look at Bill Gates,” said one man, citing his having given each of his children only $1 million so they would have to put in some work; he didn’t “just give handouts to his kids.” Several cited Donald Trump’s having squandered the first million that his father gave him — and, I have to say, they did it in such a way that they were able to completely avoid making any kind of partisan political statement (because we have an expectation of leaving that at the door).

Others suggested that Lear’s behavior could be the result of concerns about Cordelia’s dowry, consolidating power, and needing to know who’s going to take care of him in his old age. “He’s betting on his youngest daughter to do this,” said one man. “I done experienced this,” said another.

The conversation hadn’t lost steam by the time we needed to leave, and everyone seemed engaged and happy with how our first day had gone. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the rest of the season leads us.


Tuesday / June 26

 

When we arrived at the chapel, the group was already circled up. We began with a great conversation about what the qualifications are for new facilitators, since we’re looking to train some new folks soon. As usual, the ensemble members thought of quite a few things that we hadn’t, and I’m glad to have had their guidance as I craft the application process. The requirements they emphasized most are an open mind and genuine passion. “They’ve gotta love this with their souls like you guys do,” said one man. “You truly, truly love this. This is ambrosia for you.” He’s so right.

A bunch of the guys said they didn’t want any former correctional officers to be brought on in this capacity. “If a bunch of C.O.s came in, trying to be facilitators, I’d just shut down,” one of them said. But another man suggested that we not use “otherizing language,” and a second man built on that. “If you don’t want them to have their walls up on you, you can’t have your walls up on them… It’s like in here — we all want to read the [modern] English, but you all push us to read the language, and we turn out to be stronger than we thought.” He continued, “I want a C.O. I want someone on the parole board, who doesn’t see me as no more than a number, because I will change their mind.” A third man nodded his head, saying, “Let’s think of what we can teach them.” Another added, “When I seen the play, and I saw guys I knew acting and being different from what I knew them to be, I realized how limited I am — how everything I do is just what’s out on the yard.” I promised not to outright reject any applicants with a corrections background, and to be cautious about bringing any of those folks on to the team.

We moved on to playing our first couple of circle games: Energy Around (using our names) and Zip Zap Zop. This was a lot of fun, especially as the new guys got more comfortable and loosened up. I noted toward the beginning of the session that one newbie, who had sat a bit outside the circle during our chat, was more or less clinging to his books, even while playing the first game. But during the second, he quietly left the circle to put them down, and then he came right back. It was subtle, but it indicated pretty clearly that his comfort level had increased. And so quickly!

The big homies really wanted to do some improv, so that’s what we did next. We began with “Yes, and…”, which is a great way to practice active listening and staying in the same creative space together. It proved to be quite challenging! But we kept at it. And, as usual, there was a lot of creative rule-breaking, as these two-person scenes quite frequently seemed to suck more people into them. This included a big group scene with a police car chase, and another with three bank robbers all showing up at the same without having planned to, and without even knowing each other. It was a lot of fun.

Matt and I had some nice one-on-ones with a few of the guys, too; all returning members. One of them left the ensemble shortly before our last performances, and he wanted to make sure I knew that he was re-committing, and committing more fully. He felt ashamed and embarrassed about leaving us in the lurch, and he stated very firmly that that would not be happening again. Another man let me know that he wants to be very involved in the few years he has left, helping in any way he can to ensure that the program has longevity. Two others, one of whom will go home soon, shared that they were extremely interested in continuing their involvement on the outside, and they asked me to brainstorm with them about ways in which they could do that. And I will!


Friday / June 29
 

We begin in the chapel and move to the gym on Fridays; today that move happened after we had ended a couple of circle games. For whatever reason, we couldn’t get into the gym right away. We stood outside in the shade to wait, and I chatted with a few of the guys about the case study we did at the women’s prison, what we discovered about how the program works, and what kind of notes we continue to take as we go. They were really interested in hearing more. One guy was especially excited. “Identity development,” he said. “Man, if you can change the way you think about your life story — that just opens up the doors. You can probably go anywhere from there.”

Some of the returning members requested that we do The Ring for the first time today (we had decided to let the newbies warm up a bit first). There was almost no resistance from those new folks, which I think says a lot about the seriousness of the established ensemble members, their willingness to do this somewhat strange exercise, and how good it clearly makes them feel.

And then we went back to the play — some of the guys were disappointed that we hadn’t read at all on Tuesday, so we’re going to make an effort to strike a balance between games/improv and reading. One of the new guys did a great job briefly summing up the first part of Act I scene i to catch everyone up who hadn’t been there (“You watch a lot of Drunk History, don’t you?” joked one man), and then we dove back in. The man who read for Lear has a naturally fabulous voice for this, but he struggled with some of the language. The others were very compassionate as they helped him figure them out, and he didn’t seem to feel self-conscious for a moment.

We paused to talk a bit about Kent, but we didn’t get far before we looped back around to Cordelia. Why is it that she can’t or won’t play this game of flattering her father? “Is it really that she doesn’t have a slick tongue, or that she’s honest? This is, for all intents and purposes, a princess who’s trained in all the flowery words. She could speak that, but it wouldn’t be true… It would be beneath her to compete with her sisters in a war of words when she could just do it by deed,” one man said, and many others agreed with him. Another man, though, said he thought she was just tactless, and maybe even rebellious.

“Could this be Shakespeare’s way of poking at the pomp and circumstance of his time?” asked one man, elaborating that ceremonies like this could have been perceived as being overly formal and insincere. Another man, seeming not quite to understand, interrupting to ask, “Then why would be give away his crown and act like it was still his?” Another explained, “He’s talking about how Cordelia broke protocol.” The first man nodded, saying further that “the court was all this opulent pomp and circumstance while the common people were starving to death.” I said that he could be onto something, and then we began to talk a bit about the political anxieties of the time, with the uncertain transition between Queen Elizabeth and King James I. One man broke in and positively schooled us on this; we’re using both the Arden and the No Fear editions of the play this time around, and he seems to have virtually memorized the introduction of the Arden. It’s pretty mind blowing.

I observed some really lovely group dynamics already at play. The man who’d been reading Lear had to leave briefly and unhesitatingly gave the part over to one of the new guys. Another newbie had quite a bit to contribute, which was great since he’d been so quiet up till this discussion; he also read Cordelia with no compunction whatsoever, which is thrilling not only because of what it says about how game he is, but because he’s a pretty big, tough-looking dude, and here he was reading a female character. I imagine that left an impression on the others.

One returning member rocked back and forth as he read aloud, the rhythm of the language clearly something that makes him feel good, that’s soothing for him. He’s shared that with us before, but I’ve never seen him relaxed enough to give over to it like this. Another man expressed an interest in organizing props, costumes, and scene changes, so I asked if he’d like to take the lead on a preliminary script analysis. I had a copy of the one we put together when I directed this play a few years back, which I showed him to explain how it could work. As we read, he came over to me a few times, asking questions and sharing exciting ideas. This guy has nothing if not energy, and I encouraged him to write down all of his thoughts, but not to worry too much about logistics at this point. I think that’s going to be tough for him, but it’ll also be an exercise in tamping down his energy a bit and focusing it, which he’s said is something he’d like to work on.

We talked at length about Lear’s state of mind at the beginning of the play, and about how varied interpretations of that can be. I asked the ensemble to reserve judgment, at least till we reach the end of the play, and encouraged them to keep talking about it. Some think he might be getting senile and knows he should abdicate, while others think he just wants to retire.

“When he stepped off the throne, maybe he lost the thing that kept him sane,” ventured one person. “Life didn’t play out the way he thought it was gonna play out,” said another, citing the lack of a male heir and Cordelia’s rejection of the game specifically. Building on the latter, another man agreed that he didn’t think it was an issue of senility, saying, “We act the harshest with the people we have the most feelings to… We react faster the more feelings we have for a person.” Another agreed, “You can get that one thing that immediately sets you off.” The first man nodded and continued, “Think of having a mask your whole life, and everybody plays their part — and then somebody’s not playing their part. That’d piss you off.”

“I can’t help feeling the oncoming isolation of King Lear,” mused another man. “Everything he thought was true is not gonna be true. He’s crushing his own legacy… He’s feeling alone. He has no one else to go to. He’s really, really all by himself.”

Another man said that this first scene reminded him of Cinderella and her step-sisters, and we all agreed. “The sisters are foreshadowing the rest of the play,” said one person. Another guy said that he thought Cordelia seemed a lot like Joan of Arc, and another said he’d been thinking the exact same thing.

I stepped aside for a one-on-one with an ensemble member who’s been with us since day one, and when we looked back to the group, we saw that 11 people were on their feet reading this first scene, and six of them were new. “Look at all those dudes up there doing Shakespeare,” I said. “Doing Shakespeare,” he replied, shaking his head, incredulous. “So many new guys!” I whispered. “So many new guys doing Shakespeare,” he said with a smile.

I also noted that the returning member who was such a great coach during the last workshop followed the man who read Kent off, quietly giving him some pointers. I couldn’t hear what they said, but it looked like the main topic was that of opening up physically to the audience. The younger man nodded his head eagerly, taking it all in.

I’d say, “So far, so good,” but that wouldn’t be accurate. It hasn’t been good — it’s been fantastic. A really great start to the season.

Photos of "The Tempest."

As promised, here are a few photos from our performances of The Tempest. Enjoy!

Winter/Spring 2018: Final Rehearsals, Performances, and Wrap Up.

The last week was kind of a blur. The ensemble really kicked out the jams and worked together to pull off three truly amazing performances. Facilitators didn’t end up taking a ton of notes; one of us (me!) ended up in the show, and the others (Matt and Patrick) were running around a lot, supporting everyone’s work. But here’s what I’ve got.

