Season Two: Week 24

100_0788.jpg

This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / December 4
Written by Matt


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Your Fav designers are
Tom Ford
Versacci
Gucci
Armani

You shop:
Nordstrom
Boutiques/customized taylor

Malls are Nothing but Peasants Shop!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday / December 7
Written by Frannie

Well, I called it.

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

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

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

Screenshot_apology to Gloucester_Slack.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season Two: Week 23

Hands together—square.jpg

This holiday season,

give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / November 27
Written by Matt

Today began shrouded in secrecy and ended up with a moment of clarity. One of the guys checked in to say that he’s keeping his participation in SIP from his family for now, hoping to surprise them with it when he gets out. But, he revealed, he almost slipped up on the phone the other day, and had to hastily cover it up. “In the future,” offered another, “when they call you on your lies, just say you were acting!”

Our Edmund, far from keeping SIP a secret from his family, shared with us that his great-grandmother (yes, great-grandmother) had picked up a copy of King Lear to read along with. He said that they had been talking about it on the phone, and he had read his first monologue aloud to her. She told him, jokingly, “That figures--you play the villain!” He said that they had bonded over it, and that he could feel her pride in him--“she told all of her friends!” It’s something we don’t talk about as often as we should, perhaps--the connection that many of the ensemble members gain or strengthen with their families through Shakespeare.

The rest of our session today was spent working through Act I, scene i. It’s a monster of a scene--definitely the most complicated in the play in terms of the sheer number of people moving about (or standing!) onstage, and the one that bears the greatest weight of storytelling. Every major character except for the Fool and Edgar appears in the scene, and all of the important relationships in the play are established. Unlike most of the tragedies, there is almost no “runway” leading up to the main event. Gloucester and Kent speak briefly, then Lear enters and divides his kingdom--no indirection, no misdirection, no long interactions between minor characters to give political and philosophical context (I’m looking at you, Hamlet!), just thirty seconds of dialogue and then the beginning of the play’s chaos. It’s a lot to manage, and it was a tough way to start out.

The first instinct of this ensemble has always been to sweat all the details. Too much. We had barely started when half a dozen of the guys were trying to work out the specifics of staging and body language, while others litigated the exact placement of chairs and tables. As exciting as it is that they care so deeply and have such attention to the little things, it stalled the process quickly. Frannie, helped by our Lear and a few of the guys who are more comfortable thinking about the big picture, eventually righted the conversation by talking about how we want the relationship between Lear and his daughters to look.

“It felt right when I was standing behind [France and Burgundy],” said our Cordelia, “but I knew I couldn’t be seen.” A couple of the other guys suggested that the picture might look best if Lear was offering his daughter to France and Burgundy standing beside her, as if selling her like a product. But our Lear said that he wanted to have a lot of empty space between Cordelia and him on the line “There she stands,” and we all trusted his instinct.

We reset to near the top of the play, and our Cordelia was playing around with the arrangement of the sisters, moving himself closer to Lear and away from the audience. There were moments that really worked (Lear’s “Out of my sight” to Kent was devastating), but as we ran it, the movement became muddled, and some of the guys grew restless, especially those who need to sit or stand quietly for long periods of time. We limped to the end, and it helped that Goneril and Regan were brilliant in the scene’s final moments: snakelike, speaking in sibilant voices that were creepy without being humorous.

As we began reflecting on that last run-through, Frannie again urged the guys not to indulge in problem-solving, to keep their comments to observations (what worked, what didn’t) and instincts (I wanted to go here, I wanted to move away from him). Our Cordelia really liked the new arrangement of the sisters, except for the fact that his asides needed to be delivered from center stage and felt a little false and confusing because of that. Another member asked whether we could simply freeze during the asides to make it visually clear that they are spoken to the audience. Frannie said we could try it, but noted that every single aside in the play would need to be delivered in that way, and we would need to get really good at freezing consistently if we wanted to pull that off.

While a few people mulled over how to clarify the asides, Lear said that he kept wanting to move during the scene, but felt “stuck.” Our Kent leapt up instantly. “But you know the strength of Lear’s character. Anything you do, we all have to react to you.” He demonstrated, asking others onstage to react to his movements as if he were Lear. “You can just move up to someone,” he continued. “Just like in real life. Whatever they tell you you can’t do, you can do.” Our Lear, watching this, was a little skeptical. “I feel like he’s not actually that powerful,” he said. A few guys jumped in to argue that point, but we pivoted to a new member, who had had his hand up.

“I feel like we need more choreographed movement,” he said. This led instantly to a debate about the value of predefined movement as opposed to moving totally based on instinct. Again, Frannie had to intercede here to say that theatrical “blocking” actually strikes a middle ground between dance choreography, in which every motion is determined, and improv, in which no movement is figured out beforehand. “I think you’ll find that having some guidelines will free your instincts up,” she said. And in general, she added, you move only when you “need” to.

She and Maria demonstrated with a short section of text, moving only on the words that impelled movement. This seemed to clarify the concept for a bunch of the guys. “When you were trying to get each other to see each other’s points, you moved closer,” observed our Cordelia. “As you moved away... you got more aggressive,” added our Regan.

Before we reset to try again, our Edgar, who had been working out a different concept for the staging of the scene, explained his idea. He positioned people as they would be for France and Burgundy’s entrance, when the stage is at its busiest, and walked each group of ensemble members through his ideas for how their characters move. Essentially, his concept was a refinement of the “V” shape we had often found ourselves in during early scene work, but with the characters’ positions better thought out, and Lear more visually in command.

The “V” shape (with Lear at the upstage tip) gave one of our members a chance to demonstrate how the king could visually command attention within the playing space. He walked from person to person, calling them into the center of the stage and sending them away or forcing them with his gestures to move from one side to the other. “You’re the king,” he said. “Just be the king. You want them to move, you don’t have to move; you move them with a gesture.” Another guy added, “You get to move down on the same level as everybody--if you want to.” The first man agreed vigorously, and added that Lear can take as much time speaking as he cares to. “Remember that the words are yours to use. You can stop and start and think about it…. You’re the center of the world.”

At this point, we had been talking for 45 minutes without actually trying any of it out, and people were starting to feel overwhelmed. “This is really complicated,” said our Lear, standing center stage and looking a little lost. We began to set up, and our Edgar fussed with the placement of the characters. After a moment, Frannie had to jostle the ensemble free again, reminding everyone that we are not in our actual playing space, and we will work out the details later. “Give room for instincts!” she reminded us, and we were off on round 3!

Or… almost. The guys broke off to center themselves and get into character (Lear walked across the stage and Kent shouted, “My Lord! What are you doing?!”). Sips of water, last minute adjustments of entrances, and then, at last, we began at the beginning.

As so often happens, this third run was hugely better than the one before. In the opening moments of the play, as Gloucester describes Edmund’s mother to Kent, he hit several high notes: “she grew round-wombed!” he pronounced with a wink and an accompanying roundness of voice that was perfect, and he spoke the line “I have a son by order of law” in a satirically pompous accent (“OR-duh of low”) that was both hysterical and a little touching.

