PERFORMANCES AND WRAP UP
Written by Frannie
April 5, 2019: Performance #1
Though a number of ensemble members had planned on setting up the set and equipment for our first performance this morning, circumstances prevented them from doing so. When the facilitators arrived at the gym at 12:30pm, every member of the ensemble was driven and focused, achieving what they’d anticipated to be a three-hour set-up in just 20 minutes. In the midst of this, I encouraged everyone to use the stress to focus and to fuel their performances—to resist the urge to scramble or let anxiety overtake them. As each person nodded back, I wondered if I’d needed to say anything at all: these guys are pros.
We circled up for a brief check-in and pep talk, and it was clear that we were ready to go. Whatever was about to happen on stage, whether it worked or not, “we’ve got each other’s backs out there,” and we knew we could roll with the punches. As one member said, “I’m a man… in a dress… in a men’s prison. Let’s go.”
“I don’t know, man,” said one of the guys, hopping back and forth a little, “I’m kinda freaking out.” I assured everyone that it’s normal to feel that way before a performance, especially the first one. “If you’re anxious, it’s because you care,” I said, to which one man replied, “I care a LOT!” I suggested, again, that we use our nerves to drive the performance—we still weren’t positive that we could get from beginning to end in the allotted time.
One man stepped into the circle before we lowered our ring. “It is far easier to destroy than to create,” he said, gazing at each man in turn. “And we’ve created something here, together. Let’s show everyone our creation.”
As with most first performances, there were a number of hiccups—some barely noticeable, others leaving huge gaps in dialogue and/or truncating scenes—but we pushed through, and our audience was rapt. Most leaned forward, arms resting on their knees, eyes glued to the actors. They laughed at the Fool’s jokes—a testament to that actor’s skill with the language.
At one point, the overhead fans turned on unexpectedly. As one of our “crew” members quickly (and calmly) went over to an officer to see if they could be turned off, the ensemble didn’t miss a beat, simply encouraging each other to project their voices more. Nobody panicked. Our Lear in particular roared over the sound of both the fans and the rain, and many of us stopped and just listened to him, remembering how quiet and reserved he was when the season began in July. When the fans shut off, there was a palpable feeling of relief—and when they turned on again, the sound was met with smiles and ruefully shaken heads.
We arrived at the scene in which Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes and is mortally wounded in a sword fight with a servant. The men went at it with the exact right intensity, and many in the audience audibly groaned, squirming in their seats. One of them looked over at me (I was watching at this point), grimacing and shaking his head for a moment before completely refocusing on the weeping, wailing Gloucester.
During the scene in which Lear, the Fool, Edgar, and Kent shelter in place, those of us backstage heard the table on stage suddenly crash to the ground, which is something that had never happened in rehearsal. Our ears perked up, and, when the lines continued without a hitch, one of the guys looked at me, shrugged, and said, “I don’t know what that was, but I hope it worked!” It turned out to have been Lear knocking over the table—in character—and we asked him later if maybe he could let us in on his plans in the future!
Every now and then, our momentum began to slow, but we didn’t get bogged down. Each time someone entered, they brought a burst of energy with them, and we finished our play right at the 95-minute mark—which was what I’d called the other day, and which I definitely brought to everyone’s attention. I gotta gloat SOMEtimes!
April 6, 2019: Performance #2
The facility allowed us to keep the set and equipment set up in the gym between performances (which was MUCH appreciated), so things were much calmer when facilitators arrived today. The jittery feeling that preceded our first performance was gone entirely, though some folks had friends in the audience whose reactions they were particularly anxious about.
The feedback from our first audience, the guys said, was phenomenal. Many of the mistakes we’d thought were glaringly obvious turned out to have worked as part of the show, and one of the actors who’d had the most trouble with lines was cited as having had the best performance in the entire cast. “I screwed up that good,” he joked. An ensemble member who’s taken on a backstage role said, “I was hoping to see a good show yesterday. I didn’t—I saw a great show.”
