Season Three: Week 4

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“It makes you grow, this program.”

Friday / July 26 / 2019
Written by Frannie

We had to cancel Tuesday’s session due to some unforeseen circumstances, and, after a few cheerful check ins, the guys wasted no time in picking up where we left off—literally.

The Professor said he was really bothered by the “hood” interpretation of Celia and Rosalind last week. He talked a bit about how prepubescent boys played female roles when these plays were first staged, and he said that he didn’t think “going too girly” was right. “You don’t know what it is to be a woman,” he said, “so you just gotta read the lines, and it’ll all work out.” He said it should just be a man playing a woman—playing “gay or trans” won’t work.

Another man asked for clarification: “If you’re trying to act gay, is it because women like men?” He and the first man went back and forth a bit, each cutting the other off, and I broke in to ask if what the first man meant was that playing a stereotype won’t work. “Yes,” he said, as did several others. The man who asked the question was clearly frustrated, but—

“Y’all going way too deep with this,” said another man, who is friends with one of the actors whose interpretation was being questioned. “All it was, was trying to play ratchet.” And, he added, we shouldn’t be talking about this without that person present. I agreed and asked if we could keep the conversation general till that member arrived.

The man who asked the question about “acting gay” then said he wasn’t confused (like a few people thought)—he brought it up because it would have been the wrong approach. It wouldn’t make sense, he said, because trying to play a gay man when the character is a woman would cut off the actor’s ability to play the role effectively. Start with who you are, he said, and try objectively to “look at what she feels—look at what she’s thinking.”

Though the debate continued, we really were pretty much all on the same page—but the conversation deviated a bit from what actually happened last week. “It’s all up to interpretation,” one of the guys said, and another man agreed, adding that the actors told us they were “trying out ‘ratchet.’”

Still not okay, said the man who’d been advocating for a more objective approach. He “challenged” another man: “What if you played a woman really seriously, but just being yourself? I guarantee you people would say you’re playing a good woman.” Building on that, another guy said, “Every person—male, female, doesn’t matter—we all feel have a certain stereotype or perception of things… So when you play that character, it’s not just breaking into other people’s stereotypes, it’s busting up our own stereotypes of what we think things are.

“I was taking it more as an improv and open exploring,” a newbie said, adding that he’d tried out a “Darth Vader approach” to Duke Frederick that same day. Another man said he’d seen and heard the actors in question laughing about their ideas before trying the scene. “They tried to really have fun with it,” he said, before I reminded everyone that we needed to keep the conversation away from specifics for the time being.

“I actually enjoy watching other people try different things,” said a vet, “and I enjoy trying different things, because it gives me new ideas for what I can do with the characters.” And then the conversation took a bit of a turn.

But this other, very passionate member firmly said that we should never “get away from what Shakespeare wrote.” Another vet firmly replied, “Especially in this ensemble, the interpretation is more important than the words.” If so, the first man replied, “why do we read it? Why not just do the No Fear?” A man who performed in 2018’s Tempest brought up all the ad libs and cuts we’d used to make the performance work. “It’s the spirit of Shakespeare,” he said. “We’re just trying to relate to everybody. We’re just trying to connect to the audience.” But the man who started the conversation continued to advocate, essentially, for purity.

Another man broke into the conversation, demanding that people listen to him now since he’d been cut off before. First, he praised the newbie’s Darth Vader experiment and said he thought he should roll with that a little. (I wholeheartedly agree!) Then he turned to the first man and said he was “being a snob” and drowning out other people’s ideas. “That’s not you,” he said. “Where is [Name]? Last year, you were all like, ‘There’s no wrong way to do Shakespeare.’ And you were right.” He got into a bit of a tizzy as he said again and again that this was uncharacteristic and disheartening. “Who are you?” he asked; then, gesturing to the door, “Go get [Name] and bring him over here!” He meant it, but phrasing it that way made us all laugh, the tension evaporated, and another man walked over and high-fived him. We love how enthusiastic The Professor is, but it seems the group is now taking on the challenge of helping him manage that enthusiasm.

Ah, but… “We always stuck to the Shakespeare in Lear,” he said, to which another man replied, “Are you serious? That backdrop?!” (See photo to the left.) Another vet reminded the first man that, even though we didn’t alter the language, our primary goal was to connect with the audience, and that’s how we developed our concept. I took the opportunity to bring up my all-time favorite SIP prop: the six-foot tall inflatable palm tree that we used in Twelfth Night. (See photo below!) Did Shakespeare write that prop in the text? He sure didn’t—but the women’s concept came from the text, and a ton of silly props arose from that concept.

