Season Three: Week 6

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“You pave your path with every word you say.

Tuesday / August 6 / 2019
Written by Frannie

With Matt and Maria out of town, it was just me and the guys this week. I honestly love facilitating solo once in awhile—even though it means I have to write much more, and much faster!

We met in a classroom today. Another class was in session next door, and there was an opening in the wall between us, so we spent our time reading and discussing the play, keeping our voices as low as we could. It was a far cry from our plan to work monologues today, and, though there was a little grousing, we ultimately agreed that having a few more days to memorize lines wasn’t a bad thing.

We began with Act III, scene ii, which begins with some funny banter between Touchstone and Corin. The first man to comment referred to Corin as “she.” The others corrected him, and I asked whether Corin’s gender really matters. “Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t,” I said. “I’ve honestly never thought about it before.” Most people were hesitant to answer definitively, given we haven’t yet read the whole play. Something to ponder as we go.

Anyway. “Touchstone is messing with Corin’s head,” that first man continued. “Touchstone keeps going at him, too,” another countered. “It’s fun!” said the first man, and a third added, “It’s friendly banter, back and forth. It’s like two friends talking trash to each other.” The first man nodded, “I actually had an experience with that in high school.” He said he’d been walking with some other guys and heard them “throwing racist slurs at each other… but they were smiling. It didn’t make sense to me. Showed me how uptight I was—that people this close could talk that way to each other.” Corin couldn’t really defend himself, he added. “Touchstone was merciless!” another man agreed. “Every argument he comes up with, Touchstone is like, ‘That’s a terrible argument!’”

“Is either of them wrong?” I asked. “I ain’t gonna saying nothing about ‘em. I don’t know ‘em like that,” one man replied. “They’re speaking from their own perspective,” said another, citing specific lines in the text (mostly about civet) and saying, “Even the finest stuff has a base beginning.”

“If [Touchstone] did this with Orlando, I think the result would be different,” one of the guys said. “I think Orlando would be able to stand his own a lot better.” He paused. “Does Touchstone meet Orlando?” he asked, and a newbie grabbed his Arden to check the character/scene breakdown (they do, eventually). Meanwhile, another man said it might go differently with Orlando, but, still, “This shows you how much mettle [Corin] has… I think this is all about the kind of man he is.”

We read on, breezing through the part of the scene that is, first, mostly banter between Touchstone and Rosalind, and then ribbing between Rosalind and Celia. “[Touchstone and Rosalind] go at it a bit!” said one man. “I don’t think it’s out of spite or nothing, that’s just the kind of relationship they have.”

One of our resident poets shook his head. “Reading Touchstone’s made up poem to myself is just…” he said, curling his lip in disdain, “Disgusting.” Another man was less preoccupied with the poems’ quality than with how we could stage all of this carving and posting on trees. “Maybe he could tape ‘em on… a palm tree,” he said, looking at absolutely anyone other than me. “Did you say… palm tree?” I asked. Chuckling, he said yes—and, he and some others said, we just might need more than one. They’ve got my number. Oh look, another photo of my favorite SIP prop ever—how’d that get there?

But enough about that (for now). On to Celia and Rosalind. “One is teasing the other about somebody liking her,” one man said, to which another replied, “That reminds me of when I said it was like two teenage girls breaking out of social constraints!” (Scroll down in Week Three’s blog, and you’ll find it!)

“Touchstone is kind of like a big brother,” one of the guys said. The way he teases Corin, “he never does that to Rosalind—it’s almost like a big brother picking on you because you just found out she likes somebody.” Another man nodded, “That’s twice I’ve seen it now.” But the stakes were different when the play was written, another man reminded us. “It’s not like Facebook official—here today and gone tomorrow—this is like, getting married and shit.”

One of the guys noted that when Rosalind gave Orlando her necklace, “she’s so flustered that she doesn’t pick up on the hints [that he’s in love with her, too].” I asked the eternal acting question: is this situation brand new, or has something like it happened before? The conversation between Celia and Rosalind reads very differently, depending on the answer.

“Playing on that thought…” one of the guys mused, “What about making Celia and Rosalind look as Plain Jane, average-looking as possible… ‘No one’s ever looked at me like that before,’ because they’re just so unassuming.” Another man nodded, “If we go with the vagabond theme, it’d be quite easy to do that.” “Bag ladies!” exclaimed the first man. The other excitedly added, “The most prominent people, they don’t have as much dirt on ‘em.” “DEGREES OF DIRT!” another man laughed, and all was duly recorded in our idea book.

One man began, “Has anyone had that experience—that school dance is Friday, and it’s Monday—” he stopped as at least eight of us raised our hands, and we had a good laugh. One of the guys pointed out that Orlando and Rosalind fall in love really fast. The guy with the “plain Jane” idea shrugged and said, “Maybe dude’s just into plain-looking chicks.” More laughter, and I repeated the phrase as I wrote it down. “Is that the new catchphrase you’re gonna use?” one of the guys asked. “Hashtag-dudes-in-dresses!” another exclaimed. “It’d be a really long hashtag,” I said, “But I’m putting it out there somehow, for sure.” And here it is!

“There’s no such thing,” another man said. “If it’s in the eye of the beholder, there’s no such thing as a plain man or a plain woman. Everybody’s beautiful to somebody.” Grinning, another man said, “Or there’s always Tindr.” A newbie added, “Orlando doesn’t really go out much.” The guy who brought up the speed with which these two fall in love said he was actually talking about Rosalind, because she was in court. “Maybe it’s a personality thing,” another man said. “Maybe Rosalind and Celia just don’t do what the other women do.” The first man tried harder to get across what he meant with a speedy explanation of court culture, in which ladies-in-waiting were often the mistresses of powerful men. “Rosalind was more like a lady-in-waiting to Celia—she’s the one they’d be going for because she’s got the power.”

“I’m reminded of a scene from Braveheart,” one man said (which is the perfect way to begin any sentence, methinks). “The lady-in-waiting was like, ‘I slept with one of the generals last night…’ The ladies-in-waiting had all the power because they were the mistresses… No one paid attention to the ladies-in-waiting.” He took it back to Rosalind: “Her being in a position of not having the spotlight on her may have made her privy to a lot of information Celia wouldn’t have.”

“She’s like Lindsay Lohan,” one of the guys added. “Party here, party there—” a few people interrupted to ask him what the hell he was talking about, but all he could do was laugh and do a silly dance in his chair. Weirdo.

The first man, though, was a little frustrated—he hadn’t meant that Rosalind was a lady-in-waiting. “I’m saying nobody’s paying her attention because she has nothing. They didn’t marry you ‘cause you looked good.” Another man saw things differently: “Celia’s the one following Rosalind around. I’m not saying you’re wrong. It’s like an Inception trick.” Um… huh? “Celia’s the one attracting all the attention. Does Celia end up attracting anyone’s attention?” The guys who’ve read ahead said yes: Oliver’s! “Orlando’s brother?” this guy said, cracking up.

“I think if we went with the vagabond theme, Touchstone would make a great mime,” one of the guys said. “Or the silver dude!” That resonated with EVERYONE, and multiple people exclaimed, “Write that down!” The guy who’d had the idea continued, “The great part is that mimes are supposed to be silent—and he just does not stop talking!” A man who’d stepped out briefly came back just then, put up his hands, and said, “I don’t know how you guys got to that point in 23 seconds.” This gave two guys the same idea at the same time: “What if we had two regular people walk by, like, ‘What… are you talking about?’”

On we read, beginning with the hilarious back-and-forth between Orlando and Jaques. We just could not stop cracking up at the dialogue (“I do desire we may be better strangers,” and all that), particularly because the man reading Orlando was SO into it! We read through the end of the scene, when Rosalind launches her plan to woo Orlando, and, before we were even finished, one of the men had his hand raised. “If Touchstone is like an older brother to [Celia and Rosalind], I wonder if they got their wit from him.” No, you didn’t read that wrong—the man who’d made a similar comment earlier in the session threw up his hands, saying, “That’s what I’ve been saying since the first day!”

One of the newbies raised his hand and said, “What’s happening with Orlando and Jaques in the beginning? Seems like they got something going on.” One of the guys reminded him that Jaques hadn’t liked Orlando from the moment he showed up. Another said, “He probably resents him for being in love, too, because Jaques is miserable.” Another said that “maybe Jaques is measuring Orlando…” The general consensus was that Orlando is a tool. A good tool, but still a tool.

The newbie wanted more clarification. “Better strangers—what does he mean by that?” he said. Another man said, “That stuff can’t be cut. Stuff like that is necessary.” Another explained, “He’s poking at him… It’s almost like he’s trying to start a fight: ‘Let’s cut this tension, man. Let’s do this.’”

“You wanna read it?” I asked the newbie. “This stuff usually makes a lot more sense when you read it aloud.” He said he’d give it a go, as did another man. Which person would read which character? “Do it both ways,” another man suggested.

Things started to click, and by the end of the second read, the newbie totally got it. “Jaques is—” he began, and his scene partner finished the thought: “—a DICK!” Laughing, the newbie continued, “He’s taking all types of jabs at Orlando for being in love!” Another man agreed: “He’s trolling.” Chuckling, another added, “That’s the politest way I’ve ever heard anyone tell someone to go kill themself.”

