Season Two: Week 11

Tuesday / September 4

Written by Matt

It was a little slow getting in today, which was a reminder of how lucky we’ve been at Parnall this year. It could be easy to take a speedy entry for granted, but we never do—or, we try not to!

We kept check-in short, and everyone was eager to dive into the play. As short as we kept the preliminaries, the men asked a bunch of questions—I was the only facilitator today, and I hadn’t been able to attend for a while, which provoked some good-natured ribbing and more earnest questions about how I’d been. After lowering the ring, we were off to read King Lear.

Act 4, scene 4, briefly re-introduces Cordelia, this time at the head of an army and invading her country of birth. The men all reacted to her power, and to her absence from the play between the first scene and now.

“Everybody got different ideas about her from the first scene,” recalled a new member, reminding us that our reactions ranged from admiration to frustration. “Me,” he grinned, “I think she was a Rockstar.” Another member quibbled a bit with that description. “See,” he said, “When I think Rockstar, I think, ‘Fuck yeah, good night, Seattle!’” and he mimed throwing a mic. He explained that he sees her power as quieter and less insistent than that.

Yet another man added that he believed Cordelia had been planning the invasion all along. Her decision to marry the king of France, he said, could be entirely explained by Cordelia’s desire to eventually invade and take revenge. There was some discussion of this point, before one member cut in with a question: “What was the king of France’s motivation to marry her?” Which caused four or five men to flip back to the first scene to remind us all of the circumstances. Ultimately, we were divided on the question of Cordelia’s motivations and perplexed by France’s.

These details could all be worked out in performance, several people noted, but one man felt like he was on to something. It was Cordelia’s genuineness that drew France to her, and also that allowed her to leave the stage for so long. “Everybody else was just putting up a front,” he said. “Cordelia was just who she was, so there was no reason to spend more time with her, to figure out who she really was.” She only really needed to return when the others had revealed their true characters.

One of the men was really struck by Cordelia’s care for her father, which pervades the language. “This really shows her compassion for her father, far more than any of her sisters could ever say.”

We moved on to Act 4, scene 5, in which Regan conspires to kill Gloucester and begins to realize (perhaps) Edmund’s betrayal of her. Several of the men were struck by her desire that Gloucester be dead and the description of people’s hearts turning against her and her sister after seeing the eyeless man wandering around.

“You have to be careful with that brutality,” explained one longtime member. “It’s like ISIS. They really split the Islamic community.” He went on to explain how the public brutality of ISIS had inspired some hardline support, but it mostly drove a wedge into the community. “Same thing with taking the eyes of Gloucester,” he said. “These people have seen killing. They have seen execution. But the eyes?” he shuddered. “They made a martyr out of him, and that turned the minds of the people against them.”

“It’s also because of what he stood for,” another chimed in, reminding us that Gloucester was well respected. “How he’s influencing people is what’s scaring her.” The man who had mentioned ISIS replied, “Yeah, but a lot of people are scared to kill someone political like that because then they become a martyr.”

Another man, who had been silent so far, took a big-picture approach. “When the people see that the ones leading them are ignoring them to the extent that they’re torturing people or arguing over who ‘gets’ Edmund, the people get mad!”

“Yeah,” yet another agreed, “sometimes, someone does something so vile that it rallies all these other people against them, and [Regan] would have been better throwing him in the moat or whatever.”

After an hour and a half of sustained seriousness, we were ready to get up and play some games! We played a couple of standard improv games, but in the middle of the session, a group of the men proposed a new improvised scene they had invented in recent days.

What they unfurled was chaotic and confusing but really brilliant. They set a scene (a motorcycle club) and assigned each person in the scene a character type or archetype. Then the “lead” in the group began improvising a monologue that laid out a conflict, calling on the others to jump in.

“You know [the outcasts from the club] broke the code,” he said.

“Yeah.” the men murmured.

“Yeah!” one shouted. “All four parts of the code!”

“All four!” the leader affirmed.

The one who had invented the four parts looped the others in. He pointed at one of the men. “We all know the code. Brother, what is the first part of the code?”

“Uhhh……” the unsuspecting man stalled, before going on to help invent the code.

The scene fell apart after four or five minutes, which partly obscured all of the things that were right with it. It was not only an ingenious and novel way to being fresh improv to the group—the man who invented it said that he really wanted to do some improv that wasn’t about getting laughs—but it also showed the sense of ownership and agency that these men have built up. They want to make Shakespeare in Prison their own, to leave their mark on it, and they empower each other to do that with abandon. The other ensemble members were open with their critiques, but generous with their praise, and not one person discouraged the activity or judged the men who had performed, and everyone said that they wanted to see more of that sort of work.

We went on to do other improv exercises, but that new “game” stood out as a great example of what the members of our ensemble can do to push themselves and each other. It happened in the space we have all created, but without any guidance or encouragement from facilitators.

