Season Three: Week 2

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“You can find a lot of yourself in all these characters.”

Tuesday / July 9 / 2019
Written by Matt

We walked into the chapel today and, instead of seeing the usual group of guys eagerly waiting for Shakespeare to start, we walked into an empty space. It didn’t take long to figure out that there was another event going on--actually, Governor Whitmer was there!

We weren’t sure if anyone would be able to show up, but soon enough one of our ensemble members who joined at the end of last season came in the building. “Honestly,” he told us, “I’m kind of surprised you’re here.” We assured him that not much stops Shakespeare from showing up in prison--if the facility is open, and we can safely make the drive, we’re there!

I actually really enjoy these days, when only a few people can show up. Of course, I’d rather have everyone there and do our usual Shakespeare work, but it’s also really nice just to chat. So we did! We covered everything from women’s tennis to the development of modern acting technique in Russia.

In the end, only three guys showed up. A former ensemble member also stopped by to say hi and give us an update. So we had a wonderful, free-wheeling conversation for the rest of the session.

It will be nice to see everyone again on Friday, but today’s meeting was a great thing for a hot day--just spending time talking to some of our ensemble members, especially since two of them have been in Shakespeare in Prison for less than a year, and one has only been in it for a week!

Friday / July 12 / 2019
Written by Frannie

It was back to business as usual today! After a long check in (we don’t limit this much at this point in the season, as we’re all getting to know each other), we played a rousing game of Zip Zap Zop, and then we settled in to read more of the play.

We picked up at Dennis’ entrance in Act I, scene i. The plan was to read while seated, but the man reading Oliver became so animated and energetic that he just had to stand and walk over to the man reading Charles. He continued either to pace around the circle or hover over Charles for the rest of the scene, and everything he did corresponded beautifully with the text.

All right, so what’s going on here?

“There was nothing malicious in the wrestler’s intent in showing up,” said one man, “He’s just telling [Oliver] that if they wrestle, he’ll hurt his brother. He’s one of the only neutral parties.” As for Oliver, another man said, “There’s definitely an opportunity—because his brother just claimed his share of the inheritance… [Oliver says,] ‘If you break his neck, don’t worry about it. It’s all good.”

Another man reminded us that Oliver says, essentially, “‘I hate my brother, but I don’t even know why’… It’s like he’s conflicted about why he hates his brother. I think that’s dope for a dynamic character.” There was a pause in the conversation, and this man turned to The Professor (that’s what the ensemble has started calling him) and said, “Get it, [Professor].”

The Professor clued us in to the indications of emotion in the language. “He used ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ with Charles, but never with his brother… That’s the only hate he has, is for his brother… When Oliver’s telling Charles how Machiavellian his brother is, he’s really talking about himself… It goes deep, and it’s not about the money, because then why’s he putting the middle brother through school? No, it’s because the people love Orlando. He can’t figure out why his brother gets this admiration and he doesn’t.”

“He’s envious,” another man responded. “‘I received all the training in the world, and they don’t love me the way they love him.’” Another nodded. “By denying his brother proper training and forcing him to interact with the rabble, he’s helped his brother become endeared to those he wants to be loved by… He’s helped his brother become what he wants to be.”

We put the scene on its feet. Afterward, I asked what we had learned. There was silence. “Well,” I said, “I learned that the scene is too damn long!” There was general agreement, and we chatted briefly about our process of making edits for performance. A newbie wondered if some of the exposition could be cut from the text and given via staging, which is a big part of it, and a veteran explained the process in a bit more detail. I added that, last season, I told WHV’s “Cut Queen” Emeritus (who is now on the outside) about how the guys made me do the first round of cuts on King Lear, and that she said, “Oh, tell them to suck it up.” They laughed, and one guy said, “That’s dope. I like her!”

One of the guys began to speak, and then stopped to make sure everyone knew why he was talking so much: “Usually when I speak up, I’m really just trying to analyze the character.” He directed our attention to a specific point in Oliver’s monologue. “Oliver stops paying attention to the conversation and just switches to how much he hates his brother. ‘Dismantle him!’ That’s coming from something personal, and that changes the whole sequence of the conversation.” Another man pointed out that Charles says, “I wrestle for my credit.” He suggested that maybe “as soon as [Oliver] hears that, he thinks, ‘Oh! I can use this for my advantage.’” The first man responded, “I think that was just awesome psychology.” Another man, who’d just read on his feet, rephrased Oliver’s words as, “‘Break him as much as you can.’” He paused and added, “Being in that scene… It made me really listen to what was being said.”

The Professor said, “I think the word play here is way more complex than in King Lear. The subtlety of it is more important than [what] they come out and say.” He cited the use of “thee/thou” vs. “you”, for example. This man thinks the whole thing is a set up: that Oliver’s been plotting it. “Oliver’s not no dummy, and this isn’t no spur-of-the-moment thing.” Another man shook his head in admiration and said, “That’s a dope interpretation.” I asked if it’s possible that there’s a combination of plotting and opportunity: perhaps Oliver had a vague idea of what to do about his brother, and it comes into focus during the conversation with Charles. All agreed to at least consider this. “He’s feeling out Charles,” one man said.

