Season Two: Week 39

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We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

Tuesday / March 19 / 2019
Written by Matt

This is the part of the season where blog posts start to get short! Our plan today was to start at the top of the show at one o’clock and run as much of it as we could. We were slightly delayed getting started, but we mostly stuck to the plan: we began Act I scene i at 1:09 p.m.

Right away, things got muddled. The first scene is both complicated and extremely important to understanding the play’s themes and relationships. In the chapel (as opposed to the gym, which is our actual performance space), Lear’s entrance with his family and court caused an epic traffic jam that slowed us down from the start. There were some lovely moments (Kent’s “banishment is here” earned a note of “mic drop” from Frannie), but it still took us more than fifteen minutes to run through that scene.

Part of the issue was perennial: lines. Many of the guys have cue cards now, which are less obtrusive than scripts but are forever getting shuffled or dropped and put back out of order. The few guys who have committed their lines to memory still stumble over them a bit, miss cues, and stand for precious moments struggling to recall them. This is a common enough occurrence in any nonprofessional theatre, and it’s always an issue in SIP, but none of the guys has had the experience of simply forging ahead in spite of mishaps, keeping the show going instead of stopping to make it perfect. With the women, we have always had at least a couple of people who can carry their experience of performance over to the next year. It’s really a different approach to the whole endeavor as the ensemble sacrifices everything on the altar of telling the story. And maybe it’s because this group of guys is so brilliant and rigorous and dedicated that they struggle to switch into a new paradigm--one in which the important thing is letting go.

In any case, the run sped up. The scenes that we knew would be a mess were a mess--Act I scene iv, in particular, was confused and jumbled, in part because we had cast the non-speaking knights before our new members arrived on Friday, so that scene stretches us thin. But once we got to Act II, we were rolling. The scenes were taking only a few minutes each, even the long ones, which is a good sign. We got up through Act V scene i before we had to call it quits; it had been almost exactly two hours. The guys seemed a little bit deflated by not being able to finish the run, but we tried to assure them that two hours (well, it would have taken us another fifteen minutes if we had finished the play, but still!) was a really good length at this stage in the process. As we put up the ring, everyone was excited for the arrival of the costumes and props on Friday… facilitators included!


Friday / March 22 / 2019
Written by Coffey

Today was our first day working with costumes and props. Bringing six bins of clothes, a bunch of foam swords, and fake stocks through security was an adventure in itself, but I think I can speak for the rest of the team when I say we’d do it a thousand more times to see what it means to the ensemble members. Regan and Goneril, with their matching black dresses and black, lacey fans, looked fierce (in every sense) and immediately matched their outfits with sharper, more severe posture and movement. Lear looked “every inch a king” in his long robe and crown. Once the costume was on, his shoulders were pulled back and his head was high and level. It was unexpectedly emotional to see the men seeing themselves in their costumes. One man put on a suit that happened to fit perfectly, and he stood in silence for a few moments, staring at himself as if he couldn’t believe what he saw. Today was a striking reminder of how powerful costumes can be and how easily a change of clothing can make you feel like a different person.

After the magic of trying on costumes for the first time, we got to the nitty gritty of a cue-to-cue. As is usual with any production, the cue-to-cue process was long and frustrating at times, but seeing the men in their costumes in front of the finished backdrops was exciting. The show is coming together, and the hard work is starting to pay off.

Season Two: Week 38

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Would not a pair of these (coins) breed?

Tuesday / March 12 / 2019
Written by Matt

Some of the guys have already gotten the pictures from our shoot a few weeks ago! We don’t share them directly, but some family and friends found them on the SIP website, and sent them to our members, who were excited to see them.

Also exciting was the chance for some of our members to meet businesspeople from all over the world at the Vocational Village at Parnall. The guys who were at the event were really moved and inspired by it. “We live in a global society,” said one, “and to be involved in that while inside…” his voice trailed off and left the rest implied. He continued, “I’ve been here 22 years. I no longer think the way I thought when I came in. Going out, I will no longer be a convict—I will be a returned citizen, ready to contribute to society.”

Check-in took a while today, mostly because of a conversation about the attendance policy that I won’t bore you with. A veteran had to give up his role because of work conflicts, so we needed a new Oswald again. At this point in the season, we explained, it’s usually just easier to plug facilitators in when roles open up--and everyone turned to look at Maria. “You’d make a great Oswald,” one said.

