Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 1 and 2

January 23, 2018

As we gathered for the first day of our winter/spring workshop, the energy was high and the work was clearly already underway. Returning ensemble members took attendance and conferenced with me about the possibility of using a backdrop in our next performance – enthusiasm for the program is such that people who aren’t even in the ensemble are putting the wheels in motion to make that happen!

After a rousing game of tape ball, we settled in for an orientation, talking over all aspects of the program, trying to cover of our bases. One of the men said, “We are here to prove that we are more than common criminals. We came, we saw, we conquered.” Another man said, “And you got to be a whore on stage.” This led to a bunch of the guys who were in Othello reminiscing about that process and quoting the play. That was so fun that we decided to do “demos” on Friday so we could show the new members what we work toward.

One man who recently went before the parole board encouraged everyone to stick with it and give it their all; he said that “like a quarter of my interview was about Shakespeare in Prison.” Another returning member, reflecting on his experience, said, “It’s home outside of prison. It gets you ready for the street mentally. Out there on the yard, something might get bad, serious, fast, but in here, you’re safe.” He continued, “It gave me a reflection of myself and brought me back to who I am. I’m a human being. I eat, I breathe, I sleep, I cry, I do everything the same as everybody else. We all human. So when somebody clowning on the yard, and people like, ‘look at this m-----r, man,’ I feel connected to them, like, we all human.”

We then proceeded to ask and answer our traditional three questions:

What brings you to Shakespeare?
What do you hope to get out of the experience?
What is the gift that you bring?

After that, we got into some improv. I was pulled aside before long by one of our returning members to talk over some interpersonal and logistical issues. There are a few things to look out for, but we’re not really worried about of them.

Earlier, one of the guys had jokingly used a Nazi salute during a game of Energy Around, and I had taken the opportunity to use that as an example of something that doesn’t contribute to our “safe space.” I made it clear that I didn’t mean to call him out specifically and that I knew it was a joke, but that we need to avoid things like that. At one point, the guy who’d made the gesture went into another room for a while with a few guys whom I know are regarded as mentors. Now he came over to me and apologized profusely. He said that he hadn’t meant anything by it – that he’s not an anti-Semite or a racist. He’s Latino, actually, and he said that racist jokes fly around on the yard all the time, and they don’t bother him. One of the mentors, though, had made it clear that things are different in Shakespeare in Prison. I thanked him for the apology and again made sure he knew that I didn’t think he was a bigot; it just wasn’t a good joke. He said he absolutely wouldn’t do anything like that again.

One of the men who was in Othello was going home the next day and came just to get a little last bit of fun and say goodbye. We had a good chat about his plans for when he goes home – including bringing his kids to see plays. He told me how much he’s appreciated SIP. He said that prison was a wakeup call, and SIP opened his eyes.

And then that  mentor walked over to me with the guy who’d made the offensive gesture. “[Name] has something to say to you,” he said grimly. I looked at the younger man and back at the mentor and said, “Um… He already said it.” We all laughed – somehow that had escaped the mentor’s notice. “He’s young, you know?” he said to me. “He’s working on his insensitive thuggishness, and he didn’t think it through.” I said I got it, and that we all step in it sometimes. I reminded him of when I said something pretty insensitive last fall, and he constructively called me on it. “I needed that,” I said, “And now I won’t do it again.”

I returned to the group, who were playing “Freeze.” As I watched, I realized that they weren’t exactly playing by the rules. I checked in with a returning member to ask how the game had been explained, and he said that another returning member had walked everyone through it, but he wasn’t sure they’d understood.

I didn’t stop the game, though. The scenes were pretty safe at first, but everyone was engaged, and there has often been a lot of value in sitting back and just seeing where things have gone in our program. This time proved to be no different. As the game progressed, people became more creative. Suddenly a third person tagged himself into a scene, and then, after a few rounds with three people, another guy ran in, set up four chairs, and started a four-person scene in a car. Then a fifth person tagged in as a panhandler. And then the guy who’d set up the car called a freeze, grabbed another guy and two chairs, set them up behind the car, sat down, and started making police siren sounds. Everyone yelled and scattered. It was absolutely hilarious.

