Monday, June 18, 2012

Facing Up to Things by Kevin McKeon

Somebody asked me recently what was my biggest fear.

Going to prison, I said. Which is true.

So when that same person asked me why I was acting in Freehold’s King Lear, that tours to, you know, institutions of a punitive nature, I said well, it’s King Lear. Good acting parts, right? Shakespeare is a real challenge. I said it with a little too much zest, maybe, a bit over the top. I protesteth a bit too much. And they could tell I wasn’t being totally honest. The truth is, at my age, it’s time to face up to the things that scare me, and diving in head first into dark water is probably the best way. Which is what I should have said.

But it also seems ridiculous, a trifle, in the face of the mammoth effort on everybody’s part to make a tour like this happen. I know the dedicated people at Freehold work like crazy to get this tour booked, and I also have the utmost respect and appreciation for the institutions that open their doors to this incredible program. The bottom line is - this is risky business for everyone. Nobody is playing it safe. So sign me up. Good medicine, good company. Risk is where it’s at.

And the fear quickly disperses once the audience is met. What at first seems an impenetrable wall of hardened gazes and tattoos quickly melts away once there is any type of interaction. Asked any kind of reaction or comment on the performance they witnessed, incarcerated people are the quickest to put their response in a personal context. They are the first to recognize subtext, identify motivations of the characters, and relate that to their own experience. They have no filter, either. They usually speak exactly what is on their minds. Nothing to lose, maybe, but everything to appreciate.

So my learning curve is immense and ongoing. During the Julius Caesar tour in 2010 I was fairly freaked out most of the time. At one point during a performance in a crowded gymnasium at a maximum security-type environment, I was certain a riot was going to break out any second (I checked; nobody else felt this way at all). It was all I could do to stay concentrated on Shakespeare, without waving my hands in the air, falling to my knees and saying something un-Shakespeare-like, like Why can’t we all just get along, or something. But the other actors (very good ones) were all out there being utterly professional, so I resisted.

There was no riot, but a lot of Shakespeare’s words were said that day. I hope some of them had resonance, made some lasting impression, before floating off, out beyond the walls. I hope some people inside remember that day, those words and pictures. Maybe somebody was affected by them. I guess this is really why we do it, isn’t it? If we’re going to be risky, put fears behind us, let’s hope it means something to somebody. And I know that the audiences this tour reaches have the greatest capacity to understand, to be moved, and to have compassion for the human condition. As I struggle to get beyond myself and my own issues, ‘prison’ in all its contexts and connotations, seems the best way to make me a better, more honest, more respectful person.

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