Season Three: Week 5

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“You have become a Shakespeare nerd.”

Tuesday / July 30 / 2019
Written by Maria

Today we picked up in Act II, Scene v, where Amiens and some of the lords are singing as Jaques mocks them. After reading the scene once, the guys immediately started to unpack the character of Jaques. One man believed that Jaques “doesn’t think Amiens is on his level,” and another reflected that “Jaques is the person that points stuff out that people aren’t pointing out. He’s one of the guys who never thinks about the good stuff and is always complaining about everything.” Our Professor pointed out that Duke Senior seems to like the jabs and barbs of Jaques, and another man observed that he was a faithful servant, since he followed Duke Senior into the woods.

The second time we ran the scene a few more guys jumped up to be lords, and you could tell that they were having a lot of fun, really getting into the singing and even dancing a little. After they finished, one man said that “it made [the scene] more relevant now. There was no substance, but it was fun,” and he wondered if the lords were drunk. One man asked if this was the first song in the play. As we all know, there are no accidents in Shakespeare’s writing, and that spurred us into looking at the songs more deeply. This same man loved the idea of these men playing with different roles and costumes, and that maybe they are playing Robin Hood and his Merry Men while hiding in the forest. “They went from lords of the court to lords of the forest,” one man observed, and “‘forest lords’ sounds way cooler,” another man responded. The Professor said that it’s a burden lifted off them, not being in court anymore; they don’t have to wear a mask, and they are free from the worries of life. “It’s like getting your parole,” one man replied. It was clear that the men were carefree in their singing, but one man pointed out that he thought Jaques was being a smart ass the entire time and having a blast laughing at the lords instead of with them. This prompted one of the vets to insist that we run the scene one more time with this man’s interpretation of Jaques. Many joined in to insist that this man read, which he was reluctant to do, saying that he was still struggling with the language and was afraid his acting wasn’t performance ready. I assured this man that no one has these lines memorized yet and that we were just exploring the scene, but if he was uncomfortable with performing, he could sit this one out.

Thankfully, we ran the scene one more time with this man stepping into a role for the first time as Jaques. After they finished, the group was eager to know how playing the scene felt for the newbie. He had a huge grin on his face as he said, “Thanks for letting me try and for pushing me.” He also went on to say that it was hard, as he tried to not participate too much in the scenes (since Jaques was mocking the other lords), but he (the actor) was having such a good time that it was a challenge not to have fun with them.

Moving on to Act II, Scene vi, we have a snapshot of Orlando and Adam struggling in the forest, where Adam has given up and asks Orlando to abandon him. For such a short scene, the guys had a lot of fun with it. One man, laughing, said, “Something Orlando said stuck out to me: ‘Well said,’ like he’s impressed with himself.” He believed that this is Shakespeare’s way of showing a deep-rooted egotistical guy. One man commented on how good the man who played Adam was, and he responded that Adam was “real extra.” Someone else said this was what James Dean would be like if he had lived to an old age. Our big idea man laughed to himself and asked the group, “Isn’t Adam the servant? He manipulated the shit out of him!” since Orlando insists on finding food to bring to Adam. Going even further, this man thought that we should have a long, white beard for Adam, since he just pulled a Jedi mind trick on Orlando like Yoda.

Act II, Scene vii, returns to the forest lords, with Jaques giving his famous “All the world’s a stage… his acts being seven ages” speech. It’s a longer scene, but we decided to read it all the way through instead of breaking it into smaller sections because so much of itis just Jaques talking. And boy, did the guys play it that way. The man reading Duke Senior quickly got tired of Jaques’ jabbering and turned to one of his lords, mocking him. “Is he still talking?” he asked as they tried to walk away from Jaques, who was waxing poetic about a Fool’s motley wear. When Orlando burst in on the group, threatening them as he tried to rob them of their food, no one seemed to be afraid, but, rather, interested in the change of events. When we finished the scene, the man playing Duke Senior exclaimed about Jaques, “This guy is off his rocker! I had no idea what that guy’s talking about.” So of course I had to ask, is it important that the audience listen to Jaques or not? The forest lords were clearly having a good time making fun of him, but is that what we want the audience to do, too? The man quickly said, “Shakespeare was very calculated when he made that character, so it’s important for us to know what he’s talking about.” Another man agreed, “This stuff is art, it’s gold,” and it’s important to memorize the lines because hand gestures and movements help to tell the story of the characters. Although we are still months away from casting and rehearsing the play, this man has been trying to emphasize the importance of putting in the work outside of our sessions—studying the play and learning lines—so that we can put on the best performance possible.

