Season Two: Week 30

Check out this article in American Theatre

A Role for Theatre in Criminal Justice?

So much great information about this work, its impact…
And Shakespeare in Prison is honored to be a part of it!


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Oh, and while you’re at it…

Tuesday / January 15 / 2019
Written by Matt

“Why is Cornwall so vicious, even after he’s mortally wounded? Why does he take the other eye?” asked one of the guys in check-in--once we get going, there is little interest in small-talk with this crew. After the amazing work they did on the eye-gouging scene last week, a few of the guys wanted to check in about it. The man who started the conversation continued, saying that he read over the scene a bunch of times, and he felt that the servant’s outburst provided a hint: “Cornwall isn’t like that, usually. That servant has been with him a long time, and says he doesn’t recognize these actions.” He continued, “Edmund did not have to work hard on Cornwall to get him to do this.”

Our Cornwall, in reply, agreed: “It did not take much to push Cornwall over the edge… He’s a puppet, and Edmund is manipulating his mind.” Another man summed up: “This is the scene where everybody gets their hands dirty. Instead of having everyone else do their dirty work, they’re doing it themselves.”

“Violence doesn’t just happen,” the man who had started the conversation pushed back. “Why is Cornwall feeling this way?”

At last, our Gloucester revealed that he had written 12 pages in a notebook about the eye-gouging. This would be shocking from anyone but him--he’s the one who wrote letters to Gloucester! He said he wouldn’t subject us to a full reading, but he did read out one part: Regan and Cornwall, he read, “represent the worst of his old persona. Regan represents the cruelty toward Edmund. Cornwall represents the selfishness.” Brilliant!

Before we ended check-in, one of the guys said that his son had messaged him about Shakespeare--he wants to read King Lear, so they can talk about it. “I’m getting my whole family on board,” he said.

On to Act IV, scene ii. From the first, it was looking good. Our Goneril gave a crazy-sophisticated portrayal of Goneril as a powerful woman--not even a whiff of stereotypical femininity, but not at all as a man. With Edmund, he was tender but in control. “Wear this,” he said, and mimed putting a necklace over Edmund’s head. When Edmund raised his face to say something, Goneril put a finger near Edmund’s lips and said, “Spare speech” in the most natural possible way. I got chills, it was so effortless and believable.

With Albany, our Goneril was abrasive, dismissive, and hard. And Albany… man, is he ever a good listener! He allowed his reactions to Goneril and others to drive everything he was saying--until near the end of the scene, when he seemed almost listless. When we recapped after the scene, he explained that Albany zones out halfway through the scene. He said that he’s in shock at first, after hearing about Gloucester’s blinding, then he’s planning--how will he deal with this new and cruel situation? “I really felt the tension,” said one of the guys, approvingly. He’s never even seen the scene before, and still it translated.

Another of the guys suggested that Goneril be “more feminine,” but, after he suggested that one of the female facilitators might be able to give him a few pointers, Maria jumped in. “I’m gonna respond to that,” she said. “I loved how he did that.” She talked about how Goneril’s reaction to Edmund’s exit was perfect (“Oh my god, I am so in love with this guy!”), and how he played Goneril as a woman, not as a feminine stereotype. As facilitators, we try to never to be proscriptive or shut people down, but Maria’s comment was far from that--it was an insight into Goneril’s performance that could only have come from a woman. “She doesn’t need to be a girly-girl,” added one of the guys. “I don’t see her as a girly-girl,” Goneril assured him. Case closed.

The second run was even better. After Goneril put the “necklace” on Edmund, he started to speak (though he has no line). He managed an abortive “ah-” before Goneril firmly placed a finger near his lips. “Spare thy speech.” Perfect!

Before this run, Frannie had suggested (nay, ordered!) the guys to stop ceding ground to each other. Our Albany, though, immediately started instinctively backing up. Frannie leapt up to correct him, then started looking around for an instrument. We aren’t allowed to touch our incarcerated ensemble members, so she settled on a folding chair, which she held up like a shield, to keep Albany from retreating. It looked pretty silly, but it worked like a charm!

