Season Two: Week 28

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Nothing comes amiss, so money comes withal…

Friday / January 4 / 2019
Written by Frannie

“Welcome to 2019,” said an ensemble member as we called an “orange” for check-in. “Let’s do this thing!”

We welcomed three new members to the ensemble today! After a quick check-in and intros, we had some trouble-shooting to do. The man who’d been cast as Cordelia is no longer in the group, and we needed to figure out the best way to move forward. Immediately, one man raised his hand, saying emphatically that Cordelia is a serious role and needs to be played by someone who is truly dedicated. “It’s gotta be somebody who’s light!” our Lear chimed in. “I gotta carry their ass on stage!”

As a third man began to speak, another said, “Hold on, hold on, hold on. We got somebody over here, wants to play Cordelia.” Smiling broadly, he pointed a finger at a very shy ensemble member, who gave us a sheepish grin. “Really?!” I exclaimed. Only two weeks ago, this man had told me that he wasn’t sure he’d even be able to set foot on stage, let alone speak any lines—and now he was volunteering to play a major role! He nodded his head and said, “Yeah, I think so. Yeah… I wanna do it.” A number of people cheered, clapped, or simply voiced their enthusiasm. I tried to contain my own excitement, merely getting into a contest with Matt over which of us could write the most exclamation points in our notes. (In case you’re wondering, I won. Because I wrote “infinity”. And there’s no beating that!)

As the ensemble settled in to work Act III, scene i (the first storm scene), I pulled aside the newbies and a veteran ensemble member to do a quick orientation. Before long, two other ensemble members joined us, making their own contributions to the conversation. The new guys listened attentively and asked questions as we described the practical and philosophical aspects of SIP: the season timeline, the need for a safe space, nudging without pushing, and all that jazz.

The veteran, who pretty much led the orientation, joined the group last fall, when he hadn’t been in general population for long and had a difficult time even making eye contact with others. Now, as we talked about our best practices in conflict management, he encouraged these guys to call on him to mediate any disagreements. “I’m actually kind of awesome at it,” he said earnestly. “I’ve got good people skills.” Quickly, I said, “Would you have said that last fall?” “No,” he said, clearly surprising himself. A huge smile spread over his face as he beamed at me, and then at the others. They were smiling, too. “That’s the kind of thing we’re hoping to do here,” I said.

Throughout the orientation, as the rest of the ensemble worked, the vet and I kept having to pause and regroup because we’d get distracted—by the sheer power of our Lear’s voice as he raged at the storm. After the third or fourth time, the vet apologized to the newbies, “I’m sorry we keep interrupting ourselves, but… it’s his voice.” I added, “I can’t even apologize… This is too amazing. I mean, listen to him.” And we did for a few moments. “You have to understand,” I said to the little group, “He didn’t speak for the first few weeks he was in this group. And now he’s playing Lear—and he’s so loud!”

I rejoined the ensemble as they were beginning an animated debate about how to balance the tragedy in the play with heightened acting that sometimes veers toward the comedic at this point in the process. There was a whole lotta miscommunication going on—there often is in a group where we’re making theatre without all knowing the “lingo” of the craft. The discussion had begun with Kent’s acting as if he were being physically pummeled and blown about by the wind, which I guess came off funnier than he intended. The instinct was great, though, I said to the group: without all the technical elements of a more traditional performance space, our physicality is what will convey the physical environment. Perhaps the scene got too windy this time around—but that doesn’t mean the idea need be rejected. It just means it needs refining. And that’s what rehearsal is for!

We moved on to Act III, scene iv, in which Edgar emerges as Tom o’Bedlam and Gloucester leads Lear, Kent, the Fool, and Edgar to shelter. It’s a complicated scene, and, since we launched into it without any planning, it was predictably awkward. No one knew if they should move; if so, where they should go; and, if they went somewhere, what to do when they got there.

“Who am I even talking to at the end here?” asked Kent. As we guided him (his final lines are divided among three people), he interrupted to say, “This is ridiculous! Why is he talking to so many people at once?” I acknowledged that there’s a lot of chaos in the text and asked the group what that meant. “The blocking needs to be on point,” Lear replied. “What does that mean?” I asked. “I have no idea,” he said without a pause, and we all cracked up.

One of the newbies asked me some questions about the text and the rehearsal process, and, as I answered him, I lost track of what the rest of the group was doing. I could tell they were problem-solving, but I had no idea what was going on. So it was tough for me to tell what adjustments they were trying to incorporate as they ran the scene a second time. I honestly couldn’t see much of a difference.

I don’t think they felt much of a difference, either. When I asked how it had gone, they mostly just shook their heads and grimaced at their scripts. I asked if maybe part of the issue was that folks were still holding back when they had impulses to move. The scene definitely calls for movement, and they’d spent the bulk of it standing in a straight line.

Kent, frustrated, said that he’d tried to make space for others to follow their impulses by stifling his, which he thought the ensemble had asked him to do earlier. He’d misunderstood, but they couldn’t seem to get through, as he defensively dug in. Finally, a man who has consistently been able to communicate well with our Kent repeated his name till he had his attention. Calmly and clearly, he said, “Don’t wait on them. Do you. [KENT] be [KENT]. Please.”

They still seemed a little lost, so I asked them to describe the physical setting. Together, we detailed a terrible storm, so loud with wind and thunder that the characters have trouble hearing each other, and a night so dark that they can hardly see each other. “So if you drift too far apart, you could lose them—you could get lost out there,” I said, and we experimented with ways we could use the environment to drive the staging toward the scene’s end. It didn’t work 100%, but it sparked some good ideas.

With the little time we had left, we ran the scene again, encouraging the actors to allow the storm to influence their actions, to follow their instincts—and to be bold. And they did! Gloucester, especially, allowed himself to try some wildly different things, mostly driven by imaginary wind, and all to great effect. We didn’t even need words to know where he was and what was going on—he told the story beautifully just with his physicality.

We circled up to raise the ring, pleased with how the day had gone. It was a solid welcome for our new ensemble members, and a great way to start off the year.

Season Two: Week 27

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For saying so, there’s gold!

Friday / December 28 / 2018
Written by Frannie

During today’s check-in, our Gloucester continued his practice of updating us on the character work he’s been doing. “What does Gloucester’s soul look like—or feel like?” he pondered. “As I explore and play, I’ll find that I discover the very heartbeat—the essence—of Gloucester.” He mused on the etymology of words like “train”, which he said used to mean “to exercise naked.” He expanded that definition, metaphorically, to include his approach to the play—and to Shakespeare’s as he wrote it. He imaginined the playwright removing layers of artifice and mistakes from the text as part of his process. “I’m sure Shakespeare didn’t write a first draft that was the final masterpiece,” he said. “He wrote draft after draft—a literary powerhouse.” He challenged himself to do the same. “I must act ‘naked,’ strip down to the very essence… So, Birthday-suit Gloucester: what is your essence?”

