Season Two: Week 2

Tuesday / July 3   


It was a very hot day, and it was clear as we gathered that, while we were all eager to work, today would not be a day for much physical activity. We checked in, talked a bit, and decided to just sit and read the play, being sure to take at least one break to stretch and walk around a little. One man shared that he’d begun to see images as he read: an apocalyptic look  “almost like civilization is restarting itself.” Quite a few of us liked that idea as an inspiration for our staging, and we’re going to keep it in mind as we work through the rest of the play.

We picked it back up at Act I, scene ii, which begins with Edmund’s soliloquy about his own labeling as a bastard and his decision to manipulate his father into giving him the land belonging to his “legitimate” brother Edmund. Many ensemble members were vocal about their feelings of connection with the scene in general, and with this speech in particular.

“He’s trippin’,” said one man the moment I paused the reading to discuss. “Yeah,” I replied. “What’s he so upset about?”

“Look at me. I’m built just like they are, if not better than them,” said one person. “Why can he say he’s better? He’s been involved in people’s downfalls. He’s not better,” said another man. “He’s looking for empathy. He’s looking for respect from the audience… Looking at where he’s coming from,”  said another man. A fourth built on that: “He wants them to see themselves from his perspective.”

“He is a slick character,” said one man. “I feel like Edmund’s playing both sides of the coin.” A man who participated in our past two workshops quickly agreed, saying, “He reminds me strongly of Iago… Iago, he got stepped over for a higher position…. With Edmund, it’s basically the same thing. He’s doing the same thing that Iago did.”

“He’s also like Sebastian,” said a man who was part of our Tempest ensemble, but not that of Othello. “To a point,” responded the first man, “But the attitude with Sebastian was a lot different… Edmund and Iago, they could be the same person… With Sebastian, the context is different.” We talked a bit about how one can see the archetype of this character evolving throughout Shakespeare’s career as a playwright; I specifically cited Richard III and Iago as Edmund’s predecessors, and we talked about what differentiates each one. Sebastian, we concluded, didn’t have the same impetus for his actions as those other three, at least the way our ensemble interpreted the texts.

Back to Edmund. “He’s very Machiavellian,” said one man. “A lot of characters are talking about the stars and moon,” said another. "But he doesn’t just want this. He feels like he deserves this. Not what he wants — what he deserves.” Another nodded in agreement, saying, “He feels he’s entitled — what’s rightfully yours should be rightfully mine… I'll be cunning and deceitful to get what’s rightfully mine.”

“I put all this work in, and you’re gonna give it to some little kid who didn’t put any work in?” said the man who’d likened Edmund to Iago. Another said, “I can only imagine having the prize right in front of your face — that breeds so much malice.” Another shook his head and said, “It’s similar to what some of us go through in here… Some of us are here because of family.”

The man who’d brought up Machiavelli said, “The most powerful thing over all this is cunning… That’s what makes him so dangerous. That’s why I said he was Machiavellian”

Another man said that he thought that Shakespeare’s villains are often, paradoxically, the “good guys.” And that’s when one of the men stated, quite plainly, that Edmund is a villain. Several ensemble members quietly but immediately bristled. I asked him what he meant. “Every one of us is a villian; every one of us is a good person,” he said. (It was actually a more detailed response, but as I was actively engaged, I didn’t write all of it down.) I asked if what he meant was that each of us has the potential for both villainy and goodness, and he nodded. I then asked if perhaps we were getting hung up on the language we were using. “What about saying, ‘Edmund is a person who does villainous things?’” I asked. “Because he does try to do something good in the end, right? So he also has the capacity to do things that are not villainous.”

“We, more than any other group, are perfect examples of that,” said one man. “We all did something to get us here. We have made mistakes, but we are not all villains.”

Facilitator Matt pointed out that, unlike Richard III, who famously says, “I am determined to be a villain,” Edmund says no such thing. As several people had already pointed out, Edmund wants what he believes should be his; his objective is to get his brother’s land. Richard’s is to create chaos in general, and Iago’s is to get revenge on one person (or perhaps two, if we include Cassio).

“Don’t be labeling him, man,” said one person. “It’s like me. Yes, I’ve done things that were wrong, but is my story done yet?  You can’t just label people like that. You’ve gotta do away with labels.”

