Season Two: Week 9

Tuesday / August 21 / 2018

Today’s check-in got a little heated when we somehow drifted into a conversation about a person’s potential vs. the opportunity for them to pursue that potential. This is a really sensitive subject for a lot of people, and it got to a point where we simply weren’t listening to each other. And we’ve been listening to each other so well lately that it compounded the frustration. Eventually I asked that we table the conversation, journal about it, and come back to it when we’re all calmer.

We stood and lowered the ring, but the tension lingered, and a few people left. Others drifted to distant parts of the room. That’s an unusual physical dynamic for us, and not something I wanted to give a chance to take root. As the saying goes, drastic times call for drastic measures. “Let’s circle back up, guys!” I called out to the room. “I’ve got a really stupid game for us to play! You’ll love it.”

There are many names and variations of this game, but the one I fall back on is “Animal Sounds.” It is among the best ensemble-building games I’ve played, and it hasn’t failed me yet. We circle up with one person in the middle. That person closes their eyes, extends their arm straight ahead with a pointed finger, and turns to their right. Those in the circle walk to their right. Eventually the person in the center stops, the circle stops, and whomever is being pointed at has to make whatever sound the person in the center demands. It could be as simple as, “Make for me the sound of an angry elephant.” Or it could be ridiculous: “Make for me the sound of a zebra who’s running late for work but hasn’t had his coffee yet and is stuck in a traffic jam.” The person in the center, eyes still closed, has to guess who’s making the sound. If they guess right, the two switch places. If not, the person in the center takes another spin.

The game completely dispelled the negative energy—I even managed to loop in the guys who’d been standing aside, venting to each other, and within 15 minutes we were ready to move on.

We arrived at Act III, scene vii, in which Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes and is mortally wounded by a servant who is, in turn, killed by Regan. This is probably my favorite scene in the play—I just love the writing of it and the way it suddenly, brutally pushes the play into an even more chaotic and disoriented—but somehow more lyrical—place. The guys all knew this was coming—I have made no bones about how much I love this scene—and when no one volunteered to read Cornwall, I was all over it.

But we’d gotten really silly with Animal Sounds, and I was admittedly giddy about reading this character in this scene. Having decided as an ensemble to read on our feet, we all got pretty loopy with it. At one point I said, “What is this, King Lear featuring the Three Stooges?” As we sat down to discuss, I apologized for my part in the zaniness and said it might not be a bad idea to read it again once we’d talked a bit.

One of the men said it seemed like the eye-gouging was Cornwall’s way of letting out his anger. “It’s like an angry mob. Once you get a mob mentality, it’s really hard to stop.” Another guy thought it was more intentional. “They were getting rid of an obstacle to all their little plans… ‘We gotta get rid of this guy and keep him from becoming a threat.’”

Another ensemble member said he thought the fast pacing of the writing was appropriate for the level of violence in the scene, and he especially liked the way in which Cornwall’s servant jumped in. The servants are “a voice of patience,” mused one man. But Cornwall and Regan… “Suddenly they are who they really are,” said another man. “They’re actually getting their hands dirty this time. Their true nature comes out. It’s one thing to do what people say—it’s another to actually do the action.”

The man who’d just read Regan asked if we could pause there and run the scene again, this time taking it seriously. We did, and though there were moments that were still a little goofy (“Man, you can move REALLY far after you’ve been stabbed, huh, Frannie?”), we definitely got more of the scene’s impact.

“There is a lot of symbolism in this scene,” said one man, citing Gloucester’s eyes (perception) and beard (honor, loyalty, and respect). Yes—and those themes carry us through the whole play; Gloucester’s been talking about his vision practically since his first entrance.

“Are we seeing a power taking off?” asked one man, who said that he hadn’t read ahead and didn’t know where things would end. “Does it lead to something bigger?” Another man nodded, saying, “It’s out with the old and in with the new.” He re-emphasized, “They’re getting their hands dirty; they’re not just plotting.” The first man then asked what we thought about Regan’s motivation in killing the servant, and a number of ensemble members said that they thought a lot of it was due to class: how dare a peasant threaten a noble? The second man said this was also a symptom of “out with the old, in with the new”: the servants are turning on the masters.

“They’re eliminating the people who can’t help them any further as they’re trying to eliminate Lear,” said one man. “Oh, interesting. You think they’re trying to eliminate Lear?” I asked. Another man nodded, saying, “Their endgame is to kill Lear… They’re trying to find a way to justify it.” Lear was just as rash as these two, a couple of men said.

