Season Two: Week 21

Tuesday / November 13
Written by Matt

We started today on a bit of a tangent about the historical Shakespeare. A returning member asked about Shakespeare’s life, and a number of members leapt in to share what they had learned from various sources. Frannie talked a bit about Shakespeare’s “lost years,” which have fueled centuries of speculation, and a few people mused about the collection of authorship theories. More than anything, these sorts of conversations show not only curiosity, but an aspect of the “ownership” of Shakespeare’s works that we try to encourage. If part of the wonder of Shakespeare’s plays is how open-ended they are--how much they invite empathy with conflicting characters, and how many conflicting interpretations they allow--the same could be said of Shakespeare’s life. Our ensemble members, as usual, jumped right into a spirited debate over whether it matters who, exactly, Shakespeare was--his gender, his life experience, his social class. They also wondered if he collaborated with like-minded people in his plays or in others’. A number of them seemed to like the idea that Shakespeare was part of a group of writers and thinkers all working together.

After check-in (much of which was taken over by the conversation about Shakespeare) and the ring, we began the final push in our stumble-through of King Lear. We began with Act IV, scene v, an intimate scene mostly between Goneril and Oswald, Regan’s servant. The key to the scene, as our Goneril said, is “the mistrust underlying everything” in the play.

Our Oswald, who is in his second season and really coming out of his shell, dove into his character’s obsequious physicality--somewhere between conniving and cowed. Afterwards, a new member had some questions about that point: it seemed like Oswald was just hunched and running around bent over, he said. What was the point of that? Our Lear spoke up to explain that he understood it perfectly, comparing Oswald to the toadying Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings. Oswald agreed vigorously. The man who raised the issue pushed back a bit, asking, “Is that really their relationship?” And Oswald, who has generally kept a low profile and avoided anything even resembling conflict so far, stuck up for his choice. “His only power comes from everyone else around him--what they deign to give him,” he said. Even as the conversation veered into becoming a distraction, it was nice to see both sides of it: honest questioning of a choice made on stage and a clear explanation of that choice and why the actor was sticking to it. But since this ensemble could debate anything for hours, it was time to refocus. Frannie jumped in at an appropriate moment to redirect: “Everybody is on a journey,” she said. “And we’ll figure out what that means in each scene with your characters.”

Before we left talking about physicality, though, our Goneril, who has been experimenting with Michael Chekhov’s physical acting exercises in his unit, chuckled and wondered what the officers watching him on the security cameras think!

If the previous scene was about swiftly advancing plot and character development, the next one is impressionistic and starkly epic. Act IV, scene vi is both one of the most challenging scenes in the play--blind Gloucester’s intended suicide, Edgar’s inner turmoil and outer artifice, Lear’s towering madness--and also one of the scenes at the emotional core of King Lear, if not the core.

A number of people worried aloud that the scene might come off as funny. One of them, our Albany, thought we might accomplish some gravitas with sound and music. “Let’s see how it plays,” Frannie suggested, and also mentioned that even if people laugh in response to something like Gloucester’s “fall,” that doesn’t always mean they have found it funny. “Sometimes that’s people’s response to the truth--especially if it’s uncomfortable truth,” she said.

As if on cue, Edgar led Gloucester onstage, and we all fell silent. Gloucester had a hat pulled low over his eyes so that he could peer down at his script but no further. It also turned out that he had been experimenting with binding his eyes in his unit and performing basic tasks (it was great, he said, except that he spilled his coffee!), and that work was apparent in his affecting performance. The star of that first beat, though, was watching Edgar and Gloucester working so incredibly hard together, feeding off of one another’s energy and beautiful line-readings.

“O, if Edgar live…” cried Gloucester from (in his mind) the extreme verge of the cliffs of Dover. That one “O!” told as much a story as any soliloquy, loaded with subtle emotion made more painful by the image of his son crouching a few feet away but unknown to him. In response, Edgar reached out a hand and made as if to move to his father, then checked himself and returned to his silent crouch. Heartbreaking.

After Gloucester fell and revived, he mustered incredible energy--he was disappointed, frustrated that he still lived. “But have I fall’n or no?” he demanded suspiciously of the unknown man (still his son in disguise) who found him. He grew enraged by the other man’s joy at his miraculous survival. “Do but look up!” exclaimed the disguised Edgar. “Alack,” Gloucester raged in response, as if the instruction were intended to torment him, “I have no eyes!!”

