Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 3 and 4

February 6

We began today’s session by checking in again, and we still seemed to be okay with it. We decided to give The Ring a whirl, though some of the guys clearly felt a little uncomfortable about it. One of our undisputed leaders went around the circle, miming as if he were holding a basket, and asked each of us to throw our piece of the ring in. That loosened us up a bit, and we finished out the exercise.

Several of the men, who live in the same unit, asked if they could show us the work they’d been doing on Act II Scene i. That proved to be an interesting way of taking on the scene—watching people give it a try rather than reading it first. I’m not generally a fan of this approach with Shakespeare—it tends to be challenging to figure out what one should be doing without having first puzzled through the language—but I always roll with the punches when the ensemble wants to try something out.

It was clear that this group had done a lot of work on the scene, but it’s a tough one to stage—it’s a lot of talking—and I wasn’t sure what the others had gotten out of it. We generally start with feedback from the people on stage, though, so I checked in with them first. “I like Prospero,” said one of the men. “He plays the bad guy, but he’s not really the bad guy.” As we talked more about the scene, he added, “I like the bullshitters—Sebastian and Antonio are total bullshitters.” It turned out that it was his first time performing for a group, which was shocking because he’s got such a knack for this, and we gave him a hand for taking that risk.

A man who’d been watching said that he liked the back-and-forth of the scene. “It’s like normal conversations,” he said, commending the men who’d read for doing a good job of conveying that.

Most of the men were pretty quiet, though. I asked them if any had drifted while watching—that if they had, it probably wasn’t the fault of the actors, and they shouldn’t feel bad about saying so. It turned out that many of us had. I reassured the men who’d read, again, that it wasn’t anything they’d done or hadn’t done—that this scene is just a LOT of talking with very little action, and it’s tough for contemporary audiences to stay focused on scenes like that.

One of the men, who was in the Othello ensemble, talked about how they need to really commit to their acting when performing in front of other inmates. That’s a very tough thing for many of them to do. “If you’re doing something and you don’t have no fear, it’s not even worth doing it,” said one man. The first man continued, “These guys [audience], they come from the streets—they have street smarts. They know when someone’s not being real. They know when that laugh is fake or that thing you said wasn’t for real.”

“We wear a mask every day,” said one man. Many of the men nodded, agreeing with him. The man who’d spoken of commitment continued, “Everybody wears a mask.” He gestured toward facilitator Matt and me, saying, “Sometimes I think these two do when they come in here.” He added, “When I used to sell drugs, when I’d talk to a skateboarder, I’d talk one way. With a homeboy, I’d talk a different way.” The first man chimed in, saying, “Every situation you jump into, you put on a uniform. That’s your mask.” A third man said, “It’s a set of skills,” and all agreed with him.

That first man brought it back around. “Doing Shakespeare, I’m nervous as hell. I’m sure we all were. But you gotta use that mask of confidence to get through that fear and nerves. Ain’t nothing wrong with that mask. It’s just how you use it.” Another man said, “Not to throw you all off, but I think everybody can do that—we all can do that.”

One man continued on that train of thought, saying he’s been impressed by the facilitators’ “professional actor prep.” I smiled wryly at him and said, “You’ve never done that in real life?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “It’s the same thing.”

Another man put it out there that you’re always playing a role; that it just depends on your environment. “It’s like when we get pulled over—or like when the C.O.s come—you literally role-playing.” A couple of the other men gave their own examples. “Are these masks or different aspects of who you are anyway?” I asked. The consensus was that it’s a combination, but usually whatever role you’re playing is a part of you. One man said that’s something he values about Shakespeare: his ability to see himself in and relate to the characters.

We shifted back to the scene itself. I asked what our takeaways should be, focusing first on the relationships between the characters. Antonio and Sebastian came up first—the way they make fun of Gonzalo. “They sound like pessimists, and he’s an optimist. You’re always gonna get friction there,” said one man. “Whenever Gonzalo says something positive, they have to bring him down.” One man added that he thought that Gonzalo seems like a “socialistic kind of Democrat,” while Sebastian and Antonio seem like “real reactionary Republicans.”

