The Parnall ensemble, "Shakespeare Unchained", is on a break till the end of June, when we'll begin our first full season, working on King Lear. Stay tuned for weekly updates beginning then!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
“It’s like my whole body vibrates.”
“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.
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.
We began today’s session by checking in again, and we still seemed to be okay with it. We decided to give The Ring a whirl, though some of the guys clearly felt a little uncomfortable about it. One of our undisputed leaders went around the circle, miming as if he were holding a basket, and asked each of us to throw our piece of the ring in. That loosened us up a bit, and we finished out the exercise.
Several of the men, who live in the same unit, asked if they could show us the work they’d been doing on Act II Scene i. That proved to be an interesting way of taking on the scene—watching people give it a try rather than reading it first. I’m not generally a fan of this approach with Shakespeare—it tends to be challenging to figure out what one should be doing without having first puzzled through the language—but I always roll with the punches when the ensemble wants to try something out.
It was clear that this group had done a lot of work on the scene, but it’s a tough one to stage—it’s a lot of talking—and I wasn’t sure what the others had gotten out of it. We generally start with feedback from the people on stage, though, so I checked in with them first. “I like Prospero,” said one of the men. “He plays the bad guy, but he’s not really the bad guy.” As we talked more about the scene, he added, “I like the bullshitters—Sebastian and Antonio are total bullshitters.” It turned out that it was his first time performing for a group, which was shocking because he’s got such a knack for this, and we gave him a hand for taking that risk.
A man who’d been watching said that he liked the back-and-forth of the scene. “It’s like normal conversations,” he said, commending the men who’d read for doing a good job of conveying that.
Most of the men were pretty quiet, though. I asked them if any had drifted while watching—that if they had, it probably wasn’t the fault of the actors, and they shouldn’t feel bad about saying so. It turned out that many of us had. I reassured the men who’d read, again, that it wasn’t anything they’d done or hadn’t done—that this scene is just a LOT of talking with very little action, and it’s tough for contemporary audiences to stay focused on scenes like that.
One of the men, who was in the Othello ensemble, talked about how they need to really commit to their acting when performing in front of other inmates. That’s a very tough thing for many of them to do. “If you’re doing something and you don’t have no fear, it’s not even worth doing it,” said one man. The first man continued, “These guys [audience], they come from the streets—they have street smarts. They know when someone’s not being real. They know when that laugh is fake or that thing you said wasn’t for real.”
“We wear a mask every day,” said one man. Many of the men nodded, agreeing with him. The man who’d spoken of commitment continued, “Everybody wears a mask.” He gestured toward facilitator Matt and me, saying, “Sometimes I think these two do when they come in here.” He added, “When I used to sell drugs, when I’d talk to a skateboarder, I’d talk one way. With a homeboy, I’d talk a different way.” The first man chimed in, saying, “Every situation you jump into, you put on a uniform. That’s your mask.” A third man said, “It’s a set of skills,” and all agreed with him.
That first man brought it back around. “Doing Shakespeare, I’m nervous as hell. I’m sure we all were. But you gotta use that mask of confidence to get through that fear and nerves. Ain’t nothing wrong with that mask. It’s just how you use it.” Another man said, “Not to throw you all off, but I think everybody can do that—we all can do that.”
One man continued on that train of thought, saying he’s been impressed by the facilitators’ “professional actor prep.” I smiled wryly at him and said, “You’ve never done that in real life?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “It’s the same thing.”
Another man put it out there that you’re always playing a role; that it just depends on your environment. “It’s like when we get pulled over—or like when the C.O.s come—you literally role-playing.” A couple of the other men gave their own examples. “Are these masks or different aspects of who you are anyway?” I asked. The consensus was that it’s a combination, but usually whatever role you’re playing is a part of you. One man said that’s something he values about Shakespeare: his ability to see himself in and relate to the characters.
We shifted back to the scene itself. I asked what our takeaways should be, focusing first on the relationships between the characters. Antonio and Sebastian came up first—the way they make fun of Gonzalo. “They sound like pessimists, and he’s an optimist. You’re always gonna get friction there,” said one man. “Whenever Gonzalo says something positive, they have to bring him down.” One man added that he thought that Gonzalo seems like a “socialistic kind of Democrat,” while Sebastian and Antonio seem like “real reactionary Republicans.”
Another man asked why Ariel wouldn’t just leave Prospero, referring to his power as a spirit (we’re undecided on Ariel’s gender, but for simplicity’s sake, and because this is a group of men, I’m using male pronouns for now). It’s complicated. Some of the ideas that came up were that Prospero’s magic is stronger; that Ariel is intensely loyal; that he’s paying a debt; and that this is simply part of the play’s theme of incarceration: Ariel is not free to leave, period.
One man posited that Ariel can’t or won’t leave because he was there first and was “already bonded to the island itself.” Another man built on that, saying that Ariel and Caliban are natives, and Prospero has colonized the island—they shouldn’t have to think about leaving. Another mentioned that Caliban’s mother was an immigrant, and a second man jokingly said, “He’s an anchor baby!”
As the discussion continued, one man shook his head thoughtfully, saying, “It’s almost as if [Shakespeare] leaves you room to write a whole new play of your own.”
We decided to try out some improv, playing a game in which scene partners must begin each new line with the next letter of the alphabet. It is an extremely difficult game, and we had varying degrees of success. We tried to assess the reasons for that. “You get so focused on the letter, you lose the activity,” said one man, and he was absolutely right. We continued to play, reminding each other where our focus should be in each scene. One man came up with a scenario in which two others were supposed to be fighting off monstrous bugs, but they were fairly timid about it. I told them not to feel bad—that this is tough because, as adults, we’ve forgotten how to play and commit to something totally imaginary. Our instinct is to back off, and we have to unlearn that. It’s not easy.
There were a number of moments that really got us, even though the scenes overall didn’t work great. One of the men roped me into doing a scene with him, and somehow it turned into a series of taunts. When I said (my letter was J), “Just you wait till my boyfriend gets here,” my scene partner immediately came back with, “Kevin ain’t shit!” The whole ensemble burst out laughing and kind of couldn’t stop. Afterward we talked about why that had worked so well, and the answer was that he hadn’t thought about it—he’d just trusted his instinct, and that authenticity played really well.