“Shit,” said one man, clearly impressed and awestruck. Another shook his head, saying, “I gotta give you kudos, man. You’re doing real work.” A third man said, “Yeah, dude—how do you find the time to do all this? You’re so busy in so many groups and stuff!” A fourth, who is also very active in a number of programs, laughed and said, “Aw, he’s worried how we find the time. The time!” Everyone laughed. Our Gloucester replied that he muses on these things throughout the day and then journals about them in the evening.

Before we moved on to scenework, one of the guys asked if it might be time to add new people to the ensemble. It’s something we’ve talked about along the way, and, if we stick more or less to the timetable of the women’s ensemble, early January would be the final time to do that—but if it doesn’t seem necessary, we don’t have to. There are currently 19 men in the ensemble, and we max out at 25, though all of the major characters are cast and we have enough people to cover the minor ones as well. Still, though: is now the time?

“Yes,” said one man emphatically, thinking ahead to next season, when these new members could take on larger roles; he thought joining now would give them a good head start. “I’m all in on it, as long as they understand that there are things going on in here that they weren’t a part of,” he concluded. Another, who joined during the homestretch of our Tempest workshop, reminded us that “there was a lot of hesitation, but it worked out well.” (Actually, it worked out AWESOME—he and another person who joined then have turned out to be incredibly dedicated and insightful ensemble members.) He added that new members could round out the roles with few lines, and that they could also be very involved in “crew” tasks.

Another man reminded us that, though we have ample coverage now, that could very well change in the next few months, or even in the last few days, and he wanted to know for sure that “the show would go on” if core members left for any reason. “I’d feel more secure if we had understudies, and right now we don’t have any,” he said. “I’m always open to bringing new people in.”

The next man to speak offered a “dissenting opinion,” even though he didn’t dissent, just to make sure we’d covered all our bases. He voiced the concern (likely felt by some) that each time we add new members, it alters the group’s dynamic—that that could potentially be negative, particularly given the complications we’ve been navigating over the past month or so. Another man said that the dynamic is altered every time someone joins, and that, though he (and I!) have been apprehensive in the past, it’s always been good. “We shouldn’t be so selfish with what we’ve all grown to love that we don’t want to share it,” he said, “but we should also protect what we’ve grown to love.” In the end, we decided to add six people and see how it goes.

We began rehearsal with Act II, scene ii, in which Kent attacks Oswald and is ultimately put in the stocks by Cornwall because of it. We left off after only two runs of this scene last week and decided it deserved a third attempt. The initial confrontation between Oswald and Kent was pretty subdued—they’re still puzzling it out—but our Cornwall brought such amazing energy in with him that all the actors rose to the occasion and matched it. He knows exactly what he’s saying, and it comes through beautifully in his delivery. Our Regan was a delight to watch as well, truly listening to the others and reacting spontaneously to what they said.

Though, as I noted, the first part of the scene sort of dragged, the first praise anyone offered afterward was for our Oswald. He has been working really hard—this is a huge departure from the norm for him—and it shows. “You got the flow right!” said a friend of his who’s been working with him outside regular sessions. Everybody did, we agreed. “You can tell everybody’s getting comfortable with each other,” said one man. “It’s just flowing together. The words are part of y’all now… It just comes together like a nice, warm quilt.”

More feedback—all of it constructive—kept coming. The group did particularly well regarding the actors’ vocal projection: they hammer on this all the time, but they’re getting steadily better at doing so in a helpful, rather than insensitive, way. Regan suggested to Cornwall that he give more of his lines to the others onstage, rather than to the audience. Cornwall replied that that’s what he’d been doing, and Regan, recognizing that all Cornwall needed to do was to make that clearer, suggested ways in which he could do that. This was all rooted in moving more from person to person—something we talked about last week. Cornwall has already made strides in this area, which we acknowledged and appreciated—he just needs to go further now!

We began talking through entrances and exits a bit, beginning with the logistics one man worked out and wrote in a couple of scripts that he’s been leaving open for everyone during sessions. The discussion started to get really involved and complicated, which has been the main issue impeding our progress. What was different this time was that several of the guys who are most vocal in these situations cut the conversation off themselves, imploring us to “just try” what we had.

And what we had was great. Our Edgar entered for his first soliloquy, believably harried and completely off-book. The room fell silent as we absorbed his work, and after his exit, we were too impressed even to applaud. “I liked it, dude,” said one man. I asked Edgar how the updated entrance had worked. He shrugged and said, “I’m an artist. I roll with it.” Our only suggestion for how to build on what he’d done was for him to come further downstage, allowing him to connect more with the audience. He did that during his second attempt, and it paid off in a big way. “Boy, you better stop it, man,” grinned one of the men, literally dancing with glee. “It was simple,” smiled Edgar. “I forgot the entrance and exit, and I just went… ‘Blam!’” The work he’s doing is absolutely stunning, and he has no ego about it. He’s setting a great example for everyone else—myself included!

Act II, scene iv, is the last before the storm, and it’s a doozy. Lear finds Kent stocked and, after the final confrontation with Regan and Goneril, stalks off into the night and the elements, much to Gloucester’s dismay. We worked the scene unit-by-unit, with our first pause being just before Lear’s return with Gloucester.

As this first part of the scene stumbled along, a man who is making a huge effort to balance his (very vocal) enthusiasm with the ensemble’s needs sat beside me and whispered his ideas for making the blocking less of a jumble, particularly as regarded the Fool’s actions. When we paused and asked the actors how the scene had gone, our Lear replied that it had felt crowded, and I asked the guy next to me to share his ideas. He jumped up to walk through some of them. This proved a little complicated, but our Kent caught on immediately and joined the demonstration.

We started getting hung up, again, on the placement of the upstage wall. Because we’re in the gym, the set-up is very flexible, and, while that’s generally a positive thing, it comes with some challenges for this highly analytical ensemble. Some folks noticed that actors seemed to be hovering close to that wall and suggested shrinking the playing space to force them further downstage. I countered that that would be a problem no matter what, that shrinking the space might actually make it worse, and that the best thing for us to do would likely be to regularly remind each other not to be afraid of the audience. Though there was some more back and forth, we ultimately decided to leave the set-up alone, at least for now, and see if we could make it work.

The group onstage was now ready for another shot at the first part of the scene. The new blocking ideas definitely helped, but our Lear was still frustrated. “I need more emotion,” he said, and we talked a bit about where he could find the fuel for that in the text—namely, in the huge caesuras between his and Kent’s lines. We encouraged him to use those pauses however he needed to, probably with movement, to rev himself up. When we tried it again, it definitely worked better; we’re just going to need more rehearsal to fully absorb everything.

We kept going with the scene. When Lear and Gloucester re-entered, they were silent until they’d reached center stage. The man who’d had all the blocking ideas leaned over to me and whispered, “Do they have to wait to speak till they get onstage?” I replied quietly that they didn’t. “Maybe you should let them know that, Frannie,” he said, adding that he’d given “too much feedback already today.” I thanked him for being so cognizant of the need to leave room for others’ ideas. I said I’d probably sit on it and see if they’d make the adjustment themselves later—that often happens as actors gain comfort with a scene. (And, before I forget: that’s exactly what happened the next time we ran the entrance!)

