Season Two: Week 19

Tuesday / October 30
Written by Matt

Today was the first day of our stumble-through of the entire play with all of the new members! This is exciting because it’s a chance for everyone in the ensemble to really dig into their characters (now that we’re cast!), and also because having fresh eyes on the play at this point will give us a good indication of whether we are telling the story clearly or not, and how we can tell it better. It’s also a challenge: to simultaneously read the lines, figure out where to move on the stage, begin to feel the language, and also, as the guys are constantly reminding each other, to speak up! It’s a challenge for the entire ensemble to stay focused and engaged even during long scenes in which many people don’t appear, and for the new guys to keep up with a story they don’t know yet, as the actors are all stumbling through it for the first time.

What better way to meet that challenge than Act I, scene i? Half a dozen critical plot points? Check. All but one of the major characters? Check. Huge traffic jams onstage? Check. Most of the characters have only a line or two during the entire scene and need to stand silently for twenty minutes? Check. Despite all of these challenges, a quick poll of the new guys showed how much the ensemble communicated even in this complex scene. One returning member described the dynamic between Goneril and Regan, and explained Lear’s reaction to Cordelia’s honesty. A brand-new member was all over the politics of dividing the kingdom. Another new guy observed that Regan and Goneril “see that the king is slipping,” and filled in that Kent “tried to stick up for Cordelia, and he gets banished!” Messy and rough as the scene was, it was encouraging to hear that so much of it came across so clearly.

Edmund set up for Act I, scene ii, then opened by slinking, lizard-like, from behind his desk. He was all curves and soft lines, winding from one corner of the stage to another. With apparent relish and spite, he delivered the soliloquy as one part curse, one part confession. This is a man who has spent some time with those words, and it shows! Even better was his dynamic with Gloucester, his father, and Edgar, his brother, who was all straight lines to Edmund’s curves.

“Edmund is a maniacal son!” shouted one of our new members, when the scene was over. “He tricked ol’ Pops into believing his tomfoolery!” Another talked through his understanding of the plot, then came back to Edmund. “The bastard son,” he mused. “I feel his pain.”

We breezed through Act I, scene iii, and prepared for I.iv. Our Fool was not here today, so a brand-new member read in for him, and he was great! Funny, unafraid to sing, and instinctively able to become serious when the moment was right. Another highlight was Oswald, who was a wonderfully foppish coward, striking just the right balance between being insufferable and pitiable. In fact, Kent stopped in the middle of the scene to reflect: “Wait, so this is how we bond? By jumping this guy?”

Afterwards, we were a little short on time, but we started to talk about what we wanted our concept to look like. A bunch of the guys wanted to make it dark, or even post-apocalyptic (Zombie Lear was a suggestion floated, presumably in jest). Circling back to the scene we had just watched, one of the new guys was floored by the stand-in Fool’s performance.

“Man, the fool was funny!” he exclaimed, then, more seriously, “He was about… the truth.”

Friday / November 2
Written by Frannie

Check-in was solid today, with several people following up on things they said on Tuesday that they thought may have been misinterpreted (they weren’t), and with a really cool share from one of our new members. He said, “I’ll bring a brief glimpse on how Shakespeare is helping me,” explaining that when he told his wife over the phone about the group, she went out and got a copy of King Lear so she could read it, giving them something new to talk about and connect over. He is delighted, and so are we! “You know a good way to test if she’s actually reading?” joked one man. “Call her up and tell her she’s a real Regan, and see what she says!”

I brought in our rehearsal scripts today. They contain made massive cuts, made by me per the guys’ request. We decided to start using the scripts for our “walk-through”, rather than the book. Nearly all the guys were excited about how much of the work of reducing the play is already done, but one man has, for months, made no bones about how attached he is to 4.3, while I have made no bones about how inessential it is in performance. “There’s something missing, Frannie,” he taunted me, waving his script. “Oh, is there?” I teased back. “THERE’S SOMETHING MISSING,” he returned, to which I replied, “BECAUSE WE DON’T NEED IT TO MOVE THE PLOT ALONG AND WE ONLY HAVE 90 MINUTES TO PERFORM THIS PLAY.” A few minutes went by, and, as some others prepared to work 1.5, he sarcastically said, “I really don’t like this.” “I really don’t care,” I replied, to a huge burst of laughter from him and some others. I’m actually not sure I’ve heard those particular guys belly-laugh like that before, so I guess it was a good joke!

