Season Two: Week 16

Tuesday / October 9
Written by Matt

Today opened with an emotional check-in from an original member. He has been a quiet but important presence in our ensemble for a long time now, happier working behind the scenes than out in front. But all the guys respect him and his role, and when he speaks, they listen. He shared some of the work he’s been doing outside of Shakespeare in Prison, much of which was very personal. Afterwards, everyone offered him support and encouragement. Sometimes these displays of emotion, especially from such a central member of the ensemble, can help model constructive emotional connection. “Normally,” said one of the guys, “I’m uncomfortable when people are emotional, but I wasn’t with you.”

Always tenacious, the group wanted to revisit the beginning of Act II, scene ii, which had caused us some frustration on Friday. Specifically, one of the guys wanted to try a different take on Kent, who initiates the fight. What if, he wondered, Kent is actually torn between wanting to fight Oswald and wanting to walk away? The scene is so short that he was able to run through it a few times, gaining in confidence each time. Still, the scene wasn’t coming together convincingly. “No offense,” said one of the other members after watching it one last time, “but I can tell you never picked a fight.” The man playing Kent acknowledged that he was working against type, and we rotated two new people in.

Up next was a member who has been mostly sitting on the sidelines when we put scenes up on their feet to play Kent. And Frannie jumped in to play Oswald. It was immediately a different take on the scene. Almost the first words out of Kent’s mouth, “I love thee not,” were rendered so naturally and almost comically that everyone burst out laughing. “I love thee…” he said, and paused. “Not.” At the end of the scene, though, Frannie said that she hadn’t felt in danger enough to fully commit to shouting for help, as Oswald does. “Oh!” he said. “I was trying not to get too far away from myself, but maybe I should bring in more danger.” Actually, this is one of the less obvious benefits of working through these scenes with facilitators. Often--especially with the men’s ensemble--our members are understandably hesitant to act in any way threatening, even in a scene that manifestly requires a threat to be made. But working through these scenes in rehearsal, with a clear understanding that they are allowed to step into this zone under the right conditions, we allow people to safely open up a part of themselves that is often stifled and wrapped up.

The man playing Kent had no time to tap into his “danger,” though, as Frannie slipped right behind him at the beginning of the scene and out the door. “Dude!” she said. “You let me go in the house!” The next time through, he moved to block her, spitting his lines at her as she scurried between the pews in our chapel meeting place. The effect was one part menacing and one part comical. In the end, Frannie made a break for it as the scene ended, just as Cornwall and his entourage entered. The spectators were enthusiastic. “You was punching with your body!” exclaimed one who was excited about Kent’s body language.

When two new guys got up, Frannie clarified the objectives of the characters: Oswald wants to go into Gloucester’s house; Kent wants to stop him. This both clarified the situation and resulted in some pretty hilarious circling around on stage as Oswald tried to scurry into “the house.” At one point, Kent had Oswald backed up against a potted plant. Still, it was beginning to work in terms of bringing clarity and purpose to the scene. When Kent tried to apologize for missing lines, Frannie made a Shakespeare Pronouncement, forbidding anyone from apologize for making line mistakes. We usually have to make this pronouncement at least once a season--going up or stumbling on lines is the easiest sort of mistake to fixate on, and the one that is least problematic, at least at this stage.

On one last time through, we decided to run the scene through after the entrance of Cornwall and the others from the house and continue up until Kent is placed in the stocks. The entrance was surprisingly intense--one man came striding over the pews!--and the “show” was stolen by a feisty Regan and a Cornwall who can only be described as… sassy! But his sassiness had a sharp undercurrent of danger, which had several people excited about the possibilities of a sassy Cornwall (I made him say “Out, vile jelly!” in sassy-Cornwall style). On the subject of eye-gouging, one of the guys said he had made a prop eyeball out of a ping-pong ball. Frannie was intrigued, but asked everyone to strategize about “how to use that without making it funny.” After a beat, one man said, “So--no paddles, then?”

We closed by thinking about what sort of concept we want for our design. This was a necessarily free-wheeling discussion, since we haven’t talked about it before. One man who has expressed interest in playing Lear, though, had an idea. Perhaps characters (or factions) could be assigned different colors. And he had a vision of Lear beginning the play in a bright, multi-colored outfit that would be “swirly--because he’s in flux, you know?” But over the course of the play, he envisioned Lear losing each colorful article of clothing one-by-one, until, at last, “he’s just all grey. No color left.”