Lear was totally in command. Regan and Goneril used imaginary fans to hide their faces and express themselves brilliantly. And, with the new setup, Cordelia’s asides were crystal-clear. We paused for a moment as France and Burgundy were to enter. Everything was going well, we agreed, except that Lear kept inching back upstage and away from people as he talked to them instead of standing his ground. “Dude,” said Frannie, “this is all on you! I’ll call you out!”

As we began to run the final parts of the scene, Lear kept backing up again. Frannie stopped him to bring him back. “Do I stand here between them, then?” he asked, incredulous. “Are you going to cede ground to [Cordelia]?” Frannie shot back. After a moment of thinking about it, Lear admitted, “No.”

Then, as Lear uttered his final curse on his youngest daughter, he stepped up to her, inches from our Cordelia’s face. “Better thou hadst never been born than not to have pleased me better,” he said contemptuously. A few audible reactions from the audience, including a “whoop!” paused the scene. It was so cold. “Spit in his face!” said Frannie. “What?!” Our Lear was totally wrongfooted by that. “I mean, don’t actually spit in his face, but you’re basically spitting in his face.” Under his breath, our Kent muttered, “Now I know why people are all into Shakespeare. Spit in his face!”

There was so much energy in the scene by now that the guys were finding natural movements all over the place. As we finally wound the scene down, we had a few moments for a final reflection. “That worked really, really, really well,” said our Regan. “Thanks, [our Edgar]!” exclaimed our France, and we all applauded the man who had worked out our staging.

Our Lear still felt a little swamped by the overload of feedback he had received between the second and third runs. “Too much stimuli,” he said. “I was thinking too much of everything all the time.”

We agreed to move on next time, but it felt good to end on such a solid run of this tough scene.

Friday / November 30
Written by Frannie

The guys wasted no time getting down to business today! Our Edmund has been making himself index cards that have only his lines and their cues, and he’s realized that nearly all of his cues are questions. He’s not sure yet what this means about his character, but he’s even more excited than he was before, and it’s tough to believe that that was even possible!

We called an “orange” for check-in, and our Lear asked if he could check in about the play. “I didn’t feel comfortable with the way y’all were portraying Lear as so strong,” he said, referring to Tuesday’s rehearsal of Act I, scene i. “I went back and read it seven or eight times, and—it’s just not there... It’s not like he’s no Caesar… Macbeth was at the top of his power. Lear is not. It ain’t like he’s at the top of his power anymore… He divides his kingdom. What kind of king divides his kingdom?... For me, I keep reading it, and it’s not about Lear’s power.”

The man who’d been the most outspoken about Lear’s “power” tried to clarify what he’d meant; that even without actual power, Lear has majesty. “He’s got a lot of idiosyncrasies that make him weak in effect, but he’s powerful in principle… I’m not telling you he’s making good decisions. Power is power. You get to say how that power shows.”

These two guys really like each other but sometimes have a tough time communicating (even when they agree), and I broke in to say that they were both right. “That’s his struggle through the whole play,” I said, “‘How do I navigate this new situation?’” I reassured our Lear that this is one of the most challenging roles in any play, and that it would behoove us to break down the scene, beat by beat, to find the detail he needs. I thanked him, too, for bringing all of this up. Sometimes folks can feel pressured by the ensemble (and facilitators!) to interpret a role one way, when they truly see it another. If we don’t notice, and they don’t say anything, resentment can build that detracts from the process in a big way. I asked everyone (please!) to follow this example and let us know if we’re being jerks!

Our Lear really, really wanted us to understand where he was coming from. He continued to explain: “Right off the bat, Lear shows irrationality because he’s trying to look out for his baby girl. Why else divide up the kingdom? He wants the best for his baby girl—that’s why he’s got France and Burgundy in there—and when she rejects him, it hurts. He thinks he did all this for her, and now she don’t want it? That’s hard. When it all falls apart, he can’t handle it.”

Another man suggested that the “power” issue isn’t truly about power: it’s about empathy. He hearkened back to a particularly effective scene he’d performed with another of the guys: “The reason we did that scene so well was not because we planned anything, but because we had empathy for each other,” he said. “If you have the authority, that’s where the empathy comes in—how is everybody looking at that individual?... They’re waiting to see what you do to see how they should play off of that—to see how they should feel… Do what you feel, and then other people will read it according to whatever they’re looking to you for.”

Check-in continued, but the updates were still mostly play-related! Our Gloucester has been doing some very cool, self-directed character work, including imagining himself hanging out with the actual person he’s portraying. “I sat down with Gloucester yesterday—actually, he sat ME down,” he said. “And I realized that whenever I sit down and look at him, he’s in all medieval-style, like 14th century… and that limits me in the way I portray him…. I can’t see him that way. If I break him out of that little prison I put him in… I can express him a lot better. He’s the kind of guy who shops at Tom Ford—bougie!” We all laughed, and so did he. But then he continued, “That attitude is what got me here in the first place. I was prideful, overconfident at times… very, very, very stubborn. I realized that Gloucester really was the old self of me.” We took this in, some of us grinning, some shaking our heads. He beamed, looking at each of us in turn as he said, “He found me!... That’s my old self. That’s how I got here in the first place. He found me! And that’s an epiphany for me, and I know how to play this guy now… I feel like Gloucester without the eyes—but I have eyes now.”

The guys have asked for more exercises to help them get out of their heads and feel more natural when performing, so I came prepared with a whole bunch of Michael Chekhov stuff that I thought they’d enjoy! Ours is not an acting class, but a smattering of exercises and techniques can really enhance our process, and I’ve found that Michael Chekhov’s technique is hugely beneficial even when we move through it faster and modify it more than we would in a class on the outside. In fact, as soon as I mentioned that that’s what I had up my sleeve, one of the guys asked me a detailed question about radiating (part of the technique). Another man, listening to this, said, “Where are you getting this language?” The first man sheepishly responded, “Uh—I got the book.” For real. He’s reading To the Actor right now, concurrent with a book specifically about performing Shakespeare—the second this guy has read.

Anyway: Michael Chekhov. I won’t go into a ton of detail here (because this blog is long enough already!), but the core of this technique is to use one’s imagination to change one’s physicality, and for that physicality to inform the character’s psychology: thus, we call it “psychophysical.” It goes along with the idea of emotion/memory being stored in the body: I fell in love; I took a leap of faith; I pushed her to the breaking point, etc. So it’s creativity and movement, but no thinking! Perfect for overthinkers and folks who’ve been through a lot of trauma.