One man said he’d been surprised by how calm he’d stayed when the lines seemed to leave his head. “I felt lost, like– you forget your lines– and I was like, ‘Oh, shit.” Then I looked at you guys’ characters, and the look in your eyes of, ‘You got this,’ and I got through it.”
Our audience was much larger today, but just as engaged. Even when a number of them had to (or chose to) leave early, they were as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. One of our facilitators, taking notes from the audience, noted, “Honestly—some of these men look like teenaged girls watching a rom com. (Stereotypical but true.).”
Powered by the success of our first performance and the engagement of our audience, the ensemble dug deeper into the characters and the text, making fewer mistakes and finding more moments of clarity and connection. Though some new road bumps popped up unexpectedly, we covered well for each other and didn’t let those moments take down the whole show.
“‘Good’ is, in fact not a good word to describe Lear’s performance,” wrote a facilitator in the audience. “He is miraculous. Stupendous. Undeniably top-notch. Stellar. Watching him is life-changing.” His transformation has been, perhaps, the most dramatic of any ensemble member this season. Forgotten lines be damned. Product be damned. The man has worked an incredibly hard-won miracle within himself, and his commitment to the process has led the way for everyone else.
As we gathered after the show to talk briefly before leaving for the day, a “crew” member told us that he’d teared up multiple times. When a few of them tried to shrug that off, he doubled down on what he’d said. “You guys gotta understand: this is a play. This isn’t real. So, when you touch somebody on that level, it’s personal. It’s personal.” One of the men responded by flopping down onto the floor in the center of the circle. But he quickly got back up to help the rest of us lift that protective ring of positive energy together.
April 7, 2019: Performance #3
“The sky is the limit,” one man said to the circle as we finished sharing the (effusive) feedback the second performance had gotten. “Let’s nail this one today!”
We drove through the performance, our pace finally consistent and our energy (even backstage) focused on giving our best performance yet for an audience that reacted verbally to many of the play’s most “on-point” moments.
That said, it was during this performance that it became abundantly clear how much we were held back by shaky line memorization and reliance on cue cards. People who’d worked their tails off all season found themselves lost onstage, fumbling with their cards, unable to figure out where they were when the lines were paraphrased or out of order. One scene in particular went completely off the rails, and, while the guys managed the chaos well, it was a learning moment for the entire ensemble.
Even so, it was a very successful performance! During our brief post-show Q&A, an audience member jokingly asked Lear how long it had taken him “to get that howl out.” As Lear smilingly replied, “A long time,” several other ensemble members shouted, “NINE MONTHS!” Before we closed, one ensemble member made a point of encouraging those in the audience to sign up for the program. “We accept everybody,” he said, “no matter what’s wrong with you.” A couple of us (myself included), said, “Hey!” He made a calming gesture with his hands and said, “You all know what I mean. Everybody who wants to join, we want you.”
A man who left the group earlier this season was in the audience today. When I saw him, I couldn’t help but wave excitedly—he made some very important contributions when he was part of the ensemble and was always a joy to work with. As the ensemble packed up the props and got out of costume, I walked over to shake his hand and check in. He said he was wowed by what he’d seen, adding that it had changed his perspective on the group as a whole. “You know,” he said, “I left because it didn’t feel like family. But watching everyone up there—I was like, ‘That is a family.’ And I want to be part of that family again.” I grinned and said, “So we’ll see you in July?” He gave me a mocking look, like I’d said something truly asinine, and replied, “Oh, you know I already signed up!”
April 8, 2019: Performance #4
There was a bit of heaviness in the air as we set up and circled up for our final performance. I was grateful that we had a little more time than usual to check in before our audience arrived.