We brought in costumes and props for the first time on April 17. This was a lot of fun, as always, as people tried on different pieces and decided who should wear what. This can be kind of chaotic, but this time it wasn’t; these guys take their work very seriously. Despite absences during our first full work through, we got through the whole play, and it went well overall. There was occasionally a lack of focus, but we were always able to reel it back in and solve problems in the moment. One issue we had was that, during the first “storm” scene, the guys sometimes couldn’t hear each other’s cues, and there would be lags between lines that detracted from the chaos we wanted. The solution ended up being that, at any point when that happened, the mariners would start yelling, “All lost! All lost!” and the others would know that it was time to end the scene.

When I arrived on April 19, I was informed that two ensemble members had gotten misconduct tickets that morning and would not be able to participate for the rest of the workshop and performances. That was definitely a blow, but we calmly circled up and solved the problem: the ensemble member who’d begun understudying Stephano would go ahead and step in, I would move from my role as supporting Ariel to that of Miranda, and an ensemble member who’d kept himself in reserve for this kind of situation stepped into that back up Ariel role.

I wasn’t too thrilled about playing Miranda. For one thing, I was really hoping one of the guys would step up, buck stereotypes, and unapologetically play a woman as some have in the past. But no one wanted this role; part of that, I think, was because they felt what I did: that Miranda is kind of a dud. I told them that they would need to really think about this when we begin work on King Lear because I can’t play all three women in that show!

On my feet, though, I had a really cool experience with this character. We had found a funny way to stage the first time Ferdinand sees Miranda – a Maxwell song started playing as he turned to her – and, in that moment, I found myself reacting in an incredibly nerdy way, giggling, stumbling around, bumping into a set piece… The scene was so much fun, and it was because my excellent scene partner was so committed, adapted quickly to my weird interpretation, and gave me a lot to work with. He was sparked to change it up by what I was doing, too. I hadn’t been on stage with him before, and, in the moment, in my actor brain, I realized what a talented performer he is and how lucky I was to have the chance to play with him in this show.

Miranda just got nerdier and nerdier, as I put my glasses back on and put my hair in a side ponytail, working toward a lot of silliness and snorting while laughing. I think that my approaching this with total abandon, not to mention the full commitment of the guys who’d just stepped into new roles, helped bump it up a notch for the entire group. Things went incredibly smoothly. We had known after the previous rehearsal that we needed to shave about 20 minutes off of the run time, and we took about five of those off during this run.

When we arrived on April 20, before we were able to move over to the gym, we met in one of the classrooms. The day before, I had handed out copies of Sonnet #35, which we’ve been working with at WHV, and which has been extremely meaningful to that ensemble. As soon as we walked in, one of the guys turned to me and said, “Frannie, that fucking poem.” I replied, “Good stuff, yeah?” He shook his head and said, “You have no idea.”

The poem is this:

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authórizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are:
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—
Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence.
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
   That I an áccessory needs must be
   To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

We talked about it as a group for a bit. We didn’t have a ton of time, and most of the guys seemed kind of reticent, but there was a lot of nodding as those who chose to talk about the sonnet shared quite a bit. The man who’d spoken to me immediately said he’d never read anything like it; that, even from the first line, it struck a deep chord in him and made him realize things about himself he’d never thought about before. “When I look back at my life, all I see is regret,” he said. He continued to say that he encourages his children not to live that way, but also not to be too harsh with themselves when they make mistakes – to forgive themselves. “I’m telling my kids that, and I’m not even doing it myself,” he said. He said quite a bit, actually, and it was all incredibly insightful, not only into himself, but into the text; it was so emotional, though, that I didn’t write much down. I wanted to maintain our eye contact. “This was written – how many years ago?” he asked. “400,” I replied. He shook his head and said, “Damn. That is deep. That’s incredible. It don’t matter how long ago these words were written – it’s all still true.” Another man agreed and said he was particularly touched by the duality in the poem; the idea that you can’t have beauty without ugliness, and that we all hold both extremes within us.

As soon as we had access to the gym, we hustled everything into place and raced through our second-to-last dress rehearsal. We wanted to cut more time off the performance, but we also wanted to keep our audience engaged; in this play, that meant keeping the energy up, the pacing quick, and allowing pretty much no space between cues. Everyone stepped up in a big way and made it happen. Now the show ran only seven minutes over our 90 minute goal.

We had our final dress rehearsal the afternoon prior to our evening performance on April 21. Everything began to come together, with people adding character details, changing up their delivery in the moment for greater effect, and clipping along, finally achieving our desired run time.

Our set consisted of two hockey nets with three backdrops hung between, one over another, that were flipped as locations changed. A blanket was clipped to each net to create a larger back stage area, and the whole playing space was defined by low dividers. In keeping, I guess, with my deep dive into Miranda’s awkwardness, I began Act III scene i by peeking at Ferdinand through one of the nets.. and then, as I entered, tripping (completely accidentally) over one of the dividers and almost wiping out. I played it off as if I’d meant to do it, and my commitment to making a mistake and rolling with it seemed to free the ensemble up even more. I’m very glad I was able to do this without injury!

Our first performance was likewise full of silliness, and the more we dug in, the quicker the show went. We had a small audience, but you’d never have known it from the ensemble’s performances. We all committed even further, pushing each other to do our best work, becoming more playful as we shook off the initial nerves of having our first audience. There weren’t many of them, but they were very enthusiastic.

Our second performance got even better as we got more comfortable. There began to be a lot of really funny ad libbing (“Man, your monster’s trippin’, bro!”), although, because a lot of it also got kind of swear-y, we decided as an ensemble that we needed to cool our jets and mostly stick to the text. One of the swords broke midscene, and the actor holding it played it off really well in the moment. Our audience was larger this time, but a number of them left early. That may have been because it was such a beautiful day. I didn’t hear anything afterward about anyone not liking the show.

Our final performance was on a Monday, just as we’d wanted, and a number of people from the facility’s staff and administration came and sat in the front row. Although this made the guys a little nervous, they’d requested this performance time specifically to show the administration what this program is like, and their focus and trust in each other provided a great impression for all. We had a talk back afterward, answering questions from the guys in the audience and sharing our experiences. Quite a few of them signed up to be on our waiting list afterward.

We took photos that day, which I’ll be posting soon, and the guys had a little celebration before we had to leave. Though there was a bit of sadness at leaving behind the play we’d all enjoyed so much, there was also relief that we’d gotten through the whole thing, that we’d done so well – and that we’d accomplished something that had been so daunting.

I came back the next day for a wrap up meeting. We had planned on taking some time for an open-ended discussion, and some to talk over the operational aspect of the program, but that freeform reflection was so beautiful and clearly needed that it took up nearly all of our time. Here are some highlights:

“I always lived in this little box and controlled everything in that control room… People need space to grow. Coming here took me out that little box because it opened things up to me.”

“It makes me wanna keep doing it -- keep signing up for weird stuff. You don’t know the unknown… It’s awesome. I’m glad I did it. Anything weird, I want to sign up for.”

“I find reasons to quit. I don’t wanna get close to you guys because you’re all gonna leave. You know, Frannie’ll probably leave at some point, too.” (I interjected: “Nope, sorry. You’re stuck with me.”) He concluded that he was glad he’d learned to trust everyone in a way he never has, and it’s made him a better person.

“It felt good to say to my people, I’m proud of myself, because I’ve never been one to commit... This here is showing me that I just completed something. Completing the play allowed me to follow through... I gave it everything I had, and I came out stronger. Better. ”

“In a group with guys like this, you don’t have to be afraid of being judged or ridiculed… I realized self-worth in this group... I have more friends in prison than I did in the world, and most of them are in this room… The bonds I’ve made here in this program provide me that shoulder to cry on if I need it… I have someone I can lean on… And now I’m not afraid of asking for that… It’s almost like the weight of the world is off your shoulders.”

“You can let this place define you. Or you can let it refine you. From that regret came somebody I’m pretty proud of, and I can’t wait to get out of here and show everyone.”

“This program gave me a reason and a key to unlock that door to get out of my box.”

“I have been encouraged to test the boundaries of my courage.”

“It’s nice to see the side that other people don’t… I wouldn’t change my relationship with none of y’all for nothing… To be here and let your guard down… I mean, like [name] -- that’s my brother for life… To see him open up -- him and [name]. I’ve seen the growth in those two.” To everyone: “For the rest of my life, you will affect the people I meet, because the interaction with others makes us who we are… One interaction with y’all changes me.”

“It’s awesome to be around a group of guys who buck the stereotype… Who fly in the face of who we’re supposed to be and what the stereotype is.”

“Our social circle in the world is so small… So when we come into prison, we already in a box. You hang with the people who look like you and believe like you… It’s great that none of that matters when we step in here… I can’t judge you for what you’ve done, because society’s gonna judge us. But when we’re on stage, that’s all society sees.”

“You two didn’t get up there and play Ferdinand and Caliban -- you were you. And that’s confidence.”

“We fear rejection not because of who we’re not, but because of who we are.”

“I just want to thank everybody for the light and how you hold me up… One of the reasons why I hold myself up is because of the way you see me.”

“I said I was gonna bring courage. I didn’t bring courage. Y’all gave me courage. And I thank y’all for that.”

“I’m gonna give you some catch phrases for your fundraising letters, all right, Frannie? GROUP TEAM BUILDING EXERCISES. People out there spend thousands of dollars in trainings, and go to retreats and stuff, to get CEOs to try to work together -- we’ve been able to come together and do that naturally… CULTURAL DIVERSITY APPRECIATION. We learned that we have different values, beliefs, but we’re all the same. We just have different experiences. But we were able to take those experiences and turn them into something fantastic… SELF ACTUALIZATION AND ACHIEVEMENT, because we’ve all learned to have the confidence to achieve and be all that we can be.”

