Eric Ray Anderson participated in Freehold's Engaged Theatre Program's work-shopping of King Lear this past Winter which toured to unique populations including to the Washington Corrections Center for Women and the Monroe Correctional Facility for Men. He will be participating in the full production of the Engaged Theatre's Summer Tour production of King Lear which will go on tour this Summer, 2012.
What have you been excited by as you've gone about the process of preparing for your work in King Lear?
I’m just plain excited to be working with the Engaged Theatre program, and with Robin Lynn Smith as well. I’ve been a big fan of the program over the years. I’ve had many friends involved in it and have heard testimonials from actors about what a great experience it was to bring work to audiences who don’t usually get to see it. My limited experience with the King Lear workshop and the prison visits we had have really borne that out.
We began working on King Lear this past winter so we could workshop the play and share it with some audiences in prison. There was one particular aspect of work-shopping this piece that was unique for me as an actor. Robin approached me with the idea that my character, Gloucester, would be a puppet. Her thought was that it would necessitate double casting, with me also playing one of the two husbands of Lear’s daughters, Regan and Goneril. In the first reading, I said spontaneously “Wouldn’t that be interesting to have me play the role of Cornwall (who is the one of the two husbands) who literally blinds Gloucester?” Robin said that would be great and we set about staging it like that. The challenges were tremendous in the rehearsal period, since we had to figure out how to play scenes where the two characters, Gloucester and Cornwall, are both played by me. What we devised is that somebody else would be holding the puppet, but I would give voice to the puppet’s words while I was playing the other character, Cornwall. There were a whole bunch of challenges, including figuring out who in the blinding scene would operate the puppet, and just how to go about it. It was constantly rewarding and exciting.
One of the great disappointments of this particular project was that, because of the snow this past winter, we only had one opportunity to run the material for an audience. We performed it for the women at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. We got some great feedback, and although our audience seemed to follow the story well, in the end, we decided not to move forward on having me play both roles. So for this summer's tour I’m going to play Albany and not Cornwall. Nonetheless it was an exciting challenge. It was a very collaborative undertaking and I had great fun working with my colleagues to solve all those problems.
What was the experience like performing for the women at the Washington Corrections Center for Women?
It was really amazing to be inside a prison, to be subjected to the security routines, to imagine what it would be like to not have the option to leave, and to have the experience of performing for this population. When we performed for the women, we were gratified by how much they were invested and how well they followed the story. The willingness of the inmates at both facilities to be present for what we were sharing with them was amazing. It’s unlike the stereotype of prison life that I had - that people would be putting up walls of their own all the time - that was very much not my experience. I didn’t see cynicism or built-in negativity about what we were doing or bringing. There was just a lot of willingness to be pulled into the experience.
What are you looking forward to when you perform the full production of King Lear for the upcoming Summer Tour?
After having a taste of it, I’m really looking forward to letting this winter's experience inform my work on the next stage of our King Lear work. Everyone I know who has done this project in the past has told me about how receptive these audiences are to the performances Freehold brings them. My limited experience this winter has me really charged up to dive in again this summer. King Lear has great potential to mean a lot to the folks we're planning to bring it to. When we performed for the women at WCCW, a number of them spoke of having come from very complicated home lives, and about how much of what happens in the play was therefore familiar territory to them. It was encouraging to hear them talk about how the family dynamics of King Lear resonated with their own experience. I say "encouraging" in the sense of helping the company feel a strong sense of purpose in bringing this story to the prisons. A sense that what we're doing is a really good, and useful, undertaking.
What was it like to do the follow-up workshops at the men’s prison?
We were able to go to the Monroe prison and do a few scenes from King Lear as well as a few workshop exercises that Daemond Arrindell and Robin Lynn Smith facilitated.
One of the first exercises involved meeting someone you didn’t know and then introducing them to the group. The guy I worked with seemed kind of tough- someone who “held his cards to the vest” - but he ended up participating with great willingness and integrity, even though he stayed fairly confused about what we were up to with it all. There were some writing exercises that got into really personal territory and they jumped right into that, and we did the same. It was a bunch of guys gamely engaging in acting and writing exercises as if they’d signed up for a class to do so. Which they hadn't really- they'd just read something about some performance in the chapel and decided to check it out.
That is what I’m taking away most from the experience: it challenged the stereotypes I’ve been exposed to about how incarcerated men would respond. Everybody seemed very open to what the next person shared, whether it was another inmate or us. People were curious and game, and provided support to each other, and to us.
This summer preparing for the tour, I’m very much looking forward being back in the room with my fellow actors and with Robin. We're all great friends. A recent conversation with Robin about where she wants to go with the storytelling was very exciting. I am excited to complete the process of creating our version of this story. Plus, I’ve just had a chance to dip my toe in the water of engaging these underserved audiences and I’m really looking forward to seeing what more there is to learn about that. It’s great to be part of a program that is finding "unlikely" audiences for a live story-telling experience and then to discover what fantastic audiences they are. It is encouraging to have already had a positive experience performing for these folks. They are so glad to see a good play performed well and adventurously. Part of that adventure is how (by necessity, to a great degree) simply we stage the plays in a technical sense. We're relying on the interaction of the characters to tell the story and not on technical effects. If they care, they care because the humans told the story well.