One of the men said, “My mom called and said she wishes that family could be there to support me. I told her it’s okay: my family is here to support me.’” The rest of us nodded earnestly—by the final performance, the strength of the bonds created in the ensemble become clearer than ever before. “We have a birthright of dignity,” said one man, “and we want to raise the awareness of humane treatment for all of us.” Turning to the subject of the performance itself, one of our younger members rubbed his hands together in anticipation, saying, “I’m ready for it. Let’s get it.”
“I remember when the program first came here,” one man said. “I’m very proud of what this program has become. I didn’t think the bar could be raised, but it was. 95% of you remember your lines!” We laughed. “It was always a lotta scripts onstage before.” He became more solemn. “But seriously, though. Y’all should be proud. I’m glad we pushed through the trauma, the tears, the I’m-never-coming-back-again—the just-kidding-can-I-come-back–” We laughed again. He turned to the facilitators. “Thank you for coming and giving us this.”
We talked a bit more before another ensemble member brought it back to that same sentiment, putting it in his own words—acknowledging (between the lines) that he hadn’t been the easiest to work with, that he’d stuck with it even when he was most angry, and that the ensemble had accepted and valued his involvement no matter how aggravated they felt. “I want to thank everyone for the hard work, hours memorizing lines, the fall-outs, the fall-back-ins… Each one of you is great, and you have a light inside you, burning bright. Let’s show these guys our light.”
The audience began to arrive, and we drifted into small pockets of people, chatting and preparing for the performance. One man made a point of thanking a facilitator for bringing in the costumes, and for putting so much thought into them. In this setting, costumes are about much, much more than the look of the show. “When I wear these regular clothes,” he said with the weight of more than a decade spent behind bars, “It’s like, ‘Oh, this is how it’s supposed to feel.”
Nothing could shake our focus today. Even the men using cue cards hardly missed a beat. The energy in the room was electric, and everyone’s performance intensified. Vanessa, a past WHV facilitator who visited this ensemble twice earlier in the season, was sitting front-row-center, alternately beaming and weeping—the best audience member in the history of audience members, in my opinion. A number of the guys commented on it to me. One said, “Holy shit. Can you imagine if she’d been in the audience for the first show?” And another: “You feel that energy we got? She’s feeding that energy. That’s all her.” I promised to try to twist her arm into coming to every single performance from now on (at both facilities). Wish me luck!
As we stood to take our final bows, the audience rose to their feet, cheering, a few wiping away tears. Before we started the usual Q&A, the wonderful librarian Sarah Gebert, our staff partner, rose to say a few words. She spoke of the skills developed in a program like this, and of the ensemble’s drive to work through “personal and public conflict” to fully commit to the process from beginning to end. I thanked her “for making this happen” (which is not hyperbole), and then several ensemble members demanded that all facilitators (including Vanessa) and Sarah come to the stage. Several took turns speaking about what the program means to them, and of the depth of their gratitude (which I am fully aware I will never truly understand). “You come in here, and you treat us like real people,” said one of the men. “You make us feel human in this environment, where we’re seen by most as numbers and crimes. You believe that we can be good people—you demand that we be good people. And some of us aren’t, or we weren’t. But because you come in from the outside, and you see us as humans, and you believe that we are good, it makes us want to be good. We want to be the people you believe we can be. We become those people. And that’s because of you.”
It was a struggle to get everyone to take off the costumes and put the props away. Some went quietly and efficiently about their business, but others lingered, waiting until it was absolutely necessary to put away those “sacred objects” for the last time. Anyone who’s done any type of theatre will tell you there’s a letdown after the final performance—like the air going out of a balloon—but this was different. There had been some tears during the post-show speeches (one man later commented that he’d never seen so many grown men crying in one place), but now the tears flowed more freely, as ensemble members realized—many for the first time—the ephemeral nature of this art form. This King Lear will never exist again—even if we’d been able to take video, it wouldn’t truly capture it—and, though the program will continue and many members will be part of it for some time yet, this ensemble as a whole will soon exist only in our memories and the bonds we’ve forged with each other.
