Tuesday / December 11
Written by Frannie
As planned, we began our work by running Act I, scene ii, without stopping—the scene is more or less divided into three parts, and we hadn’t rehearsed them in sequence yet.
It worked beautifully! Our Edmund took his time preparing and delivered a deliberate, connected, and very believable soliloquy. When Gloucester entered, his approach was much more natural than last week—it was clear that he’d spent significant time with the scene on his own—and the two connected with each other more than we’d seen in the past. Gloucester kidded with Edmund when asking for the letter, then slowly grew more and more horrified as he read it. The hurt and anger were palpable, and as he wandered off, rambling and disoriented, Edmund turned to us with a smirk that caused a ripple of knowing chuckles in the ensemble, and we watched as our Edgar played naturally right into Edmund’s hands.
“You guys killed that up there with the way you interacted!” exclaimed one man as we applauded. “It was like everything was happening for a reason. That was the pinnacle of the scene right there!” Others commented on specific moments they’d loved, praised the men for incorporating all the work we’d done on the scene, and offered suggestions of how we can build on it. As an ensemble, we’re working on using “could” instead of “should”; it’s one of those subtle things that can make all the difference in how an actor hears our suggestions. Our Gloucester said he “should have created more urgency… that [Edgar] should get caughtfor this mess,” and the group reminded him that he’s already on his way: on the line “Hath he sounded you?” he actually threw the letter at Edmund in his sudden, irrational anger.
We moved on to Act I, scene iii. Our Goneril and Oswald consulted with a man who’s gone through his entire script, sketching out blocking ideas. The two actors then set a small table and chair center stage and took a moment to focus before they entered. They walked into the performance space in silence, and Goneril sat in the chair before speaking. He stood up for a few lines, then sat back down; all the while Oswald hovered without moving much.
“How did that feel?” I asked when the scene ended. Before either actor could answer, another ensemble member good-naturedly said, “Not COLD enough!” I joked that I hadn’t been asking him (we all know at this point that the actors get to answer first!), but none of us actually minded, and the actors said they agreed with him. How to do this, then? Our Goneril said he had probably been thinking too much and hadn’t felt connected; our Oswald said (rightly) that he couldn’t do much independently and would just go off whatever Goneril did.
Another man suggested a way that Goneril could alter his movement to feel more natural with a character this angry. Several guys joked about what he might be implying, and the man cut them off gently, saying, “I’m not asking [NAME] to do anything—I’m asking [NAME] to be [NAME].” He then demonstrated what turned out to be the quintessential “walk” this guy does when he’s angry. We also helped Goneril clarify his objective (as it stands now: “to manipulate the situation”), and we ran the scene again.
There was an immediate improvement: both actors felt more connected to their lines, and they clearly connected more with each other. Goneril’s urgency increased to a point where he never sat down. We asked the two what made all of that happen. “I just changed my mind frame,” said Goneril. “I got more frustrated.” Another man said it had seemed like there was an invisible rope between the two of them, their movements had been so complementary. “Every single time he would move, I would give way to him,” Oswald said. He continued, “When [he] gave me the order to be mean to King Lear, I was like, ‘Oh, this’ll be fun.’” And Goneril’s heightened energy seemed to have made the furniture unnecessary, so we struck it.
But our Goneril, who takes this work very seriously, was still not satisfied. This ensemble member has been reading several acting books and is currently up to his eyeballs in Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor. Building on the imaginary centers exercise the ensemble did, as well as the deeper research he’s doing, I suggested that he center Goneril in “thinking” and imagine that his fingers were long icicles, briefly demonstrating how that “imaginary body” could help him achieve what he’s going for. “And you’d better look out,” I said to Oswald, “because those things are sharp!”
This time, things really started to click. Goneril was downright scary; Oswald seemed legitimately scared of her! “The rigidity made it clear that there was no changing your mind,” said one man to Goneril. “The first couple of times, there were some places in the dialogue where you could have changed your mind… Not this time.” We unanimously agreed. “I could sense your discomfort,” said another man. Goneril warned us to be grown-ups and then revealed that, in addition to his other methods, he’d imagined himself to be wearing a corset in order to really stiffen his spine. He’d also used Chekhov’s “radiating” to picture himself doing actions before he moved; that had helped him think less and feel more natural.
After a lot of planning, we launched into Act I, scene iv, in which Kent shows up in disguise, we meet the Fool, and Goneril and Lear have their first big conflict. There were a lot of starts and stops—it’s a complicated scene with dynamics that are a little buried in the text, but we found them! Or at least we started to find them… Once the Fool entered, everyone struggled to connect. Increasing Lear’s and the Fool’s physical proximity helped (“Sometimes it’s just that simple,” said one man), but something was still missing. For whatever reason, our Fool took a lot of that on himself, and the ensemble began making all sorts of suggestions to help him out. The result, though, was that he got really overwhelmed, and as our time began to run out, I took him aside with just a couple other guys to talk him down a little.