“It shows Orlando can hold his own,” I said, “and you know what? That makes me reconsider how much I’ve made fun of his bad poems. Like, yeah, they’re objectively bad, but the guy hasn’t had any education—he’s pretty much been living in a barn—so the fact that he’s writing poems at all is amazing.” Lots of heads nodded; a few guys who really love it when I call myself out grinned broadly. “He’s a smart guy,” I said, “and I’m a huge jerk. He may be more complex than we’ve given him credit for.”

But enough about me and my jerkiness. “I see them smiling at each other, almost like frienemies,” said one man. “Touchstone brings the wit out… I definitely see, with the wit—they’re building on each other. It’s like the ‘rant’ game—they keep building and building, and it keeps getting better and better.”

Moving on, one of the guys said that while reading the Orlando/Rosalind part of the scene, he kept envisioning Rosalind checking in with Celia throughout. “She’s literally making all this up on the fly,” he explained. This sparked another conceptual riff, which included “Detroit vs. Everybody” and “I ❤️ NY” shirts, as well as Alicia Keys playing in the background—or maybe Frank Sinatra. There was more, but this blog is already really long…

I need to change up the format now.

Man A: “I can’t believe how Orlando’s going for this.”
Man B: “It’s so desperate.”
Man C: “I don’t see her disguise as being so great… but he doesn’t see it or make any connection at all—he’s oblivious.”
Man D: “He said Ganymede was pretty.”
Man B: “So one-track, it’s crazy.”
Man D: “The only thing that was weird to me was her saying, ‘You gotta call me Rosalind.’”
Man B: “Yeah, and he’s just like, ‘Okay!’”

“She reels him in with the stuff about the uncle,” one of the guys said, and I asked if it’s possible that she’s making sure he’s really in love with her. “Maybe she wants to play hard to get,” another man said. “I think Orlando should have that wide-eyed, deep look—BELIEVE ME!” another chuckled. The guy who’d read Orlando said, “I was looking at [Rosalind] like that the whole time!”

It’s not artifice, one of the guys said: “When he didn’t show up, she damn near went crazy… I don’t know why she can’t just come out and say, ‘I’m not a man.’” Another guy replied, “Probably the last thing she was expecting, running away to exile, was the one specific guy she was in love with also running away into exile.” It made sense, he said, that she would keep her guard up.

A few people confirmed that neither knew that the other had run away. Chuckling, one of the guys said, “He’s just out there writing poems on trees!” Another, also laughing, floated the idea that Orlando might also write poems on his arms. “You thought it was on the trees? It’s on me—” he thrust out his arms “—look!”

“Oh my god,” I said, “What if he’s just more and more covered in poems as the play progresses?” Not only writing them on himself, we agreed, but attaching the poems to his clothes. Or— “What if he’s wearing the ‘I ❤️ NY’ shirt, but then he crosses out the ‘NY’ with a sharpie and writes ‘Rosalind’ instead?” Brilliant! In the idea book! And the ideas just kept coming.

One man, who’s always been very involved in the performances’ design elements, didn’t say much, but I’ve known him for awhile and could see the wheels turning. “Getting some ideas?” I asked. He simply grinned and leaned his chin on his clasped hands as another man said (in an impression of him), “I’m the master of arts now!”


Friday / August 9 / 2019
Also written by Frannie

The Great Monologue War of 2019 (or, anyway, that’s what I’m calling it) began today!

“What’s a monologue?” a newbie asked. “It’s an extended speech when other people are onstage,” said a vet, using Touchstone’s “All the world’s a stage” as an example. Another man added, “They’re not really dialoguing with the other characters, but they’re speaking to them for a long time.” Someone else added that a soliloquy is the same thing, only the character is alone and talking to the audience.

The first man up has been part of the group almost since its founding, and he shook out his arms and centered himself like the pro that he is. Gazing at the ground, he began Marc Antony’s, “O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,” from Julius Caesar. He rode the wave of the piece beautifully—he’s always been good, but I’ve never seen him like THIS—and when his performance was over, we all applauded as he shook out his arms again.

“How did that feel?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said, “’cause I had to approach it from a point of sadness and mourning, and then get mad from there.” I asked if that had worked. “I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “It gave me chills as I was doing it, so I guess at least something about it worked.” Another man said he’d seen the piece performed before, but not like that, and he loved it. “One word,” said another, “Riveting.”

But that wasn’t enough for this guy—he’s a true artist and always wants to build on his own work—so I asked if I remembered correctly that this piece comes not long before Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. He said I was right, and I asked him, then, what might happen if he approached this monologue as if it were a “warm-up” for the other—if, perhaps, this was a more raw version of that. He liked the idea, and I asked if he could also add something that is a challenge for many of us: make more eye contact with the audience, or at least get your eyes off the floor!

His second performance was definitely different. “A little more connected,” he said afterward, “A little more attachment than detachment.” He said it’s his favorite monologue of all the plays he’s read, but, for whatever reason, this new approach (the idea of which he likes) was challenging in practice. Another man said it did seem like he’d disconnected at times, but that he always got it back. “You’ve got this down,” he said admiringly.

“You really do,” I said, adding that it’s natural to feel at a remove from the text when approaching it with a new perspective or focus. “But there was still really good stuff happening there,” I continued. “Rather than going just from sad to angry, there was a mixture and a build. The emotions were more complex.”

Another man said he was having trouble giving feedback without having read the play. One of the guys asked why, and the first man said he wanted the context—he had a strong reaction to the piece, but he wanted to know more before he gives any feedback. “You make me wanna know about this man,” he said to the actor. “I wanna know why he makes me feel this way.” Another vet added, “You made me wanna read Julius Caesar! I do want the context.” He praised the man’s performance: “I was there. The only thing missing was the dead body.” A newbie asked if anyone had seen the film with Marlon Brando playing Marc Antony, and many of us had—including the actor, who said it was probably his favorite performance in any film. It is a good one.

One of the guys jumped up, saying he wanted to perform “All the world’s a stage.” And, he added, “Rosalind later, if we got time.” (Yes, he came prepared with two monologues.) He asked the guy who’d just performed to cue him in but warned, “Gimme a second!” Grinning, his friend waited till he had centered himself, and then gave him his cue.

I’ll tell you what: it was a good performance. This man has a specific, detailed interpretation of the piece, and it definitely came across. Though it didn’t go perfectly, he never dropped out, but stayed focused till he found the word he was looking for. Afterward, he said, “I got stuck on a couple parts, but it felt all right.” He paused. “He’s a dick. He’s not an asshole, he’s a dick. So I tried to say it that way.”

“It felt quite natural,” said another man. “It felt like you were talking to me… The hiccups don’t matter. It’s the presentation that makes it right.” A newbie said he’d envisioned Jaques being much showier, but that this man’s down-to-earth interpretation made him reconsider: “It’s a reality check that when I read this, they’re not always just acting out what they’re saying,” he said. Another guy said, “I was impressed on how he remembered his lines. It’s not an easy one to remember.” Turning to the actor, he said, “You embodied your own version of it. So kudos to you, man. Well done.”

The next man to perform worked his way slowly (but effectively) through the famed “St. Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V. He always fully commits to his work and is good-humored when it doesn’t go as planned. This was no exception. “Eh,” he said, “I still messed up. But I made it.” I asked him how it felt. “I feel energetic,” he said. “If I couldn’t rouse any of you, I roused myself!”

“He’s trying to rally them to fight in the face of the insurmountable,” said one man, inching his way toward an explanation of the adjustment that needed to be made. But before we got there, some of the others wanted the actor to know that his approach already worked, to an extent. “I definitely felt the energy of it, but it could have been more of a deeper voice,” said a newbie, “but it was really well done.” A vet agreed, “You got our attention.” And another: “You fired me up.” One of the guys added, “Your words got through to me real well. You got me for sure. I forgot where I was for a quick second!” He also praised the actor’s memorization, saying it demonstrated clearly how much time he’d spent on the piece.

Another said, “There was a couple times when you stepped into that zone and who that character was… You really embodied that idea of ‘deeds are eternal.’” A newbie praised his diction, to which another man responded, “I agree, except I thought you said, ‘Krispy Kreme.’” After a laugh, I suggested that the actor try not to pace as much—to move with purpose instead—and to let his voice sink down from his throat to his diaphragm (an ongoing challenge for him). Another vet backed me up on all of that, and he gave it another shot.

And BOOM. It worked much better, although, just as with the first performer, the new approach threw him a bit. “I think when I move, I let off a lot of nervous energy, but I build a lot of energy, too,” he mused. “I think if I were to move, it would have to be in a less nervous way.” The vet who spoke just before this second try said, “When you rooted yourself, it forced all eyes right there—which meant we had to listen to you.” A newbie nodded vigorously, “That time was a lot more powerful. I didn’t realize how much the moving had that effect!”

“I agree with exactly what they just said,” one of the vets said, leaning forward in his seat. “I been down a long time, and a dude inspired me to join a riot with a speech just like that… I went right back to that moment. I was ready to go—‘Let’s go whup somebody!’”