We very briefly touched base on some things we need to figure out when we come back together in June (attendance policy, etc.), and then we shook hands all around as we said goodbye for a couple of months. We determined a long time ago at WHV that we need to take breaks so we don’t burn out, but it was hard to leave. It’ll be really exciting to get back there and start up our first full season with King Lear.

Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 11 and 12

April 6
 

We arrived today to find that the man who’d been our “anchor” Ariel had been transferred to another facility. We’ve always known that this could happen close to performances, but we hadn’t put a strategy in place to deal with it. So that’s where we started.

A number of people were concerned that we wouldn’t have enough actors to play all of the characters. Someone suggested bringing in a few new people from our waiting list, and that was met with mixed reactions. One man said that it wouldn’t be worth the uncertainty of knowing whether or not they’d be reliable, and others agreed, suggesting that we shuffle roles instead. One man tried to bridge that gap, saying that it would be too complicated to bring in anyone to play a major role, but perhaps they could be brought in on sort of a trial basis. “We had a lot of time to get comfortable with each other… This person coming in isn’t gonna have that. It’s gonna be straight business.” Another man agreed, saying, “We don’t know how he’s gonna react to the situation—on stage he might freeze up.” Another person said that eight rehearsals sound like a lot of time, but it’s not. “Whoever we bring in would need to be a real badass to pull this off.”

I shared some feedback based on my experience at the women’s prison; namely, that our ensemble has already gelled and achieved a level of intimacy that might be lost; that this play can be done with 10-12 people if necessary—and we have more than that, even excluding facilitators— and that bringing people in so late in the game could not only be overwhelming, but—if they weren’t the first names on the waiting list—could send a message that SIP is a clique, which we definitely are not.

The main sticking point seemed to be our concept of having three people play Ariel, which had clearly become too complicated. I shared that it’s important to be able to recognize when an idea—even a good one—is unworkable and to let it go. In the end, we decided to bring in three people as “crew,” to give them a taste of what SIP is like and hook them to come back in the summer for the full experience.

We began a stumble through of the play, but I was involved in so many constructive side conversations that I hardly caught any of it! Occasionally I would tune in to see really solid scene work or excellent, compassionate coaching happening. It was great. People were calm and focused.

I chatted with a member of “The Original 12” and asked him how he thought it was going. He had seemed pretty stressed earlier, but now he was more relaxed as he saw everyone pulling together and doing such good work. We agreed that, going into our first full season, we need to set some expectations for the group about things like attendance and commitment. He said that he thought that part of what has enabled this ensemble to take off so quickly, with so much success, is the strong foundation that the women’s ensemble built. I agreed wholeheartedly.

As I moved from conversation to conversation, I noted this really amazing ebb and flow to the way we were engaging with each other. As one man told me, half-joking, that he was intimidated by King Lear, we were interrupted when he was asked to remind several people where the boundaries of our “stage” were. We jumped right back into our conversation, and I assured him that, while Lear is definitely a beast of a play, the work is much more manageable over a longer-term program.

Then an ensemble member, who is a musician, popped by with our Stephano to let me know that he was going to teach him “a really cool tune” for his first song. Our Stephano realized it was time for his entrance, and I realized that the scene was going astonishingly well—it was the first run ever for the man playing Trinculo, who, as of about a half hour before, had taken on the role because of the other actor’s excessive absences. I had thought that this role would be pretty far outside of his comfort zone, but he was so game that I began to think that I was wrong about that. He and Stephano had a blast playing around with drunken physicality, and it was really fun to watch.

In fact, their work inspired a new idea from several ensemble members for Stephano to hit Trinculo not only with his hand, but with baby powder that he’d get from Caliban. I welcomed them to give it a go but asked them to stay open to the possibility that having script in hand and not having a ton of time to rehearse might make this overwhelming. They agreed that, if that were the case, they would let go of the shtick.

We didn’t make it all the way through the play, but we still felt good. We talked through the need to “get used to messing up and keeping going,” as well as projecting our voices and using our scripts as parts of our characters. We’re in good spirits and in good shape.
 

April 7
 

We had the first of our “bonus” rehearsals today and jumped right into III.iii, where we’d left off the day before, and which we hadn’t yet blocked. We decided to just improvise through it and see what happened. Our Ariel wasn’t present, but I’d been warned that I might be drafted to be his “wingman” and volunteered to stand in for him. I also am still off-book for this monologue from when I learned it 12 years ago!

This was a lot of fun. I just sort of chased everyone around the stage, projecting my voice as much as I could, while one of the others shouted out the “thunder” sound cues. Some of the actors were so bemused that they occasionally stopped running away and just stared at me, laughing, while I shouted, “YOU SHOULD BE MORE SCARED OF ME!” and continued to terrorize them. The scene ended, and, as I caught my breath, saying only that it was tough to refer to “three men” who were scattered around the stage, the men problem-solved to figure out not just how to address that issue, but how to find more movement and character details. We ran the scene again, and it began to work better, with most of them staying in a clump that moved away as I advanced. One of them ended up curled up in a ball on the floor, attempting to hide under his script. It was hilarious.

We kept going with the play, and even in the scenes that were rough, it was clear that we’ve got a lot of ownership of the material. There was a particularly great moment, toward the end of the play, when Prospero said, “Welcome, my friends—” paused, seeing his brother— “all.” And then he approached Antonio. I got chills, it was so good. And then, to top that off, after he informed his brother that he’d have to relinquish the dukedom and began to walk away, our Antonio lunged at him, held back only by Sebastian. SO good!

We wrapped the stumble through and gathered as I asked, “How did that go?” The consensus was that it had gone well, and that our work now lay in tightening things up and refining our technique. One man reminded us that we need to stay facing out and avoid upstaging each other. Another man brought it back to volume, saying, “Project your voice to the last row. Make sure that person can hear you.” He also encouraged everyone to dig deeper, to act “outside the lines—the fear, shock. Knowing who you’re talking to.”

“I liked a lot of the instincts people had about the characters that time,” said one man, referring first to some of the folks who are always cited among our best actors, but then pointedly naming two men who’ve been working through some pretty serious nerves and insecurities. “You are getting a lot better,” he said, and we all emphatically agreed. And he agreed with the man who’d spoken before, saying, “Because we’re in the mindset of this character, we can add to it,” referring to that “acting outside the lines.”

I shared that my biggest takeaway was that we know the play—and each other—so well that we can fake it till we make it if need be. They agreed, and one man encouraged everyone, saying, “Stop trying to retract when you feel like you messed up. Just keep going.”
 

April 10
 

We welcomed our three new members today and, as always, did a round of our Three Questions. Here’s some of what they shared:

  • “I never knew I could take my creativity this far. I haven’t even done the play yet and don’t know how it’s gonna turn out, but people are giving me a feeling like I’m gonna do great at it… I don’t feel as nervous as I was before.”
  • “I came to work on my antisocial psychopathies—so being here is a kick in the face in the first place.”
  • “At first I was shy, but I’m not anymore.”
  • “I have a daughter, and anything I can do to bring something back to her from here, I will do.”
  • “That’s my life agenda—to do things I think I’d never do.”
  • “What brought me was brotherhood and the chance to spit in the face of my fears… the fears of speaking, of being in front of other people, the fear of screwing up.”
  • “I came to this to help me get over the anger at why I’m here… I had this chip on my shoulder… I’m trying to smack that chip off my shoulder.”
  • “I feel like the people I’m around are capable of doing so much better than what we’re doing at the time.”

And one man said, “There’s no wrong way to do Shakespeare. Except not do it.”

We spent most of our time working through and setting blocking for the final scene, and it was honestly kind of frustrating because we just could not seem to stay focused as a group. Our new members dove in, sharing ideas and getting the lay of the land, but we really could have been more productive, and we talked about that as we circled up toward the end of the session.

Our Stephano also informed us that he really didn’t want to sing, but that he had another idea—but then enough people started (warmly) teasing and pressuring him that not only could he not get his idea out, but he gave up and said he would just sing. Most of the guys applauded, but then one man said, “Wait, wait, no. I want to hear your idea.” Our Stephano then shared that he wanted to rap instead, which we were all intrigued by. The ensemble asked him to “bring it to the table” when we meet on Thursday.


April 12
 

We spent most of our time today redoing the pantomime that happens as Prospero tells his story in the second scene. Due to character shuffling, we needed to plug others in, and we decided to go mostly with our new guys for that, along with a couple of people who don’t have many lines.

We were in a smaller room than usual, with acoustics that seemed to amplify our voices, and it got pretty loud and disorganized. The action sort of stalled. Loudly, I asked, “What are we doing, you guys?” One of them replied, “We’re talking too much.” Everyone quieted down, but it didn’t last.

Finally, I said, “It’s gettin’ real Lord of the Flies in here, you guys.” I got up, went over to where my tote bag was, took out one of the juggling bean bags I bring in for acting exercises, and continued, “If we’re gonna go Lord of the Flies, let’s really go Lord of the Flies.” I held up the bean bag. “This is our conch shell. From now on, the only person speaking should be holding this bean bag. That includes me.” I tossed the bean bag to the man who’d been trying to get everyone’s attention, and we proceeded to problem-solve, this time speaking one at a time.

The pantomime ended up in pretty good shape, with cues for movement well-established and written down so we’d remember.

We began to talk about the need to have understudies for Trinculo, Caliban, and Stephano, particularly because our Stephano will need to be absent for our final performance. Then the man who’d been absent so often that we’d given his part of Trinculo to someone else asked if we thought, because the scenes are so complicated, that maybe he should just go back to playing that role. There was a pause, and then one man asked, kindly but firmly, “Are you gonna be here every time?” The man said he would. Another man said, also kindly but firmly, that we needed his full commitment. Could he guarantee us that? “Absolutely,” said the man, without hesitation. We passed the bean bag around, each of us sharing our thoughts. When it came to me, I asked the question that is our current mantra: What is the simplest, most efficient solution? We concluded that this man should be given one more chance to play this role. I really hope he follows through; I think it would do wonders for him.
 