One of the things that I love about Shakespearean text work is that you quickly learn that that are a multitude of interpretations. As we started to discuss who the fool was that Jaques met in the forest and spent hours with, one man thought that this was another opportunity for Jaques to mock the lords (in this case, Duke Senior) to their faces. Another thought that Jaques was actually referring to himself—that he found himself “on a whole ‘nother level.” When I informed them that Touchstone was the fool Jaques refers to, one man excitedly flipped through his script agreeing that yes, this fits in with the way that Touchstone is talking over people’s heads at court, and his emphasis on Nature and Fortune. “I can just see Touchstone and Jaques going back and forth for hours talking like Martin Luther King and Gandhi,” he said. This led to more discussion of Jaques’ character. One man assured us that Jaques is too smart and philosophical, and that knowledge is what makes him melancholy. Another man agreed that this is a complicated character, and a third said, “We need to spend more time as we read the play figuring out this character.” I agreed, but my hand was still sore from writing all the revelations we had, so I think we have made a good start.

Friday / August 2 / 2019
Written by Frannie

There was all sorts of good stuff in today’s check in, including updates from Tuesday for Matt and me. Sounds like the ensemble had a great time with Maria!

We started out with a circle game called Rant. In this game, one person steps into the center of the circle and begins a monologue on a specific topic, clearly expressing an emotion. Another person enters the circle and takes over, increasing the intensity of the emotion. This goes on until the energy has reached its peak, determined by whoever steps in and simply can’t take it any further. This is always a lot of fun; it also always has a positive effect on our ability to stage scenes effectively.

The man who started us off launched a very angry rant about horror movies and how bad most of them are. Plenty of people piled onto that! The second also went on a furious tirade—but this one was about how infuriating it is when people don’t do the Shakespeare “homework” of reading ahead and looking up words in the dictionary. Each person who stepped in to that monologue was pissed about something slightly different—the man who started it even stepped back in at one point to express anger at himself for being such a snob.

The third man brought the joy, gushing about how excited he is to get out soon. It wasn’t difficult for others to join in—including a couple who haven’t participated much yet. “You can get just as energetic with a good emotion as with a bad one,” this man said afterward. Another noted that our voices got higher-pitched as we built joy, and “deeper and darker” as we did the same with anger.

Another man gave “love” a try, but he expressed the emotion through portraying one of the play’s female characters. It got pretty muddled and, though another guy tried to jump in and bail him out, we had to call it and talk about why it hadn’t worked. “I wasn’t sure where the love was directed,” one man said. The man who’d tried it said he’d thought it would be better to convey “love” through playing a woman, but this isn’t an analytical exercise, so he’d gotten stuck. I asked if anyone wanted to give “love” another try.

That’s when Emma stepped in and dove into a passionate monologue about sporks. To my surprise (and, I think, to hers), it turns out that people really love sporks. This round was our longest, and our most intense. “My spork has never betrayed me!” one man shouted. The spork unites everyone and bridges every stage of one’s life: it’s the universal utensil. As the passion reached its zenith, one man stepped into the circle and triumphantly raised the spork that he had in his pocket.

Wow! Why was that one the best? “We can actually relate to that,” said one man. “Like, I get one of those plastic spoons, and I’m like, ‘What is this? Where’s my spork?’” Another man said, “We were all building on the same thing.”

Fully energized, we sat down to read, and one of the guys did a great job quickly catching up Matt and me on what we missed on Tuesday. Initially, the group wanted to keep plugging away, but when I asked what they thought about the ubiquitous “All the world’s a stage” monologue, they revealed that they hadn’t discussed it much. “Oh, we’ve gotta spend some time with it, then,” I said. “There’s a reason this is the only part of the play that everyone knows.”

So one of the guys read the piece aloud on his feet. It was a clear, solid reading, and another man immediately commented, “He paints a picture in your head. You basically live this guy’s life as you read this. You live his whole life through one monologue.” He broke it down in detail, which was really impressive. “I don’t think that’s just his life,” another man said. “I think it’s everybody’s life ever… You can look at your life and see where you’re at in this monologue right now. I know where I’m at.” Another man agreed, saying that everyone could identify with it.