“I think you was right,” another vet said to the actor. “I think you was better the first time. It was mental overload… Maybe because you was overthinking it!” The actor nodded, and the man continued, “I think you was great! You could always hold a crowd, even if it was geometry or calculus or something.” Another man said, “I used your voice a lot. Like, the first time I was really watching you, but this time I mostly just listened. There were a lot of places I thought you coulda gave me more with your voice,” but, he said the actor had still done very well! The actor then confessed that he’d only memorized the speech that morning (!!!), so I suggested he work towards more fluidity and then give it another go.

A very quiet newbie got up and walked into the playing space, accompanied by lots of encouragement from the group. Taking just a few moments to psych himself up, he launched into Edmund’s “Thou, nature, art my goddess” from King Lear. It was very powerful. Afterward, he said, “I connect with that. I think all of us can connect with that, actually… Us as felons, we’re all illegitimate. We are the bastards, ‘cause out there, that is how we’re gonna be treated.”

A vet said, “Delivery-wise, it was great. One thing I had to do—and Frannie had to drill it into my head—root yourself… Move when you need to move, otherwise plant yourself. It’ll be a lot more powerful… Other than that, that was fucking great.” Another vet added, “Sometimes when you’re making a strong point, the last thing you want to do is back up.” He suggested that the actor begin the piece further upstage so he’d have room to move forward. A third vet said he’d done a great job connecting emotionally, even though he was nervous, and that he’s better than most beginners.

Another vet, though, took issue a bit with the interpretation. “[Edmund] believes what happened to him is because he was born into that, not because of anything he did wrong… It goes deep… I chose to do what I did, and I can choose to do good things out in the world… He’s not a bad guy, he didn’t do anything wrong, so it’s like, ‘Why did this happen to me?’” But, this vet said, he hardly participated at all when he joined, “so you’re doing a great job!”

Another vet (they know exactly how to encourage newbies and were on fire) said, “I guess you can change your name to ‘prodigy’ now… You musta been a Shakespearean in another life or something… Shakespeare speaks for itself, and you spoke the words in their own right—you embodied that.” A newbie nodded his head, saying, “I feel like he sets the bar, and I’m trying to match that. Not competitive—when he takes a step higher, I wanna take a step further and do what he does.” And another newbie said, “I been knowing [the actor] since I got here. What I’m seeing now and what I seen [then] is totally different… For him to do what he do, and the way he’s doing it—coming out of his shell—that inspires me to do the same thing… He might be more quiet than I am, but to see him do what he do, it’s really inspiring. So thank you for that, man.”

This same newbie jumped up to give “All the world’s a stage” a try. Though there were a number of stumbles, he pushed through to the end of the piece and got a big round of applause. “How’d that feel?” I asked. “Nerve-racking!” he replied. “Y’all ain’t seen my legs shaking, though?” He laughed. “It actually felt pretty good. After learning my lines and rehearsing it with everybody… It felt like it was becoming natural after awhile… It felt pretty good, especially the memorization—it’s a hard thing to do for me.”

“I’m so glad you did it,” one of the vets said. “It shows what you think and feel about this program to me.” Another vet said, “Kudos for the memorization, and kudos for speaking clearly… The more you work with [the text], the more you’re gonna find when the thoughts start and finish.” He then made sure the newbies knew that any of the vets would be happy to work with them on this stuff outside of our regular sessions.

“What was you trying to make us feel out of that monologue?” another vet asked. “I don’t think it was more so a happy thing or a sad thing,” the actor replied. “It was more so an in-depth exploration of how big the scene actually is that Duke Senior was talking about, because he minimized it. As far as what I was trying to make you guys feel… being new to Shakespeare, learning lines and putting them out there, it was more just to see if I could do it.” The vet replied, “Bro, you was great. But how was you trying to make us feel when you was doing it?” After a bit more back-and-forth, I intervened to clarify that what the vet was asking about what the character’s objective/tactics, and that’s not where this actor is yet. I asked him to let it go for now.

The actor said he needed more time to acclimate to Shakespeare’s language, and a vetsaid that he’s still working on that. Eventually, he said, it’ll stick.

Season Three: Week 5

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“You have become a Shakespeare nerd.”

Tuesday / July 30 / 2019
Written by Maria

Today we picked up in Act II, Scene v, where Amiens and some of the lords are singing as Jaques mocks them. After reading the scene once, the guys immediately started to unpack the character of Jaques. One man believed that Jaques “doesn’t think Amiens is on his level,” and another reflected that “Jaques is the person that points stuff out that people aren’t pointing out. He’s one of the guys who never thinks about the good stuff and is always complaining about everything.” Our Professor pointed out that Duke Senior seems to like the jabs and barbs of Jaques, and another man observed that he was a faithful servant, since he followed Duke Senior into the woods.

The second time we ran the scene a few more guys jumped up to be lords, and you could tell that they were having a lot of fun, really getting into the singing and even dancing a little. After they finished, one man said that “it made [the scene] more relevant now. There was no substance, but it was fun,” and he wondered if the lords were drunk. One man asked if this was the first song in the play. As we all know, there are no accidents in Shakespeare’s writing, and that spurred us into looking at the songs more deeply. This same man loved the idea of these men playing with different roles and costumes, and that maybe they are playing Robin Hood and his Merry Men while hiding in the forest. “They went from lords of the court to lords of the forest,” one man observed, and “‘forest lords’ sounds way cooler,” another man responded. The Professor said that it’s a burden lifted off them, not being in court anymore; they don’t have to wear a mask, and they are free from the worries of life. “It’s like getting your parole,” one man replied. It was clear that the men were carefree in their singing, but one man pointed out that he thought Jaques was being a smart ass the entire time and having a blast laughing at the lords instead of with them. This prompted one of the vets to insist that we run the scene one more time with this man’s interpretation of Jaques. Many joined in to insist that this man read, which he was reluctant to do, saying that he was still struggling with the language and was afraid his acting wasn’t performance ready. I assured this man that no one has these lines memorized yet and that we were just exploring the scene, but if he was uncomfortable with performing, he could sit this one out.

Thankfully, we ran the scene one more time with this man stepping into a role for the first time as Jaques. After they finished, the group was eager to know how playing the scene felt for the newbie. He had a huge grin on his face as he said, “Thanks for letting me try and for pushing me.” He also went on to say that it was hard, as he tried to not participate too much in the scenes (since Jaques was mocking the other lords), but he (the actor) was having such a good time that it was a challenge not to have fun with them.

Moving on to Act II, Scene vi, we have a snapshot of Orlando and Adam struggling in the forest, where Adam has given up and asks Orlando to abandon him. For such a short scene, the guys had a lot of fun with it. One man, laughing, said, “Something Orlando said stuck out to me: ‘Well said,’ like he’s impressed with himself.” He believed that this is Shakespeare’s way of showing a deep-rooted egotistical guy. One man commented on how good the man who played Adam was, and he responded that Adam was “real extra.” Someone else said this was what James Dean would be like if he had lived to an old age. Our big idea man laughed to himself and asked the group, “Isn’t Adam the servant? He manipulated the shit out of him!” since Orlando insists on finding food to bring to Adam. Going even further, this man thought that we should have a long, white beard for Adam, since he just pulled a Jedi mind trick on Orlando like Yoda.

Act II, Scene vii, returns to the forest lords, with Jaques giving his famous “All the world’s a stage… his acts being seven ages” speech. It’s a longer scene, but we decided to read it all the way through instead of breaking it into smaller sections because so much of itis just Jaques talking. And boy, did the guys play it that way. The man reading Duke Senior quickly got tired of Jaques’ jabbering and turned to one of his lords, mocking him. “Is he still talking?” he asked as they tried to walk away from Jaques, who was waxing poetic about a Fool’s motley wear. When Orlando burst in on the group, threatening them as he tried to rob them of their food, no one seemed to be afraid, but, rather, interested in the change of events. When we finished the scene, the man playing Duke Senior exclaimed about Jaques, “This guy is off his rocker! I had no idea what that guy’s talking about.” So of course I had to ask, is it important that the audience listen to Jaques or not? The forest lords were clearly having a good time making fun of him, but is that what we want the audience to do, too? The man quickly said, “Shakespeare was very calculated when he made that character, so it’s important for us to know what he’s talking about.” Another man agreed, “This stuff is art, it’s gold,” and it’s important to memorize the lines because hand gestures and movements help to tell the story of the characters. Although we are still months away from casting and rehearsing the play, this man has been trying to emphasize the importance of putting in the work outside of our sessions—studying the play and learning lines—so that we can put on the best performance possible.

