Season Two: Week 33

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“Costumes and props and a set, oh my!”

Tuesday / February 5 / 2019
Written by Matt

To start out today’s session, our Edmund revealed that he had been inspired by the back-and-forth between Lear and Gloucester. He wrote a letter of his own, this one to his brother, Edgar. “It’s a message in a bottle,” he said, before turning directly to Edgar and reading it.

“I know not when or how this missive shall find you,” it began. “Oh, Edgar, I pray you not damn me into the abyss for my endeavors… You know my heart has not always been so dark and unpure.” He went on to describe how his nature had never been “rogueish,” that he envied and admired his brother. “I pray you never have to live with the insidious ire and ever-growing contempt towards your own people as I have had to shoulder,” he wrote. “It’s a ravenous disdain that’s brought me to this precipice of blind indignation and nefarious insanity.”

Then the letter turned to rage. “Edmund the base, they call me. ...EDMUND THE BASE!!! I shall have had my fill of that term long ago, hid away in my sweet mother Velvet’s perfumed linen trunks, listening to her gentleman callers grunt and moan away on top of her … I shall have had enough!!!” He recounted his childhood, watching his father abandon his mother to ruin. “I am more than what’s perceived of me,” he wrote.

In the end, he created a heartbreaking image of Edmund trying to acquire the trappings of legitimacy as a child. “I have such fond memories of following & mimicking you when you weren’t looking. Dressing in your finest attire and returning to your library while you and Father were away. … Just imagining what it must feel like to be wholly accepted, to be… legitimate. Cursed word that I so fervently long for!!! NO!! No longer will I spend my hours residing in your shadows. Fare thee well, brother, the time for me to act quickly approaches. Godspeed, Edmund.”

Everyone was stunned by the force of the letter. “I don’t know how your story matched up exactly with mine,” said our Gloucester, who explained that he also imagined his character leaving his illegitimate son at the brothel with his mother as a young child, as well as many other details that he hadn’t shared with us yet. These guys have a mind-meld going on!

Our Lear had a funny look on his face as he processed the letter. “Goddammit,” he said at last, “now I gotta write another letter.” Our Edmund said that he felt a release as he wrote. “He’s overwhelmed,” he said of his character. “The sense of desperation, I can relate to.” Lear said, “I bet that felt good.” Edmund replied, “It felt amazing.”

Our Edgar checked in about his experience of hearing the letter. He said he felt bad for his character’s actions. “[Edgar] is legitimate, but he doesn’t think that’s all that important,” he said. “He doesn’t want to ‘own’ it, but he’s living the life” of legitimacy.

For the rest of check-in, we talked about color schemes, eventually deciding to table that discussion to another time. When these guys start thinking symbolically, it gets intricate and involved quickly!

We did the Ring, and then Frannie checked in about her trip to California. I won’t go into all of the details here, but the guys were really excited to hear about all that she learned in her time with The Actor’s Gang Prison Project and Marin Shakespeare Company’s prison program. (Many thanks to Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Anton Art Center for the mini-grant that made that happen!)

Some of the guys reflected afterwards about what SIP means to them. “For me,” said one, “it was the ability to delve into a part of myself that I didn’t know was there.” He continued, “By exploring our identity here, we’re expanding our humanity.”

With our remaining time (the letter and the California check-in took up a lot of our session, but it was good!), we worked Act V, scene i, in which Edmund plays Regan and Goneril off each other in front of Albany. As usual, our Regan and Goneril were both super-funny and on-point. The scene is comedic, and they played up the humor. Regan said that the sisters are “playing a perpetual chess game.”

The scene is so short we were able run it a few times, pausing after the sisters exited before continuing on to Edgar’s entrance. He hands Albany a note explaining the situation with Edmund. As Albany stood alone onstage, several people felt that the scene needed more urgency. “It’s like, ‘Yo, man, they rolling up right now!’” said one of the guys. “Even just in prison,” our Edgar said, explaining his hesitation, “if I know someone has a good heart, it can be a risk to go up and speak to them if you know they’re being conspired against.”

The other part that needed a little extra something was Edmund’s monologue, in which he puzzles out what to do with Regan and Goneril--will he “take” both or one or neither? He was having a little trouble connecting, and Frannie suggested that he bring the audience in on his situation. As he spoke, she vocally reacted to his questions and statements, and that did the trick. Edmund’s words came out with the clarity and force they needed, and one of the guys got so excited that he threw his hat across the room in jubilation!

Friday / February 8 / 2019
Written by Frannie

After our usual check-in, we circled up to play a game I learned from The Actors’ Gang Prison Project called “Mirrors.” In this exercise, one person comes to the center of the circle, moving and vocalizing until, organically, they arrive at something that “feels right” and then turn it into something rhythmic and repetitive. They move toward someone else in the circle, who mirrors exactly what they’re doing; the two then switch places, and the cycle repeats till everyone has been in the center.

It’s a game that sounds absolutely terrible because you just KNOW how vulnerable it’s going to make you feel, but when I told them how beloved it is in this other program, everyone decided to give it a go. It was definitely a little herky-jerky—new games usually are—but we had a lot of fun and reflected quite a bit on it afterward.

“I didn’t think it was gonna be so hard to come up with your own,” said one man, explaining that he hadn’t had a problem mirroring another person, but when it was his turn, “I found myself rushing to get out of the middle… That was intense. I did like that.” He turned to the man to whom he’d given his movement, saying he was grateful to him for taking his place! That man responded by thanking him for choosing a movement that was easy to replicate. “I was worried someone was gonna ask me to do some sort of ballet or tap maneuver,” he said, and a few others said they’d been conscious of that. “I had to consider somebody else’s situation with my movement,” said one person. We took good care of each other during this game.

Matt said that he’d felt very comfortable because, at this point in the season, he knew there would be no reason to be embarrassed, no matter how weird his sound and movement were. One of the guys agreed, “You feel safe, and you feel like you ain’t gonna get laughed at,” and he said it felt great to be so secure in that knowledge.

“Each person demonstrated our own flash of personality… It’s like changing your inner man,” said one man. “[In theatre], you’re not only up on stage with your character, you’re up there with other characters. And you gotta feed off that energy.” A man who was in The Tempest last spring said, “That was one thing I learned about doing plays. [In one scene], we got messed up on our lines, but we knew we could make people understand, because we were in it together.” Another man nodded, “That was fun. Doing that was like being on stage. Doing that before a play would be awesome.”

“At the beginning, I had butterflies. Then, when I moved around, I got all this confidence!” beamed one man. Another said he felt more nervous trying to mirror movements than finding his own, and the man who’d passed his movement to this man said, “I wanted to make it so delicate for you, man. Like, I got you, bud!” They fist-bumped.

“I felt vulnerable, and I loved it!” gushed another man. “I felt supported [when someone was mirroring me], but when we went quiet, I felt vulnerable. I noticed that the more I got into that rhythm of my own, it was like I turned myself inside out.” He said that the interplay between all of us reminded him that he “wasn’t alone.” Another man agreed, saying that his first instinct had been to run for the door. I asked him what had stopped him, and he said, “I knew someone would come and catch me!” Then he got a little more serious and said that, really, once he’d forced himself to stay in the circle for awhile, seeing other people let go made him feel calm, and he was able to participate after all.

We moved on to scene work, picking up at V.ii, a brief scene in which Edgar and Gloucester enter, Edgar ascertains that Cordelia’s army is retreating and she and Lear are prisoners, and father and son exit in haste. On that exit, Edgar surprised us by picking up Gloucester in his arms like a child and carrying him off. There was whooping from the usual suspects in the audience. Someone asked the actors how they’d decided on that approach to the exit, and Edgar replied, “It’s a serious scene, obviously... I figured, what would I do if I had a grandfather and there was a fire… We ain’t got no time! What do you do? You pick him up and you get out.”

Gloucester said he felt like he’d rushed. “I should have fed off of his energy more and put it into my voice,” he said. “I was thinking about how to be sick instead of just being sick.” Another man agreed, saying both the energy and the language are important: “You build the climax up to where [Cordelia and Lear] come in as prisoners.”

