Season Three: Week 2


“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,
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.

Season Three: Week 1


“It gives me the urge to do better.”

Tuesday / July 2 / 2019
Written by Matt

First day back! Nerves! Butterflies! Trepidation! Just kidding… we were all just excited to be back at Parnall for the start of our third season!

It was a little bit sticky in the chapel today (summer!), but we soon forgot the discomfort; it was great to see everyone there--the familiar faces and the new ones. We wasted no time before jumping into check-in, which a couple of veterans explained to the newcomers. Several of our returning members brought us up to speed on their lives, telling us about finishing programs, participating in a talent show, anticipating parole, or seeing the parole board.

One of the new members wasted no time checking in. “Can a new guy have a check-in?” he asked. “Sure!” several people replied. He talked about seeing the parole board, and how their decision might affect what sort of role he’s able to play in the ensemble. We assured him that we’d work it out, but it was nice to hear that he was thinking so far ahead on the first day!

After check-in, we lowered our first ring of the season, which is always exciting. And, instead of the usual, rambly orientation, we had a packet all typed up and ready to go (thanks, Frannie!). More than anything, the packet helped us stay on-track and cover all of our bases. Of course, since this was our first try with an orientation packet, we forgot all sorts of things (thanks, Frannie?), which our veterans were happy to tell us all about, so we can get it better next time.

After orientation, we were all ready to play a game! We started with “Energy Around,” which is a classic name-game. I didn’t participate, since I was working out a way to distribute copies of our books, but it was clear from watching the game that it was a huge success--the best it had ever gone this early in the season, actually. And, really, this is a testament to the culture created by our veteran ensemble members. “Energy Around” requires a willingness to shed self-consciousness (it looks really silly) and communicate energetically with your whole body, which is hard to do right off the bat in a group of new people. But the newbies were swept up in the energy of the group, and given permission to let loose by the palpable trust that exists in that circle.

When we were finished, we still had some time, and one of our returning members suggested that we play “Animal Sounds,” which is in the top-five silliest games in the whole dang arsenal of silly SIP games. He explained the game: an ensemble member stands in the middle of the circle, hands over eyes. He spins as the rest of the ensemble walks in a circle until he shouts “STOP!” and, eyes still covered, points out another ensemble member. “Make for me the sound of….” he says, and requests the sound of an animal in a situation (“an elephant taking a bubble bath,” for example, or “a nearsighted crow accidentally crashing his space shuttle into the International Space Station”). Based only on the sound, the person in the center has to guess who he’s singled out. It’s just as goofy as it sounds, and it was wonderful.

Everyone has having so much fun that we had to make a hasty exit when the time came. There was so much energy, so much enthusiasm and excitement in that room--we all felt warm as we left Parnall… and not just from the summer heat!

Friday / July 5 / 2019
Written by Frannie

We packed quite a bit into this second session! Here goes...

We began with our traditional Three Questions. This took quite a long time, as there are 23 people in the group right now. Here are some highlights:

1) What brings you to Shakespeare?

  • “You guys. I come back for the ensemble. Renewed passion.”

  • “I don’t know why I came to Shakespeare… I don’t like stuff like this at all.”

  • “Artistic outlet. I’m not sure if this is the right artistic outlet, but I thought I’d give it a try.”

  • “The heartfelt belief and earnesty and care that I’ve seen from outsiders who come in and bring this program to all of us… It means a lot that they come in here, and I believe in it.”

  • “I am back because Matt. Because Frannie. Because of all you guys. This lets me be who I am—an energetic weirdo. I actually do like that.”

  • “I saw these two bald guys who were sisters, and then everyone was killing each other. Looked like fun.”

  • “I’m typically not a good person—but here, I want to be a good person… There’s a drive to have integrity… help someone who needs help… I like having that environmentally integrated accountability.”

  • “I have a desire to feel whole.”

2) What do you hope to gain from this experience?

  • “A better understanding of people.”

  • “Confidence. I have an up-and-down self esteem.”

  • “I just started cracking into being vulnerable and opening up. I just want to dig deeper into that. Especially empathy. It was at a two—it’s probably up to a five or a six now.”

  • “The ability to be able to speak out.”

  • “To learn how to be more in touch with how I feel, and be more direct in how I express it.”

3) What is the gift you bring to the ensemble?

  • “I want everybody to succeed in whatever you’re doing… feel special.”