It’s hard to express how powerful this moment between Gloucester and Edgar was, and how intensely those men had to focus, how deep they had to dig to pull up those emotions. Perhaps because of this, Lear’s entrance broke the spell, and all three men onstage struggled to connect to the scene. Less than a minute later, we stopped the scene to reset and re-center, and everyone seemed relieved. Sometimes, it makes sense to just push through the messiness and get to the end of a scene, but this one is too long, too complicated, and it asks too much of the actors (especially Lear and Gloucester) to reasonably stumble through it if everyone is feeling “off.”

In fact, we reset a few times before finding a way through to the end. Our Lear is still feeling his way towards the madness called for in the scene, but he is much of the way there--he’ll make it. In the end, Gloucester and Lear sat on the floor together, two tired, old men clinging together as best they can. Just as affecting was Gloucester’s position after Lear’s exit, as Edgar confronted and fought Oswald. The blind man, left without his king or his anonymous guide, crouched helplessly in a back corner, listening to the sounds of confrontation and conflict and unable to fight or flee.

Perhaps a fitting end to such a heartrending scene, our Oswald gave us a moment of levity when he mistakenly “died” on the wrong side of his body, falling on top of the letter Edgar is supposed to pilfer from his corpse. Without missing a beat, he fished the letter from his pocket and slowly poked his hand up above his waist; Edgar obligingly took it. It was such a genuinely funny moment that we all laughed--the more so perhaps because the scene had been so powerful.

The next scene, in which Lear and Cordelia reunite, was clean but a little flat. Frannie assured everyone that we’d find the scene, given some time. It’s a tough moment to stage.

Act V barrels to its conclusion, and it started with some good action between Edgar and Regan. “Wait,” said an observant member, “did I miss something, or are they flirting?”

At last, we made it to the final scene. And, wonderfully, our Albany really took the reins in this scene, which he had never done before. He directed the action, and confronted Edmund strongly. As so often happens, this gave everybody else license to bring more energy to their own performances. Our Goneril raised his voice to match Albany’s, and Albany responded in kind, reaching a peak as he hollered “Shut your mouth, dame/Or with this paper I shall stop it!” Which earned him some vocal appreciation from the rest of the ensemble.

Ultimately, we struggled a little with the scene after Goneril’s exit. There is so much action, such a non-stop high emotional pitch, that it really takes a running start to get there, and any little thing can derail it. Regan and Goneril’s “bodies” were so funny as they assumed their position on stage that the laughter took the wind out of Lear’s sails, and it was hard to recover. Still, Lear’s voice boomed out on the open vowels of “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” And our Kent rallied to create a touching moment between himself and Lear as he finally reveals his identity.

Whew! We made it! It felt good to make it all the way through the play, and the whole ensemble is so hungry for more: more work on their acting, more time spent working on individual scenes, more depth, more breadth. We decided that we’d think about concepts for our playing space and set on Friday. And we decided that the theme for staging from now on would be “weather patterns and battle plans.” This is an astonishing community of men, and as I left the prison today, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for them.


Friday / November 16
Written by Frannie

We played “Bombs and Shields,” one of my favorite Theatre of the Oppressed exercises, in the women’s ensemble the other night, and it was such a positive experience that I introduced it to the men today. In this game, everyone spreads out around the room and silently chooses one person to be their “bomb” and another to be their “shield.” The objective is to keep the shield between oneself and one’s bomb—and everyone tries to do so simultaneously. I explained the exercise, we took a moment, and then we launched into it.

As is typical with this exercise, it was chaos! We were in the gym, so there was a lot of space, but people clumped up pretty quickly. Soon I realized that the ensemble had more or less divided into two groups, with one scurrying back and forth while the other, at some distance, mirrored their movements more slowly. That changed, though, when I began counting down from 10 to the bombs’ “explosion.” At the last second, the entire ensemble fell into a straight line down the center of the court.

“How did THAT happen?” I exclaimed. While none of us facilitators have formal training in Theatre of the Oppressed, we’ve all spent time with it, and I can’t guarantee that this game never ends with its participants so organized, but we’ve personally never seen it. The guys were thrilled, and we started going down the line, figuring out who was whose bomb, etc., and realized that there was a pattern to the decisions that were made: a combination of choices made based on personality and/or relative position. Only a few people had managed to maintain any kind of strategy throughout the exercise; most had gone into “survival mode.”

