Season Two: Week 34

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Once more unto the link, dear friends, once more!

Or you could make a recurring donation… Up to you, really…

Tuesday / February 15 / 2019
Written by Coffey

We started our day with a new Fool and an old joke. During our check in, an ensemble member shared that the actor playing the Fool would no longer be joining us. Thankfully, one of our newest members volunteered to play the part, declaring that he was “80% willing to play the role, and 20% wanting it.”

After welcoming our new Fool to the cast, one man brought to the table the issue of “Dilly Dilly”. For those of you following along at home, “Dilly Dilly” is a phrase from a commercial that the men’s ensemble has successfully worked into every show they’ve done. The man who introduced the topic suggested that we put the phrase in Cornwall’s “Fetch forth the stocks!” in Act 2, scene 2. Matt reminded the group that this particular scene is an important point in the story and asked if they really wanted to put a punchline there, as it could put some of the story at risk. Another man agreed with Matt, adding, “Lear feels to me like a really heavy play.” He then asked if there were any points with a little levity, where “Dilly Dilly” wouldn’t seem so out of place. Our Lear brought up that it might fit in with Lear’s revelry at Goneril’s house. While we didn’t reach a decision, “Dilly Dilly”’s biggest proponent let us know that he didn’t care where the phrase went, as long as it was in the show.

Tabling that for the time being, we went on to play another round of “Mirrors”, the game Frannie brought back from her visit with The Actor’s Gang Prison Project (to get the rules of the game, see the blog from Week 33). This second go at the game had great energy and flow. One man and I agreed that the level of comfort and connection in the room had improved since last week. Even the ensemble members who hadn’t been with us for the game before dived right in and seemed to be having fun. “Without an ounce of rhythm in my body, I was in the flow!” exclaimed one man who was playing the game for the first time today. Another man observed that, during the game, “When a person picked up on the energy first and the movements second, they were a lot more successful with the transition.” Some of the guys struggled with the game. “I couldn’t get out of my head! I was stuck!” one man said. Another man shared that his “fear of dancing” was holding him back: “It was completely awkward the whole time. I’m not a dancer.” Maria, who we were lucky enough to have with us this Friday, said, “I have a hard time getting out of my head, but I felt like I had really great energy!”

For the next few minutes I led the men in Chekhov’s “Stick, Ball, Veil” exercise. This was new for some of them and hadn’t been revisited in a while for the rest, so I was interested to see how it would land at this point in our process. To give an outline of this exercise to those who don’t know it, I’ll use a section of Frannie’s blog post from Week 23:

“The idea here is that the quality of your movement changes depending on where you imagine your energy to be centered. If your entire body is one unit centered in your head, for example, you’ll move differently than if centered in your chest, or in your left hip, or your nose, or even somewhere outside of your physical body. (I know, it’s weird if you haven’t done it yourself, but bear with me!) We focused on the three main centers and their accompanying images:

THINKING: centered in the head / the image is a stick

WILLING: centered in the pelvis / the image is a ball

FEELING: centered in the chest / the image is a veil”

Using this framework, the men explored each center by holding and developing the corresponding images in their mind and then observing the effect of those images on their physicality. After spending about five minutes with each center and image, the men reflected on their experiences. Those who had done the exercise before compared this experience with the last one, noting times when they felt consistently comfortable or when they had consistent challenges. “This time around, I was able to project my imagination outward,” one man said. Our Goneril discovered that the veil was the hardest image to get into, while another man said that he learned the complete opposite was true for himself. One man’s veil image was a jellyfish, while another man’s was a tattered battle flag. One man, this second time around, found a strong connection to his image for the willing center: “I was really in that space, being a pinball.”

For those in the group doing the exercise for the first time, there was a broad mix of reactions. One man, who had done similar exercises for years, said, “For an energy manipulation exercise, this was the first time I really grasped it.” Another man asked, “Why do we do this? What are we supposed to get out of it?” Several men raised their hands to answer. “It’s about muscle memory,” one man said, “It’s about getting in the zone.” Another man added, “It’s about body language.” Then the men began to share the aspects of the exercise they found most helpful. “You have to be in the moment. You can’t really be affected by the outside environment,” one man said. Another man shared that he found the outside environment distracting, and was more comfortable when he “partnered up” with another ensemble member. One man shared that “For me personally, the exercise doesn’t help me get into character, but it helps me have a point of reference in talking to others about their characters.”

The conversation then turned to the exercise as it could apply to the characters in the play. “I was looking for aspects of it to apply to Burgundy,” our Burgundy said, “He’s this big personality, this ball stuck in a stick-like body. He’s not a veil… He’s just looking to cut a deal… There’s nothing ‘veil’ about Burgundy.” Matt reminded him that, when exploring a character, it helps to not use judgmental language when describing them. Our Lear agreed, saying that he used to view his character with judgment. Our Cornwall shared his discovery that his character had a close connection with the image of a walking stick: “Cornwall wants to be responsible for something,” he said.

For today’s scene work, our Goneril and Oswald asked that we take a look at Act 1, scene 3, which they had been working on outside of sessions. The scene is short and simple: Goneril grills Oswald about her father’s antics and orders him to act rudely towards him and his servants. While the scene is short, the two actors packed as much as they could into it. The first run saw Oswald running frantically back and forth across the stage as Goneril incessantly summoned him with a bell (in this case, a tambourine). “I thought there was a little too much of that,” one man in the audience said, pointing to the tambourine. “Too much schtick.” “What story are you telling with the schtick?” Matt asked. Our Goneril replied, “That we’re trying to make Lear uncomfortable… I’m a sadistic bitch.” I asked our Goneril if his character’s authority was being threatened in this scene. “It’s keeping with the theme,” he replied. Our Lear picked up that thread: “People who don’t have real power take that out on whoever they can. You see that in her. People who have no power taking it out on others. And that ain’t just a prison thing. That’s true from the mailman to the CEO. They overcompensate trying to control where they have no control.” Another man added, “Power’s not enough. Goneril is trying to reaffirm in the face of some insecurities.”

