Season Two: Week 29

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Put money in thy—er, our—purse!

Tuesday / January 8 / 2019
Written by Frannie

Today during check-in, a couple of the guys shared that they’ve begun putting together the backdrops for performances! These will be made from sewn-together sheets, painted to represent a few generic settings, with pieces to add for specificity.

Our Lear said that he wanted to clarify his response to some of the feedback he’d gotten last week because he felt he might have been misinterpreted. When he talked about “not caring” about what other people did onstage, he was talking about the elements of the scene, not about the feedback. “I didn’t mean to hurt nobody’s feelings—I just can’t take it all in.” He apologized for wording that poorly, though everyone assured him they hadn’t taken it that way. We all admire how sensitive he is about things like this; he puts a lot of thought into his words or actions even after the fact and always owns any mistakes he feels he made. The result is that no one ever seems upset with him—about anything. He’s definitely a role model for all of us.

Our Gloucester shared a series of epiphanies he’d had while musing about storms. “You don’t know the strength of your foundation till it’s tested… Storms form and destroy things,” he said, “and if you don’t prepare yourself, you get swept away. Lear and Gloucester didn’t really build themselves for that.” Our Lear disagreed, at least about his character. “Lear is the storm,” he said. “It was inside him from the beginning.” He returned to his dominant image for Lear: a tattered battle flag. “It’s like the flag on the moon,” he said, “flapping even when there’s no wind.”

Gloucester continued, “Storms represent situations in life that reveal truth… It’s inevitable. It’s gonna happen.” He asked if we’d ever noticed how people get quiet during a storm. Even in the loudest storms, he said, we listen carefully for signs of imminent danger. “Oh, you’re so right,” I said, excited. “Lear yells at the storm, right?” He nodded, smiling. “And the others yell at each other through the storm—but no one is actively listening.” He broke in, “But hearing Lear is how Gloucester recognizes him!” We’ve talked so much about blindness, but we haven’t thought about the play in terms of listening. This was so thrilling!

We jumped back into scene work with Act III scene v, in which Cornwall learns of Gloucester’s helping Lear, and Edmund continues to manipulate him. Even in its current form, which is significantly cut down, it’s a great scene for these two guys. They’re perfect fits for these roles, and our Edmund in particular is doing a lot of hard work sussing out the “multiple personalities” he uses. His pandering to Cornwall rang so true that I couldn’t help but chuckle.

It was a good run, but there was definitely building to do. Several members asked for “more scheming” and gave a whole bunch of rapid-fire notes that were more “should” than “could.” I could see our Cornwall beginning to get frustrated, and I broke in to ask simply what his objective is in this scene. Relieved, he replied that he actually wasn’t sure because the beginning of the scene didn’t make sense to him—on whom does Cornwall want revenge? On Gloucester, we said, and he lit up, exclaiming that now it made sense! One man also pointed out that this is the first time we’ve seen Cornwall without Regan, and that got the actor even more excited.

Before we ran the scene again, though, one of the men spoke up to remind everyone not to “tell people how to act a role”—rather, to give them helpful hints. He turned to Cornwall, saying, “It seems like you feel like a lot of people were telling you how to do that part, and you started to kinda put up a wall.” Cornwall nodded. The man continued, “Can’t nobody tell you how to do your part for you.” Cornwall explained that he just can’t take so many notes in at once, particularly if he feels they’re being dictated. This has always been a challenge in SIP, not just in this ensemble: it truly takes practice to give constructive criticism, and we work with a lot of folks who haven’t had opportunities to learn. I reminded the group that people tend to respond better to questions, and that the best one to start with is almost always, “What does your character want?”

From the moment he burst into the playing space for the next run, our Cornwall’s energy was far more urgent, his lines rang much truer, and Edmund responded in kind, swept right along. “That was dope!” one of the guys who’d given the “should” feedback exclaimed. Then, in a show of his desire to be more helpful, he asked, “How did it feel? Did you feel like you were all the way into your character just now?” Beaming, Cornwall replied, “Yeah. I felt like I was Cornwall.” Another man praised Edmund’s performance and asked, “How can you say you’re not a bad dude?” Edmund replied, “They made me this way.” The other man nodded. “They made you a bad dude!” Another man said, “It’s all perception. Genghis Khan’s grandkids didn’t think he was a bad dude! He was just Papa Khan!” He then turned to Cornwall, saying, “You got a great voice, man, a great voice.” Cornwall, who is African American, grinned and replied, “You know what that comes from? The Angry Black Man.”

We ran the scene again, and it was even better—this time, both actors relaxed into the scene and found its pacing, resulting in a more complex performance that was urgent but not too fast. Edmund, who’d been asked to try taking a little more time with his aside, said that he’d really liked “lingering” on it. And Cornwall shared an epiphany: “It’s about not rushing through the scene—giving the scene the time it needs to do what it needs to do.”

