Season Two: Week 7

Tuesday / August 7
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday / August 10


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Blog: Vanessa Sawson

July 24 / 2018
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season Two: Week 6

Tuesday / July 31
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gauntlet laid. Challenge accepted!
 

Friday / August 3
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season Two: Week 5

Tuesday / July 24
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday / July 27
 

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

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

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

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

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

And then philosophy class began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It. Was. So. Good.

Season Two: Week 4

Tuesday / July 17
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday / July 20
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season Two: Week 3

Tuesday / July 10
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday / July 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season Two: Week 2

Tuesday / July 3   

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday / July 6
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season Two: Week 1

Friday / June 22

 


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday / June 26

 

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

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

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

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

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


Friday / June 29
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos of "The Tempest."

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