Season Two: Week 18

Tuesday / October 23
Written by Matt

Apparently, the title of today’s episode of Shakespeare in Prison is “To Be a Shoe…” That title is courtesy of our special (and returning, but no less special for it) guest, Vanessa, and (no spoilers!), you’ll have to read to the end to find out what prompted it...

This day’s session began with an important but tense conversation about who gets added to the ensemble and how. This particular discussion has been a long time coming, and having these sorts of difficult conversations openly and honestly is really crucial to building trust among the members--showing ourselves that we are capable of having an open dialogue about tough issues without becoming divided or losing the sense of safety in the ensemble.

In all, the conversation emphasized how seriously people take our ensemble and how jealously they guard the ensemble’s norms. “This is a family,” many of the men reminded us. Sometimes families need to work out disagreements. Each member of the ensemble needs to work with the others, whether or not they are compatible or even like each other--and that takes, above all, trust.

This is our first full-length season at Parnall. We have already spent longer on King Lear than on any previous play at Parnall. So we’re feeling out what it’s like to work for this long on a single project here. In the past, we have perhaps been able to more easily ignore interpersonal issues or frustrations with people and processes; it was only for three months at a time, and there was precious little time to spend working through our issues--we needed to put up a play! But as the season lengthens and the ensemble itself matures, problems arise and must be dealt with. How we deal with them is important for how the group develops in the future.

Everyone was exhausted by the end of this conversation, and we brought down the ring to re-center the ensemble. Frannie passed out cast lists. There were no surprises, since the list had been worked out in advance, but it felt good to see the list in print. Things are never totally final--there’s always some chaos and a few changes before performance--but getting the cast list feels like a major step forward each season.

We finished with a game suggested by Vanessa. “Freeze-frame” involves a series of tableaus, in which a group of actors create a still scene. The challenge is to tell a complete story with five different tableaus. Someone from the performing group instructs the audience to close their eyes, then they assemble their tableau and tell the audience to open their eyes. We broke into three groups of five to try it out. Vanessa described how she had once played a shoe in a round of freeze frame. “A shoe?” someone asked. “A shoe!” she replied, “Oh! To be a shoe…”

The challenge today was to tell the story of King Lear in five freeze-frames. It was a wonderful and instructive exercise. Many of the groups chose the same “scene,” but had totally different takes on that scene. Some groups chose different scenes (two groups had Lear raging at the storm, but one had Lear, Fool, and Edgar huddled together in the hovel). Not only was it a brilliant way to bring us all together around the play again, but it yielded a few very compelling stage pictures, and sent several of us off thinking about all the ways that these pivotal scenes could be blocked. And, importantly, the tableaus showcased the ensemble members’ bone-deep knowledge of the play’s characters and story.

Friday / October 26
Written by Frannie

During today’s check-in, the man who’s been cast as Gloucester shared that he “had lunch and dinner with Gloucester last night.” We all laughed and asked what he meant. He said he’d imagined Gloucester sitting with him, having a conversation. “I had to spoon feed him half of the meal… It’s great to take time and get to know your character better,” he said. “You just added a whole new element to psychoanalyzing our characters,” said another man. People seemed genuinely excited by the idea. What a cool thing to have come up with on his own!

We added some new members today and spent just about all of our time on introductions, orientation, and continuing to try to resolve the issues that came up on Tuesday. Most of that was either confidential or, in terms of the orientation, not super-exciting reading for this blog, but here are a few great quotes that came out of our traditional three questions:

From a member who participated during our pilot year, and who has just returned: “I have this time to get back to you guys… I like this. It’s fun, and it kept me out of trouble. I never wanted to leave, I just wasn’t mentally there. So I came back… I felt lost without you guys.”

From a new member who was in the audience when a current member performed a monologue in another class: “That excitement he has every time he talks about this — I want that excitement because it’s kind of contagious. I want to infect everyone with the excitement of life.”

And from current members, re-upping their answers to these questions:

“This was an opportunity to challenge myself to be more than just a number or an inmate… I figured it was time to start being the person that I know I am, not who I’m perceived as.”

“I was tricked into it at first, but I’m kinda obsessed with it now… At first, it was a project, to work on myself. I did a lot of time at higher levels, in isolation… I needed to step out of my box… Now it’s the friendship and the family we have. It’s helped me out during a lot of hard times.”

“Originally, I just wanted something fun to do… It’s still fun, but now it’s the camaraderie and community I get out of it… This is my escape. This is where I get to be a real human being… It’s helped me better learn to interact with a more diverse group.”

On Tuesday, we’ll begin walking through the play in chronological order to give our cast some new ideas, and to catch our new members up on the play itself. Phase II has begun!