Tuesday / August 7
One of the guys pulled me aside right when we arrived today. He wanted to let me know that he’d had a good talk with a staff member about how he could work to ensure SIP’s longevity at this facility. He said that the structure of the program makes it unique, and that its being long term means that the men who’ve got more time to do will be the ones to shape it; and that’s something he’s committed to doing. I couldn’t have been happier to hear it. He has a natural ability to interpret and articulate his interpretations of Shakespeare; but, more than that, his empathy and compassion for others, exemplified in the way he explains things and navigates discussions, will provide invaluable support of others’ goals even as he pursues his own.
After check-in and the ring, we decided to play a game for a bit. I introduced “Beat Poet”, which has several variations but essentially asks each actor to free-associate in the form of a poem or spoken word piece—which is encouraged to be bad!
It started off pretty silly. Facilitator Kyle volunteered to go first, and was given the title suggestion of “The Ant”. His poem was… interesting. When he finished, we asked him to share about the experience. “I want the words to speak for themselves,” he said, to a big laugh. The next bunch of poems worked to varying degrees; one person had to stop and start over because going with his instincts was so difficult, while other pieces were pretty cohesive, and one man embraced stream-of-consciousness so fully that the poem ended with a plea to another ensemble member to give him the answers for their accounting homework.
Some poems went in interesting directions. One called “Caterpillar Graveyard” became a meditation on stunted growth: caterpillars that should have been butterflies but were, instead, dead in a graveyard. Another, called “Blades of Grass in Trash Cans”, found the actor fully invested in making it performance art, which he attributed to past experience in dance groups. “I connect the verse to the actual moves,” he said, stating that he loves doing this kind of thing “just to have fun with it. To be free.” He added, “Movement inspires thought as well,” and invited all of us to explore that more for ourselves.
And then things got kind of serious. Poems with titles like “Soda Pop Murder”, “Spicy Meatballs”, “Purple Shoelaces”, “Mirror”, and “Blinded” were all thoughtful and personal, and a couple were legitimately good poems.
“It’s hard to do this ‘cause it’s pointless,” said one man. I said that that was interesting; that, yes, the poems themselves might be pointless, but I asked everyone what they thought the point of the game might be. The ideas came back: spontaneity, inspiration, exploration, problem-solving, creativity, and support of the ensemble. “It gives one person the confidence they need to stand up in front of one person. Twenty people. It gives them the courage to stand up in front of 1,000 people,” said one man. He turned to a man who joined the group last fall. “You were from a much higher security level, right? But you’re here… You know what I’m saying?”
Another man added that he thought the goals included relaxation and chemistry. “Not only does it build confidence in here, but it builds confidence out there [on the yard]... It doesn’t stop when you go out the door.” He talked specifically about being able to express feelings and assert oneself in a constructive way. Another said, “It gives us the confidence to express that safely.”
Another man said that “this is reminiscent” of the kind of stream-of-consciousness work that one is often asked to do in therapy (which is part of why he didn’t like it). He then asked if audience size really makes a difference in one’s confidence—if there’s a magic number at which a crowd is no longer “small.” There were a variety of opinions, with most people saying that it’s a subjective, personal thing that isn’t quantifiable. It’s the quality of large vs. small, as opposed to a literal number. It’s not logical, it’s emotional, and it depends on your level of comfort with what you’re doing.
One man asked what everyone’s biggest fear is in terms of performing. One person immediately said that it’s the fear that people will think he’s not doing a good job. Another said, “Mine is dropping my lines as soon as I connect with someone” during a soliloquy. One man suggested that he look above people’s heads, and this man said, no, he wants to challenge himself to get over it. Another man said he’d read poetry for an audience before, but he’d never done theatre. He said he had a speech impediment as a child, and his biggest fear is always that people won’t understand him.
“Fear allows us to check our motivation,” said one person. “Why are we doing this? Self-esteem. It drives us to push ourselves forward and keep going 100%.” Another man said that you might not need self-esteem to do that; you might want to work on not caring about what other people think. “You gotta give people power to harm you,” he said.
Kyle and I shared that much fear comes from doing something private in a public space, which requires vulnerability. We want to find a way to express emotions that are true, but not real—and that takes practice. “We always have these conversations when Kyle is here,” said one man. “Kyle takes it deep.”
We read Act III scene iii of our play, with the readers on their feet. We spent all of last week on monologues, and the first comments after this reading were performance-based. I asked everyone to take it back to the text: let’s figure out what’s going on, read this whole play, and get into the weeds of performance later.
