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A Role for Theatre in Criminal Justice?
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Tuesday / January 22 / 2019
Written by Matt
Last week, our Lear wrote a letter, in character, to Gloucester. Not to be outdone, Gloucester wrote two letters to Lear!
“What?!” exclaimed Lear, feeling one-upped. “You can’t write two!”
One of the letters was a “bro-y” (his words) six-pager that the author declined to read to spare us all. But the other was from Gloucester’s perspective shortly after his blinding. “I was base,” he wrote. “Base--deeply--to him who I thought of as base.” There was hope and grace in this letter: “Even without my eyes, I can see the radiant light--the true light--that surrounds me.” And Gloucester tried to impart the lesson he had learned too late: “Love your daughters,” he implored Lear, “even if you have favorites, love them evenly. I made the mistake of loving unevenly.”
When he had finished, one of the guys asked what we were supposed to take from the letter. Gloucester replied, “There are things unspoken that go beyond what’s written.” He talked about searching for the character in the text, “as Shakespeare wrote him, not as we wrote him. And I wrote Gloucester,” he chuckled, recalling his first letter, which was insightful but also judgmental, creating a caricature of Gloucester that was funny but not true. A newcomer said, “Some of us have smaller roles, but they’re in there because Shakespeare wanted to convey a message.” Frannie nodded along and added that actors often develop backstories and intimate relationships with their characters, “If you wanted to know what you do when you are training to be an actor, this is what you do,” she said, referring to Gloucester’s letter.
“That’s pretty good,” our Lear allowed. “Now I gotta write another one.”
Cut to… one of the most difficult scenes in all of Shakespeare! Having worked on the beginning of Act IV, scene vi last week--from Gloucester’s entrance with Edgar to after the “suicide” attempt--we were set to start with Lear’s entrance, mad, crowned with flowers. Our Lear was pumping himself up in one of the “wings,” and I asked Gloucester if he needed a little bit of a running start, if he wanted to go back to the beginning of the scene or somewhere else to get in character. He thought for a second, then shook his head. He’d be fine with a quick acting exercise, he told me, and then started doing one of the Michael Chekhov exercises we learned a few months ago.
Then, we were off! Lear had clearly done a lot of work on this scene over the weekend. He was off-book, and he had identified each of the mad king’s transitions throughout the scene and even created an action or gesture to go along with each one. He made a coaxing kissy-sound when trying to lure an imagined mouse with a piece of cheese, which led him to his gauntlet, which he put on before realizing that he had just accepted a duel with a giant, whom he leapt in the air to punch at. It was a great start. Throughout, he was adjusting his relationship to Gloucester--sometimes connected, sometimes completely disconnected.
And Gloucester, who looked hopeful for the first time in a few scenes upon recognizing Lear, quickly sank into even deeper despair. When Lear ordered him to “read,” Gloucester broke down, howling “I have. No. Eyes!” at the space where Lear used to be. When Lear moved to comfort Gloucester, the gesture was too little, too late. On “I see it feelingly,” Gloucester collapsed into Lear’s chest, and the two men held each other for a time. “If thou wilt weep my fortunes,” Lear said, “take my eyes.” As he said it, I realized that I had never heard that line as a genuine (if impossible) offer. But the way our Lear said it was totally earnest, a literal offer of his eyes to his friend, whom he positively identifies for the first time in the next line (“I know thee well enough. Thy name is Gloucester”). The offer and the naming--the “knowing”!!--were so clearly connected and translated so beautifully that we were all jarred a bit when Cordelia’s minions entered to break up the scene. We paused before Oswald’s entrance--that was enough to digest.
“As soon as I hear Lear’s voice,” our Gloucester reflected afterwards, “I forget about the ‘servant,’” referring to Edgar. “I just want to go to that voice.” Lear immediately piped up: “You should do that!” Gloucester agreed, then reflected: “It’s a bittersweet thing, for him to see me in this wretched state.” One of the guys who was watching commented that the scene had been funny, but that “[Gloucester] just brought it down to this core of emotion, so we couldn’t laugh too long.”
After a second run, which was even better, Gloucester wondered what he was supposed to do after the entrance of the “gentlemen” from Cordelia sent to fetch Lear. “I’m hearing all this,” he said, but didn’t know what his actions should be. A few people offered ideas on that and also on how to make Lear’s exit tighter. After a few minutes, our Lear offered his Theory of Rehearsal: “You’re kinda nervous the first time you do it. The second time, not so much. The third time is great. The fourth… not so much!” Point taken! From the top!
On the third run, things fell into place. Lear was disarmingly direct with all of his lines after “every inch a king,” directing them to Gloucester and drawing himself up, as if holding court. This led to even more intimacy between Gloucester and Lear near the end of this segment. Unlike the last two times, we didn’t stop at Oswald’s entrance. Frannie told our Oswald just to jump in from where he was sitting, and he did. Maybe he caught himself off-guard, because it worked! Oswald, who struggles with stage fright, was menacing and direct in his aggressiveness--he was working really hard!