  • “If you guys want to get into the nerdy side of Shakespeare, I can help you with that.” (Another man: “His bunk is full of Shakespeare books. He has a Shakespeare dictionary.”)

  • “Myself. Sense of humor. Personality. Just me, overall.”

  • “I don’t know what I bring.” (Another man: “You’ll figure it out.”)

  • “Focus. Patience.”

  • “A sort of creativity. A little bit of an odd perspective—I see things from a different angle.”

  • “The example of leadership through a younger person that we really don’t see on the compound here… role model for young people here. And maybe older people!”

It was another muggy day, and we decided to dig into the play rather than sweating through a theatre game. No problem—and these guys were ready to DIG. We spent about an hour on just the first few pages—not even the entire first scene, but the first few pages of the first scene.

The man who read Orlando has been working away on his voice and diction for two years, and he launched into the opening monologue with gusto. When the speech ended, I called a hold. “I’m sorry,” I said, “But I can’t let this pass.” I locked eyes with the man and said, “You sound amazing.” He grinned and said, “Uh… thanks!” I said again that he sounded amazing. “That’s the best I’ve ever heard you. I could hear every word you said, I understood what you said, and your diction was great. All that hard work shows. You sound amazing.”

After I was done gushing, we started tossing around ideas about the text. “What’s he saying here?” I asked the group. “He’s upset,” someone said. “He’s saying his brother treats him like horseshit,” said another.

“No!” shouted a veteran, rising quickly to his feet. This guy barely spoke when we met him a year ago. “That’s where you’re wrong. He treats his brother like a commoner.” He paused, looking around the circle. “Damn—where’s [NAME]?” he said, referring to a member of the King Lear ensemble who is no longer in the group. “He always talked about pomp and circumstance…” He was interrupted briefly and sat back down, but then jumped into the discussion again, defining a bunch of words that were being misinterpreted—in just the two days since our last session, he’s already engaged in deep analysis of the text. Satisfied with his contribution, he fist-bumped with another ensemble member.

We read on, some of our “hammiest” members joyfully wending their way through the language—the one reading Oliver even threw out an improvised “Fut!” after his line, “What, boy!”

We paused again to make sure everyone was keeping up with the content and language (we do that a lot). “What’s going on with these brothers?” I asked, and the same man as before leapt to his feet. “NOT YOU!” I shouted. “We know you know all the answers. Let’s hear what everyone else thinks, and you can tell us what we missed.” He grinned bashfully and sat back down.

Another veteran took over. Referring us to Oliver’s lines, he said, “He talks to him like he’s some schmuck on the street.” Yes, we all agreed. And how does that affect Orlando? “That’s the way you’re gonna treat me? That’s the way I’m gonna act now. And then he slaps him!” exclaimed one man. “He got up in his face and grabbed him!” said another. “He knows he was bred to be something more than he’s being treated as,” said another.

“Oliver treats Adam and Orlando like they’re at the same level. Adam actually is a servant in the household, and Oliver treats him the same as his brother,” a newbie observed. “Oliver thinks Orlando will squander the inheritance,” suggested another. A veteran suggested that it might be more complicated. “There’s different levels of entitlement,” he said, “creating that boiling point of conflict.”

Another vet offered, “It’s not that he thinks he’s gonna squander the inheritance—he wants to keep it for himself.” As he took a breath, another member said, “That’s the insidious nature of greed: I’m being benevolent and magnanimous—you say it’s for the good of everyone else, when really it’s for yourself.” The veteran then politely pointed out that he’d been interrupted, accepted the other member’s apology, and gave the rest of his analysis (which I didn’t write down because I was excited about the way the interruption was handled!).

Another man mentioned that there tends to be a hierarchy in the relationships between siblings, and a lot of heads started nodding. “Oliver is the oldest. Maybe it’s the way he was raised,” mused one man. “Maybe his father treated him poorly like that, and when he had to take responsibility, he used his father as a model.”

Another man asked if the text indicated the brothers’ age difference, sharing some of his experience growing up with much older siblings. “They have a particular mindset and treat the rest of us a certain way,” he said. The man next to him said, “When there’s a big gap, there’s always that ‘I hold authority over you—I’m gonna treat you like trash ‘cause I’m the oldest.’” Another man agreed, saying Oliver “even feels extremely superior to the family servant who served his dad… Oliver’s got some real authority issues.”

