CYMBELINE – Week 14 – January 18

 

This evening the men discussed the values that they want to focus on during the remainder of our work together.  Everyone came in with a written statement, which he read aloud to the group.  Over a period of two and a half hours, we listened to each other, and reflected on what each man had to say. I compiled their statements and created the following mission statement, which the men reviewed and ratified on January 18.

 

THE SHAKESPEARE PRISON PROJECT

MISSION STATEMENT

 

We, the members of The Shakespeare Prison Project,

dedicate ourselves to the following values:

 

MEANINGFUL WORK – we are finding meaning in the stories we tell, the characters we play, and the work we do together; appreciating the value of this work as a resource and a refreshment

CONTRIBUTION – we are giving everything we’ve got, and then some – to play a part bigger than just our character – we are contributing in all areas – as actors, and as members of an ensemble – doing the work that needs to be done, contributing to discussions, listening and responding to each other

TEAMWORK – we are taking and giving, leading and following, assisting and encouraging each other

INTEGRITY – we are always seeking the good and doing what is right, no matter who is (or is not) looking

GROWTH – we are growing in our abilities as actors and ensemble members – and growing as human beings

POSITIVE INFLUENCE – we are breaking our negative and self-destructive cycles, serving as an example to others, and bringing light to all who participate in the project – including ourselves, the prison community, and all who are inspired by our work

SELF-DISCIPLINE – we are buckling down and doing the work – knowing that no one else will do it for us – memorizing our lines – showing up on time – refraining from distractions – keeping our demons and temptations in check – and doing the right thing

KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM – we are learning more about ourselves and others every day, appreciating the wisdom of Dr. Shailor and the veterans, coming out of our shells, learning new skills, and developing more effective ways to communicate with each other

KINDNESS – we are showing kindness to ourselves (through self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-respect), and kindness to others (noticing others, listening to them, having empathy for their situation, understanding their needs, helping without being asked, making ourselves useful) – all with gentleness and humor

MASTERY – we are striving for excellence in all aspects of our work – knowing our lines, their meaning, the context, our cues; we are striving for excellence in performance by expressing the emotional truth of a scene through our voice and our body language – inspired and informed by each other, our director, and our veterans

LOYALTY – we are steadfastly committed to each other, and to each other’s benefit

 

May our work be of benefit to everyone.

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CYMBELINE – Week 14 – January 16

Terrance (Arviragus) did not show up to rehearsals last week.  I ran into him on my way to Thursday’s meeting, and learned that he and Foist (Belarius) had had a falling out – serious enough that Terrance no longer feels safe around Foist.  For this reason, Terrance has decided to leave The Shakespeare Project – and to move to a different housing unit.

This was difficult for me to hear.  I offered my sympathy and my support, letting Terrance know that I was willing to hear more, and that he was welcome to come back to the group and to raise the issue there.  Not surprisingly, this is not something he wants to do right now.  I respect Terrance’s decision to leave the group on his own terms.

Since the conflict is between Terrance and Foist, and it is taking place apart from the rest of the group, I am not bringing it up in our circle.  Interestingly, no one in the group has publicly expressed much curiosity or regret about Terrance’s departure.   I think that some of the men (possibly all of them) do know what’s going on, and simply choose not to discuss it.

Saddened by this experience and in need of support from fellow travelers, I reached out to several friends, including Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars.  It was good to talk.  What has emerged from these conversations is my conviction that although a direct discussion about Terrance’s leave-taking would not be productive, this would be a good time for the men of The Shakespeare Project to pause reflect on the values that guide our work together.  I have asked each of the men to come to Thursday’s meeting with a short piece of writing on the one value that is most important to him.  I believe that the discussion, and a new group charter based on those values, will help to re-establish and strengthen our group identity moving forward.

CYMBELINE – Week 13 – January 11

As my dedicated readers of this blog can see, I took a few weeks off from the blog over the holiday season.  Time to catch up.

Over the past few weeks, the men have been writing about, and discussing, the feelings and the needs of their characters – scene by scene, and sometimes, line by line.

Here’s an example:  Christopher (Iachimo) summarizes Act 1, Scene 6 in this way:  Iachimo is “meeting and interacting with Imogen, who turns out to be as “fair, virtuous, wise, chaste, constant, qualified”” as Posthumus has claimed.  “This all makes Iachimo momentarily doubt his odds of winning his wager.  Nonetheless, he recovers and makes his attempt.”  Christopher identifies Iachimo’s feelings as “confident, excited, ardent, measured, perhaps aroused, yearning, longing, pining” – feelings which are expressions of his needs for “stimulation (met), challenge (met), and sexual expression (unmet).”  These feelings run throughout his body (“head, groin, gut”) and are experienced as “ethereal, fluttering lightness beneath a hardened exterior – like dancing within a shell.”  The story that Iachimo is telling himself is that “he’s supremely confident of his ability to woo any woman, especially one who would willingly marry Posthumus!  And even if he can’t, he is certain no one will ever find out the truth.”