One of the things that I love about Shakespearean text work is that you quickly learn that that are a multitude of interpretations. As we started to discuss who the fool was that Jaques met in the forest and spent hours with, one man thought that this was another opportunity for Jaques to mock the lords (in this case, Duke Senior) to their faces. Another thought that Jaques was actually referring to himself—that he found himself “on a whole ‘nother level.” When I informed them that Touchstone was the fool Jaques refers to, one man excitedly flipped through his script agreeing that yes, this fits in with the way that Touchstone is talking over people’s heads at court, and his emphasis on Nature and Fortune. “I can just see Touchstone and Jaques going back and forth for hours talking like Martin Luther King and Gandhi,” he said. This led to more discussion of Jaques’ character. One man assured us that Jaques is too smart and philosophical, and that knowledge is what makes him melancholy. Another man agreed that this is a complicated character, and a third said, “We need to spend more time as we read the play figuring out this character.” I agreed, but my hand was still sore from writing all the revelations we had, so I think we have made a good start.

Friday / August 2 / 2019
Written by Frannie

There was all sorts of good stuff in today’s check in, including updates from Tuesday for Matt and me. Sounds like the ensemble had a great time with Maria!

We started out with a circle game called Rant. In this game, one person steps into the center of the circle and begins a monologue on a specific topic, clearly expressing an emotion. Another person enters the circle and takes over, increasing the intensity of the emotion. This goes on until the energy has reached its peak, determined by whoever steps in and simply can’t take it any further. This is always a lot of fun; it also always has a positive effect on our ability to stage scenes effectively.

The man who started us off launched a very angry rant about horror movies and how bad most of them are. Plenty of people piled onto that! The second also went on a furious tirade—but this one was about how infuriating it is when people don’t do the Shakespeare “homework” of reading ahead and looking up words in the dictionary. Each person who stepped in to that monologue was pissed about something slightly different—the man who started it even stepped back in at one point to express anger at himself for being such a snob.

The third man brought the joy, gushing about how excited he is to get out soon. It wasn’t difficult for others to join in—including a couple who haven’t participated much yet. “You can get just as energetic with a good emotion as with a bad one,” this man said afterward. Another noted that our voices got higher-pitched as we built joy, and “deeper and darker” as we did the same with anger.

Another man gave “love” a try, but he expressed the emotion through portraying one of the play’s female characters. It got pretty muddled and, though another guy tried to jump in and bail him out, we had to call it and talk about why it hadn’t worked. “I wasn’t sure where the love was directed,” one man said. The man who’d tried it said he’d thought it would be better to convey “love” through playing a woman, but this isn’t an analytical exercise, so he’d gotten stuck. I asked if anyone wanted to give “love” another try.

That’s when Emma stepped in and dove into a passionate monologue about sporks. To my surprise (and, I think, to hers), it turns out that people really love sporks. This round was our longest, and our most intense. “My spork has never betrayed me!” one man shouted. The spork unites everyone and bridges every stage of one’s life: it’s the universal utensil. As the passion reached its zenith, one man stepped into the circle and triumphantly raised the spork that he had in his pocket.

Wow! Why was that one the best? “We can actually relate to that,” said one man. “Like, I get one of those plastic spoons, and I’m like, ‘What is this? Where’s my spork?’” Another man said, “We were all building on the same thing.”

Fully energized, we sat down to read, and one of the guys did a great job quickly catching up Matt and me on what we missed on Tuesday. Initially, the group wanted to keep plugging away, but when I asked what they thought about the ubiquitous “All the world’s a stage” monologue, they revealed that they hadn’t discussed it much. “Oh, we’ve gotta spend some time with it, then,” I said. “There’s a reason this is the only part of the play that everyone knows.”

So one of the guys read the piece aloud on his feet. It was a clear, solid reading, and another man immediately commented, “He paints a picture in your head. You basically live this guy’s life as you read this. You live his whole life through one monologue.” He broke it down in detail, which was really impressive. “I don’t think that’s just his life,” another man said. “I think it’s everybody’s life ever… You can look at your life and see where you’re at in this monologue right now. I know where I’m at.” Another man agreed, saying that everyone could identify with it.

“I also can see how we evolve through life through the various parts we play,” mused one man. “I’m not the same guy I was 20 years ago—I’m not going to be the same guy 20 years from now—” “Or 20 minutes from now,” another man broke in.

“I kinda got a nihilistic view,” a newbie said. “He goes through the evolution of life, but it’s like none of it matters. Seems as though he sees it as meaningless. I get a real nihilistic view.” We then spent a few minutes clarifying what he meant by “nihilistic”—not everyone was familiar with the term, but no one was put off by that.

“We just did that!” another newbie said, likening the monologue’s structure to what we’d just experienced with Rant. “Might not be in that order, but it’s like the feelings we go through as we’re growing up.” Another guy agreed, saying that he saw a build in it: “It’s like we’re in this constant juggling act of life.”

“It’s like Lear,” said the Professor, giving some serious side eye and a grin to the man who, last week, said we should stop comparing plays. “The beginning of the play shows why Orlando is different... This is not what [Jaques is] talking about for him[self]—he’s talking for Touchstone and Orlando, about the people on stage. These guys are the real power behind [the ruling class]. This is how they think about life. But he don’t include himself in this. You go through this, then you die.” He concluded, “It is the opposite behind what Orlando is doing.” When another man added that Jaques is a melancholic character, so the monologue must reflect that, the Professor shook his head. “I looked up the word ‘irony’,” he said. “This guy’s an ironist.” He read the definition to us, saying there’s more meaning behind the words than the words themselves. “Just in that [scene], he’s all over the place. He’s up and down and all over,” he said. “So he’s faking the melancholy?” asked another man. “No,” said the Professor, “he’s definitely depressed, but what he says is ironic.”

We decided to get some more people on their feet to see their interpretations. The first to perform was also the guy who’d said he could see where he was in the monologue. He gave a laid-back, good-humored reading—he’s gained a lot of comfort with the language, and it showed. “I actually connected with it,” he said afterward. “When I said I saw myself in it—I felt that even more actually reading it… It was more of me, and it was snapshots of my life in those particular places.” He laughed. “From the clean-shaven child—Mama saying, ‘Come here, get that off your face!’—to the young adult, quick to anger and fight.”

Another man took issue with that, noting that the characters described are mostly people without power: a soldier, not a general, etc. But, said a second man, “the first read-through is just getting the words and phrases. He really separated into enunciating the different parts.” (Quick note: a bunch of guys often use “enunciate” in place of “differentiate,” and it’s not worth correcting. We know what they mean.)

“I’m glad he did that, ‘cause I got to listen to it more while I was listening to him,” said a newbie. “It’s out of place, this story, in the woods. Right now, they’re out of step. They’re not going through these stages.” These people, he said, had altered what would normally have been the trajectory of their lives. “I feel what you’re saying,” another man replied.

The next to read was very physically—and emotionally—connected to the text. It was a surprisingly dark interpretation, and he took a few moments afterward to collect himself. When I asked how it had felt, he referred to another member’s check in: “It was like when [Name] passed out and woke back up. It’s not that much fun waking back up.” The piece reminded him of his own art, he said. “Like a deep dread, awakened in speech… It was no longer him understanding. He finally did his job to make sure everyone understood. He painted a very vivid picture that’s gonna set the tone for every one of these characters for the rest of the play who was there to hear that.” A newbie pointed out that this man had “highlighted the negative aspects,” while the previous reader “was, ‘This is just how it is.’” As a few people started speaking in defense of one or the other, he clarified, “They’re both valid.”

“It has an ecclesiastic, predestined feel to it,” another man mused. “You have these parameters with which you live… What you have done has been done before. What you’re gonna do has been done before. To me it’s a great philosophy: make the best of what you’ve got.” He shifted gears. “There are different types of plays, different types of movies. What play are you putting on? What audience are you speaking to?” he asked the group, urging them to consider that in their interpretations. “For me, it would be wonder and excitement.” He asked again, “If this is all a play, and we are all the audience, what are you gonna put in your character?”

The man who’d just read explained a bit more about his take on the piece. “A lot of people might say building up to the end of your life is the happiest, but I felt it was the opposite.” He drew our attention to the words and phrases that gave him that impression. “When you’re little and innocent,” he said, “all you can do is mewl and puke. And when you’re in school, all you can do is go. But then you become a lover, [and that innocence is gone].” He moved pretty fast, and it was all great, but the only other thing I got written down was, “The word ‘wife’ really stood out to me.” The permanence of that word as opposed to any other. “That’s what I felt while I was reading this.”

Another man said he thought the stages should be more intentionally differentiated in performance, and he broke each down for us in detail. Too much detail, actually! In an attempt to keep him (and the ensemble) from overthinking and/or getting frustrated with each other, I asked if I could give the piece a try, incorporating all of these thoughts. I’ve actually never performed this monologue before and found myself going through it fairly slowly, connecting with each person, one at a time, and letting the “nihilism” or “sadness” of the last stage sneak up on me.

A couple of guys said they liked the way I paused between beats, and that I let the last stage be a surprise. Another man said he liked that my Jaques delighted in each stage, and I clarified that it wasn’t so much that I was delighted—it was that I was pointing out that everyone has experienced the same kinds of things. Another guy said some of the speech sounded sarcastic; Matt asked if “mocking” might be a more accurate word, and he agreed.