We talked, too, about the challenge of Edgar seeing the retreat happen offstage. After some discussion, we decided to ruminate on how sound effects could help tell the story. We’ve got some great options in the gym at Parnall, and, luckily, a couple of ensemble members who work with the equipment on a regular basis, so… stay tuned!

We ran the scene again, and the actors made spot-on adjustments so we could hear and understand the words without losing urgency. “YES!” two men exclaimed afterward, as the rest of us applauded. Edgar said he’d been worried that carrying Gloucester off would be funny, but the consensus was that it’s not—it’s actually perfect, and incredibly moving. This is the last time we see Gloucester, and the image of his being carried like an infant by his son completes the arc he’s been on throughout the play: to “second childishness” in Shakespeare’s words, and “a reverse parent” in an ensemble member’s. “You guys have got that down,” said one man admiringly. “That pisses me off. That’s ridiculous. Fantastic.”

Next up was V.iii, and the first thing I noticed was that our Cordelia was off book! He has terrible stage fright, and his delivery was understandably halting and muted. One of the guys, excited and eager to hear Cordelia’s voice (which can be quite powerful) exclaimed, “Rage! Blow!” (our new code for “project your voice!”). Unfortunately, it threw Cordelia off. We paused the scene so he could re-center himself, and the man who’d given the note apologized, saying he hadn’t thought it through. “He does need to project more,” I said, “but he’s just gotten the courage to get on stage, and he’s somehow off book already… Give him some time. He’ll get there.” Another man nodded, saying that he’s been working with Cordelia a lot and is excited by the progress he’s making.

We restarted and got through this first unit, but the actors felt “disconnected”—no one quite knew how to stage the scene. We were running out of time, and a few people had expressed concern about how long this part of the process is taking, so I asked if I could go ahead and block the scene, for efficiency’s sake—and asked everyone to speak up if they had better ideas as I went. No one objected—they even seemed a little excited—and I sprang into action, confirming that I understood each actor’s interpretation of their character in the scene and explaining the blocking from there.

We gave the scene another go, and it worked pretty well! After talking it through briefly, it was time to go. This was exactly the kind of day we needed: productive, reflective, and dominated by a sense of togetherness.

Season Two: Week 32

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Neither a borrower nor a lender be…

Friday / February 1 / 2019
Written by Coffey

“I missed Shakespeare. This break was heartbreaking… painful! Time felt like it lasted forever. It feels like it should be 2022,” an ensemble member sighed as Matt and I unloaded the tote bag and got out our notebooks.

I watched the other ensemble members nod in agreement as they trickled into the gym. The rough winter weather meant programs at SMT were canceled on Tuesday, but the break inspired some reflection for ensemble members on SIP, Shakespeare’s work itself, and their place in the world outside sessions. “I didn’t know how Shakespeare penetrates society,” one man said, as he excitedly told the group about an article he’d read during the break. The article discussed the influence Shakespeare’s plays have had on the design of prominent computer games, with games like Thief featuring entire levels set in Shakespearean-style theatres or focusing on Shakespearean plotlines and themes. “That’s really cool. He’s not just in the theaters and movies—he’s in the culture. He’s in the little intricacies.” He paused for a moment. “I had an inmate tell me, ‘I don’t care about your Shakespeare.’ I said, ‘Well, I do!’ Whenever someone comes up to me and says something negative about Shakespeare, I try to tell them about it. We’re an open group!”

The men nodded in agreement. Some chuckled, familiar with the apprehension that they themselves had when first encountering SIP. “I get approached all the time! It’s usually positive,” another man added, “I tell people that it doesn’t take from my life—it adds to it! It enhances what I’ve already got going for me.” A proud smile spread across the first man’s face. “To represent Shakespeare —that’s a cool honor to have.”

Matt then shared with the group a check-in from one of our own representatives, Frannie, who has been in California paying a visit to the Actors’ Gang Prison Project and Marin Shakespeare Company, theatre programs doing incredible work within the California prison system. Frannie was challenged by the ensemble members to send one original sonnet for each session missed during her trip. *Censored by Frannie due to embarassment.* Well, one is a sonnet, the other is a series of haikus, due to time constraints and exhaustion. Frannie is aware that she broke the rules and stands by her decision.) were met with warm smiles and contemplative hmmmm’s by the men, although her use of meter in her sonnet came under scrutiny. “That was definitely a meter infringement” one man jested.

Jokes at the expense of Frannie’s poesy aside, the men were glad to hear about SIP connecting with other projects around the country and began to reflect on their own experience in connecting with Curt Tofteland and Niels Herold last week. Some of the men who had met Curt earlier in the season expressed a wish for Curt and Niels to have participated a but more rather than primarily observing. Matt made the good point, however, that being well into the rehearsal process warranted our visitors taking a step back and watching this time around. One man also reminded the ensemble of Niels’ helpful comments: “I really appreciated the feedback from Niels. It helped me see things differently than I have before.”

Since we have a new Oswald, the goal for today was to go through his scenes and get him situated with basic blocking, entrances, exits, and such. I expected our new Oswald to take it easy on the first run of his scenes, simply marking the blocking and going through the motions. As he entered for his first line in Act 1, scene 3, he brought with him an energy and presence that would make anyone believe he’d been rehearsing for months. He took to the stage like a duck to water, eagerly listening to Goneril’s every word, his feet skimming the floor as he nervously tried to anticipate her every need. Immediately after the scene ended he was the first to ask, “Can we do that one more time?”

Focus shifted towards our Goneril during the second run of the scene. At moments Goneril’s energy matched Oswald’s—slightly nervous, uncertain. With shoulders a tiny bit forward and eyes frequently lowered, Goneril had some volume and harshness, but didn’t seem quite comfortable taking command of the room. As the scene ended, our Regan immediately headed towards Goneril, ready to give a note, but Goneril quickly preempted him: “I need to be sharper and more of a bitch.” Regan promptly turned on his heels, hands up, and muttered, “My work is done.”

While Matt talked with Goneril, I asked Oswald how he felt entering the scene, what Oswald’s feelings were towards Goneril. “I’m in love with her. My main goal in this scene is to just keep her calm,” he replied. I encouraged him to see where that choice goes as he accompanies the character further into the play. I should have told him to brace himself for the beating Oswald gets in Act 2, scene 2, but before I knew it the scene was underway. Kent, having sworn his allegiance to Lear, lambasts Oswald, leading Cornwall and Reagan to have him put in the stocks for the night.

The first run of the beginning 2.2 was rough, although our Edmund seemed to enjoy watching Oswald get slapped by Kent: “Can we run the slap scene about 60,000 more times? I wanna see that again.”

The next run of the scene brought Edmund and his chaotic energy out of the audience and onto the stage, along with Regan, Cornwall, Kent, and Gloucester. 2.2 is a crowded scene and it definitely felt that way for the first couple of runs. With everyone’s characters as developed as they’ve become over the past few weeks, actors easily slipped into their own little worlds during the scene, breaking it into pieces rather than having it be a cohesive whole. I found my attention bouncing from Regan, who kept a cold detachment from the main action, to Gloucester, who seemed lost in bewilderment and frenzy, to Edmund’s steely glare at Kent. Everyone was bringing strong choices to the stage, but the lack of interaction made the energy feel static. In between runs, Matt encouraged everyone on stage to keep the energy moving forward. I added that the men could think of it as a game of tape ball, with everyone participating in the action together in order to keep it up and moving.

As we prepared to run the scene again, our Edmund took the yardstick he had been using as a sword and attached a large clip to it, forming a hilt. He looked up with glee, proclaiming to the rest of the cast, “I just leveled up!” He then proceeded to swing the ‘sword’ around, making lightsaber sound effects with every swish.

I don’t know if it was Matt’s notes or our leveling up our sword game, but the next run of the scene was riveting. Each actor brought that same strong energy, but their newfound connectivity with each other intensified it. The action flowed in a way that couldn’t be choreographed as the energy shifted seamlessly from one part of the stage to the other. Kent’s cool indifference and dry humor, when brought into the same space as everyone else’s heightened anxiety, were brilliant. He even elicited laughs from the audience when he was asked why he attacked Oswald and flatly responded, “his countenance,” with an annoyed shrug. The cohesion onstage also highlighted Gloucester’s distress and helplessness. His pleas for clemency and struggle to be heard reminded Matt that all this action, largely led by Cornwall and Regan, is happening in Gloucester’s house! “Until you interceded I forgot that this was your house,” Matt laughed. It drove home how upside-down Gloucester’s world has become at this point in the play. This was made even more painfully clear during the final run of the scene. At the point when Cornwall orders that Kent be put in the stocks, the action split to opposite sides of the stage, revealing a heretofore obscured Gloucester standing alone, center stage. His eyes darted frantically from side to side, his shaking hand raised to his cheek in utter shock at the evil being done in his own house. It was a powerful image and a great way to end our work on that section of the scene.