We’ve already done a few simple exercises that they like, and today I asked if I could lead them through imaginary centers. The idea here is that the quality of your movement changes depending on where you imagine your energy to be centered. If your entire body is one unit centered in your head, for example, you’ll move differently than if centered in your chest, or in your left hip, or your nose, or even somewhere outside of your physical body. (I know, it’s weird if you haven’t done it yourself, but bear with me!) We focused on the three main centers and their accompanying images:

THINKING: centered in the head / the image is a stick

WILLING: centered in the pelvis / the image is a ball

FEELING: centered in the chest / the image is a veil

I will again resist the temptation to go into lots of detail; I’ll add to the above description only that this was a very physical exercise and that, while we didn’t spend the length of time on it that would have been ideal, we didn’t rush. And the guys were impressively focused on their work: even when people who weren’t in the ensemble came in and out of the gym (some literally stopping to stare), they didn’t flinch or back off. A couple of ensemble members who did lose focus a bit did so for their own reasons, not because they were distracted, and they stayed within the exercise, absorbing what the others were doing.

Afterward, we sat together in a circle on the floor. At first, no one quite knew what to say; not surprising, as this is an exercise that can be surprisingly emotional for some people, and outright unnerving for others. I gently asked for any kind of reflection from anyone: what did you notice about your experience?

“I was more comfortable in my feeling center, and second my thought center,” said one guy. “I found when I was operating in my thought center, I had a totally human experience of thinking, ‘Dude, you’re rolling around on the ground.’” A few of the others said they’d thought the same thing. “But the feeling center felt better for you?” I asked him. “The veil thing was very emotional,” he replied. “I pictured my mind like a war-riddled flag: rugged and weary.”

Another man said that each center “represented a different way that I felt my movement… The biggest part was getting over the feeling of self-consciousness. Once I got over that feeling, I really enjoyed it. Each one had a different feel to it, and I just thought, ‘Okay, there’s something to this.’” (I’m gonna add here that I honestly didn’t know if this guy was even going to participate; the fact that he enjoyed it was thrilling.) Even a man who arrived late described what happened when he dove in: “I felt my inner peace go very solid. I didn’t feel like I was here. I felt like I was in a different place. I felt like I was someone else. I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t even feel like a human.”

“I was able to access the subconscious of my own personality,” said another man. He said that he’d curled up in a ball when in his feeling center, which reminded him of when he was very shy as a kid. “As I became more comfortable, I opened up,” he said, describing how he’d spread his veil. “I was more confident in the will area… in a way that was very surprising to me.” His “old self” wouldn’t have been.

“I had a really hard time with it,” said one of the guys, explaining that the images conflicted with his own perceptions of what the objects at those centers would be. He struggled to stay focused on himself, instead observing others without meaning to and trying to do something different. “So you were performing?” I asked. “Yeah, I guess I was. My only thought was, ‘Don’t mimic it,’” he said. “It’s tough, I know,” I reassured him. “It’s hard not to perform—just to be. You’ll get there.”

Another man said he’d kept his eyes closed the entire time—he’d neither needed nor wanted to open them. “I created energy fields around me,” he said, and he’d start moving once he felt that a field was fully formed. He became a very literal stick on a nature trail in his hometown, lying on the floor, and “someone jumped over me, and that was completion for me.” (The man who’d done the jumping grinned a little. I think I was the only one who noticed.) He said that he’d had something like an out-of-body experience as the ball, seeing not only himself, but all of his surroundings, as if from above. The feeling center gave him some trouble because he wasn’t sure exactly what I meant by “veil”; instead, he became “pure rhythm.” He added that, even with his eyes closed, and even though he’d moved around quite a bit, he never feared that he’d collide with anyone. “I could feel everybody,” he said, and then he paused. “That was very intense. I wasn’t a human being—I was just an entity. And your voice was the only thing that could maneuver me besides my mind.”

One of the men said he’d felt like the big stick in Walk Tall, and that put him “in the zone… Everything was just clicking! My focus was just—tunnel, and it stayed like that the whole time.” In his willing center, he said, “I was a dodgeball, and my will was just pushing everything out of the way.”

Another man said he’d thought he’d be really good at this, but instead the technique made him sleepy. When that happened, he kept his focus with the ensemble but drifted to the side of the room so he wouldn’t distract anyone. He acknowledged that part of the issue was that he couldn’t get over the objects’ being inanimate in reality: “It seems like none of those things could move because they’re not alive.” Still, he didn’t think ill of the exercise. “My normal thing would be, ‘You guys are all crazy.’ But so many of you guys had an experience… I’m a bit jealous. I wish I could’ve done something like that.” I quickly said, “You couldn’t today. That doesn’t mean you can’t.”

“You wanna know something crazy?” said one man. “When you introduced things, my energy was already moving in that way.” Another man agreed, saying, “It was so freeing.” He hadn’t wanted to stop. “Even now, I’ve got the Chekhov glow still going.”

One of the guys said he could see the value of the exercise for our play and performances, but another asked, “How are there different sorts of wills?” I love this question for many reasons, though I’ll admit that one is that the simplest way for me to answer is to demonstrate! I chose the line, “Now then, legitimate Edgar, I must have your land,” and asked the group to throw out a type of ball, let me incorporate it into my performance, then give me another type, and so on. They gave me a ping pong ball, a dodgeball, an egg, a football, and a bowling ball. With each image, my approach changed, and I saw a lot of faces lighting up as the final pieces fell into place. “All right,” said the man who’d asked the question, grinning, “I’ve got it now!”

“Good!” I said, “Because I think we’ve arrived at Edmund’s first soliloquy, yes?” The others confirmed that that’s where we’d left off. “That’s what I thought,” I said in mock-villain fashion, as our Edmund smiled, exhaled, put his hands on his head, and looked up at the ceiling (or the heavens?). “You’re up,” I said.

The rest of us headed to the bleachers, as he took his time recentering himself. He gave a strong reading, though I think we could all feel he was holding back. Afterward, he shared, “I liked the images, especially the switch from the feeling center, going from anger to retaliation...” He went on to describe how he’d mapped out the progression in his head. One man said he’d thought “the flow was pretty smooth,” but another said, “The first time you did this, you made me want to be on Edmund’s side. You made me feel guilty for disliking him. But that didn’t happen this time.” Edmund nodded and said, “I guess I’m overthinking it.” The other man pushed back, “How’d you do it before?” Edmund replied, a little uncomfortably, that he’d been able to “go there” emotionally by “thinking about something else.”

“But the whole point is, you don’t need to think at all,” I said. “The emotion is stored in the body. You don’t need to relive the experience to remember what the physical sensation of the emotion was.” I described the experience of the woman who played Macbeth last year in the women’s ensemble. Early in the season, when we read and talked about the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” monologue, she said that it reminded her of her first night in jail: “that gut-empty feeling.” Months later, when she was frustrated with her performance, I reminded her of that. I asked if she could remember what her body had felt like that night, without reliving it. “Yeah… I felt really heavy. Like my muscles were made of lead,” she said. I asked her to go just with that and perform the piece again, and it was incredibly moving. Afterward, she said she’d felt honest, but not traumatized.

