CYMBELINE – Week 7 – November 16

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We began the evening with a discussion of “how to develop your character.”  I distributed the diagram above to show how I approach character development.  We seemed ripe for this discussion, since Eugene had recently expressed his frustration with the role of Cymbeline.  He perceives Cymbeline as “feckless” –  and is particularly disturbed by Cymbeline’s sudden turnaround at the end of the play, when the King of Britain reverses course and decides to pay tribute to Rome.  What, then, was all the fighting and loss of life for?  Eugene noted that at one time Cymbeline was a captive of Rome, and he wondered if Cymbeline’s willingness to pay the tribute is a sign that he is a victim of “Stockholm syndrome.”  I said that while this may in some way be true, there is also the possibility that Cymbeline simply admires Rome, and sees Britain as a child of Rome.  From this point of view, Cymbeline led Britain in asserting its independence (through a temporary refusal to pay tribute, and the ensuing war, won by Britain).  From this position of power, Cymbeline could then decide to pay tribute, and re-establish a respectful relationship with Rome.  Eugene seemed to be intrigued by this interpretation.  “All I ask,” I said to him, “is that you find a way to respect your character.”  Eugene smiled.  “All I can say,” he said, “is I’ll keep trying.”

Dale had written a wonderfully rich back story for the Queen.  He agreed to share it, and read it to the group.

I then presented a brief lesson on “how to perform Shakespeare,” my method strongly influenced by Scott Kaiser’s method of “complex orchestration.”  My example was a short speech by Sicilius in 5.4.  Using the outline below, I indicated the importance of understanding every word in a line of text, and also the significance of the actor’s choices in several areas: speech measures (single units of thought/action), key words, focal points, images, psychological and physical actions, and subtext:

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I encouraged the men to think about these kinds of choices as they continue to work on memorizing their lines.

We then rehearsed 1.5, in which the Queen (Dale) receives “poisonous compounds” from the doctor, Cornelius (Eugene, standing in for Jarkese).  Three of us had the Arden edition close at hand, to help with questions of meaning and context.  We read the scene, then put it on its feet, and then ran it a third time, with a twist:  I asked Dale to perform the scene as if the Queen was an actual spider, weaving a web around the stage, and Cornelius, as she spoke.  It was fun to watch, and helped Dale explore some appropriately expressive and fluid movement for his character.

Next on to 1.6 – Imogen meets Iachimo.  Again a read-through and a walk-through, before introducing a twist.  I had both Imogen and Iachimo seated, at a distance from one another.  I asked Iachimo to inch his chair toward Imogen as the scene progressed.  This had the desired effect of adding considerable energy and tension to the scene.

There will be no rehearsals during the week of Thanksgiving.  We will resume on November 28.

 

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CYMBELINE – Week 7 – November 14

Kellie was back this evening. I began by asking her to share her feelings about James’ language during the improv last week (I’m thinking, “his outrageous, vulgar, misogynistic language”). I am not one to belabor an issue like this, but I think it was important for Kellie to have the opportunity to finally speak for herself.

Kellie spoke directly to James, and simply let him know that she found the language offensive, because it put down Cloten by likening him to a woman, thereby implying that a woman is “less than” a man. She asked him to be more “mindful” of his language in the future. James apologized, and agreed to be more mindful.

Kellie went on to suggest that in future, if someone is offended by something that another company member says or does, that they address it with them directly – preferably, outside of rehearsal time. Everyone seemed agreeable to that idea.

Other developments this evening:

After “quitting” last week, Sam returned tonight with a smile, letting us know that “you’re not going to get rid of me that easy!” Because of the very real possibility that he will “quit” again, and/or that I will need to dismiss him from the project, I am going to continue to quietly memorize his lines, as “an insurance policy.”

The really big development of the evening was Sean’s announcement that he will be leaving the group. He did not predict that his vocational training with CNC would be so time-consuming, leaving him little time or energy to memorize lines. (CNC stands for “Computer Numerical Control,” a process used in the manufacturing sector that involves the use of computers to control machine tools.)

Sean was our Imogen – and a pillar of our company. It is hard to lose him. We bid him a fond farewell, and wished him luck with his training.

The company showed its resilience by immediately coming up with a solution to the departure of our Imogen. Patrick will drop the role of Cloten and pick up Imogen (now there’s a switch!), Chris will drop Philario and pick up Cloten, and I will pick up Philario.