We had to cancel our February 9 meeting due to a snowstorm, and when the guys arrived today, one of our leaders came right up to me with a plan he’d written out. He proposed breaking into four small groups that would each read and perform one of the next four scenes. He figured that if we did that and followed each scene with group discussions, we could get to the end of the play more quickly than with our usual method, which would be helpful since we’re a little behind.
I welcomed this man to lead the rest of the session, and he went about dividing people into groups and assigning roles. Some of the men were more hesitant than others, and all were extremely compassionate as they figured things out together, even switching roles to make each other more comfortable.
After about a half hour, we gathered to watch the scenes. The first was Act II, scene ii, the first scene between Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. These guys had great instincts, and, even with only a little bit of work, the scene was super funny. The man playing Stephano pretended to throw up at the end, which was a nice touch! I asked them how it had felt. “The more I do exercises like this, the more I understand it,” said the man who’d played Stephano. The man who’d played Caliban agreed, saying, “It makes it easier to relate to the characters when you can actually put movement behind the words.” A man who had not been in the scene remarked that he thought the casting was “destined,” and that these were the guys who should play these roles. We didn’t set anything in stone, though!
I asked for more feedback from the rest of the ensemble. One man mused, “It’s funny how they find this guy, and their first thought is how they can make money off him.” We talked about how typical that was in the era of colonization—how typical it still is in some ways. As we talked more about the scene, that same man said that the play shows the poor decisions people make under the influence of alcohol. We talked about who is taking advantage of whom in this scenario and decided that it’s mutual, and we’re going to keep an eye on the dynamic between these three.
We moved on to Act III Scene i, which is almost entirely between Ferdinand and Miranda. Ferdinand definitely begins the scene hauling logs, but I expected that the man playing him would come to stillness at some point. He didn’t, though. He just kept walking back and forth, miming as if carrying these logs. Meanwhile, the man playing Miranda stood still—it seemed like he couldn’t figure out how to do anything else with all of the back and forth.
Afterward, the man who’d played Ferdinand said, “I never wanna carry a log again!” We all laughed, and one man said, “That’s a big-ass fire!” I asked if the first man had felt an impulse to stop at any point, and he said that he had, but that he hadn’t been sure of what else he could be doing. I encouraged everyone to trust those instincts—if they’re not 100% right, they’ll lead us to where we need to go. Another man said he’d lost focus because the vocal delivery was fairly monotone, so we’ll want to work on that, too.
That brought us to Act III, scene ii, the next Caliban/Trinculo/Stephano scene. This scene, which is otherwise ridiculously funny and uncouth, is interrupted by an incredibly lyrical speech by Caliban about the island. I asked the ensemble what they thought about it. “He’s a poet and he doesn’t even know it,” said one man. “Yes!” I said. “What else?” Another man said, “He’s more intelligent than people give him credit for.” Right again. When no one else brought it up, I added that another feature of this speech is to convey how much Caliban loves the island. That’s important to remember.
We ended with Act III, scene iii, which was kind of confusing to watch without reading because there’s so much action that depends on staging and, probably, costumes. We got some of it, though, and the guy who played Ariel got a lot out of it. “Ariel’s a bad ass,” he said, adding that the spirit’s speech “almost had the feel of a condemning sermon… fire and brimstone… Almost a reckoning: remember your past sins… It’s almost as if she’s had enough of human nature—what we can visit on each other.”
During check-in, some of the men shared that they’ve been doing “deep improv” on their own time, exploring various characters and scenarios in an entirely open-ended way. They’re enjoying it and want to do it with the rest of the ensemble at some point. Several others shared, and then one man asked if we’d like to hear a poem he’d written. We eagerly agreed, and he launched into one of the most powerful spoken word performances I’ve ever been in the room with. He is incredibly skilled in his use of language and rhythm, and as a performer he’s simply breathtaking. He sat on the edge of a table, speaking his piece, connecting with us as a group and as individuals as he went. He’s been incarcerated for a very long time, and his piece explored the connections between people in (or in spite of) extreme circumstances. We were absolutely floored. I almost asked him to do it again when he’d finished but settled for thanking him as sincerely and emphatically as I could for sharing.
We played a couple of games and then divided up to read and stage the final two scenes of the play. We were short on actors, so facilitator Matt and I each ended up reading a couple of roles.
In my group, the man whose idea this approach was led us through our reading and discussion of the play’s final scene. “Like Frannie says, ‘What do we see?’” he asked. “I wanna say forgiveness,” said the man reading Prospero, “But it’s almost a half-assed forgiveness… It’s what everyone expects me to do.” He further explained that part of it is the “big picture” of getting Miranda and Ferdinand together. “It’s like political forgiveness, you know? It’s diplomacy.”
We tried out Act IV, scene i, on its feet, but that scene is just impossible to follow without an honest-to-goodness analytical reading. “Staging is gonna be important,” said one man. “This scene is really chaotic.” Everyone was really confused—even the people in the scene.
I said that, while I was truly glad we’ve tried this approach—and it has worked well in many ways—this is why our structure has always been to read each scene through and break it down as a group before we do anything else with it. This play is, for the most part, straightforward enough that watching unrehearsed staged readings conveys what we need, but with this scene in particular it just wasn’t possible. We need to go back and dig in.
And that’s fine. Part of SIP’s culture has always been that we try as a group, and we fail as a group, and then we figure out what we can do better—as a group. This wasn’t even a “failure,” per se. I wouldn’t call it that. We tried something new and identified what works and doesn’t work about it. It’s all good to know, and we wouldn’t know if we hadn’t tried.
The men who were still present at that point expressed their desire to explore the text in depth, particularly in regard to their vocal delivery. They are taken with the rhythm and musicality of the language, and they want to honor it. We decided that our plan for next week would be to finish reading and discussing the play on Tuesday, and to spend Friday on text and voice work. I’m excited about it. SIP isn’t focused on acting training, but when ensemble members are motivated and request it, I love sharing whatever techniques I can. I think it’s going to be really fun.
