Season Two: Week 1

Friday / June 22


Hello, and welcome to Shakespeare in Prison’s first full season at Parnall! We learned a lot during our pilot year, and we’re ready to build on that and see how this works moving forward. We’ll update this blog each week (unless things get really hectic — then it might get a little delayed). We hope you’ll read along and take this ride with us. King Lear! Here we go. 

As we walked across the yard to the chapel, we heard a couple of voices calling our names. We looked over to see some of the guys headed toward the same destination, and we all waved excitedly. Matt and I have been absolutely champing at the bit to get going, and it’s clear that we weren’t the only ones!

That buoyant energy carried over as ensemble members, old and new, streamed into the building. We’re starting with 30 people, per the ensemble’s decision. It’s a BIG group, but, today anyway, it wasn’t chaotic in the least. Returning members — “big homies”, they’re calling themselves — had held an informational meeting earlier in the week, during which they drove home the culture they’ve developed: one of warmth, mutual respect, camaraderie, dedication, and professionalism.

And we began with exactly that energy. One of the men, who joined us late in the last workshop, got everyone to quiet down and focus, asking us to go around the circle to introduce and share a bit about ourselves. “This is my place to express myself in a creative way,” he said before gesturing to the next person to take his turn. There was a lot of laughter as each person shared, with the big homies leading the way, reminiscing and cracking inside jokes while being extremely welcoming to the newbies. Several said they were back to spend more time with “the fam”; others stressed the importance of always giving 100%. “This is my third play, so I bring 300%”, added one man. The ensemble demanded that our Caliban do his signature dance, which was met with resounding applause. And when another returning member said that he hadn’t done much in the last workshop, two others insisted that he had, making a big production out of listing all the things he’d taken care of that nobody else could have (or, in some cases, wanted to!).

“I gotta really emphasize this,” said another man. “Once you’re in this group, you gotta think about how your actions on the yard impact other people.” He spoke about how disheartening it was to lose people during the last workshop due to misconducts. “When you get in trouble, it’s not just about you. You’re letting the brothers down,” he said emphatically.

The man who played the Captain in The Tempest walked in and was greeted by a chorus of Arrrrrrghs, hearkening back to his incredibly engaging interpretation of the character as a pirate. He smiled and laughed, happy to be back. A new member shared that he had experience with King Lear, in high school; that he knew what was coming and was looking forward to getting out of his comfort zone. “This play…” he said, looking at his book and shaking his head. He looked around at the group. “If you’re not up for a challenge, you might as well hit the door.”

After intros were finished, we circled up for our first game of tape ball! For the uninitiated, this is a game in which everyone stands in a circle, hitting a ball made of crumpled up paper and tape in the air, keeping it going for as long as possible. And no one can hit the ball twice in a row. It’s not an easy game, and it’s often more challenging with a large group like this. We ended up standing in two concentric circles and got to a high of 46 — not bad at all for day one!

We sat back down to get started on our read. Before we began, I reiterated what some had already said about the ensemble needing to be a safe space, specifically citing the themes and subject matter of the play as things that could trigger intense conversations. “People need to feel safe to share as much as they want, or not to share at all, but just to stay in the room,” I said. Building off of that, a returning member jumped in to say that, in addition to being able to talk about themselves without fear of judgment, they need to be able to be themselves without fear of judgment. “I’m just gonna say it,” he said, leaning forward, looking each person in the eye, “We all know that [NAME—someone who was not in the room] is a homosexual. That has to be okay in here. We all have to be accepting of that, because that’s who he is. And if you’ve got a problem with that, no disrespect, but you should probably just leave.” No one left. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see every person’s face, but I definitely saw a lot of agreement, and I heard some, too.

Matt and I spoke afterward about how impressive and moving that was. For one thing, it took guts for this guy to be so frank about something so sensitive. For another, he’s a pretty new member, and this showed how much ownership he already has of the program, and how respected he already is as a leader. For another, he mentioned a specific person rather than making a blanket statement, so no one could say they didn’t know who he meant. And, for yet another thing, to do all of this — to be so open and vulnerable about protecting an LGBTQ person’s right to be open and vulnerable — in a prison setting? Breathtaking.

With that, we began to read aloud together. It didn’t take more than ten minutes for the conversation to start flowing; already, King Lear is taking us places. “Wait, wait, wait,” said one man, interrupting the scene. “Why is he questioning his daughters at all? The relationship between a father and his daughter is sacred. He shouldn’t have to question their love.” Another man suggested that Lear might be a narcissist. I asked the group if the public setting makes a difference. “If the daughters won’t express their love in the court, it’s a sign of disrespect. It’s the power structure, man,” said one person. “Public eye… Everything they do reflects on him,” said another. Still, the first man insisted that Lear shouldn’t even be asking the question; this clearly hit a nerve for him.

One man said that in those times of intrigue, Lear probably didn’t know whom he could trust. Another man built on that. “Any of you guys ever watch The Royals?” He asked. He described the show a bit for those who hadn’t. A man who had seen the show added, “Power corrupts everything. There’s no more love when power’s at stake.” The man who’d described the show nodded, saying, “Look at it back then, and look at it right now. What’s the roots of all evil? Money.”

