Season Seven: Week 32

Tuesday

We spent the evening shooting footage for our Sonnet Project film. Needless to say, we didn’t take many notes, and I don’t want to spoil the film by giving anything away, so… I’ll just say that, even though some ensemble members were dealing with some very dark personal issues, we all came together and did some solid, special work. Later, when I uploaded the footage and began listening to some of the audio, it struck me how much ease we have with each other. This is a group of people who know each other well and work together well. I can’t wait for you all to see the film, whatever it ends up being.
 

Friday
 

During check-in, one of the women said, “I had a nightmare.” She described a dream in which she hadn’t known any of her lines and was freaking out, waking up even more committed to studying her script. “Congratulations,” I said. “You are now officially an actor.”

Our Banquo pointed out that it had been a long time since we’d touched on his murder scene, and, even though we won’t have a visit from our fight choreographer for a couple of weeks, we decided to at least get a good start on it.

We tried a few different entrances for the murderers, with the woman who’s in an offstage role giving most of the direction while I whispered questions to her about her ideas. We finally arrived at the third murderer entering separately from the other two, brandishing Macbeth’s dagger as proof that he is who he says he is.

We began to move on in the scene, but then our Banquo was possessed—maybe actually possessed…—by an idea. She flew throughout the playing space, shouting (not talking) us through it, acting out all the parts and moving the others around the stage like giant action figures. Someone asked me if that was the way our fight choreographer had worked things out. “No,” I said, “But clearly he’s gonna have to adjust.” I asked if we could take it back and go step by step so I could draw it out for him. Our Banquo continued on with that high energy, now joined by the woman who’d been tossing out ideas before, both running and jumping, rolling around, staggering away after being wounded.

We were absolutely delighted by all of this. “[Woman 1] and [Woman 2] get down and dirty!” laughed one woman. “Yeah!” replied one of them. “My armpits are sweaty!” As we all burst out laughing, I wrote down the exchange. “You got that, Frannie?” asked one person. “Oh yeah,” I replied. “It’s going in the blog!” More and more laughter.

We arrived at Act IV scene ii, the murder of Lady Macduff and her son. There was a mix up about casting when this was most recently worked, and we wanted the actors to have another go at it. After the first run, the actors said they felt pretty “meh” about it. I had a feeling that this was due to an avoidance (conscious or not) of the vulnerability necessary to carry it off, but I didn’t want to head off a group discussion by putting all of my cards on the table immediately—plus, the ensemble often comes up with better ideas than mine, and I never want to shut that down. I suggested we take a step back and remind ourselves of why this scene is in the play. What do we need to get out of it?

“There’s a hidden meaning,” said one woman. “Macduff reacts the way you should when someone you love dies. Macbeth doesn’t.” Another woman said that we need to see how vulnerable they are and how senseless this is—that they pose no threat. I asked if we could focus a little, acting wise, on the language about birds that both husband and wife use; that we channel images of a hen and her chick as we worked. I also guided our Ross through some of her lines that indicate that he’s talking around something. She’d played him as so upset that she was yelling, and I asked if she might try it more tamped down, to avoid causing them panic.

Our Lady Macduff asked her son to run on first, saying that she would frequently look over at him during the conversation with Ross. I’m always struck by this woman’s deep understanding of the text. She doesn’t broadcast it—possibly because she’s not completely conscious of it—but she is really, really good at this. I built on what she’d said, encouraging her to think of her son as a battery and recharge with every glance.

The scene worked much better this time, with each actor diving deeper and bringing what they found back up to the surface for the audience. We found ourselves vocally reacting, but quietly; we didn’t want to disturb the scene. When it ended, we applauded, but at first no one spoke. “How did that feel?” I asked the actors. “Better,” they all said. There was another silence. “That was really interesting,” I said. “Did anyone else get the feeling that now the son is comforting the mother?” The answer was a unanimous yes, and the feedback came spilling out. Nearly everything they’d done had been different, and it made us understand the scene in a completely different way.

A couple of people suggested major adjustments, but they were overruled. We wanted to honor what had just happened and stick with these actors’ new interpretations. A few of us gave some suggestions for how they could take those further, and their third run was even quieter and more intimate. All said that they’d “felt it more.” Another ensemble member first praised the work that had been done and then suggested that they “bring it down a notch;” she felt like there’d been too much yelling at times. The actors agreed, with Lady Macduff saying she just wasn’t sure how to ride the rollercoaster. I suggested that they sit together and score the scene like music, making adjustments till they found what worked.

We left rejuvenated and moved by the work we’d done. It was a really lovely way to end the evening.

Season Seven: Week 31

Tuesday

Written by Kyle

We started off the session on a high note, finding out that one of our ensemble members got her GED, which had been a real source of frustration for her. Everyone was ecstatic for her and cheered immediately. She has checked in about struggling with the math section for weeks, brought her math study materials to the group, and frequently left worried about the test; so we all felt like we were part of that success and were happy to share in her accomplishment.

