Season Two: Week 36

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If money go before, all ways do lie open.

Tuesday / February 26 / 2018
Written by Matt

This is a week of guests, and today’s was especially exciting! For the first time at Parnall, we brought in friend of SIP and super-talented photographer Chuk Nowak. A couple of years ago, Chuk filmed this mini-doc about our program. But that was before our men’s ensemble was even conceived of, and so we were especially happy to have him at Parnall today to capture some of the amazing work these guys are doing!

The guys seemed excited, and we had a full complement of apprentices. I was so excited that I got up at five in the morning to be there. On Monday, I was stuck in a blizzard for eighteen hours in Sault Ste Marie, but when the roads were re-opened, I made a madcap drive over the 300-plus miles of ice-road between the Sault and Jackson. A couple of the guys noted my haggard aspect with concern, but I was happy to be there.

Check-in ran slightly long, as we worked through some interpersonal issues, but the ensemble is often at its strongest when wrestling with these sorts of challenges. Everyone seemed happier after the conversation (yes, I’m being cagey), and a few of the guys even articulated what, exactly, they get out of SIP. In particular, one of them described his own process of feeling intimidated and out-of-place, to falling in love with the language and characters of Lear—and then with the entire theatrical side of the program. “For me, the biggest thing is Shakespeare,” he said, adding that other people get totally different things out of it.

One of those others spoke up. A member of our Parnall program since its inception, he talked about the arc of his relationship to the ensemble--he had stepped aside for a while and just recently stepped back fully into his role as a leader of the group. Everyone is important to the functioning of SIP, he said, and everyone is somewhere in the process of changing himself. “You got to bring to the table what you got to bring to the table,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves to be understanding because of all that we have in common--and that’s Shakespeare!”

“This is prison,” allowed the man who initiated the conversation. “And this is, like, the best thing in prison.”

That might have been the feel-good quote of the day if one of the other guys hadn’t filled us in on a conversation he had the other day with some people in his unit. “Guys were asking where we’re gonna get our girls from,” he said, chuckling. “I was like, ‘What girls?’ and they said, ‘The girls for the parts!’ and I was like, ‘Well, we play them! We got some badass motherfuckers here, man!’”

There was no comment required, and that was a hard act to follow, but our Regan added, “Not only do real men do Shakespeare--real men play women in Shakespeare.”

(Note from Frannie: These two comments are remarkable—and exciting—in many ways. We want our readers to have as much insight into this process as possible, and that means preserving authenticity as much as we can without identifying individuals. It would not be in keeping with that, or with our mission, to edit or censor the first man’s language. The words he chose are part of what is so striking about what he said.)

Today’s main business was finishing the blocking of the final scene. Before we got too far, our Goneril repeated his kneecap-slide into Edmund from last week. He stopped and looked up at Frannie, saying he didn’t think the slide would work. “I feel like the slide takes away” from the moment, he said. “I think you’re wearing a skirt, and you will pull it right off if you do that,” said Frannie. This led to a brief sidebar with Regan and Goneril about how to move in a skirt. (Highlight: Frannie suggested that they work with jackets tied around their waists and draped in front of them. Regan said they’ll just use old sheets as makeshift wrap dresses to practice. Goneril started to protest, but Regan shamed him into agreeing to make a sheet-dress. Stay tuned for more sheet-dress antics.)

Even our first run of the scene was pretty good. “We were feeding off each other,” noted one of the guys. “I’m not sure how it felt, “ added another, “but it looked so awesome.”

“How do we build on this?” asked Frannie.

“More emotion!” said Lear.

“Sweeping the floor!” added Goneril, who was lying “dead” on the ground.

While one of the guys got a broom to sweep, Frannie challenged our Lear to maintain the intimate connection with Cordelia. In the final moments of the scene, he had stood up from his youngest daughter’s body to speak directly to the others in the room. “You’re letting him off the hook,” she said. One of the guys backed her up, saying, “It’s way more powerful with you down with her.”

Another one of the guys explained why: “It’s a king’s words,” he said, “but a father’s motive.”

Our Lear was reluctant to run the scene again. “I just don’t think I can get into it,” he said. “I don’t know if I can get where I need to be with my emotions.” Eventually, he agreed to give it another shot, even if he was just walking through it without giving it his all...

Maybe he should halfass it more often! The second run was a success from the beginning. The urgency of each actor’s performance was markedly better at the top of the scene, and it only increased as we progressed. Albany, who had been excellent in the first run (he listens to the other actors so well), was magnificent, fully embodying his character’s fast-shifting anger, shock, and disbelief. The moments were poignant, sharply defined, and effective. But after Edmund’s mortal wounding, the guys took it up a notch. Goneril turned snake-like when confronted with her scheming by Albany, slithering away on “the laws are mine, not thine.” As the brothers reconciled, Edmund (a stand-in) grasped Edgar’s arm as he said, “the wheel has come full circle.”

But it was Lear who gave the show-stopping performance. He raged and howled, his deep voice fully resonant for the first time this season. Tears trickled down his face as he focused intensely on Cordelia’s body, dying with his arm across his daughter.

When we were done, everyone took a second to breathe before looking around. It was clear that something special had happened. “I don’t know if I have words,” said Frannie. There were some notes given and comments made, but mostly we were in awe of the performance that had just happened.

Our Edgar reflected after the scene about his character. “He has nobility,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean crap to him.” Edgar, he said, “is more interested in being a person, not in ‘being’ a title. He might be a little bit of a playboy, like his father. … He’s trying to push off everything on his brother. That’s why he’s not in the first scene.”

Speaking of the first scene of the play, which we haven’t touched in almost two months, we had just enough time to run it. Fresh from the success of the final scene, everyone brought the same energy to the first one! The new folks slid right into their roles as Cordelia and Burgundy, and everyone was working hard to make the story’s setup as clear as possible. An absolute highlight was the scene’s final beat, when Regan and Goneril exchanged a catty look, then slithered over to their hapless sister, surrounding her as they pestered her with commentary. It was funny and chilling, and it perfectly displayed their roles.

Today was a success for many reasons: we finally finished blocking the play, Chuk took some amazing pictures of the guys at work… and, most of all, that performance of the final scene was not only a work of enormous commitment and integrity--it was a moment of genuine artistic achievement, which is never our goal with SIP, but which speaks to the creativity, work ethic, and bravery of this group of men. I drove four hours from Sault Ste Marie to be there, but I would have driven from Duluth to see what I saw today.

Friday / March 1 / 2018
Written by Frannie

One of the highlights of each season of SIP is when we learn fight choreography for the show! There have been times in the past when I’ve taken the lead on this (I can manage some VERY basic fencing and hand-to-hand combat), but in recent years we’ve been extremely fortunate to have brought a bona fide stage combat choreographer onto the team! His name is Patrick Hanley, he’s also facilitated at Parnall and in youth workshops, he’s amazing, and everyone should hire him all the time for everything. That’s what I have to say about that.

Anyway, I spend a lot of time thanking my lucky stars (much to Edmund’s chagrin, I’m sure—fa, sol, la, mi...) for Patrick, and today was no exception. After a quick check in, the group divided up as each fight was choreographed, with great care and efficiency, while those who weren’t fighting took measurements for costumes, ran lines, looked for cuts to the text, or helped out in one area or another.

It was classic SIP to a tee. What could have been chaos somehow wasn’t; even though there was a lot going on, each person was wholly focused on whatever their task was at any given moment. Even people who generally don’t get along worked beautifully together, and the fights turned out amazing—or so I’m told; I spent the whole session doing textwork with folks.

Unfortunately, this made for a very short blog. I hope we get some really good photos of these fights in performance!