Afterwards, Albany said it had been hard for him to stand his ground. “I wanted to pivot back,” he told us. Frannie asked what he usually does, and he pantomimed dismissively turning away. “What happens when you actually engage with someone in the real world?” Frannie asked. “I take it on my shoulders,” he said. Another man praised Albany for his performance: “You do a lot of the little things people do when they talk. It makes it believable.” But another man pushed on him a bit, wondering why he was so impassive when learning about Gloucester’s blinding. Albany explained that he was shocked by the news, then planning what to do about it. The man giving the note struggled a little to put his critique into constructive language, but it was a good note, and eventually we were able to get everybody on the same page.

The third try at the scene had really great energy from the beginning--so great that the guys kept going up on their lines because they were so connected to their scene partners that they’d forget to look at the script! Albany, in particular, really upped his game. He took the final note to heart, and made sure that his inner turmoil was really translating to the audience, without overdoing it. He was heavy when he heard the news about Gloucester, and looked nauseated when he heard that it was Edmund who had informed on his father. “That really worked,” said the man who had given the critical note to Albany. “I felt your emotions immediately.”

Then we ran through the next scene, Act IV, scene iv. It is a brief scene intended to set up the final conflict--most importantly, it is Cordelia’s return. For us, that meant it was the debut of our Cordelia, who stepped in after we lost an ensemble member. Cordelia was really nervous before running through the scene, but he seemed to take courage from the energetic “army” that entered with him. From the second our Cordelia opened his mouth, everyone was riveted. “Cordelia!” exclaimed one of the other guys, enraptured, “You have a Really! Awesome! Voice!” He was leaned back in his chair, arms outstretched to show his excitement. “Savor the words!” he suggested.

Quickly, we regrouped to run the scene again. As always, the second run saw a refinement of blocking and delivery. There were some great, instinctual crosses, and moments of connection and purposefulness that translated instantly. Time was short, but one of our most vocal members was hurrying us along, reminding us that the less we talk about it and the more we do it, the better the acting. After the third run, our Cordelia was feeling a little overwhelmed by all the notes and direction from the audience, even though the questions and comments were valid and important. “He’s overloading,” one of the guys whispered to me. “He’s overloading like I did in my first scene.” Then he stood up. “Okay! Ratatouille!” he shouted, using our code word for too much talking/off-topic. “Let’s do it again!”

The fourth run was great. “That was a lot better,” the man who had been hurrying things along told Cordelia. “You had that confidence.” Cordelia nodded along, saying, “I felt it! I felt it.”

“See that? He felt it!” announced one of the guys. “Don’t nothing else matter.”

Another member specifically called out a brand-new member for his performance as messenger. “You bring importance to the messenger,” he said. “You made it important, what you were saying!” It was a reminder that, in SIP as well as in any theatre, the commentary and notes sometimes focus exclusively on the main characters. That’s natural, but our ensemble right now is uncommonly good at giving positive feedback and critical notes to even the messengers and servants. They understand how important those roles are to telling the story, and it’s really great that they’re always taking care of the minor characters on stage.

We had a little bit of time after finishing this scene, but the next one is a bear (Gloucester’s “suicide,” Lear’s madness, Oswald’s death). When I asked what the guys wanted to do next, Gloucester, Edgar, and Lear exchanged a look, and said, “Um, NOT the next scene!” Point taken!

Actually, I reminded everyone, we hadn’t played a game in a long time, and as nice as it is to be so productive in staging the show, it’s sometimes nice to let loose. So we played two of the goofiest of our circle games: Wah! and Animal Noises. By the time we had to go, everyone was smiling and laughing and sorry to see the session end.

Rough sketch of the “castle” backdrop.

