Tuesday / December 4
Written by Matt
As goofy as they can be, these guys do not waste time in getting to the heart of things! One of our core ensemble members read us a short piece he has been working on. It was somewhere between a poem and an essay, and it had an immediate effect on the ensemble--and on him. Right after he finished, another guy gave a whoop of support, and another mimed dabbing the reader’s eyes with a tissue. “Where’d that come from?” asked our Albany. “Something I’m going through,” answered the man who had read.
“Hey! Did you feel something right then, as you were reading?” asked one of the guys. When the reader said he did, the first man confessed that he often doesn’t feel anything when he knows he’s supposed to feel something, but then he’ll feel more than he “should” about something totally unconnected to him, like a song or a moment in a film. Some of the other guys understood exactly what he was talking about. One added, “I’ve felt like that before, but I’ll tell you--it sometimes takes the weirdest thing to make me feel it.” He went on to say that he didn’t know how to deal with those emotions as a teenager, so they just ended up confusing him or getting him into trouble.
“So, that’s normal?” asked the man who had brought the issue up, “for someone to feel something and not know what it’s about?” Our Lear nodded, saying, “You don’t know how much you got buried until you go digging.” The man who read his piece added, “You’ve got to make yourself vulnerable to go there.” They talked about sometimes feeling like they go around with masks on, and the man who read earlier said, “Sometimes, you get so used to putting on the mask--you don’t really know how to take it off.”
A few guys talked about how stories help them reckon with themselves. The man who read his piece said that when “it all builds up, I just have to [write]... This is the only outlet I have!” Another said that writing his autobiography and reading it out loud helped him put his memories into context and establish the events that shaped him: “There are certain key events in your life that dictate how you are,” he said, but said that he couldn’t figure those out until he wrote them as part of a larger narrative about his life.
This conversation was really great, and it was also a bit of balancing act for the facilitators. Shakespeare in Prison is not a therapy group, and none of us is a trained therapist (whenever we verge into these sorts of conversations, Frannie and others periodically remind the ensemble of that fact). At the same time, the safety of our ensemble gives our members a rare chance to be vulnerable and genuine--for some of them, it is the only place where they feel safe opening up--and we would never want to lose that benefit of the group. So we end up acting as guardrails in these conversations, not so much actively responding to members’ thoughts and stories as actively listening to them, staying alert to anything that feels beyond our competencies. This conversation never went there--it was an important moment for these men to connect and share experiences--but Frannie eventually urged us on to new ground, once the guys who wanted to share had had a chance to do so.
The other check-ins were about personal updates or the play. Our Edgar has been spending a lot of time visualizing the performance, and he has been working his way through the scenes, thinking about them in terms of some of the exercises we have done this season. He said that he was analyzing the objectives of each of the characters in each scene (working from that central question of modern acting: What do I want?), and, which was even more exciting, he had been visualizing the play in terms of a series of wordless tableaus, based on the Freeze Frame game we played with Vanessa earlier this season. He also had a really great suggestion: “I wonder if it would be possible to run through the entire play, but without saying any words.” He thought it might help clarify motivations and movement onstage, and it would relieve the barrier of needing to know the words. There was a lot of excitement about this idea, and we tabled it for another day.
Then, our Gloucester revealed that he had written a “Dear John” letter to his previous interpretation of the character. He tried to get out of reading it. Frannie, however, was having none of that; she dragged a chair to the center of the ring and pointed to it. The letter was absurd--absurdist, really. “I need to break up with my old vision of you,” he said. “You will not [anymore] look like Monty Python… Even your daddy gave me the authority to control you.” It was funny, but by the second page (yes, there were more than two pages), the absurdity had become a piece of comic genius. Having dispensed with “Old Gloucester,” he welcomed the new character, named “Big Money G-Lo” into his life.
“Your name is Big Money G-Lo. What’s up?” the letter began. What follows was copied with his permission:
You order your Starbucks as:
Venti Mocha Caramel Latte
with 2 pumps of syrup
And absolutely NO foam
You don’t like foam; it drives you crazy.