Going into the second run of the scene, I suggested that Goneril wait to use the tambourine until she really needed it to get Oswald’s attention. While it was messy at first, Oswald and Goneril eventually slowed down, letting us see them react to each other. Goneril jangled her tambourine no more than four times. “That worked better,” one man said. Another man was particularly amused by Goneril’s facial reactions to Oswald: “You were at first like, ‘Why are you still standing here?’ And then you were like, ‘Why are you going away?’”

The third run of the scene (which our Lear insisted we do: “You don’t get out of three times! Three times is a charm!”) was comical magic. Goneril used the tambourine to keep Oswald on eggshells throughout the entire scene and added the punchline of a gloriously cold look towards Oswald right at the scene’s close. Their fine-tuned chemistry brought out hearty laughs from the audience. Lear was absolutely right - the third time was the charm!

Today was a day for stepping out of comfort zones. Whether it was overcoming a fear of dancing or getting out from behind a tambourine prop, many of the guys took a chance and stretched their imaginations just a little bit further, something I witness them doing at every session.

Season Two: Week 24

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This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / December 4
Written by Matt


As goofy as they can be, these guys do not waste time in getting to the heart of things! One of our core ensemble members read us a short piece he has been working on. It was somewhere between a poem and an essay, and it had an immediate effect on the ensemble--and on him. Right after he finished, another guy gave a whoop of support, and another mimed dabbing the reader’s eyes with a tissue. “Where’d that come from?” asked our Albany. “Something I’m going through,” answered the man who had read.

“Hey! Did you feel something right then, as you were reading?” asked one of the guys. When the reader said he did, the first man confessed that he often doesn’t feel anything when he knows he’s supposed to feel something, but then he’ll feel more than he “should” about something totally unconnected to him, like a song or a moment in a film. Some of the other guys understood exactly what he was talking about. One added, “I’ve felt like that before, but I’ll tell you--it sometimes takes the weirdest thing to make me feel it.” He went on to say that he didn’t know how to deal with those emotions as a teenager, so they just ended up confusing him or getting him into trouble.

“So, that’s normal?” asked the man who had brought the issue up, “for someone to feel something and not know what it’s about?” Our Lear nodded, saying, “You don’t know how much you got buried until you go digging.” The man who read his piece added, “You’ve got to make yourself vulnerable to go there.” They talked about sometimes feeling like they go around with masks on, and the man who read earlier said, “Sometimes, you get so used to putting on the mask--you don’t really know how to take it off.”

A few guys talked about how stories help them reckon with themselves. The man who read his piece said that when “it all builds up, I just have to [write]... This is the only outlet I have!” Another said that writing his autobiography and reading it out loud helped him put his memories into context and establish the events that shaped him: “There are certain key events in your life that dictate how you are,” he said, but said that he couldn’t figure those out until he wrote them as part of a larger narrative about his life.

This conversation was really great, and it was also a bit of balancing act for the facilitators. Shakespeare in Prison is not a therapy group, and none of us is a trained therapist (whenever we verge into these sorts of conversations, Frannie and others periodically remind the ensemble of that fact). At the same time, the safety of our ensemble gives our members a rare chance to be vulnerable and genuine--for some of them, it is the only place where they feel safe opening up--and we would never want to lose that benefit of the group. So we end up acting as guardrails in these conversations, not so much actively responding to members’ thoughts and stories as actively listening to them, staying alert to anything that feels beyond our competencies. This conversation never went there--it was an important moment for these men to connect and share experiences--but Frannie eventually urged us on to new ground, once the guys who wanted to share had had a chance to do so.

The other check-ins were about personal updates or the play. Our Edgar has been spending a lot of time visualizing the performance, and he has been working his way through the scenes, thinking about them in terms of some of the exercises we have done this season. He said that he was analyzing the objectives of each of the characters in each scene (working from that central question of modern acting: What do I want?), and, which was even more exciting, he had been visualizing the play in terms of a series of wordless tableaus, based on the Freeze Frame game we played with Vanessa earlier this season. He also had a really great suggestion: “I wonder if it would be possible to run through the entire play, but without saying any words.” He thought it might help clarify motivations and movement onstage, and it would relieve the barrier of needing to know the words. There was a lot of excitement about this idea, and we tabled it for another day.

Then, our Gloucester revealed that he had written a “Dear John” letter to his previous interpretation of the character. He tried to get out of reading it. Frannie, however, was having none of that; she dragged a chair to the center of the ring and pointed to it. The letter was absurd--absurdist, really. “I need to break up with my old vision of you,” he said. “You will not [anymore] look like Monty Python… Even your daddy gave me the authority to control you.” It was funny, but by the second page (yes, there were more than two pages), the absurdity had become a piece of comic genius. Having dispensed with “Old Gloucester,” he welcomed the new character, named “Big Money G-Lo” into his life.

“Your name is Big Money G-Lo. What’s up?” the letter began. What follows was copied with his permission:


You order your Starbucks as:
Venti Mocha Caramel Latte
with 2 pumps of syrup
Stirred
And absolutely NO foam
You don’t like foam; it drives you crazy.
Foamless.


Your Fav designers are
Tom Ford
Versacci
Gucci
Armani

You shop:
Nordstrom
Boutiques/customized taylor

Malls are Nothing but Peasants Shop!