Back to this man, though. “Don’t go back there,” I cautioned him, “but do you remember what those emotions felt like, physically?” Without hesitating, he brought a fist to his chest and said, “It’s all here.”

“Okay,” I said, jumping down from the bleachers to stand with him. “Is that where Edmund is centered, do you think?” He nodded. “I’m with you,” I said. “He’s so hurt—all of this is so very rooted in emotion for him. But the feeling center is a veil, and a veil is moved by outside forces. He’s the outside force in this play, though, so…” “It’s gotta be in his will center,” the man said. “Well, it could be a battle between the two,” I said. “Try this: enter centered fully in your will, and allow yourself to drift up into your feeling center at any time—but push it back down as soon as you can. Don’t let those feelings get in your way. Don’t think about it—don’t plan it—just roll with the language and let it happen. You’ve got this.”

And, holy moly, he had it. He strode in, arm swinging by his side, almost challenging us even as he made us his allies. He gave himself fully over to the that energetic struggle, powered by the language, so much so that we heard things in it—and saw things in him—that we hadn’t before. He actually spat on, “Fine word, legitimate,” which got a vocal reaction from several of us. And that “stand up for bastards!” Oof.

He held for a moment after the lines had finished, and then we broke out in jubilant shouting and applause. His energy propelled him in a run around the gym as people yelled, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and “That’s what I’m talking about!” and “When you spit the word out—oh, Jesus!” Reaching the back of the gym, Edmund doubled over, hands on his knees, and shouted, “WHOOOOOO!!!”

When he finally came back to us, glowing, we asked him our usual question: HOW DID THAT FEEL?! “I was a pendulum!” he said, saying that he’d really felt that inner fight between emotion and will—but the ball had been in control. One man said that his increased confidence showed in his body language. Another asked, “Were you you, or were you in character?” The actor didn’t quite understand the question, so the man rephrased: “Were you Edmund, or were you—”

“I was Edmund. I was Edmund,” he said. “The feelings were my feelings, but they were coming through the character.” He’d used his real-life experience only as a crutch to “tap into something” prior to his entrance, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do if you’re drawing on something like that. “I walked five miles. I wanted to murder somebody. That was coming from here,” he said, indicating the willing center. Another man nodded vigorously. “I felt like you were a wrecking ball,” he said. “Which is a kind of pendulum!” I added.

As we circled up to lift the ring, our Edmund stood beside me, shaking his head, still beaming. “You killed me today, Frannie. You totally killed me.” I smiled and said, “Good. That’s a good thing, right?” He nodded. “That’s a very good thing.”

Season Two: Week 22

Tuesday / November 20
Written by Matt

We started off on a high point today, as our Lear, his breath still a little short, said that 20 minutes earlier, he had been in “a situation.” Despite the circumstances, he said, he “didn’t respond the way I was used to,” and added that he was applying what he learned in our ensemble to defuse the situation. In the end, he said, he had sat down with the other man involved and had a conversation that dissipated much of the tension. We always love to hear this; conflict resolution isn’t something we “teach” in SIP—we don’t really “teach” anything in particular—but we hear often that improved conflict-resolution skills are an added benefit of spending time in our ensemble.

Then our Gloucester talked about seeing a blind dog on TV that was somehow walking around normally, avoiding walls and everything. “And I thought,” he said, “How can I apply this to my character?” Everyone laughed, and there was a quick discussion over whether the dog was using was echolocation or something else, but it was awesome to see him so connected to his character. He’s doing amazing work. Still during check-in, another man brought up a number of Shakespeare references he’s already beginning to see and understand on television, including a Twilight Zone episode (not one of Rod Serling’s finest, he added) and dozens of Jeopardy questions.

Another member, who has been doing deep dives into history since long before he joined our ensemble, talked about a Western Culture class he was taking. The class was breezing through the Romantic period, and this man was completely taken with Hector Berlioz, the composer of Symphonie Fantastique. “He was obsessed with Shakespeare,” he said. As he was writing his paper on Berlioz, he said, “I realized—I’m a Romantic!”

When we did the ring today, a new member asked what the exercise represents. One of the guys gave a quick explanation, and another followed up: “It’s being in-tune. Like that game last time, with the bombs and the shields, and we ended up in a line because we were all in-tune.”

In-tune or not, we delved back into our discussion about our interpretation of the play’s themes. Since Friday, a number of the men had written out their thoughts. Our Lear had been writing down his thoughts about the relationships between parent and child, which he had brought up near the end of Friday’s session—how many of the characters are brought down by their own children, and how many are uplifted by them. But then he added that the play was also about the rawness of emotion. “Even the people who are cool and calculated,” he said, “are fraught with strong emotions.” He went on a moment later, “Nobody escapes their emotions. France don’t escape his. Lear don’t escape his,” and he continued listing characters: Regan, Cordelia, all of them.

Our Edgar took a slightly different tack. “People spend so much time trying to think about what ‘it’ is,” he said, referring to whatever each character fixates on, “that they can’t see what ‘it’ really is.” In that sense, he said, the play is about “when people are put in a situation in which they have to be who they are, not who they say they are.”

“That happened to me,” another member jumped in. “What you just said happened to me. I thought I was the toughest guy in the world,” he said, and described having that illusion stripped from him.

One of the guys tried to bring us back to the task at hand: coming up with a sentence or phrase that can drive our production. “Blind emotion reflects the true nature of man, in their dualities,” he offered. He explained, “The characters get revealed by their emotions, not their thoughts.” Our Goneril pushed back, saying that he finds Goneril and Regan to be calculating, not emotional. “But that’s an emotion!” said the first man, “That’s greed!”

Our Lear gently offered his perspective to our Goneril. “There’s no Shakespeare plays that have this intensity, every scene,” he said. He said, for example, that, for all of Regan’s scheming, she’s ultimately a prisoner of her emotions as deeply as any other character in the play. Gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, for instance: “That’s not no calculating move. That’s raw emotion. That’s disdain, hatred, anger.” Then he expanded his description and returned to his first comment about emotion driving the play. He said he had found an emotional hot-spot for each character—even the Fool. “If you listen to him, you feel the emotion from the Fool,” he said, “when he’s sitting down with Lear and they’re waiting for the horses.”

The man playing Kent took another angle on the play. He said that he had been thinking about the core of the play, and had come up with pride. “The pride of position,” he said, “It’s that pride that blinds them. The power of pride leads them astray.”

Our Fool added that, if pride is the key, then “Edgar swallowed his pride.” Kent countered, “Even Edgar! He ‘swallowed his pride,’ but… he has a plan, too. And that plan comes from pride of position.”

One unusually quiet member read out the last lines of the play and offered them up as a good theme. Our Albany reflected on those final lines. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” he read, then added that the first time he read them, “I was like, damn. I took that as instruction.”