Friday / October 12
Written by Frannie

We decided to stick to the plan we came up with on Tuesday, engaging in a solid acting/vocal warm up and settling in to put the latter part of Act V scene iii on its feet: from Edgar’s entrance through to the bitter end. We figured out who would play each role and talked through some of the scene’s logistics: everyone wanted to see if we could go from beginning to end without stopping.

The man playing Lear talked aside with Matt during this, asking for a reminder about what the deal is with the howls. Are they actual words? Sounds? Where are they directed? There are a number of options. Matt encouraged him to try them out to see what clicked — and to fully commit to whatever he decided to do. I sat down beside them at that point, and the man asked me a similar question: is it a literal howl? “Not necessarily,” I said. “It’s a long, open vowel — more of an expression of emotion than a literal word — and he gives it to you four times.” The man said, “So is it, like, a sound of anguish?” I nodded. “Yes. He’s in absolute agony.” The man took a deep breath, gave us a wry smile, and got up off the bench to go prepare.

I encouraged everyone to stay focused, even if things went a little off, and to sustain their energy even if we needed to call a hold. That way, I said, we’d get a much better idea of how the scene flows.

And then they launched into it. Though there was some roughness due to our never having done this scene on its feet, quite a few things worked or gave us an idea of how they could work. We felt ourselves — on stage and off — completely drawn in. The man who entered with the news about Goneril’s suicide read his lines in a complete panic, which upped the ante for everyone else. Albany frequently failed to pick up his cues, but that was due to his investment in the scene: at point, for example, he became totally absorbed in looking at the sisters’ bodies — which were just one of the guys’ jackets and my cardigan, laid beside one another on the floor.

Lear hesitated on his entrance, and I reminded those on stage to sustain their energy and give him the time he needed. Finally he entered, hitting the “ow” in “howl” but not letting loose completely (which honestly would have been too much to ask at this point). He rushed the language a bit (as did Kent), but a few lines seemed to really hit home: his voice became more resonant on “No, no, no, no life,” and he grabbed Edgar’s knee on, “Do you see this?”

The scene ended, and we began to breathe again. How to debrief, even, on such an emotional scene? It was tough to get the conversation going. Finally the man who’d read Edmund said, “I hate that Edmund takes so long to die.” I asked him why, and he said it was because he was on stage for so long, just lying there, that he hadn’t know what he should have been doing. I said that he wasn’t alone — Shakespeare leaves characters hanging around on stage all the time with no lines or action — and that, at those times, the most important thing to do is simply to listen and react. In this scene, that’s especially paramount for Edmund as the lead up to his change of heart. Another man described the process by which someone dies of sepsis after having been stabbed and suggested using that to help stay occupied during that time.

The man who’d read Albany said, “I felt like, ‘This is all happening way too fast,’ and then I saw my dead wife, and I was like, ‘Damn.’” Which explained why he missed that cue!

We talked, too, about breathing on the punctuation to make sure we don’t rush or fight the text. The language gets choppy here for a reason — the playwright wants us to slow down. We talked through a few more details, and then it was time for round two.

The scene began to live a little more as people took their time and really used the language. Now that they’d done the scene once, knowing it on the page as they do, they began to intuit all sorts of details. Before Albany’s line, “No tearing, lady,” the man playing Goneril leaped forward and snatched at the letter. Albany maintained his sense of horror while staying more on top of cues, Edgar and Edmund sank deeper into their lines, and people functioning as messengers managed to be less distracting.

When Lear entered this time, he was closely followed by a messenger who quietly wept. Lear fed off this energy — I think they planned it, but it could have been spontaneous — and, though the howls were still truncated, he definitely gave himself more vocal freedom than he had before. Both he and Kent slowed down and honored the punctuation more, and it greatly enhanced the scene for everyone. It was truly moving, and a testament to just how good this play is: we wouldn’t have to alter what anyone had done much at all to arrive at an effective staging.

I asked the group how the scene had gone. “The second time, we were all really in tune with each other,” said one man. Everyone agreed: having more familiarity meant they could connect more with the text and everyone else on stage. There were a few technical questions about projecting one’s voice in a lower register and how to maintain focus when a character is physically wounded, but the consensus was that the whole thing had worked overall. “I like the commitment,” said one man. We talked a bit more about how having that connection — that ability to build on one another’s work — is the key to acting and telling a good story with a play.

Before we left, we decided to take one more day to explore a scene or two, and then to cast the play next Friday. We’re ready. Some of these roles very clearly belong to people who personally identify with them; the rest of the casting hasn’t made itself clear, and it’s impossible to know how it’ll go. I’m hopeful that it will be the same peaceful process as the last one, but things have gotten contentious in the women’s ensemble in the past. So we’ll see!