Talking to George Gibbs about Grief

Apr 12, 2013   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers

I recently found myself lying on the prison floor, talking to George Gibbs about grief.

[If you are new to my blog, you need to know that I am directing Our Town at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.]

Thornton Wilder’s stage direction reads, “George sinks to his knees then falls full length at Emily’s feet.”

My incarcerated actor is both a little shy in front of his brothers and also a little uncertain about what he actually needs to do. “You want me to kneel down?”

I tell him that there are a few ways this might happen, but yes, I say, “First you are on your knees and then you collapse on the ground.”

We talk about the nature of grief. Of how it comes in waves. Of how one has moments of functionality within a kind of numbness or aching, and then there are shockwave moments when the grief lashes one. I suggest that George has one of those moments here. “It can’t be ‘prison grief’ where the shutters are so tightly drawn that no one knows what you’re feeling. He is just bereft.”  Three of the guys echo that word after me.

“Bereft.”

“Bereft.”

“Bereft.”

We talk about how we say we “cannot go on” when we lose someone very dear to us, and I say, “but somehow we figure it out, and we do go on, mostly.” One of the guys corrects me, saying, “I don’t think we do figure it out; we just go on.”

So George asks me if I can show him what it might look like, collapsing with grief. Normally, in a rehearsal on the outside, I would hesitate to demonstrate in this way. I wouldn’t want to impose an idea of the specifics of the physicality on the actor any more than I would want to give him a line reading. Inside, I know that it’s going to help my actor find the confidence to explore. So I say, laughing, “Yes, because I love you, I will sprawl across this floor.”

[It’s an ongoing joke about just how grim this particular piece of floor is, ever since we staged the long fight in Superior Donuts two years ago, with a lot of flinging of people — including me — to this dirty, dirty floor.]

One of the other men interrupts me to say, “we love you, too, Kate.” I was being playful; he’s just taken us somewhere else, someplace more honest.

So briefly, I, too, become George Gibbs, walking across the cemetery to my young wife’s grave, kneeling in front of her, lost without her, wanting her back and collapsing across the stage.  Incarcerated George follows me a moment later, having been given permission to take this risk, starting to find his own version of grief that takes your legs out from under you.

  • MelissaMoschitto

    Wow. That kind of hit me in the gut. Thanks for sharing this experience.

  • Kate

    Thanks for reading, Melissa.

  • plainkate

    Thanks for reading, Melissa!

  • Laurie McCants

    So grateful to feel that stab of grief I always feel when I re-encounter this moment in Wilder’s great, great play. My mother had read me this play at our breakfast table when I was in high school. Years later, I was directing it when my mother died. I know that floor. Not THAT floor, specifically, of course. But that floor, yeah, I know it. My theatre company’s in rehearsal right now for SUPERIOR DONUTS. Another great play. Thanks for the work that you’re doing with these guys (the prisoners and the playwrights…).

  • plainkate

    Laurie, wow. Navigating the Grover’s Corners cemetery right after your mom’s death must’ve been profound.

  • I would think your ensemble definitely knows grief, in their loss of freedom… your program must be quite interesting to be part of.. yeah yeah preposition at the end of a fragment…

  • plainkate

    We were talking Wednesday night about another moment in the play, and I said to the actor, “You’re terrified at this moment, but not in a prison / veiled way. Openly terrified. We need to see it.” One of the other guys looks at him and said, “Yeah, 50 to life terrified.”

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