Season Two: Week 33

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“Costumes and props and a set, oh my!”

Tuesday / February 5 / 2019
Written by Matt

To start out today’s session, our Edmund revealed that he had been inspired by the back-and-forth between Lear and Gloucester. He wrote a letter of his own, this one to his brother, Edgar. “It’s a message in a bottle,” he said, before turning directly to Edgar and reading it.

“I know not when or how this missive shall find you,” it began. “Oh, Edgar, I pray you not damn me into the abyss for my endeavors… You know my heart has not always been so dark and unpure.” He went on to describe how his nature had never been “rogueish,” that he envied and admired his brother. “I pray you never have to live with the insidious ire and ever-growing contempt towards your own people as I have had to shoulder,” he wrote. “It’s a ravenous disdain that’s brought me to this precipice of blind indignation and nefarious insanity.”

Then the letter turned to rage. “Edmund the base, they call me. ...EDMUND THE BASE!!! I shall have had my fill of that term long ago, hid away in my sweet mother Velvet’s perfumed linen trunks, listening to her gentleman callers grunt and moan away on top of her … I shall have had enough!!!” He recounted his childhood, watching his father abandon his mother to ruin. “I am more than what’s perceived of me,” he wrote.

In the end, he created a heartbreaking image of Edmund trying to acquire the trappings of legitimacy as a child. “I have such fond memories of following & mimicking you when you weren’t looking. Dressing in your finest attire and returning to your library while you and Father were away. … Just imagining what it must feel like to be wholly accepted, to be… legitimate. Cursed word that I so fervently long for!!! NO!! No longer will I spend my hours residing in your shadows. Fare thee well, brother, the time for me to act quickly approaches. Godspeed, Edmund.”

Everyone was stunned by the force of the letter. “I don’t know how your story matched up exactly with mine,” said our Gloucester, who explained that he also imagined his character leaving his illegitimate son at the brothel with his mother as a young child, as well as many other details that he hadn’t shared with us yet. These guys have a mind-meld going on!

Our Lear had a funny look on his face as he processed the letter. “Goddammit,” he said at last, “now I gotta write another letter.” Our Edmund said that he felt a release as he wrote. “He’s overwhelmed,” he said of his character. “The sense of desperation, I can relate to.” Lear said, “I bet that felt good.” Edmund replied, “It felt amazing.”

Our Edgar checked in about his experience of hearing the letter. He said he felt bad for his character’s actions. “[Edgar] is legitimate, but he doesn’t think that’s all that important,” he said. “He doesn’t want to ‘own’ it, but he’s living the life” of legitimacy.

For the rest of check-in, we talked about color schemes, eventually deciding to table that discussion to another time. When these guys start thinking symbolically, it gets intricate and involved quickly!

We did the Ring, and then Frannie checked in about her trip to California. I won’t go into all of the details here, but the guys were really excited to hear about all that she learned in her time with The Actor’s Gang Prison Project and Marin Shakespeare Company’s prison program. (Many thanks to Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Anton Art Center for the mini-grant that made that happen!)

Some of the guys reflected afterwards about what SIP means to them. “For me,” said one, “it was the ability to delve into a part of myself that I didn’t know was there.” He continued, “By exploring our identity here, we’re expanding our humanity.”

With our remaining time (the letter and the California check-in took up a lot of our session, but it was good!), we worked Act V, scene i, in which Edmund plays Regan and Goneril off each other in front of Albany. As usual, our Regan and Goneril were both super-funny and on-point. The scene is comedic, and they played up the humor. Regan said that the sisters are “playing a perpetual chess game.”

The scene is so short we were able run it a few times, pausing after the sisters exited before continuing on to Edgar’s entrance. He hands Albany a note explaining the situation with Edmund. As Albany stood alone onstage, several people felt that the scene needed more urgency. “It’s like, ‘Yo, man, they rolling up right now!’” said one of the guys. “Even just in prison,” our Edgar said, explaining his hesitation, “if I know someone has a good heart, it can be a risk to go up and speak to them if you know they’re being conspired against.”

The other part that needed a little extra something was Edmund’s monologue, in which he puzzles out what to do with Regan and Goneril--will he “take” both or one or neither? He was having a little trouble connecting, and Frannie suggested that he bring the audience in on his situation. As he spoke, she vocally reacted to his questions and statements, and that did the trick. Edmund’s words came out with the clarity and force they needed, and one of the guys got so excited that he threw his hat across the room in jubilation!

Friday / February 8 / 2019
Written by Frannie

After our usual check-in, we circled up to play a game I learned from The Actors’ Gang Prison Project called “Mirrors.” In this exercise, one person comes to the center of the circle, moving and vocalizing until, organically, they arrive at something that “feels right” and then turn it into something rhythmic and repetitive. They move toward someone else in the circle, who mirrors exactly what they’re doing; the two then switch places, and the cycle repeats till everyone has been in the center.

It’s a game that sounds absolutely terrible because you just KNOW how vulnerable it’s going to make you feel, but when I told them how beloved it is in this other program, everyone decided to give it a go. It was definitely a little herky-jerky—new games usually are—but we had a lot of fun and reflected quite a bit on it afterward.

