Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 7 and 8

March 6

As we gathered today, one of the men asked for a reminder of when our performances will be. He sighed when I told him because there’s a possibility that he’ll need to leave the group before then as part of the process of being paroled. “If I could postpone it so I could finish this out, I would,” he said. “No! Go home!” I replied. “Yeah, I know. For real, though,” he said, and then he paused. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and we joined the rest of the group.

Check-in revealed that most of the guys were feeling better than they had the last time we met. One man who’d been really down said that he was doing better, but wasn’t 100%. He held up his script and said, “But I’m not gonna let it interfere with this.” That was met with applause.

We continued our auditions, giving each person a couple of chances to perform their pieces, and we made some discoveries along the way. For one thing, I had forgotten that the cut we’ve started with includes some edits to Prospero’s “Ye elves…” speech, which we worked with during our voice workshop. When one of the men performed it, I asked if those edits caused the piece to lose its strength, and we all agreed that they did. He tried it again, with the cuts restored. He had a great time playing with relationships and the memories of his power, and he took a long, heavy pause just before saying, “I’ll drown my book.” It worked beautifully from where we were sitting, and I asked if it had been the same for him. He nodded. “Adding those pieces back in helped complete the thoughts,” he said.

Much of our focus with the others who auditioned was on working to use our physicality to call up emotions rather than trying to think them through. One man exemplified what we were trying to do; he performed Prospero’s epilogue, and it didn’t really hit home for us until his last two lines: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.” One man said, “That felt really natural.” The man performing replied, “I can connect with that because – well, look where I’m at. It’s what I’m living here. I kinda bonded with this little piece.”

One man was very nervous to perform and said he hadn’t been practicing because he felt self-conscious in his unit. “They can deal with it,” said one of the men, encouraging him. Another man, reading Antonio, showcased incredibly adept use of the language, but his delivery was sort of one-note – it was very dark and aggressive. He said his adrenaline was pumping: “I’m trying to get him pumped, so I’m pumped up – Let’s go!” I welcomed him to enjoy the manipulation more – this is what Antonio does, and he’s good at it. He tried it again, and it was great – much more nuanced and exciting. “It felt even more – I turned it from, ‘You just mentioned Prospero; that’s a dark part of my past,’ to – this time I felt – I felt like a snake.”

Auditions wrapped up with a lot of support and encouragement coming from everyone. And then we grabbed a dry erase board and started casting. Some roles were easy to figure out, but others were much more challenging. One of the guys decided that any time a role was in contention, the actors who were interested should have a “read-off”: he’d flip his ID card like a coin to determine who would go first, and they’d take turns reading a few lines. No rehearsal, no do-overs. I was waiting for someone to object, but no one did – they all just dove in. And they were really honest in their feedback about the performances – not cruel, just realistic.

We have more ensemble members than characters in the play, and we’re coming up with some cool ways of involving more people. One of those ideas was for Ariel to be played by multiple actors. This idea was refined so that we’ll have one “anchor” Ariel, and others will be “wingmen” as they are available. In addition, Ariel’s lines will be read over a microphone from off stage, freeing the actor playing the character from having to carry his script, allowing him be more able to commit to his character’s physicality.

We finished casting with just minutes to spare! We’ll review on Friday and get rolling on scene work.

March 9

A tractor trailer rolled over on I-94, causing both Patrick and me to be a solid hour late arriving at the facility. That was a bummer, but the ensemble wasted no time. The second we walked into the room, I was handed a list of costumes and props, which I struggled to read as their ideas came flying at me – and I hadn’t even set down my bag! As we moved from the classroom to the gym, the ideas kept coming – mostly for music, and mostly really funny. It’s possible that some of this was a funny ploy to see my reactions to the thought of using DMX and Lil Jon in this play, but, hey, I’ve gone way farther afield than that with past sound designs, and I was willing to consider all options!

A man who was absent on Tuesday asked if he could audition for a role that had been cast. The man who’d been given that role wasn’t too keen on re-auditioning, but he agreed to do it. Both men had a good handle on the character and the language. We ended up keeping the casting the same, which not everyone was happy about, but it made sense in terms of logistics.