As the scene progressed, I was struck by how increasingly connected everyone became. The Fool listened carefully to each person and allowed himself to react spontaneously to everything he heard. Meanwhile, Lear became more and more vocally grounded, embracing his building frustration on the line, “WHO. STOCKED. MY. SERVANT,” and practically spitting “my child” at his daughter—it was so perfect that it made one of the men giggle with delight. Regan’s reaction to Lear’s “I can stay with Regan” was so truthful that I started laughing hysterically and had to put down my notes for a minute. It’s not that it was funny—it wasn’t—this was one of those moments when the moment’s honesty was so instantly relatable that all I could do was laugh in recognition. It’s something we talk about a lot, as regards our audience, and I’m glad that now I can serve as a first-hand example!

We ran through to the end of the scene, talked about all the good stuff, and encouraged everyone (especially Lear) to give themselves permission to really move through the space as we ran it one last time. Lear took this “permission” to heart, still holding back a bit, but easing into what I can tell will be some huge strides pretty soon. His adjustments were dramatic enough that the others had a tough time making their own in response. Sometimes their movement worked; mostly it didn’t, but the entire scene is moving in such a clear direction now that, after we finished, they voiced their excitement about working to find new ways of approaching the scene.

We were really firing on all cylinders today, and I checked in with a few individuals as we left to make sure they knew how much they’d contributed to that. It was a great way to close out 2018 together. Onward to 2019!

Season Two: Week 26

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This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / December 18
Written by Matt

During check-in today, I floated an idea based on a suggestion made by one of the guys a while ago. For a long time, I’ve been looking for ways (other than this blog!) to make the literary and theatrical interpretations of our members visible. When an ensemble member unwittingly suggested a format that could contain these interpretations, I was ecstatic. (I’m being a little coy here because I still don’t know exactly what it is!)

That was weeks ago, though, and he asked today whether I had any updates on it--I didn’t, but I was able to share the broad strokes of it with the ensemble. They were all excited. They believe in their own ideas, and they’re always pushing for new ways to share them!

“I think that’d be dope,” said one of the guys. “I love how [SIP] grows. How it expands to include all these different people and things. I think that’s just beautiful.”

As promised last week, one of our members initiated a “group check-in.” The conversation he was trying to start required delicate handling. He first noted that the group is really open and good at talking things out--he even read a short poem about communication. Then he got to the meat of the issue: he had observed that some people in the ensemble were holding back or feeling held back. He said that some people felt that their ideas were not being considered or validated, and that the sessions sometimes looked like a conversation among the same few people. Finally, he led into the discussion with something like a pep talk: “Your voice matters. Your ideas matter. And I want us to reach out to each other to try and communicate these thoughts.”

The guys jumped right in, but it’s worth pausing to note that this all came from a relatively new member of the ensemble, who came on partway through the season--in the fall. He has said that he wants to be viewed as “an elder,” and he’s well on his way, if today is any guide. The way he opened the conversation was masterful.

The first voices to speak up, perhaps predictably, were from the most vocal members of the ensemble. They were respectful, but they were clearly feeling a little wrongfooted. “What does that look like?” asked one of the guys, when the first man suggested that there must be a better way. Another of the vocal members suggested that some people may just be trying to figure out where they fit in.

Two of the men who have felt shut down said that part of their frustration is that the group does not always pay attention when people have raised hands. Another spoke up to own that he doesn’t always honor the raised hands because he gets really excited about ideas and conversation. “We do it too much,” he said, promising to be better. “I do this the worst,” confessed another man. “You should just cut me off. I actually like getting cut off.”

One man noticed that the conversation was once again mostly among the five or six most vocal participants. “This is a group discussion,” he said, then gestured to a group of men who had said very little. They remained mostly silent, so our Gloucester said he didn’t really see the problem. He said he felt like “our chemistry has grown,” but admitted that he has “blind spots” (he chuckled a little at himself about his blind spots), and added, “That’s a lot of where this comes from.” A few people nodded. “Yes,” chimed in another man, “and it’s a slippery slope.”

Then a veteran who had been part of this ensemble since day one spoke up. “All this sounds great,” he said, but in “real life,” it was actions that counted. “If a guy doesn’t feel safe in the group, he’s not going to share.”

A bunch of guys started piling on, asking what the answer should be. One member said, “I’m about the action. What do we do?” At this point, the man who started the conversation intervened to gently redirect: “We’re not looking for answers today,” he clarified. He said that they were looking to give people a chance to explain their thoughts and feelings, and he warned against focusing on solutions now. “We’re doing something more here than just putting on a play,” he said.

A few of the guys were still visibly defensive, but Frannie stepped in to explain that some people have felt like confidence was betrayed, and she used the example of the women’s ensemble to explain that SIP has only had long term problems with members who’ve broken confidence when the breach is kept secret or the person responsible has denied it. “Over there, it’s airtight,” she said of the women’s ensemble.

A new member spoke up to affirm that he didn’t completely trust the group yet. “There is something hanging over this ensemble,” he said. “Maybe y’all don’t know it, but I see it.” One of our veterans added that the “dynamic has changed.” He said he didn’t want to speak for others, but he knew that some people were holding back because they worried that what they said might leave the confines of the group. “We’re not as tight as the groups were here before,” he closed.

One vocal member had been holding a comment in for a while. “I don’t give a fuck what people say about me on the yard,” he said. “We all got problems. I got problems… This is about being in a group. This happens in a group.” He spoke a little about how he resisted SIP for a long time--he’s never liked being in big groups, and he’s not a generally trusting person, he said--until a couple of veteran members talked him into it. “I didn’t think I’d talk,” he said, “then I just started talking. Now, I can’t stop talking!” And everyone laughed; he described himself perfectly.

The man who talked about our changing dynamic jumped back in to say that he had personally heard people bring up things that happened to him in SIP--people who are not part of the ensemble. Another member said he had had a similar experience. A man who had stayed mostly quiet said that, from his perspective, the people who left the ensemble did it because they had trust issues with the group. He said this with understanding, adding that he also had a trust issue for a long time, but that he had gotten over it.

The man who’d said he couldn’t stop talking chimed in again to say that all sorts of people had opened up during the season as a result of the process. He was still a little dismissive of caring too much what gets said about him on the yard. “I been doing this too long, in the joint, to care too much for that.”

Matt stepped out of the room for a few minutes. This section is written by Frannie:

One of the guys said he didn’t see why people would vent about each other on the yard--that this group is important enough to him that he’s been keeping a “problem” with another member to himself and has just limited contact, rather than causing any undue tension. Remarkably, he addressed this person directly, saying more or less that he didn’t dislike him, but that he got really aggravated with him a lot. That member smiled and said, “Shoe’s on both feet!” He said, too, that he’d love to have a conversation about it any time, though the man who’d brought it up said he wasn’t ready. I thanked them both for being so open and so civil, and I offered to mediate that conversation whenever they were ready.

Another member touched on the “outside talk” issue once more, urging people not to “get on the bandwagon” with those conversations. Some of the guys get a lot of shit from their friends outside the ensemble and can feel intense pressure to respond a certain way. Navigating a new identity is an enormous challenge--we all know that--but we still expect sensitive things to be kept within the group.

