Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 5 and 6

Tuesday, February 20

When we checked in today, one of the guys told us he’d been working on a scene, and one of the others had told him (good naturedly) that he shouldn’t “walk gangster.” I asked him, why not? It could be appropriate for the scene! The rest of the ensemble started ribbing him about performing it for all of us, and finally one of them offered to work with him on the side till he was comfortable.

I’ve been trying to come up with some kind of “bridge” program for this summer, before we begin our 30-week season in the fall. Time and resources are issues, but I thought I’d come up with a good solution. I asked the group if I could share my idea and welcomed them to reject or build on it. I proposed that we meet for 8-10 weeks over the summer to read, discuss, and explore a play without building to a performance at the end. I asked if they would be okay with King Lear for that, since my spring is incredibly packed, and I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to prep, and I’m already very familiar with the play.

The guys liked that idea, but then one of them said, “Hold on a sec. Why can’t we read King Lear this summer, take a break for a few weeks, and then keep going with it in the fall?” That’s when I felt it—that old, familiar sensation of the ensemble taking my decent idea and running with it. “So… you mean… You’d have a full 40-week season like Huron Valley, but with breaks on either side of the summer?” He nodded. I asked the rest of the group what they thought, and they said they liked it. It was at this point that I threw my things to the ground (I don’t know why I do this when I’m excited, but it is what it is!) and cheered, “YES! Let’s do it! Once again, the best ideas in this program are NEVER MINE! Yes!!!!”

This led to a conversation in which many of the men asked for more acting and vocal training, and we agreed to have a voice-centered workshop soon. They also shared that they want more of an emotional challenge next time. They want to explore heightened emotions. The Tempest is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t lend itself so well to that.

We went back to Act IV Scene i, which was so confusing when we tried to stage it without first reading it as a group. We worked our way slowly through, beginning after the masque (because we know we’re cutting it). We paused at Prospero’s “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves…” soliloquy. I asked them what they got out of it. One man said he got that Prospero is breaking a spell; another said it’s his thank you to the elves, et al; and another mused, “Everything’s come full circle.”

“He’s ready to give up his hateful side,” said one man. Another agreed but used the word “surrender.” A third man nodded, saying, “He almost seems tired… You can almost see this—If you’re tired of a journey, you recount what’s going on, but I’m ready to move on to the next stage… But this is what brought him here… It seems like this anger; this vengeance is eating him from the inside, and he was wasting away.” Another said, “When he sent those spirits after him, it’s like that was his last gasp of anger.” The man who’d spoken of giving up the “hateful side” added, “I’m going to make sure no one else can do what I was doing,” referencing all the trouble Prospero caused for others.

Our youngest ensemble member, who is proving to be incredibly wise, said, “All this stuff is like a chapter. He’s turning the page.” Another man agreed, saying, “If I wouldn’t have had this shit [magic] to begin with, I wouldn’t be here. I’m ready to move on.”

The interpretation of this piece that has stuck with me the most over the years is one that a woman at Huron Valley shared when we worked on The Tempest there. “I’ve heard this about a million times in AA,” she said. She spoke of Prospero’s magic being a crutch like alcohol or drugs; that he had to give up that crutch in order to heal and move forward. I shared her perspective with this ensemble, and they thought it over. We agreed that this doesn’t only apply to substances—anything at all could hold you hostage till you’re ready to let it go.

One man said, “It’s this thing, and until he buries it, he’s never going to grow. Everyone’s in their own prison.” He likened this to the challenge of young guys being locked up and then leaving prison with the same mentality they had when they arrived. Before he could say much, another man said, “Too close to home, man. Let’s stop it there.” With barely a pause, the first man changed gears, finding another way of wording his thoughts to avoid causing any pain. It was skillful and impressive. I’m not sure he knows what a challenging thing he did so effortlessly.

