Season Two: Week 5

Tuesday / July 24

It was a joy to welcome Vanessa Sawson to the circle today! Vanessa was a facilitator in the women’s ensemble several years ago, and she’ll be joining us when she can going forward.

When we walked in, most of the guys were circled up and playing tape ball—and we jumped right in. It was awesome to see Vanessa fold into the group like that, so easily. During check-in, as she enthusiastically described what it was like to see King Lear in Russia, one of the guys leaned over to me and said, “You know when you’re looking for new facilitators? That’s who we need: it’s her.” He shared that with the ensemble, too, and they agreed. The rest of check-in was similarly high energy. One of the guys chuckled and said, “I find it ironic that I come to a drama group to escape the drama.” Another replied, “No drama here—just Shakespeare!” 

We started reading Act II, scene iv, in which Lear arrives at Regan’s home, sees Kent in the stocks, and becomes more and more upset as Goneril and Regan defy and betray him. One of the men asked if we could work in a proscenium set up, rather than in a circle, and I reminded everyone that the reason we work that way for a while is so that people who are intimidated by a traditional set up will feel safer and volunteer more. This method also removes the pressure of creating aesthetically pleasing stage pictures: our focus is just to connect with one another. We decided to read the scene on our feet in the circle, stopping and starting to be sure we’d all be on the same page.

Regarding Lear’s reaction to seeing Kent in the stocks, one man said that he saw the exchange as a comedic tug of war. Another man emphatically said that that’s not what’s going on; that Lear is shocked and in disbelief. I suggested we take it back to the text to figure it out, and there are clear indications there that Lear is incredibly upset. “Lear takes talking to himself as a meditation, almost… He was saying it before, but now we’re seeing it,” one man said.

“The Fool hates Lear. He thinks he’s a joke,” said another. “Does that mean he hates him?” I asked. “Maybe not,” he replied, “But he thinks he’s a joke.” No one agreed with him about the Fool hating Lear—he’s just a truth teller, they said. “A true friend will tell you the truth,” said one person.

“We’re underestimating the power of pride,” said another man. “This dude was a king, and now he’s turned low… Of course he’s upset, because his pride is hurt so bad—and from his own people… There’s a lot of emotion going on. Of course he’s choked up.” Another agreed, “His ego got popped.”

One man asked what the story of Lear’s downfall was, in terms of actual history. I reminded everyone that Shakespeare took vast liberties when his plays were drawn from actual events, so, while it’s great to have that information, we often have to set it aside. Another man said that the historical context of when the play was written matters more. “It comes in like that for a reason,” he said. “He flipped it to show what bullshit that social structure was from the beginning.”

We picked up our books and kept going. There was a widespread vocal reaction to Lear’s lines, “Those wicked creatures yet do look well favoured/When others are more wicked; not being the worst/Stands in some rank of praise.” That one hit home.

“They’re picking him apart,” said one man. “He’s so upset, he loses his logic,” said another. Another man pointed out that Lear is now being treated the same way as Edmund has for his whole life. It’s like the storm in Act III, said one man. “Storms don’t just come out of nowhere. They build up. We see them coming.”

Another man agreed, taking it back to pride. “One time it’s about his boy in the stocks, but everything else is about him. It’s that pride… Pride is a bad dude. You got guys in here that’d rather be maxed out than let down their pride, and that’s crazy. But that’s pride.”

One man said he thought that Goneril and Regan began to resent their father after they got married (assuming he chose their husbands), and that they’re following his example. Another man added that the women are definitely in charge, saying, “I see Cornwall as wrapped around Regan’s finger.” Everyone agreed, and I asked, “What about Albany? He’s not even in this scene. Where is he, and what does that tell us?”

“He’s back at the house,” said one of the guys. “Goneril and Regan are very strong-willed women, and they have things in hand—to say the least. He’s housesitting.” We all agreed that the two of them don’t behave the way women normally would in that time. “They don’t give a damn about what the culture says is right or wrong,” said one person. “‘We’re going to get what we want’—no matter what is standing in their way.”

