Season Two: Week 3

Tuesday / July 10

Last week, I met briefly with a few men who were interested in joining, including a couple alumni of Shakespeare Behind Bars, our much-loved inspiration program on the west side of the state (and in Kentucky). One of them was actually already on the callout today, but we still needed to check in with the ensemble to see if we all wanted to add these folks at this time.

Our group is already pretty large, but, because we’re working with two editions of the play, it seemed like there might be some wiggle room to bring these guys in if anyone else was willing to give up one or the other of his books. In a remarkable show of openness and generosity, the decision to welcome the new ensemble members was made without further discussion, and several men immediately volunteered to give away their books.

The same man then asked if we could take a little time to follow up on the conversation we had on the first day of the season about setting expectations or a “code of conduct” for the ensemble, building on the document we’ve used at the women’s prison. “We need to figure this out before we get too far into this,” he said. The main sticking point had been our attendance policy, and he felt that this has already been enough of an issue that we needed to put something in writing.

I explained what the policies (those of both the facility and the ensemble) at the women’s prison are, and reminded everyone that we’d already decided not to stick exactly to them—we just hadn’t yet determined our own policy. Many people said they wanted something more flexible, while still holding people accountable. One man said he thought there should be “repercussions” for excessive absences, and that word seemed to trigger a few others.

One man in particular bristled at the notion of imposing a lot of structure on the group. He said that they live with enough rigidity, and that this should be a place where they could be more free and relaxed; that with fixed rules can come harmful power dynamics. Another man and I broke in when we could to clarify that the document is a set of values rather than rules, and I briefly described how messy things had been in the women’s ensemble before we put everything in writing—and that we modify that document at least once per season.

This man seemed not to fully register what we were saying, maintaining that structure would negatively impact the experience, while others stood firm that we needed something to make people understand the kind of commitment the program requires. “I’m sure we can all agree that at one time we were dedicated to the wrong thing—that’s what got us here,” said one man. “Now let’s all dedicate ourselves to something positive… This is not just about us. It’s about the people that come after us, too.”

“If you have no structure, you have chaos,” said a member of the Original 12. He shared that, having been a part of the program from Day One, he’d seen the ensemble go from having almost no structure at first to this moment, when we’re actually putting something in writing, and he said that that evolving structure has definitely helped the process as it’s taken shape.

Another man built on that, emphasizing that these values weren’t being imposed on them by anyone. “We all had input in this,” he said, and I added that that’s the whole point: that the values and expectations come from within the ensemble, not from anyone else, and that they are always considered to be a working draft.

“We are setting the standard for groups to come,” said one man, saying that part of the reason for putting values in writing was to make sure that we all understand that the way we behave affects others. There was still some back-and-forth about the need to mitigate rigidity; I really think the loudness of the fans (it was very hot) was a big factor in the difficulty of this conversation. I gave a few examples of the challenges that can arise when dealing with situations where there are no established guidelines, and then we decided to take a few days to cool down, look over the women’s document, and make our decisions on Friday.

Before we moved on, a new member shared that he’s added the Six Directions to his daily routine. “It really helps,” he said, encouraging others to do the same. “It makes me feel better.”

Because it was so hot, we opted for another day largely spent reading in our circle. We picked it up at Act I, scene iii, in which Goneril speaks with Oswald about her anger with her father and desire to follow through on the plan she’d begun hatching with her sister. “This is the beginning of her plot against her father,” said one man. “This is her first move on the chessboard.”

“We can see the contrast in personalities in terms of Goneril… The true Goneril is starting to show,” said another man, referring to the platitudes she offered in the play’s first scene. Another guy said that we had seen her personality in that scene, and another said Lear probably knew this dark side of her already. I said that he might be right, and reminded everyone not to make assumptions: to keep combing through the text for clues. We talked a bit more about how Goneril might manipulate this situation, and then we decided to move on to the next scene.

As we doled out the parts that each person would read, I asked if, because of the fans’ volume, the readers could sit together so we could all hear them (and they each other) better. Instead, several people brought over an amp, to which they connected two microphones on stands, and they gathered around them to read on their feet.

One of the men, who absolutely loves reading and performing Shakespeare, had volunteered to read Kent, but then he left the playing area and sat back down with me. I realized he had given his part to one of the new guys. “Man, that was so generous. I’m impressed,” I said. He smiled and said, “He looked so eager.” I got pulled into a brief conversation with someone else, and when I turned around, he was standing at one of the mics again—and so was the new guy. I waited to see what was going on.