Your Fav designers are
Malls are Nothing but Peasants Shop!
You don’t like
Macy’s - thrift store
Sears - Ha!
Walmart - Base criminal. Over my dead body
Dollar store - I will crush them with my wallet (Lear bought that)
Banana Republic - 3rd world country
Everyone thought that this was about the funniest thing we had ever heard, and it led us right into the next scene, in which Gloucester shows up after Edmund’s monologue in Act I, scene ii. The run-through was solid, if a little rough, but the guys were already beginning to implement some of what they practiced on Friday. During our debrief, one of the guys brought up the characters’ ages, and we stopped to discuss it. The relative ages of Edgar and Edmund are set by the text (“I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of a brother” says Edmund), but not their actual ages, Gloucester’s age, or the difference between the brothers’ ages and their father’s.
As we discussed it, Frannie asked our Gloucester if he might be judging his character. He looked a little startled as he thought. “Yeah…” he said. “I guess I am.” Frannie talked a bit about the importance of not judging your characters--something we all need to be reminded of sometimes. When she was finished, one of the older members of the group jumped in to talk about the age discussion, which had put Gloucester tentatively in his sixties. “All you cats playing older characters, I can really help you!” He went on to describe his own experience of ageing. “When I turned 60, a lot of things changed in me that became a part of my persona,” he said, but then he added that the number of years is both important and also a poor unit of measurement for what going through life feels like. “The process is not about the numbers,” he said. “The process is about ageing.” He turned to our Lear and said, “There will be some times when Lear is capable, but no one thinks he’s capable.”
On a second run through the scene, both the actions onstage and the relationships were clearer. Afterwards, Gloucester said, “it felt more natural.” He said that the age discussion had helped, as had Frannie’s comment about judgment. “After the epiphany of [his] age--and to slow it down--you can actually marinate in the words.” Then, turning to the man who had spoken with such candor about his own experience of ageing, our Gloucester assured him that speaking slowly is not an “old people thing.”
“What center did you have, Gloucester?” asked out Lear, calling back to Friday’s work. Gloucester thought for a moment, then answered, “When I came in, it was a thick veil. But that veil got lighter as I was thinking. Lighter, and more vulnerable. And when I saw Edmund, I thought he saw my veil, and I needed to get myself together; nothing to see here!” He described how he had chosen an unconscious tic for Gloucester (pulling up and fixing the collar of his coat) that embodies his discomfort with being seen.
“Don’t explain it to me!” cut in another member. “I thought you were really believable! You really looked like you were cold.” Then he turned to Edmund and said that he had been less believable. Frannie instantly asked whether our Edmund had been thinking. He said he had been, and tried to walk through his actions again. The crux of the issue is how Edmund should act with his prop--a letter that he has forged, which he wants his father to read but needs to pretend the opposite. As guys got up to try to offer suggestions, they started debating the notes they were giving, building up a head of steam on this one point: When should he turn around? How much should he smile or frown? It is a slow turn, or more of a spin? How much should he act like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar? Meanwhile, our Edmund stood in the playing space, looking a little lost.
Eventually, Frannie had to step in to bring the litigation to a close, saying that she heard a lot of versions of the same note. “We had a good idea 10 minutes ago, and now we’re beating it to death.” On the one hand, we hate to do this, but on the other, it is sometimes necessary with this ensemble. This group of guys is so intellectual, so full of ideas, and so comfortable batting ideas around that they get carried away with the conversation, rather than thinking about it in terms of what the actor on stage needs. They also do what a lot of people do: describe how they would do a certain scene, rather than offering suggestions that open a path forward for the actor. Still, we don’t like driving the conversation. We’re still figuring out the balance here, which is part of the challenge of facilitating SIP.
The debate didn’t hurt the performance, though. The final time through, both Edmund and Gloucester hit so many high points! Gloucester was painfully self-conscious on being discovered in his thoughts, without being remotely funny. His energy gave Edmund permission to be cutting and cruel in his explanation of the fake letter’s fake context, gathering his voice into a weapon when he talked about overhearing Edgar discussing “father’s decline.” Gloucester grew to a towering rage, and his voice as he spoke the words, “Edmund, seek him out!” was altered: deeper, barbed with fury, and commanding.