January 23, 2018
As we gathered for the first day of our winter/spring workshop, the energy was high and the work was clearly already underway. Returning ensemble members took attendance and conferenced with me about the possibility of using a backdrop in our next performance – enthusiasm for the program is such that people who aren’t even in the ensemble are putting the wheels in motion to make that happen!
After a rousing game of tape ball, we settled in for an orientation, talking over all aspects of the program, trying to cover of our bases. One of the men said, “We are here to prove that we are more than common criminals. We came, we saw, we conquered.” Another man said, “And you got to be a whore on stage.” This led to a bunch of the guys who were in Othello reminiscing about that process and quoting the play. That was so fun that we decided to do “demos” on Friday so we could show the new members what we work toward.
One man who recently went before the parole board encouraged everyone to stick with it and give it their all; he said that “like a quarter of my interview was about Shakespeare in Prison.” Another returning member, reflecting on his experience, said, “It’s home outside of prison. It gets you ready for the street mentally. Out there on the yard, something might get bad, serious, fast, but in here, you’re safe.” He continued, “It gave me a reflection of myself and brought me back to who I am. I’m a human being. I eat, I breathe, I sleep, I cry, I do everything the same as everybody else. We all human. So when somebody clowning on the yard, and people like, ‘look at this m-----r, man,’ I feel connected to them, like, we all human.”
We then proceeded to ask and answer our traditional three questions:
What brings you to Shakespeare?
What do you hope to get out of the experience?
What is the gift that you bring?
After that, we got into some improv. I was pulled aside before long by one of our returning members to talk over some interpersonal and logistical issues. There are a few things to look out for, but we’re not really worried about of them.
Earlier, one of the guys had jokingly used a Nazi salute during a game of Energy Around, and I had taken the opportunity to use that as an example of something that doesn’t contribute to our “safe space.” I made it clear that I didn’t mean to call him out specifically and that I knew it was a joke, but that we need to avoid things like that. At one point, the guy who’d made the gesture went into another room for a while with a few guys whom I know are regarded as mentors. Now he came over to me and apologized profusely. He said that he hadn’t meant anything by it – that he’s not an anti-Semite or a racist. He’s Latino, actually, and he said that racist jokes fly around on the yard all the time, and they don’t bother him. One of the mentors, though, had made it clear that things are different in Shakespeare in Prison. I thanked him for the apology and again made sure he knew that I didn’t think he was a bigot; it just wasn’t a good joke. He said he absolutely wouldn’t do anything like that again.
One of the men who was in Othello was going home the next day and came just to get a little last bit of fun and say goodbye. We had a good chat about his plans for when he goes home – including bringing his kids to see plays. He told me how much he’s appreciated SIP. He said that prison was a wakeup call, and SIP opened his eyes.
And then that mentor walked over to me with the guy who’d made the offensive gesture. “[Name] has something to say to you,” he said grimly. I looked at the younger man and back at the mentor and said, “Um… He already said it.” We all laughed – somehow that had escaped the mentor’s notice. “He’s young, you know?” he said to me. “He’s working on his insensitive thuggishness, and he didn’t think it through.” I said I got it, and that we all step in it sometimes. I reminded him of when I said something pretty insensitive last fall, and he constructively called me on it. “I needed that,” I said, “And now I won’t do it again.”
I returned to the group, who were playing “Freeze.” As I watched, I realized that they weren’t exactly playing by the rules. I checked in with a returning member to ask how the game had been explained, and he said that another returning member had walked everyone through it, but he wasn’t sure they’d understood.
I didn’t stop the game, though. The scenes were pretty safe at first, but everyone was engaged, and there has often been a lot of value in sitting back and just seeing where things have gone in our program. This time proved to be no different. As the game progressed, people became more creative. Suddenly a third person tagged himself into a scene, and then, after a few rounds with three people, another guy ran in, set up four chairs, and started a four-person scene in a car. Then a fifth person tagged in as a panhandler. And then the guy who’d set up the car called a freeze, grabbed another guy and two chairs, set them up behind the car, sat down, and started making police siren sounds. Everyone yelled and scattered. It was absolutely hilarious.
When our laughter and applause had died down a bit, the man who’d explained the game said, “That was great, but… We didn’t really do it right.” I said, “No, we weren’t playing it exactly by the rules, but that’s not a bad thing. People who know the rules would probably not have played it the way you just did, and that was SO much fun!” I also explained that, even when we know the rules, we’ll often find creative ways to break them in order to get more impact out of what we’re doing. I used the re-imagining of Othello’s first scene by two ensemble members (described earlier in this blog) as an example.
I went over the actual rules of the game, and we did another round. Even then, the group proved to be incredibly creative. We still wound up with more than two people in the scenes at times, and the scenes became more dynamic.
It was a great first day back! Everyone seemed happy and excited to pick it back up on Friday.
Friday, January 26
We began today with our usual game of tape ball and a name game. We talked a little more about our plans for the workshop, and then we began our demos. The three men who were in the first scene of Othello revisited that, and one of our Othellos performed a monologue.
Unfortunately, there was then a facility-wide call for inmates to return to their units, and we were required to leave as well. This happens sometimes, and we just roll with the punches. We’ve got plenty of time to catch up!
Tuesday, January 30
We finally got started on reading our play today! We began, as you might suspect, with the first scene – the storm and the shipwreck. I asked the group what they got out of it after one reading. The answers came back: it’s chaotic, the wind is blowing, there’s a lot of shouting, etc. I asked if we could read it again, this time shouting over the din (created by those of us who weren’t reading). That was definitely more effective.
One of the guys asked, “Who’s steering the ship?” People started throwing ideas around, and I suggested that we put the scene on its feet to see what might work. We stayed in our circle of chairs, with one man bringing over an oscillating fan to use as the wheel. We ran through the scene – I mean, I literally ran through the scene as one of the mariners, trying to up the ante on all the chaos – and it was a lot of fun.
