Season Two: Week 15

Tuesday / October 2

Written by Matt

“You know, I’m at about an 8½ or 9 right now!” exclaimed one of the guys today. He seemed happy to be in the group, happy to be gathered and ready to get up and work on the play. Even when we had to take a break from check-in to allow some other people to transfer a bunch of chairs around—banging and crashing tremendously all the time—he said that he was maybe down to a 3, but on his way back up.

Check-in covered the usual topics of classes (“I only cried three times, as opposed to 20 times!” said a longtime member about his test) and prison programming (one member talked about the expansion of self-help programming at the prison), and then we talked a little bit about our conversation on Friday. “For me,” said one of them, “the important thing was the respect,” and he complimented everyone for their civility and open-mindedness. Another agreed. “This group represents hope that you be more than that piece of paper that the judge gave you after you were sentenced.”

One man checked in to say that some of them went back to the unit and just started laughing. “All that tension went away,” he said. “The amount of respect that we’ve all been showing each other is just blowing my mind,” said another. “Seeing the responses—we just all really respect each other. That meant more to me even than the conversation.” Still another man said, “I just want everyone to know how much I value this space, and the energy I feel in here enabled me to share some things I have never been able to share before.” Another member added, “In a group this size, you usually lose this dynamic.”

Since we are now finished reading the play, we decided to return to Act I, scene i. We usually play around with scenes and characters for some time before casting, and this scene allows almost all of the major characters to introduce themselves.

Of course, as soon as we marched into the scene we remembered how complicated it is—most of the lines belong to Lear, Cordelia, and Kent, but there are at least eight and as many as a dozen people standing onstage throughout. This had two effects: first, it made the scene painfully slow during its transitions, and it made for a lot of uncomfortable standing around. We managed to stumble through the whole thing, then debriefed to talk it through.

What ensued was a little bit chaotic. This group of men is full of ideas and suggestions, which is part of what made reading the play with them so much fun. Now that we are putting scenes up on their feet, however, the desire to analyze every move and line has not slackened a bit, and there was so much to talk about! The few men who had managed not to have some role in the scene had a lot of questions about how best to cut it down or change it to make it more easily understandable. Several of the men had specific blocking and movement advice, and they went straight up to the ensemble member they wanted to talk to and started describing and marking out their ideas—all at the same time.

After some semblance of order had been restored, we talked a bit about what story we wanted to tell with this scene and how to tell that story, especially if we have to cut out a lot of the speeches (which we do). “If we’re gonna take [words] out,” said one man, “let’s keep the feeling.”

At the center of all the noise were core questions about the play: what sort of relationship does Lear have with each of his daughters? What sort of relationship do they have with each other? Or Gloucester with Edmund? Lear with Kent? France with Burgundy? All but two of the major characters appear in this scene (only Edgar and the Fool are absent), and all of the major characters who appear in the scene have dialogue that goes directly to the heart of their central conflicts. Though we have to cut it down, the play truly wastes no time in revealing the main characters to us, although all of them except Lear himself need to do a lot of that revealing in nonverbal ways (An always astute ensemble member asked, how do Regan and Goneril respond to the surprise of each being given an extra quarter of the kingdom? How do Cornwall and Albany? They have few lines—Albany has no lines spoken alone—but they are onstage for almost the entirety of the scene, and much can be understood from their reactions). The man playing Edmund wondered what he was supposed to do—why he was even present, then decided that Edmund would be bored by the whole thing until Cordelia unleashes chaos.

A second run-through went much more smoothly, though there is still plenty to work on. This scene presents many challenges, but it was helpful to walk through something big and long and messy after several months of sitting and talking or doing monologues. The theatrical process is often messy, and SIP often even more so, but that is part of the challenge and the wonder of it. It is all well and good to read through a big, complicated scene and muse about its language, but that language wants to live and breathe on a stage—or a small space cleared behind the pews in a prison chapel—and we are finally ready to let it.

Friday / October 5

Written by Coffey

“There’s a lot to be said for scenes with a lot of anger and intensity; there are ebbs and flows to it…It’s like a tide.”

Our shorter-than-usual session began with an encouraging check-in. One man shared the happy news that his mother, after fighting the disease for some time, was finally cancer-free. Another man shared that he has gained a considerable amount of weight since entering the facility, a check-in that was intended to be self-deprecating. However, the men quickly turned the conversation to fond memories of home cooking and the smell of roasted garlic. Several of the men attended a talk with Ilyasah Shabazz, who visited the prison to speak about her father’s work and her own work and writing. The men were moved by her visit, with one man sharing that, “Despite, you know, prison, the other day (the day of the talk) was the best day of my life.”

After our check-in and warmup, one of the men asked that we focus on the top of Act II Scene 2, an intense encounter between Kent and Oswald. Man A cast himself as Kent, a part he has gravitated toward since we began reading the play. With Man B volunteering to play Oswald, the scene began tentatively, as both men were still very attached to their scripts but wanted to get the scene on its feet. After the first run of the scene the flood gates opened, with nearly every audience member volunteering their own analyses of the scene and their own ideas as to what precisely the delivery of Kent’s insulting litany (“A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats…”) should look and sound like. This led us to discuss why Kent is behaving with such intense hatred in this scene. “He knows he’s going into the ‘nest of vipers’. He’s letting his emotions get the best of him,” one man said. “Could it also be blind devotion rearing its ugly head?” another man asked.

We ran the scene again, this time placing a little more focus on the various levels within Kent’s attack on Oswald. This time, Man A tried circling Man B during Kent’s monologue, “trying to have more of an intimidation factor”. The second run of the scene went well and the guys became more invested in the scene the more we worked on it, but this manifested itself in a lot of corrective, prescriptive comments from the guys in the audience. Each man had such a vivid picture of how the scene could play out, but it was becoming clear that so much focus on aesthetic particulars and analysis so early on might get between us and the heart of the scene. Matt took the opportunity to encourage the men to make comments from their position as viewers, rather than giving the actors corrections.

Matt’s suggestion helped to refocus the group as we went into our third run of the scene. While the guys in the audience were able to center their attention on their experience as viewers, however, the two actors onstage agreed with their audience that the third run-through felt a bit stiffer than the second, less natural. Man B was having a hard time not moving backward whenever Man A approached. Man A expressed feeling as though he was following Man B around the stage: “I feel like I’m being upstaged.” Both actors were really clinging to their scripts and were having a hard time connecting and forming a fluid dynamic.