1.5 centers on Lear and the Fool, and, though significantly cut down in our script, retains its core. (This is a good cut, if I do say so myself, though we have further to go.) After we ran it, I asked if we’d made any discoveries or had any thoughts. “This is the moment where Lear is starting to second-guess himself,” said our Lear. I asked him what he thought Lear’s objective was. “He wants to be told that it’s all right,” he responded. When I asked the man playing the Fool the same question, he replied, “He wants to tell him that it’s gonna be the same with the other daughter.” Pretty cool considering how complex the language in this scene is, and the fact that this man has only been in the ensemble for a couple of weeks. Another man asked if the scene could, perhaps, be cut altogether, but there was no consensus, and we decided to table it for now. Our Kent asked if we’d noticed that he’d taken Lear’s letter, as directed, to Goneril (who was sitting in the bleachers). “It was supposed to go to Regan, though,” said Lear. “Oh,” said Kent. “I gave the letter to your other daughter. You’re gonna have to cut my head off.”

We breezed through the next few scenes, taking note of where we needed to plug in some servants, a few lines we could definitely cut, and other lines that will be up for debate later.

When we got to Edgar’s first soliloquy, the man playing that role took a moment to psych himself up, took a deep breath… and launched into it full throttle, completely off book and completely engaged. He breathed on the punctuation, lingered on certain words to paint pictures, directly appealed to the audience, and gave himself fully over to the physicality of a man on the run, hiding in the woods, completely bewildered and desperate. When he arrived at the final line (“Edgar I nothing am.”), he sustained that end beat before relaxing back into his normal posture.

“Holy CRAP,” a few of us said, while others let out the breath they’d been holding or grunted or cheered or clapped or simply sat back in admiration. One of the new guys said, “Man, I really felt it.” I asked him why. “Because I see the shame he’s feeling… That he’s in such a low position…” Another man excitedly cut him off, saying, “He was about to go to prison.” This man further gushed that—though he has self-described ADD and often has trouble staying focused—the pace at which Edgar had gone, and the time he’d given himself to breathe, allowed all of us to keep up and follow what he was saying.

Another man praised the strong eye contact with which Edgar had engaged the audience (“That made it personal,” he said), and the first man who’d commented agreed, “It drew me into the character.” The man who’d cut him off before followed up again, saying, “For a second there, I thought I was at a professional theatre.”

“Dude, so did I,” I said. “That is exactly how you want your Shakespeare,” I continued. “Remember how I’ve said that technique without heart is super boring? What was incredible about what you just did was that it was so much heart—it was so honest; nothing on it—the technique almost doesn’t matter. You don’t need much technique work anyway because you’re working so beautifully with the language and engaging us so deeply.” This man is quite humble, and his only visible reaction was to smile and nod his head, absorbing all that we said, and joking that the real reason the piece had worked so well was because he has the perfect long, bushy hair to muss up for it. (He does.)

We went on a bit of a tangent, then, about blocking—positions and movement on stage—as a couple of guys threw out some ideas, and I demonstrated how right-on they were, providing the theatre vocabulary for all they said. “So you’re just following your instincts?” asked one man. “No, man. It’s a system,” said another, intrigued. “It’s both,” I said. “Your instincts as an actor will almost always be right, or they’ll lead us in the right direction. Those of us watching will be see things a little differently and guide from there.”

We moved along, arriving at the end of 3.1 just before the end of our session. In this brief scene, Kent meets with the knight who’s been accompanying Lear and sends him to Cordelia with a message. Our Lear, watching from the side, said, “I forgot how important this scene was.” I asked him what he meant. “Because this sets up everything after this,” he explained. He shook his head. “I forgot about this scene! It sets up everything.” Another man asked if maybe it could be cut down, though, since it’s mostly a descriptive monologue, which can be a little rough on an audience. Our Lear emphatically said no, citing the strength of our Kent’s performance. “He makes you wanna listen to him,” he said, hearkening back to when this same man performed a monologue from The Merchant of Venice which, though most of the ensemble was unfamiliar with the play, we had all nonetheless been able to follow.

We played a silly circle game with the few minutes we had left. As we gathered our things, the man with whom I will apparently be sparring for the rest of the season came up to me. “Hey, just FYI. I’m going to get a ‘4:3’ tattooed right here,” he said, gesturing to his forearm. “Do it,” I replied. “That scene is still cut!”