“I think so,” I responded. “And, in terms of theatre, anyway, labeling doesn’t help. If we label Edmund as a villain, we miss out on the complexity that leads him to try to redeem himself in the end. Then we can’t tell his story well, and if we can’t do that, we can’t fully understand the play. We rob ourselves of that opportunity.”

“He’s not the only one,” said one man. “Each character is playing off the weakness of the other one… Let’s see if we can get what we need as well as taking out everyone else that’s vulnerable at the same time.”

We took a break and then decided to spend some time exploring that incredible monologue. After reminding each other to remember that acting makes us vulnerable, and talking over how to give criticism constructively, our first volunteer got to his feet to read.

I think he took that leap in response to my jokingly telling him during our break that I wasn’t going to “let him off the hook.” He’s really, really good at this (analysis AND acting), and he’s been hanging back thus far in this workshop. So now he dove in. He gave a solid reading, but it was mostly an intellectual one. I asked him afterward how he felt. “Not good,” he said. “Everything I thought I should draw on, I didn’t.”

It turned out that a lot of this was because he’d felt like he needed to yell to be heard over the fans. One of the group’s leaders immediately pointed at the people sitting beside a couple of the fans, saying, “Hey, turn those off. I know it’s hot in here, but we’ve gotta give the art form a chance to work.” No one complained. The man who’d just read gave it another go, focusing on making eye contact with us to really land his intentions. When I asked him how he felt this time, he said he felt a little better. We all agreed. “I believe you explored the deeper part of the emotions. You hit more of the core part of it,” said one man. Another said he’d appreciated it more with the added nuance. “It’s like, does it sound like it’s being read, or does it sound like it’s being expressed? You want it to sound like it’s being expressed, and that’s what it started to sound like.”

Another man, who is fairly new to the ensemble, gave some detailed feedback that was honestly kind of startling to hear from someone with so little experience. “You gotta appreciate the language a little more,” he said. “How do those words taste in your mouth? ‘Bastard?’ ‘Baseness?’ It should be like acid you’re spitting out… These are words that have plagued him for years — ‘Base! Base!’ These are things that, when he hears them, it makes him cringe.” By the end of the session, this man had offered up so much nuanced insight that Matt and I remarked to each other that he could probably lead the program himself if he wanted to.

A second man volunteered to go next. He has a powerful voice, and he took his time, allowing his emotional connection to the material to begin to come through. I asked him how it had felt. “Liberating,” he replied. I asked him why. “When I was going through it, I was trying to put myself where he was at and feel the pain that he was expressing. And I also tried to use silence as a character—you know, with the punctuation and the pauses…”

Another said he’d loved that vocal variety, and it seemed to enhance the performance for the actor. “You went somewhere else completely. You were not here,” he said. The man who’d read said, “I kinda felt his pain, too, ‘cause I was picked on as a kid a lot, and I had to take myself back there for a bit—not to live there, but to… I don’t know… I guess, to channel it.”

I glanced at Matt, who raised his eyebrows at me; it was the second time in five minutes that someone had unknowingly stolen words out of my mouth. I said to this man, “You just described the ‘magic as if’ that we use so much,” and I proceeded to build on what he’d said to explain it to the entire ensemble. And then the man who’d given the note about language earlier said, “I really appreciate the way you savor the words.”

Before he performed again, I asked him if, even with his striving to connect emotionally, he’d still been wearing a mask. He said he had, and I asked if I could challenge him to drop it just a bit this time. “You don’t have to take it off,” I said. “But see if you can let us feel a little more of what you’re feeling.” He gave it a try, and it was a success. “Yes, you’re right. There was a mask there. There was a wall there,” he said. “Your emotions and where your mind goes is in control of your body.”

Another man, who’s been with us since the fall and has fallen in love with acting, read next. At first, he turned from person to person, but then he stopped and just read in place. I asked him how it had felt. “Not great,” he replied. He said he’d been focusing on his breath, and that the deep breathing had made him dizzy, which is why he’d disconnected. “Yeah,” said the man who’d been first to perform, “But you gave me an idea that makes me almost want to do it again… That play with the words — Baseness. Bastardy. Base. Base! You kind of did a skittery thing… It reminds me of someone who’s on the brink of snapping… You were having a meltdown and then got yourself back together.”

