Season Two: Week 4

Tuesday / July 17

During check-in, one man shared that he and some of the others have been talking about how some of the guys read aloud often, while others haven’t at all. “We’re a group, so we can all help in this,” he said. “We can find the balance.” He explained that we needed to find a way to encourage folks who haven’t been reading and ask the others to “slow down a little.”

There was general agreement. One man said, “I’m an introverted, isolated, don’t-like-being-around-people person… I’m trying to get way outside of my comfort zone and read a lot.” He said that he liked the challenge but still had trepidation about volunteering much. Another man said that he agreed that we should encourage more “reclusive” people, but we needed to find a way to do that without pushing too hard.

One man said he thought it would help if each person gave himself a “daily challenge”: a little something to work on each day that wasn’t totally comfortable. “The landscape and texture of everything would look completely different,” he said. Another man built on that, saying that that could be done even outside of regular meetings, and that there wasn’t any reason why they couldn’t read some lines together on the yard to build comfort. He said he’d been wanting to organize something for that weekend and asked anyone interested to let him know.

“As individuals, we need to evaluate why we joined Shakespeare in the first place,” said a man who liked the idea of the daily challenge. “We need to remind ourselves and see if we’re meeting those goals.” Another man didn’t understand why we were even having the conversation. “Is this a hidden message?” he asked. “Why don’t they just do it?”

The man who’d suggested gathering to read on the yard explained, “If you put me on blast and I’m a reclusive person, I might shut down more.” Another agreed, saying, “It’s gotta be on their time.” The first man explained, from a first-person perspective, what it would feel like to be pushed too much. I added my two cents: that this is part of why working over such a long period is so beneficial. It gives people who hold back at first ample time to gain the confidence they need to dive in. Sometimes it takes weeks, and sometimes it takes months. But if people feel supported, rather than pressured, they make strides that are often mind-blowing.

“All of these things are like a puzzle,” said one man. “It all builds to an individual and what they get out of the group.” He spoke of the challenges—and benefits—of having such a diverse group of people together in one room, and he asked if we were familiar with the term “communication bias.” I didn’t get every word, but he explained it as having to do with different backgrounds and learned behaviors making communication difficult. He praised a few men, who’d checked in about things affecting them that might impact their interactions that day, for warning us rather than assuming that we would be able to pick up on their cues ourselves. He encouraged everyone to be transparent, but also to push themselves. “Unless you’re truly not up to it, when she says make a better circle, make a better circle… Do [the improv] because it’s opening you up and bringing your energy into the room. Don’t sit off to the side—it sets a bad precedent.” He used himself as an example, saying that the reading is his least favorite part of the process, but he knows it’s useful, so he participates. “Everybody should take a turn to read. Everybody should participate, however minimal. We should all come into these things that she’s asking us to do… This is how we get to know each other… You have to participate in these activities. That’s the only way we’re gonna build camaraderie.”

There was a request to play the question game, which is played sitting in a circle, asking questions of the person next to you and listening without answering. It’s always a lot of fun, and this time was no different. It’s great for working on quick thinking and bonding with the ensemble.

We settled in to read Act I scene ii, and, per our conversation, began by asking if anyone who hadn’t yet wanted to read. We then asked if anyone who hadn’t read much wanted to, and then we opened it up to the whole group. We got a good mix that way!

This is the scene in which Kent berates Oswald and is subsequently put in the stocks by Cornwall and Regan, over Gloucester’s objections. “Why is Edmund even there?” asked one person. “He’s there to be a shield if necessary,” said someone else. I put it out there that some of Shakespeare’s characters do a lot of good lurking, and that this would probably become clear to us. Another man focused on Gloucester’s words and actions in the scene. “Gloucester is starting to get a picture of what’s going on—what Regan and Cornwall is trying to put down on their father… He becomes more of a patriot because of it,” he said.

Another man shook his head, grinning from ear to ear, and said, “I just love this scene.” Another person asked him why. He paused before he replied, “How much of a dick Kent is being to Oswald—for a good cause.” Another man nodded, saying, “All the little scenes are starting to boil over, and now you’re starting to see the action.”

Another man steered us back to Kent, who he said seemed to be taking out his anger on Oswald. “It’s something bigger than Oswald. It’s on Oswald, but it’s at the whole house.” Someone else pointed out that Kent taunts Regan and Cornwall in this scene, too. A man who is generally pretty quiet said, “It seems like there’s a strategy to it, though. He wants to draw all of Lear’s enemies out.”