Several ensemble members took me aside individually, both before and after the show, to briefly share what their experience had meant, and to thank me. I thanked them right back! I had worked with one man through seemingly endless challenges as he sought—amid widespread disbelief and distrust from others—to make some truly radical changes in himself. Now he shook my hand, tears welling up in his eyes. A long, long hand shake. “Thank you, Frannie, for believing in me,” he said, his voice breaking. “For helping me find that part of myself– to heal what’s broken in me–” That was all he could say, and it was enough. I silently nodded, affirming that no words were needed—they couldn’t have matched the gratitude in his eyes, anyway. I saw him wandering through the gym a few minutes later, tears streaming down his cheeks.
We had only a few minutes left, as an officer kindly reminded us, and the group gathered together one last time. One of the guys lovingly kicked the facilitators out of the circle, and the men spread their arms across each other’s shoulders, urging each other to hold onto this feeling of collective accomplishment and brotherhood. The officer, honoring the moment and doing her job, let us know we had just one minute. With a “1, 2, 3 — SHAKESPEARE,” the guys let the facilitators back in, and we quickly threw the ring into the air. We had to rush out, but we knew we’d be back the next day to, in Edgar’s words, “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
April 9, 2019: Wrap Up
When facilitators arrived at the chapel, we were greeted at the door by an ensemble member with a huge smile on his face, and we found the rest of the group already circling up, grinning, laughing, and reminiscing about the past four days. After we’d taken care of a bit of “business,” we launched into our season wrap up.
This is always among my favorite days of the season, even though there’s some sadness as the process comes to its end. Each wrap up session has taken on its own format over the years—some have been largely about tackling logistical challenges to help things go smoother next time, while others have been more freewheeling and emotional. This one, as it turns out, was best encapsulated by one of the men about 90 minutes in:
“On the real, though, y’all are super emo, man.”
I don’t know that any narrative could properly describe the intensity and magnitude of what was said, heard, felt, and experienced in that room, and I’m not going to dishonor it with what would surely be a feeble attempt. What I will say is that we began with one communal roll of tissue (some preemptively torn by those who knew they’d need it), and we ended with two significantly depleted rolls and many crumpled wads of tissue held in our hands or piled in our laps.
There were many powerful moments of connection and eloquence, some represented in the quotes below. But what really struck me during this wrap up was the emphasis, nearly across the board, on how this season has changed ensemble members’ ideas about manhood—what it can truly mean to “be a man” and not “our idea of what a man has to be.” The profoundness with which these men were rocked by the work they did together and the changes they see in each other—the gravity of this experience for men in particular—is something I don’t think I can fully appreciate. But, my god, is it ever an honor to have been in that room while so many wept, describing how they’d thought of themselves, and other men, and masculinity before—and how completely transformed their perspectives are now. They have learned from each other how to be better men. They have learned from each other that they are better men.
As I told them before we left (I’ll say more when I see them again soon—it was far more important for me to listen today), that room was full of heroes. Of people who’ve pulled off heroics, with stakes I can’t comprehend, who, simply by doing the work, have radically altered the perception of who they are and can be—both for themselves and others—and who’ve trusted me enough to let me be part of that process. To work alongside people who are so determined to fight through stereotypes and trauma to regain their humanity and reshape their identities—the gratitude I feel can be overwhelming. And it certainly was today.
Here is some of what they shared:
“The imperfection of perfection—that’s what this play has meant for me. We were never perfect, but we were great. We looked out for each other… I didn’t sleep well last night. I was so filled with emotion—I felt such pride and joy. And it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way about myself. Thank you for teaching me to be human again.”
“We’re impacting people in a positive way. So, kudos to you guys—we’re having a positive impact in a very negative environment.”
“All of you guys here have moved and inspired me. [Another man: (sotto) ‘That’s what’s up.’] I’m gonna remember these memories forever, and I want you guys to know that. It’s hard for me to express how much it means...” [breaks down crying, motions for someone else to speak.]