Our Lear said his only real problem with anyone is when they come “unprepared” to work, meaning that they haven’t spent a lot of time with their lines or are unfamiliar with their scenes. A veteran said he gets it, but not to let it drive him crazy: this is how some people learn to be prepared! He suggested that members gather outside of regular sessions to increase familiarity and comfort--with the play, and with each other.

It felt like the conversation was coming to a close, so I proposed an action plan. Each individual will honestly assess how they might be contributing to the problem, AND how they can contribute to the solution. We must do this for ourselves, as individuals, and be willing to be held accountable by others when we make mistakes (because we will). By that same token, we must trust that every other member is doing the same thing, and we must be sure to be constructive when we let them know that they’ve made a mistake. We will do our very best to let go of any issues that came up before today so we can move forward. And we’ll know the plan is working as trust re-solidifies, and when ensemble members stop hearing sensitive things they’ve shared on the yard. The man who’d initiated the conversation read a poem to wrap up, and we moved on.

Back to Matt!

At last, we dove into working on our scenes. Frannie went to write down the guys’ measurements for costumes, but that still left everyone we needed to run through the end of Act 1. It took a little while to get back into acting mode, and the first scene--Act 1, scene 4--was long and energetic, but we worked our way into it. By the end of the scene, as Lear (Juan) strode back onstage to offer another curse at Goneril, we were in the swing of it!

Act 1, scene 5 is an intimate moment between Lear and the Fool--Kent is onstage for a second before leaving them alone. Before starting, I went to Lear and the Fool to ask what story they wanted to tell with the scene. Fool wasn’t sure, since it was his first time through the scene, but Lear had a clear idea in mind. “This is when Lear starts to lose it,” he said.

The scene is short--only a minute or so--so the guys ran through it once to try it out. At the end, a lot of the guys who had been watching were a little bit confused. Our Fool admitted to his own confusion: “I don’t know what this is,” he said. “What’d y’all see?” Our Regan described his idea of the Fool’s attitude, saying, “It’s like, ‘I’m telling you now that this is gonna happen. You won’t believe me, but it’s gonna happen.’”

They ran it again, but there was still something missing. A couple of the guys jumped in to suggest that Lear stand up and be more dynamic with his movements, but Lear dismissed those ideas, thanking them but sticking to his vision of the scene as small, intimate, subtle, and seated. Meanwhile, I asked the Fool what he was really trying to tell Lear throughout the scene. He said, “That he screwed up, but there’s nothing he can do now. It’s too late.” I suggested that he try focusing on getting that information across to Lear, regardless of the words he was saying, just as an exercise. Then we reset for the top.

The third time, which is so often the charm, looked like a totally different scene. The Fool’s urgency propelled both actors forward, infecting Lear with the same dynamic energy, and they finished the scene in half the time it took last time. “That was great!” exclaimed Lear, “I just fed off him.” The men who were watching mostly agreed, although one said that he wanted something more. “There’s a disconnect in that scene somewhere,” he said. “What are you trying to project?” The Fool answered immediately. “I think we’re trying to project that disconnect,” he said. “I’m trying to tell him that It’ll be the same shit with [Regan]. But he’s not hearing me.”

Our Regan had an idea for improving the fourth run. He turned to Lear and told him to resist being pulled along by the Fool’s urgent energy. That was the note, it turned out, that needed to be given. The fourth run was truly accomplished--touching, really. The Fool’s need to communicate something to Lear and Lear’s total inability to hear or understand his message were beautifully specific and crystal clear. Lear, in fact, seemed to be so lost in his thoughts that he could barely see his companion, who was trying so desperately to tell him something important--to save him. After that run, both Lear and the Fool exchanged a look and smiled at each other; in their characters’ disconnect, they had connected.

Friday / December 22
Written by Coffey

Today’s session saw the men particularly energetic and excited to rehearse (mostly because the play is really coming together, but partially because of some holiday candy). Our Gloucester shared with us that he had found his character’s “secret weapon,” a cane! “It’s helped me to perceive what it’s like to rely on something like this,” he said. He explained that using a cane in rehearsal, and also outside of sessions, has helped him to better understand Gloucester’s world and sympathize with his outlook. Gloucester wasn’t the only character in the group that was becoming more realized. Goneril checked in, saying, “I’m glad that Lear is gone, but my place is all smashed up and the silverware is gone.” Another man, who plays one of Lear’s attendants, replied to Goneril’s concerns: “I’d say sorry about the place, but I’m not. And as for the silverware, have you looked behind the dresser?”

After more life updates, and even a beautiful new poem from one of the men, Frannie wrapped up the check-in by telling the guys about our plans to bring in some guests to sessions in the upcoming months. One man expressed excitement at the thought of sharing the SIP experience with new people: “Anytime you can bring anybody in here from the outside, that’s a good thing! We want as much exposure as possible.”

Before we began our rehearsal, one man shared with the group his concern that scene I.v, because of some bumpy rehearsals, might need to be cut: “I think for the amount of time we’ll spend on it, it won’t be worth it… I don’t think we’re gonna get it right.” This concern sparked a fruitful conversation as many members of the group came to the scene’s defense.

One man pointed out that the way the other man’s concern was phrased might be hurtful to those who act in the scene: “When you say, ‘We’re not gonna get it right,’ and you’re not in the scene—I don’t like it. Because you’re not one of the guys who’s up there trying to get it right… It feels like you’re taking their work away.” The man quickly responded, “That’s not what I meant!” The other interjected, “I know—that’s what I’m telling you,” and the first man further clarified that, while he wasn’t at all questioning the capability of the actors, the scene felt out of sync. “I think this scene isn’t supposed to be synchronized,” one man said, pointing out that Lear and the Fool’s relationship begins to shift during that scene, and their usual roles fall out of joint. Frannie asked if maybe the issue here was the wording that the first man had chosen to express his concern.

Our Lear calmly said, “It is true, [NAME], the way you phrase things makes a difference. I’m up there busting my ass, learning the lines, and you come and say, ‘That ain’t right.’” The first man emphatically responded, “I don’t mean to come across as saying you aren’t doing a good enough job… I want to clarify that.”

Another man pointed out that “these initial run-throughs are just rough run-throughs… This is just a rough draft of what may or may not happen in the final show.” Another man redirected the discussion, reminding us all to ask ourselves if I.v furthers our original concept. “A couple weeks ago we came up with a sentence to define the play,” he said. “To me, this [scene] fits.” Matt pointed out that the man’s concern helped us to reevaluate what makes this scene important to the play. With that in mind, and reminding ourselves that we are only just in rehearsals, we agreed to keep the scene for now and see how it fares in the future.

We focused on II.i and II.ii, a large sequence that takes place in Gloucester’s castle. The men had great instincts and thoughtfulness with the scene, giving it a much-needed sense of urgency. Even Gloucester, with his cane, used that momentum to hurry towards the wounded Edmund and tear off his knit hat to help dress his wound. At one point Gloucester became the center of discussion, as the men began to give him suggestions as to how he, as an old man, should behave on stage. Frannie reminded everyone that, especially since Gloucester is very much still a character in the making, it would be best to stay away from “should” or “shouldn’t” comments, and instead ask the actor what he might be feeling are possibilities for the scene. The ensemble can also tend to overload actors with notes between runs, a habit that did get progressively less pervasive throughout the rehearsal.