With our remaining few minutes we moved forward to the confrontation between Lear and Goneril. The scene is a heavy one, but we focused largely on blocking as our time was running short. The scene promised to grow into a beautiful one, though, as Lear paced violently around his daughter and son-in-law, roaring like a hurt lion at Goneril, who kept her eyes lowered and her head erect, using her flitting fan as a shield from her father’s disappointment.

We closed the day with smiles and congratulations on work well done. The men broke off into small groups as they left, and I, planning a nap for when I got home, overheard them excitedly planning the next rehearsal and times to practice between now and then. Their energy and dedication is what keeps this program going and never ceases to amaze and inspire.

Season Two: Week 31

Check out this article in American Theatre

A Role for Theatre in Criminal Justice?

So much great information about this work, its impact…
And Shakespeare in Prison is honored to be a part of it!

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Nothing comes amiss, so money comes withal!

Tuesday / January 22 / 2019
Written by Matt

Last week, our Lear wrote a letter to Gloucester. Not to be outdone, Gloucester wrote two letters to Lear!

“What?!” exclaimed Lear, feeling one-upped. “You can’t write two!”

One of the letters was a “bro-y” (his words) six-pager that the author declined to read to spare us all. But the other was from Gloucester’s perspective shortly after his blinding. “I was base,” he wrote. “Base--deeply--to him who I thought of as base.” There was hope and grace in this letter: “Even without my eyes, I can see the radiant light--the true light--that surrounds me.” And Gloucester tried to impart the lesson he had learned too late: “Love your daughters,” he implored Lear, “even if you have favorites, love them evenly. I made the mistake of loving unevenly.”

When he had finished, one of the guys asked what we were supposed to take from the letter. Gloucester replied, “There are things unspoken that go beyond what’s written.” He talked about searching for the character in the text, “as Shakespeare wrote him, not as we wrote him. And I wrote Gloucester,” he chuckled, recalling his first letter, which was insightful but also judgmental, creating a caricature of Gloucester that was funny but not true. A newcomer said, “Some of us have smaller roles, but they’re in there because Shakespeare wanted to convey a message.” Frannie nodded along and added that actors often develop backstories and intimate relationships with their characters, “If you wanted to know what you do when you are training to be an actor, this is what you do,” she said, referring to Gloucester’s letter.

“That’s pretty good,” our Lear allowed. “Now I gotta write another one.”

Cut to… one of the most difficult scenes in all of Shakespeare! Having worked on the beginning of Act IV, scene vi last week--from Gloucester’s entrance with Edgar to after the “suicide” attempt--we were set to start with Lear’s entrance, mad, crowned with flowers. Our Lear was pumping himself up in one of the “wings,” and I asked Gloucester if he needed a little bit of a running start, if he wanted to go back to the beginning of the scene or somewhere else to get in character. He thought for a second, then shook his head. He’d be fine with a quick acting exercise, he told me, and then started doing one of the Michael Chekhov exercises we learned a few months ago.

Then, we were off! Lear had clearly done a lot of work on this scene over the weekend. He was off-book, and he had identified each of the mad king’s transitions throughout the scene and even created an action or gesture to go along with each one. He made a coaxing kissy-sound when trying to lure an imagined mouse with a piece of cheese, which led him to his gauntlet, which he put on before realizing that he had just accepted a duel with a giant, whom he leapt in the air to punch at. It was a great start. Throughout, he was adjusting his relationship to Gloucester--sometimes connected, sometimes completely disconnected.

And Gloucester, who looked hopeful for the first time in a few scenes upon recognizing Lear, quickly sank into even deeper despair. When Lear ordered him to “read,” Gloucester broke down, howling “I have. No. Eyes!” at the space where Lear used to be. When Lear moved to comfort Gloucester, the gesture was too little, too late. On “I see it feelingly,” Gloucester collapsed into Lear’s chest, and the two men held each other for a time. “If thou wilt weep my fortunes,” Lear said, “take my eyes.” As he said it, I realized that I had never heard that line as a genuine (if impossible) offer. But the way our Lear said it was totally earnest, a literal offer of his eyes to his friend, whom he positively identifies for the first time in the next line (“I know thee well enough. Thy name is Gloucester”). The offer and the naming--the “knowing”!!--were so clearly connected and translated so beautifully that we were all jarred a bit when Cordelia’s minions entered to break up the scene. We paused before Oswald’s entrance--that was enough to digest.

“As soon as I hear Lear’s voice,” our Gloucester reflected afterwards, “I forget about the ‘servant,’” referring to Edgar. “I just want to go to that voice.” Lear immediately piped up: “You should do that!” Gloucester agreed, then reflected: “It’s a bittersweet thing, for him to see me in this wretched state.” One of the guys who was watching commented that the scene had been funny, but that “[Gloucester] just brought it down to this core of emotion, so we couldn’t laugh too long.”

After a second run, which was even better, Gloucester wondered what he was supposed to do after the entrance of the “gentlemen” from Cordelia sent to fetch Lear. “I’m hearing all this,” he said, but didn’t know what his actions should be. A few people offered ideas on that and also on how to make Lear’s exit tighter. After a few minutes, our Lear offered his Theory of Rehearsal: “You’re kinda nervous the first time you do it. The second time, not so much. The third time is great. The fourth… not so much!” Point taken! From the top!

On the third run, things fell into place. Lear was disarmingly direct with all of his lines after “every inch a king,” directing them to Gloucester and drawing himself up, as if holding court. This led to even more intimacy between Gloucester and Lear near the end of this segment. Unlike the last two times, we didn’t stop at Oswald’s entrance. Frannie told our Oswald just to jump in from where he was sitting, and he did. Maybe he caught himself off-guard, because it worked! Oswald, who struggles with stage fright, was menacing and direct in his aggressiveness--he was working really hard!

Despite our Lear’s Theory of Rehearsal, we decided to give it another run, this time from start to finish. And it was really good. I actually don’t have a lot of notes on why it was so good--just a few lines I write down with expletives next to them. This time through, the intimacy between Lear and Gloucester seemed almost to frighten or frustrate Gloucester. He pushed Lear away on “What? With the case of eyes?” and then pulled him close on “Oh, are you there with me?” and then pushed him away again on “Alack the day!”

Most touchingly (and tragicomically), Gloucester got up to fight against the gentlemen on their entrance. He did not know where they were, so he kicked and punched in the wrong direction until an overzealous kick toppled him to the ground, where he sobbed. It was a heartbreaking piece of totally organic blocking--a pointless fury, directed at no one, to no end at all. Oof. These guys get this play.


Friday / January 25 / 2018
Written by Matt

“BLOW, WINDS, AND CRACK YOUR CHEEKS! RAGE! BLOW!” … is now our code-word for “speak up.” Like most good things, it came about organically, as one of the guys started his check-in too quietly to be heard, and a bunch of guys hollered Lear’s line at him to get him to project his voice. Amazing.

We had two guests today! One was a (semi-) frequent visitor, Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars and inspiration for many Prison Shakespeare programs—including ours. The other was Niels Herold, professor of English at Oakland University. Mostly, they observed, although Curt said “hi” to a couple of our members who had been in his ensemble in West Michigan before coming to Parnall.

Our Gloucester is really on a roll. He wrote yet another letter to Lear, although he declined to read it, worrying that he was taking everyone’s time. He has also been digging deep with his acting. “I’ve been working on emoting emotions faster,” he said. “I took a couple of scenes in the play, and I worked on the emotions,” he explained, adding that he wanted to be better at getting quickly to the desired emotion, and on transitioning smoothly from one emotional state to another. Our Lear agreed. “Me, connecting with Lear,” he said, “was just making a past for him. When I did that, I started to understand the words better.”