Then a vet who’s never attempted a monologue said he wanted to give it a go! He moved through it slowly, and it was clear that his connection to the piece was just as strong as the previous man’s—maybe even a bit darker. “I was realizing it was more of a downbeat, depressed, mopey-type—sad,” he said afterward. “When he gets to the justice, he knows where he’s going. He knows where it all ends… He begins, ‘All the world’s a stage’—the world is anything because the world is nothing.” I asked the group what they’d gotten out of it. “Sad. Unsure,” said one man. “Crazy how you can read it so many times, and every time it’s a different emotion,” another man reflected. “I got a wise-sage-who-lives-in-the-forest kinda vibe—like he’s already come to that conclusion,” said another. Yet another guy said he loved that the actor paused before saying the final word: “everything.” We moved on and, though I didn’t notice it at the time, the actor stepped away from the group for a few minutes—he told me later that performing the piece had hit him harder than he thought it would.

A quiet newbie surprised us all by rising to his feet, saying he wanted to try it out. “He’s in my block, and I’ve never even heard him speak!” one man said. “It’s gonna be weird,” he said, pacing a bit as he tried to decide where to stand while he read. “I don’t do this.” There was vocal encouragement across the board. He took a deep breath and launched into the piece.

And he was SO GOOD. More on that in a moment, but first (always first), we asked him how he felt. “It feels like he goes so much deeper, because I think he’s reading the stages of life because of the way Orlando came in,” he said. “I don’t think it’s melancholy. It’s uplifting. I think he’s trying to say to the Duke, ‘You’re not alone.’ There is people just like them.”

“I liked how it had the feel of an instructor, but with a little slipperiness,” one of the guys said. “I liked the building crescendo you had.” He grinned. “I think we might be sleeping on a natural here—underneath that shy veneer!” Big snaps! “Your cadence and flow of your words was almost spot-on,” said another man. “You kept the thoughts complete. You took a breath where you were supposed to take a breath… That was the best first monologue I’ve seen yet.” Another vet said, “I’ll second that.”

“I liked that it had a campfire feel to it,” said another man. “He sat down at the end like, ‘Damn, I’m not just talking about everybody else’s life here—I’m talking about my own life.” With that, he agreed to perform the piece himself. His performances are always very physical and high-energy, and this one was no exception—but something about it seemed to take him by surprise, and when he finished, he took a moment to “cross a threshold” (an acting technique for letting go of whatever just happened onstage). “Everybody hits that epiphany—that life-changing thought that you come upon, like a threshold,” he said. “Like he’s almost literally being birthed as a child again, then, wait—death is right around the corner. He goes right back into the womb—the womb being the grave itself. Long story short, I feel rattled in a way—ambivalent. He’s excited about it, but also fearful of it. You come into the world alone, and you leave it alone.”

To be completely honest, I did not anticipate that this monologue would arouse so many powerful emotions for people. I’ve just never given it that much thought. This is part of what I love about working with these folks: they are always teaching me more about Shakespeare.

Season Three: Week 4

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“It makes you grow, this program.”

Friday / July 26 / 2019
Written by Frannie

We had to cancel Tuesday’s session due to some unforeseen circumstances, and, after a few cheerful check ins, the guys wasted no time in picking up where we left off—literally.

The Professor said he was really bothered by the “hood” interpretation of Celia and Rosalind last week. He talked a bit about how prepubescent boys played female roles when these plays were first staged, and he said that he didn’t think “going too girly” was right. “You don’t know what it is to be a woman,” he said, “so you just gotta read the lines, and it’ll all work out.” He said it should just be a man playing a woman—playing “gay or trans” won’t work.

Another man asked for clarification: “If you’re trying to act gay, is it because women like men?” He and the first man went back and forth a bit, each cutting the other off, and I broke in to ask if what the first man meant was that playing a stereotype won’t work. “Yes,” he said, as did several others. The man who asked the question was clearly frustrated, but—

“Y’all going way too deep with this,” said another man, who is friends with one of the actors whose interpretation was being questioned. “All it was, was trying to play ratchet.” And, he added, we shouldn’t be talking about this without that person present. I agreed and asked if we could keep the conversation general till that member arrived.

The man who asked the question about “acting gay” then said he wasn’t confused (like a few people thought)—he brought it up because it would have been the wrong approach. It wouldn’t make sense, he said, because trying to play a gay man when the character is a woman would cut off the actor’s ability to play the role effectively. Start with who you are, he said, and try objectively to “look at what she feels—look at what she’s thinking.”

Though the debate continued, we really were pretty much all on the same page—but the conversation deviated a bit from what actually happened last week. “It’s all up to interpretation,” one of the guys said, and another man agreed, adding that the actors told us they were “trying out ‘ratchet.’”

Still not okay, said the man who’d been advocating for a more objective approach. He “challenged” another man: “What if you played a woman really seriously, but just being yourself? I guarantee you people would say you’re playing a good woman.” Building on that, another guy said, “Every person—male, female, doesn’t matter—we all feel have a certain stereotype or perception of things… So when you play that character, it’s not just breaking into other people’s stereotypes, it’s busting up our own stereotypes of what we think things are.

“I was taking it more as an improv and open exploring,” a newbie said, adding that he’d tried out a “Darth Vader approach” to Duke Frederick that same day. Another man said he’d seen and heard the actors in question laughing about their ideas before trying the scene. “They tried to really have fun with it,” he said, before I reminded everyone that we needed to keep the conversation away from specifics for the time being.

“I actually enjoy watching other people try different things,” said a vet, “and I enjoy trying different things, because it gives me new ideas for what I can do with the characters.” And then the conversation took a bit of a turn.

But this other, very passionate member firmly said that we should never “get away from what Shakespeare wrote.” Another vet firmly replied, “Especially in this ensemble, the interpretation is more important than the words.” If so, the first man replied, “why do we read it? Why not just do the No Fear?” A man who performed in 2018’s Tempest brought up all the ad libs and cuts we’d used to make the performance work. “It’s the spirit of Shakespeare,” he said. “We’re just trying to relate to everybody. We’re just trying to connect to the audience.” But the man who started the conversation continued to advocate, essentially, for purity.

Another man broke into the conversation, demanding that people listen to him now since he’d been cut off before. First, he praised the newbie’s Darth Vader experiment and said he thought he should roll with that a little. (I wholeheartedly agree!) Then he turned to the first man and said he was “being a snob” and drowning out other people’s ideas. “That’s not you,” he said. “Where is [Name]? Last year, you were all like, ‘There’s no wrong way to do Shakespeare.’ And you were right.” He got into a bit of a tizzy as he said again and again that this was uncharacteristic and disheartening. “Who are you?” he asked; then, gesturing to the door, “Go get [Name] and bring him over here!” He meant it, but phrasing it that way made us all laugh, the tension evaporated, and another man walked over and high-fived him. We love how enthusiastic The Professor is, but it seems the group is now taking on the challenge of helping him manage that enthusiasm.

Ah, but… “We always stuck to the Shakespeare in Lear,” he said, to which another man replied, “Are you serious? That backdrop?!” (See photo to the left.) Another vet reminded the first man that, even though we didn’t alter the language, our primary goal was to connect with the audience, and that’s how we developed our concept. I took the opportunity to bring up my all-time favorite SIP prop: the six-foot tall inflatable palm tree that we used in Twelfth Night. (See photo below!) Did Shakespeare write that prop in the text? He sure didn’t—but the women’s concept came from the text, and a ton of silly props arose from that concept.

“You said spirit,” said one man (after a few guys joked about my inability to go more than a few days without reminiscing about the palm tree). “It’s evoking something.” Raising an eyebrow, he quoted the first man to himself: “It’s about human nature, right? It’s about being human… You feel what he’s trying to paint with the words for you.”

“Y’all are misinterpreting what I’m trying to say!” the Professor fretted. He reminded us that he loved the production of Julius Caesar that was on PBS a few months ago—where the play was set in a women’s prison. The man who’d just needled him a bit said he’d loved it too; that he’d kept forgetting that they weren’t actually in a prison, it was so well done. Another man said, “With Shakespeare, you can cut a whole lotta stuff out, and it still holds the same meaning as he wanted.” The first man agreed: “Shakespeare cut his own stuff sometimes!”

A man who often grounds the ensemble at times like this said, “I’ve done it myself—we need to stop referencing how stuff went with another play. Because this is a totally new play.” I said he was absolutely right, and that any talk about other productions should be in the spirit of, “What did we learn from that, and how can it help us now?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong—” one man began, before being interrupted by a cheerful chorus of, “You’re wrong!” Smiling, he continued, “Isn’t it true that none of Shakespeare’s plays were original?” As a number of us put a stop to what promised to be yet another ratatouille, he wrapped it up: “All I’m saying is, if Shakespeare messed with other people’s material, we can mess with Shakespeare. We shouldn’t try to limit ourselves.”

We finally did the ring, followed by a couple of Theatre of the Oppressed games, neither of which went particularly well, as a number of ensemble members simply couldn’t get out of their heads. But there were still some very positive takeaways. “The best part for me was seeing guys come up with their own interpretation—not my own interpretation,” one man reflected. Hmmm…

We decided to read a bit more of the play (we had about 20 minutes left), but as soon as we sat down, one of the guys realized that the actor with the “hood” interpretation had joined us during the games, and he asked if now we should ask him the question directly. There were a few groans, but I said I thought it was important to get his perspective, as long as it was all right with him. He looked a little puzzled—his friend left early, and no one had filled him in. I told him that his approach to the scene had sparked an interesting conversation, and I asked if he could fill us in on how he’d arrived at it.