After check-in, we began to work the scene with Malcolm and Macduff. It is, in my opinion, one of the hardest scenes in the play. It is long, involves someone pretending they are something they are not, and difficult to cut because it contains big plot points – in short, it’s a doozy. To be frank, the ensemble members in the scene struggled with it; they felt wooden and disconnected, the blocking felt stuck, and the rest of the ensemble agreed. “I’m not putting enough feeling into it,” said our Macduff, and we set out to talk about what each of the characters want. We tried approaching it in a few different ways, till finally Macduff said, “I think we need to go work on it in the back and bring back.” We all agreed to move on and circle back to Malcolm and Macduff when they were ready.

The next scene we worked was the scene where Lady Macduff and her son are murdered by Macbeth’s henchmen. To be honest, I always worry about this scene. It has a lot of violence that happens on stage, some of which is inflicted on a child. The scene is pretty unsparing as far as it goes, and I always feel like I need to tread lightly as it is approached. That being said, we worked the scene successfully, without incident, and no one voiced any sense of discomfort with the scene’s content. After a little confusion about who was playing which bit part, we really got moving. The scene sparked a really rich discussion about the nuance of our timing as actors. It seemed apparent to the group that a split-second could have a pretty profound effect on the overall success of the scene: the henchmen don’t move until a certain word, and the curtain begins to close only after the sword is drawn, etc. A millisecond too late or too early seemed to throw everything off, and each run incited debate as to what the final product should be. We made our Macduff’s son rehearse her falling over at least eight times before we felt like we had gotten it right. She was a very good sport about it until about the sixth time through, when she decided not to get up again, making us rehearse around her. It was a funny way to finish an otherwise difficult scene.

After the Lady Macduff scene, we circled back to Malcolm/Macduff. They had gone to the back and worked with another experienced, enthusiastic ensemble member; though I did not hear the direction she gave them, it must’ve been good, because they returned with the scene on a completely different footing. They incorporated a real sense of emotional connection, and that seemed to recharge the whole room. Everyone seemed to lean in to see where the scene was going to go and cheered them on as they went. We tried to refine the blocking a bit, but it seemed to be overloading them with direction. In the end, we moved on and promised to come back to it.

At that point, we figured that we would wrap a little early, as most people were leaving. Three members said, “I’ll stay and keep working till 8:30!” which I thought was great. One of our members, who will be paroled very soon, said that she would love to work a monologue she has been exploring from The Winter’s Tale. We were ecstatic to see her perform; she has an incredible command of the language and the stage. We talked about her trying to find some dynamics in the text and crescendo to a climax, corresponding to what her character wants to achieve. We’ve been working with her on finding her own voice in her work as opposed to a character-voice. I think it’s empowering for her to see different iterations of herself expressed in these characters. She struggled with the lines a little bit, and so we finished with me “dropping in” and feeding her the lines so she could focus on her emotional commitment. Each time, she tried it a different way, with a different objective; it was, as always, an electric moment of theatre happening on our stage. She has expressed a desire to pursue theatre professionally once she is paroled; I’m so excited for her, and if she can continue the work that she has done in the group she will undoubtedly go far.
 

Friday

Written by Frannie

Tonight was mostly spent on further brainstorming about the sonnet project that we’re filming on Tuesday. I’m going to save all of that for now so the final product won’t be spoiled!

When some group members pretty clearly wanted to do something other than continue to brainstorm, a few of us huddled in the back of the classroom to wrap up the process. It was a lot of fun. We frequently leapt to our feet to demonstrate our ideas, made sure we all understood each other, and riffed off of each other. Sometimes one of us, watching the others intently, would gasp as an idea came to us, and the rest would stop short to listen.

These ideas are cinematic, exciting, and emotional. I truly hope we can capture all of them!

Before we left for the night, our small group joined the rest (who’d spent the night playing theatre games and talking), and we talked about which plays we were interested in exploring next season. I’ll be bringing in summaries of the following plays for consideration:

•    As You Like It
•    The Winter’s Tale
•    Twelfth Night
•    Julius Caesar
•    Hamlet

It’s incredible to already be thinking about next season. This one is just flying by!

Season Seven: Weeks 29 and 30

Tuesday
 

We began the evening with Michael Chekhov’s Imaginary Bodies exercise. We did an abbreviated version, and some people got more out of it than others, but we were glad to have done it. Some scenes have been worked more than others, and we decided to focus on those that have gotten less attention. One of these was Act II scene i, in which Banquo encounters Macbeth in a bit of foreshadowing, and Macbeth has his “Is this a dagger…” soliloquy.