We read through to the end of the play, and that famous epilogue. “All this was kinda for him to be set free,” said that young ensemble member. “Everything revolved around him… He breaks his staff. At the end, he has something to say to everybody.” All agreed that this would be a good place for Prospero to break that staff, rather than when he talks about it earlier.

At this point, the man who was being prodded into doing a scene asked if he could perform on Friday instead. I said that was fine by me, the rest of the guys took me to task for letting him off the hook, and I regrouped and told him that, YES, he could put this off till Friday, but then his scene would be the first thing we did after check in. A lot of heads were still shaking, and there was still some teasing (of both him and me), but I really don’t like to push people too hard. It may already be too much. We’ll see.

Friday, February 23

Our check in today was a little subdued. One of the men opened up a bit, and it gave the others the freedom to share about something they all experience but may not always feel safe talking about. “It’s one of those days when you really realize you’re here,” he said, saying that he’s been having dreams that have nothing to do with this setting. And it’s not only dreams; all sorts of mundane fantasies can pop up and drive home the reality of where you are. Many of them (all of them?) shared that they’ve smelled food as they passed the chow hall that they know very well isn’t being cooked in there. “Mostly you just go along, but sometimes it hits you,” one man said.

We moved on to a conversation about how we are going to approach and cast the play. Several of the men have been developing an idea about Ariel being played by three people who would wear masks and share lines. “Would that confuse the audience?” asked one person. Two said that they didn’t think it would if it were done right, and they demonstrated the way they’d broken down one short speech. It was pretty cool.

One man advised the ensemble that everyone should “try to find something comical in their part.” The conversation got pretty detailed, and then I took a closer look at his script. I’d brought in one copy of a cut of this play that I directed in 2016; it ran about 80 minutes, and I wanted the guys to take a look to see if they liked it for our purposes. This seven-person group made photocopies—some of them also bound theirs—and worked together to figure a lot of this out, using highlighters to note and code things (including the breakdown of Ariel’s lines between three people).

This shows a remarkable level of seriousness and discipline. None of these folks are just sitting around; in fact, a few of them are so busy that I don’t know how they made time to do this. But this is the culture they’ve already built around their program. It is very much like what happens in SIP at the women’s prison, but it’s happened much more quickly here. I believe that that’s due not only to the drive of these particular men, but to the commitment of so many women over the past six years to figuring out what SIP is and how it works best. It’s thrilling to see all of that work providing such a strong foundation for this new ensemble.

Then the man who was supposed to perform today was reminded by all of us that that was the plan. He asked me to choose some lines for him to read, which confused me because I knew he’d been practicing something, but I humored him since he was clearly nervous. He began reading those for the group, but then stopped and shook his head, consulted with some others, and decided to do Gonzalo instead. “Do the one we’ve been practicing on!” shouted one man. He was unsure of the material and of himself—he laughed a lot—but he made it through!

We began the casting process, writing down each person who was interested in each character. Two of the men began to write on a dry erase board, but one of the markers was nearly dry. Still, the man with that marker kept trying to write. The other man kept telling him to just take his marker, but he wouldn’t do it. I’m not sure what the deal was, but he kept trying to get that marker to write, making himself (and all of us) increasingly frustrated. Finally, one of our “leaders” quietly took both markers, gestured to the first man to sit down, and calmly began the conversation over, regaining everyone’s focus and moving us forward.

When we got to Miranda, only one person volunteered. We had known that he would—he’s taking a liking to the character—but he also just found out that he may be eligible for a program that could take him out of the group prior to our performances. So we needed an understudy ready to go. “You do it, Frannie,” a few of the guys said. I reminded them that the facilitators’ role is to reserve ourselves as emergency understudies for last minute situations, not for cases when other ensemble members could compensate with planning. Still, no one volunteered.