Another man said, “There’s a tone being set… Everybody’s watching. If they’re not going to respect you, why would your followers?” Another agreed, pointing out that Cordelia addresses her father as “your majesty”, implying a lack of intimacy, at least in this setting. One person said that we should keep in mind that the bond between a king and his daughter wouldn’t have been the same as for most people now; that others would have been raising the children for someone so high up the hierarchy.

It’s about keeping the power in the family, a few men said. “Just think about The Godfather.” Some drew direct parallels between this situation and some well-known, contemporary wealthy people. “Look at Bill Gates,” said one man, citing his having given each of his children only $1 million so they would have to put in some work; he didn’t “just give handouts to his kids.” Several cited Donald Trump’s having squandered the first million that his father gave him — and, I have to say, they did it in such a way that they were able to completely avoid making any kind of partisan political statement (because we have an expectation of leaving that at the door).

Others suggested that Lear’s behavior could be the result of concerns about Cordelia’s dowry, consolidating power, and needing to know who’s going to take care of him in his old age. “He’s betting on his youngest daughter to do this,” said one man. “I done experienced this,” said another.

The conversation hadn’t lost steam by the time we needed to leave, and everyone seemed engaged and happy with how our first day had gone. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the rest of the season leads us.

Tuesday / June 26


When we arrived at the chapel, the group was already circled up. We began with a great conversation about what the qualifications are for new facilitators, since we’re looking to train some new folks soon. As usual, the ensemble members thought of quite a few things that we hadn’t, and I’m glad to have had their guidance as I craft the application process. The requirements they emphasized most are an open mind and genuine passion. “They’ve gotta love this with their souls like you guys do,” said one man. “You truly, truly love this. This is ambrosia for you.” He’s so right.

A bunch of the guys said they didn’t want any former correctional officers to be brought on in this capacity. “If a bunch of C.O.s came in, trying to be facilitators, I’d just shut down,” one of them said. But another man suggested that we not use “otherizing language,” and a second man built on that. “If you don’t want them to have their walls up on you, you can’t have your walls up on them… It’s like in here — we all want to read the [modern] English, but you all push us to read the language, and we turn out to be stronger than we thought.” He continued, “I want a C.O. I want someone on the parole board, who doesn’t see me as no more than a number, because I will change their mind.” A third man nodded his head, saying, “Let’s think of what we can teach them.” Another added, “When I seen the play, and I saw guys I knew acting and being different from what I knew them to be, I realized how limited I am — how everything I do is just what’s out on the yard.” I promised not to outright reject any applicants with a corrections background, and to be cautious about bringing any applicant on to the team, no matter their background.

We moved on to playing our first couple of circle games: Energy Around (using our names) and Zip Zap Zop. This was a lot of fun, especially as the new guys got more comfortable and loosened up. I noted toward the beginning of the session that one newbie, who had sat a bit outside the circle during our chat, was more or less clinging to his books, even while playing the first game. But during the second, he quietly left the circle to put them down, and then he came right back. It was subtle, but it indicated pretty clearly that his comfort level had increased. And so quickly!

The big homies really wanted to do some improv, so that’s what we did next. We began with “Yes, and…”, which is a great way to practice active listening and staying in the same creative space together. It proved to be quite challenging! But we kept at it. And, as usual, there was a lot of creative rule-breaking, as these two-person scenes quite frequently seemed to suck more people into them. This included a big group scene with a police car chase, and another with three bank robbers all showing up at the same without having planned to, and without even knowing each other. It was a lot of fun.

Matt and I had some nice one-on-ones with a few of the guys, too; all returning members. One of them left the ensemble shortly before our last performances, and he wanted to make sure I knew that he was re-committing, and committing more fully. He felt ashamed and embarrassed about leaving us in the lurch, and he stated very firmly that that would not be happening again. Another man let me know that he wants to be very involved in the few years he has left, helping in any way he can to ensure that the program has longevity. Two others, one of whom will go home soon, shared that they were extremely interested in continuing their involvement on the outside, and they asked me to brainstorm with them about ways in which they could do that. And I will!

Friday / June 29

We begin in the chapel and move to the gym on Fridays; today that move happened after we had ended a couple of circle games. For whatever reason, we couldn’t get into the gym right away. We stood outside in the shade to wait, and I chatted with a few of the guys about the case study we did at the women’s prison, what we discovered about how the program works, and what kind of notes we continue to take as we go. They were really interested in hearing more. One guy was especially excited. “Identity development,” he said. “Man, if you can change the way you think about your life story — that just opens up the doors. You can probably go anywhere from there.”

Some of the returning members requested that we do The Ring for the first time today (we had decided to let the newbies warm up a bit first). There was almost no resistance from those new folks, which I think says a lot about the seriousness of the established ensemble members, their willingness to do this somewhat strange exercise, and how good it clearly makes them feel.

