Season Two: Week 6

Tuesday / July 31

Today was the last day for an ensemble member who is about to parole, and we took our time with check-in to make sure he knew that he has our support. After we lowered the ring, we gave “wooshes” (uplifting energy) to a few ensemble members, and then Kyle led a game while I checked in with a couple of people.

We had talked about working on monologues today, and that’s exactly what we did. One of the guys volunteered to go first, saying that he was doing this “to goad [NAME] into doing one that he doesn’t want to do.” He performed his piece and then shared that he has a tough time with acting because he’s not good with emotion. He quickly touched base with a man who had shared a lot during check-in to make sure he hadn’t inadvertently hurt his feelings. (He hadn’t.)

The guy who’d been “goaded” went next. He’d been working on Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” and the effort definitely showed. His performance was thoughtful without being hyper-emotional, which was a conscious choice on his part. He said that he thought his pauses had been too long, and we disagreed. The pauses had let us keep up and process the ideas with him. One of the men shared something he learned as a young athlete: that we should avoid slouching. “You’ll get a better breath if you sit up more,” he said. Another man said it had been great, but, “I want you to live in those sentences,” which we clarified as meaning that there could be more spontaneity.

He went through the piece a second time, standing rather than sitting. He flubbed a few lines, but he didn’t break character, and it was great. One of the men drew a parallel between Hamlet’s speech and one person’s check-in that had been sort of a stream of consciousness trying to work something out. The man who drew that parallel then volunteered to do Hamlet’s “Speak the speech…” which he learned years ago but hadn’t tried in a while. His delivery was beautiful—relaxed and natural—but he was rusty on the lines. We encouraged him to re-familiarize himself with the piece so he could have more fun with it when he works it again.

Then a man who has mostly been quiet volunteered to go. He had been working on the “St. Crispin's Day” speech from Henry V, which a relative on the outside sent him to encourage his interest in Shakespeare. He loves the play and particularly latched on to this speech. He went through it at a good pace, with a clear intellectual understanding of the words and a nice, loud voice. Several people expressed their excitement at seeing this man up on his feet, reading with such confidence. “I’m shocked,” said one man. “I appreciated that. It was a breath of fresh air.” One man said he’d loved the performance, but that it needed to be slowed down in order to have more impact. We decided to do an exercise in which the rest of us played the army, not wanting to go into battle, so that he would really have to convince us. Half of us were on our feet by the end of the speech, but it had taken that long for us to feel motivated. Why? Because, we all agreed, there hadn’t been enough urgency had until nearly the end. Jokingly, he said, “I was running out of lines!” and we encouraged him to keep with that feeling and intensify it. “You don’t have to be loud and boisterous to have urgency,” said one man. “When you were convinced, I was convinced.”

Another ensemble member volunteered to work on Edgar’s first soliloquy. He took a few moments to prep and then ran to a chair, getting on all fours and going through the speech in an extremely frantic and emotional way. We all applauded when he’d finished. “Can I reach the bar you set last time before you raise it again?” one man joked, referring to how much we’d loved this man’s last performance. Another mused, “I understood the panic, but I never really took into consideration—everything has been stripped from him. He must be unbelievably terrified and sad.” Another added, “What am I willing to do to survive?” Another man said (much more beautifully than this, but I didn’t get it verbatim) that he thought that Shakespeare wanted to do more than just tell good stories: he wanted to teach us what it is to be human.

Still honoring what this man had done, we shared that his sobbing had caused us to lose some of the words. I asked him if he thought he could keep what he’d discovered and allow the words to be clearer, and he said he thought he could just by slowing down. I asked if he wanted to try it again, and he smiled and said it had taken a lot out of him, but, yes, he wanted to do it again. I suggested that he do a little acting exercise in which he’d imagine a threshold over which he could step in and out of the playing space, enabling him to leave whatever emotions came up on the stage.

This second attempt was even more rattling than the first, and we definitely could understand more of the words. I wasn’t super close to where he was performing, but I’m pretty sure there were a few tears; at the very least, he was emotional enough that he had to take a moment to shake it off after crossing the threshold he’d imagined. “Can you tell us about that?” I asked. “I totally lost sense, to be honest with you, of where I was in the moment… The feeling of being abandoned and unloved…” reminded him, he said, of how he’d felt when he’d first been incarcerated. “When I first went to quarantine,  I cried and cried—I didn’t know if I was going to get out… It’s the most forsaken place you can ever be.” He said that it was “a horrible place to live in, even for a few moments.” I quickly went through ways in which we can access emotions on stage without reliving past trauma and emphasized how important it is for us to take care of ourselves and each other as we do so. We want to see clear and recognizable emotions that make sense in the characters’ context, and we’ll do that better if we’re not telling our own stories. He agreed. “When I was in quarantine, I felt sorry for myself. But I put myself there—it’s a different kind of turmoil. Not knowing why is a big deal.” One man thanked this ensemble member for “going there,” saying, “That definitely had a whole new perspective on what I got out of that scene with Edgar… It made more sense the way you did it… You brought out something I didn’t see, and I appreciate that.” I joined in, thanking him for knocking down that fence; it’s hard for anybody to go there until somebody goes there.