You don’t like
Macy’s - thrift store
Sears - Ha!
Walmart - Base criminal. Over my dead body
Dollar store - I will crush them with my wallet (Lear bought that)
Banana Republic - 3rd world country


Everyone thought that this was about the funniest thing we had ever heard, and it led us right into the next scene, in which Gloucester shows up after Edmund’s monologue in Act I, scene ii. The run-through was solid, if a little rough, but the guys were already beginning to implement some of what they practiced on Friday. During our debrief, one of the guys brought up the characters’ ages, and we stopped to discuss it. The relative ages of Edgar and Edmund are set by the text (“I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of a brother” says Edmund), but not their actual ages, Gloucester’s age, or the difference between the brothers’ ages and their father’s.

As we discussed it, Frannie asked our Gloucester if he might be judging his character. He looked a little startled as he thought. “Yeah…” he said. “I guess I am.” Frannie talked a bit about the importance of not judging your characters--something we all need to be reminded of sometimes. When she was finished, one of the older members of the group jumped in to talk about the age discussion, which had put Gloucester tentatively in his sixties. “All you cats playing older characters, I can really help you!” He went on to describe his own experience of ageing. “When I turned 60, a lot of things changed in me that became a part of my persona,” he said, but then he added that the number of years is both important and also a poor unit of measurement for what going through life feels like. “The process is not about the numbers,” he said. “The process is about ageing.” He turned to our Lear and said, “There will be some times when Lear is capable, but no one thinks he’s capable.”

On a second run through the scene, both the actions onstage and the relationships were clearer. Afterwards, Gloucester said, “it felt more natural.” He said that the age discussion had helped, as had Frannie’s comment about judgment. “After the epiphany of [his] age--and to slow it down--you can actually marinate in the words.” Then, turning to the man who had spoken with such candor about his own experience of ageing, our Gloucester assured him that speaking slowly is not an “old people thing.”

“What center did you have, Gloucester?” asked out Lear, calling back to Friday’s work. Gloucester thought for a moment, then answered, “When I came in, it was a thick veil. But that veil got lighter as I was thinking. Lighter, and more vulnerable. And when I saw Edmund, I thought he saw my veil, and I needed to get myself together; nothing to see here!” He described how he had chosen an unconscious tic for Gloucester (pulling up and fixing the collar of his coat) that embodies his discomfort with being seen.

“Don’t explain it to me!” cut in another member. “I thought you were really believable! You really looked like you were cold.” Then he turned to Edmund and said that he had been less believable. Frannie instantly asked whether our Edmund had been thinking. He said he had been, and tried to walk through his actions again. The crux of the issue is how Edmund should act with his prop--a letter that he has forged, which he wants his father to read but needs to pretend the opposite. As guys got up to try to offer suggestions, they started debating the notes they were giving, building up a head of steam on this one point: When should he turn around? How much should he smile or frown? It is a slow turn, or more of a spin? How much should he act like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar? Meanwhile, our Edmund stood in the playing space, looking a little lost.

Eventually, Frannie had to step in to bring the litigation to a close, saying that she heard a lot of versions of the same note. “We had a good idea 10 minutes ago, and now we’re beating it to death.” On the one hand, we hate to do this, but on the other, it is sometimes necessary with this ensemble. This group of guys is so intellectual, so full of ideas, and so comfortable batting ideas around that they get carried away with the conversation, rather than thinking about it in terms of what the actor on stage needs. They also do what a lot of people do: describe how they would do a certain scene, rather than offering suggestions that open a path forward for the actor. Still, we don’t like driving the conversation. We’re still figuring out the balance here, which is part of the challenge of facilitating SIP.

The debate didn’t hurt the performance, though. The final time through, both Edmund and Gloucester hit so many high points! Gloucester was painfully self-conscious on being discovered in his thoughts, without being remotely funny. His energy gave Edmund permission to be cutting and cruel in his explanation of the fake letter’s fake context, gathering his voice into a weapon when he talked about overhearing Edgar discussing “father’s decline.” Gloucester grew to a towering rage, and his voice as he spoke the words, “Edmund, seek him out!” was altered: deeper, barbed with fury, and commanding.

Afterwards, there was a jubilant reaction to the performance. Asked what happened, our Gloucester again put it in terms of the Michael Chekhov exercises we did on Friday. “I usually talk from my will center,” he said, “so I got that in my old life. But I was thinking about how Gloucester would drop into his will center.” One of the guys in the audience said the connection between Gloucester and Edmund was perfect. “Yeah,” said Gloucester, “I was really feeling it. Like, yeah! Let’s go get this guy!” Then he turned to us and said, “I have a confession to make. I wanted to go down on my knees with him” during the scene, when Edmund kneeled. The group erupted briefly in support (“Oh my God!” “Yeah!” “Come on!” etc.), and Gloucester said he was really bummed he hadn’t followed that instinct.

There was plenty of love for Edmund, too. “I was right there with y’all!” exclaimed a usually quiet member. A number of people commented on the layers of Edmund’s character as embodied by our ensemble member--how there’s so much pretense, so much acting. He piped up to say, “That’s it! I’m an actor playing an actor that’s acting!”

As we hurried to put the ring up in the final moments of the session, our Edmund added, “You know how we were reading through this [play], and we were all, like, ‘Oh, this is so sad; this is so depressing.’ There’s comedy there.” He ran through blatantly “hiding” his forged letter again. “That’s comedy.”

Friday / December 7
Written by Frannie

Well, I called it.

Our Gloucester kicked off check-in with a follow-up to Tuesday’s meeting. “I have a confession to make,” he said. “Frannie, you were right. I was absolutely projecting myself onto Gloucester.” He paused. “That’s one of my greatest weaknesses, that I can be judgmental sometimes.” He took out his notebook, grinning. “So I wrote him another letter.” This letter was in the same style as the first, apologizing for being “harsh” and judging Gloucester. “This is my way of making up for what I did… The truth hit me right in the eye. Sorry. Too soon.” He said he had been thinking of himself playing Gloucester, not of the character himself. He offered to pick him up, let him play his favorite music in the car, and buy him any kind of coffee he wanted—even if it was “just java chip.”