In moving forward with the two scenes, blocking ended up taking the center of attention. Beyond the basic complications of microphone and backdrop placement, a lot of time was spent planning out entrances, major crosses, and exits. One member reminded the group that we have four entrances to take advantage of. He then shared his vision for the scene’s blocking, walking the actors through each major shift. The resulting blocking was slick and had some striking images, but Frannie pointed out that, at some points, it felt like the actors were fighting their instincts in order to stick to the staging. What was encouraging, though, was that many actors were giving blocking suggestions or making choices for the sake of character and storytelling. Gloucester, for instance, when given the suggestion to sit during II.ii, refused, holding to the character’s worry and sense of decorum within the scene. The blocking choices during this rehearsal were many and strong. Thankfully, our “stage manager” did a good job of trying to synthesize everyone’s ideas into a cohesive whole.

It was encouraging to see material from some of our previous exercises being pulled into onstage work today, as the men began to show developed characters and storytelling. Regan, for instance, was using a mix of stick and veil physicality (taken from the Chekhov centers exercise) to great effect, giving the character a regality and femininity that stood out among the other men on stage. Another man, while standing in a tableau, moved to prevent another actor from upstaging himself without missing a beat, practically out of habit. The man playing Kent has even begin to string some of his own personality into the character, giving Kent a personality that I had never thought to give him, but that is becoming more and more interesting and engaging as it grows. The men repeatedly encouraged each other to stick with their characters’ thoughts, instincts, and relationships. One man recounted a previous rehearsal in which he was swept into the scene by another actor’s performance, promising the other actors that, if they stay present on stage, “you’ll feed off each other.”

It was obvious that many of the men had spent time outside of sessions thinking and practicing, a trend that promised to continue, as one man suggested that everyone try working with a partner on scenes outside of sessions. Several men even offered to organize a time and space for outside practice, a great piece of encouragement that will hopefully carry into future sessions.

Season Two: Week 25

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This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / December 11
Written by Frannie

As planned, we began our work by running Act I, scene ii, without stopping—the scene is more or less divided into three parts, and we hadn’t rehearsed them in sequence yet.

It worked beautifully! Our Edmund took his time preparing and delivered a deliberate, connected, and very believable soliloquy. When Gloucester entered, his approach was much more natural than last week—it was clear that he’d spent significant time with the scene on his own—and the two connected with each other more than we’d seen in the past. Gloucester kidded with Edmund when asking for the letter, then slowly grew more and more horrified as he read it. The hurt and anger were palpable, and as he wandered off, rambling and disoriented, Edmund turned to us with a smirk that caused a ripple of knowing chuckles in the ensemble, and we watched as our Edgar played naturally right into Edmund’s hands.

“You guys killed that up there with the way you interacted!” exclaimed one man as we applauded. “It was like everything was happening for a reason. That was the pinnacle of the scene right there!” Others commented on specific moments they’d loved, praised the men for incorporating all the work we’d done on the scene, and offered suggestions of how we can build on it. As an ensemble, we’re working on using “could” instead of “should”; it’s one of those subtle things that can make all the difference in how an actor hears our suggestions. Our Gloucester said he “should have created more urgency… that [Edgar] should get caughtfor this mess,” and the group reminded him that he’s already on his way: on the line “Hath he sounded you?” he actually threw the letter at Edmund in his sudden, irrational anger.

We moved on to Act I, scene iii. Our Goneril and Oswald consulted with a man who’s gone through his entire script, sketching out blocking ideas. The two actors then set a small table and chair center stage and took a moment to focus before they entered. They walked into the performance space in silence, and Goneril sat in the chair before speaking. He stood up for a few lines, then sat back down; all the while Oswald hovered without moving much.

“How did that feel?” I asked when the scene ended. Before either actor could answer, another ensemble member good-naturedly said, “Not COLD enough!” I joked that I hadn’t been asking him (we all know at this point that the actors get to answer first!), but none of us actually minded, and the actors said they agreed with him. How to do this, then? Our Goneril said he had probably been thinking too much and hadn’t felt connected; our Oswald said (rightly) that he couldn’t do much independently and would just go off whatever Goneril did.

Another man suggested a way that Goneril could alter his movement to feel more natural with a character this angry. Several guys joked about what he might be implying, and the man cut them off gently, saying, “I’m not asking [NAME] to do anything—I’m asking [NAME] to be [NAME].” He then demonstrated what turned out to be the quintessential “walk” this guy does when he’s angry. We also helped Goneril clarify his objective (as it stands now: “to manipulate the situation”), and we ran the scene again.

There was an immediate improvement: both actors felt more connected to their lines, and they clearly connected more with each other. Goneril’s urgency increased to a point where he never sat down. We asked the two what made all of that happen. “I just changed my mind frame,” said Goneril. “I got more frustrated.” Another man said it had seemed like there was an invisible rope between the two of them, their movements had been so complementary. “Every single time he would move, I would give way to him,” Oswald said. He continued, “When [he] gave me the order to be mean to King Lear, I was like, ‘Oh, this’ll be fun.’” And Goneril’s heightened energy seemed to have made the furniture unnecessary, so we struck it.

But our Goneril, who takes this work very seriously, was still not satisfied. This ensemble member has been reading several acting books and is currently up to his eyeballs in Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor. Building on the imaginary centers exercise the ensemble did, as well as the deeper research he’s doing, I suggested that he center Goneril in “thinking” and imagine that his fingers were long icicles, briefly demonstrating how that “imaginary body” could help him achieve what he’s going for. “And you’d better look out,” I said to Oswald, “because those things are sharp!”

This time, things really started to click. Goneril was downright scary; Oswald seemed legitimately scared of her! “The rigidity made it clear that there was no changing your mind,” said one man to Goneril. “The first couple of times, there were some places in the dialogue where you could have changed your mind… Not this time.” We unanimously agreed. “I could sense your discomfort,” said another man. Goneril warned us to be grown-ups and then revealed that, in addition to his other methods, he’d imagined himself to be wearing a corset in order to really stiffen his spine. He’d also used Chekhov’s “radiating” to picture himself doing actions before he moved; that had helped him think less and feel more natural.

After a lot of planning, we launched into Act I, scene iv, in which Kent shows up in disguise, we meet the Fool, and Goneril and Lear have their first big conflict. There were a lot of starts and stops—it’s a complicated scene with dynamics that are a little buried in the text, but we found them! Or at least we started to find them… Once the Fool entered, everyone struggled to connect. Increasing Lear’s and the Fool’s physical proximity helped (“Sometimes it’s just that simple,” said one man), but something was still missing. For whatever reason, our Fool took a lot of that on himself, and the ensemble began making all sorts of suggestions to help him out. The result, though, was that he got really overwhelmed, and as our time began to run out, I took him aside with just a couple other guys to talk him down a little.