To help the two actors let go of their scripts and dive a bit more into the emotional content of the scene, Matt formed the fourth run of the scene around a “dropping in” exercise. While the two actors performed the scene, they focused solely on maintaining eye contact with each other and moving towards each other in a straight line, refraining from moving backward at all. Matt and another ensemble member stood near each actor, holding the actors’ scripts and quietly feeding them their lines.

It became clear during this exercise that both actors felt uncomfortable ceding their scripts (and that much control). Man B expressed discomfort with being so dependent on his drop-in reader: “I was really dependent on him. It was really difficult. It felt like I was defeating the purpose.” A man in the audience pointed out that Man B’s discomfort might be evidence that the exercise was working: “It’s more of a trust exercise, too. You have to trust that the person is going to read you the lines.” The struggle to let go of the script and connect with your fellow actors on stage during rehearsal is a long, arduous process for many professional actors, and this exercise showed us that the same process would be an important part of our production. For the fifth run, I suggested that the men use a “bucket and well” model for using their scripts on stage; filling their buckets by carefully reading one small chunk of script at a time, and then emptying their buckets by lowering the script and delivering those small pieces of script, one at a time, without looking at their script.

The fifth and final run was, according to one man, “a lot more clear and concise”. Another man said that he felt the lines were “a lot fuller”. Both actors still had a hard time taking their eyes off the script and being with each other on stage, but we all ended the session feeling as though we had found a good focal point for future rehearsals: taking time to read carefully, connecting fully with other actors, and trusting ourselves and others on stage. It will be wonderful to see the men put more focus on pulling themselves out of the script and into the moment.

Season Two: Week 14

Tuesday / September 25

Written by Frannie

“So, there’s a Tribe Called Quest?” said one of the guys as we settled in for check-in. “We’re a Tribe Called Will.”

After checking in and talking through some ensemble business, we went through the play’s characters so I could write down who is interested in playing each part. The group has bonded in a way that leads me not to anticipate much tension during the casting process, though I could, of course, be wrong! Some of the guys really gravitate toward specific roles, either because they personally identify with them or because they want a challenge — or both. Others truly have no preference and are happy simply to round out the cast wherever it’s needed.

We played a couple of improv games to loosen up, and then we got out the books to figure out what scene to start our exploration with. The plan had been to begin with the play’s final scene, but many people had left early, so we thought perhaps we should switch it up or narrow the scope.

There was a bit of “head-butting” that I couldn’t quite figure out between a couple of the guys. Man A suggested that we look at the scene when Cordelia returns; he wanted to see Man B read Cordelia, and then he wanted to give it a go. They’re both interested in the character, but it’s my impression that Man A is more interested in another role, and that the suggestion wasn’t competitive. That said, I never know all the dynamics at play, and, for whatever reason, Man B was really irritated. They argued about it enough that I finally asked if we could just find something else to work — rather than choosing scenes for other people, I said, it might be better for each person to suggest a scene that they, themselves, wanted to explore.

Man B finally said he wanted to work a portion of 5.1, from “when the sisters get into it” till the gentleman’s entrance with the bloody knife. Somehow this still led to confusion, but we finally got it figured out and got on our feet. Most of our work was figuring out what each character wants, and how that affects what each actor does physically. Albany in particular switches up who he’s talking to pretty frequently, and the guy who gamely read him needed a lot of guidance finding those moments.

At one point, he stepped pretty aggressively in toward Regan on Albany’s lines suggesting that she propose to him, since Goneril is “subcontracted to” Edmund. The guy reading Edmund said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you getting in her face about? You’re not mad at her.” Albany looked to me and said, “Well, I’m talking to her, right?” “Well, technically, yes, you’re speaking to her, but are you serious?” I asked. That was the wrong word to use — the two men who’d been bickering before picked it back up, even as I tried to explain that what I meant was that the line is said to Regan for the benefit of Goneril and Edmund — and that that impacts the staging.

For whatever reason, those two guys could not stop arguing, and I finally broke in, issued a mea culpa, explained again what I had meant, and asked if we could move on. We messed with the staging a bit more, identified some details in the text that helped with that, and tried out two options for the line, “Ask me not what I know”. I think we landed on giving the line to Goneril, rather than Edmund — it seemed to work a lot better — but we could always change our minds.

We also talked through Edgar’s motivation in this final scene. He’s just come from his father dying in his arms and (depending on whether you’re looking at the Quarto or Folio) Kent’s reappearance, and he’s behaving with more abandon than he has yet. But is he there for revenge? It only took a little discussion to decide that he’s not: what he wants is justice.

Despite the odd tension between two members, it was a good day. I’m not sure how much time we’ll spend on scene exploration — most of the guys know the play extremely well already, and we’ve done enough on our feet to have a good idea of each person’s strengths and weaknesses. We’ll see.

Friday / September 28

Written by Matt

Sometimes at SIP, we need to take some time to discuss current events, when those events are on people’s minds. Today was one of those days. We usually do not include the content of those very personal discussions on the blog, but I can report that today’s session was brave, honest, emotional, and a testament to the deep connection among our ensemble members.

The ensemble is a safe, nonjudgmental place for people to honestly share their thoughts and feelings, which does not mean that everyone agrees with everyone else. Ultimately, the best test of the trust bond between the members of our ensembles is the ability to honestly say what needs to be said and to openly listen to what others need to say. Today saw that dynamic at its best.

Midway in our session, we did the ring exercise, taking extra care to keep ourselves all together. To take a break from the heavy stuff, Frannie talked about watching the National Theatre’s livestream of King Lear the night before, and we all had a good laugh at her vitriolic notes about the direction--she was not a fan.

One longtime member talked about wanting to introduce Shakespeare to an “urban” audience when he gets out. He envisioned a group or organization that would help people without exposure to Shakespeare get over the unfamiliar language to see the themes and characters, which are the same themes and characters they deal with every day. “When you’re black,” he said, “[you think] you’re so different from white people. Then you come here, and it’s all the same people! The same issues, but different language.”

In the final few minutes, we played some tapeball to get us out of our heads and hearts for a moment (a new high! 85!), then put up the ring until Tuesday.

Season Two: Week 13

Tuesday / September 18

Written by Matt

Today we began to read the final scene of King Lear, which we anticipated would take us at least two sessions. After reading just the opening few lines and speeches, as Lear and Cordelia are taken off to prison, the group had a lot of thoughts. In addition to simply providing rich moments of character development to discuss, scenes in Shakespeare that deal with people in prison or waiting to go to prison often bring up a lot of thoughts and feelings from our members. Even before we were done, as one of the men was reading “No, no, no, no. Come, let’s away to prison:/We two alone will sing like birds i’the cage,” another took a breath, shook his head, and whispered, “Damn.”

