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.
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
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
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
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
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.