April 13
 

During check in, one man said there was a conversation we needed to have, and he hoped no one would be offended. He said that he, among others, has been frustrated because it often seems as though we have “too many chiefs, and not enough Indians.” Immediately, I could feel tension in the room, but it was also clear that everyone was invested in dealing with this issue. One man asked him to be more specific, saying that we’re a family, we need to make sure we’re taking care of each other, and that in order to do that, we need to know exactly what we’re doing that’s upsetting others. Another man, who seemed like he’d been part of the earlier conversation, said that people seem to be butting in and taking over when someone else is guiding a scene, and that this can be frustrating and overwhelming. Another man reminded everyone that we’re an ensemble, that “it can’t be no chiefs. It’s all Indians.”

Another man agreed, saying, “In order to lead, you gotta know how to follow.” He thanked the first man for sharing and encouraged everyone else to do the same. “I wanna know how you feel because I wanna know why you feel that way… We gotta have an understanding.” He spoke of the past two shows, both of which he’d thought would be “horrible”, but that they’d pulled together and had a blast. “At the end of the day, everybody’s a leader; at the end of the day, everybody’s a follower… We gonna drop the ball somewhere, but at the end of the day, we’re a team.”

The first man further explained that he knew that everyone has the best intentions, and it’s not that the ideas haven’t been good, but that it’s just been too many ideas all at once. He said he felt like he’d been “bum-rushed” the other day. “We a family,” said another man. “Speak on that.”

“I am not a fan of being crowded,” the first man replied. “People don’t like to be backed into a corner, physically and metaphorically. That’s all.” He talked about needing to keep the tape ball experience in mind: that things work best when we all pitch in and take care of each other. Another man volunteered that we just need to be respectful when sharing ideas.

We began another stumble through of the play, and I worked with our anchor Ariel to figure out ways of working together in each scene. In the midst of this, one of the men came over and quietly told me that another ensemble member had just arrived, telling him that his grandmother had died, and that he needed to talk to me. I went to him immediately.

“I’m sad, Frannie,” he said, staring straight ahead, his face stoic, but his eyes speaking volumes. He said he’d been very close to his grandmother, and that he didn’t know what to do. Being in prison, there isn’t much he can do. He said that he’d wandered over here because he couldn’t be in his unit, but that he didn’t feel up to working, and I assured him that that was fine. He said again that he was extremely said, but also that he couldn’t show his emotion. He couldn’t cry. Two other men, who were sitting with us, assured him that it would be okay to cry and that he should do it. He shook his head, saying that he’d been so good for so long about hiding his feelings that he’s pretty much forgotten how to cry. It’s been years. He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll be a’ight, though,” he said.

We talked more. It was tough for me to pull myself away, but there were some issues with sound that needed to be addressed. Overall, it was a good rehearsal, and I’m glad that that man came over so we could give him some comfort. It isn’t all about Shakespeare. As was repeatedly stated today, we are a family. And we take care of each other.

Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 9 and 10

March 20

I spent most of my time today working on Act I Scene ii with the men playing Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, and Caliban. The “storytelling” part of this scene has already been staged, and some work has been done on Ariel’s portion as well; the man playing Ariel, however, wasn’t present until later in the session, so we decided to skip over all of that and focus on what hadn’t yet been touched on.

We combined forces, along with a man who joined us, to cover a lot of ground. Our Caliban had his soliloquy at the beginning of this scene partially memorized, and, as I talked over some different tactics he could take with Prospero, including his idea to reach out to touch his shoulder, the man in the coaching role talked through his idea for Caliban to fall and cower when Prospero slams his staff on the ground. Combining those elements was very effective!

When our Miranda got hung up on the language he uses toward Caliban, our Prospero demonstrated how it could be delivered, particularly the word “abhorred.” “You gotta rest there,” he said. Another man said, “You need to assault him with the language,” and then he explained the speech in detail. I agreed with both men and encouraged Miranda to imagine himself throwing darts with his words. It definitely began to work better. Meanwhile, our Prospero had a great instinct to keep Caliban and Miranda separate with his staff, and he and Caliban simultaneously had the idea for Prospero to kick Caliban in the leg on “filth as thou art.”

We kept rolling into Ferdinand’s entrance. Our Ariel had arrived by then, and he dove right in. You may recall that we have an anchor Ariel and assorted “wingmen;” in this scene, we decided that the anchor would play the flute, while two others would pull or push Ferdinand with wide, sweeping gestures, and no actual physical contact. I got to stand in for one of those roles and had a blast. We worked out some choreography so that the spirits will turn Ferdinand to Miranda when he first sees her… And then I’m pretty sure I have the guys convinced that we should hear The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for a couple of moments. I can’t tell if they actually think it’s funny or if they’re just humoring me. Either way, as long as we’re allowed to bring in SIP’s iPod, it seems that we will be listening to The Beach Boys. I win!

As that group continued to work, I sat down with Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. We talked through the characters’ relationships and dynamics; Caliban is an interloper, which amuses Stephano and causes Trinculo to be territorial. We also pondered Caliban’s perception of “freedom”; does he see himself being truly liberated, or has he been oppressed for so long that he’s ecstatic simply to have a “better” master?

At one point, one of the men mentioned how frustrated he was with another ensemble member, saying that he reminded him of his kids. He told us how long it had been since he’d seen them, and then another man said that that made him think of his kids, too. The first man apologized for “being depressing,” and the others and I assured him that he had nothing to be sorry for. We all sat there for a minute or so, honoring these fathers’ feelings, until they both were ready to move on.

Matt worked with the rest of the men on Act II Scene i. The first question seemed to be about Antonio: what does he get out of his bullying and plotting? The man playing the role replied, “He needs it to make himself feel better. He had a tough life – a tough childhood, and he needs the power. Power comes from controlling the conversation, not letting anyone else talk.” That seemed spot on to everyone. They collaborated on blocking; a few men taking the lead, which allowed the others to become more comfortable.

The whole ensemble came together to watch each other’s work before it was time to leave. The end of Act I Scene ii in particular gave us a laugh; when Prospero “froze” Ferdinand’s sword, Ferdinand looked down, then up, then down at his sword again, and, in a high pitched voice, said, “What the fuck is this?!” When I asked the group why that moment stood out, they responded that it added texture, “filled out” the scene, and gave it life. One of the men had taken notes and did some great coaching; this is a wonderful role for him in the ensemble, and I hope he realizes how good he is at it.

Then we got to watch the nobles in their first scene after the storm. They had come up with all sorts of funny shtick – dumping sand out of boots, crawling on exhausted and trying to catch their breath. The whole scene was strong, and, when they finished, one of the “leaders” said, “I’m genuinely impressed,” and suggested some more goofy things they could add.

One of the men is very interested in improving as an actor, and he’s asked me several times to give him “real criticism.” I took him up on that today, emphasizing that he’s got a lot of raw talent (which is the truth) and calling attention to a very normal habit that he has: mushing his consonants, which leads to mildly slurred speech. That’s all well and good in our everyday lives, but it can make things rough when we’re speaking Shakespeare! I gave him some exercises to help with that, and then he became concerned about his lack of technique in general. “But you really feel this language, right?” I asked, and he agreed. I told him that that’s the best place to start – that technique without feeling is incredibly boring, so he’s got a head start working the other way around.


March 23


Patrick held down the fort while Frannie and Matt were at the Shakespeare in Prisons Conference! Here are his reflections:

There were concerned looks, but also optimism on most of the faces of the men today. They know that they are getting down to crunch time, and their desire to have a "real" show is being challenged by issues with attendance and scheduling. Talk of adding rehearsals, and working in their off hours, was happening around the room. You could feel that everyone was ready to get going.  

All in all, check in was upbeat, mostly due to good news from home of several of the ensemble members. However, you could hear a sense of frustration when a glitch delayed our move over to the gym. "Well, let’s try to get something done," said our Ariel as he walked up to me in the  hallway. They are finding any way they can to work on their roles. We stood in the hall for nearly 15 minutes going over his blocking suggestions, his character ideas, and his movement concerns, while we waited. I looked around, and several groups had formed of men running lines or discussing how to get sheets from the quartermaster on which our backdrops will be painted.  

Once in the space, the men decided to forgo the usual team warm-ups and instead elected to jump right in to blocking. "Let's clean this up. I don't think it's right. We're too clumpy," said our Miranda as I walked up to the group. They began working on a scene that had been blocked in a previous meeting but that felt, when Ariel was plugged in, like the spacing was wrong. "Yeah, they gotta see you sleeping" joked Prospero, as he made sure to keep the mood light. "Let's start at my monologue and then add in Ariel. I don't know this one yet. I need to say it a lot," Miranda responded, effectively ignoring the humorous implications that he was being a diva.   

While blocking, Prospero was really glad to work with his rehearsal staff in the space. He wants to "make it a part of him." "I feel like Gandalf," he joked. The blocking soon turned in stage combat choreography (commonly called a “fight call”), as Caliban and Miranda wanted to make sure you could see the tension and anger between them, and Prospero just knew he "had to get between them."

As blocking progressed, groups broke off again to run lines with each other. Every scene had issues with at least one cast member not being present due to scheduling conflicts, but there was a ready willingness to read in for other roles. Several guys would complete one scene blocking their character, and then move right over to fill in a different role. Their "who needs help" attitude was nothing if not impressive.  

After we got to our stopping point for the afternoon, two of the men made a few announcements, and made sure to say that they would be there to make scene changes for the performances. It was just another example of the group looking ahead at what needs to be done, and making it happen.    
 