Friday / September 7
Written by Frannie

We spent today on Act IV scene vi, a long scene in which Edgar convinces Gloucester that he’s at a cliff, Gloucester “kills himself”, Lear enters (mad?) and runs off, and, eventually Edgar kills Oswald. But we didn’t get to that last part of the scene — there was too much to talk about first.

We read bit by bit, pausing for the first time just as Gloucester kneels. Why is Edgar doing this? Maybe it’s to convince Gloucester not to kill himself, one man mused. “To get him to second guess himself.” A second man agreed, “It seems like he’s giving him another chance to say, ‘Eh, this might not be the best idea.”

But maybe not. Another man drew our attention to the language. “He’s talking heartfelt,” he said, and another man added, “It’s almost got a soothing cadence to it… ‘It’s okay, you can go. If that’s what you gotta do, you can go.’”

Another man thought that this was all to keep Gloucester from guessing Edgar’s identity. Another thought that guilt played into it somehow — that watching someone jump off a cliff would have to make one feel guilty. “But he didn’t lead him to a cliff,” one person responded. “I think there’s extreme sorrow for his father’s condition, but no guilt.” Another man added, “I think [Edgar] is living right in the moment, and that’s why his voice is slipping.”

We read on through Gloucester’s “fall” and Edgar’s interaction with him after. And we paused. “What kind of fall is this?” I asked everyone. “Remembering that this is a play… What does this look like? How do you see this being staged?”

One man thought there would be a physical cliff, and that it would be about five feet tall. Others said they, too, thought there would be something to fall from, but they didn’t agree on its height; one man said it should be very low, like when you miss the last step coming down the stairs. But does Gloucester actually, physically fall? One man said no — that it’s more a sense of disorientation; of not knowing what a fall like that would feel like if it truly happened.

Another man said, again, that he thought there should be something several feet high for Gloucester to fall from. But one man — who has emerged as a natural and respected leader in these discussions — said, “You’re not taking into account the actors — or even Gloucester. He’s just been traumatized… It’s like a placebo… You gotta understand his mental/emotional state… Think of all the stuff that built up to that fall.” I agreed, kneeling to see how it would feel to collapse just from there. I looked back through the text, pointing out that all of Gloucester’s language is about falling, shaking things off. “If you think about somebody jumping or leaping,” said one man, “there’s an energy behind it. But he’s kneeling and falling.” Another said, “You also have to look at the mixture of trauma… He could even pass out momentarily.”

Matt pointed out, too, that Gloucester had asked to be taken to this specific cliff, and that he probably already knew what it looked like. “Has anyone ever been to a funeral before?” asked one man. “He made this finality with himself… Maybe he’s a little disappointed that he’s still alive.” Another said, “How about this one: how many people have come to prison who have lived a traumatic experience and years later still haven’t accepted it?”

One of the guys added that the power of the mind can make the body do things it usually can’t; i.e., a mother lifting a car off her child or a paraplegic suddenly walking in order to save someone from danger. “When you’re committed, you’re committed, and he’s committed,” said one man. “All that pain is just stewing with him right there.” Coffey added that, in a way, Edgar makes himself the edge of the cliff by both suggesting its presence and taking it away.

Just before we began the section when Lear enters, I asked the group to keep in mind that — no matter each person’s interpretation of the character’s madness, senility, dementia, or whatever — the guy also hasn’t slept in quite awhile, and, because it’s in the text, that has to be a part of our interpretation of this scene. Sleep deprivation is also a great “way in” to Lear’s state of mind for pretty much everyone, even if they haven’t experienced it to this extent. The proverbial light bulb turned on for a few people — I could see it without them even speaking. One guy said, “If you go more than three days without sleep, you’ll begin to speak and act not like yourself.” Another person, who was addicted to meth for a long time, said that he often stayed awake for days on end — sometimes for upwards of a week; once for more than two weeks. “Even when you wake back up after you fall asleep, everything is different,” he said. Another added that it feels like extreme jet lag, and the first man continued, “Your mind is rewired, so my mind works different from yours now… I’ve been away from that for three years now, and I’m still not right.” He rarely sleeps more than a few hours a night — he just can’t do it.

“It’s worth remembering that Lear is suffering from several levels of madness here,” said one man. “Him putting the crown on is crowning his madness, adding a layer.” Another said, “He’s clearly not as mad as you would think he’d be — he’s dropping a lot of little dimes here.”

Another man, whose love for this play is seriously explosive, said, “Lear is trying to navigate that cloud of madness… In Lear’s madness, he can see the truth of things, and in Gloucester’s blindness, he can feel the truth of things… [Lear’s] feelings cue that storm that he was going through. But [Gloucester’s] feelings are bringing him to reality.”