When our laughter and applause had died down a bit, the man who’d explained the game said, “That was great, but… We didn’t really do it right.” I said, “No, we weren’t playing it exactly by the rules, but that’s not a bad thing. People who know the rules would probably not have played it the way you just did, and that was SO much fun!” I also explained that, even when we know the rules, we’ll often find creative ways to break them in order to get more impact out of what we’re doing. I used the re-imagining of Othello’s first scene by two ensemble members (described earlier in this blog) as an example.

I went over the actual rules of the game, and we did another round. Even then, the group proved to be incredibly creative. We still wound up with more than two people in the scenes at times, and the scenes became more dynamic.

It was a great first day back! Everyone seemed happy and excited to pick it back up on Friday.

Friday, January 26

We began today with our usual game of tape ball and a name game. We talked a little more about our plans for the workshop, and then we began our demos. The three men who were in the first scene of Othello revisited that, and one of our Othellos performed a monologue.

Unfortunately, there was then a facility-wide call for inmates to return to their units, and we were required to leave as well. This happens sometimes, and we just roll with the punches. We’ve got plenty of time to catch up!

Tuesday, January 30

We finally got started on reading our play today! We began, as you might suspect, with the first scene – the storm and the shipwreck. I asked the group what they got out of it after one reading. The answers came back: it’s chaotic, the wind is blowing, there’s a lot of shouting, etc. I asked if we could read it again, this time shouting over the din (created by those of us who weren’t reading). That was definitely more effective.

One of the guys asked, “Who’s steering the ship?” People started throwing ideas around, and I suggested that we put the scene on its feet to see what might work. We stayed in our circle of chairs, with one man bringing over an oscillating fan to use as the wheel. We ran through the scene – I mean, I literally ran through the scene as one of the mariners, trying to up the ante on all the chaos – and it was a lot of fun.

The ideas started to flow after that. Many of us liked using the fan as the wheel, and one man suggested that we could fasten crepe paper to it to symbolize water. Another man said, “We need a guy throwing buckets of water on people!” I replied, “Are you gonna clean that up? I’m not gonna clean that up!” Another man suggested that we use two waist-high flats to symbolize the ship, pulling them apart when it splits. Another guy burst in, “Yeah, and people can sink behind them!” We talked about the need to make it apparent that Prospero has whipped up the storm. One man said, “The scene needs lots of choreography. It’s gonna be a lot of work.” And one gentleman insisted that everyone should be outfitted with tri-corner hats, preferably with feathers in them.

We decided to pick back up with demos. A man in his third workshop performed the “Is this a dagger…” piece from Macbeth that he performed last summer. I stayed on book for him, but he hardly needed any help. “That was some deep stuff right there,” said one new member. It was great, although he wasn’t totally satisfied – he hadn’t been able to go as far as he had before. I said that that’s what happens when you take some time away from a piece, and then I asked him when he’d picked it back up. “Today,” he said. “You mean you hadn’t looked at this at all before you walked in this room?” I asked. He had not. Since July. “It comes right back,” he said. Pretty impressive, especially for our new members!

A pair of our Iagos and Othellos then performed one of their scenes. Afterward, one of the men summarized the whole thing and asked if the others had gotten it. Most of them had. He said that that’s why he prefers doing the scenes on their feet – because sitting “takes a lot away from it.” Another man said, “Yeah, it doesn’t work sitting down. You need the pauses. It need the theatrics. You gotta move. Without the theatrics, it sound like fumbling, like mumbling, like you don’t know what you saying.” The other man added, “And you gotta match your scene partner, whatever he’s doing… If it’s touching you emotionally or if you’ve got a picture in your mind, go with that picture.” The first man agreed, saying, “The way Shakespeare writes, he directs you. There’s some things that just come naturally.” He mentioned that some of what we did in our performances was the same as what he saw in a film version of Othello.

Another man brought back his interpretation of “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” which was quite affecting, but was not at the level he’d attained last summer. He shared with the group that the way he’d accessed those feelings was by imagining the death of his mother, and we talked about using that “magic as if” as a crutch till we’re ready to just ride the wave of the language.

They asked me to go next, and I did my current favorite: Richard III’s opening soliloquy. I learned it last fall as part of a “monologue-off” at the women’s prison, but I’ve never formally worked on it, so I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen. I took my time so I could play with the character’s anger, pain, and humor. I made eye contact with as many of the men as I could.

