Season Two: Week 17

Tuesday / October 16
Written by Matt

Word had gotten around that TCM was airing a film version of King Lear, so a lot of the guys had made time to see it. They were, sad to say, not impressed. “Anybody in this room could do any part in that play better than they did,” said one. Everyone generally agreed with that statement, although a few pushed back to mention individual moments that worked well. Apparently, PBS is re-running a series on Shakespeare’s plays, and the guys were all trading notes on which ones to watch. One of them expressed surprise that The Merchant of Venice was a comedy. “All I knew of it was, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed’ and all that,” he said, referring to the powerful rendition of Shylock’s famous monologue delivered over the summer by one of the men.

After lowering the ring, we went straight into exploring Act IV, scene i, in which Edgar is reunited with his blinded father but does not reveal his identity. The scene is multi-layered and somber, and mostly passes between two main characters: Gloucester and Edgar. Two of the men had been practicing the scene over the weekend, and they roped in another man to play the Old Man. The man who played Gloucester is a veteran of the group, and he wanted to plan out the scene with his partners… and plan he did! After five or ten minutes, it was clear he was getting far too intellectual about the entire thing. He worried about about how to act blind and whether we’d be able to hear his voice if he got quiet. I went up to him and encouraged him not to worry so specifically about how to act like he had no eyes and just to focus on Gloucester’s utter dependence on others--he cannot see, sure, but he also cannot identify others without his eyes. He can’t even move without guidance--without direct physical connection with another person, Gloucester is completely lost.

This seemed to free him up a bit, and the first run-through, though rough, had a lot of really affecting moments. After stumbling through it, the men in the audience jumped in to ask questions. “What’s your interpretation?” asked one of the guys to the man playing Edgar, who replied that he felt like Edgar was playing two or three different characters himself. The man who played Gloucester said, “As soon as [the old man, who had been guiding him] walked away, I felt like I was swimming, like I didn’t have nothing to hold onto.”

Still, one member maintained, the emotion of the scene wasn’t connecting with the audience. “So,” said another, “what do you want the audience to feel?” The man playing Edgar talked about feeling torn between the desire for resolution and safety and the desire for self-preservation and control. If Edgar reveals himself, he is in danger, but if he doesn’t he is stuck in the persona of Tom and unable to connect with his father.

After another run-through, the men all seemed more comfortable with the roles. One of the guys specifically complimented Edgar on his vocal performance. Maria asked why Gloucester picks Edgar over his loyal servant. A member replied, “He thinks the Old Man will try to talk him out of it. Tom will just lead him to the cliff.” Another man piped up, “No one will be there to pick sides for him.” The first agreed, “Yeah, nobody to say, ‘You did this wrong or that wrong.’ You just got a dude to help you out.” A third man added, “Gloucester is at a point where he doesn’t want any more emotional connections.”

For better or worse, a veteran volunteered a new member to do the scene in a different way. They decided to play the Old Man and Gloucester, and another new member took Edgar. In the end, the scene was a mess. The two who stood up first had not been following the scene closely, and took a lot of time stumbling over words. It was the first time that one of them had read for a major role, which was exciting, but he admitted at the end that he was just doing it to humor the ensemble. We gave him a big round of applause for his bravery, and for his solid instincts--he did a pretty good job embodying Gloucester’s helplessness--but he was relieved to sit back down. The man who played Edgar, however, clearly connected with that character. One of the men pointed to him and said, “I can see that you want to react off of something.” He said that the other man was a “physical actor” and needed other “physical actors” to react to. And then he picked them: the man who played Gloucester the first time, and Frannie.

This time through, something really amazing happened. It was still rough, but there were moments of beauty and truth between the actors. After Frannie (as the Old Man) left the stage, there was heartbreaking connection between Gloucester and Edgar, as they clung to each other, and yet were ultimately unable to connect because of Edgar’s ruse. And, just as importantly, the men felt instantly connected to those characters. “That felt natural,” said Edgar afterwards.

