Season Two: Week 8

Tuesday / August 14

The first order of business today was deciding that we are not going to take a break in September as originally planned. We can’t even really remember why we talked about doing that, and none of us want to do it, so we’re not!

Our goal for the day was to do a couple of monologues and then get back to reading, but things didn’t go quite the way we anticipated. The man who’s been on my case about performing a monologue went first just to make me do one. He did part of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man…”, but he hadn’t had access to the entire piece, so it was lacking some context that would have been helpful. I had a Complete Works with me, found the piece in it for him, and handed it over so he could read the whole thing.

I warned everyone that I was going to take a few minutes to prep using some of Michael Chekhov’s techniques to physically call up whatI needed to perform Hermione’s “Sir, spare your threats…” from The Winter’s Tale. My performance went all right, but I didn’t feel fully connected, particularly later in the piece (when my scene partner noticed a change in my pacing). The guys gave a lot of positive feedback, though. “I hate to see people cry; maybe it’s prison,” said one person. “But seeing what you did really touched me… I felt it 100%.” Another ensemble member said, “I could feel the horror of it… but when you stood up, it was more empowerment than sorrow.”

Which led me to ask for some legit constructive criticism (though I was glad they enjoyed it!). The note that struck a chord with a number of people was about my physicality (which, admittedly, felt awkward to me). Two people said they thought that my head had moved too much, given how stiff my posture was; another suggested that I combat that with a little more movement. Another man said he didn’t agree; that the movements of my head reminded him of women in his life when they’d been upset. Another said that it rang true for him, too, but for a different reason: it reminded him of the “shaking” and overall lack of movement he remembers from interacting with Holocaust survivors in his youth. Building on that, one of the men who was concerned about how stiff I was said that we could still see those people breathing hard from pent up emotion, so that was an element I could add.

One of the guys—whom, for the sake of clarity, we’ll call Poet A—then said, “You said you feed off other people’s energy, right, Frannie? Want me to do something of mine to charge up the room?” Of course we did. He performed an original spoken word piece—an absolutely beautiful, gritty, sad narration of and reflection on all the things in his life that led him to this point: incarcerated for several more years and trying desperately to find a new identity. “What inspired you to write that?” asked one man. The author replied, “That’s my monologue… That’s all the things that actually happened to me… It’s those snapshots, you know?”

Two men said that they liked this—and spoken word like this—more than they like rap; they feel it’s more authentic. Another man objected to that, saying, “That is hip hop, man. That’s where it started… You’re just not listening to the right rap.” One of the guys clarified that he does like rap, he just doesn’t like it when it’s shallow or inauthentic, “like what some of these guys on the yard are doing.”

People identified with the piece on a very deep level. One man said he particularly connected with the feeling of being left alone. “You expressed it in a way I’ve always wanted to, but haven’t been able to,” he said. Another said, “That was amazing. I’m not the biggest fan of rap and poetry, but as soon as you started talking, I was hanging on every word of it.” A third man—whom we’ll call Poet B—said he related to the feeling of isolation, particularly as a result of substance abuse. “I’m an ex-junkie… I understand the abandonment, being dragged through the gutters and everything…” He also spoke of being in the hole, and how that intensified those feelings for him. “I can definitely relate,” he said.

Poet A said he’d been nervous to perform this piece because of how vulnerable he had to make himself. “I can tell you all day who [NICKNAME] is, but if I try to tell you who [NAME] is, I’m lost.”

Another man broke in. “I know [NAME] just from the little bit of time we’ve spent together in here. I know you.” He described Poet A as kind, generous, talented, and funny. Everyone agreed. They asked him what he was doing about getting his work out there, and he said he’s been published in PCAP’s annual review twice, but he’s suspicious of others who’ve reached out to him.

Poet B then hesitantly volunteered to read something of his own. “It’s kind of long,” he said apologetically, saying that he’d written it during an extended stay in solitary confinement. It was extremely powerful—gut-wrenching—and he occasionally had to pause to keep his crying in check. He apologized several times for “being a pussy”, to which a number of people responded, “You’re a human being, man.”

When he’d finished reading, he apologized again, and, again, nearly everyone vocally and passionately reassured him that he had nothing to apologize for—that he’s a human being, and human beings cry. He emphasized that part of what made him feel so terrible (“I even lost it there for awhile.”) was the fact that he “wrote and wrote and wrote” letters to friends and family on the outside, and no one wrote back. Two other men said they’d had similar experiences in solitary; one said that his empathy ran so deep that it had been difficult for him to hear what Poet B so perfectly articulated. Poet B then apologized again for getting emotional, to which several people responded that it takes more strength to show emotion than to hide it, and that he was in a safe place for that.