“I also can see how we evolve through life through the various parts we play,” mused one man. “I’m not the same guy I was 20 years ago—I’m not going to be the same guy 20 years from now—” “Or 20 minutes from now,” another man broke in.

“I kinda got a nihilistic view,” a newbie said. “He goes through the evolution of life, but it’s like none of it matters. Seems as though he sees it as meaningless. I get a real nihilistic view.” We then spent a few minutes clarifying what he meant by “nihilistic”—not everyone was familiar with the term, but no one was put off by that.

“We just did that!” another newbie said, likening the monologue’s structure to what we’d just experienced with Rant. “Might not be in that order, but it’s like the feelings we go through as we’re growing up.” Another guy agreed, saying that he saw a build in it: “It’s like we’re in this constant juggling act of life.”

“It’s like Lear,” said the Professor, giving some serious side eye and a grin to the man who, last week, said we should stop comparing plays. “The beginning of the play shows why Orlando is different... This is not what [Jaques is] talking about for him[self]—he’s talking for Touchstone and Orlando, about the people on stage. These guys are the real power behind [the ruling class]. This is how they think about life. But he don’t include himself in this. You go through this, then you die.” He concluded, “It is the opposite behind what Orlando is doing.” When another man added that Jaques is a melancholic character, so the monologue must reflect that, the Professor shook his head. “I looked up the word ‘irony’,” he said. “This guy’s an ironist.” He read the definition to us, saying there’s more meaning behind the words than the words themselves. “Just in that [scene], he’s all over the place. He’s up and down and all over,” he said. “So he’s faking the melancholy?” asked another man. “No,” said the Professor, “he’s definitely depressed, but what he says is ironic.”

We decided to get some more people on their feet to see their interpretations. The first to perform was also the guy who’d said he could see where he was in the monologue. He gave a laid-back, good-humored reading—he’s gained a lot of comfort with the language, and it showed. “I actually connected with it,” he said afterward. “When I said I saw myself in it—I felt that even more actually reading it… It was more of me, and it was snapshots of my life in those particular places.” He laughed. “From the clean-shaven child—Mama saying, ‘Come here, get that off your face!’—to the young adult, quick to anger and fight.”

Another man took issue with that, noting that the characters described are mostly people without power: a soldier, not a general, etc. But, said a second man, “the first read-through is just getting the words and phrases. He really separated into enunciating the different parts.” (Quick note: a bunch of guys often use “enunciate” in place of “differentiate,” and it’s not worth correcting. We know what they mean.)

“I’m glad he did that, ‘cause I got to listen to it more while I was listening to him,” said a newbie. “It’s out of place, this story, in the woods. Right now, they’re out of step. They’re not going through these stages.” These people, he said, had altered what would normally have been the trajectory of their lives. “I feel what you’re saying,” another man replied.

The next to read was very physically—and emotionally—connected to the text. It was a surprisingly dark interpretation, and he took a few moments afterward to collect himself. When I asked how it had felt, he referred to another member’s check in: “It was like when [Name] passed out and woke back up. It’s not that much fun waking back up.” The piece reminded him of his own art, he said. “Like a deep dread, awakened in speech… It was no longer him understanding. He finally did his job to make sure everyone understood. He painted a very vivid picture that’s gonna set the tone for every one of these characters for the rest of the play who was there to hear that.” A newbie pointed out that this man had “highlighted the negative aspects,” while the previous reader “was, ‘This is just how it is.’” As a few people started speaking in defense of one or the other, he clarified, “They’re both valid.”

“It has an ecclesiastic, predestined feel to it,” another man mused. “You have these parameters with which you live… What you have done has been done before. What you’re gonna do has been done before. To me it’s a great philosophy: make the best of what you’ve got.” He shifted gears. “There are different types of plays, different types of movies. What play are you putting on? What audience are you speaking to?” he asked the group, urging them to consider that in their interpretations. “For me, it would be wonder and excitement.” He asked again, “If this is all a play, and we are all the audience, what are you gonna put in your character?”