“Edmund’s a scurvy little fellow,” said one man. “He’s not playing any games, dude. He’s going straight for the jugular.” Another man asked us whom we thought had sent Gloucester’s letter, sharing that he thought it was Cordelia. One man suddenly sat up straight and said, “The letter thing—it’s a little like the handkerchief thing in Othello.” I asked him to say more about that. He explained the context to those who hadn’t read the play, saying it was “proof that she was messing around, when she really wasn’t.”
“There’s no bounds, no loyalty,” said another man. “His father is already making him legitimate, but it’s not enough… He just keeps reaching for more and more.” Another added, “Most people who win the lottery go broke within five years… Once you get a taste of power, it’s insatiable. It’s never enough.”
Looking ahead to Act III scene iv, we decided to leave it for our next meeting, rather than interrupting it, since it’s so long. Instead, a couple of guys volunteered to work on monologues.
The first man to read had been building up to this for awhile, including all of the work he did during the Tempest workshop. He is very intimidated by performing, but he’s committed to pushing himself to get better at it. He chose one of Brutus’ speeches from Julius Caesar and gave a solid, straightforward reading. He said afterward that he’d done the piece when he was 14, but this was “night and day” because now he has some experience with Shakespeare. One man asked if he “felt like [he] put a lot of emotion into that.” The man said no, but it’s not an emotional piece. Another man suggested that, even if that’s the case, he could go for a “more conflicted feeling.” The man who asked about emotion said that it was clear the reader had a good intellectual grasp of the material, but it had been reading rather than acting. “But you got up here and did it,” said a man who’s been in the group longer. “And you never would have done that before.” I asked the man who’d performed if he could have seen himself doing this when he joined. “No,” he said firmly. “So this is huge,” I said, and we all gave him a big round of applause.
The next man to perform worked with Edgar’s first soliloquy. He took a few moments to prepare, and then he dove in, taking his time, and really feeling it. He was shaking; it was intense. When he finished, nearly everyone said, “YEAH.” He said he had wanted more anger, but he was feeling calm today and couldn’t quite get there. “There’s a frustration in Edgar that I kind of relate to,” he said. “He’s being targeted, he’s being labeled, but he doesn’t know where it’s coming from. There’s an anger to him… He doesn’t know where to go with it. This bedlam is fake; he’s conflicted between the two.”
One man said he liked how this interpretation contrasted with the last one we saw. “He made it his own apart from [NAME’s]. [NAME] set a bar, and then he raised it up with his performance.” Another man said, “You hit it on the nail as far as I was thinking of it.” He said it brought us back to the theme of pride and a fall from nobility. “When we first started reading, I passed judgment on everyone. But reading it and seeing it starts to change my perspective… but you can’t just shake that off in two weeks.”
Another man said, “The time that you took to set that scene—the imagery… You salivated on every single word and tone—it really brought me into it… That was amazing.” Another said, “I was sweating. And it’s not ‘cause the fans are off.” Another man pointed out, “Even when you got soft and quiet, we could hear everything you were saying because we were so in tune with you.”
Kyle then did a piece from Julius Caesar that was new to him. He didn’t like how it went, but the others encouraged him. One in particular said he appreciated that Kyle kept going, even when he lost lines. “It shows everyone else here that you hiccuped, and it makes us feel like it’s not a big deal.”
Before we left, the group unanimously said that I would have to do a monologue on Friday. I said I would, but I didn’t want to be the only one, and I didn’t want to go first. They turned their attention to a fairly quiet man, who said he’d consider doing a piece from Julius Caesar that he likes, but he wanted to go before me because, “If I’m gonna bomb this, I’m gonna bomb this real good.”
Friday / August 10
After we’d settled in, before we began our reading, one of the men asked if he could give me some constructive criticism, which, of course, I welcomed. Last week, I’d admonished another person and myself for talking too much during group feedback, and this man wanted to tell me that that was wrong, at least in my case. “A lot of us take this stuff really seriously, and you’re usually the only professional here, so we want your feedback. Every time.” This was unanimous, so I thanked him for the criticism and said I would do what they were asking.
We read Act III scene iv, in which, during the storm, Lear, the Fool, and Kent discover Edgar in disguise as a madman; Gloucester then shows up and guides them to shelter. It’s an intense and complicated scene. One man said that Lear feels like the storm is justice—that he didn’t treat his subjects with compassion, and now he’s suffering like them. “He’s coming to see how the other side lives,” said another.