What they didn’t notice as they were all getting used to Maria as Oswald was the ensemble member with his hand in the air. “I’ll play Oswald,” he said. It took a second to recalibrate before everyone congratulated him on volunteering for the role. He had wanted to only play small roles before, and here he was, putting himself in to take on a big role, including three fights! It’s often these last-minute casting changes that bring out ensemble members’ inner heroics; so many times, it is the ones who have hung back or counted themselves out who end up diving into big roles in the final weeks of the process.

With the time and people we had left, it made sense to work through our new Oswald’s scenes for the rest of the session, to get him acquainted with the blocking and the fights. And, man… did he ever throw himself in! He quickly learned the blocking for his scenes, and ran over and over the fights, which involved staggering and falling to the floor multiple times. Our Lear and Kent walked him through the fights, coaching him on how to take a “slap” and where to fall.

Our Oswald, who is older than the other ensemble members, has been sticking up for “old men” like Lear and Gloucester throughout the season, telling us not to see them as weak or frail. In some way, this man’s willingness to do these physically demanding stage-fighting moves over and over seemed like a pointed demonstration of what he’s been saying all season: don’t underestimate the old guy!

Friday / March 15 / 2019
Written by Coffey

“Thanks for letting me back in, y’all. I’m all the way in.”

Today we had five new and returning ensemble members join us. Some were encouraged to come by current members, others have been keeping an eye on us and wanting to take part for a while. Regardless of what brought them to the gym today, they all seemed excited to be there. “Thank you for letting me try,” one of the new members said. They were greeted warmly by the rest of the ensemble, who were excited to have more hands on deck for our final weeks of rehearsal. “You are gonna be a big help to us!” one man said.

While the new and returning members had an orientation with Frannie and a couple others, the rest of us started working on Act 3, scenes ii and iv. Scenes in which one man is completely delusional, another is pretending to be, one man is cracking jokes constantly, and one is just trying to get them all inside and out of the rain are not easy to make cohesive. Our Lear and Fool prepared for the chaos by jumping up and down and shaking their arms out together right before going onstage. For the first few tries, the men were all in their own different worlds. The scene felt like three different scenes happening on the same stage. This led to Kent accidentally pulling his sword on Gloucester in a moment of distraction and quickly apologizing (“Sorry—didn’t mean to pull that on you, buddy!”) and Gloucester setting Lear on fire with his imaginary torch. With each run of the scene, however, the men became more and more connected until, despite their characters’ varied mental states, they were all occupying the same space. Matt at one point tapped my shoulder and pointed downstage right whispering, “Look at that...” I looked up to see Lear, crouched and hovering over Edgar, sheltering him with his own body and whispering to him as though he were comforting a frightened child—these two isolated characters finally finding refuge in each other.

The men carried that synergy into Act 3, scene vi, though our Lear was trying to feel out just how detached from reality he would be at this point in the play.

“Am I joyful? Happy?” he asked.

“It’s up to you—you’re crazy!” Kent replied.

The shared energy between the actors may have been carried a little bit too far, as our Kent matched Lear’s crazy by uncharacteristically slamming his hands on a table and shouting his “Where is the patience now,/ that thou so oft have boasted to retain?” into Lear’s face.

The scene immediately stopped as some of us laughed at the unexpected outburst from a usually cool Kent (including Kent himself). “Well, Kent has forced us to start the scene again due to his complete lack of compassion,” Frannie laughed.

We looped back around to Act 2, scene iv, and the improvement I saw since we last ran this scene was incredible. Cue pickup was snappy, and the men were completely plugged in to each other and the scene. As Regan and Cornwall placed Kent in the stocks, their power as a unit made me fear for anyone who would stand in their way as the play went on.

Albany was sitting next to me and watching the scene. “Why is Albany not in this scene?” he asked himself, noticing that Goneril entered the scene without him. “He probably doesn’t even know Goneril is there,” I replied. “She didn’t even leave a note,” he mused, staring into the distance. It’s good to see that the character relationship dynamic is continuing to develop.

For most of the time in which we were doing scene work, I could hear one of our returning members excitedly giving the context to the newer members and explaining to them what he felt made the scenes so beautiful. His eyes rarely left the stage, and he even changed seats every few minutes to get a different view of the action. As the rehearsal came to a close, nearly every new member asked for a copy of the play so they could start studying as soon as possible.

