Season Two: Week 15

Tuesday / October 2

Written by Matt

“You know, I’m at about an 8½ or 9 right now!” exclaimed one of the guys today. He seemed happy to be in the group, happy to be gathered and ready to get up and work on the play. Even when we had to take a break from check-in to allow some other people to transfer a bunch of chairs around—banging and crashing tremendously all the time—he said that he was maybe down to a 3, but on his way back up.

Check-in covered the usual topics of classes (“I only cried three times, as opposed to 20 times!” said a longtime member about his test) and prison programming (one member talked about the expansion of self-help programming at the prison), and then we talked a little bit about our conversation on Friday. “For me,” said one of them, “the important thing was the respect,” and he complimented everyone for their civility and open-mindedness. Another agreed. “This group represents hope that you be more than that piece of paper that the judge gave you after you were sentenced.”

One man checked in to say that some of them went back to the unit and just started laughing. “All that tension went away,” he said. “The amount of respect that we’ve all been showing each other is just blowing my mind,” said another. “Seeing the responses—we just all really respect each other. That meant more to me even than the conversation.” Still another man said, “I just want everyone to know how much I value this space, and the energy I feel in here enabled me to share some things I have never been able to share before.” Another member added, “In a group this size, you usually lose this dynamic.”

Since we are now finished reading the play, we decided to return to Act I, scene i. We usually play around with scenes and characters for some time before casting, and this scene allows almost all of the major characters to introduce themselves.

Of course, as soon as we marched into the scene we remembered how complicated it is—most of the lines belong to Lear, Cordelia, and Kent, but there are at least eight and as many as a dozen people standing onstage throughout. This had two effects: first, it made the scene painfully slow during its transitions, and it made for a lot of uncomfortable standing around. We managed to stumble through the whole thing, then debriefed to talk it through.

What ensued was a little bit chaotic. This group of men is full of ideas and suggestions, which is part of what made reading the play with them so much fun. Now that we are putting scenes up on their feet, however, the desire to analyze every move and line has not slackened a bit, and there was so much to talk about! The few men who had managed not to have some role in the scene had a lot of questions about how best to cut it down or change it to make it more easily understandable. Several of the men had specific blocking and movement advice, and they went straight up to the ensemble member they wanted to talk to and started describing and marking out their ideas—all at the same time.

After some semblance of order had been restored, we talked a bit about what story we wanted to tell with this scene and how to tell that story, especially if we have to cut out a lot of the speeches (which we do). “If we’re gonna take [words] out,” said one man, “let’s keep the feeling.”

At the center of all the noise were core questions about the play: what sort of relationship does Lear have with each of his daughters? What sort of relationship do they have with each other? Or Gloucester with Edmund? Lear with Kent? France with Burgundy? All but two of the major characters appear in this scene (only Edgar and the Fool are absent), and all of the major characters who appear in the scene have dialogue that goes directly to the heart of their central conflicts. Though we have to cut it down, the play truly wastes no time in revealing the main characters to us, although all of them except Lear himself need to do a lot of that revealing in nonverbal ways (An always astute ensemble member asked, how do Regan and Goneril respond to the surprise of each being given an extra quarter of the kingdom? How do Cornwall and Albany? They have few lines—Albany has no lines spoken alone—but they are onstage for almost the entirety of the scene, and much can be understood from their reactions). The man playing Edmund wondered what he was supposed to do—why he was even present, then decided that Edmund would be bored by the whole thing until Cordelia unleashes chaos.

A second run-through went much more smoothly, though there is still plenty to work on. This scene presents many challenges, but it was helpful to walk through something big and long and messy after several months of sitting and talking or doing monologues. The theatrical process is often messy, and SIP often even more so, but that is part of the challenge and the wonder of it. It is all well and good to read through a big, complicated scene and muse about its language, but that language wants to live and breathe on a stage—or a small space cleared behind the pews in a prison chapel—and we are finally ready to let it.

Friday / October 5

Written by Coffey

“There’s a lot to be said for scenes with a lot of anger and intensity; there are ebbs and flows to it…It’s like a tide.”