One man said he’d spent about six months in the hole early in his bit and had shared that same sense of physical isolation. Poet B said that it wasn’t the physical setting as much as being cut off from others while dealing with his addiction. He looked up at Poet A and said he felt a kinship with him because they’d shared that struggle: one with heroin, and the other with meth. Poet A agreed—the emotional connection between them at that moment was palpable—and said he’d been so affected by the piece that he couldn’t sit still; he’d had to walk around the room a bit while he listened.

The two of them broke the tension, then, by joking that they’d really only shared these things “to give Frannie gas” for my monologue, to which I sarcastically responded, “Yeah, I’m getting nothing out of this,” to some much-needed laughter. But we couldn’t really let ourselves off the hook—this ensemble is full to bursting with people determined to make huge changes in their lives, and that includes being able to talk honestly about their emotions.

“Being able to talk gives emotional closure,” said one man. Not talking “feels like walking on glass, but smiling like everything’s fine.” He said their writing had inspired him to maybe do some writing, himself—to find a way to express everything he’s feeling. Poet A encouraged him, saying, “It validates who you are when people mirror who you are, because it shows you’re not the exception—the pariah. You’re not alone. You’re human. You might be damaged a little bit, but you’re human.” Poet B said they were all bonded through shared suffering.

Then one of the guys asked me if I “felt it” when Poet B was reading. I replied (carefully—always carefully) that I felt deep empathy, and that I recognized those emotions as much as I could from my experience, my understanding of people, and my knowledge of this man in particular. I turned to him and said, “But I haven’t had the experience you’ve had—I haven’t lived what you just described—and I would never say that I know that feeling. Because I don’t.” Poet B replied that no one in the outside world could understand, and the others agreed. I said that this is part of the value of sharing what they’ve experienced and learned—that, even spending as much time with incarcerated people as I do, I still only have a glimmer of understanding of what they go through, and that most people on the outside have even less knowledge than that. Several others agreed, saying that when they’re ready, they all should share their experiences. Even if people never understand, at least these storytellers will have been humanized.

There was a slight lull, and a younger ensemble member asked, “Can I make a fool of myself?” He is a somewhat prolific poet and had been inspired by these two men to write his own piece right then and there. He performed it for us. It was a beautiful, raw piece about his “rise and fall,” and we absolutely loved it. “I don’t know how y’all do that,” said one man to these three writers, shaking his head. “I wish I could do that. Y’all better watch y’all notebooks.” Why? “Because I’m gonna steal y’all notebooks!”

They asked if I was ready to perform again. Honestly, I was exhausted, but so is Hermione, so I gave it a go. I felt even more disconnected this time—like I’d come close to the target but hadn’t hit it. Several people said they’d noticed that, but that my physicality had been better (I’d started sitting down and stood up midway through). They asked why I thought it wasn’t working, and I said that I wasn’t quite sure—it’s a piece that’s full of contradictions (weakness vs. strength, sadness vs. anger, etc.) and I was finding it difficult to strike a balance. Two of them said that it was probably tough for me to portray vulnerability because “that’s just not who you are.” I said, “You think I’m never vulnerable?” There was a pause. “I’m like anyone else—it’s just not something I broadcast. That’s honestly one of my roadblocks as an actor: I have a very hard time allowing myself to be vulnerable in front of others.”

Several people mused a bit on the contradictions in the piece and said they understood why that would be so difficult to navigate. But there were elements that worked. “It’s more like you were having a last stand kind of thing,” said one man, and another suggested that I lean more heavily on the character’s defiance—that’s what he found compelling.

We only had about 15 minutes left at that point, and we decided to use the time to play a game and lift each other up. We chose “Hot Spot”, a game I recently rediscovered. We stood in a circle, clapping, snapping, and singing along as one person at a time jumped into the center and sang a song, being tagged out by another person inspired to sing something else. This game is a ton of fun, and very silly. We left on a high note, rocked by the emotional afternoon we’d just had, but better for having bonded, once again, so strongly with one another.

Friday / August 17

Today we were thrilled to welcome two new people to our ensemble: Catherine Coffey, who is one of our facilitator apprentices, and Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars.