Before we brought the ring down, Frannie paused to give a few announcements. Frannie will often punctuate a sentiment by throwing a pen or a script on the ground, but this time when she did so (accidentally), it was followed by an “O Captain my captain”-style sequence of everyone silently throwing pens (or whatever they had at hand, including a boot...) onto the ground in the center of the circle. Even some of the new members joined in. It was great to see that, instead of being intimidated by how late in the process they were joining us (or by how silly things can get in rehearsal), the new men were excited to immerse themselves in the play and were already comfortable with rehearsal shenanigans. Their dedication and good senses of humor are a welcome addition to our last few weeks of rehearsal.

Season Two: Week 37

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Put but money in (our) purse.

Tuesday / March 5 / 2019
Written by Emma

Walking in to the men’s ensemble this week, I felt guilty. A bulk of my time as a facilitator is spent at the women’s facility, and weather cancellations had thwarted my most recent plans to attend the men’s ensemble. As a result, it had been well over a month since I had last seen the guys. With the performance dates approaching, I knew I had missed a lot. However, my guilt was for naught. I was greeted with the customary big smiles and friendly salutations as we circled up.

A harbinger of spring (hopefully), the men were in a rather sunny mood as check-ins commenced. A few ensemble members shared that they’d had recent birthdays, with one member smartly commenting, “If I was a car, I’d be a classic now.” A few of the guys shared lighthearted updates about their families and friends, followed by a very animated discussion regarding “cook-ups”—a highly resourceful prison version of the TV show Chopped. Commenting on the inventive smorgasbords, one member gestured to his belly and stated, “This is the result of cook-ups.” After a healthy round of laughter, focus shifted to the day’s tasks. Our agenda, though short, included two important items of business: we needed to select a play for next season, as well as run through as much of the show as possible without stopping.

The selection of next year’s play was a collaborative process—a hallmark of SIP. After some preliminary discourse, the ensemble seemed to have narrowed down the choices to a tragedy, Julius Caesar, and a comedy, As You Like It. The men thoughtfully weighed the pros and cons of each of these options. “It keeps up the energy of the troupe to do comedy,” one veteran member stated in favor of As You Like It. “But,” another member chimed in, “for a men’s compound, a lot of people would want to see Julius Caesar.” After a few more minutes of Comedy vs. Tragedy deliberation, one man posed the question: “What’s the difference between comedies and tragedies? If you’re doing a great play, what’s the difference?” Building on this thought, another member added, “From a personal perspective as an artist, if people like my work, they’ll come back and see it regardless.” When all had spoken their piece, the decision was left up to a vote. Final tallies found As You Like It in the lead, making it the official play for the men’s ensemble’s 2019-20 season!

With next season’s fate decided, we moved on to the first run through (well, run-as-much-as-we-can-through) of Lear. As mentioned earlier, I had not seen what the guys had been working on for some time. I wasn’t sure what to expect as they took their places to the sides of our performance area. But whatever I was expecting, these fellas absolutely surpassed it. Within the first few lines of dialogue, the massive amounts of work that the ensemble had done in my absence was evident. For the next hour and a half, I sat captivated.

I was asked to take notes on areas that I felt could use improvement and/or clarification. Upon reviewing what I had written, it would appear that my comments were actually overwhelmingly laudatory. Since my last observation, each and every character had grown in depth and complexity. Our Goneril and Regan, who, during my last visit, were dipping their toes into villainy, had come alive with a cool venom as they rained false praise on Lear in Act I, Scene 1. In the same scene, our Lear demonstrated an impressive range of emotion that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. During the banishment of Kent, Lear deftly entwined anger and sorrow, landing in quiet desperation on the line, “Kent, on thy life, no more.” Aaaand, cue the goosebumps!

Other highlights of the run-through include: Gloucester’s slow emotional and physical transition from esteemed nobleman to haggard outcast, the way Edmund was able to convey manipulativeness while still soliciting sympathy, and Edgar’s fearless dive into his Poor Tom persona, which included covering his face in his long hair and adopting a slight accent. Our Fool, who is new to the role, proved himself to be a natural. He carried himself from scene to scene with a slightly hunched back, his hands held to his chest, in a way that felt very Wormtongue from The Lord of The Rings. However, unlike Wormtongue, our fool maintained a very subtle air of levity as he delivered his lines—perfect, coming from a Fool in the midst of a tragedy. The overall impact was, according to my notes, “on point.”