Another man asked why Ariel wouldn’t just leave Prospero, referring to his power as a spirit (we’re undecided on Ariel’s gender, but for simplicity’s sake, and because this is a group of men, I’m using male pronouns for now). It’s complicated. Some of the ideas that came up were that Prospero’s magic is stronger; that Ariel is intensely loyal; that he’s paying a debt; and that this is simply part of the play’s theme of incarceration: Ariel is not free to leave, period.

One man posited that Ariel can’t or won’t leave because he was there first and was “already bonded to the island itself.” Another man built on that, saying that Ariel and Caliban are natives, and Prospero has colonized the island—they shouldn’t have to think about leaving. Another mentioned that Caliban’s mother was an immigrant, and a second man jokingly said, “He’s an anchor baby!”

As the discussion continued, one man shook his head thoughtfully, saying, “It’s almost as if [Shakespeare] leaves you room to write a whole new play of your own.”

We decided to try out some improv, playing a game in which scene partners must begin each new line with the next letter of the alphabet. It is an extremely difficult game, and we had varying degrees of success. We tried to assess the reasons for that. “You get so focused on the letter, you lose the activity,” said one man, and he was absolutely right. We continued to play, reminding each other where our focus should be in each scene. One man came up with a scenario in which two others were supposed to be fighting off monstrous bugs, but they were fairly timid about it. I told them not to feel bad—that this is tough because, as adults, we’ve forgotten how to play and commit to something totally imaginary. Our instinct is to back off, and we have to unlearn that. It’s not easy.

There were a number of moments that really got us, even though the scenes overall didn’t work great. One of the men roped me into doing a scene with him, and somehow it turned into a series of taunts. When I said (my letter was J), “Just you wait till my boyfriend gets here,” my scene partner immediately came back with, “Kevin ain’t shit!” The whole ensemble burst out laughing and kind of couldn’t stop. Afterward we talked about why that had worked so well, and the answer was that he hadn’t thought about it—he’d just trusted his instinct, and that authenticity played really well.

February 13

We had to cancel our February 9 meeting due to a snowstorm, and when the guys arrived today, one of our leaders came right up to me with a plan he’d written out. He proposed breaking into four small groups that would each read and perform one of the next four scenes. He figured that if we did that and followed each scene with group discussions, we could get to the end of the play more quickly than with our usual method, which would be helpful since we’re a little behind.

I welcomed this man to lead the rest of the session, and he went about dividing people into groups and assigning roles. Some of the men were more hesitant than others, and all were extremely compassionate as they figured things out together, even switching roles to make each other more comfortable.

After about a half hour, we gathered to watch the scenes. The first was Act II, scene ii, the first scene between Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. These guys had great instincts, and, even with only a little bit of work, the scene was super funny. The man playing Stephano pretended to throw up at the end, which was a nice touch! I asked them how it had felt. “The more I do exercises like this, the more I understand it,” said the man who’d played Stephano. The man who’d played Caliban agreed, saying, “It makes it easier to relate to the characters when you can actually put movement behind the words.” A man who had not been in the scene remarked that he thought the casting was “destined,” and that these were the guys who should play these roles. We didn’t set anything in stone, though!

I asked for more feedback from the rest of the ensemble. One man mused, “It’s funny how they find this guy, and their first thought is how they can make money off him.” We talked about how typical that was in the era of colonization—how typical it still is in some ways. As we talked more about the scene, that same man said that the play shows the poor decisions people make under the influence of alcohol. We talked about who is taking advantage of whom in this scenario and decided that it’s mutual, and we’re going to keep an eye on the dynamic between these three.

We moved on to Act III Scene i, which is almost entirely between Ferdinand and Miranda. Ferdinand definitely begins the scene hauling logs, but I expected that the man playing him would come to stillness at some point. He didn’t, though. He just kept walking back and forth, miming as if carrying these logs. Meanwhile, the man playing Miranda stood still—it seemed like he couldn’t figure out how to do anything else with all of the back and forth.