The ideas started to flow after that. Many of us liked using the fan as the wheel, and one man suggested that we could fasten crepe paper to it to symbolize water. Another man said, “We need a guy throwing buckets of water on people!” I replied, “Are you gonna clean that up? I’m not gonna clean that up!” Another man suggested that we use two waist-high flats to symbolize the ship, pulling them apart when it splits. Another guy burst in, “Yeah, and people can sink behind them!” We talked about the need to make it apparent that Prospero has whipped up the storm. One man said, “The scene needs lots of choreography. It’s gonna be a lot of work.” And one gentleman insisted that everyone should be outfitted with tri-corner hats, preferably with feathers in them.
We decided to pick back up with demos. A man in his third workshop performed the “Is this a dagger…” piece from Macbeth that he performed last summer. I stayed on book for him, but he hardly needed any help. “That was some deep stuff right there,” said one new member. It was great, although he wasn’t totally satisfied – he hadn’t been able to go as far as he had before. I said that that’s what happens when you take some time away from a piece, and then I asked him when he’d picked it back up. “Today,” he said. “You mean you hadn’t looked at this at all before you walked in this room?” I asked. He had not. Since July. “It comes right back,” he said. Pretty impressive, especially for our new members!
A pair of our Iagos and Othellos then performed one of their scenes. Afterward, one of the men summarized the whole thing and asked if the others had gotten it. Most of them had. He said that that’s why he prefers doing the scenes on their feet – because sitting “takes a lot away from it.” Another man said, “Yeah, it doesn’t work sitting down. You need the pauses. It need the theatrics. You gotta move. Without the theatrics, it sound like fumbling, like mumbling, like you don’t know what you saying.” The other man added, “And you gotta match your scene partner, whatever he’s doing… If it’s touching you emotionally or if you’ve got a picture in your mind, go with that picture.” The first man agreed, saying, “The way Shakespeare writes, he directs you. There’s some things that just come naturally.” He mentioned that some of what we did in our performances was the same as what he saw in a film version of Othello.
Another man brought back his interpretation of “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” which was quite affecting, but was not at the level he’d attained last summer. He shared with the group that the way he’d accessed those feelings was by imagining the death of his mother, and we talked about using that “magic as if” as a crutch till we’re ready to just ride the wave of the language.
They asked me to go next, and I did my current favorite: Richard III’s opening soliloquy. I learned it last fall as part of a “monologue-off” at the women’s prison, but I’ve never formally worked on it, so I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen. I took my time so I could play with the character’s anger, pain, and humor. I made eye contact with as many of the men as I could.
I had a good time with it, but what was most exciting was that the ensemble completely understood the piece as I interpreted it – even though none of them were familiar with the play. “He’s not a bad person,” said one of the men, “He’s just fed up… You’re gonna use your mind now ’cause that’s all you got.” Another nodded his head and said, “I’ve honestly had those same thoughts.”
“Was Shakespeare, like, a psychopath?” asked one man, alluding to all the personalities the playwright painted so vividly. Another man said, “Naw, man. Shakespeare just, like, really understood people.” A third man added, “Each character is in its own world, so we gotta remember that every time we act.”
Facilitator Matt then performed a monologue from Hamlet that he hasn’t worked on in years, and yet it came right back for the most part! We were all excited and impressed. “The focus is real,” said one man.
We got off on a tangent about using the language – the clues that Shakespeare gives us about our characters’ feelings and actions. “I wanna do more comedic scenes. The angry scenes are too easy,” said one man. I asked him why that was. Another man jumped in, saying, “That’s just what we do all the time. I don’t know about the women, but here we go to anger right away.” Another man then introduced the idea that there are different kinds of anger: he said that “emotional anger” simmers, and “aggressive anger” attacks.
The conversation moved to center around Caliban. One man said that “in weakness, there is power,” and that Caliban plays the people around him. Another said that he has multiple personalities like Gollum. The first man replied, “We all got that other half to us, but that half doesn’t control everything.”
Somehow we got onto the topic of performances. A man who has now performed twice shared that he felt that the first performance of Othello had been a mess, but that had been a wakeup call that enabled the second to go more smoothly and the third to be our best. All agreed. This same man stressed the importance of rehearsal; that it strengthens chemistry and overall performances. Another likened this to playing music, saying that a performance is only as strong as its weakest participant.
So how are we going to do this? A returning member who often takes on the role of mentor quietly stated that we are going to do the entire play with cuts, rather than selected scenes with narration. He also said that he thought it would be best for one person to play a role straight through the play, and that perhaps we could work with double casting to give everyone a shot at a “major” role. That would eliminate the need for facilitators to step in. “No offense, you did great,” he said. “But this is our collective.” Another returning member built on that, suggesting that the men who’ve performed before role-share with new members and mentor them as they rehearse and perform.
That last idea is incredible. We have often seen ensemble members at the women’s prison step into smaller roles to give new members an opportunity to work more, but we have just as often given those large roles to our “veterans.” This is a completely new idea in SIP, and I absolutely love it. What generosity – what ownership. There is just no ego there. None at all. That’s true commitment to an ensemble. I just love it.
Friday, February 2
As we gathered today, I asked the group if they’d be down with beginning to use a couple of the rituals we’ve developed in the women’s ensemble. I first described our check in process: when we arrive, we gather in a circle, and anyone who wants to gives kind of a status update. It could be good or bad news, or information that needs to be shared, or just to say, “I’m having a lousy day, so if I’m being quiet and staying to myself, don’t take it personally.” It helps us not only to stay on the same page, but to be sensitive to what’s going on with everyone. The guys liked that idea.
The other ritual I asked about was The Ring, which is a Michael Chekhov exercise in which the ensemble visualizes and then lowers to the ground a ring of light/energy, steps into it, and then spreads it around the room. There was some hesitation about this one; one man asked if there was a way to “make it more masculine,” and I understood those qualms. It’s definitely a weird-sounding exercise and takes a minute to get used to. We decided to start with a check in today and leave The Ring for next week.
Though at WHV checking in as an individual isn’t required, the guys immediately took ownership and decided that in their ensemble it is. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but by the time everyone had shared, I began to think that maybe this is one of those points where men and women diverge in our program: where women have tended to react negatively when pushed to share, to some of these men it seemed like they had just been waiting for someone to give them an opening. A few of the ensemble members were goofy, of course, and most shared honestly but factually – but then there really were a few who seemed relieved to be able to share even the most mundane update. I’m really interested to see where this leads.