Our Regan also had a play-related check-in. “[The line] ‘You are my guests’ stuck in my head. Holy shit, they put out this guy’s eyes in his own house! Where were his servants at?” Without missing a beat, our Edmund solved the mystery: “Edmund did that,” he said. “I turned them out of the house!”

We spent the rest of the day working on a tough scene (there are a lot of those in this play!): Act IV, scene vii. In it, Lear and Cordelia reunite. The old king has finally been able to sleep, and his youngest daughter has returned to England with an army from France. But the reunion is hardly triumphant--Lear is confused and weak, and Cordelia struggles to connect with her father.

Our Lear seemed a little bit lost before we got started, so I went up and asked if he needed a minute “No,” he said firmly. “The first run is always just a rough draft.” One of the guys got a wheeled office chair from another part of the gym, to serve as Lear’s “wheelchair.” The tiny office chair, however, was dwarfed by our Lear, who’s a big guy, and everyone started giggling when he rode in, his feet raised up like a little kid on a snow tube. The laughter threw Lear off, but everyone stumbled through the scene to the end.

“How’d it feel?” asked one of the guys, who has become the king of that question. “Disconnected,” replied Lear. Our Kent asked the man who wheeled Lear on why he left in the middle of the scene. “I dunno,” he said, “I just felt awkward, and I heard, ‘Leave me alone,’ and I felt like it was the perfect time to leave.” Another man said they didn’t need to kneel for so long. Lear nodded, but pushed back: “It says, ‘Don’t kneel.’ Like, [Cordelia] says, ‘Don’t kneel.’ But I think I kneel anyway.” He went on to say that he never felt an instinct to rise once he was down. At last, Cordelia suggested running it again.

We didn’t get far into the second round, though, when we had to stop. Cordelia was freaking out a little (mostly because the visitors made him so nervous; he’s battling a lot of stage fright), so Frannie went to talk that through with him. Lear was still feeling disconnected, so I went over to talk him through it. “This is hard!” he confessed. “This is the hardest one. Way harder than ‘Blow, wind.’ Way harder than going crazy in the last scene. Way harder than, ‘Howl.’” We talked about how it’s hardest sometimes to play low-energy than high-energy; there’s less to hide behind, less action to drive you. “It’s easier to rage around on stage than to be beaten down,” he agreed. Then he talked through his understanding of Lear’s progression: he wakes, thinks he’s in hell, then that he’s in purgatory, then he doesn’t know where he is--and only then, after a few minutes, does he begin to put it together. Meanwhile, Frannie was talking an overwhelmed Cordelia through taking care of himself onstage by focusing on the other actors and letting them draw him along. Holy sidebars, Batman!

When they went back and did it again, it was much improved. “I put more emotion in it,” said Cordelia, “I felt better in the end. … I was taking my time with it.” A little while later, he added, “It’s an emotional roller-coaster, and I feel like I go from feeling to feeling.” Our Lear was still frustrated with his own performance. “That’s a hard-ass scene,” he said. “I don’t know if people realize how hard that scene is.”

Our Kent mused aloud that he felt superfluous in the scene, and suggested cutting all of his lines. The way he said it wasn’t crystal-clear, so a lot of guys reacted to his suggestion as if he’d advocated cutting Kent completely from the scene. “I like seeing Lear’s right-hand man there,” said one of the guys. “But I feel like this is a moment between a father and his daughter,” Kent pushed back, but a few guys agreed that Kent’s presence was important. “This is about the fact that [Kent and Cordelia] share a bond that no one else does,” offered our Lear. “They were the most loyal, and they got banished.” A few minutes later, another man echoed that sentiment, and said that Kent’s presence is less about Lear and more about Cordelia. “[Kent] is there for Cordelia. He got banished defending her. He’s there for moral support!”

Frannie asked if we could maybe tell this part of the story more clearly by changing the staging of the scene, which sent a few of the guys digging through their scripts, trying to work it out. “Is this the first time Kent is acknowledged as Kent?” asked one. Throughout, Kent was sitting on a chair onstage and watching attentively but silently as we discussed. “[Do] what you’re doing there!” exclaimed one of the guys, “That’s perfect! Have you ever been in the hospital, and been there with someone and you’re just sitting and watching?” He talked about how you can be “with” someone without directly engaging with them, even if they’re not conscious. Lear perked up at this. “That was a good analogy right there!” he said, “with the hospital. Like when you’re in the hospital and someone closer to the [patient] arrives--you stand to the side, but you’re still there for him.”

The room divided into a few different sub-conversations, but the one right next to me went straight to Kent. “That’s the ultimate loyalty,” said one of the guys in awe. “To work so hard, to make the connection between these people and save the man you serve, then to step back and not only not want acknowledgement, but to want not to be acknowledged. He could have done his big reveal, but he knows that what’s happening is more important.” I reminded him that Kent’s “big reveal” in the final scene comes too late. “Oh god,” said another one of the guys, “I hadn’t remembered that.” He exchanged a look with me and the first man. “Fuck!” he said, “that’s so depressing.” The first man shook his head slowly. “Man, my heart is breaking a little bit right now, just thinking about that.”

As for Cordelia and Lear, they really connected, and that made both of them feel better about their work. One of the guys in the audience said that the back-and-forth connection--the mutual reinforcement of their bond--had sold him on Lear and Cordelia’s dynamic in the scene.

Our Lear pointed to a line he had written in the margin of his script: “Lear realizes for a moment that his humanity replaces his obsession with power.”

As usual, our guests had sat quietly throughout the session. And, as usual, the guys wanted to hear their comments near the end. “This is one of the richest scenes in the play,” began Niels, the Shakespeare scholar from Oakland University. He mentioned that our conversation about Kent had reminded him that Cordelia admires Kent in the first scene. “He speaks truth to power, while she says nothing.” Then he focused on the kneeling in the scene. “I wonder if you guys could do more with this gesture of kneeling. What is kneeling?” He ran through a few possibilities: supplication, respect, acknowledgement. “Is she acknowledging him as king?”

“The word that comes to my mind is ‘reverence,’” replied one of the guys. “Absolute reverence for him as a king and as a father.” Another added, “And for him to kneel back, making sure they’re on the same level… that’s his daughter, and that’s what really matters.” A new member observed, “When Lear kneeled, it was the first time in the play when he really gave up his power.”

Finally, we had a casting issue to work out. Our Oswald recently left the ensemble, so we needed someone to fill in. A new member was interested, but some of the guys had already suggested to a veteran member that he might fill in, partly as a way of reconnecting him to the group after some time spent at a remove. Having both of them interested, especially since the veteran wasn’t there, briefly caused some tension, and another veteran explained why exactly he had tried to fill a vacancy in between sessions--nothing nefarious, just poorly communicated.

In the end, it was the new guy who resolved the issue, asking simply, “Does he want the part?” The answer, “Yes,” came back from several guys at once. “It’s his,” said the new member with finality, and the conflict was settled.

As we were getting ready to wrap up with a rousing game of tapeball (high score: 68!), our Fool leaned over to the new guy who had given up his interest in Oswald for the sake of another man he barely knew. “Dude, that was really noble,” he said, and then he continued by inviting him in. “Hey, do you want to be my understudy? I’ve got this job that might take me away at any time, and I’d feel a whole lot better about it if I knew someone had my back. What do you think? It ain’t but 33 lines.” The new guy accepted. That’s the kind of ensemble we have--they take care of each other.

Season Two: Week 30

Check out this article in American Theatre

A Role for Theatre in Criminal Justice?

So much great information about this work, its impact…
And Shakespeare in Prison is honored to be a part of it!


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Oh, and while you’re at it…

Tuesday / January 15 / 2019
Written by Matt

“Why is Cornwall so vicious, even after he’s mortally wounded? Why does he take the other eye?” asked one of the guys in check-in--once we get going, there is little interest in small-talk with this crew. After the amazing work they did on the eye-gouging scene last week, a few of the guys wanted to check in about it. The man who started the conversation continued, saying that he read over the scene a bunch of times, and he felt that the servant’s outburst provided a hint: “Cornwall isn’t like that, usually. That servant has been with him a long time, and says he doesn’t recognize these actions.” He continued, “Edmund did not have to work hard on Cornwall to get him to do this.”