“When we all first got arrested,” said one, “we all didn’t understand the scope of it--the scope of the time we were gonna lose.” “[Lear’s] not grasping the situation,” agreed another. “He’s talking like he’s in court, not headed to prison.” A third offered, “Sounds like he’s giving up, actually.” Some people agreed, and one even suggested that the speech is “still just a rant, like when he was yelling at the storm,” and that Lear has learned nothing. “To me,” said one new member, “it sounds like he’s coming to terms with it. He’s finding peace in it.”

One of the men said that he had memorized the speech to try to translate it into American Sign Language, and when he read it, “I didn’t see peace in it. I see the walls closing in.” The man who had read Lear’s part added, “As a king, he never had to experience [prison]. He don’t know what he’s getting into. It’s like, you see those people never been to prison talking about us and prison and stuff without understanding.” Another man reminded us that the speech does not exist in a vacuum. “If you take it alone, it’s just ranting,” he said, but said that, taken as a response to Cordelia’s line, it’s much more hopeful. “He’s finally realizing what he lost with Cordelia.”

One of the guys who has been quiet for a couple of weeks, put the moment in historical context. King Lear was written at a time of religious upheaval in Europe and England. “Historically, [the story of] King Lear was Christian,” he said, referring to Shakespeare’s sources. He talked about the Reformation and the conflict between Catholic and Protestant church factions in England during Shakespeare’s life, and then about how Shakespeare’s introduction of pagan elements into the text was controversial. This ensemble member had brought up the larger historical picture several times, and he has zeroed in on the subtextual, political elements of the play.

A little deeper into the scene, conversation turned to Edmund and Albany, as the extent of Edmund’s betrayal is made known. “Edmund feel like he’s on top of the world,” said one member, saying that his fall is even more ironic for this fact. At the same time, another member said, “[Albany] sees him as a subordinate,” and gets the last laugh.

Speaking of the sisters, two guys brought up their roles, now that they are either dead or close to death. “Goneril,” said one, “she pushed more buttons in this play than people realize,” and then went on to describe the many important plot points that Goneril put into motion. “I also feel like there’s some genuine infatuation with Edmund,” added another, countering the idea that her relationship with Edmund was all about power plays on both sides.

We focused on Edgar’s powerful speech to his brother before they fight for a while, and the man who read it went through it twice. Immediately, most of the group approached the clear logistical problem of the scene: that Edmund does not recognize Edgar until after the duel. “Did he ever really see his brother?” one man asked of Edmund, “I’ve known people who change completely when they’re mad.” Another reminded us that they have not seen one another in a long time, long enough for Edgar’s features to change. Yet another suggested that his voice could be altered purposely or from stress. At this point, we needed to return to the issues in the text--it can be fun to explore logistics and staging questions, and they can be important to the overall effect of the play in production, but those discussions can also too quickly become distractions from the main ideas. Frannie reminded the group that, sometimes, these plays just have a little bit of “Shakespeare Magic,” and two people will miraculously not recognize each other without needing to explain it rationally.

“To trick his brother, he had to really know his brother,” said one man, taking the cue. “Very rarely do you get into a fight where you get to [be right],” he mused. “Mostly, you get into a fight, and you lose your humanity.” Then he reminded us that Edgar eulogized Oswald after killing him--clinging to his humanity even after being forced to take a life. “This entire time,” said the man who had read his speech, “I feel like he’s been an arrow pointed straight in one direction.”

Next, the guys stopped on Goneril’s line, “the laws are mine, not thine,” as she asserts her authority. “She knows the laws, so she’s in charge,” translated one member. Another added, “It’s like everybody is trying to act like they’re the most important, but there’s always a comeback.”

Meanwhile, one member who had spent a lot of time with Edmund’s first speech noticed that Edgar’s lines here were echoing Edmund’s from Act I, scene ii. “It’s the contrast again,” he said. “The phrases are coming full circle.”

“But why did Edmund want to confess?” asked one man, raising a key question. “Because deathbed confessions mean something,” replied another, saying that it’s perhaps a final attempt to control the story or laugh at the others. The other man shook his head, “But that’s assuming he’s still cocky and arrogant,” he said, and explained that it would deny Edmund any hope of redemption, however small. “I think he is!” replied the other. “I think this is: ‘Yeah, I did it. So what?’”

Another of the guys quietly brought the discussion back to the words on the page, and he pointed to the evidence of Edmund’s genuine transformation. The man who read Lear observed that Edgar’s journey through the play is as important and powerful as Lear’s. “He’s about to kill the only sibling he has,” he noted, “so--yeah. That’s a lot.”

The same man brought up Gloucester’s death off-stage. “When [Edgar] revealed himself, [Gloucester’s] heart couldn’t take it. Oof… that’s heavy.” Another nodded and said, “How can a person suffer the same pain twice?”

Friday / September 21

Written by Frannie

After playing a couple of really silly games, we settled in to read the rest of our play! We began midway through 5.3, when a man enters with a bloody knife and the news that Goneril has killed herself. A couple of the guys did a quick recap of the first part of the scene, I reminded everyone that open vowels indicate strong emotion and don’t need to be said exactly as written, and then we went for it.

We paused just before Lear’s entrance to check in — things move very fast in this part of the scene. A couple of people were uncertain about what the bloody knife was all about — they hadn’t realized that was what Goneril used to kill herself. One of the guys mused, “I wonder why…” I asked him to explain what he meant, and he said, “I don’t think she cares about the fact that she killed her sister… I really don’t understand why she killed herself. Does anybody understand that?” Another man said he he thought she might actually care about her sister, in spite of everything. “My brother’s a [jerk], but I still love him. This is someone she grew up with, and she’s killed her.”

“I think she wanted to avoid the judgment,” said another man. “She finally realized she wasn’t gonna walk away scot-free.” Someone else brought up Edmund’s death, and another man shook his head, saying, “I don’t think she gave a shit about Edmund dying… I think it’s all about herself.” “Yeah,” said one of the guys, “she lost her only way out, and she’s going to be held accountable.” Another guy built on that. “The chase is over. I think Goneril was in it for the chase from the beginning… Every avenue that she was aiming for has now been stripped from her…” He continued, “I wonder if it wasn’t the lack of stimuli now… LIke I said, she didn’t give a shit if Edmund dies — as long as Regan didn’t get him.” Another man said, “She’s got nothing left to lose,” and the person to whom he was responding said, “It comes full circle. It’s just ‘do’, and it’s gotta stop somehow… Her atrocities finally caught up with her.”