After stopping only a handful of times to fix urgent hiccups, we concluded the run-through (about ⅔ of the way through the play) with a few minutes left and briefly discussed how it felt: what worked, what didn’t, and thoughts for moving forward. As I was busy picking my jaw up off the floor, we raised the ring and said our goodbyes for the day. Whereas walking in I felt guilty, walking out I felt electrified.

Friday / March 8 / 2019
Written by Coffey

We met today without Frannie, unfortunately, but after getting through most of the play at the last rehearsal, the men were anxious to see how quickly we could reach the end, and it was full steam ahead.

With the 90-minute time limit on everyone’s mind, most of our check-in was devoted to how we’re planning to make cuts to the script, a process that proved to be a delicate and involved one to some of the men. “I’m very sensitive about cutting my scenes,” our Lear said, “ ‘cuz I’ve gone through the Arden several times trying to cut my lines.” To others, the process was solely in the interest of time: “It wasn’t really about certain lines,” our Albany said, “There’s a certain value to everyone’s lines.” Regardless of which lines the men chose to cut, one man advised that everyone “get with the person you’re in a scene with and let them know if the cues have changed.”

Matt suggested that, in addition to cutting unnecessary lines, the men could start trying to bring more of a sense of urgency with them on stage. This would help transitions between scenes to speed up, cues to be picked up more readily, and the overall time of our run-throughs to shorten. Another man added that offstage distractions have been cutting into our time: “Side distractions are frustrating. Critique-wise, I think everyone is doing an awesome job. We got 75% of the play done in an hour and a half. Let’s focus on getting that last 25% and help each other out.”

Ending check-in on that encouraging note, we decided to warm up by playing a game of “Wah”. We stood in a circle, loudly wah-ing at each other and striking coordinated poses until someone missed their cue and was eliminated. This went on until we had two players left standing (Matt being one of them).

We began our rehearsal where we left off, going from Edgar and Gloucester’s reunion in Act IV, scene 1, to the play’s finale. The run had its setbacks. Entrances were still pretty chunky, the minor roles, as well as Edmund and Oswald (who were absent), were taken on by whoever had a free moment, and everyone was still a bit shaky on the blocking—pretty normal setbacks for a run at this point in the season. The men are beginning the hard process of moving their focus from character building and scene work to the show as a whole. As they continued that transition today, it gave us an opportunity to see how strong their characterization and in-scene work has become. Gloucester, after being horribly abused by Regan and Cornwall, wasn’t wilting or muted about his hopelessness and lost faith in the world, but enraged by it. “O you mighty gods! This world I do renounce, and, in your sights,/ Shake patiently my great affliction off,” was not a plea, but a loud declaration punctuated with his balled fists—something I’ve never scene a Gloucester do.

Gloucester wasn’t the only one showing a surprising streak of anger. Cordelia, when we circled back to rehearse Act I, scene 1, responded to Lear’s vitriolic, “Better thou / Hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better,” by charging Lear, threatening to push him. I read just as much hurt in this action as I would have if Cordelia shrank back and burst into tears. A moment of laughter came during I.i as well, when Gloucester entered in the middle of Lear and Cordelia’s confrontation and sat down very slowly, unsure if he was intruding, and deeply uncomfortable. Amidst the chaos of trying to go straight through the show, these strong, unique choices were energizing and carried the men through. Even Goneril, who is typically reserved onstage, let loose during the final scene, his look of terror fully convincing me that Goneril’s world was falling apart.

We finished the play with a runtime of 2 ½ hours - not bad at all for an early run through! Wrinkles still remain as they would in any show, but a note from Emma really sums up the feeling with which we all left the gym: “However weary, anxious, or frustrated you may be feeling at this point in the season, you’re doing spectacular work, and it shows.”

Season Two: Week 36

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If money go before, all ways do lie open.