One of the things I’ve found (so far) that is a bit different working with men from with women is that it’s sometimes more effective for me to be a bit harsh rather than gentle; I’m never mean or anything, but sometimes I can take the gloves off with this ensemble in a way that would not be helpful with the women’s. “Come on, you guys,” I said. “It’s a character in a play. She’s not a bad character.” No one volunteered. “Dude, is this because she’s a woman?” I asked. “Because that’s bullshit.” Lots of eye contact now. “It’s acting. It’s storytelling. Who cares if the gender is different from yours? Is it seriously that scary to play a woman? Why is this a problem?”

The man who’d performed earlier said, “Fuck it. I’ll do it.” I smiled and nodded. “Awesome,” I said, “Write his name down!” Then another man, who takes acting very seriously and is the definition of a team player, said, “Yeah, put me down for Miranda, too.” I thanked them for volunteering. It really did take some guts—that’s why I had to challenge them a bit. It was an opportunity for them to rise to the occasion. And they did!

We decided to hold auditions next week, but our session wasn’t yet over The plan for today had actually been to do that voice workshop, but since we got started late, we didn’t have enough time. I realized, though, that with the time we had left, we could at least look at using the iambic pentameter, scansion, and some basic projection and emphasis work. We went straight from John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare, using the first couple of lines of Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach…” monologue. Some of the men have been exploring a photocopy of the “Using the Verse” chapter, but I think only a few of them had read it in depth. After we’d scanned those lines as a group and were discussing how that would translate to performance, one of those men came over to me, copy in hand. “Do you know what we just did?” he asked. I looked down at the page and saw that the ensemble had scanned the lines exactly the way the RSC group did in that workshop. Pretty freaking cool for a group of people who, by and large, had no exposure to Shakespeare as recently as July—or, for some, January.

We were in the gym, so we propped the dry erase board up with a chair, and the guys took turns performing while being able to read the lines with the scansion we’d arrived at—and not having to hold a book. This is an AWESOME way to do this kind of work, and I’m keeping it forever!

The toughest part of this seemed to be remembering to breathe on punctuation and allow thoughts to change organically rather than rushing. There is also a tendency to back off midway through or toward the end of a phrase. We’re getting there, though. One of the men turned out to have a very powerful voice, which became even more so when others encouraged him to deliver the lines as he would if he were saying, “Mira!” out on the yard. That’s a great way to start off this monologue. I recommend it.

As more of the men took their turns, the ensemble became more and more involved, to the point where I really wasn’t! One man kept looking down, and another encouraged him, yelling, “Look at us! You gotta look at us!”

This was a lot of fun and provided a preview of the workshop we’ll be doing on Tuesday. I asked everyone to please arrive on time ready to take things seriously. The voice stuff can be uncomfortable for folks because it requires vulnerability, and obviously prison is not a place where that generally feels safe. I told everyone that there would be no hard feelings if they didn’t want to do it and left early, but that that would be the only option in order to keep the space safe for everyone else.

Tuesday, February 27

We checked in and immediately dove into our voice workshop. I guided everyone through a series of exercises from Patsy Rodenburg’s The Right to Speak: Working With the Voice, focusing on relaxation and centering. We then moved on to connecting with our breath and voices. This took a little more than half of our time. I asked everyone how they felt. Honestly, I didn’t take too many notes because leading a workshop like this requires a lot of focus, but here’s some of what was said:

How do you feel? How did that feel?

“Like it’s cleaning my chest out.”

“I didn’t want to do it. Too vulnerable.” (It really is remarkable that this man stayed and participated to the extent that he did. In order not to identify him or break confidentiality, I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that there’s no “good” reason for him to expose himself like this unless he really, truly trusted us, believed that it might be helpful, and stuck with it out of his love for the program.)


“It’s like my whole body vibrates.”


“Like it’s my real voice.”

“In actor mode… like… SHAKESPEARE!”

