Law & Order: Denmark

Nov 16, 2011   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers, Shakespeare

Last night, we put Claudius on trial.

Miching mallecho

If you’ve been reading my blog or following me on Twitter, you probably know that I’m teaching a Shakespeare workshop at Sing Sing Correctional Facility this autumn, that the men were curious but deeply skeptical about Shakespeare when we began.  A few weeks into the workshop, I received word through the grapevine (the somewhat unreliable prison communication channel of choice) that the class was ‘boring.’ I didn’t hear this distressing news from any of the men actually IN the class, so it was difficult to ascertain whether the whole thing was a bad job or if there was a specific component that stunk.  I also heard this: “Kate said this would be fun, and it’s not fun.”

O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt!  I was mortified; I cannot disappoint these men.  I thought it was fun.  I had worked very hard to make it fun.  I had asked the guys how they were liking the class and the feedback had been positive.

By the time I heard the new news at the old prison, I was on my way out of the facility for the night, and couldn’t communicate with the men for another week.  I paced and fretted between wanting to up-end my syllabus to make it better (whatever that might mean) and waiting ‘til I had a chance to speak with the men in the class about the reports I was getting.  They would be reluctant to tell me directly, I knew, because they are so appreciative of the time each RTA facilitator makes for them; they feel it would be disrespectful to complain.

When the next Tuesday finally arrived and I could ask, I did.  There was a collective air of hesitation in the room.  I said, “If you don’t tell me what’s not working, then I can’t fix it.”  H. said that he felt he’d been misrepresented in the report, that he liked the class, but that the readings were boring.  Not the Shakespeare, but the supplementary readings on the Elizabethan period.  Phew!  O, the readings. A couple of others chimed in, agreeing that those readings were hard.  I talked about why I had included them (sparing them the details about how many articles and essays I had re-read, searching for the most succinct for them), but conceded that they could be dry.  We went back and forth about what was working (the scene work, the ‘up on our feet’ work) and what wasn’t (the dreaded readings, me talking too much).  And then we got to work.

I felt like I earned a couple of new credibility stripes with the men because I didn’t get angry or stomp off or burst into tears, because I discussed what wasn’t working with them, proposed some changes and moved forward.  Is it too much to hope that they learned a bit about offering constructive, non-violent communication as a way to change a situation?

Maybe the improv’s the thing

So last night.  We had a prosecution team, a defense team, a jury of five of Claudius’ peers, No, really, his peers.  Think about it.

I about leapt with glee when our lead prosecutor began his opening statement, with no coaching from me, by saying “The people of Denmark have charged Claudius – we won’t call him King because we believe he has not lawfully come to that royal title…”  He charged him with murder and with high treason.  Yes!  Where’d he get ‘high treason’ from?  Who cares?  He got it. The bailiff swore witnesses in on the text of the play, asking them to “tell the truth, the whole truth, so help you Shakespeare.” The defense team was zealous in their attempts to create reasonable doubt by suggesting that perhaps Prince Hamlet had offed his father.  The objections flew fast and furious.  Eyes were a-gleam with joy as the prosecutor challenged the defense team’s interrogation; “your Honor, the witness is a personal friend of the prince, and not a trained psychologist.”

I was thrilled because, with a little prompting, they were thumbing through the script to find the text that supported their arguments, and witnesses were testifying with their own words from the play.  Horatio completely perjured himself on the stand because, he said, he’d sworn to Hamlet not to tell what he had seen.

I don’t know if the opportunity to control a situation in which they’ve been controlled themselves contributed to their engagement, but they embraced their roles with enthusiasm.

It’s silly fun, but it’s also text-bound fun: you cannot prosecute Claudius unless you can engage with the text, find the language that supports your argument and ask the questions that cause the witness to quote the right moment in the play.  These men are now passionately at play with Shakespeare, their former linguistic nemesis.

We had to take a recess, but court will resume next Tuesday night.

I’ll be sure to post the verdict.

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