Tuesday / February 26 / 2018
Written by Matt

This is a week of guests, and today’s was especially exciting! For the first time at Parnall, we brought in friend of SIP and super-talented photographer Chuk Nowak. A couple of years ago, Chuk filmed this mini-doc about our program. But that was before our men’s ensemble was even conceived of, and so we were especially happy to have him at Parnall today to capture some of the amazing work these guys are doing!

The guys seemed excited, and we had a full complement of apprentices. I was so excited that I got up at five in the morning to be there. On Monday, I was stuck in a blizzard for eighteen hours in Sault Ste Marie, but when the roads were re-opened, I made a madcap drive over the 300-plus miles of ice-road between the Sault and Jackson. A couple of the guys noted my haggard aspect with concern, but I was happy to be there.

Check-in ran slightly long, as we worked through some interpersonal issues, but the ensemble is often at its strongest when wrestling with these sorts of challenges. Everyone seemed happier after the conversation (yes, I’m being cagey), and a few of the guys even articulated what, exactly, they get out of SIP. In particular, one of them described his own process of feeling intimidated and out-of-place, to falling in love with the language and characters of Lear—and then with the entire theatrical side of the program. “For me, the biggest thing is Shakespeare,” he said, adding that other people get totally different things out of it.

One of those others spoke up. A member of our Parnall program since its inception, he talked about the arc of his relationship to the ensemble--he had stepped aside for a while and just recently stepped back fully into his role as a leader of the group. Everyone is important to the functioning of SIP, he said, and everyone is somewhere in the process of changing himself. “You got to bring to the table what you got to bring to the table,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves to be understanding because of all that we have in common--and that’s Shakespeare!”

“This is prison,” allowed the man who initiated the conversation. “And this is, like, the best thing in prison.”

That might have been the feel-good quote of the day if one of the other guys hadn’t filled us in on a conversation he had the other day with some people in his unit. “Guys were asking where we’re gonna get our girls from,” he said, chuckling. “I was like, ‘What girls?’ and they said, ‘The girls for the parts!’ and I was like, ‘Well, we play them! We got some badass motherfuckers here, man!’”

There was no comment required, and that was a hard act to follow, but our Regan added, “Not only do real men do Shakespeare--real men play women in Shakespeare.”

(Note from Frannie: These two comments are remarkable—and exciting—in many ways. We want our readers to have as much insight into this process as possible, and that means preserving authenticity as much as we can without identifying individuals. It would not be in keeping with that, or with our mission, to edit or censor the first man’s language. The words he chose are part of what is so striking about what he said.)

Today’s main business was finishing the blocking of the final scene. Before we got too far, our Goneril repeated his kneecap-slide into Edmund from last week. He stopped and looked up at Frannie, saying he didn’t think the slide would work. “I feel like the slide takes away” from the moment, he said. “I think you’re wearing a skirt, and you will pull it right off if you do that,” said Frannie. This led to a brief sidebar with Regan and Goneril about how to move in a skirt. (Highlight: Frannie suggested that they work with jackets tied around their waists and draped in front of them. Regan said they’ll just use old sheets as makeshift wrap dresses to practice. Goneril started to protest, but Regan shamed him into agreeing to make a sheet-dress. Stay tuned for more sheet-dress antics.)

Even our first run of the scene was pretty good. “We were feeding off each other,” noted one of the guys. “I’m not sure how it felt, “ added another, “but it looked so awesome.”

“How do we build on this?” asked Frannie.

“More emotion!” said Lear.

“Sweeping the floor!” added Goneril, who was lying “dead” on the ground.

While one of the guys got a broom to sweep, Frannie challenged our Lear to maintain the intimate connection with Cordelia. In the final moments of the scene, he had stood up from his youngest daughter’s body to speak directly to the others in the room. “You’re letting him off the hook,” she said. One of the guys backed her up, saying, “It’s way more powerful with you down with her.”

Another one of the guys explained why: “It’s a king’s words,” he said, “but a father’s motive.”

Our Lear was reluctant to run the scene again. “I just don’t think I can get into it,” he said. “I don’t know if I can get where I need to be with my emotions.” Eventually, he agreed to give it another shot, even if he was just walking through it without giving it his all...

