Tuesday / July 16 / 2019
Written by Matt
Well, we did it again! These guys are even nerdier than we thought!
We use two different editions of Shakespeare’s plays in SIP: an annotated edition like you’d use in a college class, and a “No Fear” edition that has a modern translation alongside the original. Each edition is useful in its own way; some people prefer one over the other, and some people use both!
Thing is, the annotated editions (this year at Parnall, we’re using the Arden Shakespeare) are expensive! So at the end of last season, we decided to get enough No Fear books for everyone, but to buy fewer Arden copies, since not everyone uses them. Boy, did we underestimate interest in the Arden! We ran out of them on the first day, and just about every session since, at least one person has come in and asked for one.
Let me explain why this is exciting. For those who haven’t used it, the Arden edition of Shakespeare is wonderful, but it is not user-friendly. There are essays and commentary written by academics, there are comparisons of the various editions of each play, and a full history of each play’s various performances. There are two different levels of footnotes, and many pages only contain a few lines of Shakespeare because the footnotes are so extensive. It’s beyond nerdy. There’s nothing wrong with the No Fear—it’s great. But demand for Arden editions is just the sort of thing that most people would not have expected from people in prison.
Okay! Back to today’s session!
After check-in, we dove straight into reading! Three returning members read the beginning of Act I scene ii, which is where we left off last week. It was great to watch these guys show how comfortable and fluent they are with the language, especially the man who read Rosalind.
Discussion focused on the relationship between Celia and Rosalind. “They’re more like sisters than cousins,” said a new member. “They’re also friends,” added the man who read for Touchstone. The man who read for Rosalind noted how the first two scenes center on serious family drama—there’s a lot at stake.
“In this scene,” noted a returning member, “Rosalind controls the whole conversation.” Another noted that Celia “is constantly saying ‘us’ and ‘our,’…and then letting Rosalind make the decision.”
“What about Touchstone?” I asked. One man, who read for the fool last week, said that he may have been sent to arrest Rosalind. Another man said that Touchstone “is the sort of dude who can tell you the truth to your face, even when you don’t want to hear it.” The man who read Rosalind added that Celia, Rosalind, and Touchstone are close—you can tell because there’s nothing “mean or menacing” in their interaction; they’re having fun. “The girls—they way they talk is waaay outta line for some noble women. I think they learned some of this unladylike talk from Touchstone.”
“Touchstone’s a dick,” offered one of the guys, a smile creeping onto his face. A new member pushed back: “I can’t say he’s a bad person because I have a cousin just like him.” He told us about his hammy cousin, and he sure sounded like Touchstone! “You might be on the phone with him for 15 or 45 minutes before you hang up… I can catch on to what Touchstone is—it’s just Shakespeare… It’s people out there that you’d recognize that act like that, and you probably talk to them still.”
We switched up roles, and read the scene all the way to the end. At first, we focused on Le Beau, who is usually seen as a throwaway character. As usual, the guys had a more nuanced view. “He likes to tell stories,” noted a new member, which I had honestly never noticed. “They’re making fun of him right off the bat,” noted one of our veterans, “They’re having sport with him… But then, at the end of the scene, he warns Orlando. So he’s not just a gossip. This is a guy that cares.”
“For me,” he continued, “I don’t know if that’s a funny scene.” He explained the situation, which involves an ill-fated wrestling match. “You see three guys getting mangled—you see a guy mourning his sons.” Another veteran nodded along and said, “It’s dark, serious humor.” The first man continued, “The beginning is serious. And when we meet Rosalind and Celia, it’s also serious.” A new guy said that the detail about three men being mangled is “a setup to show how fearsome Charles is as a wrestler… it’s a setup for a bigger punchline when Orlando wins the match.
One of our veterans thought about it from the women’s point of view. “There’s a fascination for girls to see that other side—that brutal side—of life.”
At this point, our resident professor started musing about the context of the play and the layers of commentary operating in the scene. Partway through, another returning member asked, with perfect timing, if The Professor was Shakespeare reincarnate. When we were finished laughing at that, The Professor moved back into the text in front of us. “The two most powerful guys we’ve been introduced to are both really insecure. The hallmark of insecurity is bravado,” he noted. “And both of the main characters share something—they both love their fathers.” The Professor is The Professor for a reason.
On to Act I, scene iii! Rosalind gets banished, and Celia goes with her. Again with the serious themes! “The banishment threw me off,” said a veteran. “I didn’t expect it; I didn’t see it coming.” The man who read Rosalind reiterated that the Duke is insecure. “The Duke is not seeing that it’s his personality that’s making him not liked by people.” The man who read for Duke Fredrick said, “Fredrick strikes me as an extremist.” When asked what he meant, he went on to say, “It’s just extremes on everything. There’s no middle ground.”
“It’s kind of a theme throughout the ages,” noted a new member, and gave some historical examples. Another guy said it reminded him of Kim Jong Un. The man who read for the duke went on, “It seems that he’s also kind of detached. He’s also very literal… things are supposed to be done a certain way, and if it’s not, he cuts it off.” He went on, “He had a moment of softness, and I don’t think he liked it because then he started to berate [Rosalind]. He didn’t like that he felt something.”