I had a good time with it, but what was most exciting was that the ensemble completely understood the piece as I interpreted it – even though none of them were familiar with the play. “He’s not a bad person,” said one of the men, “He’s just fed up… You’re gonna use your mind now ’cause that’s all you got.” Another nodded his head and said, “I’ve honestly had those same thoughts.”

“Was Shakespeare, like, a psychopath?” asked one man, alluding to all the personalities the playwright painted so vividly. Another man said, “Naw, man. Shakespeare just, like, really understood people.” A third man added, “Each character is in its own world, so we gotta remember that every time we act.”

Facilitator Matt then performed a monologue from Hamlet that he hasn’t worked on in years, and yet it came right back for the most part! We were all excited and impressed. “The focus is real,” said one man.

We got off on a tangent about using the language – the clues that Shakespeare gives us about our characters’ feelings and actions. “I wanna do more comedic scenes. The angry scenes are too easy,” said one man. I asked him why that was. Another man jumped in, saying, “That’s just what we do all the time. I don’t know about the women, but here we go to anger right away.” Another man then introduced the idea that there are different kinds of anger: he said that “emotional anger” simmers, and “aggressive anger” attacks.

The conversation moved to center around Caliban. One man said that “in weakness, there is power,” and that Caliban plays the people around him. Another said that he has multiple personalities like Gollum. The first man replied, “We all got that other half to us, but that half doesn’t control everything.”

Somehow we got onto the topic of performances. A man who has now performed twice shared that he felt that the first performance of Othello had been a mess, but that had been a wakeup call that enabled the second to go more smoothly and the third to be our best. All agreed. This same man stressed the importance of rehearsal; that it strengthens chemistry and overall performances. Another likened this to playing music, saying that a performance is only as strong as its weakest participant.

So how are we going to do this? A returning member who often takes on the role of mentor quietly stated that we are going to do the entire play with cuts, rather than selected scenes with narration. He also said that he thought it would be best for one person to play a role straight through the play, and that perhaps we could work with double casting to give everyone a shot at a “major” role. That would eliminate the need for facilitators to step in. “No offense, you did great,” he said. “But this is our collective.” Another returning member built on that, suggesting that the men who’ve performed before role-share with new members and mentor them as they rehearse and perform.

That last idea is incredible. We have often seen ensemble members at the women’s prison step into smaller roles to give new members an opportunity to work more, but we have just as often given those large roles to our “veterans.” This is a completely new idea in SIP, and I absolutely love it. What generosity – what ownership. There is just no ego there. None at all. That’s true commitment to an ensemble. I just love it.

Friday, February 2

As we gathered today, I asked the group if they’d be down with beginning to use a couple of the rituals we’ve developed in the women’s ensemble. I first described our check in process: when we arrive, we gather in a circle, and anyone who wants to gives kind of a status update. It could be good or bad news, or information that needs to be shared, or just to say, “I’m having a lousy day, so if I’m being quiet and staying to myself, don’t take it personally.” It helps us not only to stay on the same page, but to be sensitive to what’s going on with everyone. The guys liked that idea.

The other ritual I asked about was The Ring, which is a Michael Chekhov exercise in which the ensemble visualizes and then lowers to the ground a ring of light/energy, steps into it, and then spreads it around the room. There was some hesitation about this one; one man asked if there was a way to “make it more masculine,” and I understood those qualms. It’s definitely a weird-sounding exercise and takes a minute to get used to. We decided to start with a check in today and leave The Ring for next week.

Though at WHV checking in as an individual isn’t required, the guys immediately took ownership and decided that in their ensemble it is. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but by the time everyone had shared, I began to think that maybe this is one of those points where men and women diverge in our program: where women have tended to react negatively when pushed to share, to some of these men it seemed like they had just been waiting for someone to give them an opening. A few of the ensemble members were goofy, of course, and most shared honestly but factually – but then there really were a few who seemed relieved to be able to share even the most mundane update. I’m really interested to see where this leads.

The Tempest is a short play, relatively speaking, but we’re behind already on reading, so we decided to spend the bulk of our time today powering through Act I scene ii, which is incredibly long. As we began, one of our returning members took a moment to explain shared lines and the effect they have on pacing, and then a mix of returning and new members volunteered to read.

When we paused to make sure everyone was following Prospero’s story, particularly what happened between him and his brother, the new member who was reading Prospero (on his first day!) shook his head and said, “That happened to me once, too.” A couple of others chimed in, and then this ensemble member said, “I know how that is.” He described how his brother had betrayed him, continuing, “… and that’s how I got 5-10. That’s a true story.”