Our Banquo had a lot of fun with the Imaginary Bodies exercise and did a great job letting her discoveries carry over to this rehearsal. I encouraged her to relax a bit – to let her interpretation be informed by her imaginary body, but not to be dominated by it. We also messed with the entrances to the scene a bit until we were satisfied that they worked well for us.

Our Macbeth then explored the dagger speech. She is mostly off book for it, which is great! As we talked about it – and talked about it – and talked about it – I jumped in to suggest that the time for deep analysis is over, as much as we love it (this is a group of thinkers, to be sure). We now need to focus on going from our collective gut – trusting that the work we’ve done analyzing the play is in us and will take care of itself. We need to stop thinking!

Our Macbeth’s performance became more spontaneous after that, which is exactly as it should be! “God, she is so good,” said one woman.

We gathered on the stage to work through the scene in which an old man and Ross talk about how strange things have been and then encounter Macduff, who is suspicious and will not join the others at Macbeth’s coronation. We decided a while ago to eliminate the character of the old man and adjust the scene to accommodate that. We realized, as we went over the scene together, that we wanted to keep the old man’s descriptions of recent events, and we pondered how we could do that between Ross and Macduff.

One woman said, “Macduff is a no-nonsense guy, though. He doesn’t talk like that.” We all agreed, and then this woman and our Ross hit on a solution: we would turn the dialogue into a monologue that Ross could deliver to the audience. It’s a very cool idea, and, when it was read aloud, it was immediately apparent that it works beautifully. Really awesome team work, and a great solution!


Tuesday
 

Kyle, Matt, and I spent the past few days at the Shakespeare in Prisons Conference, and we took some time during check-in to share about our experience there. It was an amazing conference and a very moving experience, and it was great to share as much of it with the group as we could while not taking up all of our time!

When I asked what we were going to be working on, our Porter immediately said, “My monologue!” She later told us that it hadn’t totally been her idea to work this tonight; turning to another ensemble member, she said, “I’m glad you told me to do it. You called me out yesterday, so I thought I’d beat you to it… I’m really grateful to you.” Apparently this other woman had said that if she didn’t get up and work today, she was going to do something to embarrass her. It worked!

Making her way slowly to the door at the end of the monologue, our Porter dragged her feet, moving incredibly slowly, saying, “I’m coming! I’m coming!” to all of our delight. That sparked a bunch of ideas in the rest of us; I asked if it would be funny for her to open the door and then collapse on the stairs. It was, and that led to more: one woman jumped up and said, “Oh! Can I make a suggestion?” She’s an incredible actress but has been hesitant to contribute much as a “director;” she has fabulous instincts, though, and I’ve been pushing her on it. But she didn’t need any pushing tonight. She demonstrated some hilarious ways of clowning, rolling around on the stairs.

She started to return to her seat in the house, just as our Macduff said, “Does anyone have any ideas for what I should do in this scene? Because I’m feeling really awkward.” The first woman spun around without missing a beat and said, “Well – yes!” We all laughed; there are some extremely talented actresses in the ensemble, but no one has a knack for comedy like hers, and all of her ideas were more than welcome. Another woman said, “Macduff’s a no-nonsense kinda guy. He’s not gonna think this is funny.” We all agreed and collaborated on a few notes for her.

We ran the scene again, and both actors incorporated the new ideas extremely well – particularly our Porter, to her coach’s delight. Another woman, who has excellent directing instincts, bounded up, saying, “I have a suggestion, but feel free to reject it –” she turned to me with a smile and said, “See, Frannie?” We laughed – that’s something I say all the time –  and she kept going. I had talked with her at the beginning of the session about some directing strategies, since she’s so good at it – how to pick and choose from the notes you want to give in order not to overwhelm actors.

I looked over to see one of the women lying on the stairs, demonstrating another idea. There is no way this woman would have done that last season! She’s really loosened up. As we geared up to try the scene one more time, one of the women said, “Hang on,” and then, pointing at our Porter, she said, “I just wanna say – I saw your nose-painting. I saw what you did!” She demonstrated how the Porter had rubbed her nose on her arm in the way that someone who’d just done cocaine would do, and that gave us a good laugh. We’d all caught it, but no one had called it out – and I’m glad she did, because knowing that that instinct was effective has to have been a boost for the Porter.

We ran the monologue once more. Our Macduff, standing near me as we watched, said, “She’s blossoming.” I began to ask her if she’d shared that with our Porter but was interrupted when the woman who’d provided all the comic coaching came bounding over, complimenting our Macduff on being able to squat in the scene for so long. Clearly I couldn’t interrupt THAT. As their conversation ebbed, I asked Macduff the question I’d begun. She said she hadn’t, and I suggested that she do so.

As our Porter left, our Macduff said, “Hang on a second.” She took her by the arm and said, “You’re blossoming. From where you started to where you are now, you’ve come so far. You know what you’re saying, and you’re finding your character. I’m really proud of you.” Our Porter positively beamed and hugged her.