One of the guys said he wasn’t sure that Goneril made the decision spontaneously. “I think she pre-planned this from the beginning… When a person loses control of what’s happening around them [they go to ] the last resort… I don’t know how many of you have been down that road, but it’s not something you do spur of the moment — you plan it out.” “Was this the last thing she had power over?” pondered another man. “Yeah,” replied the first man, “Now she just has power over herself.”

Another man reiterated his belief that Goneril’s suicide was a spontaneous reaction to the scene’s events, referring us to the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, when a number of people killed themselves, seemingly without planning to do so. “There’s different levels of suicide,” he said. He reminded us to try to take an objective view. “When I first read it, I judged the characters quick. I judged Edmund quick, I judged Goneril quick. But now I have to think them through again.”

“I think everybody’s right,” said a man who is quite insightful but generally pretty quiet. “She had it in her mind from the beginning that her situation was unbearable… She starts to see her plans come to fruition, and she can’t go back to where she was… The decision was already in the back of her mind that she’d rather die than go back… Maybe it was self-talk that she said over and over till it became a prophecy.” He continued, “She’s gonna go out on her own terms… She’s not gonna get locked up like Lear and Cordelia… She’s not gonna face others’ judgment.” He turned to a man who’d been a passionate participant in the debate about Edmund’s attitude after being wounded. “It’s like you said the other day about Edmund — like, ‘Fuck you. I’m out.’”

That man nodded and said that that was in line with what he interprets as Shakespeare’s wholesale assault on the double standards of his day, including one about women who were “doing things out of strict protocol and then chastised for it — or judged unfairly for it.” Another man agreed, “She’s not doing nothing else that the men don’t do. But she’s judged.” The first man looped back to whether Goneril’s suicide was premeditated. “I believe that she was a control freak… That string was always there to pull — it’s a question of whether or not you pull it… It’s a last resort… It’s an act of defiance.”

We got into a brief discussion about lechery as a running theme in the play; who suffers consequences for it and what those consequences are. The conversation began to meander. “What about Edmund?” asked one man. “What about Edmund?” I replied. The man looked around the circle, tapping the page with his index finger. “His deathbed change of heart.” He said he’d taken my advice and made lists of the ways he’s like Edmund and the ways he’s not like Edmund. “I think in blacks and whites and have no room for greys. I think he finally caught a shade of grey,” he said. “He realized that his actions affected so many people, that he wanted [to make up for it somehow]... It was dope — it was nice to see that vulnerable side of him again, just like the first monologue, where you can see his plight — you can feel empathy for him again.” He paused. “When people say they want to win at any cost, they don’t understand what ‘at any cost’ means.” He said he could identify with Edmund’s journey; that he had had “tunnel vision” in his addiction that didn’t allowed him to see the way his actions took a toll on his loved ones — he couldn’t see it till he came to prison.

“Wait, I have a question for you,” one man said to the group. “Does Edmund get what he wants?”

There was a pause, and then one man said, “It’s interesting how [Shakespeare] made the play… It’s like in the hood or in the bad neighborhood. But just because you come up in a bad hood don’t mean that everybody in the household come out bad.” He continued, “The culprits of this play are Lear, Gloucester, and Edgar, but [Edmund] makes them look like the good guys… but the bad guys are the products of these people. What happened to Edmund’s mother? All this came from somewhere.” In that way, he said, we can empathize with the bitterness that makes Edmund want to “take everyone out”. “Did he want to take everyone out, or did he want everyone to validate him?” asked someone else.

“You remember those first few conversations about masks?” asked one man. “I think we finally found the true Edmund… But — man, it sucks that he found that all out, found his compassion, right at the very end. If he had taken all of that energy and put it into something positive, it would have been a different story.”

We picked it back up just before Lear’s entrance. The man who’d volunteered to read Lear was clearly intimidated even just by reading the scene, and he took a little time to psych himself up. At the beginning of the season, he could barely bring himself to read aloud at all, but he’s pushed himself more and more, and we waited patiently. One of the guys had been distracted and asked, “Are we waiting for someone to say, ‘Action?’” The others shushed him and said we were just waiting for the other guy to be ready.

This was just a reading, and a first reading at that, so no one expected him to go as far with the howling and wailing as we know someone will need to go in performance. But I noticed that he allowed himself to open up more vocally than he has yet; to access the power in his voice and begin to let it come out. He speaks very softly — something it seems he’s been conditioned to do — but there is a deep, resonant voice in there, slowly making itself known. I hope he’ll let us keep working with him on it.

We reached the end of the play. There was silence for a few moments, broken by one of our most passionate members literally falling out of his chair onto the ground. “Auuuuuuugggghhhhhh,” he said, lying flat on his back. We all laughed a little — we know how in love with this play he is, and we understood. “Somebody get his shoes!” joked one of the guys. The ensemble member on the floor sat up, looked at me, and said, “Holy SHIT, Frannie!” I smiled and said, “I know. I know!”

I turned to the rest of the group. “Thoughts?” I said. “I’m confused,” said one of the men. “How did Lear die? Like, what happened?” One man said immediately that, although people say you can’t literally die of a broken heart, that’s what happened here. “Just when he thought he had the opportunity for reconciliation, it’s ripped away from him – irreconcilably so.” We went on a bit of a tangent, then, about the physiological things that could cause a heart to stop (i.e., an aneurysm). I eventually called a “ratatouille” and reminded everyone that the playwright likely wouldn’t have had an exact medical condition in mind, and that we probably don’t need to settle on a literal cause of death. That’s not the point the playwright was trying to make. What is the point?

The point, one person said, is that Lear has nowhere left to go — there’s nothing left for him to do but die because there’s no hope for him. I asked if there’s hope for anyone at the end of the play. One of the guys firmly said yes: there is hope for England itself in Edgar, who will likely be a much better king than Lear because he’s experienced so many walks of life and types of people. “He’s been through being Tom o’ Bedlam, and he’s been a peasant, and maybe he’ll be wiser.” Another man agreed, saying, “Edgar won’t make the same mistakes as his predecessors.”

Coffey asked why that necessitates Lear dying. Why does this have to be a tragedy?

“The very existence of Lear was tied to Cordelia,” said one man. “And when she dies, he dies… The death is the hope. He can finally be with her. When he was alive, he was tormented, he was imprisoned. Now he’s free.”