Despite our Lear’s Theory of Rehearsal, we decided to give it another run, this time from start to finish. And it was really good. I actually don’t have a lot of notes on why it was so good--just a few lines I write down with expletives next to them. This time through, the intimacy between Lear and Gloucester seemed almost to frighten or frustrate Gloucester. He pushed Lear away on “What? With the case of eyes?” and then pulled him close on “Oh, are you there with me?” and then pushed him away again on “Alack the day!”
Most touchingly (and tragicomically), Gloucester got up to fight against the gentlemen on their entrance. He did not know where they were, so he kicked and punched in the wrong direction until an overzealous kick toppled him to the ground, where he sobbed. It was a heartbreaking piece of totally organic blocking--a pointless fury, directed at no one, to no end at all. Oof. These guys get this play.
Friday / January 25 / 2018
Written by Matt
“BLOW, WINDS, AND CRACK YOUR CHEEKS! RAGE! BLOW!” … is now our code-word for “speak up.” Like most good things, it came about organically, as one of the guys started his check-in too quietly to be heard, and a bunch of guys hollered Lear’s line at him to get him to project his voice. Amazing.
We had two guests today! One was a (semi-) frequent visitor, Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars and inspiration for many Prison Shakespeare programs—including ours. The other was Niels Herold, professor of English at Oakland University.
Our Gloucester is really on a roll. He wrote yet another letter, in character, to Lear, although he declined to read it, worrying that he was taking everyone’s time. He has also been digging deep with his acting. “I’ve been working on emoting emotions faster,” he said. “I took a couple of scenes in the play, and I worked on the emotions,” he explained, adding that he wanted to be better at getting quickly to the desired emotion, and on transitioning smoothly from one emotional state to another. Our Lear agreed. “Me, connecting with Lear,” he said, “was just making a past for him. When I did that, I started to understand the words better.”
Our Regan also had a play-related check-in. “[The line] ‘You are my guests’ stuck in my head. Holy crap, they put out this guy’s eyes in his own house! Where were his servants at?” Without missing a beat, our Edmund solved the mystery: “Edmund did that,” he said. “I turned them out of the house!”
We spent the rest of the day working on a tough scene (there are a lot of those in this play!): Act IV, scene vii. In it, Lear and Cordelia reunite. The old king has finally been able to sleep, and his youngest daughter has returned to England with an army from France. But the reunion is hardly triumphant--Lear is confused and weak, and Cordelia struggles to connect with her father.
Our Lear seemed a little bit lost before we got started, so I went up and asked if he needed a minute “No,” he said firmly. “The first run is always just a rough draft.” One of the guys got a wheeled office chair from another part of the gym, to serve as Lear’s “wheelchair.” The tiny office chair, however, was dwarfed by our Lear, who’s a big guy, and everyone started giggling when he rode in, his feet raised up like a little kid on a snow tube. The laughter threw Lear off, but everyone stumbled through the scene to the end.
“How’d it feel?” asked one of the guys, who has become the king of that question. “Disconnected,” replied Lear. Our Kent asked the man who wheeled Lear on why he left in the middle of the scene. “I dunno,” he said, “I just felt awkward, and I heard, ‘Leave me alone,’ and I felt like it was the perfect time to leave.” Another man said they didn’t need to kneel for so long. Lear nodded, but pushed back: “It says, ‘Don’t kneel.’ Like, [Cordelia] says, ‘Don’t kneel.’ But I think I kneel anyway.” He went on to say that he never felt an instinct to rise once he was down. At last, Cordelia suggested running it again.
We didn’t get far into the second round, though, when we had to stop. Cordelia was freaking out a little (mostly because the visitors made him so nervous; he’s battling a lot of stage fright), so Frannie went to talk that through with him. Lear was still feeling disconnected, so I went over to talk him through it. “This is hard!” he confessed. “This is the hardest one. Way harder than ‘Blow, wind.’ Way harder than going crazy in the last scene. Way harder than, ‘Howl.’” We talked about how it’s hardest sometimes to play low-energy than high-energy; there’s less to hide behind, less action to drive you. “It’s easier to rage around on stage than to be beaten down,” he agreed. Then he talked through his understanding of Lear’s progression: he wakes, thinks he’s in hell, then that he’s in purgatory, then he doesn’t know where he is--and only then, after a few minutes, does he begin to put it together. Meanwhile, Frannie was talking an overwhelmed Cordelia through taking care of himself onstage by focusing on the other actors and letting them draw him along. Holy sidebars, Batman!
