Season Two: Week 22

Tuesday / November 20
Written by Matt

We started off on a high point today, as one man, his breath still a little short, said that 20 minutes earlier, he had been in “a situation.” Despite the circumstances, he said, he “didn’t respond the way I was used to,” and added that he was applying what he learned in our ensemble to defuse the situation. In the end, he said, he had sat down with the other man involved and had a conversation that dissipated much of the tension. We always love to hear this; conflict resolution isn’t something we “teach” in SIP—we don’t really “teach” anything in particular—but we hear often that improved conflict-resolution skills are an added benefit of spending time in our ensemble.

Then our Gloucester talked about seeing a blind dog on TV that was somehow walking around normally, avoiding walls and everything. “And I thought,” he said, “How can I apply this to my character?” Everyone laughed, and there was a quick discussion over whether the dog was using was echolocation or something else, but it was awesome to see him so connected to his character. He’s doing amazing work. Still during check-in, another man brought up a number of Shakespeare references he’s already beginning to see and understand on television, including a Twilight Zone episode (not one of Rod Serling’s finest, he added) and dozens of Jeopardy questions.

Another member, who has been doing deep dives into history since long before he joined our ensemble, talked about a Western Culture class he was taking. The class was breezing through the Romantic period, and this man was completely taken with Hector Berlioz, the composer of Symphonie Fantastique. “He was obsessed with Shakespeare,” he said. As he was writing his paper on Berlioz, he said, “I realized—I’m a Romantic!”

When we did the ring today, a new member asked what the exercise represents. One of the guys gave a quick explanation, and another followed up: “It’s being in-tune. Like that game last time, with the bombs and the shields, and we ended up in a line because we were all in-tune.”

In-tune or not, we delved back into our discussion about our interpretation of the play’s themes. Since Friday, a number of the men had written out their thoughts. Our Lear had been writing down his thoughts about the relationships between parent and child, which he had brought up near the end of Friday’s session—how many of the characters are brought down by their own children, and how many are uplifted by them. But then he added that the play was also about the rawness of emotion. “Even the people who are cool and calculated,” he said, “are fraught with strong emotions.” He went on a moment later, “Nobody escapes their emotions. France don’t escape his. Lear don’t escape his,” and he continued listing characters: Regan, Cordelia, all of them.

Our Edgar took a slightly different tack. “People spend so much time trying to think about what ‘it’ is,” he said, referring to whatever each character fixates on, “that they can’t see what ‘it’ really is.” In that sense, he said, the play is about “when people are put in a situation in which they have to be who they are, not who they say they are.”

“That happened to me,” another member jumped in. “What you just said happened to me. I thought I was the toughest guy in the world,” he said, and described having that illusion stripped from him.

One of the guys tried to bring us back to the task at hand: coming up with a sentence or phrase that can drive our production. “Blind emotion reflects the true nature of man, in their dualities,” he offered. He explained, “The characters get revealed by their emotions, not their thoughts.” Our Goneril pushed back, saying that he finds Goneril and Regan to be calculating, not emotional. “But that’s an emotion!” said the first man, “That’s greed!”

Our Lear gently offered his perspective to our Goneril. “There’s no Shakespeare plays that have this intensity, every scene,” he said. He said, for example, that, for all of Regan’s scheming, she’s ultimately a prisoner of her emotions as deeply as any other character in the play. Gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, for instance: “That’s not no calculating move. That’s raw emotion. That’s disdain, hatred, anger.” Then he expanded his description and returned to his first comment about emotion driving the play. He said he had found an emotional hot-spot for each character—even the Fool. “If you listen to him, you feel the emotion from the Fool,” he said, “when he’s sitting down with Lear and they’re waiting for the horses.”

The man playing Kent took another angle on the play. He said that he had been thinking about the core of the play, and had come up with pride. “The pride of position,” he said, “It’s that pride that blinds them. The power of pride leads them astray.”

Our Fool added that, if pride is the key, then “Edgar swallowed his pride.” Kent countered, “Even Edgar! He ‘swallowed his pride,’ but… he has a plan, too. And that plan comes from pride of position.”

One unusually quiet member read out the last lines of the play and offered them up as a good theme. Our Albany reflected on those final lines. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” he read, then added that the first time he read them, “I was like, damn. I took that as instruction.”

Our Lear had been ruminating about the theme of pride, and he liked it. “Pride intensifies everything else,” he offered. Our Edmund reflected on his character’s pride: “He’s baseborn; he’s still not one of them. That irks his pride. It intensifies his jealousy and his enmity.” Lear nodded in agreement, linking pride to his theme of raw emotion. “Police officers hate rolling up on domestic calls—they’re walking in on raw emotion,” he said. “Add pride to that equation, and it’s some powerful stuff!”

I suggested that, for us to come up with a good statement of our theme, we might focus on a strong verb. What does pride do? “Pride masks,” offered our Edgar. “Does pride blind?” asked Frannie (referring to the group’s repetition of themes like “truly seeing”), then started digging through the text. As we continued talking, she dug up some of Lear’s lines to Gloucester from Act IV, scene vi. “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes,” she suggested. A bunch of the men pushed back on the elimination of pride from the equation, so we worked it back in, appending “but pride blinds us” to the end and saying that we’d refine it later.

In the final minutes of the session, we decided to stage the first scene of the play—which is perhaps the most complicated, at least in terms of the number of people on stage and the many important dynamics that need to be established. Our Regan took the lead in directing people where to stand or sit, placing Lear on the far right, and the members of court upstage in a line. He explained that, when called upon or speaking openly, a character would step forward from the line. It was historically accurate, he said, and it helped the audience follow the flow of the scene. “This is a rough draft of what it’s gonna be,” he said, and we began.

This section written by Frannie

After several minutes, it became clear that the actors were a little stymied. Lear seemed glued to his chair, unable to connect with the others. Edmund felt awkward staying on stage after Gloucester’s exit; it turned out that he “should” have left then, too, but that hadn’t been his instinct, so we decided to keep playing with where he could stand on stage that would make sense. Our Cordelia was also way too far from the audience during his asides. “Anyone see any solutions? I see at least one really simple one, but maybe someone has a better idea,” I said. There was silence for a moment, and then one of the men started suggesting ways of completely transforming the set. The others were hesitant. This early in the process, I tend to jump in pretty quickly to sort of “model” how this problem-solving can work, and I did so now, suggesting that, rather than reinventing the wheel, we simply shift the chairs so that we could work with diagonals, rather than lines that ran parallel to the audience. That solved most of the problems immediately and seemed to spark a new way of approaching the process for a bunch of people.

We kept working in fits and starts, pausing as we identified the challenges that arose, solving them more and more quickly. Soon, all but three chairs were gone and, rather than everyone sitting in a row, the husbands stood just upstage of their wives. Lear found all sorts of movement, helping to establish relationships and keeping him from getting stuck in his chair. At one point, one of the men and I whispered excitedly to each other that the new staging not only looked balanced (several levels and great use of space!), but the arrangement of the actors communicated their relationships with incredible clarity, even without their speaking.

The collaboration was invigorating after spending so much time discussing our concept—one of the guys even demanded that Maria give her opinion about some of the staging. The ensemble knows that, as a stage manager, she isn’t used to being asked for artistic input, and it seems that they’re now so confident as artists that they’re going to nudge her into participating just as actively. As we say when we lower the ring together, “Leave no one behind.” No one is being left behind in this ensemble. Not even Maria!