“We learn the most from when we fall, not when we ride the bike properly,” said one man. “Shakespeare wrote this as an allegory for the human psyche and how emotions play on it… The tragedies are necessary for comeback stories. They’re emotionally cleansing… When I read it, I don’t see it as something dark and depressing. It’s beautiful... It’s like a good thunderstorm… When you’re done reading it, you’re more alive for having experienced the tragedy.”

“The whole message of the play is about love,” said one man. “This living is so hard, how can we be anything but loving? The humanity that they all were lacking at the beginning, they learn in the end. If you read it right, you can even find empathy for the two sisters… [Lear] had to go through all this to see what his daughter really was saying. ” Another man pondered, “This thing that he’s looking for, which was in Cordelia — would he have found what he was looking for in Kent?” Opinions were mixed. “Cordelia said she saw him as ‘lord and father’, said one man, explaining that Kent couldn’t say the latter. But he sort of does, others pointed out. The two men are obviously very close. “I don’t know how many of us would have the capacity to be hurt as badly as Kent is hurt by Lear, and then still to come back,” mused one man.

“Everyone can relate to at least one character, at least at one time, right?” asked one man. “This has us reflect on our own lives, which we live, every day.” Another man said, “We as the audience have the opportunity to learn without living out the mistake ourselves.” And another added, “It’s easy for each individual to get caught up in our own ego… If I don’t know I have a fault, I’ll never know without reaching out and getting help. This play is about reaching out.”

One man said that the play has opened his eyes to the harm society does by attempting to constrain women into certain roles, and that his new perspective has positively impacted the way he sees women, and the way he’d like to raise a daughter someday. The play is a check on one’s ego, another man said.

“The human life is so fragile,” said one man. “It could vanish in an instant. And what we leave behind matters most.”

Season Two: Week 12

Tuesday / September 11

Written by Matt.

We are reaching the end of King Lear! After checking in (all good things today), we set out to finish Act 4. We jumped right into reading, since we had left off in the middle of Act IV, scene vi, which is a sprawling, disjointed scene that we mostly finished last week.

As we got through the end of the scene, one of our most active members fixated on the connection between Edmund and Edgar--the ways in which they are similar while still being opposites. “Look at this!” he said, excitedly pointing at the page in his book, which is already dogeared from reading and rereading. “Edgar the legitimate is playing like he’s base, and Edmund the base-born is playing like he’s legitimate!” Another member brought us back to Edgar’s regret at killing Oswald from earlier in the scene and contrasted it with Edmund’s lack of empathy. “He’s not after vengeance,” another man agreed. “He’s not like the other ones that’ve been done wrong, and are only out for vengeance.”

After finishing this scene, several of the guys were eager to get to playing improv games. We played a simple game of Bus Stop (a variation of Hitchhiker) in which one character is waiting for a bus, and another comes and tries to get the first one to leave. It is a game of desire and motivation: the characters’ goals are opposed. After a few rounds, we stopped to ask what worked best for these little scenes. “Commitment to character,” immediately said one of the men. We moved on to Party Quirks, which they had tried for the first time last week, and which is more complicated. The “host” of the party was utterly confused by a few of them, including one whose “quirk,” improbably, was that he had balloons tied around his neck but very sticky feet. “Hey, uh, you invited me here,” he said, trying to help out, “and I feel like it was a trap.” He paused for a second. “A Venus Flytrap!”

We turned back to the play to finish Act IV. The scene, which reunites Lear and Cordelia at last, moves along quickly, but we paused often to reflect.

“I sense remorse from Lear,” said a longtime member, “and he seems apologetic.” Another noticed how much more coherent Lear is in this scene than in the last one. He has had time to sleep. One man was clearly affected by the language. “This verse here,” he said, “starting on line 45: You do me wrong to take me out o’the grave./Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound/Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears/Do scald like molten lead.” He looked up. “My own tears scald do scald like molten lead. I’m sorry, dude, sometimes I hear things like that, and I just... “ he searched for the words for a moment. “I just love words, and-- he’s just so grief-stricken. The tears feel so hot they’re just burning trails into his cheeks.”

“Lear finally gets what he was looking for: redemption,” added a normally vocal member of the group who had been quietly contemplating the scene for some time. Another noted that Cordelia asks for Lear’s blessing. “It’s totally humbling,” added the one who had been brought up short by the earlier description. Then he added, “What’s with all these people clutching to their disguises?” We discussed a bit about the use of disguises, literal and metaphorical, in the play. One member connected the masks with our discussion last month of madness: “They had aspects of the madness in them from the beginning,” he noted, “and they disguised it. But they’re getting back to the madness at the end.” After discussing that idea a bit, he added, “The problem is that Lear has always related everything back to his being a king--not to being a father or a man. And now he can own up to his mistakes as a father, and as a man.”

“This reminds me of--wait, who’s that king in the Bible?” asked one of the men. Another, who is better versed in the text of the Bible than the rest of us, clarified gently that is was Nebuchadnezzar.

“Right! Nebuchadnezzar had to go because he was too proud, and he could only come back when he had humbled himself.”

At that moment, we ran out of time and rushed to put the ring back up. Each scene in Lear offers opportunities for reflection and self-reflection. The men (and facilitators!) in that room meet the challenge directly, and we are so looking forward to wrestling with the end of the play with them.

Friday / September 14

Written by Frannie.

After a rousing game of tape ball, we settled in to read Act V, scene i. One of the men sat down next to me and asked if this play was ever staged as “Queen Lear”, or with any (or all) genders reversed, and what I thought about it. I said that that’s done all the time, and that it’s not an invalid way to do it, but that my own feeling is that the play is heavily dependent on the psychology of men and power, and that father/daughter relationships are differently charged than other parent/child relationships. He said that he wasn’t sure that that was true, and that Goneril’s and Regan’s roles seemed very much in keeping with men’s jockeying for power. I reminded him that a major theme in this play is that things are topsy turvy — and, as a part of that, the women behave in stereotypically male ways. “But, you know, if you set this in a matriarchal society, you could flip it the opposite way, and that could be really interesting,” I said. “I didn’t even really think about all of this in depth,” he said, “But, yeah, gender is really big in this play. I’m gonna think some more about that.”

The guys really like reading scenes on their feet from the get-go, and, while this creates some challenges, it’s also a neat way to take stock of people’s comfort levels. Today, for example, two men who have often been hesitant to get on their feet immediately volunteered to play Goneril and Regan.

After summing up the scene’s events, I called our attention back to the exchange between Regan and Edmund right at the beginning. It’s quick, but it’s important to flesh out before we get to the final scene. At first we sort of danced around things — the scene is somewhat sexually charged, and, as with previous plays, it’s up to me as the female in the room to set the tone. This content is nothing to shy away from, and I never have, with the men or the women. In the first place, it’s in the play, and we can’t truly understand the play unless we cover all of our bases. It’s also an opportunity to engage intellectually (and maturely) about a subject that a lot of people haven’t ever been able to talk about in this way. It breaks down a lot of barriers for folks.