I rejoined the group to find our Ross in the midst of her new soliloquy, pieced together from the Old Man’s lines. She was animated and fully committed to getting it right. She was a dedicated and serious ensemble member last season, but this year she’s positively driven. And it’s infectious.

She felt like she was having trouble landing all of her descriptions, so we used the “you know” exercise; after each key phrase, the actor pauses and says, “You know?” or something similar to the audience. After the exercise, the actor does her speech again, without those additions. It almost always does wonders, and this time was no different. “I got your attention,” she said. “It got across the when, where, and how… I felt better because I slowed it down, and I got attention paid to the details.” But I wasn’t the only one who’d given helpful suggestions. “Everybody gave me a little bit, and I took it and put it all together,” she said.


Friday
 

We began tonight by continuing our work on The Sonnet Project, which we’re planning on filming soon. We needed to finish writing it first, though! We’re working with #35. As a reminder, it’s this one:

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense--
Thy adverse party is thy advocate--
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate
    That I an accessary needs must be
    To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

We read it aloud, and I asked what our thoughts were – we had low attendance when we worked this last, and it was new for some people. One of those immediately said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.” We asked her why. “Because, to me, I think the poem was written at a point when this person said, ‘No more’… Everybody makes mistakes, but it doesn’t define you.” She got extremely emotional at that point and stopped because she didn’t want to lose control crying.

“Every person has different sides,” said another woman. “Sometimes people see your good side, but people have issues, you know? Like, the thief is like a drug – you know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway.” The first woman agreed, “It’s a battle with yourself.” Another said, “It means to forget what you have done.” The first woman nodded, “This is a reason to let go.”

“The first line is what caught my attention,” another woman agreed. The first woman added, “This is who we are and what we’re aiming for.” She then shared the ideas that the poem sparked for her, which were right in line with what we’d talked about before: scenes of forgiveness, ending with the ensemble together in the ring.

One woman said that the image of a rose popped out at her. She saw an upturned hand crushing a flower. “The thorn pricks you when you crush the flower, and then, when you release your hand, the flower re-blooms – like forgiveness.”

“Don’t regret the things from your past,” mused another woman. “You can’t have beauty without ugliness… Everyone’s past is muddled in regrets and ugliness. And if you don’t have the ugliness, you can’t appreciate the beautiful things you have.” She looked again at the poem. “Somebody is lamenting something they’ve done.”

We talked more about the scenes of pain followed by uplifting, and one woman gasped, “Oh!” The conversation stopped as we waited for her idea. “What if we did it as a chain reaction?” she asked, explaining that, as one person is uplifted, she could move to the next person and uplift her, and on and on, “like they’re carrying a message.” We all LOVED that idea.

We talked about how to divide up the lines of the poem – I won’t have a great microphone on the camera, so we’ll have to do this as a voiceover. We liked the idea of sharing lines, although one woman cautioned us that we’ll need to make sure we preserve the build of the poem. “I don’t want to see this choppy or cut off,” she said. There is a woman in the ensemble who is extremely gifted at performing poetry, and we decided that, however we do this, she will coach everyone to ensure that the build is there.

One woman then exclaimed that she had another idea – to use auras of color to show the words and energy flowing between us. We joked about whether or not CGI was in our budget, and I said that I could try to figure out how to do that, but I’m an amateur editor and couldn’t guarantee it.

One woman said, “I love ‘excusing thy sins more than thy sins are.’ That’s… that’s… really something.” We talked more about what the piece will sound like. We may add soft sounds like crying and sighs, and we may intersperse the poem with whispers of the first line. Someone suggested that we say the first line again after the sonnet is finished, and then I asked if perhaps it would be effective to start the entire poem over, since that instinct came from the idea of forgiveness being an ongoing process.

One woman said, “Aren’t we trying to show that hope that we saw in this poem? Hopefully to somebody with some more money?” We all laughed – we joke a lot about the process of funding SIP. I responded that we really do need to consider the visuals, then; we need to show our audience the hope rather than simply telling them about it. Another woman mused, “Yeah… I wasn’t taking the line about the rose so literally. I was thinking that one of us – a woman – represents the rose, and then she turns, and there’s a scar on her face.” We loved that!

We decided to take a break until the folks who’d needed to leave briefly returned. It turned out that our Macbeth had challenged Lady Macbeth to memorize the scene that occurs just after Duncan’s murder, and they wanted to show us the result. They ran the scene, and it was clear that they understood what needed to happen, but our Lady Macbeth kept laughing, getting more and more frustrated (but not angry). Our Macbeth stuck with it, but it definitely wasn’t what they wanted.