As most of the group set up to begin scene work, I noticed one man standing off to the side, looking frustrated. I went to him and asked what was up. “I don’t know. I think I’m being childish and selfish,” he said, explaining that he would have preferred for his main scene partner to be a friend with whom he knows he has chemistry rather than his actual scene partner, whom he doesn’t know well and by whom he is often put off. I said that it’s natural to want to work with people with whom you’re comfortable – it’s not selfish or childish. “Yeah,” he said. “And, you know, maybe it won’t be so bad. He was all goofing around before his audition, and it was kind of annoying. But then he got up there, and when he said he was scared, nervous to audition, that humanized him for me. Like, that was [Name]. That wasn’t [Nickname], that was [Name].” He said it made him think maybe he could help that man the same that I’ve helped him with his confidence, voice, and acting. I knew he’d had a couple of breakthroughs, but I hadn’t realized how profound those moments were for him till he said that. And to hear him talk about paying that forward was really heartwarming and inspiring.

I said that he was probably right, that the other man’s posturing and goofing off are likely defense mechanisms, and that his behavior has changed even just in the last couple of weeks. And that’s likely due, at least in part, to our having been patient with him (even as we haven’t let him off the hook). I said that working with people with whom you’re comfortable is definitely the easy way to go, but there’s a lot of value in learning to work with people you don’t like as much. “I mean, look. In the grand scheme of things, this is just a play. It doesn’t really matter,” I said. He gave me a look and said, “No. This matters.” I smiled and said, “Yeah, I mean – this is my career; it’s my life and my passion, and it definitely matters. I mean in the larger picture of your life, this isn’t the most important thing. But the skills you learn doing this play will be valuable no matter what you do going forward.”

He nodded, saying, “When you said it was the easy way, I was like, ‘Aw, yeah.’ Nothing that’s worth doing is easy.” His mind was made up: he’s not going to dwell on his disappointment. He’s going to do his best to work with someone new and, hopefully, both of them will learn something valuable in the process. He cocked his head, smiled at me, and said, “Thanks, Frannie.” We fist bumped and got back to work for the last few minutes of the session.

One group worked with Patrick, and the other explored Act I Scene ii, which begins with Prospero telling Miranda the story of how they came to the island. I talked quietly with the guys in the audience about staying engaged and paying attention to what their eyes wanted to see the actors do. One of them immediately said that the scene was too static – that we needed some way to visually tell the story. I said that that’s always been my instinct and asked him what he saw. At first, he said it should be other actors; then he shifted to Prospero using magic objects or figurines. We stopped the scene so he could share his idea with the others, and they all really liked it. The man playing Prospero said he thought we should find key moments in the story and show them in a stylized way. We’ll be working on that next time!

March 13

When we arrived today, the man who was cast as Gonzalo came up to me immediately and said that he’d given his role to another man who hadn’t received a role with any lines. The former man was in our Othello workshop, got a lot of stage time, and felt strongly that someone else should have that opportunity now. It’s impressive; he’s really fallen in love with acting, even aside from Shakespeare, and to see him give this chance to someone else when he’s so hungry to learn and explore is humbling. I’m not sure I’d do the same in that situation. I’m not sure most people would.

Since nearly everyone was present, we decided to work on the first scene of the play, which we felt was likely to be the most complicated. We spent some time talking through who all should be in this scene; Stephano and Trinculo, for example, are not noted as being on stage here, but they say later that they were on the ship. Most people thought it would help the audience connect the dots to see them here first.

How to begin? We are using a large upright fan as our steering wheel, and there was a question of how and where to position it. Someone mentioned using the volleyball nets in the gym to signify the sides of the boat, but someone else said that they could only be set up perpendicular to the bleachers. The first man asked why we couldn’t just move them. “The volleyball posts are anchored in the floors, just like in high school,” said one man. “Yeah… We didn’t have volleyball in high school. I went to school in the ghetto,” the first man said good naturedly.