Another man said he liked that way of thinking about them because it helped him to empathize with their situation. “They’re not just monsters,” he said. Another guy agreed, saying that likening the sisters to Edmund, as someone had earlier in the session, was what helped him. “[They parallel Edmund because] Edmund was working from a place of hurt… These girls don’t have a mother. Where’s the mother at?… Cordelia was doted on, but not them… I find it easier when I parallel them to Edmund."

Another man said we could easily find evidence in the text, though, that this is nothing new for these women—they’re just taking it to the next level. “The skill with which they handle their father is not new,” he said. “They know exactly what to do [with Lear], so you can assume they weren’t forced into any marriage… They’re used to getting their way. They chose men who were subservient to them… Lear’s starting to realize that he’s a joke… because they don’t need him anymore. But he’s always been a joke.”

Vanessa brought up how high the stakes are in this scene, and I brought it back to a comment one of the men had made when Kent was put in the stocks: that the play was building in its desperation. “The next time we see Lear, he’ll be out in the storm,” I said. “And you’re right: that doesn’t come out of nowhere. There’s a steady build, and we need to keep that in mind as we figure out how we want to tell the story. We’ve gotta earn the storm.”

Someone brought up fear as being central to this scene. “If they didn’t have fear,” one man said, “They wouldn’t be trying to take away all this stuff from him.” Another man agreed but said he thought it was more about anger. “They see the opportunity to strip him completely as they have been their whole lives… They’re getting even.”

Another guy said it’s both. “This scene is all about fear. Anger is always caused by something else… They’re afraid of his men, so they’re trying to take his men… He sees them trying, and it makes him afraid, which leads to anger." Another man nodded, saying, “He’s king—we gotta strip him of everything… It’s not just his knights… I think that what they’re stripping away is his title as king.” A third man built on that: “The knights are the representation of what he is. It’s not the numbers. It’s the icon.”

Someone else didn’t quite agree. “You gave this to us, and we want you to know that we’re in control,” he said. “Never at any time do I believe it’s fear. It’s more of a power struggle.”

There was a question about why Lear’s knights would be sticking around at all. Most of us thought it’s a money thing, while others thought it has to do with loyalty, or simply having food and lodging. “No one knows,” said one man. “Maybe that’s what the fear is.” Is Lear used to being surrounded by “yes men?” Who is he left with at the end of this scene, as compared to the first one? Fifty knights left at a pop once Goneril made it known she wasn’t going to put up with them—or with Lear.

We decided to read the scene on its feet again, switching up the people who’d be reading. I volunteered to play Cornwall, which was new for me! We took our time and focused on connecting with the text and each other.

I’ve spent a lot of time with this play, but I hadn’t realized just how impotent Cornwall is in this scene till I literally walked in his shoes. I kept trying to break in—the text seemed to want me to—and just couldn’t manage to make myself part of the conversation until Gloucester came back at the end, and even then the women dominated the scene. It felt like a gender thing—it felt exactly the way I’ve felt many times in groups of men when I KNEW I could contribute something useful to a conversation or a project, and it was so interesting to be a woman-playing-a-man having that experience with two men-playing-women. It also made Cornwall’s increasing brutality ring true in a totally new way for me.

I shared that with the group when we’d finished reading—I love when I learn something new just from working with them, and I always let them know. One of the men asked how it felt, as Frannie, to be glad the women have a voice but to be playing a man in that situation. “It makes me feel that gender is irrelevant,” I said. And, I said, it reinforced the value not judging a character and staying open—that’s how you learn your way in.

“If you understand everything, you can forgive anything,” said one man. Empathy. It is always about empathy.

Friday / July 27

Today marked the return of Kyle Grant to the men’s ensemble! Kyle led our pilot last summer, and the members of the Original 12 who are still in the group were overjoyed to see him. One of them felt the need to apologize to the group for “fangirl-ing.”

One of the men began a lively discussion about social constructs, which proved to foreshadow the rest of the session. We moved to the gym, played a game, and sat down to read. At first, the energy in the room felt low. But, boy oh boy, did it ever pick up.

We arrived at the first of the scenes in which Lear is out in the storm. There was silence when we finished, till one man simply said, “It’s sad.” Another man said it reminded him of his first heartbreak: “I remember the first time a woman ever broke my heart. I remember how it felt. All those feelings… It was horrible… You know, and you’re like, ‘Why you hurt me so bad,’ like 30 times. You think the world is ending… I feel for him… I really feel for him.”