March 27
 

There was a lot of multitasking today! Matt and I were very active and didn’t take many notes, but here’s what I’ve got:

We definitely needed to get the first Trinculo/Stephano/Caliban scene on its feet, and, with our Trinculo being absent, another man stepped in. He hadn’t read a part like this before, and he was a big hung up on the language and physicality, but he stuck with it! I encouraged him to let the punctuation do the work. He stayed relaxed and cheerful, keeping any frustration he may have felt (with himself or others) to himself.

Our Stephano was clearly pretty nervous to perform, which, of course, is nothing unusual in SIP! We encouraged him to let go of the singing for now and just speak the words, but he still hung back. I asked if he’d like me to walk and talk it with him, and it only took a couple of times with me doing that (and pointing out what he was instinctively doing right) for him to feel confident enough to do it on his own. It was slow going, but the more he allowed himself to trust his instincts, the more confident he grew.

It may seem like a little thing – just to walk and read out of a script with a few people watching – but for this guy it’s a really big deal. So it’s a big deal for all of us. Folks battling challenges like this are sometimes among the most inspiring ensemble members. So watch this space!
 

March 30
 

I spent my entire time today with Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. Our Trinculo needed to be plugged in after his absence, and we needed to finish the scene altogether. There was some great, creative collaboration, from our Trinculo asking if there was a “Shakespeare word” he could yell off stage to cue Caliban’s hiding (we settled on “zounds!”) to physical demonstrations of stage positions and business. When one man hesitated, another man who was coaching (again! He’s so good at this!) said, “It’s written for you to create. It doesn’t tell you what to do.”

The four of them were a little stumped on the pulling of Trinculo by the legs, and, after I had made a suggestion or two, I bowed mostly out of the conversation to let them work it out. It was trickier than I thought it would be. Then our “coach” said, “Well, you know what? Nobody knows what’s in the play but us. Can we change it up?” He demonstrated how Stephano could yank on Trinculo’s leg, and Trinculo could pop up in a sitting position. We tried that, and it worked, and then our Caliban had the inspiration for Stephano to fall backward when Trinculo sits up. Our Stephano (still slowly but surely gaining confidence) burst out laughing and high fived him.

Our Stephano apologized a few times for working slowly, and, each time, the three of us assured him that he didn’t need to worry about it. We all appreciated him plugging away, no matter how long it took. And he continued to relax more and more. When Caliban begged for more wine, Stephano stumbled away laughing. Caliban began to break character to problem solve, and our Stephano said, “No, no, no, man! I’m doing this as part of my character!” He kept laughing, and then, beautifully, Trinculo started laughing, too, with such a big, dumb grin on his face that it made all of us laugh even harder. “This is cool,” he said between laughs. As Caliban sang and danced, Trinculo stood behind him, imitating him, making Stephano laugh more and more. We finished blocking the scene and ran it, and they all felt great. All we need to do is add some detail and pick up the pace.

It did take us nearly the entire time, and it could be that the work continues to move slowly, but it’s also possible that, as they learn to trust one another more, it’ll speed up.

Toward the end, a group who’d been working on plugging someone new into Act I Scene ii asked us all to come over and watch. I was torn between doing a few minutes more of text work with the guys I’d been working with and joining the others, and I ended up doing the latter. “Y’all gotta stop stealin’ Frannie from us, man!” one of the guys shouted. The work the other group had done on their scene was solid; they were all 100% committed, and a couple of the guys gave nuanced performances that were super exciting.

Facilitator Matt spent most of his time working on Act IV Scene i and wrote down some great quotes from the folks he was working with:

One man said to our Ferdinand, “Have you ever had to meet anyone’s parents?” Ferdinand replied, “Yeah, but I didn’t have a spell on me and been a slave for eight months!”

Our Prospero: “Maybe even Miranda doesn’t really know Prospero’s power. Maybe that’s what he promised her… Maybe he’s protecting her from a desire for that kind of knowledge. Maybe he doesn’t want her to be independent. The last thing any father wants is a fucking independent teenage daughter... So, he’s got all these power and control issues, but he’s also just a dad.” After some more discussion, he continued, “I remember, with my own kids, sometimes I’d be really angry about something that didn’t have anything to do with them, and they would be afraid of me.”

Incredible insight, drawn completely from his own experience. That’s the best kind. It was a great session all around.

Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 7 and 8

March 6
 

As we gathered today, one of the men asked for a reminder of when our performances will be. He sighed when I told him because there’s a possibility that he’ll need to leave the group before then as part of the process of being paroled. “If I could postpone it so I could finish this out, I would,” he said. “No! Go home!” I replied. “Yeah, I know. For real, though,” he said, and then he paused. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and we joined the rest of the group.

Check-in revealed that most of the guys were feeling better than they had the last time we met. One man who’d been really down said that he was doing better, but wasn’t 100%. He held up his script and said, “But I’m not gonna let it interfere with this.” That was met with applause.

We continued our auditions, giving each person a couple of chances to perform their pieces, and we made some discoveries along the way. For one thing, I had forgotten that the cut we’ve started with includes some edits to Prospero’s “Ye elves…” speech, which we worked with during our voice workshop. When one of the men performed it, I asked if those edits caused the piece to lose its strength, and we all agreed that they did. He tried it again, with the cuts restored. He had a great time playing with relationships and the memories of his power, and he took a long, heavy pause just before saying, “I’ll drown my book.” It worked beautifully from where we were sitting, and I asked if it had been the same for him. He nodded. “Adding those pieces back in helped complete the thoughts,” he said.

Much of our focus with the others who auditioned was on working to use our physicality to call up emotions rather than trying to think them through. One man exemplified what we were trying to do; he performed Prospero’s epilogue, and it didn’t really hit home for us until his last two lines: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.” One man said, “That felt really natural.” The man performing replied, “I can connect with that because – well, look where I’m at. It’s what I’m living here. I kinda bonded with this little piece.”

One man was very nervous to perform and said he hadn’t been practicing because he felt self-conscious in his unit. “They can deal with it,” said one of the men, encouraging him. Another man, reading Antonio, showcased incredibly adept use of the language, but his delivery was sort of one-note – it was very dark and aggressive. He said his adrenaline was pumping: “I’m trying to get him pumped, so I’m pumped up – Let’s go!” I welcomed him to enjoy the manipulation more – this is what Antonio does, and he’s good at it. He tried it again, and it was great – much more nuanced and exciting. “It felt even more – I turned it from, ‘You just mentioned Prospero; that’s a dark part of my past,’ to – this time I felt – I felt like a snake.”

Auditions wrapped up with a lot of support and encouragement coming from everyone. And then we grabbed a dry erase board and started casting. Some roles were easy to figure out, but others were much more challenging. One of the guys decided that any time a role was in contention, the actors who were interested should have a “read-off”: he’d flip his ID card like a coin to determine who would go first, and they’d take turns reading a few lines. No rehearsal, no do-overs. I was waiting for someone to object, but no one did – they all just dove in. And they were really honest in their feedback about the performances – not cruel, just realistic.

We have more ensemble members than characters in the play, and we’re coming up with some cool ways of involving more people. One of those ideas was for Ariel to be played by multiple actors. This idea was refined so that we’ll have one “anchor” Ariel, and others will be “wingmen” as they are available. In addition, Ariel’s lines will be read over a microphone from off stage, freeing the actor playing the character from having to carry his script, allowing him be more able to commit to his character’s physicality.

We finished casting with just minutes to spare! We’ll review on Friday and get rolling on scene work.
 

March 9


A tractor trailer rolled over on I-94, causing both Patrick and me to be a solid hour late arriving at the facility. That was a bummer, but the ensemble wasted no time. The second we walked into the room, I was handed a list of costumes and props, which I struggled to read as their ideas came flying at me – and I hadn’t even set down my bag! As we moved from the classroom to the gym, the ideas kept coming – mostly for music, and mostly really funny. It’s possible that some of this was a funny ploy to see my reactions to the thought of using DMX and Lil Jon in this play, but, hey, I’ve gone way farther afield than that with past sound designs, and I was willing to consider all options!

A man who was absent on Tuesday asked if he could audition for a role that had been cast. The man who’d been given that role wasn’t too keen on re-auditioning, but he agreed to do it. Both men had a good handle on the character and the language. We ended up keeping the casting the same, which not everyone was happy about, but it made sense in terms of logistics.

As most of the group set up to begin scene work, I noticed one man standing off to the side, looking frustrated. I went to him and asked what was up. “I don’t know. I think I’m being childish and selfish,” he said, explaining that he would have preferred for his main scene partner to be a friend with whom he knows he has chemistry rather than his actual scene partner, whom he doesn’t know well and by whom he is often put off. I said that it’s natural to want to work with people with whom you’re comfortable – it’s not selfish or childish. “Yeah,” he said. “And, you know, maybe it won’t be so bad. He was all goofing around before his audition, and it was kind of annoying. But then he got up there, and when he said he was scared, nervous to audition, that humanized him for me. Like, that was [Name]. That wasn’t [Nickname], that was [Name].” He said it made him think maybe he could help that man the same that I’ve helped him with his confidence, voice, and acting. I knew he’d had a couple of breakthroughs, but I hadn’t realized how profound those moments were for him till he said that. And to hear him talk about paying that forward was really heartwarming and inspiring.

I said that he was probably right, that the other man’s posturing and goofing off are likely defense mechanisms, and that his behavior has changed even just in the last couple of weeks. And that’s likely due, at least in part, to our having been patient with him (even as we haven’t let him off the hook). I said that working with people with whom you’re comfortable is definitely the easy way to go, but there’s a lot of value in learning to work with people you don’t like as much. “I mean, look. In the grand scheme of things, this is just a play. It doesn’t really matter,” I said. He gave me a look and said, “No. This matters.” I smiled and said, “Yeah, I mean – this is my career; it’s my life and my passion, and it definitely matters. I mean in the larger picture of your life, this isn’t the most important thing. But the skills you learn doing this play will be valuable no matter what you do going forward.”