“Anyone else?” I asked before we moved on. “You don’t have to say anything, but we want you to know that you’re always welcome to.” One quiet newbie smiled and shifted in his seat a bit, explaining, “It’s out of my comfort zone, but it’s very interesting to me.” He said he felt like he was on the outside looking in; as he was seated in the bleachers and surrounded by others, I replied, “Seems to me like you’re on the inside looking around.” Then he actually said quite a lot, mainly that it seemed to him like “Shakespeare was pulling from the outside world.” He was astonished by how real the characters seemed.

“Shakespeare writes real, complex, intricate people,” said a veteran, and another added, “You can find a lot of yourself in any of these characters.” Another man said that last year, he jumped to conclusions about the characters early on, but he listened when I encouraged him to withhold judgment and work toward empathy for all of them. “I remember that conversation,” another man said. “With Shakespeare, you can’t judge their actions because if you put your own judgments on it, you’re not playing the character. That’s what ‘empathize’ means—just allowing the character to come to life inside you.” The man turned to the guy who said he was out of his comfort zone and told him, “You are no longer on the outside looking in. Shakespeare grabbed you and brought you to the inside already.”

Another veteran shared that having that empathy for the characters is important throughout the process, but that he hadn’t fully grasped his character until the performance. “It became super personal, so there was no way to judge the character,” he said. Still another veteran broke in to encourage everyone to read this play and then read another, completely different, book—he said it would give them a new perspective that would enrich the experience. A newbie shared that he was a little overwhelmed by the text, and that it seemed like a lot of lines, but he liked it. “I’m catching on slowly,” he said, to which another man replied, “A dope interpretation.”

We moved on to Act I, scene ii, which initially features Celia, Rosalind, and Touchstone. Two men almost literally jumped at the chance to read the women, which was somewhat unexpected and very exciting! A third quickly volunteered to read Touchstone. Two of the guys pointed out that it’s a very eventful scene and lengthy scene, and we decided to do just the first section today. Almost immediately, we discovered inconsistencies between the No Fear and Arden editions, and the man playing Rosalind insisted that the others use Ardens—he has no patience with the No Fear. “Snob!” I said, and he laughed.

The scene was so funny. The guys playing the women performed together last season, and their comfort with each other and the text was apparent. Touchstone’s entrance and delivery only enhanced what was already happening, and even those who hadn’t read the scene ahead of time were cracking up throughout.

There truly wasn’t time for the kind of discussion these guys like to have, but the energy was high from their performance. “You know what?” I said, “The way you played Celia makes me want to play Celia! Let’s just rotate actors till we run out of time!” So that’s what we did, and it was a ton of fun.

After the second pass, the guy who read Rosalind came over to me, smiling, and said, “I don’t know why, but that was awkward, playing a woman.” I said that was natural and asked him if he knew why. “I don’t know,” he said. “It wasn’t uncomfortable, just awkward.” I suggested that he think on that some more, and I shared how much I love playing male characters: stepping inside a person who seemingly is so different from me, and finding that they aren’t, is fun and exciting. A veteran said that had been huge for him, too—that Shakespeare “did away with my preconceived notions about gender.” He’s learned that “gender isn’t a determining factor.” And he’s quite happy about it.

A few more guys performed the scene. One of them said afterward that he felt like he hadn’t done a good job, and that he was worried about the language. “Don’t worry about that,” a veteran quickly said. “The language is not a barrier. Don’t look at it as a barrier.”

“Hang on, hang on,” said the Rosalind mentioned above. “I figured it out. It’s not that I was uncomfortable being a woman in it—it just was trying to figure out the character I was reading with everybody moving around and all.” The man who read Celia first said that comfort would come with time and practice. “Me and [ensemble member]—while he was reading, I was listening to him… We had fun because we know how fun it is.” The man to whom he was referring said, “First time I read, I was like, ‘Yep, this ain’t for me. I’m quitting.’ But a couple guys came to me and said, ‘Just give it a try.’ I stayed with it. I trusted the process.”

And then a REALLY cool thing happened. One of the men, who had mostly been quiet, leaned over to me and said, “I wrote a poem just now while we were doing all this, and I’d like to read it to everyone.” Several ensemble members have joined facilitators in writing down observations (for our records AND this blog!), and he was one of them today. Here’s his poem:

A moment of time as it passes us by.
Words are spoken, we try to understand why.
We’re no longer looking in, we like seeing the past.
The characters are real, pleasing so fast.
We see online what Frannie writes,
A blog, a poem, everything so nice.
We talk, we talk, there’s no right answer,
We move on with earnest desire.
Don’t lower the status,
We want to see the movie,
Orange!
I want to read Orlando,
Not Marlon Brando.
I was amazing, I want to read.
Time is real short, hurry, hurry, read, read!

Coolest. Notes. Ever.