But one man disagreed. “Did you see Lear plucking anybody’s eyes out?” he said. “He ruled… This is a new way of doing things.” He pointed out that Lear wasn’t totally rash even in banishing Cordelia and Kent—he gave them both time to get away. And the threats may have been impotent in any case. Lear has been stripped of everything, whereas Cornwall and Regan have back up, said another man. “Their fear is palpable, but they don’t know what to do with it.” The first man replied, “They don’t know how to rule,” and the second man said, “Exactly.”

One of the guys asked if these characters reminded anyone of characters we might have seen on TV. None of us could come up with any. One guy said he thought it was kind of a pointless question, but I said that I didn’t think it was: that pop culture can provide archetypes as much as anything else, and if that kind of parallel would provide an “in,” we should explore it. Another man said the closest parallel he could think of would be to Cinderella’s step-sisters, and another said he wouldn’t go too far with that—that those sisters are one-dimensional, and these are more complex. We need to dig through the text to find more clues.

One of the guys reiterated that he couldn’t think of any parallels to TV characters, and another said maybe we ought to be thinking more in terms of real people. He said he’d been thinking that MC Hammer’s “rise and fall” story has a lot of parallels to Lear’s.

“It could be as simple as a family reunion,” said one man, describing the types of relationships and backstabbing that can exist within families. “These characters start something but seem to be seeking their own end,” he mused. “The ones that are more flexible continue on.”

Another man tried to draw a parallel between the play’s characters and The Wizard of Oz. After at least a solid minute of humoring him, I said, “I feel like you’re reaching,” and we all cracked up (including him). He then began an attempt to link the play with Star Wars, which people immediately rejected. One man said he didn’t really like those movies, and there was a bit of an uproar. It was more or less decided that no one is allowed to dislike Star Wars or Harry Potter. In case you were wondering.

I brought us back to Goneril and Regan. “This really is an important question for us,” I said. “If we’re going to tell an authentic story, we can’t look at them as merely being evil. We have to look deeper.” One man said, “But we really don’t know anything. Do we just make it up?” I held up my book. “We have to really comb through this text and find clues, and then we build on those. And we may not ever land on an interpretation as an ensemble, but whoever plays these roles will have to agree on something. So… What are the given circumstances? What do we know about these two?”

Here’s what we came up with:

  • It’s significant that their mother is neither in the play, nor is she referred to more than once (or in any detail). What does it mean? Given the age gap between them and Cordelia, is it possible that their mother was not the same as hers? Or that their mother died giving birth to her? Or could it have been something else?
  • Their relationship with their father is very cold. Does this have anything to do with the absent mother, or is something else going on?
  • They are both attracted to Edmund and end up fighting over him.

We also know that we need to consider the way Shakespeare wrote the characters’ language—how does it want to be spoken, and what features of it can inform our interpretation? And, of course, we need to pay detailed attention to the plot.

“Are there people who just study Shakespeare?” asked one man. There sure are, a number of people replied. One man joked that there are literally “doctors of Shakespeare” and wondered how they’d do in a medical emergency. “But wouldn’t it be awesome to have someone here who, that’s all they do?” pressed the first man. “It would be,” I said, “And we certainly don’t shut out that academic perspective—that’s why we love the Arden!—but it has no more value than any perspective in this room. There’s no question that people who study Shakespeare love it, but study like that can put you in as much of a box as anything else.” I shared how eager some of the “experts” at the Shakespeare in Prisons Conference were to learn prisoners’ perspectives on the plays, which we all thought was pretty cool.

One of the men got us back on topic, suggesting that the marriage between Lear and the women’s mother could  have been arranged—and that that could have led to an emotional disconnect. “So… why is Cordelia Lear’s favorite?” asked one man. Another ensemble member posited that if Cordelia had a different mother, and Lear really loved her, and she died in childbirth, that could lead to him doting on that child. Another man said, “Maybe the the first two were supposed to be boys and came out girls… I mean, their names are not feminine. And Cordelia’s is. So maybe she’s the only one who isn’t some kind of disappointment.”

The man who’d asked about scholars of Shakespeare said he thought it kind of sucked that we won’t ever have solid answers to these questions. Two of the men emphatically (and simultaneously) said, “No! That’s the best part.” One leaned forward and said, “Look at the discussions we’re having. We get to make these plays our own because we bring our own perspectives to ’em—no one has to tell us the answers, because we take ’em from our own lives.”