He nodded, saying, “When you said it was the easy way, I was like, ‘Aw, yeah.’ Nothing that’s worth doing is easy.” His mind was made up: he’s not going to dwell on his disappointment. He’s going to do his best to work with someone new and, hopefully, both of them will learn something valuable in the process. He cocked his head, smiled at me, and said, “Thanks, Frannie.” We fist bumped and got back to work for the last few minutes of the session.

One group worked with Patrick, and the other explored Act I Scene ii, which begins with Prospero telling Miranda the story of how they came to the island. I talked quietly with the guys in the audience about staying engaged and paying attention to what their eyes wanted to see the actors do. One of them immediately said that the scene was too static – that we needed some way to visually tell the story. I said that that’s always been my instinct and asked him what he saw. At first, he said it should be other actors; then he shifted to Prospero using magic objects or figurines. We stopped the scene so he could share his idea with the others, and they all really liked it. The man playing Prospero said he thought we should find key moments in the story and show them in a stylized way. We’ll be working on that next time!


March 13


When we arrived today, the man who was cast as Gonzalo came up to me immediately and said that he’d given his role to another man who hadn’t received a role with any lines. The former man was in our Othello workshop, got a lot of stage time, and felt strongly that someone else should have that opportunity now. It’s impressive; he’s really fallen in love with acting, even aside from Shakespeare, and to see him give this chance to someone else when he’s so hungry to learn and explore is humbling. I’m not sure I’d do the same in that situation. I’m not sure most people would.

Since nearly everyone was present, we decided to work on the first scene of the play, which we felt was likely to be the most complicated. We spent some time talking through who all should be in this scene; Stephano and Trinculo, for example, are not noted as being on stage here, but they say later that they were on the ship. Most people thought it would help the audience connect the dots to see them here first.

How to begin? We are using a large upright fan as our steering wheel, and there was a question of how and where to position it. Someone mentioned using the volleyball nets in the gym to signify the sides of the boat, but someone else said that they could only be set up perpendicular to the bleachers. The first man asked why we couldn’t just move them. “The volleyball posts are anchored in the floors, just like in high school,” said one man. “Yeah… We didn’t have volleyball in high school. I went to school in the ghetto,” the first man said good naturedly.

It was decided that our Boatswain would run on to grab the wheel. But what else? A couple of the men said that they’d been thinking the whole play should be high octane comedy, and that that should be established in its first moments. Their idea was to run on when the Boatswain lets go of the wheel, run into each other, fall down, scramble for the wheel, fall down again, and stumble off stage. It was a funny idea, and it was even funnier when two of the men actually did it. And they were right – it’s going to set up that vibe for the rest of the play.

There was a LOT of collaboration as we put this together. We knew we wanted chaos, but that was easier said than done. Facilitator Matt stood in front of the group, using his arms to guide the ship’s swaying, and one of the men moved among them, trying to get them to stop “bunching up.”

It was becoming quite a struggle, so I stopped the scene, told everyone to put their scripts down, and led them through a quick exercise:

•    Walk with purpose, and your purpose is to find any space that isn’t filled by a person and fill it yourself. Keep moving every time you see empty space.
•    Now increase the urgency.
•    Now add to that urgency a sense of being off balance. Arms out, walking on different parts of your feet, knees bent, swaying.
•    Vocalize!

As the chaos and the volume increased, before we could lose steam, I started yelling, “We split! We split! We split!” (lines from the play), and we all dove “overboard.” We were laughing, we were out of breath, and we had a much better idea of what this scene needed to look, sound, and feel like.

“This needs to be organized chaos,” said one man, bounding back into the space to guide people through some new ideas he had. “I like that,” mused another man. “Organized chaos. Is that how your office is, Frannie?” I rolled my eyes. “That’s how my brain is,” I said as we laughed.

The scene kept getting better as we kept collaborating. One man told the actors how they should stagger their entrances. Another suggested that people with lines could individually run up to the Boatswain, yell at him, and then drift off. A third man built on that, giving people their cue lines and suggesting that we all back off of the swaying for the day just to get a handle on the dialogue. As we added more elements, it kept getting better.

I noticed that a man who was very involved also seemed a bit frustrated. I chatted with him aside, saying that the process can be slow and challenging, but that his work was making a huge difference. He smiled and said, “I guess I have a little bit of a director in me.” I told him without hesitation that he absolutely does, and that his ability to be compassionate and constructive while giving adjustments makes it easy for people to listen to him and take his advice. I urged him not to hesitate to keep being this involved. He said he wouldn’t.

We went back to the beginning of Act I Scene ii, which we touched on briefly last week. We worked on some basic blocking, and then we moved to objective work with our Prospero. He is a naturally gifted actor, even without training, and it means that going deep into the character is quick work. I asked him why he thought Prospero had never told his daughter this story. “Because betrayal is a bitch,” he said. “It is,” I replied. “Why else?” He said that she hadn’t been old enough to understand. I asked why else. “He wanted to protect her from what was lost,” he said. I agreed, and I asked why else. Another man said that she needed to know now because of the plot. “Definitely,” I said. “And why else?” One of the men, slightly exasperated, said, “Why else?” Our Prospero, deep in thought, said, “Because he had something to do with his own betrayal.”

“Ah,” I said. “Yes. Tell us about that.” He explained that if Prospero hadn’t given Antonio so much power, he wouldn’t have been usurped, and they wouldn’t have ended up on this island. “Right,” I said. “He’s not responsible for what happened, but he’s culpable. That’s got to be hard to admit.”

We began the scene again, and it deepened for both actors (our Miranda is SO passionate and quick to adjust to every note). I saw that Prospero had an instinct to kneel that he wasn’t following, and I quietly urged him to listen to his body and kneel with her. He did, and, having come to such a posture of intimacy, his acting followed suit. When he said, “Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since, thy father was the Duke of Milan and a prince of power,” I got chills. I’ve never seen those lines read with the kind of natural intensity and ache that this man gave them. I told him that I’d never seen a professional actor do that – that most professional actors would not be able to do that. I didn’t have to say why. We all knew. Everyone in that room far more so than I.
 

March 16
 

First things first: the guys have decided to schedule extra rehearsals in these last four weeks before our performances. They did this the last time around as well, and it’s so cool to see the level of commitment they have to doing their very best work. It seems like they’re scheduling 2-3 extra rehearsals each week, which would mean that some of them would be rehearsing 4-5 days each week, regardless of whether facilitators can be there with them or not. Some of them had their first bonus rehearsal on Wednesday, felt like they got some good work done, and set a new tape ball record: 106!

This time around, we’ll be using some sheets as backdrops that will be airbrushed by an inmate who is not in the ensemble, and that man stopped by to clarify what the men want. The ensemble requested three backdrops: the storm and ship, the beach, and the island’s interior; the latter two may include sprites and fairies. We gave him a round of applause for helping us out.

Our “anchor” Ariel, Ariel’s voice, and a couple of others worked with Patrick on interpretation and movement, while I stayed with the larger group, working on the pantomime during Prospero’s story. At first, some thought that the Ariels would be part of this, but one man pointed out that that might be confusing to the audience, and it might be better to have the actors actually playing those parts execute it, along with another ensemble member to play the young Prospero. We all agreed that that was a better idea.

One of the men had spent some time choosing the key moments that should be illustrated, and they were perfect.

Moment #1: Prospero cedes responsibility to Antonio.

•    Someone suggested that Antonio kneel as Prospero hands him a ledger.
•    I suggested something that was rejected, as one man said that Prospero should literally turn his back on the audience and walk away. His idea was way better than mine.
•    We are using some bolsters (maybe that’s what they’re called? I have no athletic vocabulary) to give the performance space some dimension, and one of the men suggested that the pantomime take place upstage of them to delineate between the telling of the story and the story itself. That was awesome, although he had them starting off on stage already. I asked him how they would get there, and he admitted that he hadn’t thought about that. I asked him to ponder it – I was not about to step on his idea.

Moment #2: Newly empowered, Antonio begins to plot against Prospero.

•    Antonio faces the audience and uses gestures to indicate that he is giving orders. That worked pretty well on the first try, but our Antonio had an instinct to build on it. He wanted to turn to us immediately when Prospero hands him the ledger – “I get a wicked grin on my face as he turns away” – and he added some walking to his gestures. That was awesome.
•    One man coached spirit Prospero to have his nose a little more in his book. “A little more cowbell!” he joked.
•    I suggested that, rather than standing to the side, spirit Prospero stand directly upstage of Antonio so that the plot could take place literally behind his back.
•    There was some confusion about what should happen next, and the group gathered around one of the men, who has spent a LOT of time with his script, so that he could break down the language and explain.

Our Ferdinand and Miranda had been working on the log-hauling scene aside, and they asked if I could come take a look. Their ideas were great, and I gave some suggestions of how they could sharpen and polish the scene. I came back to find that Moment #3 (Antonio brings Alonso into the plot) had been quickly staged, and they’d moved on to the next one.

Moment #4: Prospero is kidnapped and abandoned.

•    Two more men enter as Antonio’s “army.”
•    Antonio circles Prospero, taps him on the shoulder, Prospero turns, and Antonio snatches his book.
•    The army takes Prospero by the arms and hurry him downstage, tossing him “onto the boat.” That was tough, and we collaborated to figure out a solution. At first, spirit Prospero faced upstage as he was hustled, but that proved awkward because he couldn’t see the barrier he was supposed to jump over. He turned downstage, and then we thought perhaps he should stop at the barrier. But that was also challenging. We finally arrived at spirit Prospero jumping over the barrier and then stopping as Prospero slams his staff on the ground, sending the spirits away.

In the midst of this, our Miranda came and grabbed his understudy to catch him up on the log-hauling scene.

Moment #5: Gonzalo gives Prospero food and his books.

•    Prospero kneels with Miranda and continues to tell the story.
•    Gonzalo enters, hands Prospero a literal book, and exits.