I asked our Lady Macbeth how her character felt in the scene. She said that she was nervous, agitated, and wanting to make sure that everything went off without a hitch. I suggested that she get out of her head and work with the image/feeling of having electricity coursing through her body – providing the physical tension and heightened alertness that she wanted. She liked that idea, but then she paused. “Sometimes I feel like I just don’t have it. Like, I understand what you say, I know what I want to do, but sometimes it doesn’t… doesn’t… I just can’t do it. I feel like I’m more creative.”

We assured her that she could. “All actors have to deal with this,” I said. “You’re not the only one. You’ve gotta find a way to put that aside – fire that critic! If you’re constantly judging yourself, you’ll stifle your creativity. Let go and do what you need to do.”

“All right,” she said. “I’ve got it now. I’m ready.” They launched into the scene again, and, immediately, it was exactly where it needed to be. Lady Macbeth paced, but this time with urgency. She didn’t get bogged down in the lines, and her anxiety was palpable. When our Macbeth entered, she jumped and moved to her immediately. They fed off of each other, heightening the tension more and more. We were entranced. When Lady Macbeth said, “Go get some water, and wash this filthy witness from your hand,” it was as powerful as I’ve heard seen that line delivered. I literally gasped, and I wasn’t the only one.

Man, was it ever good. One woman said she’d listened to it with her eyes closed, as if she were hearing it for the first time. “I really could follow it. I understood it perfectly,” she said. That’s high praise – to be able to understand Shakespeare without a visual is no small thing, and it speaks to the clarity with which the scene was performed. I asked the actors how they felt. “It flowed better that time,” said Macbeth. “What made it flow better?” I asked. They looked at each other, smiled, and Lady Macbeth said, “The electricity.” I encouraged her to keep working with it.

This entire ensemble deals with the same thing that has always limited me as an actor – we just think too damn much! Luckily, because I’ve struggled with this so much, I can tell when it’s happening, and I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve for how to help others let go and stay in the moment. And watching them do it helps me better understand how I can do it for myself. I am always learning in this program!

Season Seven: Week 28

Tuesday


Tonight I spent most of my time in private conversations with the women who were involved in last week’s conflict. All are staying in the ensemble and working to move forward in a constructive way. This is a great opportunity for all of us to learn ways to work alongside people with whom we disagree and/or have tension, and, while it will be challenging, that’s part of what we do in SIP. I’m hopeful that this all will have a positive outcome.

Matt worked with the others on the Malcolm/Macduff scene. The energy was still somewhat tense, but they did their best to push through it. Things relaxed a bit as they worked, and some of the collaboration they’re so good at began to happen.

Toward the end of the night, I joined scene work already in progress. The ensemble was working on the “double, double” scene, and they were a little stuck. They asked me to dive in with them, and I did! I watched what they had done and then made some suggestions: let go of being pretty! be ugly! pick an animal and roll with that energy! have fun! One woman said she was a gargoyle, another said she was a dragon. “Does it have wings? Does it breathe fire?” I asked, and she excitedly said it did. The third witch at first chose a gorilla, but we went with a spider instead. I asked them to imagine the air being thick and the ground being silt. I also worked with our Macbeth a bit to help her with her character’s fear in the scene. We tried it again, and it began to work much better! One of our witches wasn’t feeling well, and the third witch’s animal didn’t quite work (which was my fault – her first instinct was much better than mine); still, we were excited about the progress we’d made. “I felt powerful!” said one of them. They decided to focus on getting off book so, the next time we work it, they’ll be able to commit more to their physicality.
 

Friday
 

Tonight’s focus was on giving folks who haven’t had much (or any) stage time a chance to get on their feet! Our Captain has worked with other characters, but not that one. And our recast King hasn’t been on stage at all.

Our Captain had great instincts about what to do in the scene, but she was thinking too much! I tried to coach her in ways that would get her out of her head. Focus on what you want and the obstacle the wound presents. Center yourself in that wound and follow your instincts in fighting through it. Paint pictures – make sure you get that information to the king before you die, because you really could die with an open wound like that. She had a hard time with all of that – she is a thinker! – and then she got distracted when she saw a friend through the window whom she’d been needing to talk to. She eventually let go of the work at hand to try to get her message to her friend with gestures, over-emphasizing her words to make lip-reading easier, and I said, “That’s the urgency! Do that!” Then it seemed to click.

As our king had temporarily left the room, I took over – the others were reluctant to get on stage for whatever reason, other than a woman who’d volunteered to be the Captain’s “perma-helper.” We tried the scene again, and it went a bit better.

I guided the Captain through an exercise that emphasized breathing on punctuation, and the language seemed to fall into place for her. Our king returned, and we tried the scene again, this time with me reading Malcolm. Our king really listened, and our Captain let the language do more of the work. She kept bending slightly at the waist and then coming back up. I said, “Your body wants to fall. Let it fall.” She looked at me, still in the moment. “Just fall?” she said. “Follow that instinct,” I replied, and she did. We all knelt with her.

