Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 9 and 10

March 20

I spent most of my time today working on Act I Scene ii with the men playing Prospero, Miranda, Ferdinand, and Caliban. The “storytelling” part of this scene has already been staged, and some work has been done on Ariel’s portion as well; the man playing Ariel, however, wasn’t present until later in the session, so we decided to skip over all of that and focus on what hadn’t yet been touched on.

We combined forces, along with a man who joined us, to cover a lot of ground. Our Caliban had his soliloquy at the beginning of this scene partially memorized, and, as I talked over some different tactics he could take with Prospero, including his idea to reach out to touch his shoulder, the man in the coaching role talked through his idea for Caliban to fall and cower when Prospero slams his staff on the ground. Combining those elements was very effective!

When our Miranda got hung up on the language he uses toward Caliban, our Prospero demonstrated how it could be delivered, particularly the word “abhorred.” “You gotta rest there,” he said. Another man said, “You need to assault him with the language,” and then he explained the speech in detail. I agreed with both men and encouraged Miranda to imagine himself throwing darts with his words. It definitely began to work better. Meanwhile, our Prospero had a great instinct to keep Caliban and Miranda separate with his staff, and he and Caliban simultaneously had the idea for Prospero to kick Caliban in the leg on “filth as thou art.”

We kept rolling into Ferdinand’s entrance. Our Ariel had arrived by then, and he dove right in. You may recall that we have an anchor Ariel and assorted “wingmen;” in this scene, we decided that the anchor would play the flute, while two others would pull or push Ferdinand with wide, sweeping gestures, and no actual physical contact. I got to stand in for one of those roles and had a blast. We worked out some choreography so that the spirits will turn Ferdinand to Miranda when he first sees her… And then I’m pretty sure I have the guys convinced that we should hear The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for a couple of moments. I can’t tell if they actually think it’s funny or if they’re just humoring me. Either way, as long as we’re allowed to bring in SIP’s iPod, it seems that we will be listening to The Beach Boys. I win!

As that group continued to work, I sat down with Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. We talked through the characters’ relationships and dynamics; Caliban is an interloper, which amuses Stephano and causes Trinculo to be territorial. We also pondered Caliban’s perception of “freedom”; does he see himself being truly liberated, or has he been oppressed for so long that he’s ecstatic simply to have a “better” master?

At one point, one of the men mentioned how frustrated he was with another ensemble member, saying that he reminded him of his kids. He told us how long it had been since he’d seen them, and then another man said that that made him think of his kids, too. The first man apologized for “being depressing,” and the others and I assured him that he had nothing to be sorry for. We all sat there for a minute or so, honoring these fathers’ feelings, until they both were ready to move on.

Matt worked with the rest of the men on Act II Scene i. The first question seemed to be about Antonio: what does he get out of his bullying and plotting? The man playing the role replied, “He needs it to make himself feel better. He had a tough life – a tough childhood, and he needs the power. Power comes from controlling the conversation, not letting anyone else talk.” That seemed spot on to everyone. They collaborated on blocking; a few men taking the lead, which allowed the others to become more comfortable.

The whole ensemble came together to watch each other’s work before it was time to leave. The end of Act I Scene ii in particular gave us a laugh; when Prospero “froze” Ferdinand’s sword, Ferdinand looked down, then up, then down at his sword again, and, in a high pitched voice, said, “What the fuck is this?!” When I asked the group why that moment stood out, they responded that it added texture, “filled out” the scene, and gave it life. One of the men had taken notes and did some great coaching; this is a wonderful role for him in the ensemble, and I hope he realizes how good he is at it.

Then we got to watch the nobles in their first scene after the storm. They had come up with all sorts of funny shtick – dumping sand out of boots, crawling on exhausted and trying to catch their breath. The whole scene was strong, and, when they finished, one of the “leaders” said, “I’m genuinely impressed,” and suggested some more goofy things they could add.

One of the men is very interested in improving as an actor, and he’s asked me several times to give him “real criticism.” I took him up on that today, emphasizing that he’s got a lot of raw talent (which is the truth) and calling attention to a very normal habit that he has: mushing his consonants, which leads to mildly slurred speech. That’s all well and good in our everyday lives, but it can make things rough when we’re speaking Shakespeare! I gave him some exercises to help with that, and then he became concerned about his lack of technique in general. “But you really feel this language, right?” I asked, and he agreed. I told him that that’s the best place to start – that technique without feeling is incredibly boring, so he’s got a head start working the other way around.

March 23

Patrick held down the fort while Frannie and Matt were at the Shakespeare in Prisons Conference! Here are his reflections:

There were concerned looks, but also optimism on most of the faces of the men today. They know that they are getting down to crunch time, and their desire to have a "real" show is being challenged by issues with attendance and scheduling. Talk of adding rehearsals, and working in their off hours, was happening around the room. You could feel that everyone was ready to get going.  

All in all, check in was upbeat, mostly due to good news from home of several of the ensemble members. However, you could hear a sense of frustration when a glitch delayed our move over to the gym. "Well, let’s try to get something done," said our Ariel as he walked up to me in the  hallway. They are finding any way they can to work on their roles. We stood in the hall for nearly 15 minutes going over his blocking suggestions, his character ideas, and his movement concerns, while we waited. I looked around, and several groups had formed of men running lines or discussing how to get sheets from the quartermaster on which our backdrops will be painted.  