We ran the whole pantomime, and it worked great. With the time we had left, we watched the newly-polished log-hauling scene, and it had come a long way even just that day. One man said, “That’s the best I’ve seen it.” My favorite bit was when Ferdinand said, “For several virtues have I liked several women –“ Miranda interrupted, “Several?” And Ferdinand wryly replied, “Several.”

We’ve got a lot of work to do in the next four weeks, but I have no doubt that these men are capable of doing it and executing a thoughtful, engaging performance.

Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 5 and 6

Tuesday, February 20

When we checked in today, one of the guys told us he’d been working on a scene, and one of the others had told him (good naturedly) that he shouldn’t “walk gangster.” I asked him, why not? It could be appropriate for the scene! The rest of the ensemble started ribbing him about performing it for all of us, and finally one of them offered to work with him on the side till he was comfortable.

I’ve been trying to come up with some kind of “bridge” program for this summer, before we begin our 30-week season in the fall. Time and resources are issues, but I thought I’d come up with a good solution. I asked the group if I could share my idea and welcomed them to reject or build on it. I proposed that we meet for 8-10 weeks over the summer to read, discuss, and explore a play without building to a performance at the end. I asked if they would be okay with King Lear for that, since my spring is incredibly packed, and I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to prep, and I’m already very familiar with the play.

The guys liked that idea, but then one of them said, “Hold on a sec. Why can’t we read King Lear this summer, take a break for a few weeks, and then keep going with it in the fall?” That’s when I felt it—that old, familiar sensation of the ensemble taking my decent idea and running with it. “So… you mean… You’d have a full 40-week season like Huron Valley, but with breaks on either side of the summer?” He nodded. I asked the rest of the group what they thought, and they said they liked it. It was at this point that I threw my things to the ground (I don’t know why I do this when I’m excited, but it is what it is!) and cheered, “YES! Let’s do it! Once again, the best ideas in this program are NEVER MINE! Yes!!!!”

This led to a conversation in which many of the men asked for more acting and vocal training, and we agreed to have a voice-centered workshop soon. They also shared that they want more of an emotional challenge next time. They want to explore heightened emotions. The Tempest is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t lend itself so well to that.

We went back to Act IV Scene i, which was so confusing when we tried to stage it without first reading it as a group. We worked our way slowly through, beginning after the masque (because we know we’re cutting it). We paused at Prospero’s “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves…” soliloquy. I asked them what they got out of it. One man said he got that Prospero is breaking a spell; another said it’s his thank you to the elves, et al; and another mused, “Everything’s come full circle.”

“He’s ready to give up his hateful side,” said one man. Another agreed but used the word “surrender.” A third man nodded, saying, “He almost seems tired… You can almost see this—If you’re tired of a journey, you recount what’s going on, but I’m ready to move on to the next stage… But this is what brought him here… It seems like this anger; this vengeance is eating him from the inside, and he was wasting away.” Another said, “When he sent those spirits after him, it’s like that was his last gasp of anger.” The man who’d spoken of giving up the “hateful side” added, “I’m going to make sure no one else can do what I was doing,” referencing all the trouble Prospero caused for others.

Our youngest ensemble member, who is proving to be incredibly wise, said, “All this stuff is like a chapter. He’s turning the page.” Another man agreed, saying, “If I wouldn’t have had this shit [magic] to begin with, I wouldn’t be here. I’m ready to move on.”

The interpretation of this piece that has stuck with me the most over the years is one that a woman at Huron Valley shared when we worked on The Tempest there. “I’ve heard this about a million times in AA,” she said. She spoke of Prospero’s magic being a crutch like alcohol or drugs; that he had to give up that crutch in order to heal and move forward. I shared her perspective with this ensemble, and they thought it over. We agreed that this doesn’t only apply to substances—anything at all could hold you hostage till you’re ready to let it go.

One man said, “It’s this thing, and until he buries it, he’s never going to grow. Everyone’s in their own prison.” He likened this to the challenge of young guys being locked up and then leaving prison with the same mentality they had when they arrived. Before he could say much, another man said, “Too close to home, man. Let’s stop it there.” With barely a pause, the first man changed gears, finding another way of wording his thoughts to avoid causing any pain. It was skillful and impressive. I’m not sure he knows what a challenging thing he did so effortlessly.

We read through to the end of the play, and that famous epilogue. “All this was kinda for him to be set free,” said that young ensemble member. “Everything revolved around him… He breaks his staff. At the end, he has something to say to everybody.” All agreed that this would be a good place for Prospero to break that staff, rather than when he talks about it earlier.

At this point, the man who was being prodded into doing a scene asked if he could perform on Friday instead. I said that was fine by me, the rest of the guys took me to task for letting him off the hook, and I regrouped and told him that, YES, he could put this off till Friday, but then his scene would be the first thing we did after check in. A lot of heads were still shaking, and there was still some teasing (of both him and me), but I really don’t like to push people too hard. It may already be too much. We’ll see.

Friday, February 23

Our check in today was a little subdued. One of the men opened up a bit, and it gave the others the freedom to share about something they all experience but may not always feel safe talking about. “It’s one of those days when you really realize you’re here,” he said, saying that he’s been having dreams that have nothing to do with this setting. And it’s not only dreams; all sorts of mundane fantasies can pop up and drive home the reality of where you are. Many of them (all of them?) shared that they’ve smelled food as they passed the chow hall that they know very well isn’t being cooked in there. “Mostly you just go along, but sometimes it hits you,” one man said.

We moved on to a conversation about how we are going to approach and cast the play. Several of the men have been developing an idea about Ariel being played by three people who would wear masks and share lines. “Would that confuse the audience?” asked one person. Two said that they didn’t think it would if it were done right, and they demonstrated the way they’d broken down one short speech. It was pretty cool.

One man advised the ensemble that everyone should “try to find something comical in their part.” The conversation got pretty detailed, and then I took a closer look at his script. I’d brought in one copy of a cut of this play that I directed in 2016; it ran about 80 minutes, and I wanted the guys to take a look to see if they liked it for our purposes. This seven-person group made photocopies—some of them also bound theirs—and worked together to figure a lot of this out, using highlighters to note and code things (including the breakdown of Ariel’s lines between three people).

This shows a remarkable level of seriousness and discipline. None of these folks are just sitting around; in fact, a few of them are so busy that I don’t know how they made time to do this. But this is the culture they’ve already built around their program. It is very much like what happens in SIP at the women’s prison, but it’s happened much more quickly here. I believe that that’s due not only to the drive of these particular men, but to the commitment of so many women over the past six years to figuring out what SIP is and how it works best. It’s thrilling to see all of that work providing such a strong foundation for this new ensemble.

Then the man who was supposed to perform today was reminded by all of us that that was the plan. He asked me to choose some lines for him to read, which confused me because I knew he’d been practicing something, but I humored him since he was clearly nervous. He began reading those for the group, but then stopped and shook his head, consulted with some others, and decided to do Gonzalo instead. “Do the one we’ve been practicing on!” shouted one man. He was unsure of the material and of himself—he laughed a lot—but he made it through!

We began the casting process, writing down each person who was interested in each character. Two of the men began to write on a dry erase board, but one of the markers was nearly dry. Still, the man with that marker kept trying to write. The other man kept telling him to just take his marker, but he wouldn’t do it. I’m not sure what the deal was, but he kept trying to get that marker to write, making himself (and all of us) increasingly frustrated. Finally, one of our “leaders” quietly took both markers, gestured to the first man to sit down, and calmly began the conversation over, regaining everyone’s focus and moving us forward.

When we got to Miranda, only one person volunteered. We had known that he would—he’s taking a liking to the character—but he also just found out that he may be eligible for a program that could take him out of the group prior to our performances. So we needed an understudy ready to go. “You do it, Frannie,” a few of the guys said. I reminded them that the facilitators’ role is to reserve ourselves as emergency understudies for last minute situations, not for cases when other ensemble members could compensate with planning. Still, no one volunteered.

One of the things I’ve found (so far) that is a bit different working with men from with women is that it’s sometimes more effective for me to be a bit harsh rather than gentle; I’m never mean or anything, but sometimes I can take the gloves off with this ensemble in a way that would not be helpful with the women’s. “Come on, you guys,” I said. “It’s a character in a play. She’s not a bad character.” No one volunteered. “Dude, is this because she’s a woman?” I asked. “Because that’s bullshit.” Lots of eye contact now. “It’s acting. It’s storytelling. Who cares if the gender is different from yours? Is it seriously that scary to play a woman? Why is this a problem?”

The man who’d performed earlier said, “Fuck it. I’ll do it.” I smiled and nodded. “Awesome,” I said, “Write his name down!” Then another man, who takes acting very seriously and is the definition of a team player, said, “Yeah, put me down for Miranda, too.” I thanked them for volunteering. It really did take some guts—that’s why I had to challenge them a bit. It was an opportunity for them to rise to the occasion. And they did!

We decided to hold auditions next week, but our session wasn’t yet over The plan for today had actually been to do that voice workshop, but since we got started late, we didn’t have enough time. I realized, though, that with the time we had left, we could at least look at using the iambic pentameter, scansion, and some basic projection and emphasis work. We went straight from John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare, using the first couple of lines of Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach…” monologue. Some of the men have been exploring a photocopy of the “Using the Verse” chapter, but I think only a few of them had read it in depth. After we’d scanned those lines as a group and were discussing how that would translate to performance, one of those men came over to me, copy in hand. “Do you know what we just did?” he asked. I looked down at the page and saw that the ensemble had scanned the lines exactly the way the RSC group did in that workshop. Pretty freaking cool for a group of people who, by and large, had no exposure to Shakespeare as recently as July—or, for some, January.

We were in the gym, so we propped the dry erase board up with a chair, and the guys took turns performing while being able to read the lines with the scansion we’d arrived at—and not having to hold a book. This is an AWESOME way to do this kind of work, and I’m keeping it forever!