The Tempest is a short play, relatively speaking, but we’re behind already on reading, so we decided to spend the bulk of our time today powering through Act I scene ii, which is incredibly long. As we began, one of our returning members took a moment to explain shared lines and the effect they have on pacing, and then a mix of returning and new members volunteered to read.
When we paused to make sure everyone was following Prospero’s story, particularly what happened between him and his brother, the new member who was reading Prospero (on his first day!) shook his head and said, “That happened to me once, too.” A couple of others chimed in, and then this ensemble member said, “I know how that is.” He described how his brother had betrayed him, continuing, “… and that’s how I got 5-10. That’s a true story.”
We continued, and I asked if we could pause after Prospero tells Miranda that she’s what kept him going after their banishment and she abruptly changes the subject. “I’ve always wondered about that,” I said. “Anyone have any ideas about why she does that?” Someone suggested that perhaps if she wasn’t used to hearing her father say things like that, she didn’t know how to respond.
“I mean, she’s been essentially incarcerated since she was three,” said one man. “Anybody who comes to prison becomes detached from their emotions… When you hear something bad…” Another man broke in, “You get desensitized.”
A third man said, doubtfully, “You’re saying Miranda doesn’t have emotions?” The first man explained, “She has emotions, but she’s detached from them.” He said that it can be dangerous to give into one’s feelings. The third man nodded, saying, “Prospero hides his till certain moments.” And the first man agreed: that “family feeling” is what got him betrayed.
We had to move to another room at that point, and I took the opportunity to address what I knew was causing frustration for many: there were a few people who just could not seem to focus. It was distracting and was beginning to be detrimental to our work. I put it out there that, while this play is much shorter than Othello, it could potentially take us longer to get through if we can’t buckle down and do it. “You literally do not have to be here,” I said. “So if you don’t want to be, no hard feelings, don’t stay. I’m not saying that to be mean. Do I seem like I’m being mean?” One of the guys smiled and said, “Well, it’s maybe a little mean, but you’re right.”
We continued reading, talking through all of the “usurpations” that happen: Antonio/Prospero; Sycorax/Ariel; Prospero/Caliban. We talked a bit about Caliban, too – what makes him a “savage?” What was the relationship between these three before? And then we needed to talk about what caused the rift.
It’s brief, but Prospero accuses Caliban of having raped Miranda, Caliban responds that he wishes that he had, and Miranda unloads on Caliban without specifically addressing the alleged assault. This is a really loaded beat in any environment or process, but in prison it takes on even more weight. It did at the women’s prison, too, but I knew as soon as we’d landed on this as our winter/spring play that the line was going to be much tougher to walk in an ensemble including multiple men convicted of sexual assault. No shying away from it, though – this is what we do. If it’s in the play, we talk about it without judgment, from an analytical place. We can do that without necessarily talking about ourselves.
So, as we began this part of the discussion, I reminded everyone to look at the play with a bird’s eye view, and not through the lens of just one character. I asked them what we actually know from what’s in the text. The answers came pretty quickly: Prospero believes that Caliban assaulted Miranda. Caliban says he wishes that he had. Miranda is clearly very angry with Caliban. And that’s literally it. We couldn’t find anything else concrete – beyond that, it’s all interpretation and conjecture.
“We’ve got this conversation, but we’ve got no context,” I said, and carefully continued, “We don’t know for certain that the assault happened, and we don’t know exactly why Prospero believes that it did, because none of it happened on stage.” One of the guys chimed in, “Maybe he saw something.” I said, “Maybe. But we didn’t, right?” They nodded. “Shakespeare left this open-ended, and he didn’t do anything by accident. So… why did he do that?” One man said, “Because… it’s not important?” I replied, “For the actors playing these characters, there needs to be a decision – that’s important. But the most important thing for us as objective storytellers is not what actually happened, but the impact that the event had on these relationships. Because these were loving relationships before. This is a flashpoint. Let’s keep an eye on these three as we keep reading.”
We finished reading the scene and talked about Prospero’s approach to the immediately-budding relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand. One of the men gave us historical context, saying that there’s strategy in encouraging his daughter to marry the son of the king, and that marriage didn’t necessarily have to do with love at the time. When the question of Ferdinand’s emphasis on Miranda’s virginity came up, one of the men asked when the importance of sexual purity became culturally dominant. “Did it start with Jesus?” he asked. The man who’d already given us some background responded that the idea of virtue predates Jesus, beginning with the Greeks and maybe even before. I added that the emphasis on virginity in particular coincides with male-dominated societies edging out matriarchal ones; that policing women’s bodies is a really effective way to control them. It seemed like that might have blown a few minds, and I wish I weren’t so rusty on that history so I could have gone into more detail.
As long as we keep it professional, sensitive, and even-handed, we don’t need to shy away from any of the content in these plays. Today was a prime example of that.
Most of our ensemble members were able to come today to provide feedback and reflections. It was lovely to be able to just sit, relax, and talk with them. They had a lot of good constructive criticism and ideas of how to enhance what we’re doing next time around.
It was a wide-ranging conversation. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
“This time there was more adversity than any of us planned for, but we kept it rollin’, we kept it pushin’… We worked together and made it happen.”
“After 18 years of being locked up… I’m appreciative of your time. It makes us feel wanted, needed, and like we have a purpose… [Prison] has been my reality so long. It’s been an escape. For those hours I wasn’t in prison. We have very few avenues that give us release… For me, it’s changed the conversation. I can talk to my professors about Macbeth, Othello, and appreciate that everyone else is lost. This program has given me a gift that I never expected I would actually receive. Being comfortable in my own skin is something this program has given me as well… [They got made fun of at first] I guess I made fun of the drama club and glee club, and now, I guess, I’m in the glee club… Except here, we the cool kids on the block. Thank you for making me a cool kid.”
“I got from it… I sat back and thought about everything – I don’t want to take anything out of prison except the knowledge I gained and confidence I gained in this program… It gives you a sense of pride, like, ‘We did that.’”