Afterwards, there was a jubilant reaction to the performance. Asked what happened, our Gloucester again put it in terms of the Michael Chekhov exercises we did on Friday. “I usually talk from my will center,” he said, “so I got that in my old life. But I was thinking about how Gloucester would drop into his will center.” One of the guys in the audience said the connection between Gloucester and Edmund was perfect. “Yeah,” said Gloucester, “I was really feeling it. Like, yeah! Let’s go get this guy!” Then he turned to us and said, “I have a confession to make. I wanted to go down on my knees with him” during the scene, when Edmund kneeled. The group erupted briefly in support (“Oh my God!” “Yeah!” “Come on!” etc.), and Gloucester said he was really bummed he hadn’t followed that instinct.
There was plenty of love for Edmund, too. “I was right there with y’all!” exclaimed a usually quiet member. A number of people commented on the layers of Edmund’s character as embodied by our ensemble member--how there’s so much pretense, so much acting. He piped up to say, “That’s it! I’m an actor playing an actor that’s acting!”
As we hurried to put the ring up in the final moments of the session, our Edmund added, “You know how we were reading through this [play], and we were all, like, ‘Oh, this is so sad; this is so depressing.’ There’s comedy there.” He ran through blatantly “hiding” his forged letter again. “That’s comedy.”
Friday / December 7
Written by Frannie
Well, I called it.
Our Gloucester kicked off check-in with a follow-up to Tuesday’s meeting. “I have a confession to make,” he said. “Frannie, you were right. I was absolutely projecting myself onto Gloucester.” He paused. “That’s one of my greatest weaknesses, that I can be judgmental sometimes.” He took out his notebook, grinning. “So I wrote him another letter.” This letter was in the same style as the first, apologizing for being “harsh” and judging Gloucester. “This is my way of making up for what I did… The truth hit me right in the eye. Sorry. Too soon.” He said he had been thinking of himself playing Gloucester, not of the character himself. He offered to pick him up, let him play his favorite music in the car, and buy him any kind of coffee he wanted—even if it was “just java chip.”
“See, I have to understand that I’m catering to you,” part of the letter read. “This is your story, even though we share experiences. You are your best you. Your best self is you, and if I would like to tell your story to the fullest potential, I have to humble myself and let Gloucester speak for yourself. I am at your service and I in the past foamed you up, I foamed it up big time…”
He finished reading his letter, and there was a brief silence as Matt and Coffey looked slyly at me. I had been barely containing myself this entire time—now I threw my notes on the ground (as usual) and yelled, “I CALLED IT!”
There it is, time-stamped and everything. (This was in the SIP facilitators’ Slack workspace—I cannot recommend this app enough!).
As our Gloucester (and everyone else) cracked up, one of the guys exclaimed, “How did you DO that? Do you, like, have some kind of magical power or something?” Another man said, “Nah, man, she’s just been doing this a long time!” Our Gloucester, still laughing, said, “Oh my GOD, I can’t believe you did that.” “I’ve got your number!” I said.
Once I’d finished my virtual victory lap (and apologized for said victory lap), we returned to our Gloucester’s epiphany. “Being judgmental really is my greatest weakness,” he said again. “And, you know, sometimes I overcompensate by really focusing on my strengths…” He shivered a little and looked at me, then back at the group. “I feel so vulnerable right now, but it’s so cool, though. I usually in the past wouldn’t talk about my weaknesses like that, but I feel good!”
“Can I check in?” asked one of our newest members. “I just wanna say, I had a good time Tuesday… I have a really hard time being open about myself, but the way everyone was comfortable laying it all out there—I really liked that… I do have such a hard time opening up, but I feel… I feel like I could probably slowly get there.”
“Shakespeare shows you how to like different people,” said one man in response. And another said, “That’s why I come here: the stuff that’s not Shakespeare. I only kinda like Shakespeare… But it’s the dynamic here… There are a lot of people here I wouldn’t hang out with… I don’t have this out there. What I have in here, I don’t have out there.” The new member nodded and said, “I wouldn’t have hung out with half of the people here if it wasn’t for this.”