It was more immediate that way – we all liked it – so we decided to try it one more time. This time it really sank in, and those of us on stage didn’t have to work to stay with her. She pulled us right in. It was great, especially because she’d struggled so much.

Kyle took over scene work at that point, and I pulled one woman aside to make sure I had all of the cuts she’d made to her lines. After we’d gone through those, I asked how she was feeling about the program and the situation. I said I had gotten the feeling that she was frustrated. She said she’s definitely frustrated with the situation. She said she knows all of the women involved, has strong opinions about both sides of the conflict, and she didn’t like that I allowed the group time to reflect immediately afterward, when one of the people involved and left the room (a constructive decision on her part, not a retreat). This woman said she felt like we should have immediately moved on. I said that I understood why she felt that way, but that it’s best practice in situations like that to give a bit of time for people to express any feelings they might be having before moving on. I reminded her that it hadn’t turned into bashing, and that we’d moved on as soon as people had had their say.

She said she’s also frustrated by the pace at which we’ve been moving, which, admittedly, has been a bit slow. We tend to struggle with that in the colder months, when the performance still seems far away. We enjoy each other’s company and can get side tracked, and that means that we aren’t getting as much scene work done as we could with a bit more focus. I said that she’s not the only one who’s frustrated. Sometimes I am, too!

I said, though, that expressing that frustration without a filter is never helpful because it causes people to shut down. “You know… you catch more bees with honey and all that,” I said, smiling, and she ruefully rolled her eyes, saying, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that. I know.” I said that others have been trying to give the ensemble more urgency, and it hasn’t always been effective. I suggested that, because she has a nice, loud voice and is generally bubbly and positive, she could do a lot to keep things moving and structured. I said I thought people would listen and follow her lead as long as she was pleasant, and I asked if she would help us with that. She liked that idea, and I got the sense as she left that some of her frustration had ebbed with that possible solution at hand.

Season Seven: Week 27

Tuesday
 

We’re getting very close to submitting our performance proposal, and this is also a very busy time for me in general! The ensemble frequently asks me to delegate whatever I can to them, and tonight I took them up on that.

There’s a lot of tracking to be done with this play—who has certain props/costumes, at what times, and where. We need to track swords, shields, and torches; we also need to track those badges with symbols, particularly if/when people switch sides, and when they do it. It’s a lot for one person to do, so I asked if there were a few people who might like to give it a try. There are a lot of very organized women in this ensemble, and, for folks who are wired that way, this kind of time intensive task—which requires lots of focus—could be a great way not only to gain further ownership of the play, but to fill up time. Three women volunteered. I’m very grateful!

I was out of the room for a while to touch base with staff about a few items. Matt took notes while I was gone:

The ensemble decided to run through the banquet scene, which is also the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. The first time through was slow and disjointed: no one seemed to know where to go, and our Banquo started acting goofy behind Macbeth’s back in an attempt to make her laugh. When the scene was finally over, two people rushed in with ideas. First, a new member who has great instincts for movement and staging talked with Lady Macbeth and the seated lords about how to react to Macbeth’s seemingly insane actions (only Macbeth can see the ghost of his slain friend). Meanwhile, a facilitator took Macbeth and Banquo into a small room in the wings to work on their interaction, which is long and mostly wordless. The facilitator asked Banquo what her motivation is.

“To tell him that my blood is on his hands,” she replied. Then, she stopped, and added, “I don’t know if Banquo knows he’s dead. Like, you know how people don’t always realize something’s happened until someone else points it out?”  She didn’t see a way to reconcile those two thoughts, though. “If I don’t know I’m dead, I can’t want to show him that my blood is on his hands.”

Then she made a gesture of feeling her head for the blood, looking down at her hands, and then reaching out at Macbeth. It was a strong, fluid movement, and our Macbeth jumped to respond. “Oh! Then I feel like I…” and she reached back at Banquo, passing her fingers through the other woman’s, then recoiling in fear. The movements electrified the little room, and we were excited to bring those actions to the stage.

The second time through the scene, the palpable chemistry between Macbeth and Banquo was supported by the more refined and deliberate actions of the other players on stage. Macbeth and Banquo performed the gestures we had worked on backstage, but Banquo improvised some inspired moves that she took from the goofy breakdown of the first run. She snuck up behind Macbeth as Macbeth was walking backwards, eliciting a reaction of true surprise. When moving offstage, she stared at Macbeth with a harrowing look of betrayal and sadness.

A third run further refined the chemistry between Macbeth and Banquo, which in turn made space for an impassioned performance from Lady Macbeth, whose desperate (and barbed) attempts to calm or hush her husband drew some whoops of support from the crowd. Notably, Banquo snuck onstage at the beginning of the scene without telling anyone, hiding among the lords from the beginning. She was only noticed onstage when Macbeth tells the murderer to describe Banquo’s death. Hearing about her own demise, Banquo came to understand that she was, in fact, murdered.