Friday / August 24 / 2018

We started off the day by welcoming Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh as guests to our ensemble. They’re writing a book about finding common ground in America, and we were absolutely thrilled to contribute to the conversation. More on that below…

Before our check-in, we checked in about our check-ins! These have been lasting a really long time lately, which is largely a result of us collectively going down various rabbit holes that lead us far from whatever was initially shared. Some of these conversations have been really interesting, but they’re really not what check-in is for. I reminded everyone that, ideally, this should take no longer than 15 minutes and should consist of important personal status updates: what’s going on with you today that we need to know about? This could range from good news to bad, or statements like, “I’m having a lousy day, so if I’m a little short, don’t take it personally.” Sharing important facility-wide news (i.e., new programs and policies) is also appropriate. By keeping check-ins brief most of the time, we ensure that we have the patience for those times when someone really needs a while to share and get emotional support. But if we always spend the first half hour of our sessions in rambling conversations, people won’t let us know when they could really use more time.

And then we had a solid check-in (notwithstanding a few friendly admonitions). One of the men, spurred on by another, shared a powerful spoken word piece. It represented this man’s (ultimately futile) attempt to explain prison life to people “on the outs,” and I hope it reaches a wide audience some day. It was very moving.

We got down to business by reading Act IV, scene i, in which Edgar encounters his father, now blind and being led by an old man, and agrees to take him to a cliff. Though the reading was a little rough (they love doing these on their feet, but it’s challenging for folks who haven’t read ahead), we were all still deeply moved. It’s an incredible scene.

It can be hard to get the conversation going when the scene is as emotional as this one. I asked if anyone had any thoughts. One of the men said, somewhat haltingly, that he could relate to seeing a parent laid low like that, and that he could imagine how Edgar feels. Another silence. I asked if we could take it back to the top of the scene, and I asked what they thought was going on in Edgar’s soliloquy. The illusions are stripped away, said one man, and it feels better this way. Another agreed.

Another long pause.

“Question,” said one of the guys. “Why does he still identify himself to Gloucester as Poor Tom if he knows he’s about to kill himself?” Another replied, “Edgar has a plan. He’s nervous about seeing his father, and he doesn’t know exactly what he’s gonna do, but he’s got a plan.” Again, people were very quiet. This really is a tough scene.

“Well… does he identify himself as Poor Tom?” I asked. “No,” said someone else, “The Old Man does.” I nodded. “Right. And Edgar knows he’ll be executed if he’s found out, so does he have a choice about pretending as long as the Old Man is there? And, if not, when would be a good time to reveal himself to his father? I don’t know.”

One of the men said he thought Edgar vacillates before being identified—that he wants to reveal himself. “He’s just heard Gloucester going on about missing his son, and then the Old Man cuts in and identifies him as Poor Tom,” he said. “What’s he gonna do?”

“This is part of the human experience, right?” I said gently. “Knowing you have a choice to make, and then someone else coming in and taking that decision away from you? Making it for you?” There wasn’t really a response to that, but I didn’t expect there to be. Too much to unpack there, for now, anyway.

There was a little confusion about all of Edgar’s lines about “worse” and “the worst”, and we took a minute to clarify what he’s saying: that he thought things were as bad as they could get, and then they got worse—so who knows how bad it could get? “Pretty fucking bad,” said a man who’s read the whole play.

But Edgar doesn’t sit in it. “He’s taking responsibility for his father,” said one man. “He’s gonna do these things for his father, knowing that’s his father—knowing he wanted him to be killed.” Another man said, “He made himself a conscious being to Gloucester by answering, ‘Do you know Dover?’”

Coffey pointed out the significance of the line, “Who’s there?” She said that that line generally carries a lot of weight in Shakespeare’s plays, and that it demands a true response: Who am I? “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” I said, quoting one of Lear’s lines. “It’s that way through the whole play,” said one of the guys. It sure is, I said. Which means we’ve gotta keep watching out for that theme. Who am I?

There was another pause. (This is when I’m apt to take a heavier hand in our sessions—when we’ve clearly hit on sensitive material, and no one is quite sure how to transition from one thing to the next.) “Can I bring our attention, real quick, to a couple of iconic lines in this scene? Phrases that strike people, over and over, for hundreds of years, are generally worth paying attention to.” We began with “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.”

“He means it’s chaos,” said one man. “The gods are just killing people for fun.” He began to share how this was like his outlook on religion, and I quickly steered it back to the play: this is a core theme in Lear, but it need not have anything to do with our personal religious beliefs. Shakespeare wrote what he wrote, and we can keep it within that context.