“See, I have to understand that I’m catering to you,” part of the letter read. “This is your story, even though we share experiences. You are your best you. Your best self is you, and if I would like to tell your story to the fullest potential, I have to humble myself and let Gloucester speak for yourself. I am at your service and I in the past foamed you up, I foamed it up big time…”

He finished reading his letter, and there was a brief silence as Matt and Coffey looked slyly at me. I had been barely containing myself this entire time—now I threw my notes on the ground (as usual) and yelled, “I CALLED IT!”

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There it is, time-stamped and everything. (This was in the SIP facilitators’ Slack workspace—I cannot recommend this app enough!).

As our Gloucester (and everyone else) cracked up, one of the guys exclaimed, “How did you DO that? Do you, like, have some kind of magical power or something?” Another man said, “Nah, man, she’s just been doing this a long time!” Our Gloucester, still laughing, said, “Oh my GOD, I can’t believe you did that.” “I’ve got your number!” I said.

Once I’d finished my virtual victory lap (and apologized for said victory lap), we returned to our Gloucester’s epiphany. “Being judgmental really is my greatest weakness,” he said again. “And, you know, sometimes I overcompensate by really focusing on my strengths…” He shivered a little and looked at me, then back at the group. “I feel so vulnerable right now, but it’s so cool, though. I usually in the past wouldn’t talk about my weaknesses like that, but I feel good!”

“Can I check in?” asked one of our newest members. “I just wanna say, I had a good time Tuesday… I have a really hard time being open about myself, but the way everyone was comfortable laying it all out there—I really liked that… I do have such a hard time opening up, but I feel… I feel like I could probably slowly get there.”

“Shakespeare shows you how to like different people,” said one man in response. And another said, “That’s why I come here: the stuff that’s not Shakespeare. I only kinda like Shakespeare… But it’s the dynamic here… There are a lot of people here I wouldn’t hang out with… I don’t have this out there. What I have in here, I don’t have out there.” The new member nodded and said, “I wouldn’t have hung out with half of the people here if it wasn’t for this.”

Our Lear said he’d been doing a lot of text work, both analytical and in terms of memorizing his lines. He said he’d really gotten into it in his cell the other night, which led to the following exchange when his bunkie came in:

Bunkie: “What you so mad about?”
Lear: “I’m so fucking mad at my daughters right now!”
Bunkie: “I thought you had no kids.”
Lear: “No! It’s the play, man!”

As we laughed along with him, Lear said he really hadn’t been able to help getting kind of heated. “You’re right about the words,” he said. “At first, a lot of it didn’t make sense, but the words tell you how to be!” He also shared that when he repeatedly stumbled on (and couldn’t connect with) the word “clotpole”, he replaced it with “motherfucker”, read it that way a few times, and found that the original language worked perfectly when he went back to it.

This led to a brief conversation—always important to visit and revisit in SIP—about drawing from emotional experiences rather than reliving them. If we do the former, we’re safe; if we do the latter, we risk re-traumatizing ourselves. As our Edmund put it, “I know what that anger of not feeling accepted feels like… but I don’t have to go through it again… I don’t have to live in that one time. I know what that feeling feels like.”

This conversation could have lasted for a very long time, but we decided to cut it short for the time being so we could get on with the plan: watching the first episode of Playing Shakespeare. This series of filmed master classes from the Royal Shakespeare Company, filmed in 1984, is an incredible resource and a lot of fun to watch. The first episode is quite talky, and I had been concerned that it would be too academic to be very engaging, but the second people started laughing at the Christopher Marlowe monologue, I knew we were good.

Afterward, I asked the group what they thought. “I liked it,” said one of the guys. “I noticed that trying to have a normal conversation [with Shakespeare’s text] doesn’t work, and this kinda breaks it down for you. It never works when you try to do it the way someone talks now.”

“That’s the key, right? To let the words do the work?” said another man. “Shakespeare wrote it that way for a reason… I wanna add juice to it, but it’s not necessary… When you really just allow the speech to happen, the words will lead you where you need to go.”

“I took about 4-5 pages of notes,” said another man. “What stuck out to me was the marriage between naturalism and heightened language… You being to see that the emotions jump off the page… Man. I need to stop fighting with Shakespeare.”

“I feel like John Barton would have done better if he didn’t have actors who was so trained in their craft,” said one man with a smile. As we laughed, he said, “No, I’m serious... There’s no one way to see Shakespeare. We can sit around here and argue, but it comes down to the words… It’s not so different now. We live a little longer, we’ve got more ways to kill each other. But it’s the same.”

Another man agreed. “We’re approaching it from a whole different forum—from marriages, from experiences… A bunch of guys that’s trying to put something together—a bunch of people investing in their abilities to interact with other people… We’re not just doing a play… Our approach is unique.” Another man agreed, “Whatever they’re drawing from, we can’t draw from that… We’ve got to draw from our own things.”

“You’re right,” I said, “Our approach is unique, and in a lot of ways, I think it’s better.” Some of the guys nodded, while others looked at me doubtfully. “Really. I’ve gotta tell ya, when I describe this process and the discoveries you guys make about the plays, all the professionals I know get really intrigued and excited. And jealous.”

We picked our staging back up with the first scene between Edgar and Edmund, which is also the end of Act I, scene ii. Our Edgar was off book, though he refused any accolades for that, as his lines in the scene are very brief. Our Edmund was still working with centers, but, without a warm up, definitely struggled. “I got little cues for how I was feeling, but I couldn’t hit it,” he said. “I couldn’t hit my desperation… I don’t have anybody to rehearse with, so I try to imagine the other characters’ reactions, so I can use that.” Our Edgar responded, “I use the intent. The intent of the scene.”