We decided to play another round! This time, a very chaotic group moved quickly to one far end of the gym, scampering amongst each other and even over some of the gym equipment. As they did that, some of guys drifted apart, forming one smaller group, though one of them lingered in the bleachers where I was standing, and I couldn’t figure out why I seemed to keep getting in his way.

I began counting down, and by the time I got to one, this was the arrangement:

 
SMT_bombs and shields_round 2_11-16-18.jpg
 

“You guys!” I exclaimed, and we all burst out laughing again. We started figuring out what had happened.

  • A had chosen B as his shield and C as his bomb, which worked out great for him!

  • D chose me as his shield—I never explained that I wasn’t part of the game, so kudos to him for thinking outside the box!

  • The diagonal line was due to five people’s having chosen Matt as their shield. Matt said that he realized that at some point and “threw them all under the bus” by pacing and then quickly jumping behind his shield at the last second.

I asked if there had been any difference between the two rounds. “This one was more frantic!” said one man. Another said that had simply been Coffey’s fault, which cracked us all up. A third man said he’d switched up his strategy, to which another replied that everyone’s “strategies were revealed,” and that had made it easier for him to figure out a plan.

“But this is a theatre game, right?” asked one man “I don’t get how this is a theatre game.” I asked the group what they had gotten out of it.

  • No one should ever use Coffey or Matt as a shield again.

  • We’re really in sync as an ensemble—those straight lines indicate that everyone is strategizing in similar ways.

  • It made us utilize a large space, adapt quickly, and keep our mistakes to ourselves. One man said it reminded him of a space-filling exercise we did during rehearsals for The Tempest to help us figure out the storm scene.

  • One man said it taught him to make predictions based on people’s personalities while staying open to improvisation.

This last observation led us into a more detailed discussion about how the exercise applies to this ensemble and this play. First of all, it embodies the basic acting choices of objective, obstacle, and tactic, which differ from person to person. As noted, too, it showed us how we can improvise within parameters (the lines, etc.) based on the strength of the ensemble and how well we know each other.

“If you know what the outcome is, you can get there through improv,” said one man. We have to do that a lot—even in professional theatre, all kinds of wrenches can get thrown into performances; in a prison, that’s magnified. But the point was made: if we’re in sync, we can anticipate and execute the best “saves.”

We were feeling good and clearly bonding, so I moved us into another Theatre of the Oppressed game: “This Bottle is Not a Bottle”. In the variation I chose, the group sits in a circle. The first holds up an object—we used a pen—and says, “This pen is not a pen. It’s a _____,” and then they pass the object to the next person, who has to briefly interact with the object as if it is what was suggested. This repeats till every person has had a turn.

Our pen became…

A ladder

A flute

A fishing pole

A floatation device

A snake

A tree

A pogo stick

A high wire

A lightsaber

A squirrel

A chihuahua

A frog

A bow and arrow

A compass

A car

A pen

A memory wipe

“This is not a game!” joked one of the men. “This game is not a game,” said another, more seriously. “This is real life.” We’re constantly adapting quickly to what other people hand us.

One man said it had pushed us to do a lot of “vivid acting.” Another nodded, saying, “It made people get out of their comfort zone and act silly for a minute.” A third man built on that, saying that the game requires a “willingness to commit,” which led another man to add that we’d had to resist taking things literally and suspend our disbelief.

“That’s just it, isn’t it?” I said. “If actors have that ‘willingness to commit’—if they fully buy into what they’re doing—the audience will suspend their disbelief, too. What were the funniest moments?” The most natural ones, we all agreed. The two that stood out were when one man handed a “snake” to the next man, who immediately recoiled before gingerly taking it; another man was immediately attacked by the squirrel he was given. One man said, “You have the creativity to create a character on the spot, and also project your personality onto the pen.” “Theatre is honesty within artifice,” I replied.

We played another round, this time with my tote bag, choosing whomever we felt like to hand off the object to, rather than going around the circle in order. The bag became…

Non-dairy creamer

Dynamite

A house

$1,000,000

A box of puppies

A rooster

A hot air balloon

A bowling ball

A chair

A Micro Machine

A bobsled

A parachute at 5,000 feet

A washing machine

The cut lines from 4.3 (Jerks.)

A hacky sack

A chessboard

A dinghy

A pocket protector

A giant bottle of beard oil

As you can see, the unpacking of the first round had an invigorating effect on the second! The objects provided many more opportunities for creativity, and people were more prepared for it. When one man was handed dynamite, he gingerly set it on the ground and quickly walked away—and the entire circle followed suit. Another reacted to being given a house by lying down on his back, house atop his stomach (“Ding dong, the witch is dead,” I sang.). When one was handed $1,000,000, he looked at the “wad of cash,” said, “Shit, I’m out!” and walked away. The man who was given the bowling ball threw it down the lane; when he said, “This ball is not a bowling ball,” another joked, “Everyone uses that excuse.”