“I didn’t think it was gonna be so hard to come up with your own,” said one man, explaining that he hadn’t had a problem mirroring another person, but when it was his turn, “I found myself rushing to get out of the middle… That was intense. I did like that.” He turned to the man to whom he’d given his movement, saying he was grateful to him for taking his place! That man responded by thanking him for choosing a movement that was easy to replicate. “I was worried someone was gonna ask me to do some sort of ballet or tap maneuver,” he said, and a few others said they’d been conscious of that. “I had to consider somebody else’s situation with my movement,” said one person. We took good care of each other during this game.

Matt said that he’d felt very comfortable because, at this point in the season, he knew there would be no reason to be embarrassed, no matter how weird his sound and movement were. One of the guys agreed, “You feel safe, and you feel like you ain’t gonna get laughed at,” and he said it felt great to be so secure in that knowledge.

“Each person demonstrated our own flash of personality… It’s like changing your inner man,” said one man. “[In theatre], you’re not only up on stage with your character, you’re up there with other characters. And you gotta feed off that energy.” A man who was in The Tempest last spring said, “That was one thing I learned about doing plays. [In one scene], we got messed up on our lines, but we knew we could make people understand, because we were in it together.” Another man nodded, “That was fun. Doing that was like being on stage. Doing that before a play would be awesome.”

“At the beginning, I had butterflies. Then, when I moved around, I got all this confidence!” beamed one man. Another said he felt more nervous trying to mirror movements than finding his own, and the man who’d passed his movement to this man said, “I wanted to make it so delicate for you, man. Like, I got you, bud!” They fist-bumped.

“I felt vulnerable, and I loved it!” gushed another man. “I felt supported [when someone was mirroring me], but when we went quiet, I felt vulnerable. I noticed that the more I got into that rhythm of my own, it was like I turned myself inside out.” He said that the interplay between all of us reminded him that he “wasn’t alone.” Another man agreed, saying that his first instinct had been to run for the door. I asked him what had stopped him, and he said, “I knew someone would come and catch me!” Then he got a little more serious and said that, really, once he’d forced himself to stay in the circle for awhile, seeing other people let go made him feel calm, and he was able to participate after all.

We moved on to scene work, picking up at V.ii, a brief scene in which Edgar and Gloucester enter, Edgar ascertains that Cordelia’s army is retreating and she and Lear are prisoners, and father and son exit in haste. On that exit, Edgar surprised us by picking up Gloucester in his arms like a child and carrying him off. There was whooping from the usual suspects in the audience. Someone asked the actors how they’d decided on that approach to the exit, and Edgar replied, “It’s a serious scene, obviously... I figured, what would I do if I had a grandfather and there was a fire… We ain’t got no time! What do you do? You pick him up and you get out.”

Gloucester said he felt like he’d rushed. “I should have fed off of his energy more and put it into my voice,” he said. “I was thinking about how to be sick instead of just being sick.” Another man agreed, saying both the energy and the language are important: “You build the climax up to where [Cordelia and Lear] come in as prisoners.”

We talked, too, about the challenge of Edgar seeing the retreat happen offstage. After some discussion, we decided to ruminate on how sound effects could help tell the story. We’ve got some great options in the gym at Parnall, and, luckily, a couple of ensemble members who work with the equipment on a regular basis, so… stay tuned!

We ran the scene again, and the actors made spot-on adjustments so we could hear and understand the words without losing urgency. “YES!” two men exclaimed afterward, as the rest of us applauded. Edgar said he’d been worried that carrying Gloucester off would be funny, but the consensus was that it’s not—it’s actually perfect, and incredibly moving. This is the last time we see Gloucester, and the image of his being carried like an infant by his son completes the arc he’s been on throughout the play: to “second childishness” in Shakespeare’s words, and “a reverse parent” in an ensemble member’s. “You guys have got that down,” said one man admiringly. “That pisses me off. That’s ridiculous. Fantastic.”

Next up was V.iii, and the first thing I noticed was that our Cordelia was off book! He has terrible stage fright, and his delivery was understandably halting and muted. One of the guys, excited and eager to hear Cordelia’s voice (which can be quite powerful) exclaimed, “Rage! Blow!” (our new code for “project your voice!”). Unfortunately, it threw Cordelia off. We paused the scene so he could re-center himself, and the man who’d given the note apologized, saying he hadn’t thought it through. “He does need to project more,” I said, “but he’s just gotten the courage to get on stage, and he’s somehow off book already… Give him some time. He’ll get there.” Another man nodded, saying that he’s been working with Cordelia a lot and is excited by the progress he’s making.

We restarted and got through this first unit, but the actors felt “disconnected”—no one quite knew how to stage the scene. We were running out of time, and a few people had expressed concern about how long this part of the process is taking, so I asked if I could go ahead and block the scene, for efficiency’s sake—and asked everyone to speak up if they had better ideas as I went. No one objected—they even seemed a little excited—and I sprang into action, confirming that I understood each actor’s interpretation of their character in the scene and explaining the blocking from there.

We gave the scene another go, and it worked pretty well! After talking it through briefly, it was time to go. This was exactly the kind of day we needed: productive, reflective, and dominated by a sense of togetherness.