Even so, there was some good stuff there, and when we asked them both to increase the urgency and see what happened, the scene really started to pick up. We left it in a good place and resolved to really kick out the jams on scene work when we meet again on Tuesday. The exercises and videos are great, but we do actually need to stage this play!

Season Two: Week 23

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This holiday season,

give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / November 27
Written by Matt

Today began shrouded in secrecy and ended up with a moment of clarity. One of the guys checked in to say that he’s keeping his participation in SIP from his family for now, hoping to surprise them with it when he gets out. But, he revealed, he almost slipped up on the phone the other day, and had to hastily cover it up. “In the future,” offered another, “when they call you on your lies, just say you were acting!”

Our Edmund, far from keeping SIP a secret from his family, shared with us that his great-grandmother (yes, great-grandmother) had picked up a copy of King Lear to read along with. He said that they had been talking about it on the phone, and he had read his first monologue aloud to her. She told him, jokingly, “That figures--you play the villain!” He said that they had bonded over it, and that he could feel her pride in him--“she told all of her friends!” It’s something we don’t talk about as often as we should, perhaps--the connection that many of the ensemble members gain or strengthen with their families through Shakespeare.

The rest of our session today was spent working through Act I, scene i. It’s a monster of a scene--definitely the most complicated in the play in terms of the sheer number of people moving about (or standing!) onstage, and the one that bears the greatest weight of storytelling. Every major character except for the Fool and Edgar appears in the scene, and all of the important relationships in the play are established. Unlike most of the tragedies, there is almost no “runway” leading up to the main event. Gloucester and Kent speak briefly, then Lear enters and divides his kingdom--no indirection, no misdirection, no long interactions between minor characters to give political and philosophical context (I’m looking at you, Hamlet!), just thirty seconds of dialogue and then the beginning of the play’s chaos. It’s a lot to manage, and it was a tough way to start out.

The first instinct of this ensemble has always been to sweat all the details. Too much. We had barely started when half a dozen of the guys were trying to work out the specifics of staging and body language, while others litigated the exact placement of chairs and tables. As exciting as it is that they care so deeply and have such attention to the little things, it stalled the process quickly. Frannie, helped by our Lear and a few of the guys who are more comfortable thinking about the big picture, eventually righted the conversation by talking about how we want the relationship between Lear and his daughters to look.

“It felt right when I was standing behind [France and Burgundy],” said our Cordelia, “but I knew I couldn’t be seen.” A couple of the other guys suggested that the picture might look best if Lear was offering his daughter to France and Burgundy standing beside her, as if selling her like a product. But our Lear said that he wanted to have a lot of empty space between Cordelia and him on the line “There she stands,” and we all trusted his instinct.

We reset to near the top of the play, and our Cordelia was playing around with the arrangement of the sisters, moving himself closer to Lear and away from the audience. There were moments that really worked (Lear’s “Out of my sight” to Kent was devastating), but as we ran it, the movement became muddled, and some of the guys grew restless, especially those who need to sit or stand quietly for long periods of time. We limped to the end, and it helped that Goneril and Regan were brilliant in the scene’s final moments: snakelike, speaking in sibilant voices that were creepy without being humorous.

As we began reflecting on that last run-through, Frannie again urged the guys not to indulge in problem-solving, to keep their comments to observations (what worked, what didn’t) and instincts (I wanted to go here, I wanted to move away from him). Our Cordelia really liked the new arrangement of the sisters, except for the fact that his asides needed to be delivered from center stage and felt a little false and confusing because of that. Another member asked whether we could simply freeze during the asides to make it visually clear that they are spoken to the audience. Frannie said we could try it, but noted that every single aside in the play would need to be delivered in that way, and we would need to get really good at freezing consistently if we wanted to pull that off.

While a few people mulled over how to clarify the asides, Lear said that he kept wanting to move during the scene, but felt “stuck.” Our Kent leapt up instantly. “But you know the strength of Lear’s character. Anything you do, we all have to react to you.” He demonstrated, asking others onstage to react to his movements as if he were Lear. “You can just move up to someone,” he continued. “Just like in real life. Whatever they tell you you can’t do, you can do.” Our Lear, watching this, was a little skeptical. “I feel like he’s not actually that powerful,” he said. A few guys jumped in to argue that point, but we pivoted to a new member, who had had his hand up.

“I feel like we need more choreographed movement,” he said. This led instantly to a debate about the value of predefined movement as opposed to moving totally based on instinct. Again, Frannie had to intercede here to say that theatrical “blocking” actually strikes a middle ground between dance choreography, in which every motion is determined, and improv, in which no movement is figured out beforehand. “I think you’ll find that having some guidelines will free your instincts up,” she said. And in general, she added, you move only when you “need” to.

She and Maria demonstrated with a short section of text, moving only on the words that impelled movement. This seemed to clarify the concept for a bunch of the guys. “When you were trying to get each other to see each other’s points, you moved closer,” observed our Cordelia. “As you moved away... you got more aggressive,” added our Regan.

Before we reset to try again, our Edgar, who had been working out a different concept for the staging of the scene, explained his idea. He positioned people as they would be for France and Burgundy’s entrance, when the stage is at its busiest, and walked each group of ensemble members through his ideas for how their characters move. Essentially, his concept was a refinement of the “V” shape we had often found ourselves in during early scene work, but with the characters’ positions better thought out, and Lear more visually in command.

The “V” shape (with Lear at the upstage tip) gave one of our members a chance to demonstrate how the king could visually command attention within the playing space. He walked from person to person, calling them into the center of the stage and sending them away or forcing them with his gestures to move from one side to the other. “You’re the king,” he said. “Just be the king. You want them to move, you don’t have to move; you move them with a gesture.” Another guy added, “You get to move down on the same level as everybody--if you want to.” The first man agreed vigorously, and added that Lear can take as much time speaking as he cares to. “Remember that the words are yours to use. You can stop and start and think about it…. You’re the center of the world.”