“Hey, [Edmund],” called out one man. “In real life, I do asides like that, and the world freezes.” He paused for comic effect. “But they give you meds for that!” As most of us chuckled (though a few seemed unsure of how to react), he sat back in his chair, gratified.

We moved on to Act III, scene vi, in which Gloucester brings Lear, Kent, the Fool, and Edgar to some shelter, leaves briefly, and returns to tell them they need to flee immediately. This scene is radically different from Quarto to Folio: the Quarto includes a “mock trial” that is completely left out of the Folio, and, in the interest of cutting as much as we can (Lear in 90 minutes—gulp!), we’d taken almost all of it out. Still, there’s enough to get across Lear’s exhaustion and increasing remove from reality, and for the audience to see how the others deal with that.

This first run didn’t work all that well, though there was one truly beautiful moment: when Lear saw dogs that weren’t actually there, the Fool kneeled and acted as if he were beckoning and playing with them, making his love and care for Lear crystal clear. But, “I didn’t like it at all,” said our Lear, explaining that he wasn’t clear on where they were or what they should be doing. Another man said he wasn’t “clear on what the scene even is.” Lear explained the plot points, and the man nodded, saying, “So this is when we see the big change in your mindset.”

Part of what’s happening, a few people reminded us as we worked out some possible blocking, is that Lear’s extremely sleep-deprived. The Fool piped up, “You gotta remember, we ain’t had no sleep, either.” Yes, we do!

As Gloucester and Kent entered, the former mimed shaking water off his cloak (he wore his coat on his shoulders), which was awesome. Our Edgar, off-book (as usual) and fully committed (as usual), helped propel the scene forward, taking everyone along with him. Still, some of the action was muddled, and they set about problem-solving the moment the scene ended. Some solutions were quickly agreed on, while others had several possibilities that merited trying out. We chose one of each to begin with.

The third run of the scene got off to a powerful start, and I noted how riveted the ensemble always is by our Gloucester. His dedication to the work, willingness to throw himself into whatever needs doing on stage, openness to criticism, and the insight he so generously shares have resulted in his commanding a level of respect that I’m not sure he had when the season began. It seems to be steadily increasing, and it’s very cool to observe.

The scene was powerful throughout. As Lear lay down toward the scene’s end, everyone else kneeled there with him, which was a beautiful visual. Afterward, our Lear said, “We all took our time, and spaced it out. The Fool was listening well.” One man, who usually follows along in his script, said, “You guys actually painted the picture without words. I put down the script and just watched… I didn’t want to miss anything.”

Our Fool asked me how he should feel about Kent and Edgar, who are both in disguise. I said I’d actually been meaning to ask him about that. Warning the ensemble that this was a point of debate only for our Fool, not for the group (because it’s truly his decision, and this ensemble could debate it for weeks!), I shared that there are several ways to interpret what’s going on with these three. “One interpretation is that the Fool knows who these guys actually are,” I said, “but you can absolutely play it the other way. Do you have any thoughts on that?” He grinned and said that he’d already been thinking about it and was leaning towards “yes.” Some of his lines make more sense that way, he said, and it also clears up the question he’d asked. “If I do know who they are, I don’t think I resent them. I love them for what they’re doing,” he said.

He then suggested that we run those two scenes in a row with the time we had left, and that turned out to be a great idea. The high energy from the first scene carried over to the second, with everyone firmly engaged and making sure to connect with each other as much as possible. We left on a high note, enthused by the solid work we’d done—and very excited that we’d finally arrived at the “eye-gouging scene.” Till Friday!

Friday / January 11 / 2019
Written by Matt

Out, vile jelly! Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself, but it was a big day today.

Actually, some of the guys got a head-start on eye-gouging. A few of them had been working on the staging of it on their own, and they were eager to get to that. “Dude, you better prepare yourself for this,” one man shouted to our Gloucester, “I’ve been filling in for you, and I’m really feeling it today!” “Oh, man,” Gloucester replied, grinning, “Now you got me all scared!” The work this small group had done was mainly to determine which way the chair (complete with bound Gloucester) should face, and how it could be lowered safely to the ground while preserving the scene’s brutality. It needed some work, but it was an awesome start, and it’s what we went with for our first try at the scene.

“Now I see my chance to be king!” exclaimed our Cornwall when the scene ended, but everyone else was focused on Regan. “Which one is top dog,” mused our Lear, “Regan or Goneril?” Cornwall was having none of it. “In this scene, it’s me!” he said. “I’m the nastiest.” But then he nodded at Regan and ceded, “but she’s in control.” Our Goneril nodded, “[Cornwall]’s like a marionette.”