Without planning or even discussing it, we found ourselves going around the circle, introducing ourselves and sharing why we’d joined the group. Of the 22 people present, only six had signed up without having been recruited—and most of those were people who’d seen one of our performances and were intrigued by the camaraderie they saw. Seven people had been recruited by a single person—and he had initially been tricked into joining!

As we walked over to the gym, I chatted with the man who’d read the piece about his time in solitary. Some of his experience may be included in an upcoming book, and I told him I wasn’t surprised: he’s got a great story. “Except for the part when I cried all over the place last time,” he said ruefully. “Are you kidding?” I said. “That’s a great part of the story! You don’t feel good about it?” He said he wasn’t sure; that it had “opened a new wound.” I repeated that: a new wound? “No—I guess it reopened an old wound.” But he said he felt better having let it out… He just felt weird about crying because guys in prison don’t do that around each other. As he said that, another man caught up with us, and I said, “Well, I don’t know. I think you’ve found a safe place to express your feelings. Let’s ask [NAME]. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen tears all over this guy’s face.” He shrugged, smiled, and nodded.

It turned out that we couldn’t meet in the gym, so we walked over to another building and settled into a classroom. We finished up our check-in, learning that one of the men is working on translating some Shakespeare into ASL, and that all of the college students in our group made the dean’s list! As we lowered the Ring, we noticed that the clock was making a chirping sound over and over. As soon as we’d silently finished the exercise, one of the guys said, “Man, that thing is annoying! I felt like I was killing Tweetie!”

We circled up and read Act III, scene iii, on its feet. It was a little tough for some of us to follow the scene’s logic (this is the “mock trial”), but we all agreed that we loved Edgar’s closing soliloquy. One man interpreted it as Edgar wanting to help Lear. Another said it’s more about Edgar’s empathy for Lear making his situation bearable: everything is relative, he said, likening it to the length of one’s sentence. “For some guys coming in, 15 months is a real long time. But for me, looking at three years left—I’m more than halfway through my sentence, so that doesn’t feel like a real long time.” Another man noted that this soliloquy a show of compassion that, thus far at least, is rare in this play.

I’m not sure how this started, but someone brought up Lear’s being egocentric, and another man challenged him on his use of the word. These two have been intellectually sparring pretty regularly, and the first man smiled and said, “Are we gonna argue semantics again?” We all laughed, including the guy who’d started the debate. Another gently clarified: “We perceive others to be more egocentric than we, ourselves, are. There, is that good?” It was.

One of the guys built on that, saying that Lear is in the room with people who love him, but he’s fixated on the people who don’t. “We deal with that a lot, don’t we?” said one person. “This scene is a crossroads for all these characters,” said another man, gazing down at his book.

One of the guys said, “I think we’ve stumbled on the secret to socialization… [Lear] really just wanted validation from his daughters—and not fake validation, but real validation… And that’s the secret to socialization. You gotta validate people, and you gotta do it honestly.” I didn’t write down the rest of what he said, but there was something that struck people as funny, and he responded that he wasn’t sure why they thought he was joking. Another man stepped in, saying, “I feel what you’re saying—you’re making a good point. A lot of people laugh at what you say, but they don’t really hear what you say. I feel you, though.” The others agreed. The man thanked him and said that he appreciates that they know he’s not trying to be funny, and that they value his opinion.

Curt said that what he finds interesting in this scene is that one character is going mad, while another is pretending to be mad. Which character is more or less real? One of the guys reminded us of the talk we had about illusion vs. reality. He said that he thought the byproduct of emotional turmoil seems like madness, and “I think he’s going through what a lot of us have dealt with when our pride got taken from us.”

“Whenever I felt like I was going downhill, it made me a better person,” said one man. “Stepping back and looking at King Lear—how he’s yelling at the storm… he’s realizing his own demise, and that’s what’s causing him to descend into madness… I wouldn’t say losing control and going mad aren’t the same thing.”

Another man said that the delusion of madness is madness. He shared that when he was in the hole, he knew that one of the guys there was faking (as opposed to those who were actually losing their minds), and that this guy “actually ate his own feces—which is mad in itself.” Sadly, no one even blinked. This isn’t anything new or surprising to them. “If you’re really trying that hard to feign madness, you are mad.” He likened it to the prep I’d done on Tuesday, to which I responded, “And I felt like I needed ten minutes more!” Dryly, he said, “That’s your own madness where you think nothing you do is ever good enough.” Lots of laughter. “Point taken,” I said, jotting this all down.