Our Lear had been ruminating about the theme of pride, and he liked it. “Pride intensifies everything else,” he offered. Our Edmund reflected on his character’s pride: “He’s baseborn; he’s still not one of them. That irks his pride. It intensifies his jealousy and his enmity.” Lear nodded in agreement, linking pride to his theme of raw emotion. “Police officers hate rolling up on domestic calls—they’re walking in on raw emotion,” he said. “Add pride to that equation, and it’s some powerful stuff!”

I suggested that, for us to come up with a good statement of our theme, we might focus on a strong verb. What does pride do? “Pride masks,” offered our Edgar. “Does pride blind?” asked Frannie (referring to the group’s repetition of themes like “truly seeing”), then started digging through the text. As we continued talking, she dug up some of Lear’s lines to Gloucester from Act IV, scene vi. “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes,” she suggested. A bunch of the men pushed back on the elimination of pride from the equation, so we worked it back in, appending “but pride blinds us” to the end and saying that we’d refine it later.

In the final minutes of the session, we decided to stage the first scene of the play—which is perhaps the most complicated, at least in terms of the number of people on stage and the many important dynamics that need to be established. Our Regan took the lead in directing people where to stand or sit, placing Lear on the far right, and the members of court upstage in a line. He explained that, when called upon or speaking openly, a character would step forward from the line. It was historically accurate, he said, and it helped the audience follow the flow of the scene. “This is a rough draft of what it’s gonna be,” he said, and we began.

This section written by Frannie

After several minutes, it became clear that the actors were a little stymied. Lear seemed glued to his chair, unable to connect with the others. Edmund felt awkward staying on stage after Gloucester’s exit; it turned out that he “should” have left then, too, but that hadn’t been his instinct, so we decided to keep playing with where he could stand on stage that would make sense. Our Cordelia was also way too far from the audience during his asides. “Anyone see any solutions? I see at least one really simple one, but maybe someone has a better idea,” I said. There was silence for a moment, and then one of the men started suggesting ways of completely transforming the set. The others were hesitant. This early in the process, I tend to jump in pretty quickly to sort of “model” how this problem-solving can work, and I did so now, suggesting that, rather than reinventing the wheel, we simply shift the chairs so that we could work with diagonals, rather than lines that ran parallel to the audience. That solved most of the problems immediately and seemed to spark a new way of approaching the process for a bunch of people.

We kept working in fits and starts, pausing as we identified the challenges that arose, solving them more and more quickly. Soon, all but three chairs were gone and, rather than everyone sitting in a row, the husbands stood just upstage of their wives. Lear found all sorts of movement, helping to establish relationships and keeping him from getting stuck in his chair. At one point, one of the men and I whispered excitedly to each other that the new staging not only looked balanced (several levels and great use of space!), but the arrangement of the actors communicated their relationships with incredible clarity, even without their speaking.

The collaboration was invigorating after spending so much time discussing our concept—one of the guys even demanded that Maria give her opinion about some of the staging. The ensemble knows that, as a stage manager, she isn’t used to being asked for artistic input, and it seems that they’re now so confident as artists that they’re going to nudge her into participating just as actively. As we say when we lower the ring together, “Leave no one behind.” No one is being left behind in this ensemble. Not even Maria!

Season Two: Week 21

Tuesday / November 13
Written by Matt

We started today on a bit of a tangent about the historical Shakespeare. A returning member asked about Shakespeare’s life, and a number of members leapt in to share what they had learned from various sources. Frannie talked a bit about Shakespeare’s “lost years,” which have fueled centuries of speculation, and a few people mused about the collection of authorship theories. More than anything, these sorts of conversations show not only curiosity, but an aspect of the “ownership” of Shakespeare’s works that we try to encourage. If part of the wonder of Shakespeare’s plays is how open-ended they are--how much they invite empathy with conflicting characters, and how many conflicting interpretations they allow--the same could be said of Shakespeare’s life. Our ensemble members, as usual, jumped right into a spirited debate over whether it matters who, exactly, Shakespeare was--his gender, his life experience, his social class. They also wondered if he collaborated with like-minded people in his plays or in others’. A number of them seemed to like the idea that Shakespeare was part of a group of writers and thinkers all working together.

After check-in (much of which was taken over by the conversation about Shakespeare) and the ring, we began the final push in our stumble-through of King Lear. We began with Act IV, scene v, an intimate scene mostly between Goneril and Oswald, Regan’s servant. The key to the scene, as our Goneril said, is “the mistrust underlying everything” in the play.

Our Oswald, who is in his second season and really coming out of his shell, dove into his character’s obsequious physicality--somewhere between conniving and cowed. Afterwards, a new member had some questions about that point: it seemed like Oswald was just hunched and running around bent over, he said. What was the point of that? Our Lear spoke up to explain that he understood it perfectly, comparing Oswald to the toadying Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings. Oswald agreed vigorously. The man who raised the issue pushed back a bit, asking, “Is that really their relationship?” And Oswald, who has generally kept a low profile and avoided anything even resembling conflict so far, stuck up for his choice. “His only power comes from everyone else around him--what they deign to give him,” he said. Even as the conversation veered into becoming a distraction, it was nice to see both sides of it: honest questioning of a choice made on stage and a clear explanation of that choice and why the actor was sticking to it. But since this ensemble could debate anything for hours, it was time to refocus. Frannie jumped in at an appropriate moment to redirect: “Everybody is on a journey,” she said. “And we’ll figure out what that means in each scene with your characters.”

Before we left talking about physicality, though, our Goneril, who has been experimenting with Michael Chekhov’s physical acting exercises in his unit, chuckled and wondered what the officers watching him on the security cameras think!

If the previous scene was about swiftly advancing plot and character development, the next one is impressionistic and starkly epic. Act IV, scene vi is both one of the most challenging scenes in the play--blind Gloucester’s intended suicide, Edgar’s inner turmoil and outer artifice, Lear’s towering madness--and also one of the scenes at the emotional core of King Lear, if not the core.

A number of people worried aloud that the scene might come off as funny. One of them, our Albany, thought we might accomplish some gravitas with sound and music. “Let’s see how it plays,” Frannie suggested, and also mentioned that even if people laugh in response to something like Gloucester’s “fall,” that doesn’t always mean they have found it funny. “Sometimes that’s people’s response to the truth--especially if it’s uncomfortable truth,” she said.

As if on cue, Edgar led Gloucester onstage, and we all fell silent. Gloucester had a hat pulled low over his eyes so that he could peer down at his script but no further. It also turned out that he had been experimenting with binding his eyes in his unit and performing basic tasks (it was great, he said, except that he spilled his coffee!), and that work was apparent in his affecting performance. The star of that first beat, though, was watching Edgar and Gloucester working so incredibly hard together, feeding off of one another’s energy and beautiful line-readings.

“O, if Edgar live…” cried Gloucester from (in his mind) the extreme verge of the cliffs of Dover. That one “O!” told as much a story as any soliloquy, loaded with subtle emotion made more painful by the image of his son crouching a few feet away but unknown to him. In response, Edgar reached out a hand and made as if to move to his father, then checked himself and returned to his silent crouch. Heartbreaking.