“I was thinking that I couldn’t do both,” she said, referring to her earlier ideas about Banquo’s motivation. “Turns out, it works perfectly.”

Her inventiveness, supported and encouraged by the strong performances of the others onstage and the rest of the ensemble, helped bring the scene to the next level.

Back to Frannie:

I came back just in time to see how pumped up the group was after having gone through the scene twice, and they asked if I’d like to see it. Of course I would! The scene was very strong, and I took some notes for us to work with once everyone’s off book. They felt great about their work but were eager to go deeper, and they all felt that that wouldn’t happen till they could put their scripts down.

We talked a bit about what to do when you’re on stage and don’t have lines for a while (or at all). Our Lady Macbeth said, “I don’t want to have one moment where I’m waiting for [Macbeth] to be done.” She wants to be active and in character at all times. She continued, “I’ve been watching TV and trying to watch the people in the background and seeing what they do… A lot is done with facial expressions, with body language.” We’re going to continue to explore this!

We had a little time left, so we decided to work the next scene, which is very brief. Ross has replaced the Lord in our version, and she and our Lennox gamely tackled the scene, even though they didn’t have a clear idea of what they should be doing. They said afterward that they’d felt okay, but that they weren’t sure where to go with it. I asked them if they knew what their characters wanted. Our Lennox looked down at her script, scrunched up her nose, messed with her hair, and said, “It’s… Has he jumped ship yet?” Very brave of her to admit that she didn’t completely understand the scene, and another woman gently said, “Not yet,” and explained where we were in the story and when that would happen.

Another woman jumped up to share some ideas about blocking and body language, and I added my two cents as well. We ran the scene again, and they both felt a bit better, but we’ve got more work to do! Lots of good stuff tonight.
 

Friday
 

Before we got going, I approached one of our newer members and jokingly asked if anyone had informed her that, when she was absent last week , we’d cast her in two roles (she’d had none before). She smiled and sarcastically replied, “Uh… no. Y’all gave me TWO parts?” I said, “We sure did. King Duncan and… Caithness, I think? A soldier without many lines.”

“Huh,” she said, thinking for a moment. “You think I can play the king?”

“I sure do,” I replied.

She raised an eyebrow. “But do you really think I can play the king? You think I can really do that?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “I know you’re concerned about lines, and we can cut way down on his. What’s more important is the presence of a king, and you’ve got that presence.”

“I do, huh?” she said, straightening her shoulders a bit.

“Uh, yeah,” I smiled. “I think you’re gonna be great.”

“Well, all right,” she said, opening her script as she walked away.

Immediately after this, the woman who volunteered to track the badges came over and said, “Okay, I did the tracking, but I have some questions.” She'd developed a great method for doing this incredibly complicated task—and had really enjoyed doing it. That honestly didn’t surprise me. She’s shown us, over and over, how remarkably organized, capable, and intelligent she is, and this is the kind of thing that calls attention to all of that.

She had a few very good questions, all interpretive, and then asked if she could take an extra script and notate everything there so I wouldn’t have to transfer the information later. She also suggested that the other “trackers” record their notes in that script, and that, ultimately, we turn it into a sort of prompt book. Um, genius. She wins the prize. I don’t know what the prize is, but, whatever it is, it’s hers for sure.

We circled up for check in. People had both good and bad news to share. One of the women who, last week, shared with us (in a general way) that she was hurt by confidentiality being broken shared in a bit more detail, but without naming the person she was talking about. She focused on how the situation made her feel, as another affected woman had last week. A number of people vocally expressed their empathy and concern for her, agreeing that keeping our space safe is of the utmost importance.

This same woman then, calmly and with poise, addressed the woman whom she believed had broken confidentiality and restated her feelings. The ensuing conversation, which ended up directly involving four people, was long and complex, and I’m not going to record those details here. Suffice to say that, while things got heated, we’ve had similar situations in the past that have gotten much worse. I’m honestly not sure if we resolved anything, but I think we’ll have a better idea of that on Tuesday.

I do want to note that, as contentious as things got, the only other ensemble members who left the room did so because they had other obligations. Everyone else stayed in the circle, some quietly helping to relieve the tension by sharing candy and making silent little jokes to one another. It didn’t interfere with the work of conflict resolution at all, and, I imagine, made it possible for people to stay who may otherwise have left. In fact, one woman who left came back at the end to check in on us, and another who’d said she would have to leave early stayed until our time was over.