One of the men said he envisioned Kent continuing to fight while being put in the stocks. He grinned and looked over at an ensemble member whom he’s known for quite some time. “Reminds me of someone I know a few years ago being carted off for running his mouth, still kicking and screaming as they dragged him off.” The other guy, sat up straight and, with an elegant air, said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.”

I imagine that that exchange seems pretty dark on the one hand, and glib on the other, but I have to say that, in that moment, it was neither. It was a gentle, funny way of acknowledging the growth this person has experienced since the days when that anecdote would have been anything but a joke. He’s calm and patient now, an avid learner and an excellent mentor. Sometimes the best way to call that kind of thing to everyone’s attention, and to praise it, is with a joke.

After the laughter died down a bit, I returned to the comment that had been made about Kent drawing out Lear’s enemies. “I think you’re onto something,” I said to the man who’d said it. “There’s a strategy here, for sure… What’s Lear going to do when he sees Kent in the stocks?” Someone pointed out what an insult it would be for one of his people to be humiliated like that, and another man said that it might make Lear reclaim his power. But can he reclaim it? Someone else said that it was too late; that all this would serve to do would be to expose Lear’s enemies’ motives so he could see the truth.

We got the scene on its feet, the actors in the center of our circle. Though it doesn’t always happen this way, the actors ended up standing in a circle, too, which meant that, while we didn’t get a stage picture, they were able to connect with each other better than they might have otherwise. When the man reading Kent said, “I have seen better faces in my time than stands on any shoulder that I see before me at this instant,” a man sitting in the circle totally cracked up. The man reading Regan snuck behind Cornwall and popped out for her lines, which was both creepy and funny. His enthusiasm for the character is palpable, and he makes no bones about it, which is fabulous not only because he’s having such a good time, but because he’s clearing the way for others to get excited about the play’s female characters.

We only had a few minutes left after the scene’s end, so we quickly touched base about how it had gone. One of the new members commented on how much he appreciated the big homies reading on their feet. He said that their level of comfort made everyone else feel more relaxed. Seems like, at least for today, we found that balance we’d wanted to strike.

Friday / July 20

After today’s check in, there was a general feeling of antsiness in the ensemble, so we played a game of Energy Around to get ourselves more focused. As always, it was fun and refreshing. After we lowered our ring, a couple of the guys suggested we play Freeze, and, oh man, I’m so glad they did.

It honestly was so much fun that I didn’t take notes. People let their imaginations run wild, messed with each other in the best possible way, made adjustments when needed, and swooped in to rescue scenes that were getting bogged down. Finally, one of the men tagged into a scene, only to launch into the dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. His scene partner made a valiant effort to join the dance, or to do anything other than laugh, but in the end he couldn’t, and neither could we. Laughing and applauding, we called the game and gathered up to reflect on how it had gone.

“What made it work well?” I asked. “Just being ourselves,” one man instantly responded. “When guys took it far left,” said another, meaning those moments when people said and did the most ridiculous things.   
We all agreed that our favorite moment had been when one man tagged into a two-men-in-a-car scene, pointed up and to the right and yelled, “Come on! Let’s go get the dragon!” The other man, looked in that direction and, without missing a beat, totally deadpan, said, “I’m not going over there if there’s a dragon over there.” We loved it so much because he’d said yes as an actor even as his character said no. It sparked a lot of ideas. And it was hilarious.

Another man said that it had really slowed down whenever the scene took place in a car (and somehow a LOT of these scenes took place in cars). That said, no scene ever completely died. “The best part was the team work,” said one man. “People were brainstorming on how to come in and save it.” That was what made it entertaining, too. “Each and every person had a different tone and set a different environment for it,” said another man.

One of the men took it back to our performances of The Tempest: how, when he skipped some of his lines, his scene partner covered so well that no one in the audience knew anything was missing. I noted how beautifully the man who played Ferdinand rolled with the punches when I took over the role of Miranda in the home stretch, even when my interpretation was completely different from the man who’d played the role before me.

We somehow launched into a friendly debate about the merits of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, about which, it seems, most people have strong feelings. One man shut down the arguments (mostly about the quality of the acting) by saying, rightly, that the thing that makes that film great is how accessible it makes the material: the modern day setting, including the weapons, makes it relevant. It did for him. Several others said it did for them, too.

