Nay, answer me

Nov 9, 2011   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers, Shakespeare

I’m sitting in a run-down classroom as the sun slowly sets on the other side of the Hudson River.  The windows are threaded with metal, and there are metal grates on the outside of the glass.  Every so often, a corrections officer walks past the door.  Twelve men sit with me in a circle.  We’ve just read through the first scene of the first Shakespeare play most of them have ever encountered, and twelve pairs of eyes are looking at me, veiled yet questioning.  I ask what happened in the first scene.  A long moment goes by.  A couple of the men diligently but perplexedly study the page in front of them; mostly they wait, suspecting that I’ll relent and spell it out for them.

Fat chance, boys.

“Let’s read it again,” I say. “Let’s just see if we can figure out what time it is.”  We begin to read, going around the circle with each person reading until he arrives at a period, then moving to the next man in the circle.  After just a few lines, H cries out, “It’s midnight! It’s midnight!” Yes.  How do you know?  “Tis now struck twelve, ‘tis now struck twelve!”  Several of the men are nodding, smiling at the man who has learned to tell Shakespearean time.

“Let’s start again at the beginning, and see if we can figure out what the weather is like.”  They’re still guarded, but armed with the solidity of midnight, they begin once more to read.  Again, after a few moments, one of the men says, “It’s cold outside, it’s cold!”  How do you know? “’Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart.”

A small knotted cloud of suspicion starts to dissipate over the classroom as the first scene of Hamlet starts to yield up its secrets.  We start to talk about why Barnardo has to ask “who’s there?” and the man who discovered that it is midnight says, confidently now, “He can’t see.”   Suddenly a raft of understanding about all the greetings and questions in the first 20-odd lines sails through the room.

Stand and unfold yourself

We’re up on our feet, with a freshly appointed Francisco, Marcellus, Barnardo and Horatio exploring Elizabethan staging conditions as we’ve been able to realize them inside a maximum security prison.  Fifteen school desks are in a U-shape, to mimic all the places where a spectator might stand around the platform stage at the Globe.  The grim fluorescent lights shine on the spectators as on the performers; everyone can see everyone, and everyone is engaged in mining the text.

The first pass is awkward, stilted.  Before we take a second pass, we talk about how Shakespeare tells us what time it is, where we are, what the weather is like only if he feels that we need to know, only if it is relevant to the action.  I tell them there will be lots of scenes in this play where we won’t know what time it is or whether it is cold because, in those scenes, it doesn’t matter.  So if we know it is cold and dark, it is to a purpose.  I ask what the men think that purpose might be.  M says, “You know a ghost is scarier in the dark.”  P adds, “You’re less certain of what is true in the middle of the night.”

We take a second pass at the scene, exploring the idea that the characters cannot see one another because of the pervasive darkness, considering how that might affect their movement.  We play with the anxiety that they might have about the possibility of “this thing” appearing again; how does that change the way they move? I am fired up, as I watch light bulbs of understanding flicker, then beam brightly in the men’s eyes.  They are having a good time, discovering that they understand what’s happening in this elusive ‘middle English’, as they call it (later, I’ll bring them some actual Middle English, so that they can see the difference; this, too, makes Shakespeare more accessible).

The rivals of my watch

But then something unexpectedly cool happens.  As I am pointing out that the characters are unable to recognize one another in the dark, and as we experiment with staging how they all immediately recognize the ghost, I make a discovery of my own.  How many times have I read / taught / worked on this play?  I don’t even know.  But I suddenly realize that Shakespeare – through the sentinels’ inability to see one another and their instantaneous, shared sighting of the ghost of old King Hamlet – is telling us that the ghost glows in the dark.  The men laugh at me when I enthusiastically share this discovery.  P says, “You’re crazy, Kate,” but an animated discussion begins about how we can show the ghost’s luminosity.

We pause in our exploration of the scene to hold ghost auditions.  How might he move?  What might he do?  What does the text tell us that he does?  We each take a turn to move across the room, or snake through the circle, some stomping purposefully, some gliding, one darting feverishly to and fro.  At the end of our first session, when we have tamed Act I, scene i, C says, “this tells me that the ghost is an important factor in the play and that what the ghost reveals will be important.” T observed that Barnardo showed great concern for his coworker, Francisco, in urging him to get some rest: “this set the mood of hard work and how a friend cares.”  The men were particularly interested in the relationship between the ghost and the preparations for war, and went off to read scene ii with an expectation that they would learn more about the impending battle.

Well, yes.  In a way.

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