For the remainder of the evening, we worked on 1.4 – the wager scene. After a read-through, we had a discussion about what’s going on here.

I shared some thoughts from a recent email exchange with Valerie Wayne (editor of the Arden Cymbeline, third edition):

Posthumus is being oblique and formal, because he’s just met these men and  they all know one another. He’s English, two of them are Italian, and one of them is French. At the time Europeans, and especially Italians, were thought to be savvy and slick, especially in comparison to the naive English. So Posthumus is being careful and evasive: “not altogether slight” is a round-about way of saying “I had a damn good reason to take on that Frenchman.”    The dialogue is a set up to get Iachimo to claim that no woman can be faithful — and therefore no woman is worth fighting for — so he can make the wager.

Carl (the Frenchman) said this made sense to him. He said that Iachimo and the Frenchman were “putting the cables on” Posthumus – setting him up. The “cable” metaphor intrigues me. I think of a tow truck pulling a car. The inert, powerless car is completely at the mercy of the tow truck, and goes wherever the truck decides to take it. (I wonder if this is how Carl sees it? I plan to ask him.) Later in the evening, Carl shared an example from his own experience of “putting on the cables.” Two guys at a basketball court set up a third guy by challenging him to a one-on-one and getting him to “put up his shoes” (wager his basketball shoes).

We broke into four small groups, each one rehearsing its own version of the scene, and then we performed them for one another. It was a good way to keep everyone involved and engaged, while continuing to investigate nuances in language and interaction.

On Thursday, we’ll work 1.5 (the Queen, Cornelius, and Pisanio), and then begin work on 1.6 (Iachimo’s first meeting with Imogen).

CYMBELINE: Week 6 – November 9

At my invitation, Terrance shared his concerns about James’ language with the group. During his improvisation as the Second Lord, James’ put-downs of Cloten included coarse insults that were also put-downs of women. In one case, he taunted Cloten for his whining, and asked him if he had “a vagina.” Terrance’s first thought was that this language would be offensive to our female intern, Kellie. When he checked in with both Kellie and myself at the end of rehearsal, he learned that Kellie was concerned, and that she had already written a few lines in her journal, noting the disparagement of women. The three of us agreed that we would bring this concern to the group.

Kellie was absent, so it was up to Terrance and myself to share our thoughts, and to open the issue for discussion. James admitted to being a “chauvinist” (his word). At the same time, he defended himself, claiming that his reference to a woman’s vagina was not intended to be sexual. Nor was it intended to cause offense. Carl expressed exasperation, saying that we were too quick to take offense, when none was intended.

This led to a conversation that lasted the better part of an hour, and without a clear resolution. In addition to what I’ve already noted, here are some of the thoughts that were shared:

Eugene:  The Shakespeare Project is not only about putting on a play.                                More importantly, it involves (or should involve) striving to become a better version of ourselves.

Dale:  No one is asking James to change his beliefs – only his behavior.  Before we speak, we should consider who is in the room, and the potential impact of our words on who is in the room.

Sean:  (After several men had noted that Kellie had laughed along with several others after the “vagina insult”): Let’s differentiate between observation and interpretation. Just because someone laughs, it doesn’t mean they are amused.  That could have been nervous laughter. Sometimes we automatically interpret ambiguous nonverbal behavior in ways that conform to our beliefs or desires, instead of reality. For example: a man sees a woman staring at him from across the room. He thinks she’s attracted to him. What if she’s afraid of him?

Doc (me):  In some respects, James gave us a good improv. He came up with sharp insults on the spot, clearly targeting some of Cloten’s perceived weaknesses. The ugliness of the insults was not beyond the pale, if one considers that coarseness and sexism abounds in Shakespeare. This observation does not cancel out the concerns that have been raised here tonight.  Like others, I was also alarmed by James’ language.  I also have been thinking, and I am considering sharing some version of  this on Tuesday: There is no evidence in the text that the Second Lord has a problem respecting women. His put-downs make Cloten seem foolish – but not by associating him with womankind. Also, the assumption that women are “whiners,” and the characterization of women as essentially women by virtue of one bodily part (their sex organ), brings up a whole host of associations that are patriarchal and heterosexist. (I would need to define these terms, obviously.)

Carl:  I have no problems with Kellie, but I do have a problem with some of us being anxious and hyper-vigilant due to the presence of a woman in the room. I don’t think we should be. I think that one thing that would help alleviate that anxiety would be if Kellie would speak up and speak her mind more often, like we do.