Our Cornwall, in reply, agreed: “It did not take much to push Cornwall over the edge… He’s a puppet, and Edmund is manipulating his mind.” Another man summed up: “This is the scene where everybody gets their hands dirty. Instead of having everyone else do their dirty work, they’re doing it themselves.”

“Violence doesn’t just happen,” the man who had started the conversation pushed back. “Why is Cornwall feeling this way?”

At last, our Gloucester revealed that he had written 12 pages in a notebook about the eye-gouging. This would be shocking from anyone but him--he’s the one who wrote letters to Gloucester! He said he wouldn’t subject us to a full reading, but he did read out one part: Regan and Cornwall, he read, “represent the worst of his old persona. Regan represents the cruelty toward Edmund. Cornwall represents the selfishness.” Brilliant!

Before we ended check-in, one of the guys said that his son had messaged him about Shakespeare--he wants to read King Lear, so they can talk about it. “I’m getting my whole family on board,” he said.

On to Act IV, scene ii. From the first, it was looking good. Our Goneril gave a crazy-sophisticated portrayal of Goneril as a powerful woman--not even a whiff of stereotypical femininity, but not at all as a man. With Edmund, he was tender but in control. “Wear this,” he said, and mimed putting a necklace over Edmund’s head. When Edmund raised his face to say something, Goneril put a finger near Edmund’s lips and said, “Spare speech” in the most natural possible way. I got chills, it was so effortless and believable.

With Albany, our Goneril was abrasive, dismissive, and hard. And Albany… man, is he ever a good listener! He allowed his reactions to Goneril and others to drive everything he was saying--until near the end of the scene, when he seemed almost listless. When we recapped after the scene, he explained that Albany zones out halfway through the scene. He said that he’s in shock at first, after hearing about Gloucester’s blinding, then he’s planning--how will he deal with this new and cruel situation? “I really felt the tension,” said one of the guys, approvingly. He’s never even seen the scene before, and still it translated.

Another of the guys suggested that Goneril be “more feminine,” but, after he suggested that one of the female facilitators might be able to give him a few pointers, Maria jumped in. “I’m gonna respond to that,” she said. “I loved how he did that.” She talked about how Goneril’s reaction to Edmund’s exit was perfect (“Oh my god, I am so in love with this guy!”), and how he played Goneril as a woman, not as a feminine stereotype. As facilitators, we try to never to be proscriptive or shut people down, but Maria’s comment was far from that--it was an insight into Goneril’s performance that could only have come from a woman. “She doesn’t need to be a girly-girl,” added one of the guys. “I don’t see her as a girly-girl,” Goneril assured him. Case closed.

The second run was even better. After Goneril put the “necklace” on Edmund, he started to speak (though he has no line). He managed an abortive “ah-” before Goneril firmly placed a finger near his lips. “Spare thy speech.” Perfect!

Before this run, Frannie had suggested (nay, ordered!) the guys to stop ceding ground to each other. Our Albany, though, immediately started instinctively backing up. Frannie leapt up to correct him, then started looking around for an instrument. We aren’t allowed to touch our incarcerated ensemble members, so she settled on a folding chair, which she held up like a shield, to keep Albany from retreating. It looked pretty silly, but it worked like a charm!

Afterwards, Albany said it had been hard for him to stand his ground. “I wanted to pivot back,” he told us. Frannie asked what he usually does, and he pantomimed dismissively turning away. “What happens when you actually engage with someone in the real world?” Frannie asked. “I take it on my shoulders,” he said. Another man praised Albany for his performance: “You do a lot of the little things people do when they talk. It makes it believable.” But another man pushed on him a bit, wondering why he was so impassive when learning about Gloucester’s blinding. Albany explained that he was shocked by the news, then planning what to do about it. The man giving the note struggled a little to put his critique into constructive language, but it was a good note, and eventually we were able to get everybody on the same page.

The third try at the scene had really great energy from the beginning--so great that the guys kept going up on their lines because they were so connected to their scene partners that they’d forget to look at the script! Albany, in particular, really upped his game. He took the final note to heart, and made sure that his inner turmoil was really translating to the audience, without overdoing it. He was heavy when he heard the news about Gloucester, and looked nauseated when he heard that it was Edmund who had informed on his father. “That really worked,” said the man who had given the critical note to Albany. “I felt your emotions immediately.”

Then we ran through the next scene, Act IV, scene iv. It is a brief scene intended to set up the final conflict--most importantly, it is Cordelia’s return. For us, that meant it was the debut of our Cordelia, who stepped in after we lost an ensemble member. Cordelia was really nervous before running through the scene, but he seemed to take courage from the energetic “army” that entered with him. From the second our Cordelia opened his mouth, everyone was riveted. “Cordelia!” exclaimed one of the other guys, enraptured, “You have a Really! Awesome! Voice!” He was leaned back in his chair, arms outstretched to show his excitement. “Savor the words!” he suggested.

Quickly, we regrouped to run the scene again. As always, the second run saw a refinement of blocking and delivery. There were some great, instinctual crosses, and moments of connection and purposefulness that translated instantly. Time was short, but one of our most vocal members was hurrying us along, reminding us that the less we talk about it and the more we do it, the better the acting. After the third run, our Cordelia was feeling a little overwhelmed by all the notes and direction from the audience, even though the questions and comments were valid and important. “He’s overloading,” one of the guys whispered to me. “He’s overloading like I did in my first scene.” Then he stood up. “Okay! Ratatouille!” he shouted, using our code word for too much talking/off-topic. “Let’s do it again!”

The fourth run was great. “That was a lot better,” the man who had been hurrying things along told Cordelia. “You had that confidence.” Cordelia nodded along, saying, “I felt it! I felt it.”

“See that? He felt it!” announced one of the guys. “Don’t nothing else matter.”

Another member specifically called out a brand-new member for his performance as messenger. “You bring importance to the messenger,” he said. “You made it important, what you were saying!” It was a reminder that, in SIP as well as in any theatre, the commentary and notes sometimes focus exclusively on the main characters. That’s natural, but our ensemble right now is uncommonly good at giving positive feedback and critical notes to even the messengers and servants. They understand how important those roles are to telling the story, and it’s really great that they’re always taking care of the minor characters on stage.

We had a little bit of time after finishing this scene, but the next one is a bear (Gloucester’s “suicide,” Lear’s madness, Oswald’s death). When I asked what the guys wanted to do next, Gloucester, Edgar, and Lear exchanged a look, and said, “Um, NOT the next scene!” Point taken!

Actually, I reminded everyone, we hadn’t played a game in a long time, and as nice as it is to be so productive in staging the show, it’s sometimes nice to let loose. So we played two of the goofiest of our circle games: Wah! and Animal Noises. By the time we had to go, everyone was smiling and laughing and sorry to see the session end.

Rough sketch of the “castle” backdrop.

Friday / January 18 / 2019
Written by Frannie

When we arrived at the gym today, we were excited to see one of the backdrops-in-progress spread out on the floor. It already looks so awesome! During check-in, one of the guys who’s painting it explained the concept in detail and asked if anyone wanted to help construct the accent pieces (gears, banners, etc.). “When the viewers come in, we want them to get the whole concept,” he said. “We don’t want it to be a bunch of negative space.” A brief brainstorming session ensued. Everyone is very excited.

Then our Lear cleared his throat and said, “Lear wrote a letter to Gloucester.” I kind of vocally exploded—what is all this letter-writing??? It’s amazing!!! He proceeded to read a rambling epistle detailing his and Gloucester’s history (right down to invented names for their wives) and musing on their current circumstances. “It seems like just yesterday that we were young roosters raising hell,” the letter went, exploring how wild the two had been, particularly in their behavior with women. “Come to think of it, some of the assassination attempts and threats on my life were probably meant for you!” The letter explored Lear’s dynamics with his own daughters, then zoomed back in on Gloucester: “And you lucky bastard—not one, but two boys?!” The letter continued, “When we found out Velvet was having your child, we were surprised half the population wasn’t pregnant!” As everyone cracked up, one of the guys whooped and exclaimed, “You dog!” Moving on to the present time, the letter reflected, “I know it’s time to take a backseat, but damn, it’s hard.” When Lear finished his reading, I turned to Gloucester, who had been grinning and blushing throughout. “Would you like to respond now, or in writing?” I asked with mock formality. He gave Lear some serious side-eye and said, “How dare you expose my secrets!” We laughed as he continued, also with mock formality, “I will definitely respond in writing.”