“His tone was different from the other two,” said another man. “[Fourth guy’s] was all his anger — you could feel his rage. [Second guy’s] was more of a feeling of his sadness… You should be able to feel his anger and his sadness, and also his fear and isolation.”

I challenged the man who’d gotten dizzy to slow himself down by really thinking about things before he said them, and he said afterward that it had felt “a little better” because he’d taken that time. “When you take the time and really let the words resonate, it makes it make more sense,” he said.

Then the man who’d given those great notes about the taste of the words got up to read. He paced back and forth a little, his delivery quiet and intense. When I asked him how it had felt, he said, “Exhilarating… I relate a lot to the character… Being outside and trying to work your way in—to find a way to fit in—that whole mind state is very intense.”

It had come across that way to us as well, but he wanted a challenge before he tried it again. “Try really focusing on your objective,” I suggested. “Remember that the character wants empathy. That means you have to make us feel what you feel. I don’t empathize with someone because of what they think; I empathize because of what they feel. Speak from your heart to our hearts.” He smiled wryly and said, “Aw, you’re trying to make me cry.” I smiled and said, “You don’t have to cry to speak heart to heart. Just make us feel what you feel.”

His second performance was slower and more intense than the first, as he took the time to make eye contact with each of us, the hurt in those words taking clear precedence over the anger. When he finished, we were silent. He slowly sat down in his chair, and we all just breathed together for a moment. Quietly, I asked him how it had felt. After a pause, he wiped an eye on his sleeve, looked up, smiled, and said, “Dope.”

“It was dope,” I replied, and the rest of the ensemble took it from there. One man said, “I think Edmund is an interesting character from that perspective—from so much sadness… You don’t see too many characters who do these evil things from a sad place.” The man who’d read said, “Well, that’s just it. I remember, as a kid, I run up on this dog that got hit by a car, and he bit me. But he didn’t bite me because he was bad. He bit me because he was hurt.”

The last man to read naturally built from that place of hurt to one of incredible anger. We all responded strongly to it and asked what it had felt like. He said it had felt good. “It was an outlet — a way to express some of the frustration I’ve felt all my life. I called it up, and I let it go.”

“I loved the venom,” said one man. “It started kinda sad, and then it moved to extreme anger,” said another. “It took the sadness and changed it… to the most hateful anger.”

The man who’d given the “dope” reading replied, “Even in his anger and malicious intent, I believe that he still loves his brother; he still loves his dad… But it comes from a place of hurt more than a place of anger.” The man who’d just read agreed, saying, “He’s more angry at society and the confines that it has put him in. He loves his father, his brother, his family—but he’s angry that they participate in keeping him in that box. He’s going to do whatever he has to do to get out of the box that society has put him in.” The other man nodded and said, “He’s in this box. He’s bigger than this box. He’s bigger than this place.” Another said, “I don’t think he’s an angry guy. I think that comes from somewhere else.”

There were many others who wanted to read, but we’d run out of time. We agreed to come back on Friday and keep taking turns with the piece till everyone who wanted to perform had done so. It has so clearly struck a chord that I’m happy to linger there for as long as we need to, and it seems like we’re unanimous in that feeling.

Friday / July 6

After a rousing game of tape ball, we moved over to the gym, where we proceeded to do a legit acting warm up. That was something we’d decided to do at the end of our last meeting; we wanted to be well-prepped to continue working on Edmund’s soliloquy at the top of I.ii.

After some physical warm ups, articulation exercises, and The Ring, I led the group through Chekhov’s Six Directions exercise. Usually I’m met with some pushback on this, no matter what group I’m in, but today there was literally none. No one protested, everyone participated, and no one complained. This is remarkable across the board and speaks to the quiet and compassionate leadership of the big homies, the trust and camaraderie that has already been built, and the new guys’ willingness to dive into new experiences. Pretty sure the culture of this program is becoming set. Pretty excited about that.

We circled up to work monologues, and that was all we did for the next two hours. It didn’t get boring for even a second.