Friday / January 18 / 2019
Written by Frannie

When we arrived at the gym today, we were excited to see one of the backdrops-in-progress spread out on the floor. It already looks so awesome! During check-in, one of the guys who’s painting it explained the concept in detail and asked if anyone wanted to help construct the accent pieces (gears, banners, etc.). “When the viewers come in, we want them to get the whole concept,” he said. “We don’t want it to be a bunch of negative space.” A brief brainstorming session ensued. Everyone is very excited.

Then our Lear cleared his throat and said, “Lear wrote a letter to Gloucester.” I kind of vocally exploded—what is all this letter-writing??? It’s amazing!!! He proceeded to read a rambling epistle detailing his and Gloucester’s history (right down to invented names for their wives) and musing on their current circumstances. “It seems like just yesterday that we were young roosters raising hell,” the letter went, exploring how wild the two had been, particularly in their behavior with women. “Come to think of it, some of the assassination attempts and threats on my life were probably meant for you!” The letter explored Lear’s dynamics with his own daughters, then zoomed back in on Gloucester: “And you lucky bastard—not one, but two boys?!” The letter continued, “When we found out Velvet was having your child, we were surprised half the population wasn’t pregnant!” As everyone cracked up, one of the guys whooped and exclaimed, “You dog!” Moving on to the present time, the letter reflected, “I know it’s time to take a backseat, but damn, it’s hard.” When Lear finished his reading, I turned to Gloucester, who had been grinning and blushing throughout. “Would you like to respond now, or in writing?” I asked with mock formality. He gave Lear some serious side-eye and said, “How dare you expose my secrets!” We laughed as he continued, also with mock formality, “I will definitely respond in writing.”

Our Fool said he had some bad news—he had been put on the callout for a job that conflicts with our schedule, and he said it wouldn’t be a good idea to turn this type of job down. So it seems he won’t be able to stay in the ensemble, and he asked a man who’d been interested in the character before if he wanted to play it now. There was general consternation about the whole thing. “It’s just my luck, right?” our Fool said sadly. “Does anybody know a way outta this?” No, was the emphatic reply. There would apparently be some pretty onerous consequences if he turned down the job. One of the guys suggested that he could just sort of pop in toward the end of the process and take the role back, but our Fool shook his head. “That would be great,” he said, “but I think the show needs to be the best it’s gonna be, and whoever plays the Fool needs to be able to be here to practice… We should get an understudy, is all I’m saying.” There was a glum silence, and we decided to table the whole thing until he knew for certain that he couldn’t play the part.

The ensemble recovered after a few moments and began to set up for Act IV, scene v. I had a brief sidebar with one of the guys, and then I meandered over to the other side of the bleachers and took a seat, quietly observing as some folks ran lines individually, while others chatted in small groups. To my left, I realized that our Lear and Gloucester were having an extremely animated conversation, spurred on, no doubt, by that fabulous letter. I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying, but it was obvious that Lear had worked out his interpretation in extreme detail, and that Gloucester was fully engaged in exploring what he’d found. They were literally walking in circles together at one point.

The clock kept ticking, and the scene still had not started. No one seemed to mind, though, which is unusual for this group—they tend to be quite anxious to be productive. Matt asked if we were ready to get started, and everyone agreed that we were, but the chatting continued. They were just having a really good time together.

Finally, we ran the scene. The guys collaborated well and made a ton of progress in just three tries! I’m eliding this process a bit because what happened with the following scene was so intense, but I don’t want to move on without noting a few things: Oswald referred to himself as “the golden retriever of the whole story,” Regan said “it’s like a chess match of violence between the two sisters,” and a whole bunch of guys worked hard to make sure their feedback was constructive, though one of them gave a note that was so assertive, I jokingly asked whether he was suggesting or dictating.

We’d run the scene our usual three times, when Regan mentioned that he’d had an instinct to go with a Kill Bill-style energy but thought it wouldn’t be appropriate for the scene. The image he painted, though, was so arresting that, from where I was standing beside the bleachers, I yelled, “Why not?!”