Another man volunteered to read Edmund’s first soliloquy, which we know he loves. It was a strong reading. “I read it in the cell all the time,” he said. “I read the scene and then come back to this monologue. I understand completely what he is—talking to his higher power about why he hasn’t protected him. I draw so heavy on what he’s saying. It’s a lifetime thing.” We all agreed that that had come through, but we hadn’t been able to totally connect. One man said he thought that a lot of that was because of how much this man swayed and paced without intention. Stillness would be helpful, I agreed, and I also challenged him a little. “You’re the one who’s always talking about tasting the words,” I said, a little playfully. “The words are like acid, right? I’m just saying… Maybe you might want to take your own notes. Maybe…” He grinned and said he would.

His second attempt was incredibly organic and powerful. We were riveted. When he finished, the room was silent. He looked at me and said, “Woo!” He walked to his chair, shaking it off, saying, “My hands are tingling!” I asked him what it had been like, and he said it had been much more of what he’d wanted. “I’m the one who says to live in the language, so thank you for calling me out on my bullshit,” he said. Another man said, “The words are— you believe them. They’re your words.” Another passionately agreed. “I felt it from the moment you started speaking… You had it nailed on the head.”

Someone suggested that we continue working on monologues on Friday, although a number of people joked that they didn’t know how they could top those last two performances. “Well, well, well,” I said. “It seems the gauntlet has been laid.” All agreed.

Gauntlet laid. Challenge accepted!

Friday / August 3

Today, I was told, was to be The Monologue Olympics. A number of people had something prepared. That said, one of the guys shared that he was getting bored with the monologues; that it seemed like a lot of repetition, and he wanted to do more improv. Many people were irritated by his irritation, but one man suggested that he compromise by improvising a monologue, rather than working from a script. Another man said that the first man probably was not alone in being bored, but that he should try doing a monologue himself. He said that he’d been bored during a lengthy check-in recently, but he realized that that wasn’t fair and challenged himself to stay. “I decided to be on his side. To hear him as a human being and to be empathetic with him.” He continued, “Try and do the thing you don’t want to do, and see if you become like everybody else.” Another man reminded the first man that we’re not just here to have fun—we’re here to learn. A fourth person said he hadn’t liked the monologue work till he’d done one, and now he really enjoys them. Another guy said that “repetition is part of life,” and that the variety was found in living the character. He cited Oscar Isaac’s Hamlet at the Public Theater: knowing what every word means “and what it means to the character, and what it means to you, now that you own it.”

At that point, one man said that, while we were on the topic of monologues and structure, he wanted to know what we thought about beginning with monologues on Tuesday so that a man who’s had to be absent a lot for classes could see a couple (something he said he was sad to be missing). We all agreed to do that, did a warm up, and sat back down to work some monologues.

The first man to work had chosen Edgar’s monologue in 5.3, in which he challenges his brother to a duel. It was a good reading, but he moved around a lot without much impetus. “Can I lay down a challenge?” said one man. “Let’s not dance.” The man went through the speech again, and it was much more powerful. “As soon as you rooted yourself, you became confrontational—you were really picking a fight,” said another man. It turned out that the man who’d read chose the piece because he “isn’t a confrontational person” and felt that this would give him a way of doing what he “should have done more of” when he was bullied as a child.

The next man had chosen Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech from The Merchant of Venice. He prefaced his performance by telling us that, while he hadn’t read the play, none of the other pieces in the monologue collection he’d looked at spoke to him. He said he knew that, in the play, Shylock is speaking to another actor, but he was choosing to work this as a soliloquy and interact with the audience. He took a moment to prepare, and then he began the piece.

My note simply reads, “Ooof.” It was an incredibly truthful and reflective interpretation of a very challenging piece, and we were wowed. “I really enjoyed that one because it’s an emotional rollercoaster: there’s pain, anger, bewilderment, sadness. There’s even humor,” he said. Someone asked why the piece spoke to him. “The one thing I associated with was my difference. My being so different… I’ve battled with this since I was a kid.” He shared what it had felt like, growing up mixed. “That, as well as my faults, has pushed me away from others… It’s like, ‘I’m proud to be a Jew, but I’m not.’”

Another man said that he understood that connection; that he’s also mixed, and, “That’s why I sought you out.” He has read the play, and he continued, “I think I had a block as far as how well you did that, because I was thinking about The Merchant of Venice. But I loved how you put yourself into it—you usually have a kind of armor up. But here you were, being vulnerable up there; the only place you can be vulnerable—up there.” Another said, “Where you drew that from really took me to where you were at… It really reached me and affected me.”

I asked if he wanted to do it again, and he said he did. I reinforced that we had all felt his connection to the text—and I challenged him to connect more with us. Rather than looking down between thoughts, I suggested, he could keep his eyes on us. “Don’t let us off the hook,” I said.