“I don’t know, man,” he said. “This felt good the first time I read it, but now I don’t know.” I asked if he could remember what had been enjoyable before, and he said it had been “just being a jester.” Our small group encouraged him to go back to that for now, and to build from there as he becomes more comfortable. This man is a musician, and I compared this kind of character work to producing a song: start with just one element, and then layer on others one at a time till you’ve got the sound and balance you want. “That helps a lot,” he said, already relieved.
We left it there, planning to come back to the Fool’s entrance and move forward from there on Friday.
Friday / December 14
Written by Matt
Today we were in an unfamiliar classroom--another program was having its graduation ceremony in the gym. Perhaps because of the change in setting or just because it was time, we took our time during check-in. One member reminded us that he wrote a paper on composer Hector Berlioz’s obsession with Shakespeare. “Well, I got 100 percent on it!” he said, and everyone clapped. And speaking of successes with writing, four of our members read poetry at the poetry slam on Tuesday, and two were ranked among the best! Also, because it was the right time, there was general agreement when one of the guys suggested doing a status update on the group next Tuesday.
Our Lear was ready to do scene work! “I wanna cuss out Goneril!” he said, and we picked up where we left off: Act I, scene iv. After doing so much work on the Fool on Tuesday, we gave him some space to explore his character. He still wasn’t happy with it. “I worked on it yesterday,” he said, “I had a cool little accent I was gonna put on, but I guess I got shy.” He demonstrated, and the voice altered his entire demeanor. When he was done, a bunch of the guys commented that he hadn’t actually changed his accent at all; it was the quality of his voice that had changed. It was almost like a song, someone said. “[Fool’s lines] are like a song,” our Fool agreed.
Meanwhile, one of the guys was trying to figure out the tone of the scene. “Do we want to laugh at that point?” he asked, “Is that what we want?” The Fool replied with a chuckle, “I think it’s all funny.” Lear was having none of that: “Not the Fool,” he said, “No. He’s telling the truth.” The man who had brought it up took a step back and commented on how we could use humor to help tell the story: “This is the way with comedy. You take it so far, then you pull it back. You take it so far, you pull it back.”
The second time through that section, the Fool started using his hat as a prop, handing it to Lear and Kent, then taking it away. When they paused again before Goneril’s entrance, our Kent immediately praised the performance. “I liked the acting of the physicality better [this time].” He said it worked “even with you stopping and reading the [cue] cards.” Our Edgar, watching from the audience, spoke for everyone when he said, “Even from last week to now: huge improvement.”
Once Goneril entered, though, things began to get a little muddled. This ensemble’s love of analysis and debate, which was so much fun when we were reading the play, has continued to dog our rehearsal process. The issue was sharpened by the acoustics of the classroom we were in, which transformed any person’s voice into a booming echo. In the rooms we normally use, it’s a little harder to hear side conversations or people talking over each other. Not so here. We spent a few minutes circling back several times to Goneril’s body language, with several people offering suggestions. At some point, Frannie had to cut it off. “This is one of those times when we’ll need to just save whatever else we wanted to say for later.” That did the trick, but it’s still going to be an issue for us in the future. This group’s enthusiasm just needs a little bit of direction!
The second time through, we were able to finally run the scene up to its end. It was rough, but we got through it, and there was a lot to work with. Our Lear wondered about when the king’s rage starts to show. “Is the anger starting at ‘Darkness and devils’?” he asked. “It’s not what you say,” replied Frannie, “it’s what you hear.” She explained that we too often think about acting as being based on our own lines when, in fact, our characters are most often responding to someone else’s words or actions.
Naturally, since it comes up in the language of the scene, Lear’s madness became a question. “Is he just under the influence,” said one of the men, referring to our idea that Lear had perhaps been drinking with his knights before entering the scene, “or is he starting to slide off into his mental illness?” Our Lear had a ready answer: “I don’t think he’s come to that point yet.” The Fool explained Lear’s towering rage differently, “He thought they were all joking, and he thought [Goneril] was joking. But she’s not. That’s what it is.” Immediately, our Edgar chimed in to wonder, “Is he actually mad at a person, or is he mad because he has to get out of his old King Lear mentality?” Our Cornwall answered, “He wants to drink with the boys and enjoy his self, and then she wants him to stop. And he’s thinking, ‘Man, I raised you to respect me!”
As is so often the case, the third time was the charm. We ran the scene from Goneril’s entrance, and everything began to fall into place. Lear was having fun playing off the knights before growing into a venomous rage at Goneril near the end. “I feel like y’all really understand what y’all are saying!” said a new member right after we finished. Another noted how Goneril and Albany moved each other, countering and working as a unit.
At last, we started from the top and ran the whole thing together. It was great. Kent snuck offstage so surreptitiously that almost no one noticed. Albany and Goneril played off each other, although she finally moved him aside when he was in the way, which was perfect! Lear’s “Darkness and devils” gave me chills… but afterwards, Lear mused aloud that “I feel like if [our Goneril] was a woman, it would be a whole lot harder to say those things.”