Maybe he should halfass it more often! The second run was a success from the beginning. The urgency of each actor’s performance was markedly better at the top of the scene, and it only increased as we progressed. Albany, who had been excellent in the first run (he listens to the other actors so well), was magnificent, fully embodying his character’s fast-shifting anger, shock, and disbelief. The moments were poignant, sharply defined, and effective. But after Edmund’s mortal wounding, the guys took it up a notch. Goneril turned snake-like when confronted with her scheming by Albany, slithering away on “the laws are mine, not thine.” As the brothers reconciled, Edmund (a stand-in) grasped Edgar’s arm as he said, “the wheel has come full circle.”

But it was Lear who gave the show-stopping performance. He raged and howled, his deep voice fully resonant for the first time this season. Tears trickled down his face as he focused intensely on Cordelia’s body, dying with his arm across his daughter.

When we were done, everyone took a second to breathe before looking around. It was clear that something special had happened. “I don’t know if I have words,” said Frannie. There were some notes given and comments made, but mostly we were in awe of the performance that had just happened.

Our Edgar reflected after the scene about his character. “He has nobility,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean crap to him.” Edgar, he said, “is more interested in being a person, not in ‘being’ a title. He might be a little bit of a playboy, like his father. … He’s trying to push off everything on his brother. That’s why he’s not in the first scene.”

Speaking of the first scene of the play, which we haven’t touched in almost two months, we had just enough time to run it. Fresh from the success of the final scene, everyone brought the same energy to the first one! The new folks slid right into their roles as Cordelia and Burgundy, and everyone was working hard to make the story’s setup as clear as possible. An absolute highlight was the scene’s final beat, when Regan and Goneril exchanged a catty look, then slithered over to their hapless sister, surrounding her as they pestered her with commentary. It was funny and chilling, and it perfectly displayed their roles.

Today was a success for many reasons: we finally finished blocking the play, Chuk took some amazing pictures of the guys at work… and, most of all, that performance of the final scene was not only a work of enormous commitment and integrity--it was a moment of genuine artistic achievement, which is never our goal with SIP, but which speaks to the creativity, work ethic, and bravery of this group of men. I drove four hours from Sault Ste Marie to be there, but I would have driven from Duluth to see what I saw today.

Friday / March 1 / 2018
Written by Frannie

One of the highlights of each season of SIP is when we learn fight choreography for the show! There have been times in the past when I’ve taken the lead on this (I can manage some VERY basic fencing and hand-to-hand combat), but in recent years we’ve been extremely fortunate to have brought a bona fide stage combat choreographer onto the team! His name is Patrick Hanley, he’s also facilitated at Parnall and in youth workshops, he’s amazing, and everyone should hire him all the time for everything. That’s what I have to say about that.

Anyway, I spend a lot of time thanking my lucky stars (much to Edmund’s chagrin, I’m sure—fa, sol, la, mi...) for Patrick, and today was no exception. After a quick check in, the group divided up as each fight was choreographed, with great care and efficiency, while those who weren’t fighting took measurements for costumes, ran lines, looked for cuts to the text, or helped out in one area or another.

It was classic SIP to a tee. What could have been chaos somehow wasn’t; even though there was a lot going on, each person was wholly focused on whatever their task was at any given moment. Even people who generally don’t get along worked beautifully together, and the fights turned out amazing—or so I’m told; I spent the whole session doing textwork with folks.

Unfortunately, this made for a very short blog. I hope we get some really good photos of these fights in performance!

Season Two: Week 35

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For saying so, there’s gold.

Tuesday / February 19 / 2019
Written by Matt

During check in, one of our members asked whether we wanted to add new people to the ensemble for this 6-week home stretch. As always, this suggestion initiated a discussion. One of our veterans asked why we’d be adding people this late in the game, but a couple of the guys listed all the arguments on the side of adding folks. A few others jumped in, so that one man stopped everyone to get an accounting of the arguments on the other side. There was a short silence afterwards before Frannie suggested that if we wanted to take a few people, we should be clear with them that there are only small parts left and backstage work. “If new people are really serious about doing it, they’ll get it and get something out of it,” said one of the guys, and that was that.

We’ve been wanting to work on the final scene for a while now, but our Regan was missing--off doing something else, wearing one of his several hats! As people discussed what to do, our Lear barrelled forward, not wanting to lose momentum. He asked one of the guys who only has a small part in the scene to read in for Regan. When the man started to protest that he was already a messenger, Lear cut him off to say, “So, is that a yes?” And we were off!