At this point, we had been talking for 45 minutes without actually trying any of it out, and people were starting to feel overwhelmed. “This is really complicated,” said our Lear, standing center stage and looking a little lost. We began to set up, and our Edgar fussed with the placement of the characters. After a moment, Frannie had to jostle the ensemble free again, reminding everyone that we are not in our actual playing space, and we will work out the details later. “Give room for instincts!” she reminded us, and we were off on round 3!

Or… almost. The guys broke off to center themselves and get into character (Lear walked across the stage and Kent shouted, “My Lord! What are you doing?!”). Sips of water, last minute adjustments of entrances, and then, at last, we began at the beginning.

As so often happens, this third run was hugely better than the one before. In the opening moments of the play, as Gloucester describes Edmund’s mother to Kent, he hit several high notes: “she grew round-wombed!” he pronounced with a wink and an accompanying roundness of voice that was perfect, and he spoke the line “I have a son by order of law” in a satirically pompous accent (“OR-duh of low”) that was both hysterical and a little touching.

Lear was totally in command. Regan and Goneril used imaginary fans to hide their faces and express themselves brilliantly. And, with the new setup, Cordelia’s asides were crystal-clear. We paused for a moment as France and Burgundy were to enter. Everything was going well, we agreed, except that Lear kept inching back upstage and away from people as he talked to them instead of standing his ground. “Dude,” said Frannie, “this is all on you! I’ll call you out!”

As we began to run the final parts of the scene, Lear kept backing up again. Frannie stopped him to bring him back. “Do I stand here between them, then?” he asked, incredulous. “Are you going to cede ground to [Cordelia]?” Frannie shot back. After a moment of thinking about it, Lear admitted, “No.”

Then, as Lear uttered his final curse on his youngest daughter, he stepped up to her, inches from our Cordelia’s face. “Better thou hadst never been born than not to have pleased me better,” he said contemptuously. A few audible reactions from the audience, including a “whoop!” paused the scene. It was so cold. “Spit in his face!” said Frannie. “What?!” Our Lear was totally wrongfooted by that. “I mean, don’t actually spit in his face, but you’re basically spitting in his face.” Under his breath, our Kent muttered, “Now I know why people are all into Shakespeare. Spit in his face!”

There was so much energy in the scene by now that the guys were finding natural movements all over the place. As we finally wound the scene down, we had a few moments for a final reflection. “That worked really, really, really well,” said our Regan. “Thanks, [our Edgar]!” exclaimed our France, and we all applauded the man who had worked out our staging.

Our Lear still felt a little swamped by the overload of feedback he had received between the second and third runs. “Too much stimuli,” he said. “I was thinking too much of everything all the time.”

We agreed to move on next time, but it felt good to end on such a solid run of this tough scene.

Friday / November 30
Written by Frannie

The guys wasted no time getting down to business today! Our Edmund has been making himself index cards that have only his lines and their cues, and he’s realized that nearly all of his cues are questions. He’s not sure yet what this means about his character, but he’s even more excited than he was before, and it’s tough to believe that that was even possible!

We called an “orange” for check-in, and our Lear asked if he could check in about the play. “I didn’t feel comfortable with the way y’all were portraying Lear as so strong,” he said, referring to Tuesday’s rehearsal of Act I, scene i. “I went back and read it seven or eight times, and—it’s just not there... It’s not like he’s no Caesar… Macbeth was at the top of his power. Lear is not. It ain’t like he’s at the top of his power anymore… He divides his kingdom. What kind of king divides his kingdom?... For me, I keep reading it, and it’s not about Lear’s power.”

The man who’d been the most outspoken about Lear’s “power” tried to clarify what he’d meant; that even without actual power, Lear has majesty. “He’s got a lot of idiosyncrasies that make him weak in effect, but he’s powerful in principle… I’m not telling you he’s making good decisions. Power is power. You get to say how that power shows.”

These two guys really like each other but sometimes have a tough time communicating (even when they agree), and I broke in to say that they were both right. “That’s his struggle through the whole play,” I said, “‘How do I navigate this new situation?’” I reassured our Lear that this is one of the most challenging roles in any play, and that it would behoove us to break down the scene, beat by beat, to find the detail he needs. I thanked him, too, for bringing all of this up. Sometimes folks can feel pressured by the ensemble (and facilitators!) to interpret a role one way, when they truly see it another. If we don’t notice, and they don’t say anything, resentment can build that detracts from the process in a big way. I asked everyone (please!) to follow this example and let us know if we’re being jerks!

Our Lear really, really wanted us to understand where he was coming from. He continued to explain: “Right off the bat, Lear shows irrationality because he’s trying to look out for his baby girl. Why else divide up the kingdom? He wants the best for his baby girl—that’s why he’s got France and Burgundy in there—and when she rejects him, it hurts. He thinks he did all this for her, and now she don’t want it? That’s hard. When it all falls apart, he can’t handle it.”

Another man suggested that the “power” issue isn’t truly about power: it’s about empathy. He hearkened back to a particularly effective scene he’d performed with another of the guys: “The reason we did that scene so well was not because we planned anything, but because we had empathy for each other,” he said. “If you have the authority, that’s where the empathy comes in—how is everybody looking at that individual?... They’re waiting to see what you do to see how they should play off of that—to see how they should feel… Do what you feel, and then other people will read it according to whatever they’re looking to you for.”