He was just playing, he said—just trying something out. I asked him what aspects worked, or not. It was challenging overall, he said, “being in character and not being in the audience at the same time.” He was in a “church play” several years ago and played a gangster. “That—playing gangster—was something I was comfortable with,” he said. “I’ve seen that my whole life, with my father, my mother, my cousins. Where this… this is different… I’m gonna keep playing, and keep trying until I find something that works.”

There were some things about his performance that worked, another man said. He praised his “cadence” and “picking up on cues.” A newbie who has been fairly quiet this season agreed. “I really liked the attitude,” he said. “The attitude was great. The flamboyancy helped bring the attitude out… so maybe keep that part of it.”

“Sounds like we’re dealing with a lot of preconceived notions,” a vet said, smiling. Turning to the man we were questioning, he said, “So… how do you perceive women?” Quickly, he explained that there wasn’t anything on the question: “It’s about awareness.”

“There’s different types,” the other man said. “My mom raised me, and I got a lot of sisters and aunts. So I spent my life surrounded by women, and… yeah, there’s different types.” The other man nodded. “It’d be really good to work at it,” he said. “Do you feel like your stereotypes are boxing you in?”

“It’s… Me, being a man, I can’t just come out and be comfortable acting a woman. It’s hard for me… Getting outside myself is hard because I don’t know them like I’ve gotten to know myself all these years.” Actually, he mused, he relates most to Silvius, at least at this point in the play.

A vet reflected that we all have biases, whether we realize it or not. Another man asked if there was a specific type of woman the actor had been channeling. Yeah, the actor said, smiling a little: ratchet. “I didn’t mean to get so deep!” said the man who originally brought this up. He explained that it’s really all about the way you “accentuate” things, and he misread that last week.

The actor said again that he’d planned out his approach with his friend ahead of time, and then fleshed it out with his scene partner minutes before they performed. The conversation got really circular at this point, as individuals talked about their methods of developing ideas, and eventually we had to call it—we were out of time.

So… not the most “productive” day, but that’s not what it’s about in Shakespeare in Prison. But the conversation, though frustrating at times, needed to be had. Gender issues are a thing in this play, I reminded everyone before we left, and this was a good jumping-off point for discussing them. We’ll see where it goes from here...

Season Three: Week 3

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“I’m changing. I don’t put another mask on when I leave.”

Tuesday / July 16 / 2019
Written by Matt

Well, we did it again! These guys are even nerdier than we thought!

We use two different editions of Shakespeare’s plays in SIP: an annotated edition like you’d use in a college class, and a “No Fear” edition that has a modern translation alongside the original. Each edition is useful in its own way; some people prefer one over the other, and some people use both!

Thing is, the annotated editions (this year at Parnall, we’re using the Arden Shakespeare) are expensive! So at the end of last season, we decided to get enough No Fear books for everyone, but to buy fewer Arden copies, since not everyone uses them. Boy, did we underestimate interest in the Arden! We ran out of them on the first day, and just about every session since, at least one person has come in and asked for one.

Let me explain why this is exciting. For those who haven’t used it, the Arden edition of Shakespeare is wonderful, but it is not user-friendly. There are essays and commentary written by academics, there are comparisons of the various editions of each play, and a full history of each play’s various performances. There are two different levels of footnotes, and many pages only contain a few lines of Shakespeare because the footnotes are so extensive. It’s beyond nerdy. There’s nothing wrong with the No Fear—it’s great. But demand for Arden editions is just the sort of thing that most people would not have expected from people in prison.

Okay! Back to today’s session!

After check-in, we dove straight into reading! Three returning members read the beginning of Act I scene ii, which is where we left off last week. It was great to watch these guys show how comfortable and fluent they are with the language, especially the man who read Rosalind.

Discussion focused on the relationship between Celia and Rosalind. “They’re more like sisters than cousins,” said a new member. “They’re also friends,” added the man who read for Touchstone. The man who read for Rosalind noted how the first two scenes center on serious family drama—there’s a lot at stake.

“In this scene,” noted a returning member, “Rosalind controls the whole conversation.” Another noted that Celia “is constantly saying ‘us’ and ‘our,’…and then letting Rosalind make the decision.”

“What about Touchstone?” I asked. One man, who read for the fool last week, said that he may have been sent to arrest Rosalind. Another man said that Touchstone “is the sort of dude who can tell you the truth to your face, even when you don’t want to hear it.” The man who read Rosalind added that Celia, Rosalind, and Touchstone are close—you can tell because there’s nothing “mean or menacing” in their interaction; they’re having fun. “The girls—they way they talk is waaay outta line for some noble women. I think they learned some of this unladylike talk from Touchstone.”

“Touchstone’s a dick,” offered one of the guys, a smile creeping onto his face. A new member pushed back: “I can’t say he’s a bad person because I have a cousin just like him.” He told us about his hammy cousin, and he sure sounded like Touchstone! “You might be on the phone with him for 15 or 45 minutes before you hang up… I can catch on to what Touchstone is—it’s just Shakespeare… It’s people out there that you’d recognize that act like that, and you probably talk to them still.”

We switched up roles, and read the scene all the way to the end. At first, we focused on Le Beau, who is usually seen as a throwaway character. As usual, the guys had a more nuanced view. “He likes to tell stories,” noted a new member, which I had honestly never noticed. “They’re making fun of him right off the bat,” noted one of our veterans, “They’re having sport with him… But then, at the end of the scene, he warns Orlando. So he’s not just a gossip. This is a guy that cares.”

“For me,” he continued, “I don’t know if that’s a funny scene.” He explained the situation, which involves an ill-fated wrestling match. “You see three guys getting mangled—you see a guy mourning his sons.” Another veteran nodded along and said, “It’s dark, serious humor.” The first man continued, “The beginning is serious. And when we meet Rosalind and Celia, it’s also serious.” A new guy said that the detail about three men being mangled is “a setup to show how fearsome Charles is as a wrestler… it’s a setup for a bigger punchline when Orlando wins the match.

One of our veterans thought about it from the women’s point of view. “There’s a fascination for girls to see that other side—that brutal side—of life.”

At this point, our resident professor started musing about the context of the play and the layers of commentary operating in the scene. Partway through, another returning member asked, with perfect timing, if The Professor was Shakespeare reincarnate. When we were finished laughing at that, The Professor moved back into the text in front of us. “The two most powerful guys we’ve been introduced to are both really insecure. The hallmark of insecurity is bravado,” he noted. “And both of the main characters share something—they both love their fathers.” The Professor is The Professor for a reason.

On to Act I, scene iii! Rosalind gets banished, and Celia goes with her. Again with the serious themes! “The banishment threw me off,” said a veteran. “I didn’t expect it; I didn’t see it coming.” The man who read Rosalind reiterated that the Duke is insecure. “The Duke is not seeing that it’s his personality that’s making him not liked by people.” The man who read for Duke Fredrick said, “Fredrick strikes me as an extremist.” When asked what he meant, he went on to say, “It’s just extremes on everything. There’s no middle ground.”

“It’s kind of a theme throughout the ages,” noted a new member, and gave some historical examples. Another guy said it reminded him of Kim Jong Un. The man who read for the duke went on, “It seems that he’s also kind of detached. He’s also very literal… things are supposed to be done a certain way, and if it’s not, he cuts it off.” He went on, “He had a moment of softness, and I don’t think he liked it because then he started to berate [Rosalind]. He didn’t like that he felt something.”

Another guy said that Rosalind and Celia reminded him of teenage girls who were breaking out of society’s constraints and finding themselves by leaving home. “I think they have more of a codependent relationship going on there,” said another guy.

In the middle of discussion, a man who had stepped out for a few minutes returned and paused the conversation to tell us to lighten up! “It doesn’t sound like you guys are talking about a comedy!”

Perhaps. But, several people noted, the words of this play are funny, but the themes are serious.

Friday / July 19 / 2019
Written by Frannie

Today’s check in ended on an interesting note that kind of set the tone for the rest of the session.

One man asked where we were in the reading. After ascertaining that we were about to read Act II scene i, he told us that he and another member had read the scene several times the day before and, after discussing it at length, came to the conclusion that it could be substantially or entirely cut. “Man, this scene is dead,” he said. “What is the purpose of this?” As some shrugged, some nodded, and some cracked open their books, our Professor said, “Oh, I can tell you the purpose!”

Someone suggested that perhaps we should read the scene before debating it, so that’s what we did. It’s not a lengthy scene, but—true to form for this group—that didn’t mean there was nothing to talk about!

“I don’t know what the point was,” one man said. Before anyone else could reply, the man who had brought up the idea replied, “I’ll tell you why it’s got no point!” He explained that the scene’s main function is expository, to which another man replied, “It can have cuts, it just can’t all be cut out.” Agreed. But not finished with the conversation.