Still, Lear had some trouble getting into the scene. We had worked the first beat a week and a half ago, but the scene’s emotional intensity is challenging, even in those earliest moments. We soldiered on, stopping shortly before the entrance of Edgar.

Mostly, the guys expressed some dismay at how distant they felt from the scene. “It’s like: ‘Love!’ and ‘Hip Hop!’ and ‘Shakespeare!’” said Albany a little cryptically, “I want it to be smooth! Like: BAM!” he stepped snappily at Regan, “BAM!” he stepped intimidatingly at Edmund. “But it didn’t work out that way.” Of everyone, our temporary Regan had the biggest epiphany: asked what was going on with Regan, he mused, “I feel like her self-editing software is failing.”

Frannie, as she had a week and a half ago, offered to step in to help the scene along with director-style blocking. We don’t usually do this, but it can help in terms of efficiency--and also as a way to free up the actors to do their work more deeply. We always ask permission and encourage ensemble members to pipe up if they have questions, suggestions, or better ideas. At this point in the season, we have a pretty good sense of the story we are all trying to tell, and everyone seems to feel very comfortable speaking up to prod, challenge, and suggest. And as squeamish as jumping in to direct makes us, Lear put us at ease: “When you did it last time,” he said, “I think you did it justice.”

So, we reset at the top of the scene and talked it through. Frannie directed Albany, Goneril, and Regan, and Lear asked for my help with some lines that were giving him trouble. “How can we make Albany nastier?” asked Frannie, and worked with our Albany to plant his feet and hold his ground. As we reset, our Edmund reminded Albany to “put some stank on it!”

Well, that seemed to do it! When revealing Goneril’s treachery, Albany heaved her at Edmund, as if to say, “Go on, take her,” but with a desperate sadness underlying the anger. I got chills.

We talked through Edgar’s entrance, too. We meet in the chapel on Tuesdays, so our playing space was a bit foreshortened, but we still tried to rough out the blocking. Actually, the compressed space helped with the main challenge: maintaining enough space between Edgar and Edmund for the tension to build before the fight. Edmund reflected on his emotional state, saying, “I don’t know who he is. I don’t know what he’s here for. My ego is popping!”

We marked the fight--Patrick Hanley, intrepid fight choreographer, sometime facilitator, and frienemy of the program, will be here next week to get the fight set--and Edmund died off to the side of the stage. Unprompted, Goneril rushed in and slid on his knees, exclaiming, “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy?!” It was hilarious, but the laughter stopped the rehearsal dead, so we had to make him do it again (“But… these are my good pants!” he protested). His energy was amazing!

Our Albany was struggling a bit to focus his anger at Goneril on his powerful line: “Shut your mouth, dame, or with this paper shall I stop it!” It is such a forceful, direct line, and it needs the right delivery to land its full weight. Frannie helped him find the right vulgar energy, and Albany took the note and ran with it! As Goneril kneeled behind Edmund’s body, Albany stepped over Edmund with one foot, squatted down to meet Goneril’s eyes, and delivered his line with chilling venom.

We had to stop for a moment to fix the gesture--not only is it a little bit dangerous to stomp next to someone’s face onstage, but the move also put Albany in an awkward position from the audience’s point of view--but Albany kept the same ruthless energy in his line, and he couldn’t resist adding a little wink to the end of his next line. “Read thine own evil,” he spat. “Yeeyuh!”

Then, since this scene does not let up, Edgar went in to make amends with his brother. Our Edgar started with some edge in his voice, directing the words about their father’s demise as a cutting final curse. His delivery was effective… but totally contrary to the text, and many of the words seemed not to fit as he used them to attack Edmund.

When we went back to recap that beat, Frannie talked to Edgar about using the words in the text to find Edgar’s emotional state, and one of the veterans wondered aloud whether we shouldn’t move the whole action of the scene upstage a bit, reminding us that some audience members in our Othello performance had trouble connecting with moments that occurred too far downstage.

In the final moments before we broke for the day, our Edmund noted, after we shifted him slightly, that the place he dies is also the place he stopped to assert his authority over Lear and Cordelia when they entered at the top of the scene. During the final run, Edgar lost the edge in his voice, and connected with Edmund, grabbing his arm. Hearing of their father’s fate, Edmund’s chest heaved with sobs. It was a great base for working through the rest of the scene on Friday!