After Gloucester fell and revived, he mustered incredible energy--he was disappointed, frustrated that he still lived. “But have I fall’n or no?” he demanded suspiciously of the unknown man (still his son in disguise) who found him. He grew enraged by the other man’s joy at his miraculous survival. “Do but look up!” exclaimed the disguised Edgar. “Alack,” Gloucester raged in response, as if the instruction were intended to torment him, “I have no eyes!!”

It’s hard to express how powerful this moment between Gloucester and Edgar was, and how intensely those men had to focus, how deep they had to dig to pull up those emotions. Perhaps because of this, Lear’s entrance broke the spell, and all three men onstage struggled to connect to the scene. Less than a minute later, we stopped the scene to reset and re-center, and everyone seemed relieved. Sometimes, it makes sense to just push through the messiness and get to the end of a scene, but this one is too long, too complicated, and it asks too much of the actors (especially Lear and Gloucester) to reasonably stumble through it if everyone is feeling “off.”

In fact, we reset a few times before finding a way through to the end. Our Lear is still feeling his way towards the madness called for in the scene, but he is much of the way there--he’ll make it. In the end, Gloucester and Lear sat on the floor together, two tired, old men clinging together as best they can. Just as affecting was Gloucester’s position after Lear’s exit, as Edgar confronted and fought Oswald. The blind man, left without his king or his anonymous guide, crouched helplessly in a back corner, listening to the sounds of confrontation and conflict and unable to fight or flee.

Perhaps a fitting end to such a heartrending scene, our Oswald gave us a moment of levity when he mistakenly “died” on the wrong side of his body, falling on top of the letter Edgar is supposed to pilfer from his corpse. Without missing a beat, he fished the letter from his pocket and slowly poked his hand up above his waist; Edgar obligingly took it. It was such a genuinely funny moment that we all laughed--the more so perhaps because the scene had been so powerful.

The next scene, in which Lear and Cordelia reunite, was clean but a little flat. Frannie assured everyone that we’d find the scene, given some time. It’s a tough moment to stage.

Act V barrels to its conclusion, and it started with some good action between Edgar and Regan. “Wait,” said an observant member, “did I miss something, or are they flirting?”

At last, we made it to the final scene. And, wonderfully, our Albany really took the reins in this scene, which he had never done before. He directed the action, and confronted Edmund strongly. As so often happens, this gave everybody else license to bring more energy to their own performances. Our Goneril raised his voice to match Albany’s, and Albany responded in kind, reaching a peak as he hollered “Shut your mouth, dame/Or with this paper I shall stop it!” Which earned him some vocal appreciation from the rest of the ensemble.

Ultimately, we struggled a little with the scene after Goneril’s exit. There is so much action, such a non-stop high emotional pitch, that it really takes a running start to get there, and any little thing can derail it. Regan and Goneril’s “bodies” were so funny as they assumed their position on stage that the laughter took the wind out of Lear’s sails, and it was hard to recover. Still, Lear’s voice boomed out on the open vowels of “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” And our Kent rallied to create a touching moment between himself and Lear as he finally reveals his identity.

Whew! We made it! It felt good to make it all the way through the play, and the whole ensemble is so hungry for more: more work on their acting, more time spent working on individual scenes, more depth, more breadth. We decided that we’d think about concepts for our playing space and set on Friday. And we decided that the theme for staging from now on would be “weather patterns and battle plans.” This is an astonishing community of men, and as I left the prison today, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for them.


Friday / November 16
Written by Frannie

We played “Bombs and Shields,” one of my favorite Theatre of the Oppressed exercises, in the women’s ensemble the other night, and it was such a positive experience that I introduced it to the men today. In this game, everyone spreads out around the room and silently chooses one person to be their “bomb” and another to be their “shield.” The objective is to keep the shield between oneself and one’s bomb—and everyone tries to do so simultaneously. I explained the exercise, we took a moment, and then we launched into it.

As is typical with this exercise, it was chaos! We were in the gym, so there was a lot of space, but people clumped up pretty quickly. Soon I realized that the ensemble had more or less divided into two groups, with one scurrying back and forth while the other, at some distance, mirrored their movements more slowly. That changed, though, when I began counting down from 10 to the bombs’ “explosion.” At the last second, the entire ensemble fell into a straight line down the center of the court.

“How did THAT happen?” I exclaimed. While none of us facilitators have formal training in Theatre of the Oppressed, we’ve all spent time with it, and I can’t guarantee that this game never ends with its participants so organized, but we’ve personally never seen it. The guys were thrilled, and we started going down the line, figuring out who was whose bomb, etc., and realized that there was a pattern to the decisions that were made: a combination of choices made based on personality and/or relative position. Only a few people had managed to maintain any kind of strategy throughout the exercise; most had gone into “survival mode.”

We decided to play another round! This time, a very chaotic group moved quickly to one far end of the gym, scampering amongst each other and even over some of the gym equipment. As they did that, some of guys drifted apart, forming one smaller group, though one of them lingered in the bleachers where I was standing, and I couldn’t figure out why I seemed to keep getting in his way.

I began counting down, and by the time I got to one, this was the arrangement:

 
SMT_bombs and shields_round 2_11-16-18.jpg
 

“You guys!” I exclaimed, and we all burst out laughing again. We started figuring out what had happened.

  • A had chosen B as his shield and C as his bomb, which worked out great for him!

  • D chose me as his shield—I never explained that I wasn’t part of the game, so kudos to him for thinking outside the box!

  • The diagonal line was due to five people’s having chosen Matt as their shield. Matt said that he realized that at some point and “threw them all under the bus” by pacing and then quickly jumping behind his shield at the last second.

I asked if there had been any difference between the two rounds. “This one was more frantic!” said one man. Another said that had simply been Coffey’s fault, which cracked us all up. A third man said he’d switched up his strategy, to which another replied that everyone’s “strategies were revealed,” and that had made it easier for him to figure out a plan.

“But this is a theatre game, right?” asked one man “I don’t get how this is a theatre game.” I asked the group what they had gotten out of it.

  • No one should ever use Coffey or Matt as a shield again.

  • We’re really in sync as an ensemble—those straight lines indicate that everyone is strategizing in similar ways.

  • It made us utilize a large space, adapt quickly, and keep our mistakes to ourselves. One man said it reminded him of a space-filling exercise we did during rehearsals for The Tempest to help us figure out the storm scene.

  • One man said it taught him to make predictions based on people’s personalities while staying open to improvisation.

This last observation led us into a more detailed discussion about how the exercise applies to this ensemble and this play. First of all, it embodies the basic acting choices of objective, obstacle, and tactic, which differ from person to person. As noted, too, it showed us how we can improvise within parameters (the lines, etc.) based on the strength of the ensemble and how well we know each other.

“If you know what the outcome is, you can get there through improv,” said one man. We have to do that a lot—even in professional theatre, all kinds of wrenches can get thrown into performances; in a prison, that’s magnified. But the point was made: if we’re in sync, we can anticipate and execute the best “saves.”