“He almost seems to pity the Fool and Kent a bit,” said one man. Another jokingly responded, “So you’re saying he pities the fool.” That got a good laugh. “This is the first time I think I’ve seen Lear actually show affection for the Fool… He was actually concerned for the Fool’s wellbeing. I thought it was pretty dope,” said one man. Another man took it a step further: “He’s realizing that things are different now. Lear is mortal man, not king—look at all these people suffering because of things he did.” Someone else likened the situation to one he experienced when some of his relatives had to take care of an elderly family member, and how awful it had seemed for that person as he lost control of his mind and body. “When you old, think about how hard that is on a person. You go crazy.”

“Storms serve two purposes: destruction and rebirth,” said another person. “In the midst of the storm, in the midst of all this, he found some hope.” Another agreed, saying that Lear might have seen this coming but been in denial. Another man said he wasn’t sure. “We gotta go back to what [NAME] was saying the other day about pride… I believe he wholeheartedly had faith in his rearing as a king that his daughters would dote on him, and now he’s left with a peasant and a fool… That’s a sad situation.” Kyle suggested that all Lear’s really losing is the illusion that things were otherwise than they are.

And then philosophy class began.

“You don’t know if people giving you what you want because of fear… Now he don’t have anything to give ‘em, he’s seeing the truth of everything now,” said one man.  “Reality isn’t based on our perceptions. Our perceptions are based on how we view reality," said a man who I’m going to call Philosopher A for the purposes of describing this discussion. “Yeah, but I’m talking about subjective truth,” said another, and they went back and forth for a minute or so.

One of the men said that when we put the scene on its feet, we shouldn’t “look at this with any kind of hindsight bias.” He said that before prison, many of them were “presented with a metaphorical storm,” and they should draw on that experience. Lear doesn’t know where this is going, and we need to keep that in mind. He likened it to Othello’s struggle. I said that there are definitely similarities, the big difference between Lear and Othello being that this play is incredibly theatrical and the other isn’t. I brought up, again, the insistent emotional build of this play, and the need for whoever plays Lear to give himself over to that theatricality and chaos—without reliving trauma—in order to tell the story truthfully. That person needs to trust that the ensemble to take care of him, and we all need to be ready to do it. Kyle added that even though there’s no magic in Lear (as in Macbeth and The Tempest), “it’s at that pitch.”

He then asked if Lear is better off with the illusion of love or the reality of unlove. One man said the reality is better, but his point got kind of muddled. Philosopher A said, “Which is better: everything or nothing? … You gotta choose the best illusion and go with it.” He brought up patricians and plebeians, giving a really good explanation of how patricians couldn’t understand how plebeians could be so happy, when they themselves were often dissatisfied. This guy is very well read, and he’s great at breaking down what he’s talking about without talking down to people.

Another man essentially told Philosopher A to hold his horses and took it back to the question Kyle had asked. “If you pertain it to Lear, that’s one thing. But if you bring it out… That could go on forever." Kyle clarified that he had asked the question specifically about Lear. I said that I thought the reality is worse than it has to be because Lear won’t let anyone help him.

Philosopher A said that the only way Lear could be better off is “if there’s some other benefit,” meaning redemption or another existential breakthrough. “Torment is a state of consciousness,” he said, stating again that it’s all about perception.

Another man agreed. “Better off in the reality you created for yourself… Now it’s crashing down around him… The illusion when he was on top of the world and everybody was happy…” Now everyone’s illusions are shattered—not just Lear’s. He likened this to The Matrix and did a condensed, one-man version of the “choose which pill” scene. “I was the happiest thing running around till you gave me that goddamn red pill. Now everything’s apeshit.”

One man brought up Buddha and the hardship he chose to live with. Someone else said, “But he had a choice. He chose that." And another said, “Lear had a choice. Jesus had a choice. Moses had a choice… and they all chose reality.” But Philosopher A said that Lear didn’t have a choice—“This was smashed on him.”

One man said we shouldn’t underestimate human nature under the power of a delusion, citing work he’d done with Alzheimer’s patients. He learned that it was much better to play along with their delusions because they’d get really upset if you told them they were wrong. “When it’s not a choice, the human reaction to that is to crush it.”