“I noticed that what we just read had its own mini-climax,” said a veteran. After scribbling down “DAMMIT HE’S DOING IT ALREADY”, I let him finish his sentence and said, “HOW DO YOU KEEP DOING THAT?” This is the guy who, last season, kept inventing acting techniques for himself that are common in acting training—but he’s never had any acting training. He smiled. “Because you’re right,” I said. “It’s called a unit or a beat. And… I hate you.” He laughed and explained the mini-climax he’d found: “All this verbal sparring between the brothers… but the trick of the thing is that [Orlando] didn’t back down, showing that this isn’t the end of this fight.”

“We missed the whole first part of what Orlando said at the beginning!” our resident scholar burst out. Reminding us of the resentment Orlando has toward Oliver, he said, “Orlando is so close to turning into Edmund… but then the roles switch, and Oliver is Edmund. But you see how he could have gone down Edmund’s path. He’s not trying to go down no Machiavellian way. Edmund is Edgar now—they switched.” Two of the veterans asked him to explain what he meant to the new guys, many of whom aren’t familiar with King Lear.

I noticed, then, that with his old “sparring” partner gone, this man was engaging mostly with the youngest member of our ensemble, who enthusiastically listened, nodded, and offered his own point of view. This is incredibly cool: there is a roughly 25-year age gap between these guys, and the younger one was not this assertive last year (though he was always enthusiastic). “Not to challenge what you’re saying,” he said, “but do you think he already showed signs of having that frustration?... That he was already willing to go there with his brother?”

“No,” the older guy said, “He just tells you what he feels.” This man who sat mostly silent this time last year now could not stop talking, the words coming out so fast that I gave up on taking notes. “You’re really excited to be back, aren’t you?” I said. “Oh, yeah, I sure am,” he replied.

“You got me thinking about the parents in Lear,” said another man, comparing the familial conflict that is featured in each play. “It’s different from Lear because you’re thrown right into it,” said another man. “There’s no leadership, there’s no nothing. You get this guy’s feelings right off. It moves fast… It’s not like it leaves off until 3.4. This stuff happens before 1.2!”

“Orlando is just fed up. You don’t give me my respect, I’m gonna beat that ass,” said one man, totally tickled by Orlando’s approach. This led to a conversation about what Orlando says about his relationship with his father. “There’s an underlying current here, where you can tell how this father felt about his boys… You get a glimpse that he maybe babied the little brother somewhat… and the oldest brother feels like he didn’t get the privilege due the eldest son. ‘You thought you was the special one—I’ma show you how special you was.’”

“Maybe the father saw something that wasn’t there, or maybe something that he only showed to his brother,” said one man. Another man said that that was digging too deep, and the first man countered, essentially, that every character needs a backstory. A third man said, “It feels like the older brother simply got more because of his station—not because he was loved more. And the younger brother is more like his father... [Oliver] wants to have these controls and be able to keep him down by any means necessary. Orlando just wants what he was promised.” A fourth man nodded, “And that plays in later on—he’s a bad mofo.” The third man added, “It even says something in there about taking after the father.” The fourth man then quoted the text to support the interpretation, and the man next to me leaned back in his chair and said, “I like that!”

“With siblings, who always seems to fall through the cracks? The middle brother!” said another man. “So why is the oldest worried about the youngest?... I know as the oldest, I was always put on the back burner.” Another guy said he thought it was more that the oldest has more responsibilities. “I can relate,” said yet another man. “I was the baby brother, and my brothers beat the shit outta me every day… When I stopped taking it and beat them up, it was a whole different power dynamic.”

“Orlando seems to be better liked in general by people, and Oliver is jealous of that,” said another man. “But you really only see Adam and the two brothers,” said another, and the first man said, yes, that’s who he was talking about. He was just kind of extrapolating from there.

An older member observed that “we have 20 different dynamics and scenarios” based on our own experiences. “We know one is younger, and we know one is older,” he said, reminding us that that’s all that’s in the text, at least at this point in the play.

We had just a few minutes left, and the conversation sped up as we approached the end of the session. Again, I couldn’t keep up, so I don’t know exactly how we got there, but one of the veterans closed the conversation with a callback to his earlier comparison between this year’s play and last: “That’s what makes Orlando different from Edmund—he never said he hated his father. He just said, ‘You ain’t treating me right.’”

Holy moly. That was a good first week.