We talked a bit about the characters. Thinking through Duke Senior’s speeches, one man described them as, “When I feel I’m cold, at least I feel that I’m alive. I wasn’t feeling nothing at court.” Another man said, “All it’s really striking me as is: an individual grows up in the city and then goes to the country… The personality types are being thrown out of what they’re normally used to.”

“Yes, and…” said the Professor, “We see the kind of man that made Rosalind… We’re finding out the person behind the person. This is where Rosalind got her backbone, got her independence, got her won’t-back-down-to-a-man.” Adding, “If Duke Senior wasn’t where he is, Rosalind wouldn’t have been banished,” he turned to the man who’d checked in about the scene and said, “That’s why you shouldn’t just brush it off.” Laughing and rolling his eyes, the other man said he didn’t want to brush it off—he just thought there were too many words.

One of the guys suggested that if we kept “a piece” of the text, the rest of the exposition could be shown through staging. “Ja, und…” another said, “One thing I kept visualizing was a voiceover narration. He’s telling us all this instead of showing us the lords doing these things.” Turned out he wasn’t the only one who’d been thinking about staging! “I have a theme idea,” another man said. “Vagabonds. Not necessarily homeless, but transients.” He explained some of what he’d been envisioning. “That’s a great idea,” said another man, and the riffing began.

This is exactly what happened in the women’s ensemble last season, when their concept for Twelfth Night ended up being “a kaleidoscopic cesspool of love that is super super extra”, and I asked the guys if they’d like to borrow a strategy the women used: a notebook dedicated to recording ideas for the show’s staging. The answer was yes, someone volunteered to be our scribe, and, that settled, we returned to our reading of the play.

We moved on to Act II, scene ii, deciding to read it on our feet. The man reading Duke Frederick entered the scene with an energy and VOLUME that were incredible, especially given his nervousness about performing. It turned out to be a very funny scene; somehow, the lords completely stole the show. Immediately afterwards, a man who’d been watching said, “Can I make a request? Can [1 Lord] read that again with a little more foppishness?” Grinning broadly, the man agreed, and they ran the scene again. It was even funnier—this guy is great at playing with the language and had us constantly cracking up. When Duke Frederick got in his face, he slowly lowered himself to a kneeling position—literally shouted down. “What they did right there was comedy not trying to be funny,” one of the guys commented. “I think that’s the best kind of comedy there is.”

But Duke Frederick told Rosalind and Celia to leave—he had to have known that this would happen, so why is he so angry? “Maybe he didn’t think they were really gonna call his bluff and leave,” one man mused. Another agreed that Duke Frederick “is saying, ‘Why would you leave all this? This is our power.’” A third said, “He’s so caught up in his own personality of how important power is that he doesn’t understand that [Celia] doesn’t care about that power.” Eyeing his nemesis-for-the-day, the Professor pointed out that this contrast between the Dukes is the point of the previous scene, and the two cracked up again. Nerds.

We decided to do the scene again with a different set of actors. Filling the first two roles was easy, but no one immediately volunteered for the third. A veteran egged on a new member, but he said he wasn’t ready yet, and I reminded everyone that we nudge, but we don’t push. Another veteran, without batting an eye, called out the name of another newbie, who quickly replied, “What is it? I’ll do it,” and jumped down from the bleachers. Totally chill (and totally not having paid attention for at least 10 minutes), he went over to another guy to see where we were in the script and which role he was going to play. A couple of people asked him if he really wanted to perform a scene he hadn’t read, and he replied, “Don’t worry about it. I got this.” And he totally did, and it was totally good.

These scenes are brief, so we still had time to go through Act II, scene iii. A veteran who doesn’t often read said, “I’ll be Orlando!” He was immediately followed by an, “I’ll be Adam,” from the newbie who’d said just minutes before that he wasn’t ready. “Whaaaaat?!” said one man. “I dunno. I was just gonna listen today, but then I thought, ‘Why not?’ I’ll give it a try,” was the reply.

The scene was great. “I loved that,” a young member said. “The character of Adam was dope in that scene… The cadence and everything, it’s almost like what he was saying wasn’t serious, but was meant to be taken seriously.” Another man agreed: “What Adam is saying, you can almost sing it, the rhyming is so good. You could almost put a beat to it.”

“Oh my god,” I said, “What if Adam is a retired rapper?” This led to another hilarious riff, as ideas came streaming forth. Maybe he’s not retired—he’s just a really old rapper who won’t give up the dream. Maybe he is retired, and he’s actually Flava Flav. Within the “vagabond” concept, maybe he’s lost it all—except for one tarnished gold chain. The idea scribe furiously scribbled away.

Back to the text. “I’ve never seen someone proclaim their love so powerfully,” said one man of Adam. “It’s definitely #mancrush.” After he explained what that meant (remember, some of these folks have been removed from the outside world for a long time), there was general agreement.

The veteran who read said, then, that he wasn’t happy with his performance. “It didn’t feel right,” he said. “It was almost like I couldn’t connect with the character. It felt forced.” Another manresponded, “I liked your interaction.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself on the first reading,” a veteran said. He shared the memory of his own first reading, when a (painfully honest) member called out everyone’s performance as “good” except for his. “I was like, whoa!” But he said that it motivated him to keep working. “This guy didn’t read anything in the last one,” another vet said, “So the fact that he was willing to read without anyone prodding him…” He led the group in a round of snaps.

“Can I please do this and be Adam?” said the young member who’d gushed about the character earlier. “Of course!” said another man. “He’s our rapper!” (That’s true—this guy is an amazing spoken word and hip hop artist.)

“That Adam is a weird character,” the young man said afterward performing the scene. “He is a weird guy.” He explained, “He’s trying to use this wordplay to woo him in, but he’s not having it.” He said that when another guy played Adam, he “felt like he was a foolish character. Now I feel like he’s more desperate.”

“I sense a lot of pride in Orlando,” said the person who had just played the character. “There was a lot of stubbornness, and you can tell he’s young and not too savvy in you-gotta-do-what-you-gotta-do if the world pulls the rug out from under you, and you can’t afford to be like that.” He paused. “It’s like that insanity in our teen years—where you’re so full of pride, but one thing goes wrong and you’re just totally crushed.” The scene—and the character—clearly struck a personal note for him—enough that I can’t write about it because it would risk identifying him. He’s really doing the work.

The Professor went on a mini-rant about how every character is important. “It tells you a lot that the head servant is willing to forsake the house he’s got more loyalty to than any person.” He paused, darted a glance at his “adversaries,” and said, “I know people who like a lotta cuts don’t think so.” They cracked up again, and one said, “Why are you jumping to the worst case scenario of cutting the whole part out?” The other exclaimed, “Idea—PING! To appease Mr. [Professor] there, how about we do the play on two separate days? Part one could be one day, part two on another—” but he was interrupted by several people, the idea was immediately dismissed, and the Professor rambled on for… awhile.

Another man added his two cents: “Adam gives a foundation to the merit and credibility of [what Orlando says]. He kinda knows what’s coming, and he knows it’s going to be hard, but he’s so proud that one of the sons takes after the father.” Another man nodded, “Like Alfred to Batman.” That wasn’t a bad idea, and our scribe made us a note.

“YES AND…” one of the guys said, “I would like to play Touchstone in this next part.” The guys who were the season’s first to read Rosalind and Celia jumped at the chance to reprise their roles. There was a stumble midway through, and one good-naturedly said to the other, “You wanna hit me with that cue again?” This theatre stuff is old hat for them now!

We ran it a second time, changing up our Rosalind and Celia, who was now read by Matt—and he really hammed it up. “You channeled your inner Eeyore for that role, didn’t you?” one of the guys teased. Another commented on how “modern” the scene felt—that the girls’ “whininess” felt very contemporary. I asked if they necessarily needed to be whiny, and he said no, actually—there are a bunch of other ways they could be approached. “I wasn’t a 13-year old girl,” he said, “but I was a 13-year old boy, and I know how that feels.” Another man nodded. “Not necessarily whining, but two people who got more than what they bargained for.”

A few of the guys said they wanted a go at a “hood version” of the scene, and they were absolutely hilarious as they fully committed to the femininity of the characters. “But don’t forget,” I said as we gathered our things to leave, “that whoever plays Rosalind will be a man playing a woman playing a man.” One of the guys shook his head, saying, “That’s gonna be… interesting.”

I suspect that he’s right. Stay tuned.

Season Three: Week 2

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“You can find a lot of yourself in all these characters.”

Tuesday / July 9 / 2019
Written by Matt

We walked into the chapel today and, instead of seeing the usual group of guys eagerly waiting for Shakespeare to start, we walked into an empty space. It didn’t take long to figure out that there was another event going on--actually, Governor Whitmer was there!

We weren’t sure if anyone would be able to show up, but soon enough one of our ensemble members who joined at the end of last season came in the building. “Honestly,” he told us, “I’m kind of surprised you’re here.” We assured him that not much stops Shakespeare from showing up in prison--if the facility is open, and we can safely make the drive, we’re there!