The man who’d just read explained a bit more about his take on the piece. “A lot of people might say building up to the end of your life is the happiest, but I felt it was the opposite.” He drew our attention to the words and phrases that gave him that impression. “When you’re little and innocent,” he said, “all you can do is mewl and puke. And when you’re in school, all you can do is go. But then you become a lover, [and that innocence is gone].” He moved pretty fast, and it was all great, but the only other thing I got written down was, “The word ‘wife’ really stood out to me.” The permanence of that word as opposed to any other. “That’s what I felt while I was reading this.”

Another man said he thought the stages should be more intentionally differentiated in performance, and he broke each down for us in detail. Too much detail, actually! In an attempt to keep him (and the ensemble) from overthinking and/or getting frustrated with each other, I asked if I could give the piece a try, incorporating all of these thoughts. I’ve actually never performed this monologue before and found myself going through it fairly slowly, connecting with each person, one at a time, and letting the “nihilism” or “sadness” of the last stage sneak up on me.

A couple of guys said they liked the way I paused between beats, and that I let the last stage be a surprise. Another man said he liked that my Jaques delighted in each stage, and I clarified that it wasn’t so much that I was delighted—it was that I was pointing out that everyone has experienced the same kinds of things. Another guy said some of the speech sounded sarcastic; Matt asked if “mocking” might be a more accurate word, and he agreed.

Then a vet who’s never attempted a monologue said he wanted to give it a go! He moved through it slowly, and it was clear that his connection to the piece was just as strong as the previous man’s—maybe even a bit darker. “I was realizing it was more of a downbeat, depressed, mopey-type—sad,” he said afterward. “When he gets to the justice, he knows where he’s going. He knows where it all ends… He begins, ‘All the world’s a stage’—the world is anything because the world is nothing.” I asked the group what they’d gotten out of it. “Sad. Unsure,” said one man. “Crazy how you can read it so many times, and every time it’s a different emotion,” another man reflected. “I got a wise-sage-who-lives-in-the-forest kinda vibe—like he’s already come to that conclusion,” said another. Yet another guy said he loved that the actor paused before saying the final word: “everything.” We moved on and, though I didn’t notice it at the time, the actor stepped away from the group for a few minutes—he told me later that performing the piece had hit him harder than he thought it would.

A quiet newbie surprised us all by rising to his feet, saying he wanted to try it out. “He’s in my block, and I’ve never even heard him speak!” one man said. “It’s gonna be weird,” he said, pacing a bit as he tried to decide where to stand while he read. “I don’t do this.” There was vocal encouragement across the board. He took a deep breath and launched into the piece.

And he was SO GOOD. More on that in a moment, but first (always first), we asked him how he felt. “It feels like he goes so much deeper, because I think he’s reading the stages of life because of the way Orlando came in,” he said. “I don’t think it’s melancholy. It’s uplifting. I think he’s trying to say to the Duke, ‘You’re not alone.’ There is people just like them.”

“I liked how it had the feel of an instructor, but with a little slipperiness,” one of the guys said. “I liked the building crescendo you had.” He grinned. “I think we might be sleeping on a natural here—underneath that shy veneer!” Big snaps! “Your cadence and flow of your words was almost spot-on,” said another man. “You kept the thoughts complete. You took a breath where you were supposed to take a breath… That was the best first monologue I’ve seen yet.” Another vet said, “I’ll second that.”

“I liked that it had a campfire feel to it,” said another man. “He sat down at the end like, ‘Damn, I’m not just talking about everybody else’s life here—I’m talking about my own life.” With that, he agreed to perform the piece himself. His performances are always very physical and high-energy, and this one was no exception—but something about it seemed to take him by surprise, and when he finished, he took a moment to “cross a threshold” (an acting technique for letting go of whatever just happened onstage). “Everybody hits that epiphany—that life-changing thought that you come upon, like a threshold,” he said. “Like he’s almost literally being birthed as a child again, then, wait—death is right around the corner. He goes right back into the womb—the womb being the grave itself. Long story short, I feel rattled in a way—ambivalent. He’s excited about it, but also fearful of it. You come into the world alone, and you leave it alone.”

To be completely honest, I did not anticipate that this monologue would arouse so many powerful emotions for people. I’ve just never given it that much thought. This is part of what I love about working with these folks: they are always teaching me more about Shakespeare.