“This experience has been extremely humbling… Whatever a person’s politics or whatever, twice a week we put that aside and come together… [The facilitators] fostered that environment for us to be exactly who we are, exactly where we are. My ego always gets in my way, but I trusted the process, and that I’m gonna come out the other side. And you guys help me step out of my own way… I get a clear lens to look at myself in a new light, and I want to thank you guys for that. You helped make me a better me.”
“I love this—being here. When I ever was going to leave, it’s because I felt like I wasn’t wanted. But this is my most favorite time here… I like all you guys. That’s not normal for me. I usually don’t like anyone. I feel like I should be here.”
“I’ve been in here over 20 years. Feeling is hard… When you finally start feeling again, you realize you never stopped. You just stopped expressing it.”
“I was very antisocial. I didn’t like being around people. I never had no serious relationships… I’d cut them off before they got in too deep… I have a huge issue with trust. But even with all that going on, [Frannie] said, ‘Trust the process,’ so I trusted the process… This thing touched me more than– it put some life on it, if that makes sense… Thanks for supporting me and showing me what friendship is all about.”
“I’m kind of a goofball. It’s not like I don’t like emotion, it’s just that it has its place. It’s one of the irritating things about coming in here… [laughs, then gets serious] This group is needy to me, but I get it… I was starved for affection growing up, so I don’t know what to do with it. But that is something that I’m learning now.”
“What the program is:
Teaches to nurture.
Listen, not just memorize. Listen with more than just ears.
Encourage one another.
Reproduce all that for the next one.”
“I’m glad I got to experience this with you guys, and this has helped propel what I’m gonna do when I get home… This was my trial by fire. This is my family right here. Not many people get these opportunities, to go through a fire and not get burned, but [we did this]... It’s really dope, honestly, and I love you all. You guys are so cool… I’ll never give up on what this has created. I’ll forever try to help from the outside.”
“You should try it. It’s not what you think… It’s a chance to be a part of a family, not just a group of people… It helped me to see myself as a human being, not a waste of space to be ignored… I thought it’d be something I’d enjoy, but when I got here, it was so much more than I thought it would be. At one of the lowest points of my life, [SIP] gave me the courage to move forward… It’s taught me not to let first impressions rule my opinion of people.”
“We might not all get along, but we all come together. It’s like a puzzle—the picture isn’t complete until everything is there. If you’re missing just one piece, it all falls apart. We came together, and the picture was complete. We weren’t missing any pieces.”
“I didn’t know where I’d fit into the puzzle… It’s been years and years since I’ve been myself. I don’t have to act a certain way to fit in here. It feels refreshing to me to have people who like me for who I am, and not for who they think I am or who I used to be.”
“I came here for Shakespeare, but I found family… I never thought it would be possible to connect with males that way… When I first stepped into the room, I was scared. But someone told me that if you’re going to do something, do it while you’re scared… As time went on, I felt myself growing with each push from each one of you. This room gave me the hope and the strength I needed to push through… This will be part of my life forever. It’s a part of me now.”
“Frannie—you called a lot of BS on me. Those things—I had those challenges in my personal life, too: being authentic, being vulnerable, saying, ‘I have problems, too…’”
“Thank you for allowing us to come in and just be human beings, and not expecting anything else from us.”
“On the real, though—y’all are super emo, man.” [Everyone laughs.] “But it makes you see how valuable the program is—and y’all gotta take care of it… Keep on pushin’, pass that torch to the newcomers.”
“We all crossed paths for a reason. Shakespeare created this… I don’t make friends—I make family.”
“This program really pulled me out of the box… I been staring at concrete walls for so long, and razor wire fences. But this showed me that there is green grass. There are blue skies. I’m more than a number.”
“This is the easiest I’ve made friends in a long time. You are all family.”
“I’m anxious to see the next chapter for you all. The way this impacts people… It’s going to be larger than life.”
That’s it for Season Two.
See you in July.