“I don’t know, man,” he said. “This felt good the first time I read it, but now I don’t know.” I asked if he could remember what had been enjoyable before, and he said it had been “just being a jester.” Our small group encouraged him to go back to that for now, and to build from there as he becomes more comfortable. This man is a musician, and I compared this kind of character work to producing a song: start with just one element, and then layer on others one at a time till you’ve got the sound and balance you want. “That helps a lot,” he said, already relieved.

We left it there, planning to come back to the Fool’s entrance and move forward from there on Friday.

Friday / December 14
Written by Matt


Today we were in an unfamiliar classroom--another program was having its graduation ceremony in the gym. Perhaps because of the change in setting or just because it was time, we took our time during check-in. One member reminded us that he wrote a paper on composer Hector Berlioz’s obsession with Shakespeare. “Well, I got 100 percent on it!” he said, and everyone clapped. And speaking of successes with writing, four of our members read poetry at the poetry slam on Tuesday, and two were ranked among the best! Also, because it was the right time, there was general agreement when one of the guys suggested doing a status update on the group next Tuesday.

Our Lear was ready to do scene work! “I wanna cuss out Goneril!” he said, and we picked up where we left off: Act I, scene iv. After doing so much work on the Fool on Tuesday, we gave him some space to explore his character. He still wasn’t happy with it. “I worked on it yesterday,” he said, “I had a cool little accent I was gonna put on, but I guess I got shy.” He demonstrated, and the voice altered his entire demeanor. When he was done, a bunch of the guys commented that he hadn’t actually changed his accent at all; it was the quality of his voice that had changed. It was almost like a song, someone said. “[Fool’s lines] are like a song,” our Fool agreed.

Meanwhile, one of the guys was trying to figure out the tone of the scene. “Do we want to laugh at that point?” he asked, “Is that what we want?” The Fool replied with a chuckle, “I think it’s all funny.” Lear was having none of that: “Not the Fool,” he said, “No. He’s telling the truth.” The man who had brought it up took a step back and commented on how we could use humor to help tell the story: “This is the way with comedy. You take it so far, then you pull it back. You take it so far, you pull it back.”

The second time through that section, the Fool started using his hat as a prop, handing it to Lear and Kent, then taking it away. When they paused again before Goneril’s entrance, our Kent immediately praised the performance. “I liked the acting of the physicality better [this time].” He said it worked “even with you stopping and reading the [cue] cards.” Our Edgar, watching from the audience, spoke for everyone when he said, “Even from last week to now: huge improvement.”

Once Goneril entered, though, things began to get a little muddled. This ensemble’s love of analysis and debate, which was so much fun when we were reading the play, has continued to dog our rehearsal process. The issue was sharpened by the acoustics of the classroom we were in, which transformed any person’s voice into a booming echo. In the rooms we normally use, it’s a little harder to hear side conversations or people talking over each other. Not so here. We spent a few minutes circling back several times to Goneril’s body language, with several people offering suggestions. At some point, Frannie had to cut it off. “This is one of those times when we’ll need to just save whatever else we wanted to say for later.” That did the trick, but it’s still going to be an issue for us in the future. This group’s enthusiasm just needs a little bit of direction!

The second time through, we were able to finally run the scene up to its end. It was rough, but we got through it, and there was a lot to work with. Our Lear wondered about when the king’s rage starts to show. “Is the anger starting at ‘Darkness and devils’?” he asked. “It’s not what you say,” replied Frannie, “it’s what you hear.” She explained that we too often think about acting as being based on our own lines when, in fact, our characters are most often responding to someone else’s words or actions.

Naturally, since it comes up in the language of the scene, Lear’s madness became a question. “Is he just under the influence,” said one of the men, referring to our idea that Lear had perhaps been drinking with his knights before entering the scene, “or is he starting to slide off into his mental illness?” Our Lear had a ready answer: “I don’t think he’s come to that point yet.” The Fool explained Lear’s towering rage differently, “He thought they were all joking, and he thought [Goneril] was joking. But she’s not. That’s what it is.” Immediately, our Edgar chimed in to wonder, “Is he actually mad at a person, or is he mad because he has to get out of his old King Lear mentality?” Our Cornwall answered, “He wants to drink with the boys and enjoy his self, and then she wants him to stop. And he’s thinking, ‘Man, I raised you to respect me!”

As is so often the case, the third time was the charm. We ran the scene from Goneril’s entrance, and everything began to fall into place. Lear was having fun playing off the knights before growing into a venomous rage at Goneril near the end. “I feel like y’all really understand what y’all are saying!” said a new member right after we finished. Another noted how Goneril and Albany moved each other, countering and working as a unit.

At last, we started from the top and ran the whole thing together. It was great. Kent snuck offstage so surreptitiously that almost no one noticed. Albany and Goneril played off each other, although she finally moved him aside when he was in the way, which was perfect! Lear’s “Darkness and devils” gave me chills… but afterwards, Lear mused aloud that “I feel like if [our Goneril] was a woman, it would be a whole lot harder to say those things.”

Season Two: Week 24

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This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / December 4
Written by Matt


As goofy as they can be, these guys do not waste time in getting to the heart of things! One of our core ensemble members read us a short piece he has been working on. It was somewhere between a poem and an essay, and it had an immediate effect on the ensemble--and on him. Right after he finished, another guy gave a whoop of support, and another mimed dabbing the reader’s eyes with a tissue. “Where’d that come from?” asked our Albany. “Something I’m going through,” answered the man who had read.

“Hey! Did you feel something right then, as you were reading?” asked one of the guys. When the reader said he did, the first man confessed that he often doesn’t feel anything when he knows he’s supposed to feel something, but then he’ll feel more than he “should” about something totally unconnected to him, like a song or a moment in a film. Some of the other guys understood exactly what he was talking about. One added, “I’ve felt like that before, but I’ll tell you--it sometimes takes the weirdest thing to make me feel it.” He went on to say that he didn’t know how to deal with those emotions as a teenager, so they just ended up confusing him or getting him into trouble.

“So, that’s normal?” asked the man who had brought the issue up, “for someone to feel something and not know what it’s about?” Our Lear nodded, saying, “You don’t know how much you got buried until you go digging.” The man who read his piece added, “You’ve got to make yourself vulnerable to go there.” They talked about sometimes feeling like they go around with masks on, and the man who read earlier said, “Sometimes, you get so used to putting on the mask--you don’t really know how to take it off.”

A few guys talked about how stories help them reckon with themselves. The man who read his piece said that when “it all builds up, I just have to [write]... This is the only outlet I have!” Another said that writing his autobiography and reading it out loud helped him put his memories into context and establish the events that shaped him: “There are certain key events in your life that dictate how you are,” he said, but said that he couldn’t figure those out until he wrote them as part of a larger narrative about his life.