“It’s kind of like how we took The Tempest and turned it into our own thing,” said one man, and then, of course we had to take a minute for our Caliban to do his signature dance. “Because you guys were having fun, the audience was having fun,” said one man.

So those were two “ins” to Shakespeare: a modern day Romeo and Juliet and a really fun Tempest. One man said his interest was sparked by the flashback scenes in The Highlander (the series, not the movie: let’s be very clear on that). For others, it was West Side Story or O.

We decided to spend the rest of our time working on Edgar’s first soliloquy. It’s a pretty complex piece with unfamiliar language and syntax, and it took some work to get into. The first person who read on his feet didn’t like what he had done; he hadn’t fully understood the words and couldn’t connect. We went back through it. As we discussed “poor Tom” and why this would be an effective disguise, one of the men likened it to the way many of us have dealt with homeless people. “It ain’t even that we don’t see them,” he said. “We don’t want to look at them.”

I asked the man who’d read to give himself a literal running start for his second try, only beginning when he was ready and a bit out of breath. His jogging was too casual for one man, who dutifully began to chase him through the gymnasium. When he came to rest by a chair, he read the piece, and it was much more connected. “I get it way better now,” he said. “He’s in the dope house, and the cops are right down the street.” We all agreed. The man who’d chased him said that his being out of breath helped us understand the piece more—that it “put another element on it.”

Another man, who has been pushing himself to read when he’s up to it, and who has been open about how far out of his wheelhouse this is, read next. It was definitely a reading, rather than a performance; he immediately acknowledged that and said that just reading it had felt good, and that his focus had been trying not to rush. “I’m just glad you got up there and did it,” said another guy, and we all agreed.

I want to draw a little attention to this exchange as an example of someone perfectly embracing our value of not holding every ensemble member to the same standard: acknowledging and honoring that each person has their own goals. The man who gave this encouragement, just for reading, is someone whose goals include honing his skill as an actor; he does a lot of reading, rehearsing, and improvising on his own time, in addition to the work he does with us. But he doesn’t hold anyone else to the standards he’s set for himself. He was genuinely happy and impressed that this other man simply stood and read the piece. He’s invested in his success, whatever that looks like.

The man read again, saying happily that he “felt more vulnerable—that’s something I’m working on.” He said he was concerned that he wasn’t saying the words correctly, and we all told him to let that go—”that’s just the way you say the words.”

Another man read, and, while it was clear that he understood the language and content, he paced back and forth so much that we lost the sense of the piece overall. We talked about how more movement doesn’t necessarily equal more interesting, and it would be better if he only moved when he felt he absolutely had to. One man pointed out the need for stillness in such a situation. “I’ve ran from the police—been chased through the woods. Once I find my safe place, I’m listening to everything— I’m listening to the trees, I’m listening to the creek over there…” There was more, but my pen wasn’t moving quickly enough to catch it all! He made a very strong case for being still and listening, though.

One man reminded us that Edgar was a nobleman who is now the lowest of the low. “That’s the psychological change he’s gotta go through to go from here [up high] to here [down low].” The man read a second time, and it was much more effective. “It came out from his heart instead of just his voice,” said one person.

We got into a brief discussion about how interesting it is that Edgar could be delivering this speech while Kent remains in the stocks elsewhere on the stage. What could that tell us? They’re both outcasts, of course. But one man pointed out that Kent disguises himself out of a desire to serve, while Edgar does so simply for survival. Another said that placing both outcasts on stage simultaneously would build our sense of desperation, and another asked if this is the play’s climax. Oh, no, those of us who’ve read the whole play said. This is only the second act of a very long, messy play.

One more man read the piece, seated the entire time. It was an emotional reading, and he said it had felt good: “I conveyed what I intended without feeling stiff or rehearsed.” Another man asked, “Can you visualize the difference between affecting drama and feeling drama?” And the guy who’d read responded thoughtfully that he could, and that he’d felt it more than he’d affected it. “I thought about a time when I was running for my life… That’s where I was in my mind—that’s where I went mentally.” He said that the cops had come very close to where he was hiding. “When somebody walks that close to you and doesn’t find you—that’s intense.”

So we ended the week with a bang! I can’t believe this is only week four of this season. Hang on to your hats, folks...