We were feeling good and clearly bonding, so I moved us into another Theatre of the Oppressed game: “This Bottle is Not a Bottle”. In the variation I chose, the group sits in a circle. The first holds up an object—we used a pen—and says, “This pen is not a pen. It’s a _____,” and then they pass the object to the next person, who has to briefly interact with the object as if it is what was suggested. This repeats till every person has had a turn.

Our pen became…

A ladder

A flute

A fishing pole

A floatation device

A snake

A tree

A pogo stick

A high wire

A lightsaber

A squirrel

A chihuahua

A frog

A bow and arrow

A compass

A car

A pen

A memory wipe

“This is not a game!” joked one of the men. “This game is not a game,” said another, more seriously. “This is real life.” We’re constantly adapting quickly to what other people hand us.

One man said it had pushed us to do a lot of “vivid acting.” Another nodded, saying, “It made people get out of their comfort zone and act silly for a minute.” A third man built on that, saying that the game requires a “willingness to commit,” which led another man to add that we’d had to resist taking things literally and suspend our disbelief.

“That’s just it, isn’t it?” I said. “If actors have that ‘willingness to commit’—if they fully buy into what they’re doing—the audience will suspend their disbelief, too. What were the funniest moments?” The most natural ones, we all agreed. The two that stood out were when one man handed a “snake” to the next man, who immediately recoiled before gingerly taking it; another man was immediately attacked by the squirrel he was given. One man said, “You have the creativity to create a character on the spot, and also project your personality onto the pen.” “Theatre is honesty within artifice,” I replied.

We played another round, this time with my tote bag, choosing whomever we felt like to hand off the object to, rather than going around the circle in order. The bag became…

Non-dairy creamer

Dynamite

A house

$1,000,000

A box of puppies

A rooster

A hot air balloon

A bowling ball

A chair

A Micro Machine

A bobsled

A parachute at 5,000 feet

A washing machine

The cut lines from 4.3 (Jerks.)

A hacky sack

A chessboard

A dinghy

A pocket protector

A giant bottle of beard oil

As you can see, the unpacking of the first round had an invigorating effect on the second! The objects provided many more opportunities for creativity, and people were more prepared for it. When one man was handed dynamite, he gingerly set it on the ground and quickly walked away—and the entire circle followed suit. Another reacted to being given a house by lying down on his back, house atop his stomach (“Ding dong, the witch is dead,” I sang.). When one was handed $1,000,000, he looked at the “wad of cash,” said, “Shit, I’m out!” and walked away. The man who was given the bowling ball threw it down the lane; when he said, “This ball is not a bowling ball,” another joked, “Everyone uses that excuse.”

Multiple people jumped in to help with certain objects as well. One played the dog when another was given a bobsled; another joined the chess match; another climbed aboard the dinghy. That was one of the main things that excited us as we unpacked the exercise, as well as the detail some people provided, like the parachute being at 5,000 feet—it gave that person more to work with. “It was a pretty good use of space,” said one man, “and the chemistry between the ensemble.”

“What I liked about these two [exercises] was the full, equal involvement,” said one man. “There’s no sitting out. There’s no passing the buck. There was no time to really think about it,” he continued, explaining that with a game like “Bus Stop”, you have time to overthink things. But not with these games. “When they handed you the bag, they were handing you the whole entire scene,” agreed another, “and you’re inventing the whole atmosphere of the scene—and then people join you in that.”

We regrouped in the bleachers to start figuring out what our playing space will look like. Three men explained to the newbies how we’d arranged things for The Tempest. One of them then had the other two help him demonstrate how he wanted to expand the stage area, but others had doubts about how well people would be able to be heard so far from the audience.

The discussion threatened to spiral into something that would be frustrating and unproductive, so I stepped in to suggest that, first, we figure out a concept—an idea that represents the core of the story we want to tell—and then we’ll find the “look” from there. “Throw out some themes that you see throughout the play,” I said. “What have we been talking about? What have you been thinking about?”

Royal court

Interruption

Redemption

Contrast

Treachery

Busy

Emotion

Darkness

Chaos

Shallowness

Scandalous

Shelter

Terrain

Rage

Envy

Death

Jealousy

Forgiveness

Tension

Redemption (again)

Violence

Love

Artifice

Polarities / dualities

Trust

Regret

Cuckold

Power

Blindness

Stricken

Alienation

Domination

Emasculation

Corruption

Hope / hopelessness

Madness

Family

Purpose

Transparency

Machiavelli

Storm

Poetry

Justice / injustice

Disguise

Solace

Denial

Truth

Frustration

Illusion / delusion

Incomplete

Placation

Exposure

Candid

Brutality

Ruthlessness

Aggregate

Mischievous

Impotence

Power / powerlessness

Scheming

Insanity

Madness

Unknown temptation

Vanity

Fear

Hypocrisy

Pleasure

Pomp and circumstance

Turbulence

I read the list out loud a couple of times and asked if any themes emerged from those words and our emotional responses to them.

Pain

Ambivalence

Confusion

Battle for the chair

Opposing passions

Raw nature

Impotent power struggle

Denial

Dichotomy of honor

Morality

Darkness and light springs from the same heart

Extremes

Fate

Desperation

Conflicting agendas

Alchemy

Tragedy of duality

Contrast

Exposure

And what can we pull out of that, I asked? Can we distill these themes into a sentence? Here’s as far as we got:

Exposing human nature in its rawest form...

This has something to do with the conflict within us and between us.

When human nature—the conflict within and between us—is exposed in its rawest form, ______…

We know self.

You create your own enemies.

Your wants and needs take primacy.

We truly see ourselves / can no longer be blind.

We’re forced to see our true selves.

Through heart’s imperfect journeys does mind know truth of spirit.

Humans are prone to go to extremes—the truth is somewhere in between.

“Storms don’t just come out of nowhere. We can see them coming.” (Which I remembered an ensemble member saying earlier this season.)

The truth is exposed when things come apart.

One man went on an epic rant about his main takeaway: “The villains in this play—they’re not self-made. Regan and Goneril—Lear made them. Edmund? Gloucester made him… All of these ‘villains’ who are after the old men, we feel so sorry for at the end—the old men made them that way… In this play, the villains are these guys we feel so sorry for. They made their own enemies… You feel for Edmund in spite of the shit he does. You feel for him. So what was done to these sisters to make them the way they are?... These ain’t no people from France or Spain coming in to cause [Gloucester’s and Lear’s] downfall. This is their children.”

We ran out of time without settling on one concept. I suggested that we all take the weekend to keep writing and brainstorming, and see what we could bring to the table on Tuesday. If we do that, I think we’ll have a solid concept and performance space setup by the end of that session.

It was a really, really good day.

