Season Two: Week 26

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This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / December 18
Written by Matt

During check-in today, I floated an idea based on a suggestion made by one of the guys a while ago. For a long time, I’ve been looking for ways (other than this blog!) to make the literary and theatrical interpretations of our members visible. When an ensemble member unwittingly suggested a format that could contain these interpretations, I was ecstatic. (I’m being a little coy here because I still don’t know exactly what it is!)

That was weeks ago, though, and he asked today whether I had any updates on it--I didn’t, but I was able to share the broad strokes of it with the ensemble. They were all excited. They believe in their own ideas, and they’re always pushing for new ways to share them!

“I think that’d be dope,” said one of the guys. “I love how [SIP] grows. How it expands to include all these different people and things. I think that’s just beautiful.”

As promised last week, one of our members initiated a “group check-in.” The conversation he was trying to start required delicate handling. He first noted that the group is really open and good at talking things out--he even read a short poem about communication. Then he got to the meat of the issue: he had observed that some people in the ensemble were holding back or feeling held back. He said that some people felt that their ideas were not being considered or validated, and that the sessions sometimes looked like a conversation among the same few people. Finally, he led into the discussion with something like a pep talk: “Your voice matters. Your ideas matter. And I want us to reach out to each other to try and communicate these thoughts.”

The guys jumped right in, but it’s worth pausing to note that this all came from a relatively new member of the ensemble, who came on partway through the season--in the fall. He has said that he wants to be viewed as “an elder,” and he’s well on his way, if today is any guide. The way he opened the conversation was masterful.

The first voices to speak up, perhaps predictably, were from the most vocal members of the ensemble. They were respectful, but they were clearly feeling a little wrongfooted. “What does that look like?” asked one of the guys, when the first man suggested that there must be a better way. Another of the vocal members suggested that some people may just be trying to figure out where they fit in.

Two of the men who have felt shut down said that part of their frustration is that the group does not always pay attention when people have raised hands. Another spoke up to own that he doesn’t always honor the raised hands because he gets really excited about ideas and conversation. “We do it too much,” he said, promising to be better. “I do this the worst,” confessed another man. “You should just cut me off. I actually like getting cut off.”

One man noticed that the conversation was once again mostly among the five or six most vocal participants. “This is a group discussion,” he said, then gestured to a group of men who had said very little. They remained mostly silent, so our Gloucester said he didn’t really see the problem. He said he felt like “our chemistry has grown,” but admitted that he has “blind spots” (he chuckled a little at himself about his blind spots), and added, “That’s a lot of where this comes from.” A few people nodded. “Yes,” chimed in another man, “and it’s a slippery slope.”

Then a veteran who had been part of this ensemble since day one spoke up. “All this sounds great,” he said, but in “real life,” it was actions that counted. “If a guy doesn’t feel safe in the group, he’s not going to share.”

A bunch of guys started piling on, asking what the answer should be. One member said, “I’m about the action. What do we do?” At this point, the man who started the conversation intervened to gently redirect: “We’re not looking for answers today,” he clarified. He said that they were looking to give people a chance to explain their thoughts and feelings, and he warned against focusing on solutions now. “We’re doing something more here than just putting on a play,” he said.

A few of the guys were still visibly defensive, but Frannie stepped in to explain that some people have felt like confidence was betrayed, and she used the example of the women’s ensemble to explain that SIP has only had long term problems with members who’ve broken confidence when the breach is kept secret or the person responsible has denied it. “Over there, it’s airtight,” she said of the women’s ensemble.

A new member spoke up to affirm that he didn’t completely trust the group yet. “There is something hanging over this ensemble,” he said. “Maybe y’all don’t know it, but I see it.” One of our veterans added that the “dynamic has changed.” He said he didn’t want to speak for others, but he knew that some people were holding back because they worried that what they said might leave the confines of the group. “We’re not as tight as the groups were here before,” he closed.

One vocal member had been holding a comment in for a while. “I don’t give a fuck what people say about me on the yard,” he said. “We all got problems. I got problems… This is about being in a group. This happens in a group.” He spoke a little about how he resisted SIP for a long time--he’s never liked being in big groups, and he’s not a generally trusting person, he said--until a couple of veteran members talked him into it. “I didn’t think I’d talk,” he said, “then I just started talking. Now, I can’t stop talking!” And everyone laughed; he described himself perfectly.

The man who talked about our changing dynamic jumped back in to say that he had personally heard people bring up things that happened to him in SIP--people who are not part of the ensemble. Another member said he had had a similar experience. A man who had stayed mostly quiet said that, from his perspective, the people who left the ensemble did it because they had trust issues with the group. He said this with understanding, adding that he also had a trust issue for a long time, but that he had gotten over it.

The man who’d said he couldn’t stop talking chimed in again to say that all sorts of people had opened up during the season as a result of the process. He was still a little dismissive of caring too much what gets said about him on the yard. “I been doing this too long, in the joint, to care too much for that.”