It was decided that our Boatswain would run on to grab the wheel. But what else? A couple of the men said that they’d been thinking the whole play should be high octane comedy, and that that should be established in its first moments. Their idea was to run on when the Boatswain lets go of the wheel, run into each other, fall down, scramble for the wheel, fall down again, and stumble off stage. It was a funny idea, and it was even funnier when two of the men actually did it. And they were right – it’s going to set up that vibe for the rest of the play.

There was a LOT of collaboration as we put this together. We knew we wanted chaos, but that was easier said than done. Facilitator Matt stood in front of the group, using his arms to guide the ship’s swaying, and one of the men moved among them, trying to get them to stop “bunching up.”

It was becoming quite a struggle, so I stopped the scene, told everyone to put their scripts down, and led them through a quick exercise:

•    Walk with purpose, and your purpose is to find any space that isn’t filled by a person and fill it yourself. Keep moving every time you see empty space.
•    Now increase the urgency.
•    Now add to that urgency a sense of being off balance. Arms out, walking on different parts of your feet, knees bent, swaying.
•    Vocalize!

As the chaos and the volume increased, before we could lose steam, I started yelling, “We split! We split! We split!” (lines from the play), and we all dove “overboard.” We were laughing, we were out of breath, and we had a much better idea of what this scene needed to look, sound, and feel like.

“This needs to be organized chaos,” said one man, bounding back into the space to guide people through some new ideas he had. “I like that,” mused another man. “Organized chaos. Is that how your office is, Frannie?” I rolled my eyes. “That’s how my brain is,” I said as we laughed.

The scene kept getting better as we kept collaborating. One man told the actors how they should stagger their entrances. Another suggested that people with lines could individually run up to the Boatswain, yell at him, and then drift off. A third man built on that, giving people their cue lines and suggesting that we all back off of the swaying for the day just to get a handle on the dialogue. As we added more elements, it kept getting better.

I noticed that a man who was very involved also seemed a bit frustrated. I chatted with him aside, saying that the process can be slow and challenging, but that his work was making a huge difference. He smiled and said, “I guess I have a little bit of a director in me.” I told him without hesitation that he absolutely does, and that his ability to be compassionate and constructive while giving adjustments makes it easy for people to listen to him and take his advice. I urged him not to hesitate to keep being this involved. He said he wouldn’t.

We went back to the beginning of Act I Scene ii, which we touched on briefly last week. We worked on some basic blocking, and then we moved to objective work with our Prospero. He is a naturally gifted actor, even without training, and it means that going deep into the character is quick work. I asked him why he thought Prospero had never told his daughter this story. “Because betrayal is a bitch,” he said. “It is,” I replied. “Why else?” He said that she hadn’t been old enough to understand. I asked why else. “He wanted to protect her from what was lost,” he said. I agreed, and I asked why else. Another man said that she needed to know now because of the plot. “Definitely,” I said. “And why else?” One of the men, slightly exasperated, said, “Why else?” Our Prospero, deep in thought, said, “Because he had something to do with his own betrayal.”

“Ah,” I said. “Yes. Tell us about that.” He explained that if Prospero hadn’t given Antonio so much power, he wouldn’t have been usurped, and they wouldn’t have ended up on this island. “Right,” I said. “He’s not responsible for what happened, but he’s culpable. That’s got to be hard to admit.”

We began the scene again, and it deepened for both actors (our Miranda is SO passionate and quick to adjust to every note). I saw that Prospero had an instinct to kneel that he wasn’t following, and I quietly urged him to listen to his body and kneel with her. He did, and, having come to such a posture of intimacy, his acting followed suit. When he said, “Twelve year since, Miranda, twelve year since, thy father was the Duke of Milan and a prince of power,” I got chills. I’ve never seen those lines read with the kind of natural intensity and ache that this man gave them. I told him that I’d never seen a professional actor do that – that most professional actors would not be able to do that. I didn’t have to say why. We all knew. Everyone in that room far more so than I.

March 16

First things first: the guys have decided to schedule extra rehearsals in these last four weeks before our performances. They did this the last time around as well, and it’s so cool to see the level of commitment they have to doing their very best work. It seems like they’re scheduling 2-3 extra rehearsals each week, which would mean that some of them would be rehearsing 4-5 days each week, regardless of whether facilitators can be there with them or not. Some of them had their first bonus rehearsal on Wednesday, felt like they got some good work done, and set a new tape ball record: 106!