So, okay. What’s going on in this scene?

It’s clear that Regan is very attracted to Edmund and jealous of the possibility that her sister slept with him. When did this attraction and rivalry begin? People immediately saw it as being connected with power — perhaps it was when Edmund became Earl of Gloucester, or when Cornwall died, leaving Regan free to pursue Edmund. But attraction can precede action, we all agreed.

One man cautioned, “I feel like how you read it is more important than the words alone.” He said we should be reading between the lines — is this all about lust, or is there more going on? “Lust and obsession and possession — those things are powerful… You forget about that power stuff because you’re falling in love with that girl or that dude.”

Another man wasn’t so sure. “There’s no love there — they’re all just jockeying for power. It’s not even about lust. It’s about whatever they think is important to them at the time. They fight for these things, and once they’ve got it, they throw it away… It’s not enough… It’s not Edmund, it’s what he represents.” One man said, “It’s about the boy. The power is a byproduct.”

I questioned, too, the idea that these two are in love. “Look at the way they speak about each other… They’re objects to be ‘enjoyed.’ They don’t talk about each other as human beings, the way other lovers in Shakespeare do.”

Lust for sex and power can overwhelm, we all agreed. And I wondered if maybe Regan’s judgment was clouded. “There’s no strategic reason for Regan to kill Goneril — she’s not gonna marry Albany for his power. All she’ll gain is Edmund.” One man said, “Now that they have that power, they don’t need to scheme.” Another laughed and said, “Man, I grew up in a house full of female cousins and things. I know how this story ends.”

One man suggested that this was all part of Edmund’s plan to begin with — that Edmund is “straight out of The Art of Seduction,” and that he convinced the sisters to go after him and take each other out. “Did he convince them, or did they convince themselves?” asked another man. “They both just had this desire to have him. And at that point, it became a rivalry.” Another man chuckled and said, “He’s a rake, bro.”

I wondered about whether any of this was intentional on Edmund’s part, or if he’s along for the ride, taking opportunities as they come. “I see him totally in control of the situation,” one man said. “He’s that manipulative and deceitful… He gets a taste of that power, and he wants more and more and more and more. It’s not, he’s being taken for a ride. He’s pulling it in. Don’t think for one second that all his dreams aren’t coming true.” I said that I didn’t think the two things had to be mutually exclusive, but this clearly wasn’t part of the original plan, or he would have told us at the beginning of the play. He didn’t orchestrate Cornwall’s death. So, even if he was sleeping with one or both sisters prior to that, he couldn’t have anticipated the opportunity to marry one of them. Perhaps now he’s in control, but this stuff is unexpected.

Another man agreed, saying that Edmund’s only original goal was to get Edgar’s land. “Having a different title doesn’t change who you are, though,” he said. “When you have a viewpoint what it’s gonna be like… it doesn’t make those expectations true… He’s not quite at the end yet, so he’s still trying to figure out that plot… His whole thing was, ‘I don’t want to be seen as base. And if I get a bunch of power along the way, awesome.’” He continued, “He didn’t want to be king; he wanted to be acknowledged… If anyone’s had a sibling, where you feel like you’re living in their shadow, you know that you can get caught up… and you keep chasing it. They’re chasing an idea. Some people end up in prison, chasing those kinds of ideas.”

A lively debate ensued about Edmund’s motives: recognition, legitimacy, power. Matt pointed out that Edmund got what he wanted but lost the love of Gloucester along the way. I did a bit of a fast-forward to the final scene, when Edmund, finding out that the sisters died over him, says, “Yet Edmund was beloved,” and then tries to save Lear and Cordelia before he, himself, dies. So that’s probably part of it, too — a longing to be loved.

One man was particularly fired up, as he has been about Edmund since the beginning. It’s very clear that he has a strong connection to the character. As he literally leaned to the discussion, another man grinned at me and said, “I think he should play Edmund.” I grinned right back. Things could always change, but, more often than not, when the ensemble sees a connection like this, they clear the way for that person to play the role.

Back to the sisters. What is it they see in Edmund? One man said that Edmund seemed to the the opposite of their husbands, which plants the seeds of attraction in many cases. “He’s a bastard, too, remember,” I said. “He’s from the other side of the tracks. He’s different. He’s exotic.” Another man said, “YES. Exotic. That’s the word I was looking for!”

We decided to read Act V, scene ii, before we left, since it’s very brief: Gloucester alone as the battle rages off stage. I asked why everyone thought that it was written this way when other plays put the action of the battle right in front of the audience. One man, who is often unfocused or antagonistic, had an epiphany: “I don’t think the battle scenes are what make this play this play. It’s everything that happens around the battles.” People nodded in agreement, and one man said, “Good job, [NAME],” and walked over to give him a high five.

Another man expanded on that. “Why do you need battle scenes when you got battle scenes through the whole play: battles of the mind. Of the human psyche, of morality, of power and ideals…” The man whom I talked to at the beginning of the day said, “And gender.” The first man excitedly said, “And gender! You’re right!”

We decided to spend all of next week on the play’s final scene. And then we’ll see how much time we want to spend on exploration before we cast it.

Season Two: Week 11

Tuesday / September 4

Written by Matt

It was a little slow getting in today, which was a reminder of how lucky we’ve been at Parnall this year. It could be easy to take a speedy entry for granted, but we never do—or, we try not to!

We kept check-in short, and everyone was eager to dive into the play. As short as we kept the preliminaries, the men asked a bunch of questions—I was the only facilitator today, and I hadn’t been able to attend for a while, which provoked some good-natured ribbing and more earnest questions about how I’d been. After lowering the ring, we were off to read King Lear.

Act 4, scene 4, briefly re-introduces Cordelia, this time at the head of an army and invading her country of birth. The men all reacted to her power, and to her absence from the play between the first scene and now.

“Everybody got different ideas about her from the first scene,” recalled a new member, reminding us that our reactions ranged from admiration to frustration. “Me,” he grinned, “I think she was a Rockstar.” Another member quibbled a bit with that description. “See,” he said, “When I think Rockstar, I think, ‘Fuck yeah, good night, Seattle!’” and he mimed throwing a mic. He explained that he sees her power as quieter and less insistent than that.