Friday / February 22 / 2019
Written by Coffey

Today we built a scene while destroying a set.

But first things first.

Check-in was all about the future. Frannie reminded the group that we all need to start thinking about what we’ll be doing next season, the men discussed plans for finishing the gorgeous backdrop for the show, and Frannie shared that she’s acquired tops hats and flight goggles, contributing to the show’s steampunk theme. One man shared a poetic reflection on some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work which he commingled with his excitement about our show: “We’re really doing this...trust is what I’m looking for.” As check-in wrapped up we received the news that one of our ensemble will be heading home soon. That was met with a moment of quiet smiles and nods (and laughter, as this man tends to be a class clown, even when saying goodbye). This group is grounded in the idea that our ensemble members will move forward to do incredible things, but theatre creates such strong, tight-knit groups that goodbyes are bittersweet.

I started rehearsal by leading the men in a vocal warmup. In this warmup, called “Oz”, the actor goes through the different vocal resonators in the body by embodying the Cowardly Lion (deep chest voice), the Wizard (chest voice), the Wicked Witch of the West (nasal resonators), and Dorothy (head voice). I was worried that the men might not take to this warmup, as it requires a lot of silliness. The guys, however, dove right in, bellowing “I AM OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL,” and even screeching “Surrender, Dorothy!” while riding imaginary brooms. Silliness accomplished and voices warmed, we turned our focus to King Lear’s harrowing finale.

Occasionally in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the scenes in which everything is falling apart for the characters are the scenes which require the most structure and careful blocking. We definitely felt this today while working on Act V, scene 3. Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned, Edgar and Edmund confront each other and come to blows, and Regan and Goneril’s deeds finally catch up to them, all in a matter of fifteen minutes. Choreographing chaos began with just that—chaos. Five deaths in one long sequence is a lot, so we kept it simple and started with Edmund. After receiving a fatal wound from his brother Edgar (in disguise), he falls to the ground and confronts the havoc he has wrought. After getting Edmund to fall a little further upstage so we could hear and see him, we were treated to a glimpse of how well-developed his character has become. As Edgar revealed his true identity to his dying brother, Edmund threw his head back and gave a breathless, bitter laugh. Our Edmund was aware of the almost too-poetic justice being enacted and, true to form, laughed in its face. It was a dark moment but an impactful one to watch.

The next challenge in this chaotic finale was getting “dead bodies” on and off stage. While dragging Regan and Goneril in on large canvas sheets seemed like our best option, several set pieces still stood in the way of actors moving on and off stage with bodies in tow. After some ideas were thrown around, Frannie’s face lit up. She ran onto the stage and kicked the set pieces out of the way, knocking them out of place. It seemed to click with everyone - everything is falling out of place. Lear’s world is disintegrating—why not show that in a literal sense by letting the scenery fall apart along with the scene?

The last section of the sequence, Lear’s devastating entrance with Cordelia, is a huge moment, and it was clear that the actors were feeling a little intimidated about handling the scene’s weight. Emotional weight, yes, but also the weight of the actors themselves. Our Lear and Cordelia had a hard time figuring out how to bear Cordelia onto the stage, to the point that the scene almost started several times, but was stopped by those two busting into nervous laughter, shaking their heads, and heading right back off stage. After a few of these false starts, Frannie offered the option of Lear carrying Cordelia in on his back, which both got Cordelia onstage somewhat smoothly and opened Lear up to the audience. It was still awkward, though, and they ended up settling on Lear’s dragging Cordelia in, his arms under hers, after having kicked another part of the set to the side.

The entrance did start to get smooth enough for the men to continue the scene. Lear entered with the dead Cordelia, practically shaking the gym with his cries of grief. As Lear knelt down by his daughter’s body, he appeared to create a natural center to the scene as the other actors slowly but seamlessly gathered and knelt around the grieving father. The bewilderment at the scene’s end was palpable. After it ended, Lear reflected on his performance, admitting that there was “too much thinking”, but shared a beautiful take on the scene, rooted in the battle flag image he discovered during the Chekhov exercises we’ve done in the past: “[My battle flag] is just one little scrap, with one bright little spot. And that’s Cordelia.”

We closed our rehearsal, satisfied with the headway we made on this difficult scene and excited to see what more it has in store for us.