Christopher:  I appreciate the presence of Kellie in the room, as well as Doc, and anyone from the outside, because in the 12 years of my incarceration, my heart and soul have atrophied, and have been negatively conditioned by this hostile, hyper-masculine environment. I need this kind of contact in order to remember what it means to be a social human being.

Terrance:  I don’t agree with Christopher’s characterization of the prison environment. That has not been my experience. Some of the most intelligent people I have met have been the people I have met here in prison. I value those relationships.

One thing that is very tricky about all of this is that we have encountered “a teachable moment,” yes – but at the same time, our focus on the original issue is eliciting resistance, defensiveness, and irritation. My reading of the room: Carl, Foist, and Patrick think that some of us are “too sensitive” and should drop it. James has been defensive. Terrance, Dale, Sean, Eugene, Christopher and myself are concerned that the initial concern has not received a respectful response. The rest have remained silent.

The discussion has been put on hold until Tuesday, when we will invite Kellie to share her thoughts.

Moving on…

Sam told us that he is feeling overwhelmed with his work load this year. With tear-filled eyes he announced that he will be leaving the project. I told him that I had sensed he was struggling this year, and that I understood respected the reasons for his departure. We applauded him for his contributions this year, and let him go.

We spent the remainder of the evening doing an “emotion workout” (inspired by the work of The Actor’s Gang (a California prison theatre group founded by actor Tim Robbins that gets prisoners to work intensively with methods related to commedia dell’arte)).

We worked with Anger, Fear, Grief, and Happiness in turn, using the following process for each exploration: (1) We began from a position of meditative stillness; (2) I invited the men to get in touch with the emotion by recalling a person and/or situation that evoked this feeling; (3) We allowed the emotion to fill our bodies, and for our bodies to take the shape of the emotion; (4) We moved around the space in that shape, making sounds and gestures (no words); (5) We made a living sculpture expressing the emotion; (6) We danced the emotion; and (7) We explored and performed a speech from Shakespeare that is strongly tied to the emotion. First I worked with the whole group, then with an individual volunteer. Here are the selections, along with brief comments on the experience: 

ANGER: Coriolanus, Act III, Scene 3

Coriolanus

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate

As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize

As the dead carcasses of unburied men

That do corrupt my air, I banish you;

And here remain with your uncertainty!

Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!

Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,

Fan you into despair! Have the power still

To banish your defenders; till at length

Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,

Making not reservation of yourselves,

Still your own foes, deliver you as most

Abated captives to some nation

That won you without blows! Despising,

For you, the city, thus I turn my back:

There is a world elsewhere.

Carl volunteered for this one. I helped him identify speech measures, and directed him to direct each speech measure to a different audience member. I invited audience members to react (verbally and nonverbally) with indifference, skepticism, or opposition. ~ My challenge with Carl is getting him to raise his voice. Despite repeated exhortations from me and several other members of the ensemble, including his friend Foist, he was unable or unwilling to do so.

 

FEAR:   Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene 1

 Claudio

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;

To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;

To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,

And blown with restless violence round about

The pendent world; or to be worse than worst

Of those that lawless and incertain thought

Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!

The weariest and most loathed worldly life

That age, ache, penury and imprisonment

Can lay on nature is a paradise

To what we fear of death.

Patrick volunteered for this one. I tried to get him to raise his energy and intensity by having people leave the room – assuming he would step it up in order to get them to stay. He did become more frantic!

 

GRIEF: King John, Act 3, Scene 4

Constance

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,

Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,

Remembers me of all his gracious parts,

Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?

Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,

I could give better comfort than you do.

I will not keep this form upon my head,

When there is such disorder in my wit.

O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!

My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!

My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!

Roderick volunteered for this one. He channeled his own raw grief into the speech.

(He let me know a couple of days ago that his aunt – the woman who raised him – had just died.)

  

HAPPINESS: Romeo and Juliet, Act1, Scene 5

Romeo

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;

Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!

So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,

As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.

The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,

And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.

Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!

For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

Terrance volunteered for this one. His first time through, he did it as a “player” – self-assured, slick. We explained that Romeo is not that way with Juliet. He has been knocked off his feet. He is humble, open, in awe. Terrance took the direction well, tapping into something inside himself that conveyed some degree of those profound qualities.