This conversation was really great, and it was also a bit of balancing act for the facilitators. Shakespeare in Prison is not a therapy group, and none of us is a trained therapist (whenever we verge into these sorts of conversations, Frannie and others periodically remind the ensemble of that fact). At the same time, the safety of our ensemble gives our members a rare chance to be vulnerable and genuine--for some of them, it is the only place where they feel safe opening up--and we would never want to lose that benefit of the group. So we end up acting as guardrails in these conversations, not so much actively responding to members’ thoughts and stories as actively listening to them, staying alert to anything that feels beyond our competencies. This conversation never went there--it was an important moment for these men to connect and share experiences--but Frannie eventually urged us on to new ground, once the guys who wanted to share had had a chance to do so.

The other check-ins were about personal updates or the play. Our Edgar has been spending a lot of time visualizing the performance, and he has been working his way through the scenes, thinking about them in terms of some of the exercises we have done this season. He said that he was analyzing the objectives of each of the characters in each scene (working from that central question of modern acting: What do I want?), and, which was even more exciting, he had been visualizing the play in terms of a series of wordless tableaus, based on the Freeze Frame game we played with Vanessa earlier this season. He also had a really great suggestion: “I wonder if it would be possible to run through the entire play, but without saying any words.” He thought it might help clarify motivations and movement onstage, and it would relieve the barrier of needing to know the words. There was a lot of excitement about this idea, and we tabled it for another day.

Then, our Gloucester revealed that he had written a “Dear John” letter to his previous interpretation of the character. He tried to get out of reading it. Frannie, however, was having none of that; she dragged a chair to the center of the ring and pointed to it. The letter was absurd--absurdist, really. “I need to break up with my old vision of you,” he said. “You will not [anymore] look like Monty Python… Even your daddy gave me the authority to control you.” It was funny, but by the second page (yes, there were more than two pages), the absurdity had become a piece of comic genius. Having dispensed with “Old Gloucester,” he welcomed the new character, named “Big Money G-Lo” into his life.

“Your name is Big Money G-Lo. What’s up?” the letter began. What follows was copied with his permission:


You order your Starbucks as:
Venti Mocha Caramel Latte
with 2 pumps of syrup
Stirred
And absolutely NO foam
You don’t like foam; it drives you crazy.
Foamless.


Your Fav designers are
Tom Ford
Versacci
Gucci
Armani

You shop:
Nordstrom
Boutiques/customized taylor

Malls are Nothing but Peasants Shop!

You don’t like
Macy’s - thrift store
Sears - Ha!
Walmart - Base criminal. Over my dead body
Dollar store - I will crush them with my wallet (Lear bought that)
Banana Republic - 3rd world country


Everyone thought that this was about the funniest thing we had ever heard, and it led us right into the next scene, in which Gloucester shows up after Edmund’s monologue in Act I, scene ii. The run-through was solid, if a little rough, but the guys were already beginning to implement some of what they practiced on Friday. During our debrief, one of the guys brought up the characters’ ages, and we stopped to discuss it. The relative ages of Edgar and Edmund are set by the text (“I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of a brother” says Edmund), but not their actual ages, Gloucester’s age, or the difference between the brothers’ ages and their father’s.

As we discussed it, Frannie asked our Gloucester if he might be judging his character. He looked a little startled as he thought. “Yeah…” he said. “I guess I am.” Frannie talked a bit about the importance of not judging your characters--something we all need to be reminded of sometimes. When she was finished, one of the older members of the group jumped in to talk about the age discussion, which had put Gloucester tentatively in his sixties. “All you cats playing older characters, I can really help you!” He went on to describe his own experience of ageing. “When I turned 60, a lot of things changed in me that became a part of my persona,” he said, but then he added that the number of years is both important and also a poor unit of measurement for what going through life feels like. “The process is not about the numbers,” he said. “The process is about ageing.” He turned to our Lear and said, “There will be some times when Lear is capable, but no one thinks he’s capable.”

On a second run through the scene, both the actions onstage and the relationships were clearer. Afterwards, Gloucester said, “it felt more natural.” He said that the age discussion had helped, as had Frannie’s comment about judgment. “After the epiphany of [his] age--and to slow it down--you can actually marinate in the words.” Then, turning to the man who had spoken with such candor about his own experience of ageing, our Gloucester assured him that speaking slowly is not an “old people thing.”

“What center did you have, Gloucester?” asked out Lear, calling back to Friday’s work. Gloucester thought for a moment, then answered, “When I came in, it was a thick veil. But that veil got lighter as I was thinking. Lighter, and more vulnerable. And when I saw Edmund, I thought he saw my veil, and I needed to get myself together; nothing to see here!” He described how he had chosen an unconscious tic for Gloucester (pulling up and fixing the collar of his coat) that embodies his discomfort with being seen.

“Don’t explain it to me!” cut in another member. “I thought you were really believable! You really looked like you were cold.” Then he turned to Edmund and said that he had been less believable. Frannie instantly asked whether our Edmund had been thinking. He said he had been, and tried to walk through his actions again. The crux of the issue is how Edmund should act with his prop--a letter that he has forged, which he wants his father to read but needs to pretend the opposite. As guys got up to try to offer suggestions, they started debating the notes they were giving, building up a head of steam on this one point: When should he turn around? How much should he smile or frown? It is a slow turn, or more of a spin? How much should he act like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar? Meanwhile, our Edmund stood in the playing space, looking a little lost.

Eventually, Frannie had to step in to bring the litigation to a close, saying that she heard a lot of versions of the same note. “We had a good idea 10 minutes ago, and now we’re beating it to death.” On the one hand, we hate to do this, but on the other, it is sometimes necessary with this ensemble. This group of guys is so intellectual, so full of ideas, and so comfortable batting ideas around that they get carried away with the conversation, rather than thinking about it in terms of what the actor on stage needs. They also do what a lot of people do: describe how they would do a certain scene, rather than offering suggestions that open a path forward for the actor. Still, we don’t like driving the conversation. We’re still figuring out the balance here, which is part of the challenge of facilitating SIP.

The debate didn’t hurt the performance, though. The final time through, both Edmund and Gloucester hit so many high points! Gloucester was painfully self-conscious on being discovered in his thoughts, without being remotely funny. His energy gave Edmund permission to be cutting and cruel in his explanation of the fake letter’s fake context, gathering his voice into a weapon when he talked about overhearing Edgar discussing “father’s decline.” Gloucester grew to a towering rage, and his voice as he spoke the words, “Edmund, seek him out!” was altered: deeper, barbed with fury, and commanding.

Afterwards, there was a jubilant reaction to the performance. Asked what happened, our Gloucester again put it in terms of the Michael Chekhov exercises we did on Friday. “I usually talk from my will center,” he said, “so I got that in my old life. But I was thinking about how Gloucester would drop into his will center.” One of the guys in the audience said the connection between Gloucester and Edmund was perfect. “Yeah,” said Gloucester, “I was really feeling it. Like, yeah! Let’s go get this guy!” Then he turned to us and said, “I have a confession to make. I wanted to go down on my knees with him” during the scene, when Edmund kneeled. The group erupted briefly in support (“Oh my God!” “Yeah!” “Come on!” etc.), and Gloucester said he was really bummed he hadn’t followed that instinct.

