Guest Blog: Vanessa Sawson

July 24 / 2018

I had the pleasure and honor of joining the Shakespeare in Prison team at Parnall Correctional Facility while they continue their work on King Lear. I worked with Frannie on The Taming of the Shrew at the women's facility in Ypsilanti, and she was also my director in King Lear a few years ago (but it feels like yesterday).

Even though I had some experience under my belt, I always get butterflies when meeting new groups of people and facilitating workshops. Little did I know, I was focused on the wrong things. Luckily, I was about to meet a group who would not only welcome and accept me, but would teach me what being a facilitator is all about.

I walked into the space where they usually meet: the chapel. Yessss — I love theatre in churches. We opened the door to hear roars of laughter, along with a game of tape ball already in progress. Yessss — my kind of peeps! They saw us, and we were immediately invited over to join and play.

A solid tape ball: well-constructed. Just in case you don't play tape ball: it's a game of wonderfulness that artists play to warm up before rehearsal or performances. All you gotta do is keep the ball in the air. Anyone who plays knows that playing with a very large group is problematic in terms of getting high numbers. However, tape ball isn't just about numbers but about the plays — how it happens, the sweet saves, the great set-ups, and that's what we aim for... Oh, and also to get 100 million hits on the ball.

After some solid rounds, we circled up to lift and walk into the ring, where we all came together to trust, focus, suspend our disbelief, and play. As we did this, the amount of concentration was clear — you could have heard a pin drop. In fact, there was a loud noise of furniture moving in the back of the room from someone not in our group, and no one looked back or up — we just focused on our task. If we began to rush, Frannie spoke up to remind us, "Let's not leave anyone behind."

We continued, and lifted that ring, and BAM! We were ready to work and circled up for check-in. The circle was assembled with chairs by the group almost immediately — there was no lagging in getting started. They were ready to work and — yaaaaa — I was, too!  

"We thought acting was lying but it's telling the truth, finding the truth...." That was a quote from the person sitting next to me. Right at the top of our work session. That's how our discussion began. My jaw dropped. What a relief! YES! From there on out, excellent nuggets of insight about the play, life, and people were revealed by almost everyone! Here are some of my favorites that I recorded for my own personal quote book...

"[Lear] is losing his pride.  It hurts to not be top dog...a king without power.."

This was said by someone while we discussed the madness of King Lear — the unfolding of it and how it happens. Pin-pointing the events that link the story together. It was great work to build a foundation before they start tackling character development and staging.

Someone spoke up and said, "The storm is like Lear's frame of mind...his logic." And then more piped up, "Storms build... there's reasons it happens... it doesn't just come from nowhere."  In using the image of storm, we were able to see Lear's madness build in a similar way... Whoever plays Lear will have this wonderful discussion to keep in mind as they make their acting choices.

Frannie, who had been only nudging them when needed, sat across from me and took notes as well. I observed her listening and writing a lot, and not speaking a lot. A sign of a good leader. She would step in a few times when needed — to focus us when we got off track in Discussionland. When they would get up on their feet to do a scene, sometimes staging would get muddy (I mean, it's only their first time going through, to be expected but then we lose meaning and risk losing our focus). She would stop the scene and go back to basics: ask them who they were talking to and to take time with the words and breathe.

That advice did wonders for the team. And brought more clarity to the scene. I was stunned! That's all it takes. Just a nudge. No need to set off fireworks or infuse energy... just simple and clear.

Back to the storm. Frannie said, "We have to earn the storm." Oh ya. Great note. They all got on board for that. Earning the storm means we have to figure out which events are important to highlight and make that extra clear to the audience... so when that storm comes... everyone will be on the edge of their seats, knowing exactly what's going on but unable wait to see what happens next. There's a word for it… oh ya, SUSPENSE!

As the scene partners continued their work, I looked around the room to see where everyone's attention was. Did anyone check out? Is anyone feeling bored or left out? I scanned the room with these thoughts — and every single person had their focus on the text. Every person was following along, reacting out loud or to themselves — enjoying and taking it all in. EXCELLENT.  My worries, again, were far from where they needed to be.

Our focus of discussion switched to Goneril and Regan, Lear’s two "evil" daughters. "They aren't monsters," someone said, "they are people."

Someone else agreed with, "You have to have empathy. You have to figure out why they are doing what they are doing." We talked about villains in movies or plays or books... they behave badly, but why? Where does it come from? Asking why is important in art. In order to be specific and communicate a clear idea, one must ask these questions, and that's what they were doing. AUDITIONS HAVEN'T EVEN HAPPENED yet, and they are so prepared.

This excites me as a team member. I want to be a on a team with people who are prepared and want to be there. That's what we all want, right? Because these discussions are happening in the group before roles are cast, it gives everyone an opportunity to express their thoughts and ideas together, so when it comes time to tackle their characters, they will have an abundance of ideas to draw from.

To end our session, we brought down the ring and chatted just a bit. Some came up to me to thank me for being there, some wanted to ask about being an actor for a living, and some wanted to discuss who they were auditioning for. I could have stayed and chatted for hours. The good news is... THEY WANT ME TO COME BACK! And I cannot wait. I have so much more to learn from them.