The other men were stunned. “That was perfect. The reactions, the way the words hit,” said one. The man who had suggested that trio nodded vigorously, saying, “If the books hadn’t been there, you could have filmed it.”

Gloucester said, “I mean, first of all, good job, Shakespeare!” He talked about letting himself fall into the natural rhythms of the text. “I was just reading,” said Edgar. “What do I want? What am I feeling? How’s he reacting? I’ll react to him.”

This was a tough act to follow, but we ran through Act IV, scene vii in the final minutes of our time. In this scene, Lear and Cordelia are finally reunited, coming together to form the emotional core of the final few scenes of the play. After the run-through, no one on stage was satisfied. The man who played Cordelia was first to speak: “I was afraid to put too much emotion into it. I didn’t want to become a blubbery ball up here!” We encouraged him to be as blubbery as he wanted, but it often takes a long time to work that deeply into the scene.

“All the attention is on Lear,” noted the man who had played Edgar in the previous scene. “The doctor is worried about his patient, Cordelia is worried about her father, and Kent is worried about his friend and master.” He added that he envisions Kent as Lear’s “loyal Basset Hound,” which made us all laugh. The man who played Kent commented on how he both wants to reveal himself to Lear and understands that it is not time--echoing the dynamic with Edgar and Gloucester in the previous scene. “And, remember,” added another man, “Kent is Cordelia’s link to Lear.”

After running through the scene one more time--and hitting a lot of the emotional moments just right--we all agreed that we were ready to cast the play on Friday. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been living for so long with this play that casting it will be a letdown, but we’re all ready, and the ensemble is eager to move on and get ready to put up this play!

Friday / October 19
Written by Matt

It was cold today in the gym! In fact, one of the guys checked in just to mention that it was cold. Perhaps because of the air temperature, there was not much fussing around before we began casting the play.

Every season presents a new and interesting casting challenge. Sometimes, it’s easy, and we can do it in fifteen minutes just by talking. Sometimes, we have to do an anonymous ballot. Occasionally, there’s drama. Usually, there’s not. Today, casting went relatively smoothly. For Lear, only one man put his name in, which was as much an acknowledgement by the ensemble of his connection with the role as anything else. Sometimes, we choose roles. Sometimes, roles choose us--we need them, and we can’t avoid that call. It has been clear for weeks, if not months, that this man is being called to play Lear, and no one was going to deny him that. Most of the roles came more or less this way. The man who played Edgar so effectively on Tuesday was welcomed into that role without competition--testament to, among other things, how brilliantly he stepped into Edgar’s body earlier this week. The few roles that had competition were sorted out by brief “sidebar” conversations, and no one seemed upset by the process. Given how deeply these men are connected to the play and how many of them there are, this is pretty amazing. It never ceases to amaze me how our members wind up with the roles they need--and the roles the team needs.

When we were done, though, there was a blank beside Cornwall’s name. Somehow, we had managed to cast everyone without filling in this meaty role. The veteran ensemble member, one of the original twelve, who had been organizing the casting, ruefully admitted that he had been lying low, half-hoping not to be cast. In short order, he found his name beside Cornwall’s. This was an exciting development in its own way. He has been drafted into important roles in the past, but this will be his first time playing someone so villainous and extreme. Frannie told him to say, “Out, vile jelly, where’s thy lustre now?” He obliged, and everyone applauded.

We ended the session playing a few rounds of Party Quirks, a classic improv game. It was a good release from all that sitting around in the cold and working hard to cast the show. As one of the men said in the middle of a round of the game, “I gotta say, these people are all acting a little peculiar.”

We put the ring back up when the time came, ready to get to work on rehearsing the play in earnest. I always think of casting as the biggest turning point in a season of Shakespeare in Prison; it’s when our members transition from analyzing and thinking through the play generally to deepening their connection to a single character, exploring the humanity of their role. And the nature of the collaboration changes, too, as we work together to create a performance. It’s exciting to move into this phase during our first full season at Parnall!