When they went back and did it again, it was much improved. “I put more emotion in it,” said Cordelia, “I felt better in the end. … I was taking my time with it.” A little while later, he added, “It’s an emotional roller-coaster, and I feel like I go from feeling to feeling.” Our Lear was still frustrated with his own performance. “That’s a hard-ass scene,” he said. “I don’t know if people realize how hard that scene is.”
Our Kent mused aloud that he felt superfluous in the scene, and suggested cutting all of his lines. The way he said it wasn’t crystal-clear, so a lot of guys reacted to his suggestion as if he’d advocated cutting Kent completely from the scene. “I like seeing Lear’s right-hand man there,” said one of the guys. “But I feel like this is a moment between a father and his daughter,” Kent pushed back, but a few guys agreed that Kent’s presence was important. “This is about the fact that [Kent and Cordelia] share a bond that no one else does,” offered our Lear. “They were the most loyal, and they got banished.” A few minutes later, another man echoed that sentiment, and said that Kent’s presence is less about Lear and more about Cordelia. “[Kent] is there for Cordelia. He got banished defending her. He’s there for moral support!”
Frannie asked if we could maybe tell this part of the story more clearly by changing the staging of the scene, which sent a few of the guys digging through their scripts, trying to work it out. “Is this the first time Kent is acknowledged as Kent?” asked one. Throughout, Kent was sitting on a chair onstage and watching attentively but silently as we discussed. “[Do] what you’re doing there!” exclaimed one of the guys, “That’s perfect! Have you ever been in the hospital, and been there with someone and you’re just sitting and watching?” He talked about how you can be “with” someone without directly engaging with them, even if they’re not conscious. Lear perked up at this. “That was a good analogy right there!” he said, “with the hospital. Like when you’re in the hospital and someone closer to the [patient] arrives--you stand to the side, but you’re still there for him.”
The room divided into a few different sub-conversations, but the one right next to me went straight to Kent. “That’s the ultimate loyalty,” said one of the guys in awe. “To work so hard, to make the connection between these people and save the man you serve, then to step back and not only not want acknowledgement, but to want not to be acknowledged. He could have done his big reveal, but he knows that what’s happening is more important.” I reminded him that Kent’s “big reveal” in the final scene comes too late. “Oh god,” said another one of the guys, “I hadn’t remembered that.” He exchanged a look with me and the first man. “Fuck!” he said, “that’s so depressing.” The first man shook his head slowly. “Man, my heart is breaking a little bit right now, just thinking about that.”
As for Cordelia and Lear, they really connected, and that made both of them feel better about their work. One of the guys in the audience said that the back-and-forth connection--the mutual reinforcement of their bond--had sold him on Lear and Cordelia’s dynamic in the scene.
Our Lear pointed to a line he had written in the margin of his script: “Lear realizes for a moment that his humanity replaces his obsession with power.”
As usual, our guests had sat quietly throughout the session. And, as usual, the guys wanted to hear their comments near the end. “This is one of the richest scenes in the play,” began Niels, the Shakespeare scholar from Oakland University. He mentioned that our conversation about Kent had reminded him that Cordelia admires Kent in the first scene. “He speaks truth to power, while she says nothing.” Then he focused on the kneeling in the scene. “I wonder if you guys could do more with this gesture of kneeling. What is kneeling?” He ran through a few possibilities: supplication, respect, acknowledgement. “Is she acknowledging him as king?”
“The word that comes to my mind is ‘reverence,’” replied one of the guys. “Absolute reverence for him as a king and as a father.” Another added, “And for him to kneel back, making sure they’re on the same level… that’s his daughter, and that’s what really matters.” A new member observed, “When Lear kneeled, it was the first time in the play when he really gave up his power.”
Finally, we had a casting issue to work out. Our Oswald recently left the ensemble, so we needed someone to fill in. A new member was interested, but some of the guys had already suggested to a veteran member that he might fill in, partly as a way of reconnecting him to the group after some time spent at a remove. Having both of them interested, especially since the veteran wasn’t there, briefly caused some tension, and another veteran explained why exactly he had tried to fill a vacancy in between sessions--nothing nefarious, just poorly communicated.
In the end, it was the new guy who resolved the issue, asking simply, “Does he want the part?” The answer, “Yes,” came back from several guys at once. “It’s his,” said the new member with finality, and the conflict was settled.
As we were getting ready to wrap up with a rousing game of tapeball (high score: 68!), our Fool leaned over to the new guy who had given up his interest in Oswald for the sake of another man he barely knew. “Dude, that was really noble,” he said, and then he continued by inviting him in. “Hey, do you want to be my understudy? I’ve got this job that might take me away at any time, and I’d feel a whole lot better about it if I knew someone had my back. What do you think? It ain’t but 33 lines.” The new guy accepted. That’s the kind of ensemble we have--they take care of each other.