Another man, who’d been listening intently but not sharing, said, “I relate to Edmund in real life, being a bastard child, but also a bastard in the situation I’m in, and having to feign madness… If I peek out from behind that madness, I’m gonna be discovered… Once you pretend for so long— I find myself very committed to the act of pretending to be mad; I’m beginning to become mad—something I was pretending to be. The difference becomes hard to see. You can’t see your way out, and the madness begins to take over. I have to find a way out of that before it cascades into what I’m actually trying to do… It’s becoming more natural now because the madness is actually starting to take over.” One of the guys gently responded, “Madness is a matter of perception to those who are around you.” He said that Edgar is trying to stay in control but perceived to be mad (i.e., “cloaked”), while Lear is actually losing control.

Another man said, “I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum.” He shared that he’d been committed to a mental hospital for a time when he was younger after suffering a psychotic break, and what he’d seen in that institution colored his thoughts about all this. “True madness is something you can’t pull yourself out of… You can poke your head up to catch a breath, but madness will pull you back down… You can’t fully grasp not being that way after you’ve been there so long… I believe [Lear’s paranoia] is the worst kind of madness… because you’re going to snap off at somebody… But I believe putting on the cloak of madness is always worse than falling in.”

“Madness was my whole entire life before I came to prison—not caring about the effect of my actions. That was my Lear,” said another man. “When I came to the penitentiary, I could choose to be Lear or choose to be Edgar… to continue to hurt people and hold that cloak over me… It’s a choice every day I have to make for myself.” Curt responded, though, that Edgar is using “madness” for good, which is dissimilar from that man’s experience.

Another man said, “I’m a product of my environment, and my environment when I was growing up was bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. Real bad… What got me here was that madness—what I didn’t know.” He said that at a certain point, he knew he had to make a change. He also said that he didn’t think Lear was born in an illusion; that everything he knew coming to an end was simply shattering. He also disagreed with Curt’s interpretation of the scene as dealing in polarities. “Lear is just having  a really bad nervous breakdown,” he said. “And only a king would know how it feels.”

He wasn’t the only one who felt that way; another man said he thought that Lear’s madness comes from grief. The realization that no one loves him, and that no one can help him, which he understands because of his experience in solitary confinement. “He feels isolated from the love of others. I went through it, too,” he said. Another ensemble member agreed, saying, “Maybe he’s not going through madness, it’s just this intense pain—because this got thrown in his face… and it blew up.” Yet another man built on that, “The madness is that they’re trying to cling on to what they already know isn’t true.”

One of the guys said some of the answers are in Edgar’s first soliloquy. He read parts of it aloud. “He’s mentally preparing for madness… He lets go of who he has to be in order to survive… He’s got a lot of mental fortitude to be able to go there, and then go back to ‘This is who I am.’”

One of the men then suggested that we do some monologues. Since there wasn’t much time left, we decided to try something new and do them “rapid-fire”: leaving discussion for next time to allow as many people as possible to have a turn. The man who’d suggested this asked another ensemble member to do Edgar’s first soliloquy so he could “feed off his energy.” That ensemble member complied, and then the first man gave Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” a go. He already knew the piece; it seemed like he needed to do it. And it was beautiful.

The guys then demanded that Matt perform (to be fair, he’d been warned), and he chose Hamlet’s “O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt…” He went up on lines in a big way, and, as he tried to get back on track, the ensemble quietly encouraged him as he would have done for them. A few suggested that he start over, and he did. He got stuck again and, not wanting to take up all of our time, said, “I’m gonna tap out.” He got a lot of applause anyway! “I learned more with that than I have with a  lot of things because of how you stuck with that,” said one man.

Then another guy stood up, saying, “Disclaimer: I’ve never done this one before.” He took a breath and launched into “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” By the time he got to the first “Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,” he was totally locked in. He had no context for this piece—he hadn’t read the play, and we hadn’t even really talked about it—and yet he totally “got” it. It was thrilling. Another man performed “To be, or not to be…” using a prop “dagger” he’d made by rolling up a newspaper. He’s been working hard on this piece, and it shows—he was so grounded and focused that he didn’t even react when an officer walked through the room.

And then we wrapped up, thanking Curt for joining us even as he thanked us for allowing him into the circle.