Another man said, “This is a thought here that everyone should be able to relate to, being in prison.” Another exclaimed, “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” As I feverishly scribbled notes, I heard a bunch of people say things like, “coping strategy!” and “wake up call!” The first man said he’s been down since he was very young. “At some point, you find out what you’re made of. If you can cope with reality or not. At one point, I thought I couldn’t. But now I know I can. I’m a lot better off now as a 40-something year old man, than that teenager I used to be. Instead of letting it crush me, I found I was pretty stubborn, pretty resilient, and I got back up. I didn’t let it keep crushing me…”

Philosopher A said he appreciated that, but he was clearly impatient with all this subjectivity and took it back to logic. Another man tried to articulate an argument, then gave an example instead: “Frannie can’t speak into my world saying, ‘He’s better off for having gone to prison’… Not knowing where I was at before, she couldn’t see my reality… We’re almost arguing a moot point.” Philosopher A exclaimed, “Right!” The man continued, “We are imposing our reality on his situation. And to me that’s not feasible… Clearly he was better off before [the betrayals, the storm, etc.]… Knowledge is a great responsibility and weight upon a person’s shoulders.”

I stepped in, because it was becoming circular, to say that we were having a philosophical conversation about a text that isn’t philosophy and wasn’t written by a philosopher. That it’s a good thing to have the objective viewpoint, but as artists we have to be able to “as if” this, because empathy is about feelings, not intellect. There is no one right or wrong answer. One man said that it’s like the perspective people who come in from the outside have on life in prison, and vice versa. We can have empathy for each other, but we don’t actually know the experience. Kyle talked about conversations with ensemble members, and how he always responds to “You know what I mean?” with “As much as I can, yes." I suggested that we use philosophy as a guidepost, but not the final word.

Kyle’s book was lying open, face down, on the bleachers between one of the guys and him. That ensemble member said that he could only see the front cover, and Kyle could only see the back cover, but it was still the same book, even though they saw it differently. BOOM.

Another man returned to the idea of whether reality is better than illusion, even if the process of enlightenment is painful. He said that he wanted to fight it when he was locked up, but “now would go through all that to be the person I am now.” He described how rough it was, how he just recently had huge epiphany, and joining SIP was among the results of that. If this were five years ago, he never would have been in this group. “When you start seeing humanity—start seeing the beauty in people—I don’t wanna go back to what I was before.”

Another person said he could relate to Lear because, “At least for me, there was always at least one person saying, ‘Dude, this is not a good idea.’ … [And he would respond] ‘Watch this.’ Knee deep in shit. Bitchin’ and moanin’ because I’m knee deep in shit.” Another ensemble member agreed. “Before my bubble got popped, I was content in my misery… I was content in my mess because I didn’t realize it was a mess… And when you realize it—that’s a world of hurt, man… I feel that Lear was happier before. Was he better off? We can argue forever about that. But he was definitely happier before.”

“My reality check made me a much better person and much happier,” said another man. He described the lifestyle he had, even as a young teenager, which led to a drug addiction that took a long time to kick. He told us how long he’s been sober and got a big round of applause.

But another man wasn’t sure that these were solid parallels to Lear’s experience. Everyone described an awakening that led them to better their lives, “but nowhere in this is he going back up. He’s on a downward slide.” One person said the benefit in all of this for Lear is finding the love for/from Cordelia.

I went on a little bit of a rant (I really, really love this play) about how EVERYONE in this play has the blinders ripped off (or gouged out!). Someone said the only person who isn’t under an illusion is the Fool; Kyle added that he’s the only one to see it and the only one who can’t do anything about it.

Then Kyle mentioned that we hadn’t even talked about the language, so we started doing just that! Simply speaking the words as I talked through the music in Lear’s first monologue made me so overwhelmed I had to stand up and shake it off. The intensity of that emotion kind of took me by surprise. We then discussed the technical need to have good breath support because all of this needs to be heard over a storm.

Ring up. Session over.  As people left, a lot of them told me through facial expressions, gestures, or statements that it had been an amazing experience. A few said their “creative juices were flowing.”

It. Was. So. Good.