And then we went back to the play — some of the guys were disappointed that we hadn’t read at all on Tuesday, so we’re going to make an effort to strike a balance between games/improv and reading. One of the new guys did a great job briefly summing up the first part of Act I scene i to catch everyone up who hadn’t been there (“You watch a lot of Drunk History, don’t you?” joked one man), and then we dove back in. The man who read for Lear has a naturally fabulous voice for this, but he struggled with some of the language. The others were very compassionate as they helped him figure them out, and he didn’t seem to feel self-conscious for a moment.

We paused to talk a bit about Kent, but we didn’t get far before we looped back around to Cordelia. Why is it that she can’t or won’t play this game of flattering her father? “Is it really that she doesn’t have a slick tongue, or that she’s honest? This is, for all intents and purposes, a princess who’s trained in all the flowery words. She could speak that, but it wouldn’t be true… It would be beneath her to compete with her sisters in a war of words when she could just do it by deed,” one man said, and many others agreed with him. Another man, though, said he thought she was just tactless, and maybe even rebellious.

“Could this be Shakespeare’s way of poking at the pomp and circumstance of his time?” asked one man, elaborating that ceremonies like this could have been perceived as being overly formal and insincere. Another man, seeming not quite to understand, interrupting to ask, “Then why would be give away his crown and act like it was still his?” Another explained, “He’s talking about how Cordelia broke protocol.” The first man nodded, saying further that “the court was all this opulent pomp and circumstance while the common people were starving to death.” I said that he could be onto something, and then we began to talk a bit about the political anxieties of the time, with the uncertain transition between Queen Elizabeth and King James I. One man broke in and positively schooled us on this; we’re using both the Arden and the No Fear editions of the play this time around, and he seems to have virtually memorized the introduction of the Arden. It’s pretty mind blowing.

I observed some really lovely group dynamics already at play. The man who’d been reading Lear had to leave briefly and unhesitatingly gave the part over to one of the new guys. Another newbie had quite a bit to contribute, which was great since he’d been so quiet up till this discussion; he also read Cordelia with no compunction whatsoever, which is thrilling not only because of what it says about how game he is, but because he’s a pretty big, tough-looking dude, and here he was reading a female character. I imagine that left an impression on the others.

One returning member rocked back and forth as he read aloud, the rhythm of the language clearly something that makes him feel good, that’s soothing for him. He’s shared that with us before, but I’ve never seen him relaxed enough to give over to it like this. Another man expressed an interest in organizing props, costumes, and scene changes, so I asked if he’d like to take the lead on a preliminary script analysis. I had a copy of the one we put together when I directed this play a few years back, which I showed him to explain how it could work. As we read, he came over to me a few times, asking questions and sharing exciting ideas. This guy has nothing if not energy, and I encouraged him to write down all of his thoughts, but not to worry too much about logistics at this point. I think that’s going to be tough for him, but it’ll also be an exercise in tamping down his energy a bit and focusing it, which he’s said is something he’d like to work on.

We talked at length about Lear’s state of mind at the beginning of the play, and about how varied interpretations of that can be. I asked the ensemble to reserve judgment, at least till we reach the end of the play, and encouraged them to keep talking about it. Some think he might be getting senile and knows he should abdicate, while others think he just wants to retire.

“When he stepped off the throne, maybe he lost the thing that kept him sane,” ventured one person. “Life didn’t play out the way he thought it was gonna play out,” said another, citing the lack of a male heir and Cordelia’s rejection of the game specifically. Building on the latter, another man agreed that he didn’t think it was an issue of senility, saying, “We act the harshest with the people we have the most feelings to… We react faster the more feelings we have for a person.” Another agreed, “You can get that one thing that immediately sets you off.” The first man nodded and continued, “Think of having a mask your whole life, and everybody plays their part — and then somebody’s not playing their part. That’d piss you off.”

“I can’t help feeling the oncoming isolation of King Lear,” mused another man. “Everything he thought was true is not gonna be true. He’s crushing his own legacy… He’s feeling alone. He has no one else to go to. He’s really, really all by himself.”

Another man said that this first scene reminded him of Cinderella and her step-sisters, and we all agreed. “The sisters are foreshadowing the rest of the play,” said one person. Another guy said that he thought Cordelia seemed a lot like Joan of Arc, and another said he’d been thinking the exact same thing.

I stepped aside for a one-on-one with an ensemble member who’s been with us since day one, and when we looked back to the group, we saw that 11 people were on their feet reading this first scene, and six of them were new. “Look at all those dudes up there doing Shakespeare,” I said. “Doing Shakespeare,” he replied, shaking his head, incredulous. “So many new guys!” I whispered. “So many new guys doing Shakespeare,” he said with a smile.

I also noted that the returning member who was such a great coach during the last workshop followed the man who read Kent off, quietly giving him some pointers. I couldn’t hear what they said, but it looked like the main topic was that of opening up physically to the audience. The younger man nodded his head eagerly, taking it all in.

I’d say, “So far, so good,” but that wouldn’t be accurate. It hasn’t been good — it’s been fantastic. A really great start to the season.