Our shorter-than-usual session began with an encouraging check-in. One man shared the happy news that his mother, after fighting the disease for some time, was finally cancer-free. Another man shared that he has gained a considerable amount of weight since entering the facility, a check-in that was intended to be self-deprecating. However, the men quickly turned the conversation to fond memories of home cooking and the smell of roasted garlic. Several of the men attended a talk with Ilyasah Shabazz, who visited the prison to speak about her father’s work and her own work and writing. The men were moved by her visit, with one man sharing that, “Despite, you know, prison, the other day (the day of the talk) was the best day of my life.”

After our check-in and warmup, one of the men asked that we focus on the top of Act II Scene 2, an intense encounter between Kent and Oswald. Man A cast himself as Kent, a part he has gravitated toward since we began reading the play. With Man B volunteering to play Oswald, the scene began tentatively, as both men were still very attached to their scripts but wanted to get the scene on its feet. After the first run of the scene the flood gates opened, with nearly every audience member volunteering their own analyses of the scene and their own ideas as to what precisely the delivery of Kent’s insulting litany (“A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats…”) should look and sound like. This led us to discuss why Kent is behaving with such intense hatred in this scene. “He knows he’s going into the ‘nest of vipers’. He’s letting his emotions get the best of him,” one man said. “Could it also be blind devotion rearing its ugly head?” another man asked.

We ran the scene again, this time placing a little more focus on the various levels within Kent’s attack on Oswald. This time, Man A tried circling Man B during Kent’s monologue, “trying to have more of an intimidation factor”. The second run of the scene went well and the guys became more invested in the scene the more we worked on it, but this manifested itself in a lot of corrective, prescriptive comments from the guys in the audience. Each man had such a vivid picture of how the scene could play out, but it was becoming clear that so much focus on aesthetic particulars and analysis so early on might get between us and the heart of the scene. Matt took the opportunity to encourage the men to make comments from their position as viewers, rather than giving the actors corrections.

Matt’s suggestion helped to refocus the group as we went into our third run of the scene. While the guys in the audience were able to center their attention on their experience as viewers, however, the two actors onstage agreed with their audience that the third run-through felt a bit stiffer than the second, less natural. Man B was having a hard time not moving backward whenever Man A approached. Man A expressed feeling as though he was following Man B around the stage: “I feel like I’m being upstaged.” Both actors were really clinging to their scripts and were having a hard time connecting and forming a fluid dynamic.

To help the two actors let go of their scripts and dive a bit more into the emotional content of the scene, Matt formed the fourth run of the scene around a “dropping in” exercise. While the two actors performed the scene, they focused solely on maintaining eye contact with each other and moving towards each other in a straight line, refraining from moving backward at all. Matt and another ensemble member stood near each actor, holding the actors’ scripts and quietly feeding them their lines.

It became clear during this exercise that both actors felt uncomfortable ceding their scripts (and that much control). Man B expressed discomfort with being so dependent on his drop-in reader: “I was really dependent on him. It was really difficult. It felt like I was defeating the purpose.” A man in the audience pointed out that Man B’s discomfort might be evidence that the exercise was working: “It’s more of a trust exercise, too. You have to trust that the person is going to read you the lines.” The struggle to let go of the script and connect with your fellow actors on stage during rehearsal is a long, arduous process for many professional actors, and this exercise showed us that the same process would be an important part of our production. For the fifth run, I suggested that the men use a “bucket and well” model for using their scripts on stage; filling their buckets by carefully reading one small chunk of script at a time, and then emptying their buckets by lowering the script and delivering those small pieces of script, one at a time, without looking at their script.

The fifth and final run was, according to one man, “a lot more clear and concise”. Another man said that he felt the lines were “a lot fuller”. Both actors still had a hard time taking their eyes off the script and being with each other on stage, but we all ended the session feeling as though we had found a good focal point for future rehearsals: taking time to read carefully, connecting fully with other actors, and trusting ourselves and others on stage. It will be wonderful to see the men put more focus on pulling themselves out of the script and into the moment.