Our Fool said he had some bad news—he had been put on the callout for a job that conflicts with our schedule, and he said it wouldn’t be a good idea to turn this type of job down. So it seems he won’t be able to stay in the ensemble, and he asked a man who’d been interested in the character before if he wanted to play it now. There was general consternation about the whole thing. “It’s just my luck, right?” our Fool said sadly. “Does anybody know a way outta this?” No, was the emphatic reply. There would apparently be some pretty onerous consequences if he turned down the job. One of the guys suggested that he could just sort of pop in toward the end of the process and take the role back, but our Fool shook his head. “That would be great,” he said, “but I think the show needs to be the best it’s gonna be, and whoever plays the Fool needs to be able to be here to practice… We should get an understudy, is all I’m saying.” There was a glum silence, and we decided to table the whole thing until he knew for certain that he couldn’t play the part.

The ensemble recovered after a few moments and began to set up for Act IV, scene v. I had a brief sidebar with one of the guys, and then I meandered over to the other side of the bleachers and took a seat, quietly observing as some folks ran lines individually, while others chatted in small groups. To my left, I realized that our Lear and Gloucester were having an extremely animated conversation, spurred on, no doubt, by that fabulous letter. I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but it was obvious that Lear had worked out his interpretation in extreme detail, and that Gloucester was fully engaged in exploring what he’d found. They were literally walking in circles together at one point.

The clock kept ticking, and the scene still had not started. No one seemed to mind, though, which is unusual for this group—they tend to be quite anxious to be productive. Matt asked if we were ready to get started, and everyone agreed that we were, but the chatting continued. They were just having a really good time together.

Finally, we ran the scene. The guys collaborated well and made a ton of progress in just three tries! I’m eliding this process a bit because what happened with the following scene was so intense, but I don’t want to move on without noting a few things: Oswald referred to himself as “the golden retriever of the whole story,” Regan said “it’s like a chess match of violence between the two sisters,” and a whole bunch of guys worked hard to make sure their feedback was constructive, though one of them gave a note that was so assertive, I jokingly asked whether he was suggesting or dictating.

We’d run the scene our usual three times, when Regan mentioned that he’d had an instinct to go with a Kill Bill-style energy but thought it wouldn’t be appropriate for the scene. The image he painted, though, was so arresting that, from where I was standing beside the bleachers, I yelled, “Why not?!”

“Really?” he said, taken aback. “Yes! How is that not appropriate for this scene? DO IT AGAIN!” I shouted… Then, realizing how loud I’d been, I sheepishly grabbed my notepad and pen and said, “I mean, we can do whatever you want.” Without missing a beat, the man I’d teased before asked, “Are you dictating now?” Everyone laughed as I rephrased my feedback, saying, “I suggest that you do it again.”

They did, it worked, and, in one of those unplanned moments of theatrical symmetry, somehow Oswald and Regan ended up in the exact same positions as the servant and Regan had been when she stabbed him!

As our Gloucester, Old Man, and Edgar prepared for the first part of Act IV, scene vi, Matt and I noticed that many of the ensemble members were scattered around the room in small groups—all working, but definitely not all together. Matt asked them all to join us in the bleachers, and I reminded everyone that, while acting can make us feel vulnerable, period, emotionally charged scenes like this can make that even more intense. At such times, it’s vital that we come together as an ensemble to support the folks doing their best with this very challenging work.

It was clear that these three actors felt supported as they worked through the scene for the first time. Many moments were quite touching, and a few were something more, including Gloucester’s looking up before remembering that he had no eyes. “I was so there emotionally with what you were feeling,” one of the men said to Gloucester, and two of the others said they’d gotten chills.

Our Edgar was struggling to “decide” on what his character feels during this scene, and, after hashing it out a bit, we simplified the feeling to be one of “horror.” I walked him through some ways he could allow the horror to “enter” him and push him back, rather than trying to manufacture something from within. He is always game, even when he thinks I’m full of shit (which he kind of did), and he said he’d give it a go.

This time, more than mere moments of the scene rang true, as the actors began to sink into their roles, knowing the ensemble was with them. Afterward, one of the men asked our favorite question: “How that that feel for y’all?” Our Gloucester responded, “I’m facing the duality of it. I’m facing my death—not only am I bearing the weight of my life on my shoulders, but this man is so kind in bearing it with me that I want to be with him for comfort. But then again—what does it matter?... I just want Edgar. I just want my beloved Edgar. And this man is the closest I’m gonna get.”

Another man, referring to the moments after Gloucester’s “fall,” said, “I feel like he doesn’t even know if he’s alive. He doesn’t know whether he’s dead or alive.” He paused and made sure we all knew that this was his interpretation, not a directive for the actors. (I pulled him aside before we left to make sure he knew how awesome that was!)

I asked if the actors wanted to run the scene again, and, because they were beginning to go so deep with their performances, I made sure they (and everyone else) knew that it is always okay for an actor to say they’re emotionally spent and need to take the rest of the day off. The guys said they were cool, though, so they prepped for the top of the scene.

And, man, did it go places.

Letting his latest epiphany drive his actions, our Gloucester leaned much more heavily on Edgar than he had before. When he asked Edgar to leave him, before handing him his purse, he weakly embraced him and rested his forehead for a moment on his shoulder. Our Edgar received this and returned it as much as he could bear, fully embodying his character’s intense inner conflict, the pain flitting vividly across his face. As Edgar walked away—but not very far away—Gloucester turned out toward the audience, his voice fully connected, resonant, and raw, coming forth in something that wasn’t quite a moan, wasn’t quite a yell, and wasn’t quite a sob. It was a sound I don’t have words for, but that we all recognized. As Gloucester knelt, so did Edgar, just a few feet away, speaking low to the audience in his asides. Somehow this moment, even without a physical cliff, was rife with suspense.

As he called on the gods to bless his son Edgar, Gloucester rose to his knees, his voice full of agony, his body and energy in a full expansion—and then he choked, and then he fell to the ground. I don’t know what the choking was, exactly—I was so taken by all of this that I completely forgot about it till I looked at my notes days later.

As Gloucester lay motionless, Edgar rose, shaking with fury, bringing the audience in to his disbelief that his father would actually have killed himself—and that he would have played a part in that. Shaking it off as much as he could, he assumed a new posture and approached his father as if he were a different person, asking if he was alive or dead.

Picking his head up, angry, bewildered, Gloucester pulled himself backward on his elbows as he sobbed, “Away, and let me die.” He continued to drag himself haltingly backward, along the floor, his anguish steadily increasing. Edgar rushed to him. Kneeling just upstage of his father, he cradled and tried to calm him (a moment one of the men would call “a reverse parent” a little later).

They reached the end of the scene, and there was silence. Our Gloucester sat back on his heels, eyes closed, and was motionless for a few seconds. “Are you okay? Do you need a minute?” I asked gently. Gloucester wiped tears from his eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. Yeah, I need just a minute.” After a few more seconds, he stood up, took some deep breaths, crossed an imaginary threshold out of the emotion (a tool I shared with him months ago), and jogged in a little circle before returning to the playing area. We were, of course, waiting eagerly to hear what he’d experienced.

It came forth in a veritable torrent. “It’s more than just an emotional journey,” he said. “I think we spoke about this before… Think of the deepest depths of loss in your life… I think many of us have lost one of the greatest things in life. That’s our self-knowledge. And knowing that we can’t get that back, ever, never see it again—it’s so hard… It’s a cauldron of despair—the grief just keeps bubbling up… [Gloucester] doesn’t know if there’s anything after this or not, so that makes it worse... There may be nothing else left for him… Has anyone ever passed out before, and woke up, and you don’t know where you are?... That’s what I really want to do, is: is my pain over yet? It keeps on re-occuring because it’s still not over yet. It’s like, you’re not dead. The worst part of your life is not over. It keeps punching you in the gut.”