Interestingly, Christopher identifies one further need of Iachimo’s:  the need for understanding.  Christopher suggests that this need is “deep – very deep – down,” and that it has never been met.  This comment suggests the possibility of a very interesting back story for Iachimo.  I am going to ask Christopher to expand on his comment.

In another journal entry, Christopher shared some thoughts on his personal journey, and its connection to our work in The Shakespeare Project:

“I seek to gain a re-connection with the outside living society, which I build slowly, week by week, brick by brick.  I have grown closer to my father, who comes to see me now.  I have become less spiteful towards prison employees and other prisoners.  In short, I’ve set a goal, committed to it, and am slowly achieving it.  Would that have occurred without The Shakespeare project?  I doubt it – I doubt I would have had the stick-to-it-iveness required for such an undertaking on my own.”

“In short, I am exceedingly thankful for all of the people who devote their time and effort to make the Shakespeare Project at RCI possible – and Shakespeare Projects across the world.  Please know that although at times you may feel tired or frustrated or unappreciated – you are in fact making a tangible difference in the world and especially in the lives of the prisoners you’re helping.”

“Thank you.”

 

 

 

 

CYMBELINE – Week 10 – December 12

I consulted with Lisa Kornetsky (Professor of Theatre Arts, UW-Parkside) today, and asked her for some exercises to help actors with voice projection.  She offered two.  The first one involves counting from “one” to “ten,” or reciting a line, while projecting to the wall – first, just a few inches away from the wall, and then a few feet away, gradually increasing the distance and the projection.  A second exercise involves watching one’s own mouth in the mirror as one speaks.  The “big reveal” is often that one is not opening one’s mouth very much at all.

Lisa also shared a favorite acting exercise, in which the actors sit in a circle and address one another in character, sharing their feelings and their needs with one another.

Prison theatre facilitator Karen Hamer flew in from her home state of Texas to spend some time with us today – a real treat!

 

 

 

 

CYMBELINE – Week 9 – December 7

With Kellie absent this evening (she is on hiatus until February), I had the opportunity to reflect on the effect her presence has had on our process, and in particular, my own leadership.  In a nutshell:  Kellie’s style – gentle, open, relaxed, collaborative – has made me more aware of my own tendencies toward authoritarianism and rigidity.  I am allowing myself to relax a bit more.  That’s good for all of us!

This evening we read and rehearsed 3.1 (Lucius demands tribute; Cymbeline, Queen, and Cloten refuse; Lucius declares war); 3.2 (Pisanio gives Imogen Posthumus’ false letter); and 3.3 (in the mountainous country of Wales, we meet Belarius and his boys).

Some highlights:

3.1.  We spent a good deal of time discussing the Queen’s celebration of Britain’s glorious history.  Eugene (Cymbeline) noticed that his character felt strengthened and emboldened by her words.  I suggested that even though she is plotting against Cymbeline and Imogen, she is also genuinely loyal to Britain, and is unified with Cymbeline at this moment.  Carl (Guiderius) disagreed.  His feeling is that the Queen is inciting a war that she thinks Britain cannot win.  Carl thinks that she is hopeful that Cymbeline will die, or be dethroned, leaving the kingdom to her and her son.

3.2.  Patrick (Imogen) was appropriately girlish , boisterous, hopeful, and impatient – fun to watch.  Cory (Pisanio) delivered his lines with care, and with intelligence, but he is very quiet, and halting in his delivery.  Eugene and Terrance (Arviragus) have been cheering him on, and offering him tips on how to project himself more strongly.

3.3.  We have all been waiting a long time to hear from Foist (Belarius), Carl (Guiderius), and Terrance (Arviragus).  They did not disappoint!  The beautiful poetry of their lines merited considerable discussion.  Once again we received considerable help from our dramaturges in deciphering some of the more cryptic words and passages.  The lines that received most of our attention were 3.3.21-23:

O, this life is nobler than attending for a check, / Richer than doing nothing for a robe

We reached a quick consensus on “nobler than attending for a check,” agreeing with Wayne that this means “doing courtly service only to receive a rebuke.”  The final word is this passage is the controversial one.  The First Folio has it as babe, and the Arden keeps this, the sense of the passage interpreted as “more lucrative than assuming care for a child” (Wayne).  The Penguin edition also keeps babe, but justifies it differently:  “More rewarding than doing nothing for a child who is in one’s care” (Pitcher).  The New Cambridge, Signet, and BBC TV texts adopt Hammer’s emendation:  bribe.  The Oxford and Dover editions go with Rowe’s emendation, bauble (“worthless reward”).  The Folger, RSC, and Pelican editions, along with Ros King (Santa Cruz text, 2000) go with robe. 