Season Two: Week 20

Friday / November 9
Written by Frannie

We continued our walk-through with Act III, scene ii — the first storm scene. Our Lear was off book for the entire scene! And so was our Fool, who was just given this role last week. While the performance consisted mainly of the actors standing in place while talking to one another, when it was over a number of people praised Lear for beginning to truly “find his voice.” I, for one, was sitting in the back of the bleachers and could hear every word he said.

At this point, there’s no detailed acting happening; we know that that will come later. But a man who recently re-joined the group had a question: “Can the Fool be funny?” Another man who just joined said that he’s a jester—of course he’s funny, even when he’s criticizing Lear. “But not in that scene,” our Lear said emphatically. “You ever been out in a serious storm? It ain’t no joke.” It’s so serious, said another man, that the Fool tells Lear he should go back to his daughters. “I see the Fool being, like… his guardian angel,” mused one man. We asked for clarification, and he said he meant that literally. “He’s there — he’s been sent — for a reason.” Something intriguing to explore!

We continued on, giving constructive criticism and sharing ideas as we went. One man called our Gloucester’s attention to the punctuation in the text; his emotional connection is palpable, but the lines don’t always come out with the right intention. We also pondered ways of making the relationship between Edmund and Gloucester clear. We started getting a little into the weeds on that, and I steered us back to the task at hand; we’ll get into the details later.

One thing we’re a little stuck on is how to communicate changes in location to the audience. While technical elements are no better here than at the women’s prison, we at least are in an auditorium there, which has a curtain we can open and close between scenes. At Parnall, we perform in the gym. Speaking specifically to the storm scenes, which take place at night, one man said, “We could do something cool with people lighting torches and show the transition that way.” The idea of stylizing all scene changes that way was exciting, and we’re going to keep exploring it.

After we ran Act III, scene v, one man suggested to our Cornwall, who just joined, that he let the character’s “drive for revenge” fuel his entrance, meaning that it required more urgency. “That’s a dastardly moment,” he said, “where two villains get together and conspire.” Our Edgar, as usual, fully committed to the emotional intensity and Poor Tom’s physicality, causing another man simply to shake his head after Act III, scene vi, saying, “[NAME}, you’re fucking awesome, man.”

The group walking through Act III, scene vii — the eye-gouging! — took some time to plan it out, which was merited, given how complicated the scene is. It was, of course, messy, but the blocking was logical and will serve as a good foundation for actually staging the scene. One standout moment had to do with our Gloucester’s commitment, rather than with the staging or even the play itself. As he sat “bound” to the chair, our Regan “hit” him upside the head. Gloucester reacted perfectly by jerking forward; this caused his script, which was balanced on his knee, to fall to the ground. He leaned toward it, but didn’t allow his arms to become “unbound,” grunting as he made the fruitless effort to reach it. We all laughed (and so did he), and Cornwall picked up the script and put it back on his knee.

We talked a bit about exactly when the violence happens, all of which is spelled out in the text and was easily found. We determined that our best bet will be to stage the whole scene, but merely to “shape” the combat; Patrick Hanley (our official combat coordinator) will then take their ideas and choreograph something we can do safely and consistently.

Another comment — and this was pertinent to the entire play — was that one of the guys said the scene had been executed so quickly that he’d had trouble catching anything. Others argued that the scene demands that the actors move quickly. “Let’s not forget,” said one man, “this is where things start ramping up. So the scenes are escalating and getting more intense. This is where it starts.” Yes, agreed the other man, but it had still gone too fast; he wanted to see more of the interpersonal dynamics and drama. He got kind of fired up as he explained this, and another man jokingly said, “That energy — everything you just did? I wanna see some of that in your character.” We all laughed.

We ended up clarifying that while the scene does need to be pretty fast-paced, we need to be sure that the language itself isn’t rushed. One man said that the key was for everyone to be sure that they enunciated the words properly. Some weren’t sure what that meant, and I rephrased what he’d said using the world “articulate”. Another man said that that was the wrong word to use in this context, and I fired back that it wasn’t, teasing him by asking why it would have been used in “all those acting and voice classes” I took in college. More on that later.

We moved on to the scene in which Gloucester, led by an old man, is reunited with Edgar (who doesn’t reveal his identity). Gloucester entered with his hat pulled over his eyes, rendering him sightless (other than being able to look down to his script). The guy playing the old man had been goofing around prior to this, but now he buckled down, assuming an active stance and staying very focused on his objective: protecting Gloucester. Gloucester and Edgar, as usual, fully committed to their emotional connections to the text and each other. When the scene ended, another man yelled, “Oh my GOSH!” His excitement propelled him out of his seat and around the gym. “[NAME]! My GOD!” he continued to rave before finally sitting back down.

One man, who has truly fabulous instincts, suggested that Edgar explore changing his voice and physicality during his asides to the audience. Ultimately, the specifics are something that the actor will need to figure out, and this man emphasized that the main thing is to make sure the difference is clear to the audience. He’s right.

At this point, the man who’d called me out on my use of “articulate” earlier suggested we place a bet on its definition. “And the stakes are 4.3!” exclaimed the man who is STILL agitating for that scene to be restored in our cut. “No!” I said. “We are not betting on anything! And that scene is CUT!” I’m not sure why or how this continues to be funny, but the ensemble isn’t quite through yet with the joke.

When we’d gotten through the next scene between Goneril and Albany, one man said, “This is an undercover, brutal scene.” He cited the way the characters speak to one another, and the man playing the former said he was working on chewing on lines like, “Milk-livered man”. I suggested that he let the words come out as slowly as they want — they’re written that way for a reason. Darting a glance at my vocabulary foe, I said, “You can’t ARTICULATE those sounds if you go too fast.” As that man cracked up, the proponent of 4.3 said, “You can’t ENUNCIATE.” I replied, “Right, because THEY’RE SYNONYMS IN THIS CONTEXT.” As the first challenger began to argue again, I said, “You can’t out-vocabulary me! I can totally out-do you on this.” He replied, “Oh, no you can’t.” The other man said, “Oh, no you shan’t.” “Thou canst not!” I exclaimed. “Thou liest!” (That’s one of Ariel’s lines in The Tempest, which has become a running joke in the women’s ensemble, so this response was automatic.)

Thankfully, some others intervened, and we got back to work. The man playing Regan said that he and Goneril want to wear some kind of corset, and that he’s working on drawing out his costume ideas so we’ll know we’re on the same page. “I want a t-shirt that says, ‘What happened to 4.3?’” said you-know-who. “Or a backdrop.” “It’s not getting old,” I said sarcastically. “Everyone is still all about this joke. You should keep going with it.”

The staging of Cordelia’s return basically worked, though the men agreed that her entrance needs more “oomph” so the audience will know how powerful she is. As a part of that, one man suggested that each army have a banner to make things even clearer. “Or we could keep 4.3,” said a certain someone. Nose in my notes, I replied, “Shut UP.”

We circled up to raise the ring, feeling good about how productive we’d been. We’ll be through this phase very soon, and then the real work of staging will begin. We’re ready.