We continued, and I asked if we could pause after Prospero tells Miranda that she’s what kept him going after their banishment and she abruptly changes the subject. “I’ve always wondered about that,” I said. “Anyone have any ideas about why she does that?” Someone suggested that perhaps if she wasn’t used to hearing her father say things like that, she didn’t know how to respond.

“I mean, she’s been essentially incarcerated since she was three,” said one man. “Anybody who comes to prison becomes detached from their emotions… When you hear something bad…” Another man broke in, “You get desensitized.”

A third man said, doubtfully, “You’re saying Miranda doesn’t have emotions?” The first man explained, “She has emotions, but she’s detached from them.” He said that it can be dangerous to give into one’s feelings. The third man nodded, saying, “Prospero hides his till certain moments.” And the first man agreed: that “family feeling” is what got him betrayed.

We had to move to another room at that point, and I took the opportunity to address what I knew was causing frustration for many: there were a few people who just could not seem to focus. It was distracting and was beginning to be detrimental to our work. I put it out there that, while this play is much shorter than Othello, it could potentially take us longer to get through if we can’t buckle down and do it. “You literally do not have to be here,” I said. “So if you don’t want to be, no hard feelings, don’t stay. I’m not saying that to be mean. Do I seem like I’m being mean?” One of the guys smiled and said, “Well, it’s maybe a little mean, but you’re right.”

We continued reading, talking through all of the “usurpations” that happen: Antonio/Prospero; Sycorax/Ariel; Prospero/Caliban. We talked a bit about Caliban, too – what makes him a “savage?” What was the relationship between these three before? And then we needed to talk about what caused the rift.

It’s brief, but Prospero accuses Caliban of having raped Miranda, Caliban responds that he wishes that he had, and Miranda unloads on Caliban without specifically addressing the alleged assault. This is a really loaded beat in any environment or process, but in prison it takes on even more weight. It did at the women’s prison, too, but I knew as soon as we’d landed on this as our winter/spring play that the line was going to be much tougher to walk in an ensemble including multiple men convicted of sexual assault. No shying away from it, though – this is what we do. If it’s in the play, we talk about it without judgment, from an analytical place. We can do that without necessarily talking about ourselves.

So, as we began this part of the discussion, I reminded everyone to look at the play with a bird’s eye view, and not through the lens of just one character. I asked them what we actually know from what’s in the text. The answers came pretty quickly: Prospero believes that Caliban assaulted Miranda. Caliban says he wishes that he had. Miranda is clearly very angry with Caliban. And that’s literally it. We couldn’t find anything else concrete – beyond that, it’s all interpretation and conjecture.

“We’ve got this conversation, but we’ve got no context,” I said, and carefully continued, “We don’t know for certain that the assault happened, and we don’t know exactly why Prospero believes that it did, because none of it happened on stage.” One of the guys chimed in, “Maybe he saw something.” I said, “Maybe. But we didn’t, right?” They nodded. “Shakespeare left this open-ended, and he didn’t do anything by accident. So… why did he do that?” One man said, “Because… it’s not important?” I replied, “For the actors playing these characters, there needs to be a decision – that’s important. But the most important thing for us as objective storytellers is not what actually happened, but the impact that the event had on these relationships. Because these were loving relationships before. This is a flashpoint. Let’s keep an eye on these three as we keep reading.”

We finished reading the scene and talked about Prospero’s approach to the immediately-budding relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand. One of the men gave us historical context, saying that there’s strategy in encouraging his daughter to marry the son of the king, and that marriage didn’t necessarily have to do with love at the time. When the question of Ferdinand’s emphasis on Miranda’s virginity came up, one of the men asked when the importance of sexual purity became culturally dominant. “Did it start with Jesus?” he asked. The man who’d already given us some background responded that the idea of virtue predates Jesus, beginning with the Greeks and maybe even before. I added that the emphasis on virginity in particular coincides with male-dominated societies edging out matriarchal ones; that policing women’s bodies is a really effective way to control them. It seemed like that might have blown a few minds, and I wish I weren’t so rusty on that history so I could have gone into more detail.

As long as we keep it professional, sensitive, and even-handed, we don’t need to shy away from any of the content in these plays. Today was a prime example of that.