The method we have developed for resolving controversies such as these is to first examine and discuss the alternatives, and then leave it to the director and the actor who speaks the line to make the final decision.  In this case, Foist preferred to go with robe because it is the word already set in our performance text – and he’s memorized it!  I agreed to keep it, and noted that it works for me, in the sense of “Richer in meaning and value than a life of ornamented idleness.”

We ended the evening by watching the filmed versions of 3.1 and 3.2.  Terrance was disgusted by Almereyda’s hatchet job on the original text (in both scenes).  Several of the men were confused and/or amused by the gender switches in Melly Still’s production (a female Cymbeline, the Queen changed to a Duke (male), and a female Pisanio).  Eugene very much liked the Pisanio in the BBC verison (played by John Kane) – and he urged our Pisanio (Cory) to observe it closely.

 

 

 

 

 

CYMBELINE – Week 9 – December 5

This evening Kellie led a brief warm-up (as she has in two previous sessions), first inviting the men to stretch for a while, then moving on to an articulation exercise.   The stretching, along with some lighthearted conversation, helped us all to relax.  Then we practiced delivering some challenging sentences from Edith Skinner’s classic text, Speak With Distinction – sentences like “These people feel that they can guarantee the suite for sweet Phoebe,” and “It’s a miracle that the ability of the English actress had been debated so belatedly.”  The men had a lot of fun with that – and would have kept going after three rounds if we had not called “time”!

In our circle, I initiated a discussion of Iachimo’s character, and more specifically, his motivation.  What drives him to make his wager with Posthumus, and to pursue Imogen?  Christopher again compared these actions to “frat boy behavior” – where self-worth is based on one’s ability to compete with other men, and to assert dominance.  The urge to dominate extends to women, who are seen as objects of conquest.  Iachimo’s “Italian style” of this masculine pattern brings to bear his special gifts for intellectual calculation and emotional manipulation, commingled with his highly refined appreciation of art and beauty.  Christopher said that Iachimo’s voyeuristic enjoyment of Imogen reminded him of someone sneaking into an art museum after hours, where he finds himself alone with a painting like the Mona Lisa, enjoying the artistry privately and illicitly.  (I was reminded of the fact – but did not speak on it – that many of the men in this particular prison are sex offenders.  Many no doubt have affinities for (or addictions to) pornography.)

What are the causes and conditions that sometimes pervert our very human, very natural urges (in this case, our natural aggressiveness and our sexual desires)?  I suggested to the men that all of us have an “Iachimo” inside of us – a potential to misuse our aggressiveness and our sexuality.  There were some murmurs and nods of agreement.

When I asked where in our lives we have seen this “Iachimo-like” behavior, Foist immediately responded:  “In prison.”  Kellie asked us to pause, and to consider that these behaviors also thrive outside of prison, in the highest circles of power.  The prison industrial complex disproportionately punishes offenders in the lower socioeconomic strata.  There was general agreement on this point.

We concluded the discussion for the time being, and moved on to work on 2.4 (where Iachimo convinces Posthumus that he has seduced Imogen) and 2.5 (where Posthumus rants bitterly against all women).  As we worked through the text, our dramaturges helped us to take a closer look at some of the more challenging words and phrases.  Christopher offered notes from the Arden 3rd Edition, Terrance from the New Cambridge, and Jarkese from the Oxford.  We spent a considerable amount of time discussing this passage from 2.4.23-26 (Posthumus):  Their discipline / (Now wing-led with their courages), will make known / To their approvers they are people such / That mend upon the world.  The most difficult part of this passage is “Now wing-led with their courages.”  There is considerable support for this interpretation: “Now led in wings or divisions (a disciplined formation) by their gallant commanders” (Furness, 1913).  Another possibility has also been entertained, where “wing-led” is replaced by “mingled,” and “courages” is changed to “courage”:  “Their discipline, now mingled with their courage.”  This is the reading offered in the New Cambridge Edition, following changes made in the Second Folio.  Wayne (Arden 3rd Edition) sticks with the First Folio text, while acknowledging that the Second Folio’s version may be more “accessible.”