We got a little hung up on Lear’s actions: is he ripping up his clothes or tearing them off? And how do we portray that, given our limitations (the need to wear costumes over clothing, etc.). “How do we preserve the sanctity of the play?” asked one man, and I suggested that it’s really more about the way we decide to tell the story, rather than the text being sacrosanct. We tossed out a few ideas of how some of this could be accomplished, and then we moved on—these conversations are really better had once the whole play has been read.
A few people wondered if Edgar is playing a part, or if he’s actually crazy. We found our answer in the text: when no one is listening, Edgar snaps from prose back into verse. It’s just a really good act. He has to do this well because his life is at stake.
“Anybody notice how Edgar got super nervous when his father came into the room?” asked one man. “He was really trying to show that he was this person… I can sense a nervousness in the words, like, ‘Is my dad gonna recognize me?’” Another said, “It’s a form of mirroring, too… He’s trying to show him that, ‘Hey, hey—I’m here, too. You’re not alone in this.’” Another man pointed out that the language definitely changes from having a certain arrogance to being total nonsense.
One of the guys asked if this was ever done with multiple people playing Edgar (one person per disguise). I said I wasn’t sure, but if we decide to go that route, we need to make very certain that what we’re doing is clear to the audience. There are so many possibilities. I brought up Peter Brook’s “empty space” and said that the benefit of performing in the gym is that, without a physical stage, we have a ton of options. One person described how we’d defined the playing space for The Tempest. Another said, “Sometimes having no stage is the best thing.” He talked about starting with an idea and then going from there to get the best result. “It’s like drawing… If you do a rough outline and slowly fill in as you go, you’ll end up with a piece of artwork.”
We moved on to monologues, with the man who’d said he was “gonna bomb this real good” going first, reading Antony’s “O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth” from Julius Caesar. He was extremely nervous and said, “If I pass out—just leave me there!” He also said that his knees were sweating. He got through it, though, and at the end, without even pausing to breathe, he said, “HOLY SHIT!” and literally spun around as we all applauded. “It felt weird,” he said. “I don’t like talking in front of people.” Especially this many people; it makes him want to blend in.
“It breaks a barrier though, right?” said a man who’s struggled with the same thing. “What you basically just did was put a nice, big piece of duct tape on you, and you ripped it off,” said another. Several people shared advice about how not to let the audience intimidate or distract him. “I’m proud of you,” said one man. “I am, too,” said another, and we all applauded again.
One of the men challenged him to “give it more emotion,” particularly at the end. He was still quite nervous, and I suggested that he pick one focus point and shut out everything else. He decided it should be the guy who’d challenged him. (This man is just incredible about supporting and encouraging the others, and we all deeply appreciate it.) He didn’t end up looking up at all, but his voice was more engaged and powerful, and he built the intensity beautifully—step by step, like going up a ladder. It rose to a fever pitch and went out on the same “HOLY SHIT” as the first one. We absolutely loved it and lavished him with praise. One person said that the effort had “paid off exponentially.”
That man was the next to perform, using a compilation of various expressions of grief from Shakespeare. It was clear that he connected with the material, which he delivered in a seemingly effortless way. There were moments, though, when he disconnected, and he seized on those immediately when he’d finished. He hadn’t done it the way he’d wanted to, and that bothered him because he feels the piece very deeply and has used it to help process his own feelings.
One of the men said that feeling disconnected is a feeling. He expanded on that, but unfortunately the acoustics were such that I couldn’t get more than the gist of what he said. The man who’d read, though, responded that losing the words shut off his emotions. Another man broke in to say that there had been a breakthrough anyway because he’d showed emotions, something no one had been expecting.
The guys asked me to do something, and, because we had only a few minutes left, I chose Richard III’s opening soliloquy in hopes that it would go all right with just a moment or two of prep—I hate feeling rushed and didn’t want to do one of the tougher pieces they’d requested. I felt okay about how it went, but not great; I’d felt intellectually connected, but not emotionally (probably because I knew we were down to the wire). The guys seemed to like it, though. One of them said that when he’d seen the piece done before, it had been by a man who’d been very theatrical about it. He liked the way I’d done it—which was more conversational—better. “The words fit with your face, if you know what I mean,” he said. “Like… you looked the way you were saying you felt. It felt truthful. I liked that.”
That said, they told me I would have to do one of the others on Tuesday, which, again, I said I would if I wasn’t the only one and if we had more than five minutes left. We shall see…