Another guy said that Rosalind and Celia reminded him of teenage girls who were breaking out of society’s constraints and finding themselves by leaving home. “I think they have more of a codependent relationship going on there,” said another guy.
In the middle of discussion, a man who had stepped out for a few minutes returned and paused the conversation to tell us to lighten up! “It doesn’t sound like you guys are talking about a comedy!”
Perhaps. But, several people noted, the words of this play are funny, but the themes are serious.
Friday / July 19 / 2019
Written by Frannie
Today’s check in ended on an interesting note that kind of set the tone for the rest of the session.
One man asked where we were in the reading. After ascertaining that we were about to read Act II scene i, he told us that he and another member had read the scene several times the day before and, after discussing it at length, came to the conclusion that it could be substantially or entirely cut. “Man, this scene is dead,” he said. “What is the purpose of this?” As some shrugged, some nodded, and some cracked open their books, our Professor said, “Oh, I can tell you the purpose!”
Someone suggested that perhaps we should read the scene before debating it, so that’s what we did. It’s not a lengthy scene, but—true to form for this group—that didn’t mean there was nothing to talk about!
“I don’t know what the point was,” one man said. Before anyone else could reply, the man who had brought up the idea replied, “I’ll tell you why it’s got no point!” He explained that the scene’s main function is expository, to which another man replied, “It can have cuts, it just can’t all be cut out.” Agreed. But not finished with the conversation.
We talked a bit about the characters. Thinking through Duke Senior’s speeches, one man described them as, “When I feel I’m cold, at least I feel that I’m alive. I wasn’t feeling nothing at court.” Another man said, “All it’s really striking me as is: an individual grows up in the city and then goes to the country… The personality types are being thrown out of what they’re normally used to.”
“Yes, and…” said the Professor, “We see the kind of man that made Rosalind… We’re finding out the person behind the person. This is where Rosalind got her backbone, got her independence, got her won’t-back-down-to-a-man.” Adding, “If Duke Senior wasn’t where he is, Rosalind wouldn’t have been banished,” he turned to the man who’d checked in about the scene and said, “That’s why you shouldn’t just brush it off.” Laughing and rolling his eyes, the other man said he didn’t want to brush it off—he just thought there were too many words.
One of the guys suggested that if we kept “a piece” of the text, the rest of the exposition could be shown through staging. “Ja, und…” another said, “One thing I kept visualizing was a voiceover narration. He’s telling us all this instead of showing us the lords doing these things.” Turned out he wasn’t the only one who’d been thinking about staging! “I have a theme idea,” another man said. “Vagabonds. Not necessarily homeless, but transients.” He explained some of what he’d been envisioning. “That’s a great idea,” said another man, and the riffing began.
This is exactly what happened in the women’s ensemble last season, when their concept for Twelfth Night ended up being “a kaleidoscopic cesspool of love that is super super extra”, and I asked the guys if they’d like to borrow a strategy the women used: a notebook dedicated to recording ideas for the show’s staging. The answer was yes, someone volunteered to be our scribe, and, that settled, we returned to our reading of the play.
We moved on to Act II, scene ii, deciding to read it on our feet. The man reading Duke Frederick entered the scene with an energy and VOLUME that were incredible, especially given his nervousness about performing. It turned out to be a very funny scene; somehow, the lords completely stole the show. Immediately afterwards, a man who’d been watching said, “Can I make a request? Can [1 Lord] read that again with a little more foppishness?” Grinning broadly, the man agreed, and they ran the scene again. It was even funnier—this guy is great at playing with the language and had us constantly cracking up. When Duke Frederick got in his face, he slowly lowered himself to a kneeling position—literally shouted down. “What they did right there was comedy not trying to be funny,” one of the guys commented. “I think that’s the best kind of comedy there is.”
But Duke Frederick told Rosalind and Celia to leave—he had to have known that this would happen, so why is he so angry? “Maybe he didn’t think they were really gonna call his bluff and leave,” one man mused. Another agreed that Duke Frederick “is saying, ‘Why would you leave all this? This is our power.’” A third said, “He’s so caught up in his own personality of how important power is that he doesn’t understand that [Celia] doesn’t care about that power.” Eyeing his nemesis-for-the-day, the Professor pointed out that this contrast between the Dukes is the point of the previous scene, and the two cracked up again. Nerds.
We decided to do the scene again with a different set of actors. Filling the first two roles was easy, but no one immediately volunteered for the third. A veteran egged on a new member, but he said he wasn’t ready yet, and I reminded everyone that we nudge, but we don’t push. Another veteran, without batting an eye, called out the name of another newbie, who quickly replied, “What is it? I’ll do it,” and jumped down from the bleachers. Totally chill (and totally not having paid attention for at least 10 minutes), he went over to another guy to see where we were in the script and which role he was going to play. A couple of people asked him if he really wanted to perform a scene he hadn’t read, and he replied, “Don’t worry about it. I got this.” And he totally did, and it was totally good.