Check-in continued, but the updates were still mostly play-related! Our Gloucester has been doing some very cool, self-directed character work, including imagining himself hanging out with the actual person he’s portraying. “I sat down with Gloucester yesterday—actually, he sat ME down,” he said. “And I realized that whenever I sit down and look at him, he’s in all medieval-style, like 14th century… and that limits me in the way I portray him…. I can’t see him that way. If I break him out of that little prison I put him in… I can express him a lot better. He’s the kind of guy who shops at Tom Ford—bougie!” We all laughed, and so did he. But then he continued, “That attitude is what got me here in the first place. I was prideful, overconfident at times… very, very, very stubborn. I realized that Gloucester really was the old self of me.” We took this in, some of us grinning, some shaking our heads. He beamed, looking at each of us in turn as he said, “He found me!... That’s my old self. That’s how I got here in the first place. He found me! And that’s an epiphany for me, and I know how to play this guy now… I feel like Gloucester without the eyes—but I have eyes now.”

The guys have asked for more exercises to help them get out of their heads and feel more natural when performing, so I came prepared with a whole bunch of Michael Chekhov stuff that I thought they’d enjoy! Ours is not an acting class, but a smattering of exercises and techniques can really enhance our process, and I’ve found that Michael Chekhov’s technique is hugely beneficial even when we move through it faster and modify it more than we would in a class on the outside. In fact, as soon as I mentioned that that’s what I had up my sleeve, one of the guys asked me a detailed question about radiating (part of the technique). Another man, listening to this, said, “Where are you getting this language?” The first man sheepishly responded, “Uh—I got the book.” For real. He’s reading To the Actor right now, concurrent with a book specifically about performing Shakespeare—the second this guy has read.

Anyway: Michael Chekhov. I won’t go into a ton of detail here (because this blog is long enough already!), but the core of this technique is to use one’s imagination to change one’s physicality, and for that physicality to inform the character’s psychology: thus, we call it “psychophysical.” It goes along with the idea of emotion/memory being stored in the body: I fell in love; I took a leap of faith; I pushed her to the breaking point, etc. So it’s creativity and movement, but no thinking! Perfect for overthinkers and folks who’ve been through a lot of trauma.

We’ve already done a few simple exercises that they like, and today I asked if I could lead them through imaginary centers. The idea here is that the quality of your movement changes depending on where you imagine your energy to be centered. If your entire body is one unit centered in your head, for example, you’ll move differently than if centered in your chest, or in your left hip, or your nose, or even somewhere outside of your physical body. (I know, it’s weird if you haven’t done it yourself, but bear with me!) We focused on the three main centers and their accompanying images:

THINKING: centered in the head / the image is a stick

WILLING: centered in the pelvis / the image is a ball

FEELING: centered in the chest / the image is a veil

I will again resist the temptation to go into lots of detail; I’ll add to the above description only that this was a very physical exercise and that, while we didn’t spend the length of time on it that would have been ideal, we didn’t rush. And the guys were impressively focused on their work: even when people who weren’t in the ensemble came in and out of the gym (some literally stopping to stare), they didn’t flinch or back off. A couple of ensemble members who did lose focus a bit did so for their own reasons, not because they were distracted, and they stayed within the exercise, absorbing what the others were doing.

Afterward, we sat together in a circle on the floor. At first, no one quite knew what to say; not surprising, as this is an exercise that can be surprisingly emotional for some people, and outright unnerving for others. I gently asked for any kind of reflection from anyone: what did you notice about your experience?

“I was more comfortable in my feeling center, and second my thought center,” said one guy. “I found when I was operating in my thought center, I had a totally human experience of thinking, ‘Dude, you’re rolling around on the ground.’” A few of the others said they’d thought the same thing. “But the feeling center felt better for you?” I asked him. “The veil thing was very emotional,” he replied. “I pictured my mind like a war-riddled flag: rugged and weary.”

Another man said that each center “represented a different way that I felt my movement… The biggest part was getting over the feeling of self-consciousness. Once I got over that feeling, I really enjoyed it. Each one had a different feel to it, and I just thought, ‘Okay, there’s something to this.’” (I’m gonna add here that I honestly didn’t know if this guy was even going to participate; the fact that he enjoyed it was thrilling.) Even a man who arrived late described what happened when he dove in: “I felt my inner peace go very solid. I didn’t feel like I was here. I felt like I was in a different place. I felt like I was someone else. I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t even feel like a human.”

“I was able to access the subconscious of my own personality,” said another man. He said that he’d curled up in a ball when in his feeling center, which reminded him of when he was very shy as a kid. “As I became more comfortable, I opened up,” he said, describing how he’d spread his veil. “I was more confident in the will area… in a way that was very surprising to me.” His “old self” wouldn’t have been.

“I had a really hard time with it,” said one of the guys, explaining that the images conflicted with his own perceptions of what the objects at those centers would be. He struggled to stay focused on himself, instead observing others without meaning to and trying to do something different. “So you were performing?” I asked. “Yeah, I guess I was. My only thought was, ‘Don’t mimic it,’” he said. “It’s tough, I know,” I reassured him. “It’s hard not to perform—just to be. You’ll get there.”

Another man said he’d kept his eyes closed the entire time—he’d neither needed nor wanted to open them. “I created energy fields around me,” he said, and he’d start moving once he felt that a field was fully formed. He became a very literal stick on a nature trail in his hometown, lying on the floor, and “someone jumped over me, and that was completion for me.” (The man who’d done the jumping grinned a little. I think I was the only one who noticed.) He said that he’d had something like an out-of-body experience as the ball, seeing not only himself, but all of his surroundings, as if from above. The feeling center gave him some trouble because he wasn’t sure exactly what I meant by “veil”; instead, he became “pure rhythm.” He added that, even with his eyes closed, and even though he’d moved around quite a bit, he never feared that he’d collide with anyone. “I could feel everybody,” he said, and then he paused. “That was very intense. I wasn’t a human being—I was just an entity. And your voice was the only thing that could maneuver me besides my mind.”