Yet another man added that he believed Cordelia had been planning the invasion all along. Her decision to marry the king of France, he said, could be entirely explained by Cordelia’s desire to eventually invade and take revenge. There was some discussion of this point, before one member cut in with a question: “What was the king of France’s motivation to marry her?” Which caused four or five men to flip back to the first scene to remind us all of the circumstances. Ultimately, we were divided on the question of Cordelia’s motivations and perplexed by France’s.

These details could all be worked out in performance, several people noted, but one man felt like he was on to something. It was Cordelia’s genuineness that drew France to her, and also that allowed her to leave the stage for so long. “Everybody else was just putting up a front,” he said. “Cordelia was just who she was, so there was no reason to spend more time with her, to figure out who she really was.” She only really needed to return when the others had revealed their true characters.

One of the men was really struck by Cordelia’s care for her father, which pervades the language. “This really shows her compassion for her father, far more than any of her sisters could ever say.”

We moved on to Act 4, scene 5, in which Regan conspires to kill Gloucester and begins to realize (perhaps) Edmund’s betrayal of her. Several of the men were struck by her desire that Gloucester be dead and the description of people’s hearts turning against her and her sister after seeing the eyeless man wandering around.

“You have to be careful with that brutality,” explained one longtime member. “It’s like ISIS. They really split the Islamic community.” He went on to explain how the public brutality of ISIS had inspired some hardline support, but it mostly drove a wedge into the community. “Same thing with taking the eyes of Gloucester,” he said. “These people have seen killing. They have seen execution. But the eyes?” he shuddered. “They made a martyr out of him, and that turned the minds of the people against them.”

“It’s also because of what he stood for,” another chimed in, reminding us that Gloucester was well respected. “How he’s influencing people is what’s scaring her.” The man who had mentioned ISIS replied, “Yeah, but a lot of people are scared to kill someone political like that because then they become a martyr.”

Another man, who had been silent so far, took a big-picture approach. “When the people see that the ones leading them are ignoring them to the extent that they’re torturing people or arguing over who ‘gets’ Edmund, the people get mad!”

“Yeah,” yet another agreed, “sometimes, someone does something so vile that it rallies all these other people against them, and [Regan] would have been better throwing him in the moat or whatever.”

After an hour and a half of sustained seriousness, we were ready to get up and play some games! We played a couple of standard improv games, but in the middle of the session, a group of the men proposed a new improvised scene they had invented in recent days.

What they unfurled was chaotic and confusing but really brilliant. They set a scene (a motorcycle club) and assigned each person in the scene a character type or archetype. Then the “lead” in the group began improvising a monologue that laid out a conflict, calling on the others to jump in.

“You know [the outcasts from the club] broke the code,” he said.

“Yeah.” the men murmured.

“Yeah!” one shouted. “All four parts of the code!”

“All four!” the leader affirmed.

The one who had invented the four parts looped the others in. He pointed at one of the men. “We all know the code. Brother, what is the first part of the code?”

“Uhhh……” the unsuspecting man stalled, before going on to help invent the code.

The scene fell apart after four or five minutes, which partly obscured all of the things that were right with it. It was not only an ingenious and novel way to being fresh improv to the group—the man who invented it said that he really wanted to do some improv that wasn’t about getting laughs—but it also showed the sense of ownership and agency that these men have built up. They want to make Shakespeare in Prison their own, to leave their mark on it, and they empower each other to do that with abandon. The other ensemble members were open with their critiques, but generous with their praise, and not one person discouraged the activity or judged the men who had performed, and everyone said that they wanted to see more of that sort of work.

We went on to do other improv exercises, but that new “game” stood out as a great example of what the members of our ensemble can do to push themselves and each other. It happened in the space we have all created, but without any guidance or encouragement from facilitators.

Friday / September 7
Written by Frannie

We spent today on Act IV scene vi, a long scene in which Edgar convinces Gloucester that he’s at a cliff, Gloucester “kills himself”, Lear enters (mad?) and runs off, and, eventually Edgar kills Oswald. But we didn’t get to that last part of the scene — there was too much to talk about first.

We read bit by bit, pausing for the first time just as Gloucester kneels. Why is Edgar doing this? Maybe it’s to convince Gloucester not to kill himself, one man mused. “To get him to second guess himself.” A second man agreed, “It seems like he’s giving him another chance to say, ‘Eh, this might not be the best idea.”

But maybe not. Another man drew our attention to the language. “He’s talking heartfelt,” he said, and another man added, “It’s almost got a soothing cadence to it… ‘It’s okay, you can go. If that’s what you gotta do, you can go.’”

Another man thought that this was all to keep Gloucester from guessing Edgar’s identity. Another thought that guilt played into it somehow — that watching someone jump off a cliff would have to make one feel guilty. “But he didn’t lead him to a cliff,” one person responded. “I think there’s extreme sorrow for his father’s condition, but no guilt.” Another man added, “I think [Edgar] is living right in the moment, and that’s why his voice is slipping.”

We read on through Gloucester’s “fall” and Edgar’s interaction with him after. And we paused. “What kind of fall is this?” I asked everyone. “Remembering that this is a play… What does this look like? How do you see this being staged?”

One man thought there would be a physical cliff, and that it would be about five feet tall. Others said they, too, thought there would be something to fall from, but they didn’t agree on its height; one man said it should be very low, like when you miss the last step coming down the stairs. But does Gloucester actually, physically fall? One man said no — that it’s more a sense of disorientation; of not knowing what a fall like that would feel like if it truly happened.

Another man said, again, that he thought there should be something several feet high for Gloucester to fall from. But one man — who has emerged as a natural and respected leader in these discussions — said, “You’re not taking into account the actors — or even Gloucester. He’s just been traumatized… It’s like a placebo… You gotta understand his mental/emotional state… Think of all the stuff that built up to that fall.” I agreed, kneeling to see how it would feel to collapse just from there. I looked back through the text, pointing out that all of Gloucester’s language is about falling, shaking things off. “If you think about somebody jumping or leaping,” said one man, “there’s an energy behind it. But he’s kneeling and falling.” Another said, “You also have to look at the mixture of trauma… He could even pass out momentarily.”

Matt pointed out, too, that Gloucester had asked to be taken to this specific cliff, and that he probably already knew what it looked like. “Has anyone ever been to a funeral before?” asked one man. “He made this finality with himself… Maybe he’s a little disappointed that he’s still alive.” Another said, “How about this one: how many people have come to prison who have lived a traumatic experience and years later still haven’t accepted it?”

