Friday / February 1 / 2019
Written by Coffey
“I missed Shakespeare. This break was heartbreaking… painful! Time felt like it lasted forever. It feels like it should be 2022,” an ensemble member sighed as Matt and I unloaded the tote bag and got out our notebooks.
I watched the other ensemble members nod in agreement as they trickled into the gym. The rough winter weather meant programs at SMT were canceled on Tuesday, but the break inspired some reflection for ensemble members on SIP, Shakespeare’s work itself, and their place in the world outside sessions. “I didn’t know how Shakespeare penetrates society,” one man said, as he excitedly told the group about an article he’d read during the break. The article discussed the influence Shakespeare’s plays have had on the design of prominent computer games, with games like Thief featuring entire levels set in Shakespearean-style theatres or focusing on Shakespearean plotlines and themes. “That’s really cool. He’s not just in the theaters and movies—he’s in the culture. He’s in the little intricacies.” He paused for a moment. “I had an inmate tell me, ‘I don’t care about your Shakespeare.’ I said, ‘Well, I do!’ Whenever someone comes up to me and says something negative about Shakespeare, I try to tell them about it. We’re an open group!”
The men nodded in agreement. Some chuckled, familiar with the apprehension that they themselves had when first encountering SIP. “I get approached all the time! It’s usually positive,” another man added, “I tell people that it doesn’t take from my life—it adds to it! It enhances what I’ve already got going for me.” A proud smile spread across the first man’s face. “To represent Shakespeare —that’s a cool honor to have.”
Matt then shared with the group a check-in from one of our own representatives, Frannie, who has been in California paying a visit to the Actors’ Gang Prison Project and Marin Shakespeare Company, theatre programs doing incredible work within the California prison system. Frannie was challenged by the ensemble members to send one original sonnet for each session missed during her trip. *Censored by Frannie due to embarassment.* Well, one is a sonnet, the other is a series of haikus, due to time constraints and exhaustion. Frannie is aware that she broke the rules and stands by her decision.) were met with warm smiles and contemplative hmmmm’s by the men, although her use of meter in her sonnet came under scrutiny. “That was definitely a meter infringement” one man jested.
Jokes at the expense of Frannie’s poesy aside, the men were glad to hear about SIP connecting with other projects around the country and began to reflect on their own experience in connecting with Curt Tofteland and Niels Herold last week. Some of the men who had met Curt earlier in the season expressed a wish for Curt and Niels to have participated a but more rather than primarily observing. Matt made the good point, however, that being well into the rehearsal process warranted our visitors taking a step back and watching this time around. One man also reminded the ensemble of Niels’ helpful comments: “I really appreciated the feedback from Niels. It helped me see things differently than I have before.”
Since we have a new Oswald, the goal for today was to go through his scenes and get him situated with basic blocking, entrances, exits, and such. I expected our new Oswald to take it easy on the first run of his scenes, simply marking the blocking and going through the motions. As he entered for his first line in Act 1, scene 3, he brought with him an energy and presence that would make anyone believe he’d been rehearsing for months. He took to the stage like a duck to water, eagerly listening to Goneril’s every word, his feet skimming the floor as he nervously tried to anticipate her every need. Immediately after the scene ended he was the first to ask, “Can we do that one more time?”
Focus shifted towards our Goneril during the second run of the scene. At moments Goneril’s energy matched Oswald’s—slightly nervous, uncertain. With shoulders a tiny bit forward and eyes frequently lowered, Goneril had some volume and harshness, but didn’t seem quite comfortable taking command of the room. As the scene ended, our Regan immediately headed towards Goneril, ready to give a note, but Goneril quickly preempted him: “I need to be sharper and more of a bitch.” Regan promptly turned on his heels, hands up, and muttered, “My work is done.”
While Matt talked with Goneril, I asked Oswald how he felt entering the scene, what Oswald’s feelings were towards Goneril. “I’m in love with her. My main goal in this scene is to just keep her calm,” he replied. I encouraged him to see where that choice goes as he accompanies the character further into the play. I should have told him to brace himself for the beating Oswald gets in Act 2, scene 2, but before I knew it the scene was underway. Kent, having sworn his allegiance to Lear, lambasts Oswald, leading Cornwall and Reagan to have him put in the stocks for the night.
The first run of the beginning 2.2 was rough, although our Edmund seemed to enjoy watching Oswald get slapped by Kent: “Can we run the slap scene about 60,000 more times? I wanna see that again.”
The next run of the scene brought Edmund and his chaotic energy out of the audience and onto the stage, along with Regan, Cornwall, Kent, and Gloucester. 2.2 is a crowded scene and it definitely felt that way for the first couple of runs. With everyone’s characters as developed as they’ve become over the past few weeks, actors easily slipped into their own little worlds during the scene, breaking it into pieces rather than having it be a cohesive whole. I found my attention bouncing from Regan, who kept a cold detachment from the main action, to Gloucester, who seemed lost in bewilderment and frenzy, to Edmund’s steely glare at Kent. Everyone was bringing strong choices to the stage, but the lack of interaction made the energy feel static. In between runs, Matt encouraged everyone on stage to keep the energy moving forward. I added that the men could think of it as a game of tape ball, with everyone participating in the action together in order to keep it up and moving.
As we prepared to run the scene again, our Edmund took the yardstick he had been using as a sword and attached a large clip to it, forming a hilt. He looked up with glee, proclaiming to the rest of the cast, “I just leveled up!” He then proceeded to swing the ‘sword’ around, making lightsaber sound effects with every swish.
I don’t know if it was Matt’s notes or our leveling up our sword game, but the next run of the scene was riveting. Each actor brought that same strong energy, but their newfound connectivity with each other intensified it. The action flowed in a way that couldn’t be choreographed as the energy shifted seamlessly from one part of the stage to the other. Kent’s cool indifference and dry humor, when brought into the same space as everyone else’s heightened anxiety, were brilliant. He even elicited laughs from the audience when he was asked why he attacked Oswald and flatly responded, “his countenance,” with an annoyed shrug. The cohesion onstage also highlighted Gloucester’s distress and helplessness. His pleas for clemency and struggle to be heard reminded Matt that all this action, largely led by Cornwall and Regan, is happening in Gloucester’s house! “Until you interceded I forgot that this was your house,” Matt laughed. It drove home how upside-down Gloucester’s world has become at this point in the play. This was made even more painfully clear during the final run of the scene. At the point when Cornwall orders that Kent be put in the stocks, the action split to opposite sides of the stage, revealing a heretofore obscured Gloucester standing alone, center stage. His eyes darted frantically from side to side, his shaking hand raised to his cheek in utter shock at the evil being done in his own house. It was a powerful image and a great way to end our work on that section of the scene.
With our remaining few minutes we moved forward to the confrontation between Lear and Goneril. The scene is a heavy one, but we focused largely on blocking as our time was running short. The scene promised to grow into a beautiful one, though, as Lear paced violently around his daughter and son-in-law, roaring like a hurt lion at Goneril, who kept her eyes lowered and her head erect, using her flitting fan as a shield from her father’s disappointment.
We closed the day with smiles and congratulations on work well done. The men broke off into small groups as they left, and I, planning a nap for when I got home, overheard them excitedly planning the next rehearsal and times to practice between now and then. Their energy and dedication is what keeps this program going and never ceases to amaze and inspire.