There was plenty of love for Edmund, too. “I was right there with y’all!” exclaimed a usually quiet member. A number of people commented on the layers of Edmund’s character as embodied by our ensemble member--how there’s so much pretense, so much acting. He piped up to say, “That’s it! I’m an actor playing an actor that’s acting!”

As we hurried to put the ring up in the final moments of the session, our Edmund added, “You know how we were reading through this [play], and we were all, like, ‘Oh, this is so sad; this is so depressing.’ There’s comedy there.” He ran through blatantly “hiding” his forged letter again. “That’s comedy.”

Friday / December 7
Written by Frannie

Well, I called it.

Our Gloucester kicked off check-in with a follow-up to Tuesday’s meeting. “I have a confession to make,” he said. “Frannie, you were right. I was absolutely projecting myself onto Gloucester.” He paused. “That’s one of my greatest weaknesses, that I can be judgmental sometimes.” He took out his notebook, grinning. “So I wrote him another letter.” This letter was in the same style as the first, apologizing for being “harsh” and judging Gloucester. “This is my way of making up for what I did… The truth hit me right in the eye. Sorry. Too soon.” He said he had been thinking of himself playing Gloucester, not of the character himself. He offered to pick him up, let him play his favorite music in the car, and buy him any kind of coffee he wanted—even if it was “just java chip.”

“See, I have to understand that I’m catering to you,” part of the letter read. “This is your story, even though we share experiences. You are your best you. Your best self is you, and if I would like to tell your story to the fullest potential, I have to humble myself and let Gloucester speak for yourself. I am at your service and I in the past foamed you up, I foamed it up big time…”

He finished reading his letter, and there was a brief silence as Matt and Coffey looked slyly at me. I had been barely containing myself this entire time—now I threw my notes on the ground (as usual) and yelled, “I CALLED IT!”

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There it is, time-stamped and everything. (This was in the SIP facilitators’ Slack workspace—I cannot recommend this app enough!).

As our Gloucester (and everyone else) cracked up, one of the guys exclaimed, “How did you DO that? Do you, like, have some kind of magical power or something?” Another man said, “Nah, man, she’s just been doing this a long time!” Our Gloucester, still laughing, said, “Oh my GOD, I can’t believe you did that.” “I’ve got your number!” I said.

Once I’d finished my virtual victory lap (and apologized for said victory lap), we returned to our Gloucester’s epiphany. “Being judgmental really is my greatest weakness,” he said again. “And, you know, sometimes I overcompensate by really focusing on my strengths…” He shivered a little and looked at me, then back at the group. “I feel so vulnerable right now, but it’s so cool, though. I usually in the past wouldn’t talk about my weaknesses like that, but I feel good!”

“Can I check in?” asked one of our newest members. “I just wanna say, I had a good time Tuesday… I have a really hard time being open about myself, but the way everyone was comfortable laying it all out there—I really liked that… I do have such a hard time opening up, but I feel… I feel like I could probably slowly get there.”

“Shakespeare shows you how to like different people,” said one man in response. And another said, “That’s why I come here: the stuff that’s not Shakespeare. I only kinda like Shakespeare… But it’s the dynamic here… There are a lot of people here I wouldn’t hang out with… I don’t have this out there. What I have in here, I don’t have out there.” The new member nodded and said, “I wouldn’t have hung out with half of the people here if it wasn’t for this.”

Our Lear said he’d been doing a lot of text work, both analytical and in terms of memorizing his lines. He said he’d really gotten into it in his cell the other night, which led to the following exchange when his bunkie came in:

Bunkie: “What you so mad about?”
Lear: “I’m so fucking mad at my daughters right now!”
Bunkie: “I thought you had no kids.”
Lear: “No! It’s the play, man!”

As we laughed along with him, Lear said he really hadn’t been able to help getting kind of heated. “You’re right about the words,” he said. “At first, a lot of it didn’t make sense, but the words tell you how to be!” He also shared that when he repeatedly stumbled on (and couldn’t connect with) the word “clotpole”, he replaced it with “motherfucker”, read it that way a few times, and found that the original language worked perfectly when he went back to it.

This led to a brief conversation—always important to visit and revisit in SIP—about drawing from emotional experiences rather than reliving them. If we do the former, we’re safe; if we do the latter, we risk re-traumatizing ourselves. As our Edmund put it, “I know what that anger of not feeling accepted feels like… but I don’t have to go through it again… I don’t have to live in that one time. I know what that feeling feels like.”

This conversation could have lasted for a very long time, but we decided to cut it short for the time being so we could get on with the plan: watching the first episode of Playing Shakespeare. This series of filmed master classes from the Royal Shakespeare Company, filmed in 1984, is an incredible resource and a lot of fun to watch. The first episode is quite talky, and I had been concerned that it would be too academic to be very engaging, but the second people started laughing at the Christopher Marlowe monologue, I knew we were good.

Afterward, I asked the group what they thought. “I liked it,” said one of the guys. “I noticed that trying to have a normal conversation [with Shakespeare’s text] doesn’t work, and this kinda breaks it down for you. It never works when you try to do it the way someone talks now.”

“That’s the key, right? To let the words do the work?” said another man. “Shakespeare wrote it that way for a reason… I wanna add juice to it, but it’s not necessary… When you really just allow the speech to happen, the words will lead you where you need to go.”

“I took about 4-5 pages of notes,” said another man. “What stuck out to me was the marriage between naturalism and heightened language… You being to see that the emotions jump off the page… Man. I need to stop fighting with Shakespeare.”

“I feel like John Barton would have done better if he didn’t have actors who was so trained in their craft,” said one man with a smile. As we laughed, he said, “No, I’m serious... There’s no one way to see Shakespeare. We can sit around here and argue, but it comes down to the words… It’s not so different now. We live a little longer, we’ve got more ways to kill each other. But it’s the same.”

Another man agreed. “We’re approaching it from a whole different forum—from marriages, from experiences… A bunch of guys that’s trying to put something together—a bunch of people investing in their abilities to interact with other people… We’re not just doing a play… Our approach is unique.” Another man agreed, “Whatever they’re drawing from, we can’t draw from that… We’ve got to draw from our own things.”

“You’re right,” I said, “Our approach is unique, and in a lot of ways, I think it’s better.” Some of the guys nodded, while others looked at me doubtfully. “Really. I’ve gotta tell ya, when I describe this process and the discoveries you guys make about the plays, all the professionals I know get really intrigued and excited. And jealous.”

We picked our staging back up with the first scene between Edgar and Edmund, which is also the end of Act I, scene ii. Our Edgar was off book, though he refused any accolades for that, as his lines in the scene are very brief. Our Edmund was still working with centers, but, without a warm up, definitely struggled. “I got little cues for how I was feeling, but I couldn’t hit it,” he said. “I couldn’t hit my desperation… I don’t have anybody to rehearse with, so I try to imagine the other characters’ reactions, so I can use that.” Our Edgar responded, “I use the intent. The intent of the scene.”

Even so, there was some good stuff there, and when we asked them both to increase the urgency and see what happened, the scene really started to pick up. We left it in a good place and resolved to really kick out the jams on scene work when we meet again on Tuesday. The exercises and videos are great, but we do actually need to stage this play!