Our Lear said he’d been doing a lot of text work, both analytical and in terms of memorizing his lines. He said he’d really gotten into it in his cell the other night, which led to the following exchange when his bunkie came in:
Bunkie: “What you so mad about?”
Lear: “I’m so fucking mad at my daughters right now!”
Bunkie: “I thought you had no kids.”
Lear: “No! It’s the play, man!”
As we laughed along with him, Lear said he really hadn’t been able to help getting kind of heated. “You’re right about the words,” he said. “At first, a lot of it didn’t make sense, but the words tell you how to be!” He also shared that when he repeatedly stumbled on (and couldn’t connect with) the word “clotpole”, he replaced it with “motherfucker”, read it that way a few times, and found that the original language worked perfectly when he went back to it.
This led to a brief conversation—always important to visit and revisit in SIP—about drawing from emotional experiences rather than reliving them. If we do the former, we’re safe; if we do the latter, we risk re-traumatizing ourselves. As our Edmund put it, “I know what that anger of not feeling accepted feels like… but I don’t have to go through it again… I don’t have to live in that one time. I know what that feeling feels like.”
This conversation could have lasted for a very long time, but we decided to cut it short for the time being so we could get on with the plan: watching the first episode of Playing Shakespeare. This series of filmed master classes from the Royal Shakespeare Company, filmed in 1984, is an incredible resource and a lot of fun to watch. The first episode is quite talky, and I had been concerned that it would be too academic to be very engaging, but the second people started laughing at the Christopher Marlowe monologue, I knew we were good.
Afterward, I asked the group what they thought. “I liked it,” said one of the guys. “I noticed that trying to have a normal conversation [with Shakespeare’s text] doesn’t work, and this kinda breaks it down for you. It never works when you try to do it the way someone talks now.”
“That’s the key, right? To let the words do the work?” said another man. “Shakespeare wrote it that way for a reason… I wanna add juice to it, but it’s not necessary… When you really just allow the speech to happen, the words will lead you where you need to go.”
“I took about 4-5 pages of notes,” said another man. “What stuck out to me was the marriage between naturalism and heightened language… You being to see that the emotions jump off the page… Man. I need to stop fighting with Shakespeare.”
“I feel like John Barton would have done better if he didn’t have actors who was so trained in their craft,” said one man with a smile. As we laughed, he said, “No, I’m serious... There’s no one way to see Shakespeare. We can sit around here and argue, but it comes down to the words… It’s not so different now. We live a little longer, we’ve got more ways to kill each other. But it’s the same.”
Another man agreed. “We’re approaching it from a whole different forum—from marriages, from experiences… A bunch of guys that’s trying to put something together—a bunch of people investing in their abilities to interact with other people… We’re not just doing a play… Our approach is unique.” Another man agreed, “Whatever they’re drawing from, we can’t draw from that… We’ve got to draw from our own things.”
“You’re right,” I said, “Our approach is unique, and in a lot of ways, I think it’s better.” Some of the guys nodded, while others looked at me doubtfully. “Really. I’ve gotta tell ya, when I describe this process and the discoveries you guys make about the plays, all the professionals I know get really intrigued and excited. And jealous.”
We picked our staging back up with the first scene between Edgar and Edmund, which is also the end of Act I, scene ii. Our Edgar was off book, though he refused any accolades for that, as his lines in the scene are very brief. Our Edmund was still working with centers, but, without a warm up, definitely struggled. “I got little cues for how I was feeling, but I couldn’t hit it,” he said. “I couldn’t hit my desperation… I don’t have anybody to rehearse with, so I try to imagine the other characters’ reactions, so I can use that.” Our Edgar responded, “I use the intent. The intent of the scene.”
Even so, there was some good stuff there, and when we asked them both to increase the urgency and see what happened, the scene really started to pick up. We left it in a good place and resolved to really kick out the jams on scene work when we meet again on Tuesday. The exercises and videos are great, but we do actually need to stage this play!