“You said spirit,” said one man (after a few guys joked about my inability to go more than a few days without reminiscing about the palm tree). “It’s evoking something.” Raising an eyebrow, he quoted the first man to himself: “It’s about human nature, right? It’s about being human… You feel what he’s trying to paint with the words for you.”

“Y’all are misinterpreting what I’m trying to say!” the Professor fretted. He reminded us that he loved the production of Julius Caesar that was on PBS a few months ago—where the play was set in a women’s prison. The man who’d just needled him a bit said he’d loved it too; that he’d kept forgetting that they weren’t actually in a prison, it was so well done. Another man said, “With Shakespeare, you can cut a whole lotta stuff out, and it still holds the same meaning as he wanted.” The first man agreed: “Shakespeare cut his own stuff sometimes!”

A man who often grounds the ensemble at times like this said, “I’ve done it myself—we need to stop referencing how stuff went with another play. Because this is a totally new play.” I said he was absolutely right, and that any talk about other productions should be in the spirit of, “What did we learn from that, and how can it help us now?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong—” one man began, before being interrupted by a cheerful chorus of, “You’re wrong!” Smiling, he continued, “Isn’t it true that none of Shakespeare’s plays were original?” As a number of us put a stop to what promised to be yet another ratatouille, he wrapped it up: “All I’m saying is, if Shakespeare messed with other people’s material, we can mess with Shakespeare. We shouldn’t try to limit ourselves.”

We finally did the ring, followed by a couple of Theatre of the Oppressed games, neither of which went particularly well, as a number of ensemble members simply couldn’t get out of their heads. But there were still some very positive takeaways. “The best part for me was seeing guys come up with their own interpretation—not my own interpretation,” one man reflected. Hmmm…

We decided to read a bit more of the play (we had about 20 minutes left), but as soon as we sat down, one of the guys realized that the actor with the “hood” interpretation had joined us during the games, and he asked if now we should ask him the question directly. There were a few groans, but I said I thought it was important to get his perspective, as long as it was all right with him. He looked a little puzzled—his friend left early, and no one had filled him in. I told him that his approach to the scene had sparked an interesting conversation, and I asked if he could fill us in on how he’d arrived at it.

He was just playing, he said—just trying something out. I asked him what aspects worked, or not. It was challenging overall, he said, “being in character and not being in the audience at the same time.” He was in a “church play” several years ago and played a gangster. “That—playing gangster—was something I was comfortable with,” he said. “I’ve seen that my whole life, with my father, my mother, my cousins. Where this… this is different… I’m gonna keep playing, and keep trying until I find something that works.”

There were some things about his performance that worked, another man said. He praised his “cadence” and “picking up on cues.” A newbie who has been fairly quiet this season agreed. “I really liked the attitude,” he said. “The attitude was great. The flamboyancy helped bring the attitude out… so maybe keep that part of it.”

“Sounds like we’re dealing with a lot of preconceived notions,” a vet said, smiling. Turning to the man we were questioning, he said, “So… how do you perceive women?” Quickly, he explained that there wasn’t anything on the question: “It’s about awareness.”

“There’s different types,” the other man said. “My mom raised me, and I got a lot of sisters and aunts. So I spent my life surrounded by women, and… yeah, there’s different types.” The other man nodded. “It’d be really good to work at it,” he said. “Do you feel like your stereotypes are boxing you in?”

“It’s… Me, being a man, I can’t just come out and be comfortable acting a woman. It’s hard for me… Getting outside myself is hard because I don’t know them like I’ve gotten to know myself all these years.” Actually, he mused, he relates most to Silvius, at least at this point in the play.

A vet reflected that we all have biases, whether we realize it or not. Another man asked if there was a specific type of woman the actor had been channeling. Yeah, the actor said, smiling a little: ratchet. “I didn’t mean to get so deep!” said the man who originally brought this up. He explained that it’s really all about the way you “accentuate” things, and he misread that last week.

The actor said again that he’d planned out his approach with his friend ahead of time, and then fleshed it out with his scene partner minutes before they performed. The conversation got really circular at this point, as individuals talked about their methods of developing ideas, and eventually we had to call it—we were out of time.

So… not the most “productive” day, but that’s not what it’s about in Shakespeare in Prison. But the conversation, though frustrating at times, needed to be had. Gender issues are a thing in this play, I reminded everyone before we left, and this was a good jumping-off point for discussing them. We’ll see where it goes from here...