Returning to the text, one man said, “That’s not a statement all on its own, though. Let’s look at the lead-up to that.” He read the passage up to those lines. “Yeah, it’s…” he sat forward in his seat. “Now he’s blind and he’s looking back at his actions—” he broke off, shook his head, and excitedly continued, “This is crazy. He’s blind. And he’s looking back at his actions… I cast my son aside, and then I saw this man, a worm… I just cast my son aside…” He shook his head again, overwhelmed.

Another man said the point, too, is that there is no reason for any of this. It’s just chaos. He likened it to the way people try to analyze school shootings, and people who commit those acts. “Why? Why? Sometimes there isn’t any reason.” The first man nodded, saying, “It’s the carelessness with which we handle each other.”

One of the men drew our attention to the fact that, as a group, we’d arrived at an interpretation that matched the “translation” in the No Fear edition almost word for word. “I know this doesn’t have as much detail as the Arden,” he said, “But I like to read the actual text, and then look at this, and see if it confirms my interpretation.” Another man agreed, saying it’s also helpful when he gets stuck. I shared that these are precisely the reasons we use the No Fears—not as authoritative texts, but to make sure we can all keep up with the plot and overall content.

Coming back to Gloucester, one man said, “It took vulnerability for him to say that in the first place… The frailty of human life... “ He cited worms as being, to most people, among the lowest forms of life. But can we ever truly understand a worm? Or vice versa? Another man said that that definitely applies to people who are perceived as “low.” But even the lowest forms of life serve a purpose. “They see them as worms because they don’t take the time to see [the value they have] in the first place.”

“What’s the other iconic line?” asked one of the men. “On the next page,” I said. “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” One of the men said, “The blind are leading the blind.” I replied, “Not the blind—madmen. Crazy people are leading people who can’t see. That’s the time’s plague.”

A number of people sighed audibly. “We all know that, for sure,” said one person. “It’s happened at times throughout history and in our lives,” said another. Angrily, then, one man said, “It’s fucked up all the time, though, when someone who’s not right in the head is leading us.” To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what he was referencing—it could have been prison, or another situation in his life—but it was clear that a number of people took it as a reference to current events and called a hold so we wouldn’t drift into a partisan political conversation. “I didn’t hear anyone say anything about Trump,” said one man sardonically, to which several people replied, “Dude, seriously! Let’s move on.”

“This play could easily be named ‘Edgar and Gloucester’,” said one man. “Their relationship is so intense, it could definitely carry the play.” Another man said that the theme of familial relationships runs throughout the play and extends to practically every character. Even the Fool, he said, is like Lear’s nephew—he calls Lear “‘nuncle.” One of the men (antagonistically, I think), said that that didn’t mean they had a familial relationship. The other man said, “Yes, it does—’nuncle is a term of endearment. Lear loves him.” Another man said, though, that Lear doesn’t treat the Fool like he does his own family—he’s much kinder to the Fool.

“That don’t mean Lear don’t love the others,” said one man. “You ask any cop—domestic violence is one of the scariest things police can get called to because there’s so much emotion.” The violence tends to be more extreme than that between strangers, he said, and that applies to Lear’s abuse of Cordelia and Kent. But with the Fool, it’s a little different. “[The Fool] is like Lear shoulda been… His good self is right there, telling him, ‘This is how you shoulda been acting.’”

Another man added, “It’s about perceptions… [Being a jester] gives the Fool allowance [to be honest], where Cordelia doesn’t have that allowance… The Fool is expected to act like that.” I agreed: it could be that Lear’s affection for all is equal (or similar), but the Fool’s delivery is what allows him to be treated differently.

The conversation turned to Gloucester. One of the guys said, “Isn’t it amazing how everybody who thinks about suicide thinks it’s gonna make things better?” Someone else said that suicide is selfish. The guy next to me inhaled sharply and quietly said, “I hate this conversation.” I broke in for a moment to ask everyone to be sensitive—that this theme is in the play, so we need to talk about it, but that we need to bear in mind what a difficult subject it is for many people.

One of the men said he didn’t think Gloucester is necessarily thinking about much of anything. “When you’re carrying a burden, and it gets to be so heavy… Your first instinct is, ‘I just wanna drop that weight’… They want to be done, right then and there.”

Two of the guys shared candidly about their experiences, and the discomfort began to be palpable again. “Thank you so much for sharing this with us,” I said. “I’m not sure that what you’re describing is what’s happening with Gloucester, though. Again, we need to talk about suicide because it’s part of the play, but we need to make sure that’s where our focus stays. How can my experience inform our interpretation, whether it was different or similar?” A few people said things like, “Yes,” and “Thank  you,” under their breath. One man smiled incredulously and said, “It’s crazy that this was written in the 1600s, and we still think the same things… I think he wrote about kindness and humanity. He was teaching people how to be more human.”