After a brief silence, Edgar added, “For me, it’s like I’m not seeking to give him comfort. I’m seeking comfort.” Gloucester nodded, “It’s reconciliation for both of us.” There was silence again.

And then our Lear said, “You mean, I gotta follow this?” I replied, “Yeah, you better blow us out of the water.” He shook his head, exhaling and flipping through his script.

“This scene is like a rebirth for you… everything is different about you now,” said another man to Gloucester. “It’s suicide, but you didn’t actually die. You were reborn… Now you get a spark for life.” A second man agreed, to a point: the whole play is about redemption, he said. Our Gloucester said there is something to that: “Even in the darkest of times, there’s still a glimmer of hope if you search for it. If you search for it.” I said that they weren’t necessarily wrong about any of that, but they also needed to consider that Gloucester continues to long for death, even asking other people to kill him. The man who’d spoken of “rebirth” said he didn’t remember any of that; that Gloucester has renewed joy for life after this. I replied that I could be wrong and asked if he could find that for me in the text.

Meanwhile, though, one of our ensemble members hadn’t moved on. He spoke quietly to Matt, who encouraged him to share his thoughts with the group and asked us all to pay attention. “The moment you knelt down, I felt the despair,” the man said. “Being here for 22 years, there was times I felt like that—I felt alone, I was at the edge of that fake cliff. I felt like I wanted to fall off the cliff… Angry when I woke up… All alone, just me and my wretchedness, alone. I was betrayed. I was left behind—everything else has left me alone, just used and abused me, and there was times I felt just like that.”

How do you move on from a moment like that? But he had said what he needed to say, and he was calm. So I thanked him for sharing, and we found our way forward as an ensemble.

As we began to circle up, the man whom I’d asked to dig through the text a bit called out, “Frannie, you’re right.” A friend made a big show of grinning at him, Cheshire Cat-style, which the man who’d spoken conspicuously ignored.

Cat: “What was that?”

Man: “Okay. You’re right.”

Cat: (still grinning) “It’s like a rare and beautiful song.” [Man stares at him.] “What did you say, again?”

Man: “You’re. Right.”

Cat: “I think you need to get used to saying that.”

Season Two: Week 29

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Put money in thy—er, our—purse!

Tuesday / January 8 / 2019
Written by Frannie

Today during check-in, a couple of the guys shared that they’ve begun putting together the backdrops for performances! These will be made from sewn-together sheets, painted to represent a few generic settings, with pieces to add for specificity.

Our Lear said that he wanted to clarify his response to some of the feedback he’d gotten last week because he felt he might have been misinterpreted. When he talked about “not caring” about what other people did onstage, he was talking about the elements of the scene, not about the feedback. “I didn’t mean to hurt nobody’s feelings—I just can’t take it all in.” He apologized for wording that poorly, though everyone assured him they hadn’t taken it that way. We all admire how sensitive he is about things like this; he puts a lot of thought into his words or actions even after the fact and always owns any mistakes he feels he made. The result is that no one ever seems upset with him—about anything. He’s definitely a role model for all of us.

Our Gloucester shared a series of epiphanies he’d had while musing about storms. “You don’t know the strength of your foundation till it’s tested… Storms form and destroy things,” he said, “and if you don’t prepare yourself, you get swept away. Lear and Gloucester didn’t really build themselves for that.” Our Lear disagreed, at least about his character. “Lear is the storm,” he said. “It was inside him from the beginning.” He returned to his dominant image for Lear: a tattered battle flag. “It’s like the flag on the moon,” he said, “flapping even when there’s no wind.”

Gloucester continued, “Storms represent situations in life that reveal truth… It’s inevitable. It’s gonna happen.” He asked if we’d ever noticed how people get quiet during a storm. Even in the loudest storms, he said, we listen carefully for signs of imminent danger. “Oh, you’re so right,” I said, excited. “Lear yells at the storm, right?” He nodded, smiling. “And the others yell at each other through the storm—but no one is actively listening.” He broke in, “But hearing Lear is how Gloucester recognizes him!” We’ve talked so much about blindness, but we haven’t thought about the play in terms of listening. This was so thrilling!

We jumped back into scene work with Act III scene v, in which Cornwall learns of Gloucester’s helping Lear, and Edmund continues to manipulate him. Even in its current form, which is significantly cut down, it’s a great scene for these two guys. They’re perfect fits for these roles, and our Edmund in particular is doing a lot of hard work sussing out the “multiple personalities” he uses. His pandering to Cornwall rang so true that I couldn’t help but chuckle.

It was a good run, but there was definitely building to do. Several members asked for “more scheming” and gave a whole bunch of rapid-fire notes that were more “should” than “could.” I could see our Cornwall beginning to get frustrated, and I broke in to ask simply what his objective is in this scene. Relieved, he replied that he actually wasn’t sure because the beginning of the scene didn’t make sense to him—on whom does Cornwall want revenge? On Gloucester, we said, and he lit up, exclaiming that now it made sense! One man also pointed out that this is the first time we’ve seen Cornwall without Regan, and that got the actor even more excited.

Before we ran the scene again, though, one of the men spoke up to remind everyone not to “tell people how to act a role”—rather, to give them helpful hints. He turned to Cornwall, saying, “It seems like you feel like a lot of people were telling you how to do that part, and you started to kinda put up a wall.” Cornwall nodded. The man continued, “Can’t nobody tell you how to do your part for you.” Cornwall explained that he just can’t take so many notes in at once, particularly if he feels they’re being dictated. This has always been a challenge in SIP, not just in this ensemble: it truly takes practice to give constructive criticism, and we work with a lot of folks who haven’t had opportunities to learn. I reminded the group that people tend to respond better to questions, and that the best one to start with is almost always, “What does your character want?”

From the moment he burst into the playing space for the next run, our Cornwall’s energy was far more urgent, his lines rang much truer, and Edmund responded in kind, swept right along. “That was dope!” one of the guys who’d given the “should” feedback exclaimed. Then, in a show of his desire to be more helpful, he asked, “How did it feel? Did you feel like you were all the way into your character just now?” Beaming, Cornwall replied, “Yeah. I felt like I was Cornwall.” Another man praised Edmund’s performance and asked, “How can you say you’re not a bad dude?” Edmund replied, “They made me this way.” The other man nodded. “They made you a bad dude!” Another man said, “It’s all perception. Genghis Khan’s grandkids didn’t think he was a bad dude! He was just Papa Khan!” He then turned to Cornwall, saying, “You got a great voice, man, a great voice.” Cornwall, who is African American, grinned and replied, “You know what that comes from? The Angry Black Man.”

We ran the scene again, and it was even better—this time, both actors relaxed into the scene and found its pacing, resulting in a more complex performance that was urgent but not too fast. Edmund, who’d been asked to try taking a little more time with his aside, said that he’d really liked “lingering” on it. And Cornwall shared an epiphany: “It’s about not rushing through the scene—giving the scene the time it needs to do what it needs to do.”

“Hey, [Edmund],” called out one man. “In real life, I do asides like that, and the world freezes.” He paused for comic effect. “But they give you meds for that!” As most of us chuckled (though a few seemed unsure of how to react), he sat back in his chair, gratified.

We moved on to Act III, scene vi, in which Gloucester brings Lear, Kent, the Fool, and Edgar to some shelter, leaves briefly, and returns to tell them they need to flee immediately. This scene is radically different from Quarto to Folio: the Quarto includes a “mock trial” that is completely left out of the Folio, and, in the interest of cutting as much as we can (Lear in 90 minutes—gulp!), we’d taken almost all of it out. Still, there’s enough to get across Lear’s exhaustion and increasing remove from reality, and for the audience to see how the others deal with that.

This first run didn’t work all that well, though there was one truly beautiful moment: when Lear saw dogs that weren’t actually there, the Fool kneeled and acted as if he were beckoning and playing with them, making his love and care for Lear crystal clear. But, “I didn’t like it at all,” said our Lear, explaining that he wasn’t clear on where they were or what they should be doing. Another man said he wasn’t “clear on what the scene even is.” Lear explained the plot points, and the man nodded, saying, “So this is when we see the big change in your mindset.”

Part of what’s happening, a few people reminded us as we worked out some possible blocking, is that Lear’s extremely sleep-deprived. The Fool piped up, “You gotta remember, we ain’t had no sleep, either.” Yes, we do!