Once in the space, the men decided to forgo the usual team warm-ups and instead elected to jump right in to blocking. "Let's clean this up. I don't think it's right. We're too clumpy," said our Miranda as I walked up to the group. They began working on a scene that had been blocked in a previous meeting but that felt, when Ariel was plugged in, like the spacing was wrong. "Yeah, they gotta see you sleeping" joked Prospero, as he made sure to keep the mood light. "Let's start at my monologue and then add in Ariel. I don't know this one yet. I need to say it a lot," Miranda responded, effectively ignoring the humorous implications that he was being a diva.   

While blocking, Prospero was really glad to work with his rehearsal staff in the space. He wants to "make it a part of him." "I feel like Gandalf," he joked. The blocking soon turned in stage combat choreography (commonly called a “fight call”), as Caliban and Miranda wanted to make sure you could see the tension and anger between them, and Prospero just knew he "had to get between them."

As blocking progressed, groups broke off again to run lines with each other. Every scene had issues with at least one cast member not being present due to scheduling conflicts, but there was a ready willingness to read in for other roles. Several guys would complete one scene blocking their character, and then move right over to fill in a different role. Their "who needs help" attitude was nothing if not impressive.  

After we got to our stopping point for the afternoon, two of the men made a few announcements, and made sure to say that they would be there to make scene changes for the performances. It was just another example of the group looking ahead at what needs to be done, and making it happen.    

March 27

There was a lot of multitasking today! Matt and I were very active and didn’t take many notes, but here’s what I’ve got:

We definitely needed to get the first Trinculo/Stephano/Caliban scene on its feet, and, with our Trinculo being absent, another man stepped in. He hadn’t read a part like this before, and he was a big hung up on the language and physicality, but he stuck with it! I encouraged him to let the punctuation do the work. He stayed relaxed and cheerful, keeping any frustration he may have felt (with himself or others) to himself.

Our Stephano was clearly pretty nervous to perform, which, of course, is nothing unusual in SIP! We encouraged him to let go of the singing for now and just speak the words, but he still hung back. I asked if he’d like me to walk and talk it with him, and it only took a couple of times with me doing that (and pointing out what he was instinctively doing right) for him to feel confident enough to do it on his own. It was slow going, but the more he allowed himself to trust his instincts, the more confident he grew.

It may seem like a little thing – just to walk and read out of a script with a few people watching – but for this guy it’s a really big deal. So it’s a big deal for all of us. Folks battling challenges like this are sometimes among the most inspiring ensemble members. So watch this space!

March 30

I spent my entire time today with Trinculo, Stephano, and Caliban. Our Trinculo needed to be plugged in after his absence, and we needed to finish the scene altogether. There was some great, creative collaboration, from our Trinculo asking if there was a “Shakespeare word” he could yell off stage to cue Caliban’s hiding (we settled on “zounds!”) to physical demonstrations of stage positions and business. When one man hesitated, another man who was coaching (again! He’s so good at this!) said, “It’s written for you to create. It doesn’t tell you what to do.”

The four of them were a little stumped on the pulling of Trinculo by the legs, and, after I had made a suggestion or two, I bowed mostly out of the conversation to let them work it out. It was trickier than I thought it would be. Then our “coach” said, “Well, you know what? Nobody knows what’s in the play but us. Can we change it up?” He demonstrated how Stephano could yank on Trinculo’s leg, and Trinculo could pop up in a sitting position. We tried that, and it worked, and then our Caliban had the inspiration for Stephano to fall backward when Trinculo sits up. Our Stephano (still slowly but surely gaining confidence) burst out laughing and high fived him.

Our Stephano apologized a few times for working slowly, and, each time, the three of us assured him that he didn’t need to worry about it. We all appreciated him plugging away, no matter how long it took. And he continued to relax more and more. When Caliban begged for more wine, Stephano stumbled away laughing. Caliban began to break character to problem solve, and our Stephano said, “No, no, no, man! I’m doing this as part of my character!” He kept laughing, and then, beautifully, Trinculo started laughing, too, with such a big, dumb grin on his face that it made all of us laugh even harder. “This is cool,” he said between laughs. As Caliban sang and danced, Trinculo stood behind him, imitating him, making Stephano laugh more and more. We finished blocking the scene and ran it, and they all felt great. All we need to do is add some detail and pick up the pace.

It did take us nearly the entire time, and it could be that the work continues to move slowly, but it’s also possible that, as they learn to trust one another more, it’ll speed up.

Toward the end, a group who’d been working on plugging someone new into Act I Scene ii asked us all to come over and watch. I was torn between doing a few minutes more of text work with the guys I’d been working with and joining the others, and I ended up doing the latter. “Y’all gotta stop stealin’ Frannie from us, man!” one of the guys shouted. The work the other group had done on their scene was solid; they were all 100% committed, and a couple of the guys gave nuanced performances that were super exciting.

Facilitator Matt spent most of his time working on Act IV Scene i and wrote down some great quotes from the folks he was working with:

One man said to our Ferdinand, “Have you ever had to meet anyone’s parents?” Ferdinand replied, “Yeah, but I didn’t have a spell on me and been a slave for eight months!”

Our Prospero: “Maybe even Miranda doesn’t really know Prospero’s power. Maybe that’s what he promised her… Maybe he’s protecting her from a desire for that kind of knowledge. Maybe he doesn’t want her to be independent. The last thing any father wants is a fucking independent teenage daughter... So, he’s got all these power and control issues, but he’s also just a dad.” After some more discussion, he continued, “I remember, with my own kids, sometimes I’d be really angry about something that didn’t have anything to do with them, and they would be afraid of me.”

Incredible insight, drawn completely from his own experience. That’s the best kind. It was a great session all around.