It turned out that he and another man had divided the Fool’s lines so they could share the role, which was interesting and a lot of fun for them. The man reading Kent wore his shirt pulled up like a hood throughout the scene, since Kent is in disguise, and absolutely gloried in the comedy he found. When Lear said, “Who wouldst thou serve?” this man chuckled delightedly before saying, “You.” We all laughed, too.

We made a deal that, for now, we wouldn’t spend a ton of time dissecting the Fool’s speeches, since many of them are incredibly complex, and we don’t want to get bogged down. And we didn’t need to in order to get exactly what was going on. “By him being a jester and telling the truth, people will overlook it. But he’s speaking the truth,” said one man. From whom can Lear stand to hear the truth? We’re keeping an eye on it.

There is quite a bit that happens in this scene, but most of the conversation centered around Goneril and her treatment of Lear. “She’s hiding the truth, and yet hiding some of it because of who the king really is,” said one man, referring to the specific complaints she makes. “She’s scolding him, kind of like a child having a temper tantrum,” said another. “I kind of feel like Goneril was hiding her nefarious scheme by kicking him out for a reason that seems valid,” said another man. “This bitch is tripping,” one person jokingly said, and another responded as Lear, saying, “Oh, man, what the fuck did I just do?!”

Then one man asked if Albany was in on the scheme. Several said yes, while others expressed doubt, and still others said absolutely not. “If you look at that initial exchange between Albany and Goneril, it’s apparent who wears the pants in that relationship. It’s not Albany,” said one person.

“I think Lear’s starting to realize how lonely he’s gonna be,” said one man.

At this point, most of the ensemble played around with some improv while one of the big homies and I gave the new guys a quick orientation. They were pretty excited about it all and very happy to be there.

Friday / July 13

Written by Matt

We read two short scenes today, and each had a significant moment for understanding the play and its characters. Despite the heat—and it was hot!—they wanted to stumble through the scenes on their feet instead of sitting in a circle and reading.

In the first, 1.5, Lear banters with the Fool. The former king has just stormed out of Goneril's house, and the audience has come to understand just how completely Lear has given up his power. The Fool comments on Lear's impotence with a series of jokes and riddles, and Lear plays along. The ensemble stopped here to discuss. Why would Lear play along with his Fool's jokes, which are made at his expense and are cutting, even cruel? A few men brought up the unique role of the fool in medieval courts, and the important agreement that was made: the Fool was allowed to say what others could not, and this allowed the king to hear the truth. One said that, in this sense, the arrangement benefited both king and fool. Another said that it also benefited the public, since the fool could speak truth to power in a way that any other citizen would be killed for doing.

We all stopped again at Lear's puzzling line: "O let me not be mad; not mad." One member, who has become a natural leader of discussion, broke down the implications of Lear's thought: "Well, there are kind of two options," he offered. "Either he's crazy, and he's just starting to realize it, or he's not crazy yet, but he realizes that it's a threat for him."

The men launched into a spirited discussion of Lear's madness, one of the classic issues for any group to address when reading or acting King Lear. Several of them began scouring the footnotes in their Arden Shakespeare editions for clues, and others flipped back to the first scene or to the scene with Lear and Goneril for hints of Lear's madness or sanity. A few minutes later, the same man who had broken down the options before revised his canny statement: "Actually, it's like there are four options. Those two each have two others. If he's insane when he says it, he could be realizing it or just worrying about it without realizing it. And if he's not insane, he could be just worrying about it, or he could think he's insane." It was a sophisticated reading of an important moment. The ensemble was not through discussing the potential evidence for their interpretations (and the ramifications for the rest of the play!) for almost fifteen minutes.

The second scene, 2.1, focuses on Edmund's clever betrayal of his brother. He goes so far as to stage a fight between himself and Edgar, all the while convincing both Edgar and their father of his loyalty to them. The men focused on how calculated and smooth Edmund is in his betrayal, and the lengths he goes to. When Edmund cuts himself, to fake a sword-fight wound, several men talked about how far a person will go to further a deception. They didn't go further—yet!—with this idea, as time was getting late, but many of them clearly identify with Edmond, at the same as they revile him.