Building off of what I’d said, one of the guys said, “You could take the conviction of what [NAME] was saying and put that into the play… There’s no other way to interpret his experience, but we put it into the context of the play, and that way no one’s feelings get hurt.”

Maybe Gloucester believes that his grief can lead to redemption in the form of jumping off the cliff, one man said. “You mean, like, atonement?” asked another. “Yeah… or like, a closure to him,” said the first man. “You seek to bring closure to the people around you before you do it,” said another man, referring to Gloucester’s wish to see Edgar. “He wants to say, ‘I’m sorry. What I did to you was wrong’... When you get to that point, it’s really hard for anyone to bring you back from.”

But that’s not really what’s going on with Gloucester either, a few people said, and then those who hadn’t read ahead pointed out that the motivation really isn’t clear in this scene. But it will be the next time we see Gloucester, so we decided to table the conversation till we get back to him.

We switched gears so the guys could answer some questions from our guests. Here are just a few of the things that they shared.

What did you learn about yourselves in the Shakespeare group?

  • Our common ground is our emotions. We can all relate to emotions.
  • “You’re almost forced to leave who you are outside this room when you walk in the door,” said one man. Another guy asked, “Have you not found your group of friends has diversified since? … Our subcultures look on us with confusion. I had to test my courage to step outside of that.” Courage means ignoring the razzing, he said. The first guy said yes, and, “I’m glad you used the word courage… I got a lot of flack about this group. I’ve had to have the courage to weed people out, or it’s strengthened bonds with others.”
  • “Coming to this group is a way to express my own identity… because it’s Shakespeare. He wrote about human identity… In here, not only can you express yourself, but you can grow… There’s aspects of me that have changed. Everybody in here has aspects that have changed."
  • “There’s nothing we can’t use to become kinder… This living is so hard, how can we be anything but loving? I can’t be one way over here and the other way over there. I can’t do it. This is changing me.”
  • “Shakespeare is a catalyst. It provides the tools we need to do better.”

What does it take to have redemption in your own life?

  • “I call it the a-ha factor. That moment when you realize you gotta do something different with your life… In order for me to have redemption, I have to do things exactly opposite than the way I’ve usually done them… I have to step outside myself.”
  • “To me, redemption is about continuing… It’s not about undoing what you’ve done, it’s about moving past that… Not burying it… but moving forward and saying, ‘That’s what I’ve done, and I’m never gonna do it again.’” It’s not up and out: it’s through.
  • “It’s really about self-worth. We can’t show out what we don’t know. I can’t love if I don’t know love.”
  • “We’re able to teach each other infinitely, almost… because of the dynamic diversity in this group, we’re able to teach each other something we could never get anywhere else.”

Before we left, a man who’d refrained from checking in called me over to the diagram he’d drawn on the board. It was of an atom. “I wanted to show you this because what you’ve been saying is wrong,” he said. He pointed to the nucleus. “This right here is the axis of the entire atom. None of these things out here can exist without the nucleus. So when you say you’re no more important than anybody else, that’s actually total bullshit.”

“I see what you’re saying,” I said, “And I will cop to being the nucleus, because I know that this program doesn’t exist without me; even physically, I know you guys can’t meet without a facilitator being here.” He nodded and said, “You see?” I said, “But hang on a second. Being essential doesn’t make the nucleus any more important than any other part of the atom—it’s just the anchor. The atom still needs all of its other parts to be what it is, and the nucleus can’t fulfill any of those functions.”

“Okay… okay…” he said slowly, looking at the diagram and then back at me. “But the nucleus still runs things,” he said. “You see what I’m saying? It’s still more important.” I smiled and said, “Okay, fine. Administratively, I’m the most important because I’m the one who knows how to do all that stuff. But in terms of what we do in this room, my opinion is no more important than anybody else’s. I know you don’t want to believe me, but, truly, my ideas are very rarely the best. The most important features of this program were thought up by other ensemble members.” He raised an eyebrow and said, “Seriously?” I said, “Yeah, for real. This program here is still new, and it’s not happening much here yet, but over in the women’s ensemble, my ideas are constantly being modified or shot down entirely. Dude, the structure of this season, here, right now, was a modification of my idea by this ensemble. That’s what I mean when I say my opinion holds no more value than any other.”

He smiled and said, “Okay. I’ve got it now. I’m gonna shoot down your ideas more, don’t worry.” As he erased the board, I said, “Good. I’m looking forward to it.”