“It made my time go fast, that’s for sure.”
“Theatre can be used to break all sorts of barriers – race, gender, sexual orientation. Because when we come together, we don’t see any of that. All we see is an individual… Part of a team. It makes you look past the outside of a person and makes you see the inside of a person.”
“I think the opportunities is boundless… This could actually help guys when we make the transition. It could help keep us off the streets.”
“The acting gets us out of our comfort zone. In prison you can be anything you want to be, but here we’ve learned all the potential we’ve got. Then we get out, and we’ve got the same cousins out there doing drugs, selling drugs – we get put back in that same box. We need the positive people back in our lives because it’s not always easy to find those back where you come from.”
“I can almost see this as – this is a small group of people, but it affects the whole population that saw it. I’ve heard people in the dayroom say, “Oh, that’s gay…” A couple days later, they were watching. Later that day, that same person [who didn’t know I had overheard him] came up to me and said, “Good job today. That was actually pretty cool. [It made me think] maybe I don’t have to put a front on all the time – those guys were up there just doing them.’”
“When it’s over, that would shine a positive light on it – [people] would see that this does actually change people’s lives.”
“When I fail, I get so fearful. I was nervous about being in front of all them people... Even just reading and bringing myself out of my element. It brought more positivity and confidence to myself.”
“It’s almost like a support group. We’re able to support each other and keep each other out of trouble.”
“I got out of it, the creativity that it gives you, and the learning… This the type of stuff you need to move on past trauma or any negative thing you’ve done. It pushes you to the limit. I might not amount to anything in the world, but I was able to do this thing. This proves you can amount to anything. All you need is that hope – that ambition. Once you understand yourself, you can understand others and do better things out there.”
“I was at a higher level for [a very long time]. I had horrible social anxiety… This broke me out of it. It gives me a tool to push through it.”
“What we do here affects much more than prisoners… The possibilities are pretty much boundless.” He said that the staff saw the show and talk to each other about it. “It changes their minds about who prisoners are.”
“I’ve got a [young] son out there, and doing this will help me connect with him in school, maybe, because they do plays in school… Being through something like this, I could volunteer and help my kid through the play. It makes me feel more positive. Talking to the mother of my kid, I got to say, ‘I’m in Shakespeare.’” Another man said, “I told my significant other the same thing.”
“It helped me relieve some stress… I could be that [other] person just for that moment… Not having to be us and deal with the stresses of prison – You’re free to be yourself. You’re weightless. It’s like… I can breathe. Through being someone else, you get to finally be yourself.” Another man said, “The whole time you’ve been you. It just took this to bring it out.”
“My wife made me read lines for her on the phone.” Another man said, “I read lines to my daughter over the phone. She’s all excited now, and she wants to do it.”
“I like when I call home… [And I said I’m] acting in a Shakespeare play, they’re like, ‘What?! You’re doing more in there than people are doing out here in the streets!’”
“When I talk to my mom about what I’m doing, she says, ‘I’ve never seen you so excited about something.’ And that makes me think that I have something to give.”
“This has strengthened my drive that this isn’t it for me. When I walk out those doors, it’s like a fresh, clean slate.”
We decided that we’ll work on The Tempest when we start back up in January. We are all very pumped up. I can’t wait to dig in with them!
We divided and conquered again today; this seems to be the best way for us to cover all of the material we chose for our performance. I began by working with one of our Othellos on the monologue that begins the play’s final scene. We talked through the character’s conflict—he truly loves this woman, but he feels compelled to kill her even though he doesn’t truly want to. We puzzled through some of the language as well, and after only about 15 minutes the piece was incredibly strong. This man feels the character very deeply and is an excellent actor, unafraid to be vulnerable. It’s remarkable.
We also worked the part of Act III scene iii in which Desdemona approaches Othello to advocate for Cassio. Our work here mostly entailed exploring the visual storytelling aspect of theatre; how can we show the relationship between these two beyond the words they speak? At first the two men were standing pretty far apart. I asked them what tactics Desdemona uses here, and they responded that she is using flirtation and the love she knows he has for her. I suggested, then, that they move closer together. Then they started spit balling ideas, leading the man playing Othello to take Desdemona gently by the wrist. The latter flinched slightly, and Othello said, “Is this cool, man? I don’t mean nothing by it—it’s just for the play.” The first man replied, “No, yeah, I know. It’s cool. I think that’ll actually work to show the relationship really well.”
The man standing by as Iago stayed silent through this exchange, as did I. Though I’ve never been incarcerated (nor have I been male), I know that this dynamic can be fraught. But they navigated their way through it beautifully. The respect and trust that they showed each other resonated very deeply for me; and, I think, for them. Theatre offers all sorts of opportunities to break boundaries and defy expectations. Though there were only four of us to witness it, this was one of them.
An ensemble member whom we thought had dropped was back today. He apologized for having “flaked.” He said he was furious with himself about it, that this is what he had always done, and he didn’t want to do it anymore. “I gotta get better about this,” he said. “If I’m gonna commit to something, I gotta follow through with it. So I’m here, and I’m gonna really commit to it now.” He, another ensemble member, and I looked through our performance logistics and decided that he could take the role of Cassio in one scene and support in non-speaking roles in others. A couple of people approached me after. “He’s back for real?” one of them asked. “Yeah, I think it’s for real,” I replied. “Cool,” he said, and that was that. No resentment. No hard feelings.
An ensemble member who has a number of other commitments and cannot regularly attend was present to get a feeling for what is needed in terms of narration—that’s what the ensemble determined his role would be. He was part of the “Original 12,” and it was great to have him back in the room, giving his perspective.
I dove in to work on the final scene of the play with some of the guys, while others worked with Patrick, and still others went off by themselves to work. It took us a few minutes to get focused on that final scene. Once we locked in, though, we locked in. One of the men, who has great instincts but a lot of trouble buckling down, began to tentatively express some of his ideas. I got very excited about that and built on what he had said, and that part of the scene began to work much better. “You’re good at this,” he said to me. “So are you!” I replied. “Nah, man. You’re the director here.” I shook my head. “All I did was build off of what you gave me. This was totally your idea.”