This time around, we’ll be using some sheets as backdrops that will be airbrushed by an inmate who is not in the ensemble, and that man stopped by to clarify what the men want. The ensemble requested three backdrops: the storm and ship, the beach, and the island’s interior; the latter two may include sprites and fairies. We gave him a round of applause for helping us out.

Our “anchor” Ariel, Ariel’s voice, and a couple of others worked with Patrick on interpretation and movement, while I stayed with the larger group, working on the pantomime during Prospero’s story. At first, some thought that the Ariels would be part of this, but one man pointed out that that might be confusing to the audience, and it might be better to have the actors actually playing those parts execute it, along with another ensemble member to play the young Prospero. We all agreed that that was a better idea.

One of the men had spent some time choosing the key moments that should be illustrated, and they were perfect.

Moment #1: Prospero cedes responsibility to Antonio.

•    Someone suggested that Antonio kneel as Prospero hands him a ledger.
•    I suggested something that was rejected, as one man said that Prospero should literally turn his back on the audience and walk away. His idea was way better than mine.
•    We are using some bolsters (maybe that’s what they’re called? I have no athletic vocabulary) to give the performance space some dimension, and one of the men suggested that the pantomime take place upstage of them to delineate between the telling of the story and the story itself. That was awesome, although he had them starting off on stage already. I asked him how they would get there, and he admitted that he hadn’t thought about that. I asked him to ponder it – I was not about to step on his idea.

Moment #2: Newly empowered, Antonio begins to plot against Prospero.

•    Antonio faces the audience and uses gestures to indicate that he is giving orders. That worked pretty well on the first try, but our Antonio had an instinct to build on it. He wanted to turn to us immediately when Prospero hands him the ledger – “I get a wicked grin on my face as he turns away” – and he added some walking to his gestures. That was awesome.
•    One man coached spirit Prospero to have his nose a little more in his book. “A little more cowbell!” he joked.
•    I suggested that, rather than standing to the side, spirit Prospero stand directly upstage of Antonio so that the plot could take place literally behind his back.
•    There was some confusion about what should happen next, and the group gathered around one of the men, who has spent a LOT of time with his script, so that he could break down the language and explain.

Our Ferdinand and Miranda had been working on the log-hauling scene aside, and they asked if I could come take a look. Their ideas were great, and I gave some suggestions of how they could sharpen and polish the scene. I came back to find that Moment #3 (Antonio brings Alonso into the plot) had been quickly staged, and they’d moved on to the next one.

Moment #4: Prospero is kidnapped and abandoned.

•    Two more men enter as Antonio’s “army.”
•    Antonio circles Prospero, taps him on the shoulder, Prospero turns, and Antonio snatches his book.
•    The army takes Prospero by the arms and hurry him downstage, tossing him “onto the boat.” That was tough, and we collaborated to figure out a solution. At first, spirit Prospero faced upstage as he was hustled, but that proved awkward because he couldn’t see the barrier he was supposed to jump over. He turned downstage, and then we thought perhaps he should stop at the barrier. But that was also challenging. We finally arrived at spirit Prospero jumping over the barrier and then stopping as Prospero slams his staff on the ground, sending the spirits away.

In the midst of this, our Miranda came and grabbed his understudy to catch him up on the log-hauling scene.

Moment #5: Gonzalo gives Prospero food and his books.

•    Prospero kneels with Miranda and continues to tell the story.
•    Gonzalo enters, hands Prospero a literal book, and exits.

We ran the whole pantomime, and it worked great. With the time we had left, we watched the newly-polished log-hauling scene, and it had come a long way even just that day. One man said, “That’s the best I’ve seen it.” My favorite bit was when Ferdinand said, “For several virtues have I liked several women –“ Miranda interrupted, “Several?” And Ferdinand wryly replied, “Several.”

We’ve got a lot of work to do in the next four weeks, but I have no doubt that these men are capable of doing it and executing a thoughtful, engaging performance.