I actually really enjoy these days, when only a few people can show up. Of course, I’d rather have everyone there and do our usual Shakespeare work, but it’s also really nice just to chat. So we did! We covered everything from women’s tennis to the development of modern acting technique in Russia.

In the end, only three guys showed up. A former ensemble member also stopped by to say hi and give us an update. So we had a wonderful, free-wheeling conversation for the rest of the session.

It will be nice to see everyone again on Friday, but today’s meeting was a great thing for a hot day--just spending time talking to some of our ensemble members, especially since two of them have been in Shakespeare in Prison for less than a year, and one has only been in it for a week!

Friday / July 12 / 2019
Written by Frannie

It was back to business as usual today! After a long check in (we don’t limit this much at this point in the season, as we’re all getting to know each other), we played a rousing game of Zip Zap Zop, and then we settled in to read more of the play.

We picked up at Dennis’ entrance in Act I, scene i. The plan was to read while seated, but the man reading Oliver became so animated and energetic that he just had to stand and walk over to the man reading Charles. He continued either to pace around the circle or hover over Charles for the rest of the scene, and everything he did corresponded beautifully with the text.

All right, so what’s going on here?

“There was nothing malicious in the wrestler’s intent in showing up,” said one man, “He’s just telling [Oliver] that if they wrestle, he’ll hurt his brother. He’s one of the only neutral parties.” As for Oliver, another man said, “There’s definitely an opportunity—because his brother just claimed his share of the inheritance… [Oliver says,] ‘If you break his neck, don’t worry about it. It’s all good.”

Another man reminded us that Oliver says, essentially, “‘I hate my brother, but I don’t even know why’… It’s like he’s conflicted about why he hates his brother. I think that’s dope for a dynamic character.” There was a pause in the conversation, and this man turned to The Professor (that’s what the ensemble has started calling him) and said, “Get it, [Professor].”

The Professor clued us in to the indications of emotion in the language. “He used ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ with Charles, but never with his brother… That’s the only hate he has, is for his brother… When Oliver’s telling Charles how Machiavellian his brother is, he’s really talking about himself… It goes deep, and it’s not about the money, because then why’s he putting the middle brother through school? No, it’s because the people love Orlando. He can’t figure out why his brother gets this admiration and he doesn’t.”

“He’s envious,” another man responded. “‘I received all the training in the world, and they don’t love me the way they love him.’” Another nodded. “By denying his brother proper training and forcing him to interact with the rabble, he’s helped his brother become endeared to those he wants to be loved by… He’s helped his brother become what he wants to be.”

We put the scene on its feet. Afterward, I asked what we had learned. There was silence. “Well,” I said, “I learned that the scene is too damn long!” There was general agreement, and we chatted briefly about our process of making edits for performance. A newbie wondered if some of the exposition could be cut from the text and given via staging, which is a big part of it, and a veteran explained the process in a bit more detail. I added that, last season, I told WHV’s “Cut Queen” Emeritus (who is now on the outside) about how the guys made me do the first round of cuts on King Lear, and that she said, “Oh, tell them to suck it up.” They laughed, and one guy said, “That’s dope. I like her!”

One of the guys began to speak, and then stopped to make sure everyone knew why he was talking so much: “Usually when I speak up, I’m really just trying to analyze the character.” He directed our attention to a specific point in Oliver’s monologue. “Oliver stops paying attention to the conversation and just switches to how much he hates his brother. ‘Dismantle him!’ That’s coming from something personal, and that changes the whole sequence of the conversation.” Another man pointed out that Charles says, “I wrestle for my credit.” He suggested that maybe “as soon as [Oliver] hears that, he thinks, ‘Oh! I can use this for my advantage.’” The first man responded, “I think that was just awesome psychology.” Another man, who’d just read on his feet, rephrased Oliver’s words as, “‘Break him as much as you can.’” He paused and added, “Being in that scene… It made me really listen to what was being said.”

The Professor said, “I think the word play here is way more complex than in King Lear. The subtlety of it is more important than [what] they come out and say.” He cited the use of “thee/thou” vs. “you”, for example. This man thinks the whole thing is a set up: that Oliver’s been plotting it. “Oliver’s not no dummy, and this isn’t no spur-of-the-moment thing.” Another man shook his head in admiration and said, “That’s a dope interpretation.” I asked if it’s possible that there’s a combination of plotting and opportunity: perhaps Oliver had a vague idea of what to do about his brother, and it comes into focus during the conversation with Charles. All agreed to at least consider this. “He’s feeling out Charles,” one man said.

“Anyone else?” I asked before we moved on. “You don’t have to say anything, but we want you to know that you’re always welcome to.” One quiet newbie smiled and shifted in his seat a bit, explaining, “It’s out of my comfort zone, but it’s very interesting to me.” He said he felt like he was on the outside looking in; as he was seated in the bleachers and surrounded by others, I replied, “Seems to me like you’re on the inside looking around.” Then he actually said quite a lot, mainly that it seemed to him like “Shakespeare was pulling from the outside world.” He was astonished by how real the characters seemed.

“Shakespeare writes real, complex, intricate people,” said a veteran, and another added, “You can find a lot of yourself in any of these characters.” Another man said that last year, he jumped to conclusions about the characters early on, but he listened when I encouraged him to withhold judgment and work toward empathy for all of them. “I remember that conversation,” another man said. “With Shakespeare, you can’t judge their actions because if you put your own judgments on it, you’re not playing the character. That’s what ‘empathize’ means—just allowing the character to come to life inside you.” The man turned to the guy who said he was out of his comfort zone and told him, “You are no longer on the outside looking in. Shakespeare grabbed you and brought you to the inside already.”

Another veteran shared that having that empathy for the characters is important throughout the process, but that he hadn’t fully grasped his character until the performance. “It became super personal, so there was no way to judge the character,” he said. Still another veteran broke in to encourage everyone to read this play and then read another, completely different, book—he said it would give them a new perspective that would enrich the experience. A newbie shared that he was a little overwhelmed by the text, and that it seemed like a lot of lines, but he liked it. “I’m catching on slowly,” he said, to which another man replied, “A dope interpretation.”

We moved on to Act I, scene ii, which initially features Celia, Rosalind, and Touchstone. Two men almost literally jumped at the chance to read the women, which was somewhat unexpected and very exciting! A third quickly volunteered to read Touchstone. Two of the guys pointed out that it’s a very eventful scene and lengthy scene, and we decided to do just the first section today. Almost immediately, we discovered inconsistencies between the No Fear and Arden editions, and the man playing Rosalind insisted that the others use Ardens—he has no patience with the No Fear. “Snob!” I said, and he laughed.

The scene was so funny. The guys playing the women performed together last season, and their comfort with each other and the text was apparent. Touchstone’s entrance and delivery only enhanced what was already happening, and even those who hadn’t read the scene ahead of time were cracking up throughout.

There truly wasn’t time for the kind of discussion these guys like to have, but the energy was high from their performance. “You know what?” I said, “The way you played Celia makes me want to play Celia! Let’s just rotate actors till we run out of time!” So that’s what we did, and it was a ton of fun.

After the second pass, the guy who read Rosalind came over to me, smiling, and said, “I don’t know why, but that was awkward, playing a woman.” I said that was natural and asked him if he knew why. “I don’t know,” he said. “It wasn’t uncomfortable, just awkward.” I suggested that he think on that some more, and I shared how much I love playing male characters: stepping inside a person who seemingly is so different from me, and finding that they aren’t, is fun and exciting. A veteran said that had been huge for him, too—that Shakespeare “did away with my preconceived notions about gender.” He’s learned that “gender isn’t a determining factor.” And he’s quite happy about it.

A few more guys performed the scene. One of them said afterward that he felt like he hadn’t done a good job, and that he was worried about the language. “Don’t worry about that,” a veteran quickly said. “The language is not a barrier. Don’t look at it as a barrier.”

“Hang on, hang on,” said the Rosalind mentioned above. “I figured it out. It’s not that I was uncomfortable being a woman in it—it just was trying to figure out the character I was reading with everybody moving around and all.” The man who read Celia first said that comfort would come with time and practice. “Me and [ensemble member]—while he was reading, I was listening to him… We had fun because we know how fun it is.” The man to whom he was referring said, “First time I read, I was like, ‘Yep, this ain’t for me. I’m quitting.’ But a couple guys came to me and said, ‘Just give it a try.’ I stayed with it. I trusted the process.”

And then a REALLY cool thing happened. One of the men, who had mostly been quiet, leaned over to me and said, “I wrote a poem just now while we were doing all this, and I’d like to read it to everyone.” Several ensemble members have joined facilitators in writing down observations (for our records AND this blog!), and he was one of them today. Here’s his poem:

A moment of time as it passes us by.
Words are spoken, we try to understand why.
We’re no longer looking in, we like seeing the past.
The characters are real, pleasing so fast.
We see online what Frannie writes,
A blog, a poem, everything so nice.
We talk, we talk, there’s no right answer,
We move on with earnest desire.
Don’t lower the status,
We want to see the movie,
Orange!
I want to read Orlando,
Not Marlon Brando.
I was amazing, I want to read.
Time is real short, hurry, hurry, read, read!

Coolest. Notes. Ever.