Friday / January 4 / 2019
Written by Frannie
“Welcome to 2019,” said an ensemble member as we called an “orange” for check-in. “Let’s do this thing!”
We welcomed three new members to the ensemble today! After a quick check-in and intros, we had some trouble-shooting to do. The man who’d been cast as Cordelia is no longer in the group, and we needed to figure out the best way to move forward. Immediately, one man raised his hand, saying emphatically that Cordelia is a serious role and needs to be played by someone who is truly dedicated. “It’s gotta be somebody who’s light!” our Lear chimed in. “I gotta carry their ass on stage!”
As a third man began to speak, another said, “Hold on, hold on, hold on. We got somebody over here, wants to play Cordelia.” Smiling broadly, he pointed a finger at a very shy ensemble member, who gave us a sheepish grin. “Really?!” I exclaimed. Only two weeks ago, this man had told me that he wasn’t sure he’d even be able to set foot on stage, let alone speak any lines—and now he was volunteering to play a major role! He nodded his head and said, “Yeah, I think so. Yeah… I wanna do it.” A number of people cheered, clapped, or simply voiced their enthusiasm. I tried to contain my own excitement, merely getting into a contest with Matt over which of us could write the most exclamation points in our notes. (In case you’re wondering, I won. Because I wrote “infinity”. And there’s no beating that!)
As the ensemble settled in to work Act III, scene i (the first storm scene), I pulled aside the newbies and a veteran ensemble member to do a quick orientation. Before long, two other ensemble members joined us, making their own contributions to the conversation. The new guys listened attentively and asked questions as we described the practical and philosophical aspects of SIP: the season timeline, the need for a safe space, nudging without pushing, and all that jazz.
The veteran, who pretty much led the orientation, joined the group last fall, when he hadn’t been in general population for long and had a difficult time even making eye contact with others. Now, as we talked about our best practices in conflict management, he encouraged these guys to call on him to mediate any disagreements. “I’m actually kind of awesome at it,” he said earnestly. “I’ve got good people skills.” Quickly, I said, “Would you have said that last fall?” “No,” he said, clearly surprising himself. A huge smile spread over his face as he beamed at me, and then at the others. They were smiling, too. “That’s the kind of thing we’re hoping to do here,” I said.
Throughout the orientation, as the rest of the ensemble worked, the vet and I kept having to pause and regroup because we’d get distracted—by the sheer power of our Lear’s voice as he raged at the storm. After the third or fourth time, the vet apologized to the newbies, “I’m sorry we keep interrupting ourselves, but… it’s his voice.” I added, “I can’t even apologize… This is too amazing. I mean, listen to him.” And we did for a few moments. “You have to understand,” I said to the little group, “He didn’t speak for the first few weeks he was in this group. And now he’s playing Lear—and he’s so loud!”
I rejoined the ensemble as they were beginning an animated debate about how to balance the tragedy in the play with heightened acting that sometimes veers toward the comedic at this point in the process. There was a whole lotta miscommunication going on—there often is in a group where we’re making theatre without all knowing the “lingo” of the craft. The discussion had begun with Kent’s acting as if he were being physically pummeled and blown about by the wind, which I guess came off funnier than he intended. The instinct was great, though, I said to the group: without all the technical elements of a more traditional performance space, our physicality is what will convey the physical environment. Perhaps the scene got too windy this time around—but that doesn’t mean the idea need be rejected. It just means it needs refining. And that’s what rehearsal is for!
We moved on to Act III, scene iv, in which Edgar emerges as Tom o’Bedlam and Gloucester leads Lear, Kent, the Fool, and Edgar to shelter. It’s a complicated scene, and, since we launched into it without any planning, it was predictably awkward. No one knew if they should move; if so, where they should go; and, if they went somewhere, what to do when they got there.
“Who am I even talking to at the end here?” asked Kent. As we guided him (his final lines are divided among three people), he interrupted to say, “This is ridiculous! Why is he talking to so many people at once?” I acknowledged that there’s a lot of chaos in the text and asked the group what that meant. “The blocking needs to be on point,” Lear replied. “What does that mean?” I asked. “I have no idea,” he said without a pause, and we all cracked up.
One of the newbies asked me some questions about the text and the rehearsal process, and, as I answered him, I lost track of what the rest of the group was doing. I could tell they were problem-solving, but I had no idea what was going on. So it was tough for me to tell what adjustments they were trying to incorporate as they ran the scene a second time. I honestly couldn’t see much of a difference.
I don’t think they felt much of a difference, either. When I asked how it had gone, they mostly just shook their heads and grimaced at their scripts. I asked if maybe part of the issue was that folks were still holding back when they had impulses to move. The scene definitely calls for movement, and they’d spent the bulk of it standing in a straight line.
Kent, frustrated, said that he’d tried to make space for others to follow their impulses by stifling his, which he thought the ensemble had asked him to do earlier. He’d misunderstood, but they couldn’t seem to get through, as he defensively dug in. Finally, a man who has consistently been able to communicate well with our Kent repeated his name till he had his attention. Calmly and clearly, he said, “Don’t wait on them. Do you. [KENT] be [KENT]. Please.”
They still seemed a little lost, so I asked them to describe the physical setting. Together, we detailed a terrible storm, so loud with wind and thunder that the characters have trouble hearing each other, and a night so dark that they can hardly see each other. “So if you drift too far apart, you could lose them—you could get lost out there,” I said, and we experimented with ways we could use the environment to drive the staging toward the scene’s end. It didn’t work 100%, but it sparked some good ideas.
With the little time we had left, we ran the scene again, encouraging the actors to allow the storm to influence their actions, to follow their instincts—and to be bold. And they did! Gloucester, especially, allowed himself to try some wildly different things, mostly driven by imaginary wind, and all to great effect. We didn’t even need words to know where he was and what was going on—he told the story beautifully just with his physicality.
We circled up to raise the ring, pleased with how the day had gone. It was a solid welcome for our new ensemble members, and a great way to start off the year.