“Really?” he said, taken aback. “Yes! How is that not appropriate for this scene? DO IT AGAIN!” I shouted… Then, realizing how loud I’d been, I sheepishly grabbed my notepad and pen and said, “I mean, we can do whatever you want.” Without missing a beat, the man I’d teased before asked, “Are you dictating now?” Everyone laughed as I rephrased my feedback, saying, “I suggest that you do it again.”

They did, it worked, and, in one of those unplanned moments of theatrical symmetry, somehow Oswald and Regan ended up in the exact same positions as the servant and Regan had been when she stabbed him!

As our Gloucester, Old Man, and Edgar prepared for the first part of Act IV, scene vi, Matt and I noticed that many of the ensemble members were scattered around the room in small groups—all working, but definitely not all together. Matt asked them all to join us in the bleachers, and I reminded everyone that, while acting can make us feel vulnerable, period, emotionally charged scenes like this can make that even more intense. At such times, it’s vital that we come together as an ensemble to support the folks doing their best with this very challenging work.

It was clear that these three actors felt supported as they worked through the scene for the first time. Many moments were quite touching, and a few were something more, including Gloucester’s looking up before remembering that he had no eyes. “I was so there emotionally with what you were feeling,” one of the men said to Gloucester, and two of the others said they’d gotten chills.

Our Edgar was struggling to “decide” on what his character feels during this scene, and, after hashing it out a bit, we simplified the feeling to be one of “horror.” I walked him through some ways he could allow the horror to “enter” him and push him back, rather than trying to manufacture something from within. He is always game, even when he thinks I’m full of shit (which he kind of did), and he said he’d give it a go.

This time, more than mere moments of the scene rang true, as the actors began to sink into their roles, knowing the ensemble was with them. Afterward, one of the men asked our favorite question: “How that that feel for y’all?” Our Gloucester responded, “I’m facing the duality of it. I’m facing my death—not only am I bearing the weight of my life on my shoulders, but this man is so kind in bearing it with me that I want to be with him for comfort. But then again—what does it matter?... I just want Edgar. I just want my beloved Edgar. And this man is the closest I’m gonna get.”

Another man, referring to the moments after Gloucester’s “fall,” said, “I feel like he doesn’t even know if he’s alive. He doesn’t know whether he’s dead or alive.” He paused and made sure we all knew that this was his interpretation, not a directive for the actors. (I pulled him aside before we left to make sure he knew how awesome that was!)

I asked if the actors wanted to run the scene again, and, because they were beginning to go so deep with their performances, I made sure they (and everyone else) knew that it is always okay for an actor to say they’re emotionally spent and need to take the rest of the day off. The guys said they were cool, though, so they prepped for the top of the scene.

And, man, did it go places.

Letting his latest epiphany drive his actions, our Gloucester leaned much more heavily on Edgar than he had before. When he asked Edgar to leave him, before handing him his purse, he weakly embraced him and rested his forehead for a moment on his shoulder. Our Edgar received this and returned it as much as he could bear, fully embodying his character’s intense inner conflict, the pain flitting vividly across his face. As Edgar walked away—but not very far away—Gloucester turned out toward the audience, his voice fully connected, resonant, and raw, coming forth in something that wasn’t quite a moan, wasn’t quite a yell, and wasn’t quite a sob. It was a sound I don’t have words for, but that we all recognized. As Gloucester knelt, so did Edgar, just a few feet away, speaking low to the audience in his asides. Somehow this moment, even without a physical cliff, was rife with suspense.

As he called on the gods to bless his son Edgar, Gloucester rose to his knees, his voice full of agony, his body and energy in a full expansion—and then he choked, and then he fell to the ground. I don’t know what the choking was, exactly—I was so taken by all of this that I completely forgot about it till I looked at my notes days later.