The toughest part of this seemed to be remembering to breathe on punctuation and allow thoughts to change organically rather than rushing. There is also a tendency to back off midway through or toward the end of a phrase. We’re getting there, though. One of the men turned out to have a very powerful voice, which became even more so when others encouraged him to deliver the lines as he would if he were saying, “Mira!” out on the yard. That’s a great way to start off this monologue. I recommend it.

As more of the men took their turns, the ensemble became more and more involved, to the point where I really wasn’t! One man kept looking down, and another encouraged him, yelling, “Look at us! You gotta look at us!”

This was a lot of fun and provided a preview of the workshop we’ll be doing on Tuesday. I asked everyone to please arrive on time ready to take things seriously. The voice stuff can be uncomfortable for folks because it requires vulnerability, and obviously prison is not a place where that generally feels safe. I told everyone that there would be no hard feelings if they didn’t want to do it and left early, but that that would be the only option in order to keep the space safe for everyone else.

Tuesday, February 27

We checked in and immediately dove into our voice workshop. I guided everyone through a series of exercises from Patsy Rodenburg’s The Right to Speak: Working With the Voice, focusing on relaxation and centering. We then moved on to connecting with our breath and voices. This took a little more than half of our time. I asked everyone how they felt. Honestly, I didn’t take too many notes because leading a workshop like this requires a lot of focus, but here’s some of what was said:

How do you feel? How did that feel?

“Like it’s cleaning my chest out.”

“I didn’t want to do it. Too vulnerable.” (It really is remarkable that this man stayed and participated to the extent that he did. In order not to identify him or break confidentiality, I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that there’s no “good” reason for him to expose himself like this unless he really, truly trusted us, believed that it might be helpful, and stuck with it out of his love for the program.)

“Loose.”

“It’s like my whole body vibrates.”

“Freer.”

“Like it’s my real voice.”

“In actor mode… like… SHAKESPEARE!”

“I feel more confident,” one man said. Then he talked about people in his past who spoke very loudly. “In the ’hood, everybody’s voice is free.” I asked, “Really?” Another man smiled and said, “No, not really…”

One of the men asked if someone’s physical size had anything to do with the way they used their voice, and of course that answer is often yes, but it’s complicated. I shared that we’re socialized in all kinds of ways that impact our use of our own voices, and whether we own them or not. “This is why the book is called The Right to Speak,” I said. “Too many of us have been told to shut up or be quiet. But we don’t want that on the stage.”

We then spent some time with exercises for using the iambic pentameter, meshing them with the preceding voice/breath exercises. We used Prospero’s “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves...” One man, who is a musician, said, “You know, I hate to bring it back to music again, but…” He likened the meter to parts of a scale—guideposts to help you know what you’re aiming for. Pondering the content of the monologue, one man said, “You know, he’s more powerful now [giving up power] than he was before.”

Then I asked if anyone wanted to try this out on their feet. The man who’d spoken of music volunteered. His first read was very good, and I asked him to do it again; to take his time, breathe deeply, and not back off of the build in the piece. “Say goodbye,” I said. He gave it another go, and it was much better. “It was that sense of finality… But appreciation for what was given and what allowed him to do what he did… He kind of toots his own horn.” That’s definitely a big part of it.

A couple of the others then asked a man who’d been sitting a little apart if he would try it. He rose to his feet, read, and said he felt that it hadn’t been good. “I still felt like I was just reading… I was being too technical.” I suggested that he let that go and focus just on his breath and voice, and he said, “I just… I don’t know. I think my voice is kind of broke. It’s a mixture of yelling too loud at the wrong time and smoking, I guess.” I hadn’t had much of a voice in a couple of weeks (worst laryngitis ever), and I teased him, “Oh, excuse me, your voice is broke?” He laughed. I continued, “If I’m filling the space, you can, too! Your voice is powerful!” He shook his head again. “It is!” I said. “It’s just too high in your throat right now. Bring it back down to your diaphragm and speak from there. Come on! Ho ho ho…” He did the exercise, and, BOOM, out came that voice we all knew was in there. “Listen to how powerful you are!” I said. “I feel like I’m shouting,” he replied sheepishly. Multiple people reassured him that he wasn’t. “If your throat doesn’t hurt, you’re doing it right,” I said.

And he tried it again. Now that he had the projection piece of it, I tried out an exercise to help him with emphasis, but I’d forgotten to warn him about it, and it didn’t work as well as we would have liked. At least we got that breath and projection, though. I asked him how he felt, and he said it had been weird—that he stays quiet most of the time. I grabbed the book, held it up, and said, “YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPEAK!” We all laughed, he relaxed, and we moved on to the next person.

The man who earlier had shared about how challenging this work is for him because of his (understandable) discomfort with vulnerability had been gazing intently at his script for some time, and it didn’t surprise me when one of his friends gently nudged him into giving it a try. His first performance was pretty good, but we all knew he could do better. I asked him how it had felt, and he said, “Intimidating.” I asked him why, and he replied, “You!”. We laughed, and he continued to say that it was the language as well. “We only know you messed up because you told us you messed up,” said one man, and the rest of us agreed. “We all screw up these words,” I said. “Just stick with it.” He shook his head wryly. “No, really!” I continued. “This is just like your poetry. You already know how to do this.” He said that it wasn’t the same, and I replied, “Dude, we all saw you perform that poem. Some of us saw it twice. You can’t tell us you don’t know how to do this.”

As he prepared to try it again, I asked if I could side coach a bit. He smiled and said he was scared of me, but I brushed that off and told him I was on his side. He launched into it again, but his delivery was still timid—and this man has an amazing voice. I pushed him on the language: What kind of war? How does that feel? Make us feel your power! He built and built, and then he got to the transition to, “But this rough magic I here abjure.” “Pause! Breathe!” I said from over his shoulder. He did, said, “Oh, that’s an emotional change,” and took it back to try that shift again. He ended powerfully, beautifully. We were all fired up! He said he’d felt “a surge of energy; a surge of power.” He continued, “The different ranges—the buildup… That felt good.”

“This monologue is almost like a tempest—it rises up and comes back down,” said one man.  As we parted for the day, the man who’d thought his voice was broken came up to me and shared that he might want to give this another try now that he’d seen that final man perform. He said that he hadn’t realized that the piece has three separate units, and I said that that actually was great because that is how we’re meant to learn about these plays: performing them and seeing them performed.

March 2

Check in began today with one person sharing his disappointment about something school-related. Then another man, who frequently goofs off and distracts the group, shared that the reason he left the voice workshop on Tuesday was that he’d gotten some bad news, was having an awful day, and just couldn’t do it. This was the first instance of him sharing like this, and it opened the door for others to do the same. It turned out that nearly everyone was having a rough time for various reasons. Some shared in more detail than others. One man was particularly forthright, saying that, after receiving some very bad news, he was extremely upset. “I actually sat on my bunk and cried,” he said. “I’ma deal with it, you know? But I’m a man, and I’m gonna cry.” That reminded those of us who worked on Macbeth over the summer of Macduff’s response when, after he's having that his entire family was killed, Malcolm urges him to use his grief to fight. “I will do so,” says Macduff, “But I must also feel it as a man.”

This went on for some time. At one point, a couple of people were having a quiet side conversation, and the man who had more or less given the group permission to share in this way gently called those people out and asked them to be respectful. It’s probably the most serious I’ve seen him.

There was a bit of a lull, at which point a core member said, “Because so many of us are having a bad day—I’m gonna open up. I love y’all.” No one used that word in response, but it was clear from what they said and from their body language that the sentiment was both welcome and reciprocated. They then told this man how much they admire him; that he’s “a ninja” and their inspiration. He was mildly embarrassed, but it also made him feel very good.

One man asked Patrick and me if we ever use SIP (or theatre in general) to get away from the dark parts of our lives. We shared that we sometimes do. These activities require so much focus that they give you a breather from anything else that might be going on. And that’s generally a good thing. That said, I told the ensemble that if anyone wasn’t feeling up to auditions that day, it would be fine to wait until Tuesday when they might be feeling better.

We moved over to the gym (we begin in a classroom on Fridays), where I chatted with a few of the guys while most of the others played their most focused game of tape ball yet. They even set a new high score! Then several of them asked to do The Ring, which is another first. We circled up, and one man had the idea for each of us to put the energy and/or objects we needed into the ring, which is an optional part of the exercise anyway—but we hadn’t done it yet, and he came up with this idea spontaneously. We incorporated it, taking our time and putting all sorts of things in that ring: confidence, safety, teamwork… Shakespeare, talent, discipline… glitter, barbecue, violins…

As we got ourselves organized for auditions, the sharing just kept going. I sat with the newly-serious man and another with whom I’ve definitely been bonding and looked over some pieces they might want to audition with. Nearly unprompted, that first man shared a bit more detail about what he was upset about and then talked a bit about his past. He said that, as a result of things that happened when he was young, he now doesn’t trust or believe anyone—even with things like staying in touch—because that way no one can let him down. I’m grateful that he trusted us enough to share that. It helps me understand him better.

Auditions went well, with everyone building up and encouraging everyone else. There was some brave experimentation and clever ad libbing. One man in particular, who performed Caliban’s soliloquy, made huge strides when we encouraged him to talk directly to the audience. The piece grew by leaps and bounds. “You did it, man!” said the man who’s often been a distraction. Today was so different for him.

It was a really remarkable session, particularly because of this one man's changed approach. The vibe shifted in a big way as people opened up, and, while this has felt like a strong team up till now, today it felt like a true ensemble. It’s always possible that that will change, but, based on my experience, I don’t think that’s likely. I hope that this level of honesty and trust can be maintained. All it can do is strengthen the work and the men’s ability to achieve their goals—together.