I can see either choice working in performance, and I have left it up to our Posthumus to decide.  (In this rehearsal, he went with “now mingled with our courage.”)

We also viewed 2.4 and 2.5 as presented in the three film versions of Cymbeline that we have been consulting: the 1982 BBC TV version (directed by Elijah Moshinsky), the 2014 film directed by Michael Almereyda, and the 2016 RSC production directed by Melly Still.  At least some of the men appreciated the opportunity to see a range of interpretations and acting choices.  I certainly find it helpful, as an actor and a director.  I know from previous years, however, that Mike (our Posthumus) has a real aversion to looking at film versions, as he feels that it interferes with his own process of developing an individual, authentic approach to the character he is playing.  My own feeling (which I have expressed to him) is that it is possible to maintain one’s own originality and integrity as an actor, while at the same time learning from and being enriched by the performances of others.  We have agreed to disagree on this, and Mike simply turns his attention away from the screen when we show film.

Most of the group seems to prefer the simplicity, clarity, directness, and intelligence of the performances in the BBC version, despite its exceedingly dark tone, and “closet drama” feel.  Helen Mirren, Michael Pennington, and Robert Lindsay are really wonderful, in an all-round stellar cast.  The 2014 film, set in the context of a contemporary drug war between cops (standing in for the Romans) and a criminal organization (“the Britons”), slices and dices Shakespeare’s language, but it is helpful in connecting some of the play’s  actions and emotions to contemporary attitudes and motivations.  For example, when Posthumus speaks his diatribe against women (in voice-over narration), he is in a gun shop, selecting a weapon.   Melly Still’s RSC production, set in a “dystopian new future” (Michael Billington, The Guardian), is very bold, and although much of it strikes me as overly presentational, extreme to a fault, and sometimes false, the dynamism and physicality of the performances are creative and inspiring.

CYMBELINE – Week 8 – November 30

This evening was our first “line check.”  The goal was for each actor to have at least 25% of his lines memorized by November 30.  Three of our actors have been given some leeway, since they only recently were assigned to new roles.  Patrick, formerly Cloten, is now our Imogen; Chris, formerly Philario, is now Cloten; and I have taken on the role of Philario, in addition to my original assignment, Sicilius.

We worked in pairs.  I matched up with Jarkese, who is now playing the combined roles of First Lord and Second Lord.

I tested Jarkese on his lines (he’s just getting started), and he tested me.  My lines for Sicilius (5.4) are mostly memorized.  While the sing-song structure of the verse marks it as highly artificial (appropriate for a ghost, I presume), I am endeavoring to speak it in a naturalistic style, in the hope that the audience will be better able to relate to Sicilius as a (former) human being.

For the remainder of the evening, we rehearsed 2.4.  For now, we have Cloten singing a verse of “Love Me Tender” for the serenade at the top of the scene.

CYMBELINE – Week 8 – November 28

We began the evening by going over our props list. Mike (Posthumus) is taking most of the responsibility here, and I will help out to the degree I can. My to-do list includes finding a truck, a satchel, a purse (with coins), and a head.

We lost another actor: Roderick, who was playing the Second Lord and the Jailer. To adapt to the new situation, we have combined the roles of First and Second Lord, and Jarkese will play both. I will ask James (Lucius) to take on the role of Jailer.

We began our scene work with 2.1, in which Cloten complains about losing at a game of bowls, and learns of “a stranger come to court” (Iachimo). Chris (Cloten) practiced “going up and down like a cock that nobody can match” as he delivered his lines. I noted that Cloten is angry and threatening here, and that he is also like a wounded child. We ran the scene three times: the first, Chris emphasized the anger; the second, he showed us more of the wounded child; and the third time, he combined the two.

We then took on 2.2, the famous bedchamber scene, where Iachimo emerges from his trunk and stalks Imogen. Christopher is just beginning his work with this scene, so we focused on fundamentals: focal points (direction of gaze), and actions, measure by measure. Our dramaturges occasionally provided some helpful context or clarification. Regarding the question of whether or not Iachimo actually kisses Imogen, we learned from Wayne (Arden 3rd Ed.) that the moment can (and has been) played with an actual kiss, and an “almost kiss.” The actors opted for the “almost kiss.” As for the line, “Rubies unparagoned/ How dearly they do’t,” Eugene offered Freeman’s suggestion from his annotated edition of the First Folio – that “they” can be changed to “they’d,” making the statement hypothetical.

We ended the evening by watching Robert Lindsay’s performance in 2.2, from the 1982 BBC production. There were gasps when he emerged from the trunk without a shirt on.

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.