Afterward, the man who’d played Ferdinand said, “I never wanna carry a log again!” We all laughed, and one man said, “That’s a big-ass fire!” I asked if the first man had felt an impulse to stop at any point, and he said that he had, but that he hadn’t been sure of what else he could be doing. I encouraged everyone to trust those instincts—if they’re not 100% right, they’ll lead us to where we need to go. Another man said he’d lost focus because the vocal delivery was fairly monotone, so we’ll want to work on that, too.

That brought us to Act III, scene ii, the next Caliban/Trinculo/Stephano scene. This scene, which is otherwise ridiculously funny and uncouth, is interrupted by an incredibly lyrical speech by Caliban about the island. I asked the ensemble what they thought about it. “He’s a poet and he doesn’t even know it,” said one man. “Yes!” I said. “What else?” Another man said, “He’s more intelligent than people give him credit for.” Right again. When no one else brought it up, I added that another feature of this speech is to convey how much Caliban loves the island. That’s important to remember.

We ended with Act III, scene iii, which was kind of confusing to watch without reading because there’s so much action that depends on staging and, probably, costumes. We got some of it, though, and the guy who played Ariel got a lot out of it. “Ariel’s a bad ass,” he said, adding that the spirit’s speech “almost had the feel of a condemning sermon… fire and brimstone… Almost a reckoning: remember your past sins… It’s almost as if she’s had enough of human nature—what we can visit on each other.”

February 16

During check-in, some of the men shared that they’ve been doing “deep improv” on their own time, exploring various characters and scenarios in an entirely open-ended way. They’re enjoying it and want to do it with the rest of the ensemble at some point. Several others shared, and then one man asked if we’d like to hear a poem he’d written. We eagerly agreed, and he launched into one of the most powerful spoken word performances I’ve ever been in the room with. He is incredibly skilled in his use of language and rhythm, and as a performer he’s simply breathtaking. He sat on the edge of a table, speaking his piece, connecting with us as a group and as individuals as he went. He’s been incarcerated for a very long time, and his piece explored the connections between people in (or in spite of) extreme circumstances. We were absolutely floored. I almost asked him to do it again when he’d finished but settled for thanking him as sincerely and emphatically as I could for sharing.

We played a couple of games and then divided up to read and stage the final two scenes of the play. We were short on actors, so facilitator Matt and I each ended up reading a couple of roles.

In my group, the man whose idea this approach was led us through our reading and discussion of the play’s final scene. “Like Frannie says, ‘What do we see?’” he asked. “I wanna say forgiveness,” said the man reading Prospero, “But it’s almost a half-assed forgiveness… It’s what everyone expects me to do.” He further explained that part of it is the “big picture” of getting Miranda and Ferdinand together. “It’s like political forgiveness, you know? It’s diplomacy.”

We tried out Act IV, scene i, on its feet, but that scene is just impossible to follow without an honest-to-goodness analytical reading. “Staging is gonna be important,” said one man. “This scene is really chaotic.” Everyone was really confused—even the people in the scene.

I said that, while I was truly glad we’ve tried this approach—and it has worked well in many ways—this is why our structure has always been to read each scene through and break it down as a group before we do anything else with it. This play is, for the most part, straightforward enough that watching unrehearsed staged readings conveys what we need, but with this scene in particular it just wasn’t possible. We need to go back and dig in.

And that’s fine. Part of SIP’s culture has always been that we try as a group, and we fail as a group, and then we figure out what we can do better—as a group. This wasn’t even a “failure,” per se. I wouldn’t call it that. We tried something new and identified what works and doesn’t work about it. It’s all good to know, and we wouldn’t know if we hadn’t tried.

The men who were still present at that point expressed their desire to explore the text in depth, particularly in regard to their vocal delivery. They are taken with the rhythm and musicality of the language, and they want to honor it. We decided that our plan for next week would be to finish reading and discussing the play on Tuesday, and to spend Friday on text and voice work. I’m excited about it. SIP isn’t focused on acting training, but when ensemble members are motivated and request it, I love sharing whatever techniques I can. I think it’s going to be really fun.