As Gloucester and Kent entered, the former mimed shaking water off his cloak (he wore his coat on his shoulders), which was awesome. Our Edgar, off-book (as usual) and fully committed (as usual), helped propel the scene forward, taking everyone along with him. Still, some of the action was muddled, and they set about problem-solving the moment the scene ended. Some solutions were quickly agreed on, while others had several possibilities that merited trying out. We chose one of each to begin with.

The third run of the scene got off to a powerful start, and I noted how riveted the ensemble always is by our Gloucester. His dedication to the work, willingness to throw himself into whatever needs doing on stage, openness to criticism, and the insight he so generously shares have resulted in his commanding a level of respect that I’m not sure he had when the season began. It seems to be steadily increasing, and it’s very cool to observe.

The scene was powerful throughout. As Lear lay down toward the scene’s end, everyone else kneeled there with him, which was a beautiful visual. Afterward, our Lear said, “We all took our time, and spaced it out. The Fool was listening well.” One man, who usually follows along in his script, said, “You guys actually painted the picture without words. I put down the script and just watched… I didn’t want to miss anything.”

Our Fool asked me how he should feel about Kent and Edgar, who are both in disguise. I said I’d actually been meaning to ask him about that. Warning the ensemble that this was a point of debate only for our Fool, not for the group (because it’s truly his decision, and this ensemble could debate it for weeks!), I shared that there are several ways to interpret what’s going on with these three. “One interpretation is that the Fool knows who these guys actually are,” I said, “but you can absolutely play it the other way. Do you have any thoughts on that?” He grinned and said that he’d already been thinking about it and was leaning towards “yes.” Some of his lines make more sense that way, he said, and it also clears up the question he’d asked. “If I do know who they are, I don’t think I resent them. I love them for what they’re doing,” he said.

He then suggested that we run those two scenes in a row with the time we had left, and that turned out to be a great idea. The high energy from the first scene carried over to the second, with everyone firmly engaged and making sure to connect with each other as much as possible. We left on a high note, enthused by the solid work we’d done—and very excited that we’d finally arrived at the “eye-gouging scene.” Till Friday!

Friday / January 11 / 2019
Written by Matt

Out, vile jelly! Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself, but it was a big day today.

Actually, some of the guys got a head-start on eye-gouging. A few of them had been working on the staging of it on their own, and they were eager to get to that. “Dude, you better prepare yourself for this,” one man shouted to our Gloucester, “I’ve been filling in for you, and I’m really feeling it today!” “Oh, man,” Gloucester replied, grinning, “Now you got me all scared!” The work this small group had done was mainly to determine which way the chair (complete with bound Gloucester) should face, and how it could be lowered safely to the ground while preserving the scene’s brutality. It needed some work, but it was an awesome start, and it’s what we went with for our first try at the scene.

“Now I see my chance to be king!” exclaimed our Cornwall when the scene ended, but everyone else was focused on Regan. “Which one is top dog,” mused our Lear, “Regan or Goneril?” Cornwall was having none of it. “In this scene, it’s me!” he said. “I’m the nastiest.” But then he nodded at Regan and ceded, “but she’s in control.” Our Goneril nodded, “[Cornwall]’s like a marionette.”

Round two was stronger, and it allowed us to identify some specific problems. The man who plays the heroic servant pinpointed a blocking issue: everyone was crowded around Gloucester, and there was no space for the fight to happen between him and Cornwall. We tried a few options before Frannie helped him decide to slowly back away in disgust at the eye-gouging before rushing back in. One of the guys also reminded him, “Your objective is not just disgust. It’s to protect [Cornwall]!”

The third attempt was chilling. “Ohhhhhhhh by the kind gods!” snarled Gloucester when he saw that he had been betrayed, which gave Regan the perfect impetus to spit back, “so white, and such a traitor,” then, with mock patience, “Where-. Fore. to DOVER?” Cornwall leaned in close to Gloucester as he said, “See it, shalt thou never,” and Gloucester mimed literally spitting in his face.

What happened next was shocking even for those of us who know the play well. After the first eye-gouging--which was fittingly grotesque--and Cornwall’s receiving his mortal wound from the servant, things got really intense. The servant wound up downstage center, facing the audience directly--and Regan strode up behind him with a sword, running him through from behind. Not only was it a beautifully cruel image, but Regan’s movement was so quick that no one realized it was happening until it had happened. Nearly everyone gasped. My pulse quickened!

The servant fell to his right, in front of Gloucester, who had rolled on his side to face the audience and was wailing. The servant haltingly assured Gloucester that he had one eye left, at least, then died. There was a split-second of silence as the characters assessed the scene, then a spasm of violent energy shot through Cornwall. “Lest it see more, prevent it!” he growled and bent over Gloucester’s shivering body, which was still facing the audience. “Out, vile jelly!” Cornwall pronounced with relish as he “dug into” Gloucester’s eye sockets. When the “eye” was out, Cornwall stood and spat, “Where’s thy lustre now?”

It was beautifully done--ugly and truly shocking, as it needs to be, and it created an amazing tableau: the dead servant in front of blind Gloucester, both on the floor, with Regan and the other servants looming over them. The injured Cornwall staggered backwards after the deed was done. Everyone was bunched up near the downstage right corner, leaving a vast and empty expanse of stage that made the image even scarier.

Afterwards, we all applauded and commented on how intense the scene had been. Regan said, “As soon as you said, ‘amp up the cruelty,’ we got it. It’s less of a police interrogation and more you’re kidnapped by terrorists.”

There wasn’t much more to say. It was amazing. I’ve never seen a crueler staging of the second eye-gouge, with Gloucester only a few feet from some of the audience members and Cornwall not angry so much as unhinged. “We can see that you guys enjoy acting with each other,” said one of the guys.

Gloucester wasn’t done yet, though. The next scene begins with him being led onstage by an Old Man, then handed off to Edgar, who is still in disguise as Poor Tom.

The scene was a little rocky on the first run, but there were some great moments, especially between Gloucester and the Old Man. After they finished with it, one of the guy had an immediate suggestion: bring Gloucester downstage. “It’s an intimate scene,” he said. “We gotta get intimate with it.”

Gloucester said he was still trying to find his way into the lines. “These are complete contrasts: rage and suicidal depression. You need to downshift. I didn’t downshift.” Frannie agreed and asked him if he could maybe speak his lines with “less on them.” Instantly, Gloucester got a certain look on his face--just like when Frannie told him that he was judging Gloucester. Frannie stopped and asked, “Did I tell you something that’s making sense?” Gloucester nodded, “Yeah.” “Then I’m gonna shut up,” she said.

Sure enough, the next round was better. The three characters began to find the balance of connection and disconnect. Still, there was something missing. In the final moments, Frannie asked the three men in the scene to gather together and just read it, not worrying about acting or projection or anything but connecting to the characters and each other.

What happened was a little magical. Our Gloucester is amazing but has a tendency to use a breathy, put-on voice. Frannie gently coached him to “do less” and “even less” as he read, but he struggled. Finally, when he read the line, “‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind,” with an upward inflection at the end, Frannie spoke more firmly. “It’s not a question. Tell him,” she said. Still, there was an upward inflection at the end. Frannie told him to try it again, and, with a look to her for reassurance, he did. But it still didn’t work.

“This is not a question. You know this. Make him understand it,” she said, and this time Gloucester spoke the line powerfully, even aggressively—he dropped into his full voice, which resonated like nothing we’d heard yet. From the back row of the bleachers, I could hear every word. The rest of the men reacted audibly, some gasping, others grunting, and a few reflexively saying, “Yes.” Coffey commented on it when the reading was done, saying, “I couldn’t connect to Gloucester until you spoke in your natural voice.”

In the minute or two we had left, we thought about what to do. The man who had been so gung-ho about Act IV, scene iii had left early. A wicked grin spread across the face of the one of the guys. “Let’s do IV.iii while [name] isn’t here!” We agreed to tell him that we had done it, and that it had been so good it couldn’t be repeated--just out of (silly) spite.

In a facilitator’s notes, today’s session ended: “4.3... So good. We can’t do it again.” Work on, my medicine!