After that, he got even more focused and began throwing out more and more ideas. He got so excited, in fact, that when our Desdemona was talking on the side to someone else instead of lying “dead” on the bed, he shouted out, “Come on, Desdemona! Get your dead ass over here!”
As Patrick took over to work on the scene’s combat, I stepped to the side to chat with a couple of the guys. They had been talking about what we need to do in the next workshop to build on this one, and it mostly had to do with accountability. They’ve been frustrated by others’ spotty attendance and tendency to arrive late and/or leave early. “I just don’t get it,” said one of them. “I want to use every second of this.”
“You gotta show them that next time,” said the other, who was in the group over the summer. “You’re gonna be a mentor, so you’ll be able model what needs to happen and explain why.” The younger man visibly brightened at that. It suggested to me that he’s never been in that position—maybe he’s never thought of himself that way. I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation, so I didn’t ask. But he was clearly affected.
The group that had been working independently of facilitators asked if they could show me their scene before we left, and they had made great headway. Another ensemble member sat beside me and watched. He began to shout out notes as they performed, and I asked him to write his thoughts down and tell them after so as not to interrupt. His notes had to do with more fully committing to the characters, and they were very apt. As the group ran the scene again, he shook his head and said, “Man, that Iago is just evil.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t think a person can be totally evil, or totally good. And Shakespeare wrote about real people.” He nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “But I don’t know if I can see him another way.” I said, “Well, yeah, that’s tough. But our job as actors and ensemble members is to try to approach these characters without judgment—to have empathy for them even if we hate what they’re doing. If we decide that Iago is just plain evil, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to figure out why he does the things he does.”
“Yeah, I don’t wanna miss out on that,” he said, and watched the rest of the scene deep in thought. When it ended, he nodded slowly and said, “Yeah, I’m gonna have to think about that.”
Our goal for today was to work through the whole performance. While the others set things up, I worked with our Othello, Emilia, and Desdemona to finish blocking Act V Scene ii. Though we worked quickly, we worked effectively, and then we all came together to give the show a try.
As one man explained to the new ensemble members what the mechanics of moving from scene to scene would be, another returning member politely interrupted to ask everyone what they thought about rehearsing every day next week to prepare for performances. They unanimously agreed that this was a great idea, with a few men even asking if they could rehearse over the weekend. Unfortunately, it was too late to organize that, but I was really excited about the willingness of every single person to commit more of their time to getting it right.
It’s a good thing we started this way because the rest of our time was rather frustrating. It was difficult to get people to maintain focus, the logistics proved challenging to explain, and I could see several people beginning to steam.
It really was a frustrating rehearsal. I noticed two of the men talking heatedly. I sat beside them and said, “What’s up, you guys? You look pissed.” They looked at each other and smiled wryly. “We just doing some plotting,” said one of them. “Oh, yeah?” I grinned. “Yeah,” said the other. “I just don’t get why these guys still messin’ around. Like, we got six days till we got an audience. We gotta focus, for real.” The other said, “We gonna have a talk out on yard. We gotta lay down the law.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think it’s a good idea to have that conversation. But do you think you can do it constructively? Like… Can you do it without making people defensive? ‘Cause if they get defensive, they’ll shut down, and that’s not gonna help anyone.” They agreed that they would try to keep it cool.
Another guy came up to me, frustrated that the man playing Emilia in one scene hadn’t yet rehearsed it—I’d been standing in for him. “If he’s not here tomorrow, can you just do it?” he said. “I just really need the consistency, and, like, if he’s not gonna rehearse it, we’re gonna look like idiots.” I agreed that I would do the scene if necessary but encouraged him to give that guy another shot. “I wouldn’t put it to him the way you just put it to me,” I said. “Try looking at it from his point of view—make this a solution for him, too. If he doesn’t take the time to try to plug in to this scene, he can focus on others. Or maybe he’ll buckle down and nail this scene.” He liked that idea and said he’d try it.
As we left, one of the men gave a brief pep talk. “It’s fourth down,” he said. “We need to take it up a lot.”
When we arrived today, I asked how their extra rehearsal the day before had gone. It turned out that not everyone had been able to get there, so they had focused on certain scenes and logistics rather than attempting a run. They were satisfied with how it had gone.
We then found out that the man playing Desdemona in all of her scenes had gotten into some kind of trouble and wouldn’t be allowed to perform. Before any panic could set in, I asked if I could make a suggestion. I reminded them that the facilitators serve as unofficial understudies in the women’s ensemble, and if a role is vacated late in the process, one of us takes it on to avoid causing undue stress for anyone else. I asked them if they’d like me to play Desdemona—I’d been present for every rehearsal and knew the blocking, and I played the role in college, so I understood the character and the scenes. They agreed that that would be best, so we took some time to rework the combat in a way that would be acceptable to the facility. We ran through a few others scenes as well, and then we began a work through.
There was a good deal more focus today, though it was still spotty at times. The scenes began to take on new life, which was exciting. And everyone helped me plug myself into scenes I’d seen but hadn’t walked. I felt completely supported and as much a part of the ensemble as anyone.
We made it through the whole thing, ending just as our time was up. It was a little rough and longer than we wanted, but getting from beginning to end was extremely encouraging.
There was an added rehearsal yesterday, but Patrick and I were unable to get there due to a snow storm. When we arrived, one of the guys said, “We heard you all was trying to get here in all of that!” I smiled and shrugged. “That woulda been dumb,” he said. “We was fine without you.”
I asked them how it had gone. They told me it had gone well—that “some of the guys needed to blow off steam at each other,” and that it had helped. They had run the whole performance other than the final scene. They had also discovered that they liked using music in scene changes.
As we set up in the gym, an inmate who is not in the ensemble approached me with an ensemble member who said, “This guy here has an awesome idea.” I introduced myself and asked him what it was. “I don’t wanna step out of bounds or nothin’,” he said, “But we got some things here that you could use for a set next time.” He suggested taking the hockey nets and a large roll of paper or piece of fabric to create a backdrop. “We got an air brush,” he said. “If y’all are gonna do this, y’all should do it for real.” I said I thought it was a great idea and thanked him for it. I asked him if he’d like to help us with it next time and got his name and ID number.