Multiple people jumped in to help with certain objects as well. One played the dog when another was given a bobsled; another joined the chess match; another climbed aboard the dinghy. That was one of the main things that excited us as we unpacked the exercise, as well as the detail some people provided, like the parachute being at 5,000 feet—it gave that person more to work with. “It was a pretty good use of space,” said one man, “and the chemistry between the ensemble.”

“What I liked about these two [exercises] was the full, equal involvement,” said one man. “There’s no sitting out. There’s no passing the buck. There was no time to really think about it,” he continued, explaining that with a game like “Bus Stop”, you have time to overthink things. But not with these games. “When they handed you the bag, they were handing you the whole entire scene,” agreed another, “and you’re inventing the whole atmosphere of the scene—and then people join you in that.”

We regrouped in the bleachers to start figuring out what our playing space will look like. Three men explained to the newbies how we’d arranged things for The Tempest. One of them then had the other two help him demonstrate how he wanted to expand the stage area, but others had doubts about how well people would be able to be heard so far from the audience.

The discussion threatened to spiral into something that would be frustrating and unproductive, so I stepped in to suggest that, first, we figure out a concept—an idea that represents the core of the story we want to tell—and then we’ll find the “look” from there. “Throw out some themes that you see throughout the play,” I said. “What have we been talking about? What have you been thinking about?”

Royal court

Interruption

Redemption

Contrast

Treachery

Busy

Emotion

Darkness

Chaos

Shallowness

Scandalous

Shelter

Terrain

Rage

Envy

Death

Jealousy

Forgiveness

Tension

Redemption (again)

Violence

Love

Artifice

Polarities / dualities

Trust

Regret

Cuckold

Power

Blindness

Stricken

Alienation

Domination

Emasculation

Corruption

Hope / hopelessness

Madness

Family

Purpose

Transparency

Machiavelli

Storm

Poetry

Justice / injustice

Disguise

Solace

Denial

Truth

Frustration

Illusion / delusion

Incomplete

Placation

Exposure

Candid

Brutality

Ruthlessness

Aggregate

Mischievous

Impotence

Power / powerlessness

Scheming

Insanity

Madness

Unknown temptation

Vanity

Fear

Hypocrisy

Pleasure

Pomp and circumstance

Turbulence

I read the list out loud a couple of times and asked if any themes emerged from those words and our emotional responses to them.

Pain

Ambivalence

Confusion

Battle for the chair

Opposing passions

Raw nature

Impotent power struggle

Denial

Dichotomy of honor

Morality

Darkness and light springs from the same heart

Extremes

Fate

Desperation

Conflicting agendas

Alchemy

Tragedy of duality

Contrast

Exposure

And what can we pull out of that, I asked? Can we distill these themes into a sentence? Here’s as far as we got:

Exposing human nature in its rawest form...

This has something to do with the conflict within us and between us.

When human nature—the conflict within and between us—is exposed in its rawest form, ______…

We know self.

You create your own enemies.

Your wants and needs take primacy.

We truly see ourselves / can no longer be blind.

We’re forced to see our true selves.

Through heart’s imperfect journeys does mind know truth of spirit.

Humans are prone to go to extremes—the truth is somewhere in between.

“Storms don’t just come out of nowhere. We can see them coming.” (Which I remembered an ensemble member saying earlier this season.)

The truth is exposed when things come apart.

One man went on an epic rant about his main takeaway: “The villains in this play—they’re not self-made. Regan and Goneril—Lear made them. Edmund? Gloucester made him… All of these ‘villains’ who are after the old men, we feel so sorry for at the end—the old men made them that way… In this play, the villains are these guys we feel so sorry for. They made their own enemies… You feel for Edmund in spite of the shit he does. You feel for him. So what was done to these sisters to make them the way they are?... These ain’t no people from France or Spain coming in to cause [Gloucester’s and Lear’s] downfall. This is their children.”

We ran out of time without settling on one concept. I suggested that we all take the weekend to keep writing and brainstorming, and see what we could bring to the table on Tuesday. If we do that, I think we’ll have a solid concept and performance space setup by the end of that session.

It was a really, really good day.