Another man said, “It’s the thinking that drives you crazy,” and then he and the guy to whom he was responding got into a bit of a debate about the primacy of thinking/feeling. Is it the thinking about a situation that controls your perceptions, or your feelings? After a few minutes of this, a third man said, “How about, instead of focusing on the emotion, we focus on the trigger?” What is the immediate cause of the reaction?

“Back to Shakespeare’s poking at aristocracy,” said the man who’d been practically jumping out of his seat. “When you strip away the prettiness… It’s all about showing the humanity. They’ve all got pretty things to hide their ugliness. Gloucester is road-weary, bleeding from his eye sockets — and, without his eyes, this is probably the purest form of himself he’s ever been in his life. Lear, mad and ranting — this is the purest he’s ever been.” Another man added, “People, instead of living life, think that living according to an image, role, or title is life… you take it away, and they don’t know who they are.”

One of the guys called our attention to Lear’s “every inch a king” line, relating it to something he learned about “toxic masculinity” in a class: that men generally identify by their jobs, whereas women identify by their relationships. “We get caught up in what we do, not necessarily in who we are,” he said. Another man shook his head and said, “Poor Lear. He needs a hug.” The first man continued, “He’s holding onto his title to the bitter, bitter end… It’s like — you catch air, and you’re up there for a second, but then you’re right back down under there. It’s like a broken fucking merry-go-round.”

Another man nodded. “You see guys here walking around, trying to hold onto something that they were once and they just ain’t anymore… It’s men. We get wrapped up in these titles, and we get bent out of shape when they get stripped from us.” Another added, “And that’s without the power.” The first man chuckled and said, “Lear had a horrible 401k program…”

After a bit of a laugh, one of the guys refocused us. “Have you ever been to a high school reunion and seen that guy who’s stuck in high school?” he asked. I snorted and said, “Dude, you don’t have to go to a reunion to see that.” As we laughed, another ensemble member said he thought he might be one of those guys, but not in a bad way. When he was a teenager and young adult, he played music incessantly, but that ended when he was incarcerated. “I went 10 years without touching an instrument. When I got to Level I finally, the first guitar I touched, I choked up a little bit. First band I was in was Mariachi.” We all started giggling, without judgment — we knew he played hardcore punk before prison, and no one would ever expect Mariachi to be what helped him restore that part of himself. But there it is. That’s what did it.

Another ensemble member redirected us back to Lear and his clinging to his title, even when his crown is made only of flowers. “He was the most powerful person in Britain… Think how hard it would be to switch that off.” But what can anyone do? “The worst thing you can tell someone with dementia is, ‘No.’” said another man. And being king is core to Lear’s identity. And his rage at having that taken from him in any way leads to a misogynistic rant.

“We start identifying with a lot of chauvinist stuff real early on,” said one of the men. Another man said he thought that’s why men have a harder time expressing themselves than women, and that we’ve probably seen that through SIP. I said, “Well, it’s interesting you should say that, because — and we haven’t been working with men that long, but this is what we’ve observed so far — you guys are actually much better at that than most of the women we’ve worked with.” Many of the guys expressed surprise, even shock, but then the man who’d spoken of identifying with “chauvinist stuff” reminded everyone that the vast majority of incarcerated women have been abused, and that abuse often takes people’s voices from them. A kind of a hush fell over the room, and I said that that does seem to be true: that one of the toughest things for us to get the women to do is to put their needs, wants, and feelings into words and to say them — to believe they can trust others to care enough to listen. With the guys, at least so far, it’s as if they just need permission to express emotion, and then it’s hard to stop the flow of words.

Another man wondered if at least some of that might be because women are socialized in such a way that they are afraid, even subconsciously, of screwing up in public — that they don’t trust that their words will be taken without judgment, and maybe they don’t trust that others won’t criticize them or add, inaccurately, to what they said. Men, he said, don’t have that same concern — they are almost looking for someone to articulate their feelings better than they can. They don’t mind having their words rephrased.

The man who’d spoken of abuse now reminded us of how hard it would have been to be a woman in Elizabethan times, and how smart women had to be just to survive. They didn’t have the option of going to war or challenging someone to a duel, he said, so they had to think and manipulate and convince. It made them less trusting of others, and, perhaps, it led to a cycle of men trusting them less as well.

That’s essentially where we ended things for the day. I continue to be completely blown away by the depth — and breadth — of these conversations. This discussion got so intense and fascinating and exhilarating that I stopped taking notes — and I never do that. Being in a room full of such brilliance drives home what many of us (inside and out) know to be true: that dismissing incarcerated people out of hand because they are currently invisible, or returned citizens because they made bad decisions in the past, is, simply put, bananas. There are folks behind those walls who have so much to give, and who want so much to offer it. We’re fools if we don’t take them up on that — if we don’t at least give them a chance.