Round two was stronger, and it allowed us to identify some specific problems. The man who plays the heroic servant pinpointed a blocking issue: everyone was crowded around Gloucester, and there was no space for the fight to happen between him and Cornwall. We tried a few options before Frannie helped him decide to slowly back away in disgust at the eye-gouging before rushing back in. One of the guys also reminded him, “Your objective is not just disgust. It’s to protect [Cornwall]!”

The third attempt was chilling. “Ohhhhhhhh by the kind gods!” snarled Gloucester when he saw that he had been betrayed, which gave Regan the perfect impetus to spit back, “so white, and such a traitor,” then, with mock patience, “Where-. Fore. to DOVER?” Cornwall leaned in close to Gloucester as he said, “See it, shalt thou never,” and Gloucester mimed literally spitting in his face.

What happened next was shocking even for those of us who know the play well. After the first eye-gouging--which was fittingly grotesque--and Cornwall’s receiving his mortal wound from the servant, things got really intense. The servant wound up downstage center, facing the audience directly--and Regan strode up behind him with a sword, running him through from behind. Not only was it a beautifully cruel image, but Regan’s movement was so quick that no one realized it was happening until it had happened. Nearly everyone gasped. My pulse quickened!

The servant fell to his right, in front of Gloucester, who had rolled on his side to face the audience and was wailing. The servant haltingly assured Gloucester that he had one eye left, at least, then died. There was a split-second of silence as the characters assessed the scene, then a spasm of violent energy shot through Cornwall. “Lest it see more, prevent it!” he growled and bent over Gloucester’s shivering body, which was still facing the audience. “Out, vile jelly!” Cornwall pronounced with relish as he “dug into” Gloucester’s eye sockets. When the “eye” was out, Cornwall stood and spat, “Where’s thy lustre now?”

It was beautifully done--ugly and truly shocking, as it needs to be, and it created an amazing tableau: the dead servant in front of blind Gloucester, both on the floor, with Regan and the other servants looming over them. The injured Cornwall staggered backwards after the deed was done. Everyone was bunched up near the downstage right corner, leaving a vast and empty expanse of stage that made the image even scarier.

Afterwards, we all applauded and commented on how intense the scene had been. Regan said, “As soon as you said, ‘amp up the cruelty,’ we got it. It’s less of a police interrogation and more you’re kidnapped by terrorists.”

There wasn’t much more to say. It was amazing. I’ve never seen a crueler staging of the second eye-gouge, with Gloucester only a few feet from some of the audience members and Cornwall not angry so much as unhinged. “We can see that you guys enjoy acting with each other,” said one of the guys.

Gloucester wasn’t done yet, though. The next scene begins with him being led onstage by an Old Man, then handed off to Edgar, who is still in disguise as Poor Tom.

The scene was a little rocky on the first run, but there were some great moments, especially between Gloucester and the Old Man. After they finished with it, one of the guy had an immediate suggestion: bring Gloucester downstage. “It’s an intimate scene,” he said. “We gotta get intimate with it.”

Gloucester said he was still trying to find his way into the lines. “These are complete contrasts: rage and suicidal depression. You need to downshift. I didn’t downshift.” Frannie agreed and asked him if he could maybe speak his lines with “less on them.” Instantly, Gloucester got a certain look on his face--just like when Frannie told him that he was judging Gloucester. Frannie stopped and asked, “Did I tell you something that’s making sense?” Gloucester nodded, “Yeah.” “Then I’m gonna shut up,” she said.

Sure enough, the next round was better. The three characters began to find the balance of connection and disconnect. Still, there was something missing. In the final moments, Frannie asked the three men in the scene to gather together and just read it, not worrying about acting or projection or anything but connecting to the characters and each other.

What happened was a little magical. Our Gloucester is amazing but has a tendency to use a breathy, put-on voice. Frannie gently coached him to “do less” and “even less” as he read, but he struggled. Finally, when he read the line, “‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind,” with an upward inflection at the end, Frannie spoke more firmly. “It’s not a question. Tell him,” she said. Still, there was an upward inflection at the end. Frannie told him to try it again, and, with a look to her for reassurance, he did. But it still didn’t work.

“This is not a question. You know this. Make him understand it,” she said, and this time Gloucester spoke the line powerfully, even aggressively—he dropped into his full voice, which resonated like nothing we’d heard yet. From the back row of the bleachers, I could hear every word. The rest of the men reacted audibly, some gasping, others grunting, and a few reflexively saying, “Yes.” Coffey commented on it when the reading was done, saying, “I couldn’t connect to Gloucester until you spoke in your natural voice.”

In the minute or two we had left, we thought about what to do. The man who had been so gung-ho about Act IV, scene iii had left early. A wicked grin spread across the face of the one of the guys. “Let’s do IV.iii while [name] isn’t here!” We agreed to tell him that we had done it, and that it had been so good it couldn’t be repeated--just out of (silly) spite.

In a facilitator’s notes, today’s session ended: “4.3... So good. We can’t do it again.” Work on, my medicine!