The first man to volunteer had been absent a bit but was egged on by a friend to get up there anyway. He gave a very strong reading, using a vaguely “British” dialect. I asked him how it had felt. “It was cool. It was different,” he said. “I’ve never done that before.” We all applauded this first time on stage! “Big props for just jumping into it,” said one man, while another simply said it was “awesome”, and still another praised him for not stumbling over any of the words.

I asked him about that dialect, and he said he had just kind of heard it in his head. I asked if that was because he was used to hearing Shakespeare spoken that way, and he said it was. I shared with the group what I always do: that there is no wrong dialect for Shakespeare, and this usually works best when we use our own voices.

Another man said, “I wanna challenge you… I seen his arrogance, but I wanna see his anger.” Another agreed and said, “It was real cocky — you making the audience feel a feeling, and that’s the most important thing to do.”

The second time he read, he dropped the dialect almost completely, and he really sank into that anger with, “Why brand they us with base?” When he was done, I asked my usual question. “It was different… challenging… Jumping into the character in a different way — I can see now that there’s a lot of ways you can play a character.”

The others praised him again. “I didn’t see the mask at first,” said one man. “The first one felt like you were putting the character on you. But the second time, it felt like you were jumping into the character — like it came from you.” Another agreed, saying that it felt like he’d jumped into the deep end for the first time. A third said it had seemed rehearsed the first time through, but natural the second “because you weren’t trying.”

One of the Original 12 got up to read. He is so talented, but he often gets in his own way by holding back on what we all know he can do. Still, he was the first of us to use a physical letter as a prop, and he landed most of his intentions… although he rarely looked up from the piece of paper on which he’d written the lines (because he doesn’t like holding a book). Immediately, the others rallied to call him out on holding back, and to pump him up. “You need to give it more emotion,” said one. “You hit kind of a stale note — you kind of sounded the same, like one note the whole way through,” said another, and another (guess who?) piggybacked by saying, “Yeah, you gotta really taste those words, man.”

“How would you feel if it was you?” another man asked, and a hush fell. “Have you ever had to live with a label you didn’t like?” I heard various sounds of identification from people throughout the circle — they sure freaking have. “Use it,” he concluded.

The man read again, and this time he definitely allowed himself to go further. “I was able to dig a little more emotion out of it,” he said. He looked down at his hands. “I’m shaking a little bit.” He had used that “magic as if” to gain a foothold on the piece, and we could tell. “It was unleashed,” said one man admiringly. “The first time felt really tethered, like you were walking on a dog on a leash. But that time it was like you let that dog go.”

Another man then volunteered. He began somewhat quickly and got tongue tied; we all encouraged him to start over and take his time. He played Caliban in The Tempest and is quite gifted with the language, and I reminded him to honor the punctuation. He did, and it was a very good read.

He wasn’t satisfied, though. “Going over it in my head in the cell or at work was a lot easier.” I asked him why. “Because you’re not opening yourself up to ridicule at at all,” he replied, and many of us nodded.

The guys asked him to “untether”, to let go of what he’d rehearsed, and to ride the wave. “You did a great job as Caliban,” said a newbie who saw the show. “But Caliban’s your comfort zone. And Edmund ain’t Caliban.”

His second read was much more fluid and natural. “When I made the conscious thing of pulling away from the way I did Caliban, it made it easier to see how he is.” He said, adding that it’s tough to let go of Caliban because of the ways in which he relates to that character. But he is intent on finding many different characters to play.

The man who played the Boatswain in The Tempest went next. As he got up, many of us jokingly made pirate sounds — we just loved the way he played that character — but that unfortunately led to his beginning the piece in the pirate voice! We all laughed (including him) and encouraged him to shake it off. “Just talk to us,” I said. It was immediately more organic, and he played with the language in a way that was fun to listen to.

“I’m holding back somehow,” he said when he’d finished. “I thought about it different from the way I did it… I thought my voice was somehow supposed to sound different.” He cited an actor whose voice he could kind of hear saying the words, but another man gently cut him off, saying, “Just think in terms of how you’d do it.” The man who’d read brought up another professional actor and was drowned out after a few seconds by a chorus of friendly voices saying, “What about you?” “We wanna see how you do it.”

He tried it sitting down, saying afterward, “I’m one step closer, but I haven’t made it to the slushie machine yet.” We all laughed; we knew what he meant. “The moment that you stopped thinking — that’s when the emphasis on the words really came out,” offered one man.