As Gloucester lay motionless, Edgar rose, shaking with fury, bringing the audience in to his disbelief that his father would actually have killed himself—and that he would have played a part in that. Shaking it off as much as he could, he assumed a new posture and approached his father as if he were a different person, asking if he was alive or dead.

Picking his head up, angry, bewildered, Gloucester pulled himself backward on his elbows as he sobbed, “Away, and let me die.” He continued to drag himself haltingly backward, along the floor, his anguish steadily increasing. Edgar rushed to him. Kneeling just upstage of his father, he cradled and tried to calm him (a moment one of the men would call “a reverse parent” a little later).

They reached the end of the scene, and there was silence. Our Gloucester sat back on his heels, eyes closed, and was motionless for a few seconds. “Are you okay? Do you need a minute?” I asked gently. Gloucester wiped tears from his eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. Yeah, I need just a minute.” After a few more seconds, he stood up, took some deep breaths, crossed an imaginary threshold out of the emotion (a tool I shared with him months ago), and jogged in a little circle before returning to the playing area. We were, of course, waiting eagerly to hear what he’d experienced.

It came forth in a veritable torrent. “It’s more than just an emotional journey,” he said. “I think we spoke about this before… Think of the deepest depths of loss in your life… I think many of us have lost one of the greatest things in life. That’s our self-knowledge. And knowing that we can’t get that back, ever, never see it again—it’s so hard… It’s a cauldron of despair—the grief just keeps bubbling up… [Gloucester] doesn’t know if there’s anything after this or not, so that makes it worse... There may be nothing else left for him… Has anyone ever passed out before, and woke up, and you don’t know where you are?... That’s what I really want to do, is: is my pain over yet? It keeps on re-occuring because it’s still not over yet. It’s like, you’re not dead. The worst part of your life is not over. It keeps punching you in the gut.”

After a brief silence, Edgar added, “For me, it’s like I’m not seeking to give him comfort. I’m seeking comfort.” Gloucester nodded, “It’s reconciliation for both of us.” There was silence again.

And then our Lear said, “You mean, I gotta follow this?” I replied, “Yeah, you better blow us out of the water.” He shook his head, exhaling and flipping through his script.

“This scene is like a rebirth for you… everything is different about you now,” said another man to Gloucester. “It’s suicide, but you didn’t actually die. You were reborn… Now you get a spark for life.” A second man agreed, to a point: the whole play is about redemption, he said. Our Gloucester said there is something to that: “Even in the darkest of times, there’s still a glimmer of hope if you search for it. If you search for it.” I said that they weren’t necessarily wrong about any of that, but they also needed to consider that Gloucester continues to long for death, even asking other people to kill him. The man who’d spoken of “rebirth” said he didn’t remember any of that; that Gloucester has renewed joy for life after this. I replied that I could be wrong and asked if he could find that for me in the text.

Meanwhile, though, one of our ensemble members hadn’t moved on. He spoke quietly to Matt, who encouraged him to share his thoughts with the group and asked us all to pay attention. “The moment you knelt down, I felt the despair,” the man said. “Being here for 22 years, there was times I felt like that—I felt alone, I was at the edge of that fake cliff. I felt like I wanted to fall off the cliff… Angry when I woke up… All alone, just me and my wretchedness, alone. I was betrayed. I was left behind—everything else has left me alone, just used and abused me, and there was times I felt just like that.”

How do you move on from a moment like that? But he had said what he needed to say, and he was calm. So I thanked him for sharing, and we found our way forward as an ensemble.

As we began to circle up, the man whom I’d asked to dig through the text a bit called out, “Frannie, you’re right.” A friend made a big show of grinning at him, Cheshire Cat-style, which the man who’d spoken conspicuously ignored.

Cat: “What was that?”

Man: “Okay. You’re right.”

Cat: (still grinning) “It’s like a rare and beautiful song.” [Man stares at him.] “What did you say, again?”

Man: “You’re. Right.”

Cat: “I think you need to get used to saying that.”