“I feel more confident,” one man said. Then he talked about people in his past who spoke very loudly. “In the ’hood, everybody’s voice is free.” I asked, “Really?” Another man smiled and said, “No, not really…”

One of the men asked if someone’s physical size had anything to do with the way they used their voice, and of course that answer is often yes, but it’s complicated. I shared that we’re socialized in all kinds of ways that impact our use of our own voices, and whether we own them or not. “This is why the book is called The Right to Speak,” I said. “Too many of us have been told to shut up or be quiet. But we don’t want that on the stage.”

We then spent some time with exercises for using the iambic pentameter, meshing them with the preceding voice/breath exercises. We used Prospero’s “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves...” One man, who is a musician, said, “You know, I hate to bring it back to music again, but…” He likened the meter to parts of a scale—guideposts to help you know what you’re aiming for. Pondering the content of the monologue, one man said, “You know, he’s more powerful now [giving up power] than he was before.”

Then I asked if anyone wanted to try this out on their feet. The man who’d spoken of music volunteered. His first read was very good, and I asked him to do it again; to take his time, breathe deeply, and not back off of the build in the piece. “Say goodbye,” I said. He gave it another go, and it was much better. “It was that sense of finality… But appreciation for what was given and what allowed him to do what he did… He kind of toots his own horn.” That’s definitely a big part of it.

A couple of the others then asked a man who’d been sitting a little apart if he would try it. He rose to his feet, read, and said he felt that it hadn’t been good. “I still felt like I was just reading… I was being too technical.” I suggested that he let that go and focus just on his breath and voice, and he said, “I just… I don’t know. I think my voice is kind of broke. It’s a mixture of yelling too loud at the wrong time and smoking, I guess.” I hadn’t had much of a voice in a couple of weeks (worst laryngitis ever), and I teased him, “Oh, excuse me, your voice is broke?” He laughed. I continued, “If I’m filling the space, you can, too! Your voice is powerful!” He shook his head again. “It is!” I said. “It’s just too high in your throat right now. Bring it back down to your diaphragm and speak from there. Come on! Ho ho ho…” He did the exercise, and, BOOM, out came that voice we all knew was in there. “Listen to how powerful you are!” I said. “I feel like I’m shouting,” he replied sheepishly. Multiple people reassured him that he wasn’t. “If your throat doesn’t hurt, you’re doing it right,” I said.

And he tried it again. Now that he had the projection piece of it, I tried out an exercise to help him with emphasis, but I’d forgotten to warn him about it, and it didn’t work as well as we would have liked. At least we got that breath and projection, though. I asked him how he felt, and he said it had been weird—that he stays quiet most of the time. I grabbed the book, held it up, and said, “YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPEAK!” We all laughed, he relaxed, and we moved on to the next person.

The man who earlier had shared about how challenging this work is for him because of his (understandable) discomfort with vulnerability had been gazing intently at his script for some time, and it didn’t surprise me when one of his friends gently nudged him into giving it a try. His first performance was pretty good, but we all knew he could do better. I asked him how it had felt, and he said, “Intimidating.” I asked him why, and he replied, “You!”. We laughed, and he continued to say that it was the language as well. “We only know you messed up because you told us you messed up,” said one man, and the rest of us agreed. “We all screw up these words,” I said. “Just stick with it.” He shook his head wryly. “No, really!” I continued. “This is just like your poetry. You already know how to do this.” He said that it wasn’t the same, and I replied, “Dude, we all saw you perform that poem. Some of us saw it twice. You can’t tell us you don’t know how to do this.”

As he prepared to try it again, I asked if I could side coach a bit. He smiled and said he was scared of me, but I brushed that off and told him I was on his side. He launched into it again, but his delivery was still timid—and this man has an amazing voice. I pushed him on the language: What kind of war? How does that feel? Make us feel your power! He built and built, and then he got to the transition to, “But this rough magic I here abjure.” “Pause! Breathe!” I said from over his shoulder. He did, said, “Oh, that’s an emotional change,” and took it back to try that shift again. He ended powerfully, beautifully. We were all fired up! He said he’d felt “a surge of energy; a surge of power.” He continued, “The different ranges—the buildup… That felt good.”