 

CYMBELINE: Week 6 – November 7

November 7, 2017

Sam (Soothsayer) told us that he is having difficulty memorizing his lines.   He told us he’s been stressed, distracted by his other responsibilities, and annoyed by his cellmate, who recently told him that “fortune telling” is prohibited by the Bible. We listened patiently. (I was thinking that some of his anxiety probably stems from our upcoming “line check” on November 30, when everyone is expected to have memorized at least 25% of their lines.) Sam asked if someone would be willing to spend time with him working on lines outside of rehearsal. No one volunteered. We expressed confidence in his ability to do this himself. At the end of the evening, when Sam began to worry again, Eugene gave him some “tough love”: by reminding him what he was able to accomplish last year, and by warning him not to succumb to negative thinking this year.

After warm-ups, I reminded the men of our earlier discussion regarding “self” – and the theory that each one of us has a place within us that is our “true self,” and our “spiritual center.” According to one therapeutic tradition (Internal Family Systems), the qualities of our true self include calm, clarity, connectedness, compassion, curiosity, creativity, courage, and confidence. At the very least, these qualities are capacities that exist within each of us. They may be more or less developed, and we may have more or less access to them. By recognizing these qualities, by bringing them into awareness, we then have an opportunity to cultivate them and to bring them into fuller expression in our lives.

I was emphatic in stating that I believed that these positive qualities and their potentials exist within all of us, regardless of our life circumstances. This provoked Christopher to ask me if I thought that everyone was “redeemable.” I noted that this was a loaded word, with several possible interpretations, including specific religious beliefs about the redemption. Terrance said that he thought that everyone was potentially redeemable – for him, the key is whether or not the person is open and willing to accept redemption (God’s grace).

I mentioned that in addition to a religious process of redemption, there are pragmatic pathways. One that I find meaningful is the process of restorative justice, which involves several steps, including (1) the offender’s ability to take responsibility for his actions; (2) the expression of sincere regret; (3) an apology; (4) (if possible) correcting the problem caused by the offense (for example, returning stolen property); and (5) performing actions that restore the offender and the community into wholeness (I gave the example of a Hindu who murdered a Muslim child – Gandhi offered him a “way out of hell” by telling him to adopt a Muslim child of the same age as the murdered child. He instructed the Hindu to raise the child as his own son – and as a Muslim).

Eventually, I steered the discussion part to our study of Cymbeline’s characters. My suggestion is that we consider all of the characters in the play as human beings who, regardless of their faults, do have the potential to be “redeemed.” I also suggest that we see each of these characters as fellow human beings who are not that different from ourselves. Take Cloten, for example. While we may find him in some ways ludicrous and repugnant, it is also true that many of us (all of us?) have, at one time or another, felt betrayed by a lover, and out of a sense of our woundedness, have acted unwisely. I invited everyone to engage in a few minutes of silent contemplation on this – calling to mind a time when this had been true for them.

We spent the remainder of the evening rehearsing 1.2 (Cloten and the two lords), and 1.3 (Imogen and Pisanio). Patrick (a veteran actor) did a nice job of conveying Cloten’s arrogance and petulance. Jarkese (new this year) has good instincts, and just needs some help projecting himself into the space. With Roderick absent this evening, James (also new this year) filled in as the Second Lord (the one who makes snarky comments at Cloten’s expense). James showed a real aptitude for this role. When we ran an improvised version of the scene, his insults became coarse, with the implication that Cloten was acting like a woman, or might in fact be a woman (“he must have a vagina”).

At the end of rehearsal, Terrance stayed back, and informed Kellie and I that he had been disturbed by James’ language. We shared that we had concerns as well. We agreed to raise the issue with the group on Thursday. I would like us to have a discussion about misogynistic language – where it comes from, how it functions, how we all feel about, and what expectations we will have about that kind of language moving forward. This will be the discussion we have on Thursday.

CYMBELINE: Week 5 – November 2

November 2

This evening we talked about the journals. Carl was skeptical. He said that he didn’t understand why we had to do this. I tried to explain that The Shakespeare Project is about more than putting on a play – it’s about reflecting on the characters, the themes, the process, and ourselves. We do this in part through our discussions. However, writing is a more formal, disciplined way of engaging in reflection. It’s one more avenue of communication, one that provides an additional space for the men to express and organize their thoughts. I take all of this for granted, and it still sometimes surprises me when someone questions the value of this kind of writing.