Matt stepped out of the room for a few minutes. This section is written by Frannie:

One of the guys said he didn’t see why people would vent about each other on the yard--that this group is important enough to him that he’s been keeping a “problem” with another member to himself and has just limited contact, rather than causing any undue tension. Remarkably, he addressed this person directly, saying more or less that he didn’t dislike him, but that he got really aggravated with him a lot. That member smiled and said, “Shoe’s on both feet!” He said, too, that he’d love to have a conversation about it any time, though the man who’d brought it up said he wasn’t ready. I thanked them both for being so open and so civil, and I offered to mediate that conversation whenever they were ready.

Another member touched on the “outside talk” issue once more, urging people not to “get on the bandwagon” with those conversations. Some of the guys get a lot of shit from their friends outside the ensemble and can feel intense pressure to respond a certain way. Navigating a new identity is an enormous challenge--we all know that--but we still expect sensitive things to be kept within the group.

Our Lear said his only real problem with anyone is when they come “unprepared” to work, meaning that they haven’t spent a lot of time with their lines or are unfamiliar with their scenes. A veteran said he gets it, but not to let it drive him crazy: this is how some people learn to be prepared! He suggested that members gather outside of regular sessions to increase familiarity and comfort--with the play, and with each other.

It felt like the conversation was coming to a close, so I proposed an action plan. Each individual will honestly assess how they might be contributing to the problem, AND how they can contribute to the solution. We must do this for ourselves, as individuals, and be willing to be held accountable by others when we make mistakes (because we will). By that same token, we must trust that every other member is doing the same thing, and we must be sure to be constructive when we let them know that they’ve made a mistake. We will do our very best to let go of any issues that came up before today so we can move forward. And we’ll know the plan is working as trust re-solidifies, and when ensemble members stop hearing sensitive things they’ve shared on the yard. The man who’d initiated the conversation read a poem to wrap up, and we moved on.

Back to Matt!

At last, we dove into working on our scenes. Frannie went to write down the guys’ measurements for costumes, but that still left everyone we needed to run through the end of Act 1. It took a little while to get back into acting mode, and the first scene--Act 1, scene 4--was long and energetic, but we worked our way into it. By the end of the scene, as Lear (Juan) strode back onstage to offer another curse at Goneril, we were in the swing of it!

Act 1, scene 5 is an intimate moment between Lear and the Fool--Kent is onstage for a second before leaving them alone. Before starting, I went to Lear and the Fool to ask what story they wanted to tell with the scene. Fool wasn’t sure, since it was his first time through the scene, but Lear had a clear idea in mind. “This is when Lear starts to lose it,” he said.

The scene is short--only a minute or so--so the guys ran through it once to try it out. At the end, a lot of the guys who had been watching were a little bit confused. Our Fool admitted to his own confusion: “I don’t know what this is,” he said. “What’d y’all see?” Our Regan described his idea of the Fool’s attitude, saying, “It’s like, ‘I’m telling you now that this is gonna happen. You won’t believe me, but it’s gonna happen.’”

They ran it again, but there was still something missing. A couple of the guys jumped in to suggest that Lear stand up and be more dynamic with his movements, but Lear dismissed those ideas, thanking them but sticking to his vision of the scene as small, intimate, subtle, and seated. Meanwhile, I asked the Fool what he was really trying to tell Lear throughout the scene. He said, “That he screwed up, but there’s nothing he can do now. It’s too late.” I suggested that he try focusing on getting that information across to Lear, regardless of the words he was saying, just as an exercise. Then we reset for the top.

The third time, which is so often the charm, looked like a totally different scene. The Fool’s urgency propelled both actors forward, infecting Lear with the same dynamic energy, and they finished the scene in half the time it took last time. “That was great!” exclaimed Lear, “I just fed off him.” The men who were watching mostly agreed, although one said that he wanted something more. “There’s a disconnect in that scene somewhere,” he said. “What are you trying to project?” The Fool answered immediately. “I think we’re trying to project that disconnect,” he said. “I’m trying to tell him that It’ll be the same shit with [Regan]. But he’s not hearing me.”

Our Regan had an idea for improving the fourth run. He turned to Lear and told him to resist being pulled along by the Fool’s urgent energy. That was the note, it turned out, that needed to be given. The fourth run was truly accomplished--touching, really. The Fool’s need to communicate something to Lear and Lear’s total inability to hear or understand his message were beautifully specific and crystal clear. Lear, in fact, seemed to be so lost in his thoughts that he could barely see his companion, who was trying so desperately to tell him something important--to save him. After that run, both Lear and the Fool exchanged a look and smiled at each other; in their characters’ disconnect, they had connected.

Friday / December 22
Written by Coffey

Today’s session saw the men particularly energetic and excited to rehearse (mostly because the play is really coming together, but partially because of some holiday candy). Our Gloucester shared with us that he had found his character’s “secret weapon,” a cane! “It’s helped me to perceive what it’s like to rely on something like this,” he said. He explained that using a cane in rehearsal, and also outside of sessions, has helped him to better understand Gloucester’s world and sympathize with his outlook. Gloucester wasn’t the only character in the group that was becoming more realized. Goneril checked in, saying, “I’m glad that Lear is gone, but my place is all smashed up and the silverware is gone.” Another man, who plays one of Lear’s attendants, replied to Goneril’s concerns: “I’d say sorry about the place, but I’m not. And as for the silverware, have you looked behind the dresser?”