“I think it’s really good what you guys are going in here with these young men because it changes people’s mindset to something more positive—it makes them more optimistic about life,” he said, unprompted. “When you gotta tap into somebody’s life and become that person, it changes you… We don’t get a lot of opportunities to express ourselves, and when we do it’s in a negative way.”
We parted warmly, and I thanked him again for his ideas. That’s the kind of ripple we want—people who aren’t even directly involved in the program are taking ownership of it!
As we gathered, one of the men poked fun at another about his acting. The second man gestured to me and joked, “I told you not to berate me in public no more!” The first man gave him a look and said, “She ain’t public no more.” There was no disrespect there, nor was it at all inappropriate—this just shows the level of mutual respect and trust we have for each other. We’re equal members in the ensemble.
We managed to get through the whole play, adding music in transitions. I was surprised to find that they’d made a cast change in the first scene, or perhaps that I’d misunderstood who was playing Roderigo. The two actors played well off each other, and I encouraged them to continue to make it more “bro-y.”
They also had added a couple of elements to the scene in which Cassio gets drunk and then fired, with Roderigo throwing himself over a table during the fight and then grabbing an actual cowbell and running through the audience yelling, “MUTINY! IT’S A MUTINY! THEY’RE MUTINOUS” until Othello told him to “silence that dreadful bell.” It was absolutely hilarious and added to the chaos of an already raucous scene.
It was a rough run—still difficult to get everyone to focus, and our transitions were sluggish. Before we left, one of our returning members, who is one of our anchors for sure, gave a rousing pep talk. He told us to get there on time for our dress rehearsal in the morning and to focus from the get-go. “We gotta show the administration something great so the program can come back,” he said, and everyone nodded vigorously.
Dress rehearsal and performances: December 15, 16, and 17
Nearly everyone arrived on time for our (8:00am!) dress rehearsal. We set up quickly and began the run. Things mostly went smoothly, and we worked as a team to problem solve as we went.
There was only one thing that particularly frustrated me as a member of the ensemble, and that is that one of the men, who is completely fearless about playing women, was playing every scene for laughs. That worked for some of them, but it really didn’t for others, and it undercut the serious work that others were doing. That included me—it would be disrespectful to the ensemble for me to just go through the motions, so I always try to fully commit. But that’s difficult to do when others are goofing off.
This man wasn’t cast as Emilia in the final scene, but that actor was absent, so he filled in. When I began Desdemona’s final lines absolving Othello of guilt, this man continued to be silly. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “If you could take this seriously, that would really help me out.” He looked completely shocked. “It’s not even my part!” he said. “But still,” I said, and then we moved on in the scene.
When we ended the run, he’d already left. I felt bad about having snapped and asked a couple of the guys to apologize to him for me if they saw him. “Are you kidding?” one of them laughed, and the other did, too. “That was freaking awesome. Did you see his face? He needed that.” I said that I still felt bad. “We’re big boys, Frannie,” said the other person. “We can take someone being a little harsh.”
Still, when we came back in the afternoon for our performance, I pulled aside the aside. “I am so sorry I snapped at you,” I said. “Yeah, what the fuck?” he replied, still clearly thrown, but smiling. I explained how frustrated I’d been and why, and I made suggestions of how he could compromise between his desire to be funny and others’ desire to be more serious.
We ran our fights, and the guys had a pep talk without the facilitators. I went to one of the men playing Othello and asked him to run the slap in Act IV Scene i with me. He backed away, kind of silly but also with real concern. “I don’t wanna hit you!” he said. “We have a story to tell. It’s just a play,” I reassured him. “It’s a high five close to my face. That’s all.” We ran it a few times to get it solid, and, while he wasn’t totally comfortable, I knew he’d be able to commit in performance. After that, he went around to a bunch of the guys saying, “Ready, my dog?”
The music we used in scene changes is from a popular video game. One of the men pulled Matt aside and said, “You know, there are all sorts of things that remind you that you’re in prison. For me, it wasn’t the Christmas shit. Like, I’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life and prepare myself for what that means. But I wasn’t ready for the Skyrim music. It’s been six years since I played that game, and I heard the game play music, and I was like, ‘Fuck. All I want to do is play that game.’”
That first performance had a lot of hiccups, but we rolled with the punches and had a great time. So did our audience. Our Iago and Roderigo in the first scene had worked out an approach in which they ad libbed between each other’s lines, repeating key words and phrases to amp up the comedy and crassness. It was amazing—I told them I’m totally stealing it if I ever direct the play!
We had a great talk back after the show, with audience members expressing how impressed they were and our ensemble encouraging them to try new things and to join the group.
Our second performance went more smoothly, even though one man was unexpectedly called away on a visit before the performance, and another was called in the middle. Patrick, Matt, and one of the guys jumped in to fill those holes, and all went off without much of a hitch. It was really amazing to see everyone adapt so quickly and so well. It says a lot about all of the team work they’ve done, how well they know each other, and how well they know the material. Our 5.2 Othello became very emotional. Even as I lay “dead,” I could feel how committed he was, to the point where, when we ended the play, I asked him if he was okay. Luckily he was—he’s just an amazing performer.
We all agreed that the third performance was our favorite. Matt stood in for one of our Iagos who had known ahead of time that he wouldn’t be able to perform, but otherwise things went more or less as planned. Patrick overheard one audience member explaining Iago’s set up to the guy next to him, saying, “Othello’s a fool.” Later, another man in the audience said, “Why can’t [Othello] see what [Iago is] doing?”
During our talk back, one audience member said, “That was very impressive.” Another said, “Yeah, pretty good for some convicts!” That got a big laugh. The audience really was very excited about what they’d seen.
One said, “Things that were taking place during that time in society, it was a sad case that she had to try to prove herself… The moral lessons need to be taken from this, that our relationships with the opposite gender need to be supported and worked, no matter what people on the outside say.”
Several audience members approached me afterward to let me know that they were of Moorish descent and deeply appreciated being able to see Othello. It gave them a sense of pride and connection.
We all felt good leaving after the show, and excited to come back and wrap things up on Tuesday.