Sam chimed in, explaining that we draw upon the personal stories in the journals as material for our production of “Shakespeare’s Mirror,” which we begin to rehearse shortly after the Shakespeare play each year.

Carl was quiet. I was nervous, and kept talking to fill the silence. In retrospect, I might have asked him what he thought about all this. On the other hand, it might be a good idea to give him some time to assimilate this information.

I spoke a bit more about the value of reflection as it relates to our process – about how we can use the play as a mirror to reflect on our own lives. Every one of us has a Posthumus inside of us, as well as an Imogen, a Cloten, and an Iachimo. I asked Mike if he would be willing to share his journal entry on Posthumus (he is playing the character in our production). He shared the following:

He and I are very similar, or at least have been in one way or another at one time or another. He is very fickle and driven by circumstance. He’s “in love” 100%, he’s “betrayed” 100%, he’s “underprivileged” 100%. Everything he is, he is completely – at the time. Each of these qualities completely dictates his behavior at one time or another. He is fickle, jumping from one state to another, and completely. He strikes me as a bit manic, maybe even bipolar.   He’s mature enough to pull off being an adult, and also just enough to be a liability to himself. He has the “brass ring” and does not know it. He needlessly overextends himself and ties his satisfaction to people, places, and things outside of himself. He unfairly burdens those around him with unfair, though not always unreasonable, expectations. He has the capacity for discipline and honor and integrity but has not developed and honed abilities serving these qualities.

We have (had) a lot in common.

There were murmurs of appreciation and respect around the circle. Then I asked Christopher to share one of his entries. He read:

My primary, long-term, over-arching goal is to regain the humanity and empathy that have been vampirically drained from me by the last twelve years of incarceration.

A couple of weeks ago Kellie advised the actors in female roles not to approach them as “female characters” but as “characters.” In my twelve years in prison, I have through no intentional fault, I must mention, come to view women in two lights. The first is as a figure of authority, one for which  there is a second set of rules which I must observe religiously or suffer grave  consequences. The second is as an object.

The reason I raise this issue is because, in pursuing my goal of rediscovering  my lost empathy, I must acknowledge the places in my battered psyche that have atrophied and become rotten.

Though not directed specifically at me, I think (I hope!), Kellie’s direction laid  bare my accidental misogyny and provided me with a starting line on my  journey of redemption.

He also read my response to this entry:

A wonderful recognition. Ironic that you are playing a misogynist (Iachimo).    How will you use this to serve your over-arching goal of developing your humanity and empathy?

Closing the journal, Christopher reflected out loud about his response to my question. He said that he was going to use Iachimo to reflect upon his own unexamined misogynistic tendencies. He already sees that “the wager scene” is familiar to him – in some ways not that different from the “locker room talk” that he knows so well.

During our rehearsal of Scene 1, Scene 1, I tried Feeding and Dropping (learned from my Feast of Crispian friends, and modified to work with our process). I used ensemble members to help me feed lines to multiple actors. I did the “dropping” (asking questions and dropping suggestions).  When we debriefed, the men told me that they enjoyed it, and would like to continue using that method. To speed things up, I will try scripting at least some of my questions in advance for the next round.

I have to mention that I was distracted and concerned by Eugene’s appearance this evening. His lower lip was bulging – so much that I thought perhaps he had been punched in the mouth. Out of politeness, I didn’t say anything – not at first. When he was on stage in the role of Cymbeline, however, it became too much for me. His speech was fuzzy and indistinct. I stopped the scene and asked him about it. Had he been hurt? Had he been to the dentist? No, and no. Finally, he showed me that he had placed some gauze in his mouth, “Godfather style,” in order to experiment with this way of portraying the character. He reminded me that I had encouraged people to “take risks” and “go big.” I acknowledged this, and told him that he could do this in other ways (with his own voice and body). The gauze was interfering with his speech. However we portray our characters in this play, all of them will be people who speak clearly.

After that, throughout the evening there were multiple joking references to “The Gauze-Father”!

We watched a bit more of the BBC version of Cymbeline, including “The Wager Scene” (1.4).

Eugene expressed rage at Posthumus’ wager on Imogen’s chastity, and condemned Posthumus for the action in no uncertain terms. Dale made note of Eugene’s anger, and reflected that such a strong reaction must be fueled from something – as yet unknown to us – inside Eugene. What is the story that Eugene might tell us to help us better understand his response?