One of the guys added that the power of the mind can make the body do things it usually can’t; i.e., a mother lifting a car off her child or a paraplegic suddenly walking in order to save someone from danger. “When you’re committed, you’re committed, and he’s committed,” said one man. “All that pain is just stewing with him right there.” Coffey added that, in a way, Edgar makes himself the edge of the cliff by both suggesting its presence and taking it away.

Just before we began the section when Lear enters, I asked the group to keep in mind that — no matter each person’s interpretation of the character’s madness, senility, dementia, or whatever — the guy also hasn’t slept in quite awhile, and, because it’s in the text, that has to be a part of our interpretation of this scene. Sleep deprivation is also a great “way in” to Lear’s state of mind for pretty much everyone, even if they haven’t experienced it to this extent. The proverbial light bulb turned on for a few people — I could see it without them even speaking. One guy said, “If you go more than three days without sleep, you’ll begin to speak and act not like yourself.” Another person, who was addicted to meth for a long time, said that he often stayed awake for days on end — sometimes for upwards of a week; once for more than two weeks. “Even when you wake back up after you fall asleep, everything is different,” he said. Another added that it feels like extreme jet lag, and the first man continued, “Your mind is rewired, so my mind works different from yours now… I’ve been away from that for three years now, and I’m still not right.” He rarely sleeps more than a few hours a night — he just can’t do it.

“It’s worth remembering that Lear is suffering from several levels of madness here,” said one man. “Him putting the crown on is crowning his madness, adding a layer.” Another said, “He’s clearly not as mad as you would think he’d be — he’s dropping a lot of little dimes here.”

Another man, whose love for this play is seriously explosive, said, “Lear is trying to navigate that cloud of madness… In Lear’s madness, he can see the truth of things, and in Gloucester’s blindness, he can feel the truth of things… [Lear’s] feelings cue that storm that he was going through. But [Gloucester’s] feelings are bringing him to reality.”

Another man said, “It’s the thinking that drives you crazy,” and then he and the guy to whom he was responding got into a bit of a debate about the primacy of thinking/feeling. Is it the thinking about a situation that controls your perceptions, or your feelings? After a few minutes of this, a third man said, “How about, instead of focusing on the emotion, we focus on the trigger?” What is the immediate cause of the reaction?

“Back to Shakespeare’s poking at aristocracy,” said the man who’d been practically jumping out of his seat. “When you strip away the prettiness… It’s all about showing the humanity. They’ve all got pretty things to hide their ugliness. Gloucester is road-weary, bleeding from his eye sockets — and, without his eyes, this is probably the purest form of himself he’s ever been in his life. Lear, mad and ranting — this is the purest he’s ever been.” Another man added, “People, instead of living life, think that living according to an image, role, or title is life… you take it away, and they don’t know who they are.”

One of the guys called our attention to Lear’s “every inch a king” line, relating it to something he learned about “toxic masculinity” in a class: that men generally identify by their jobs, whereas women identify by their relationships. “We get caught up in what we do, not necessarily in who we are,” he said. Another man shook his head and said, “Poor Lear. He needs a hug.” The first man continued, “He’s holding onto his title to the bitter, bitter end… It’s like — you catch air, and you’re up there for a second, but then you’re right back down under there. It’s like a broken fucking merry-go-round.”

Another man nodded. “You see guys here walking around, trying to hold onto something that they were once and they just ain’t anymore… It’s men. We get wrapped up in these titles, and we get bent out of shape when they get stripped from us.” Another added, “And that’s without the power.” The first man chuckled and said, “Lear had a horrible 401k program…”

After a bit of a laugh, one of the guys refocused us. “Have you ever been to a high school reunion and seen that guy who’s stuck in high school?” he asked. I snorted and said, “Dude, you don’t have to go to a reunion to see that.” As we laughed, another ensemble member said he thought he might be one of those guys, but not in a bad way. When he was a teenager and young adult, he played music incessantly, but that ended when he was incarcerated. “I went 10 years without touching an instrument. When I got to Level I finally, the first guitar I touched, I choked up a little bit. First band I was in was Mariachi.” We all started giggling, without judgment — we knew he played hardcore punk before prison, and no one would ever expect Mariachi to be what helped him restore that part of himself. But there it is. That’s what did it.

Another ensemble member redirected us back to Lear and his clinging to his title, even when his crown is made only of flowers. “He was the most powerful person in Britain… Think how hard it would be to switch that off.” But what can anyone do? “The worst thing you can tell someone with dementia is, ‘No.’” said another man. And being king is core to Lear’s identity. And his rage at having that taken from him in any way leads to a misogynistic rant.

“We start identifying with a lot of chauvinist stuff real early on,” said one of the men. Another man said he thought that’s why men have a harder time expressing themselves than women, and that we’ve probably seen that through SIP. I said, “Well, it’s interesting you should say that, because — and we haven’t been working with men that long, but this is what we’ve observed so far — you guys are actually much better at that than most of the women we’ve worked with.” Many of the guys expressed surprise, even shock, but then the man who’d spoken of identifying with “chauvinist stuff” reminded everyone that the vast majority of incarcerated women have been abused, and that abuse often takes people’s voices from them. A kind of a hush fell over the room, and I said that that does seem to be true: that one of the toughest things for us to get the women to do is to put their needs, wants, and feelings into words and to say them — to believe they can trust others to care enough to listen. With the guys, at least so far, it’s as if they just need permission to express emotion, and then it’s hard to stop the flow of words.

Another man wondered if at least some of that might be because women are socialized in such a way that they are afraid, even subconsciously, of screwing up in public — that they don’t trust that their words will be taken without judgment, and maybe they don’t trust that others won’t criticize them or add, inaccurately, to what they said. Men, he said, don’t have that same concern — they are almost looking for someone to articulate their feelings better than they can. They don’t mind having their words rephrased.

The man who’d spoken of abuse now reminded us of how hard it would have been to be a woman in Elizabethan times, and how smart women had to be just to survive. They didn’t have the option of going to war or challenging someone to a duel, he said, so they had to think and manipulate and convince. It made them less trusting of others, and, perhaps, it led to a cycle of men trusting them less as well.

That’s essentially where we ended things for the day. I continue to be completely blown away by the depth — and breadth — of these conversations. This discussion got so intense and fascinating and exhilarating that I stopped taking notes — and I never do that. Being in a room full of such brilliance drives home what many of us (inside and out) know to be true: that dismissing incarcerated people out of hand because they are currently invisible, or returned citizens because they made bad decisions in the past, is, simply put, bananas. There are folks behind those walls who have so much to give, and who want so much to offer it. We’re fools if we don’t take them up on that — if we don’t at least give them a chance.