These scenes are brief, so we still had time to go through Act II, scene iii. A veteran who doesn’t often read said, “I’ll be Orlando!” He was immediately followed by an, “I’ll be Adam,” from the newbie who’d said just minutes before that he wasn’t ready. “Whaaaaat?!” said one man. “I dunno. I was just gonna listen today, but then I thought, ‘Why not?’ I’ll give it a try,” was the reply.
The scene was great. “I loved that,” a young member said. “The character of Adam was dope in that scene… The cadence and everything, it’s almost like what he was saying wasn’t serious, but was meant to be taken seriously.” Another man agreed: “What Adam is saying, you can almost sing it, the rhyming is so good. You could almost put a beat to it.”
“Oh my god,” I said, “What if Adam is a retired rapper?” This led to another hilarious riff, as ideas came streaming forth. Maybe he’s not retired—he’s just a really old rapper who won’t give up the dream. Maybe he is retired, and he’s actually Flava Flav. Within the “vagabond” concept, maybe he’s lost it all—except for one tarnished gold chain. The idea scribe furiously scribbled away.
Back to the text. “I’ve never seen someone proclaim their love so powerfully,” said one man of Adam. “It’s definitely #mancrush.” After he explained what that meant (remember, some of these folks have been removed from the outside world for a long time), there was general agreement.
The veteran who read said, then, that he wasn’t happy with his performance. “It didn’t feel right,” he said. “It was almost like I couldn’t connect with the character. It felt forced.” Another manresponded, “I liked your interaction.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself on the first reading,” a veteran said. He shared the memory of his own first reading, when a (painfully honest) member called out everyone’s performance as “good” except for his. “I was like, whoa!” But he said that it motivated him to keep working. “This guy didn’t read anything in the last one,” another vet said, “So the fact that he was willing to read without anyone prodding him…” He led the group in a round of snaps.
“Can I please do this and be Adam?” said the young member who’d gushed about the character earlier. “Of course!” said another man. “He’s our rapper!” (That’s true—this guy is an amazing spoken word and hip hop artist.)
“That Adam is a weird character,” the young man said afterward performing the scene. “He is a weird guy.” He explained, “He’s trying to use this wordplay to woo him in, but he’s not having it.” He said that when another guy played Adam, he “felt like he was a foolish character. Now I feel like he’s more desperate.”
“I sense a lot of pride in Orlando,” said the person who had just played the character. “There was a lot of stubbornness, and you can tell he’s young and not too savvy in you-gotta-do-what-you-gotta-do if the world pulls the rug out from under you, and you can’t afford to be like that.” He paused. “It’s like that insanity in our teen years—where you’re so full of pride, but one thing goes wrong and you’re just totally crushed.” The scene—and the character—clearly struck a personal note for him—enough that I can’t write about it because it would risk identifying him. He’s really doing the work.
The Professor went on a mini-rant about how every character is important. “It tells you a lot that the head servant is willing to forsake the house he’s got more loyalty to than any person.” He paused, darted a glance at his “adversaries,” and said, “I know people who like a lotta cuts don’t think so.” They cracked up again, and one said, “Why are you jumping to the worst case scenario of cutting the whole part out?” The other exclaimed, “Idea—PING! To appease Mr. [Professor] there, how about we do the play on two separate days? Part one could be one day, part two on another—” but he was interrupted by several people, the idea was immediately dismissed, and the Professor rambled on for… awhile.
Another man added his two cents: “Adam gives a foundation to the merit and credibility of [what Orlando says]. He kinda knows what’s coming, and he knows it’s going to be hard, but he’s so proud that one of the sons takes after the father.” Another man nodded, “Like Alfred to Batman.” That wasn’t a bad idea, and our scribe made us a note.
“YES AND…” one of the guys said, “I would like to play Touchstone in this next part.” The guys who were the season’s first to read Rosalind and Celia jumped at the chance to reprise their roles. There was a stumble midway through, and one good-naturedly said to the other, “You wanna hit me with that cue again?” This theatre stuff is old hat for them now!
We ran it a second time, changing up our Rosalind and Celia, who was now read by Matt—and he really hammed it up. “You channeled your inner Eeyore for that role, didn’t you?” one of the guys teased. Another commented on how “modern” the scene felt—that the girls’ “whininess” felt very contemporary. I asked if they necessarily needed to be whiny, and he said no, actually—there are a bunch of other ways they could be approached. “I wasn’t a 13-year old girl,” he said, “but I was a 13-year old boy, and I know how that feels.” Another man nodded. “Not necessarily whining, but two people who got more than what they bargained for.”
A few of the guys said they wanted a go at a “hood version” of the scene, and they were absolutely hilarious as they fully committed to the femininity of the characters. “But don’t forget,” I said as we gathered our things to leave, “that whoever plays Rosalind will be a man playing a woman playing a man.” One of the guys shook his head, saying, “That’s gonna be… interesting.”
I suspect that he’s right. Stay tuned.