It is a long road to a performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” held on May 18, and “Comedy of Errors” on May 25. The cast has been rehearsing since last November.
How a theater troupe creates the rollercoaster ride of emotions expected at a Shakespearean play is a mystery to most audiences. To appreciate the effort that goes into building that rollercoaster ride, you will have to go behind the actors’ curtain and see the real secrets of the theater troupe sponsored by the Marin Shakespeare Company at San Quentin.
“Tragedy and how we can be blind to the truth and trust the wrong people … and the process of developing and losing trust,” are the core themes of the play, said Lesley Currier as she started the session.
The interplay of setting, theme, mood and ACTION were all on display that winter afternoon. The performers practice on Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Arts & Crafts building.
The goals of this day were to practice both general skills of a performer and mesh these with the parts they would perform.
As she gathered the incarcerated men, “We’ll start with a circle,” said Currier as she asked the cast to immerse themselves into the emotional currents of King Lear. “What about this play resonates with you?” Currier continued to set the mood for this day’s work.
The first exercise had the cast individually identify and then act out one facet that influenced them from the play. Then all the members of the cast were to mimic that display.
The enactment demonstrated the cast had done its homework. Often they presented powerful emotions:
-Betrayal of even your brother
-Greened-eyed monster of envy
The group mirrored the raw energy of selecting, embodying and presenting a theme back to the performer. Like breathing, this inhale and exhale of themes was presented by each of the almost 20 performers.
Then one of the strangest sights (to a non-performer) happened.
The cast paired off for the 1,2,3 Exercise: each person learning to listen and speak in turn. They began with just words. While that three-step process sounds simple, it was much more difficult to execute that you might think, and the men burst into laughter at each attempt.
Next the 1,2,3 Exercise progressed to actions and then a combinations of words, emotions, and actions.
To watch these nimble minds able to adjust between concepts of words, emotions and actions was similar to watching a group of jugglers all tossing different objects into the air.
The ability to shift between word, action and order is key to acting. The big finish included having each pair PERFORM – The most rounds completed: Three!
The challenge to act before an audience and laugh at yourself on full display included Currier doing her own rendition.
The key to listen and focus takes practice.
Currier reminded the cast that to create a fully formed human character means the use of voice, body and imagination. She encouraged the cast to create a rich inner life and to “imagine your character’s life history (make them a complete person). Who was their best friend as a kid, hobby, food, family, etc.? What brought an emotional response to your character?”
“Every character has a secret that only your character has,” This is a tool, Currier added, that “embodies substance to a character and informs how to play the character.”
“People are a mass of contractions at the same time,” and the way the troop practiced presenting this was to get out of self and enter the character – with ample and boisterous stage direction from both Currier and the audience.
After dividing the cast in half, Currier pitted one side against the other as supporters and detractors of the character. The energy built with each performance thus liberating the performer to project their character… “GIVE INTO YOUR CHARACTER COMPLETELY” demanded Currier.
When interviewed the cast confirmed their commitment to a great performance.
“I spend three hours a day every day…going over my lines and each evening before I go to bed.” “I watch the yard and see if there is someone to simulate my characters.”
“I do a lot of it my head. I have a movie that goes on in my head and as I approach the show date, I have the character come into focus.”
“I don’t worry about the lines, but who that person is, it’s…always on my mind.”
“I know my lines. I have those down; I’m trying to model how my character will present itself. I want to inhabit that character, not be Nate performing,” said “Nate” Collins.
LeMar “Maverick” Harrison: “I like to listen to the character’s backstory and then make a character original and how would they be in today’s society.”
“The memorization is not that hard, but really to be the character every single day. It allows you to get to a place and everything can come naturally when the show time hits….”
“Skills learned are to listen and carry out and work with others and compromise and be a human being and be a real human being. You must sacrifice yourself when you come in here,” said Eddie DeWeaver.
Belize Villafranco shared his desire to have the “skill to have empathy and compassion to both my character…and I can be anyone. You can inhabit a role and thus learn not just who you are but who you could be.
“We are lucky to be able to play other gender roles—to stand in someone else’s shoes and understand their life experience.”
Participation in this group means an inmate can earn up to four weeks per year off their earliest possible release.
If you’d like to participate or donate to this program, contact Currier at firstname.lastname@example.org or Marin Shakespeare Company; P.O. Box 4053; San Rafael, CA 94913.
Thanks in part to the California Arts Council; individuals can see videos of past SQ performances at www.marinshakespeare.org
For more images, see below.