Next up was a newbie who had some theatre experience in high school. His reading was confident and connected. “It felt good,” he said. “The first go-around always is a little shaky… I just let the emotions come out however they wanted to.” We asked him what he’d found. “I need you to feel how raw it is,” he said. “I feel like while I’m telling you guys why I’m doing it, I’m also telling myself why I’m doing it.”

One man said that it had been good, but it had been pretty much all at the same level of intensity. He suggested that he start lower so he could build, and further suggested that he break the piece up into units (my acting jargon; his idea). Another man suggested that he play the piece for comedy, which a number of people vocally rejected. I said that it was an interesting thought, and that this likely could be played for comedy (if we hearken back to that archetype, Richard III and Iago both have a dark sense of humor) — but that it doesn’t have to be, and this was one of those things on which we’d all have to agree that no one was wrong!

The man who’d read did so again, and he definitely took that suggestion of building energy to heart. “I felt like I was just pacing myself through it, taking as much advice as possible. It felt good,” he said.

The next man to read took his time, and it was a very calm and even reading. “It felt alright,” he said. “I can kind of relate to the inferiority complex he has from his father having children with somebody else.” One man encouraged him not to “be afraid of movement”; another praised him for making all of his words understood while asking him not to hold back so much emotionally. He did so on his second read and said it felt a little better, but holding the book was definitely an encumbrance.

It was my turn next (some have greatness thrust upon them… or something…). I had memorized the piece; I was already familiar with it, it’s short, and I would always much rather work without script in hand. I took a moment to prep as I always do (to encourage others if they want to do the same), and then I turned to the group, looking around the circle before I began. I hadn’t rehearsed it much — I’d just been taking in the others’ work and ideas — and it felt a lot like riding a roller coaster with rusty brakes; when things started building up, it was tough to calm them back down. It’s a great piece and reminded me of some of the things I miss most about acting.

The guys’ feedback was nearly all positive, though I welcomed criticism (and eventually got it). They were intrigued by the highs and lows that I found, as well as the variety of emotions that came bubbling to the surface as I worked my way through. Though we all knew intellectually that the character is complex, thus far we hadn’t been able to see it in performance. I assured them that this was not because I’m a better actor than anyone else, but simply because I’ve had more practice at being spontaneous and not holding back. I reminded them that my interpretation is only one, that it isn’t authoritative, and that I still needed criticism. At which point a certain person advised me that I had mostly gotten the taste of the words, but that there were a few phrases that had been too bland. Point taken.

We didn’t have much time left, so, rather than go a second time, I handed things off to a man who hadn’t read yet. His performance was unique: measured, quiet, beleaguered. Without even waiting to be asked, he said, “My interpretation is slightly different. He’s just tired… Growing up [mixed ethnicity], being a half person… It’s tiresome. I don’t even see him as mad or cunning. He’s just tired.”

That definitely came through. A couple of the guys looked at each other, smiling a little; then one said to the group, “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” This would make anyone angry, some said: being discriminated against. One man asked how old Edmund is, which none of us knew offhand, and said that if he were young, he didn’t buy this kind of anger. This man is white, and many of the men in the group who are ethnic or racial minorities rolled their eyes. In an effort to keep things from getting heated, I said, “Well, I don’t know. I think being discriminated against and made to feel ‘other’ is enraging at any age. It sometimes doesn’t take much at all for that anger to bubble over, even when we’re young. I know that was true for me.”

Another man drifted into the conversation; he hadn’t been listening closely, as he was trying to work all of this out. “There’s something different, though… Since I came from double bastardhood — never met my grandfather or my father — being raised only by a woman, the anger doesn’t come out always like a man… Mine usually comes out in the form of communication.”

“It’s still a battle,” said the man who’d just read. “I don’t see him as trying to confront him… He’s willing to accept his status if people would let him accept it.” And, we all agreed, no matter what Edmund does, he’ll never get that land unless he resorts to plotting.

We raised The Ring back up and began to leave. One new member came over to me and said he was looking forward to performing and was sad we’d run out of time. “You wanna go first on Tuesday?” I asked. He smiled and said he did.