“This monologue is almost like a tempest—it rises up and comes back down,” said one man.  As we parted for the day, the man who’d thought his voice was broken came up to me and shared that he might want to give this another try now that he’d seen that final man perform. He said that he hadn’t realized that the piece has three separate units, and I said that that actually was great because that is how we’re meant to learn about these plays: performing them and seeing them performed.

March 2

Check in began today with one person sharing his disappointment about something school-related. Then another man, who frequently goofs off and distracts the group, shared that the reason he left the voice workshop on Tuesday was that he’d gotten some bad news, was having an awful day, and just couldn’t do it. This was the first instance of him sharing like this, and it opened the door for others to do the same. It turned out that nearly everyone was having a rough time for various reasons. Some shared in more detail than others. One man was particularly forthright, saying that, after receiving some very bad news, he was extremely upset. “I actually sat on my bunk and cried,” he said. “I’ma deal with it, you know? But I’m a man, and I’m gonna cry.” That reminded those of us who worked on Macbeth over the summer of Macduff’s response when, after he's having that his entire family was killed, Malcolm urges him to use his grief to fight. “I will do so,” says Macduff, “But I must also feel it as a man.”

This went on for some time. At one point, a couple of people were having a quiet side conversation, and the man who had more or less given the group permission to share in this way gently called those people out and asked them to be respectful. It’s probably the most serious I’ve seen him.

There was a bit of a lull, at which point a core member said, “Because so many of us are having a bad day—I’m gonna open up. I love y’all.” No one used that word in response, but it was clear from what they said and from their body language that the sentiment was both welcome and reciprocated. They then told this man how much they admire him; that he’s “a ninja” and their inspiration. He was mildly embarrassed, but it also made him feel very good.

One man asked Patrick and me if we ever use SIP (or theatre in general) to get away from the dark parts of our lives. We shared that we sometimes do. These activities require so much focus that they give you a breather from anything else that might be going on. And that’s generally a good thing. That said, I told the ensemble that if anyone wasn’t feeling up to auditions that day, it would be fine to wait until Tuesday when they might be feeling better.

We moved over to the gym (we begin in a classroom on Fridays), where I chatted with a few of the guys while most of the others played their most focused game of tape ball yet. They even set a new high score! Then several of them asked to do The Ring, which is another first. We circled up, and one man had the idea for each of us to put the energy and/or objects we needed into the ring, which is an optional part of the exercise anyway—but we hadn’t done it yet, and he came up with this idea spontaneously. We incorporated it, taking our time and putting all sorts of things in that ring: confidence, safety, teamwork… Shakespeare, talent, discipline… glitter, barbecue, violins…

As we got ourselves organized for auditions, the sharing just kept going. I sat with the newly-serious man and another with whom I’ve definitely been bonding and looked over some pieces they might want to audition with. Nearly unprompted, that first man shared a bit more detail about what he was upset about and then talked a bit about his past. He said that, as a result of things that happened when he was young, he now doesn’t trust or believe anyone—even with things like staying in touch—because that way no one can let him down. I’m grateful that he trusted us enough to share that. It helps me understand him better.

Auditions went well, with everyone building up and encouraging everyone else. There was some brave experimentation and clever ad libbing. One man in particular, who performed Caliban’s soliloquy, made huge strides when we encouraged him to talk directly to the audience. The piece grew by leaps and bounds. “You did it, man!” said the man who’s often been a distraction. Today was so different for him.

It was a really remarkable session, particularly because of this one man's changed approach. The vibe shifted in a big way as people opened up, and, while this has felt like a strong team up till now, today it felt like a true ensemble. It’s always possible that that will change, but, based on my experience, I don’t think that’s likely. I hope that this level of honesty and trust can be maintained. All it can do is strengthen the work and the men’s ability to achieve their goals—together.