After more life updates, and even a beautiful new poem from one of the men, Frannie wrapped up the check-in by telling the guys about our plans to bring in some guests to sessions in the upcoming months. One man expressed excitement at the thought of sharing the SIP experience with new people: “Anytime you can bring anybody in here from the outside, that’s a good thing! We want as much exposure as possible.”

Before we began our rehearsal, one man shared with the group his concern that scene I.v, because of some bumpy rehearsals, might need to be cut: “I think for the amount of time we’ll spend on it, it won’t be worth it… I don’t think we’re gonna get it right.” This concern sparked a fruitful conversation as many members of the group came to the scene’s defense.

One man pointed out that the way the other man’s concern was phrased might be hurtful to those who act in the scene: “When you say, ‘We’re not gonna get it right,’ and you’re not in the scene—I don’t like it. Because you’re not one of the guys who’s up there trying to get it right… It feels like you’re taking their work away.” The man quickly responded, “That’s not what I meant!” The other interjected, “I know—that’s what I’m telling you,” and the first man further clarified that, while he wasn’t at all questioning the capability of the actors, the scene felt out of sync. “I think this scene isn’t supposed to be synchronized,” one man said, pointing out that Lear and the Fool’s relationship begins to shift during that scene, and their usual roles fall out of joint. Frannie asked if maybe the issue here was the wording that the first man had chosen to express his concern.

Our Lear calmly said, “It is true, [NAME], the way you phrase things makes a difference. I’m up there busting my ass, learning the lines, and you come and say, ‘That ain’t right.’” The first man emphatically responded, “I don’t mean to come across as saying you aren’t doing a good enough job… I want to clarify that.”

Another man pointed out that “these initial run-throughs are just rough run-throughs… This is just a rough draft of what may or may not happen in the final show.” Another man redirected the discussion, reminding us all to ask ourselves if I.v furthers our original concept. “A couple weeks ago we came up with a sentence to define the play,” he said. “To me, this [scene] fits.” Matt pointed out that the man’s concern helped us to reevaluate what makes this scene important to the play. With that in mind, and reminding ourselves that we are only just in rehearsals, we agreed to keep the scene for now and see how it fares in the future.

We focused on II.i and II.ii, a large sequence that takes place in Gloucester’s castle. The men had great instincts and thoughtfulness with the scene, giving it a much-needed sense of urgency. Even Gloucester, with his cane, used that momentum to hurry towards the wounded Edmund and tear off his knit hat to help dress his wound. At one point Gloucester became the center of discussion, as the men began to give him suggestions as to how he, as an old man, should behave on stage. Frannie reminded everyone that, especially since Gloucester is very much still a character in the making, it would be best to stay away from “should” or “shouldn’t” comments, and instead ask the actor what he might be feeling are possibilities for the scene. The ensemble can also tend to overload actors with notes between runs, a habit that did get progressively less pervasive throughout the rehearsal.

In moving forward with the two scenes, blocking ended up taking the center of attention. Beyond the basic complications of microphone and backdrop placement, a lot of time was spent planning out entrances, major crosses, and exits. One member reminded the group that we have four entrances to take advantage of. He then shared his vision for the scene’s blocking, walking the actors through each major shift. The resulting blocking was slick and had some striking images, but Frannie pointed out that, at some points, it felt like the actors were fighting their instincts in order to stick to the staging. What was encouraging, though, was that many actors were giving blocking suggestions or making choices for the sake of character and storytelling. Gloucester, for instance, when given the suggestion to sit during II.ii, refused, holding to the character’s worry and sense of decorum within the scene. The blocking choices during this rehearsal were many and strong. Thankfully, our “stage manager” did a good job of trying to synthesize everyone’s ideas into a cohesive whole.

It was encouraging to see material from some of our previous exercises being pulled into onstage work today, as the men began to show developed characters and storytelling. Regan, for instance, was using a mix of stick and veil physicality (taken from the Chekhov centers exercise) to great effect, giving the character a regality and femininity that stood out among the other men on stage. Another man, while standing in a tableau, moved to prevent another actor from upstaging himself without missing a beat, practically out of habit. The man playing Kent has even begin to string some of his own personality into the character, giving Kent a personality that I had never thought to give him, but that is becoming more and more interesting and engaging as it grows. The men repeatedly encouraged each other to stick with their characters’ thoughts, instincts, and relationships. One man recounted a previous rehearsal in which he was swept into the scene by another actor’s performance, promising the other actors that, if they stay present on stage, “you’ll feed off each other.”

It was obvious that many of the men had spent time outside of sessions thinking and practicing, a trend that promised to continue, as one man suggested that everyone try working with a partner on scenes outside of sessions. Several men even offered to organize a time and space for outside practice, a great piece of encouragement that will hopefully carry into future sessions.