One of the men said he’d felt like the big stick in Walk Tall, and that put him “in the zone… Everything was just clicking! My focus was just—tunnel, and it stayed like that the whole time.” In his willing center, he said, “I was a dodgeball, and my will was just pushing everything out of the way.”

Another man said he’d thought he’d be really good at this, but instead the technique made him sleepy. When that happened, he kept his focus with the ensemble but drifted to the side of the room so he wouldn’t distract anyone. He acknowledged that part of the issue was that he couldn’t get over the objects’ being inanimate in reality: “It seems like none of those things could move because they’re not alive.” Still, he didn’t think ill of the exercise. “My normal thing would be, ‘You guys are all crazy.’ But so many of you guys had an experience… I’m a bit jealous. I wish I could’ve done something like that.” I quickly said, “You couldn’t today. That doesn’t mean you can’t.”

“You wanna know something crazy?” said one man. “When you introduced things, my energy was already moving in that way.” Another man agreed, saying, “It was so freeing.” He hadn’t wanted to stop. “Even now, I’ve got the Chekhov glow still going.”

One of the guys said he could see the value of the exercise for our play and performances, but another asked, “How are there different sorts of wills?” I love this question for many reasons, though I’ll admit that one is that the simplest way for me to answer is to demonstrate! I chose the line, “Now then, legitimate Edgar, I must have your land,” and asked the group to throw out a type of ball, let me incorporate it into my performance, then give me another type, and so on. They gave me a ping pong ball, a dodgeball, an egg, a football, and a bowling ball. With each image, my approach changed, and I saw a lot of faces lighting up as the final pieces fell into place. “All right,” said the man who’d asked the question, grinning, “I’ve got it now!”

“Good!” I said, “Because I think we’ve arrived at Edmund’s first soliloquy, yes?” The others confirmed that that’s where we’d left off. “That’s what I thought,” I said in mock-villain fashion, as our Edmund smiled, exhaled, put his hands on his head, and looked up at the ceiling (or the heavens?). “You’re up,” I said.

The rest of us headed to the bleachers, as he took his time recentering himself. He gave a strong reading, though I think we could all feel he was holding back. Afterward, he shared, “I liked the images, especially the switch from the feeling center, going from anger to retaliation...” He went on to describe how he’d mapped out the progression in his head. One man said he’d thought “the flow was pretty smooth,” but another said, “The first time you did this, you made me want to be on Edmund’s side. You made me feel guilty for disliking him. But that didn’t happen this time.” Edmund nodded and said, “I guess I’m overthinking it.” The other man pushed back, “How’d you do it before?” Edmund replied, a little uncomfortably, that he’d been able to “go there” emotionally by “thinking about something else.”

“But the whole point is, you don’t need to think at all,” I said. “The emotion is stored in the body. You don’t need to relive the experience to remember what the physical sensation of the emotion was.” I described the experience of the woman who played Macbeth last year in the women’s ensemble. Early in the season, when we read and talked about the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” monologue, she said that it reminded her of her first night in jail: “that gut-empty feeling.” Months later, when she was frustrated with her performance, I reminded her of that. I asked if she could remember what her body had felt like that night, without reliving it. “Yeah… I felt really heavy. Like my muscles were made of lead,” she said. I asked her to go just with that and perform the piece again, and it was incredibly moving. Afterward, she said she’d felt honest, but not traumatized.

Back to this man, though. “Don’t go back there,” I cautioned him, “but do you remember what those emotions felt like, physically?” Without hesitating, he brought a fist to his chest and said, “It’s all here.”

“Okay,” I said, jumping down from the bleachers to stand with him. “Is that where Edmund is centered, do you think?” He nodded. “I’m with you,” I said. “He’s so hurt—all of this is so very rooted in emotion for him. But the feeling center is a veil, and a veil is moved by outside forces. He’s the outside force in this play, though, so…” “It’s gotta be in his will center,” the man said. “Well, it could be a battle between the two,” I said. “Try this: enter centered fully in your will, and allow yourself to drift up into your feeling center at any time—but push it back down as soon as you can. Don’t let those feelings get in your way. Don’t think about it—don’t plan it—just roll with the language and let it happen. You’ve got this.”

And, holy moly, he had it. He strode in, arm swinging by his side, almost challenging us even as he made us his allies. He gave himself fully over to the that energetic struggle, powered by the language, so much so that we heard things in it—and saw things in him—that we hadn’t before. He actually spat on, “Fine word, legitimate,” which got a vocal reaction from several of us. And that “stand up for bastards!” Oof.

He held for a moment after the lines had finished, and then we broke out in jubilant shouting and applause. His energy propelled him in a run around the gym as people yelled, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and “That’s what I’m talking about!” and “When you spit the word out—oh, Jesus!” Reaching the back of the gym, Edmund doubled over, hands on his knees, and shouted, “WHOOOOOO!!!”

When he finally came back to us, glowing, we asked him our usual question: HOW DID THAT FEEL?! “I was a pendulum!” he said, saying that he’d really felt that inner fight between emotion and will—but the ball had been in control. One man said that his increased confidence showed in his body language. Another asked, “Were you you, or were you in character?” The actor didn’t quite understand the question, so the man rephrased: “Were you Edmund, or were you—”

“I was Edmund. I was Edmund,” he said. “The feelings were my feelings, but they were coming through the character.” He’d used his real-life experience only as a crutch to “tap into something” prior to his entrance, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do if you’re drawing on something like that. “I walked five miles. I wanted to murder somebody. That was coming from here,” he said, indicating the willing center. Another man nodded vigorously. “I felt like you were a wrecking ball,” he said. “Which is a kind of pendulum!” I added.

As we circled up to lift the ring, our Edmund stood beside me, shaking his head, still beaming. “You killed me today, Frannie. You totally killed me.” I smiled and said, “Good. That’s a good thing, right?” He nodded. “That’s a very good thing.”