This time when he arrived at the line, “I am a Jew,” his voice broke, tears welling up and then trickling down as he continued. I looked around and saw that he wasn’t the only one feeling intensely emotional. When he finished, there was a brief silence as he wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and then several people said, “Yeah, buddy,” as we all applauded and thanked him. One man said, “I’ve got tears all over my face!”

“I love watching you act, all the time,” said one man. “You just achieve this depth. I wish I could go that deep.” The man who’d read, clearly floored, said, “That means a lot, because I’d say the same thing about you.” Another ensemble member praised him for keeping us so connected. “You looked at us, and, like she said, you didn’t let us off the hook.” Another man agreed, and said he had loved the pauses when the man who’d read was simply making eye contact with us.

One man excitedly and emotionally said he couldn’t believe how deeply he’d felt the piece. He said that when he was a kid, “I was put in the box of being a bully when, in actuality, I was being bullied.” And he said he’d done what Shylock does: he’d taken revenge. “Am I not human?” he said, quoting a text he hadn’t heard before today. “I always have trouble expressing this, but watching you—it moved me,” he said tearfully. “That’s what acting is supposed to do,” another quietly replied. “It’s supposed to move people.”

The man who’d read said, “When I practiced the memorization of it, I had to internalize it… When he says, ‘Because I’m a Jew,’ I actually broke down on the bed… because I remembered why I was bullied: because of not accepted. Just because I was me.”

The man who’d commented earlier about being hung up on his interpretation of the play asked, “Did you notice that that time you made more word mistakes? You got about 18 of the words wrong.” He continued, “But it was arguably a better performance… This is where I’m broken at, is emotional connection. But when you were up there and connecting with us, it didn’t matter, the words you were saying.” One man said this reminded him of what Vanessa shared last week about her experience of seeing King Lear in Russia—that she didn’t need to understand the words because the acting was so powerful and clear. “What drove us to see us in you, and share the same feelings.. the second time, that empathy transcended into compassion.  It transcended everything,” said someone else.

Another ensemble member then rose to share a poem he’d written. He’s shared his work with us before, and he’s extremely well-loved and respected, so everyone immediately quieted and gave him all of their focus. He reminded us that he has a difficult time allowing himself to be vulnerable, but that he trusts this group. And then he read a gorgeous, aching, angry, and incredibly sad poem about his experience of being locked up for an extremely long time, lacking the ability to fully articulate or express his emotions and not having a space in which to learn to do that, and his fear of being fully institutionalized—his fear of being unable to break out of that.

He wept as he read, and many of us were crying, too, by the time he finished. We thanked him for sharing something so intimate with us. “It’s really hard in this prison to find even one person who cares how you feel,” said one person. “And for you to come here and share something like that—that’s deep.”

“A lot of us grew up here,” said the man who’d read. “I’ve been down since I was a teenager, and I’ve got more memories in here than I do on the outside. And now my memories from being free are being replaced by prison memories. In my dreams, the places and situations, I see a C.O. here and an inmate there. And there’s a sadness there. There’s a loss.” He continued, “Feeling so much, and not understanding what the feelings are, so it all comes out as anger. That just frustrates me even more.” He said that that’s what makes prison so violent: people keep all of their feelings bottled up, and then they just explode, often for seemingly trivial reasons.

“I’ve been here since I was a teenager, too,” said another man. “And if there’s a silver lining to all of this, it’s that at least you can still feel. I can’t feel anything at all.”

“All that we are absorbing in here—it won’t go to waste,” said another ensemble member. “There is someone out there waiting to hear our stories. Your story, and your story, and your story, and your story, and your story.”

The last man to read had initially wanted to work on Lear’s first monologue during the storm, but he said he couldn’t get the anger out. Instead, he’d decided to read one of Napoleon's letters to Josephine, in which he rails against her supposed infidelity. He read the first five words or so, and then had to stop, overcome with emotion. He turned to the man who’d read his own poem and said, “I’m sorry; you got me all messed up.” He took a deep breath and began again. This man’s stated objective is to become more comfortable with being vulnerable, starting simply by pushing himself to read aloud in front of others. His reading was clear, and he showed glimmers of emotion, particularly on certain words and phrases that seemed to resonate with him.

When he finished, he began to sit back down, and multiple people said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” and “You’re not sitting down yet!” One man smiled and said, “We’ve got questions!” They asked what had made him choose the piece, noting how he’d seemed to begin to connect and then backed off. He said the content rang true for him, and that he loved the language—it reminded him of Lord Byron, his favorite poet.

“Don’t you think these people back then—Shakespeare and all—would have been a lot less flowing if they had emojis?” asked one man, to a burst of laughter. We left on a high note, even with the emotional depth we’d experienced. One man said he understood that we need to return to the play, but that he hoped we could have more monologue days. “I’m learning so much,” he said.