After reflecting and checking in with each other for a few minutes, we decided to do something silly to lift us back up. We played a rousing game of Gibberish Rap, which we haven’t done yet this season. It’s one of my favorites: we circle up, establish a beat as a group, and then people jump in the middle and rap in gibberish, with the option of “challenging” one another. It’s always fun, but tonight was especially so because an ensemble member who has a GREAT sense of humor but can still be a bit reserved was challenged by a particularly gregarious woman – and took her ON. It was an honest-to-goodness battle – and she won! We were not only laughing and applauding, but hooting, hollering, dancing, pounding on tables… What a thrill!

We also played Gibberish Translator, and another ensemble member had a kind of breakthrough. She joined us in September with very low self-esteem and confidence, as she openly shared. Lately, though, she’s been taking some artistic risks and getting extremely positive responses, and she’s been vocal about how much that’s helped to build her up. Speaking in gibberish was clearly daunting, but she plunked herself down in that chair anyway. She apologized for being nervous and said she didn’t know what to say. The others encouraged her, telling her she has no idea how good she is and that it’s gibberish—she couldn’t do it wrong! She tried, still hesitating, and the ensemble cheered her on. “That was great!” “See, we knew you could do it!” Some of her phrases (I believe one was “zigga zig boom”) got huge laughs, and she gained confidence so quickly that, within minutes, you would never have guessed how scared she was at first.

In past seasons, we’ve often left sessions that included open conflict in a funk, or even still seething. Tonight we didn’t. Individual ensemble members made deliberate decisions to end and move on from the conflict in order for the larger ensemble to recover a bit before going back to their units. Like I said, I’m not sure that this conflict is actually resolved, and things may get worse again, but I truly admired how the group worked together on this particular evening.

Season Seven: Week 26

Tuesday
 

After we checked in, we decided to finish our stumble through of the play. The group dispersed a bit, talking in small groups. One woman repeatedly tried to wrangle everyone but failed—she was a little quiet, and people couldn’t hear her or weren’t listening. Finally another woman who has a wonderful, booming voice, called everyone to focus, saying specifically that the other woman had been trying to get something going and asking them to listen to her.

We got a little stuck on the scene in which Malcolm and his army arrive at Birnam Wood and decide to cut down boughs to hold and disguise their numbers. The first staging was a bit awkward, with people unsure of what to do, or even where to place the “forest.” One woman gave suggestions to improve the acting in the scene, pointing out that the idea to use the branches is spontaneous, and they should think about how they would react. “Put yourselves in the position of that so it’s more spontaneous and not rehearsed,” she said. “We don’t want it to look rehearsed.” Another woman pulled two faux trees that are in the auditorium to the center of the stage. There actually is one branch that is unattached, and they decided to use that as well.

They went for it again, and, as one of the actors said, it “felt blah.” The woman who’d given suggestions about spontaneity jumped up, talking through a complex staging idea that would incorporate this scene and the two after. It involved several entrances and exits, as well as using the fluorescent lights above the stage to isolate each side of the performance area, depending on where the focus needs to be.

As we geared up to work through all of this, I pulled our Macduff and Malcolm aside and suggested that they work on taking up space—that they’re warriors—powerful women playing powerful men. They don’t need to apologize for standing strong and being loud. “We’re sensitive, too,” said our Malcolm, and as I nodded, our Macduff said, “I know! All my pretty chickies!”

We worked through the next scene with Macbeth, and then our Malcolm, Macduff, and a woman standing in for Siward made their way back stage for their entrance. I joined them and referred back to something our Malcolm had said earlier, encouraging them to “go total Braveheart.” They did, and it worked fairly well, but not as well as we wanted. I went back stage again and asked them how they felt. “I’m nervous,” said our Malcolm. “I don’t know… I’m scared of rejection.” This woman has come a long way from the quiet, shut down person I met in the fall of 2016, but she still has a lot of fears. The difference is that now she has the confidence to push through them. Our Macduff and I reminded her that she was in a safe space to be strong, loud, and to screw up if that’s what happened. “You’ve gotta rally an army. Use the audience. We’re on your side,” I said. “Take back your country! Take back your castle!”

I ran back into the house (I was excited), and the scene began. Malcolm strode on stage, moving quickly and powerfully, delivering her lines in a voice that carried right through to the back of the house. She stood downstage center and didn’t back off. The others matched what she was doing, and Macduff instinctively built on her energy. It was incredible, particularly for our Malcolm. I don’t think we’ve ever seen her take command of the stage like that. One woman, who joined the group in January, leaned back to me and said, “Good job, Frannie. I love how you got them all hyped up.” I accepted the compliment—I know that sometimes it’s my ridiculous excitement that gives people permission to harness the fire that’s already in them—and reminded her, as I always do, that the real work is being done by the participants, who don’t need to listen to me in the first place!

Even though we were improvising through the staging, the battle scenes were high energy and engaging. When we got to the final scene, that energy dropped. I went and sat beside a woman I’ve known for more than two years, who used to be extremely afraid of giving her opinion and getting on stage. But things are different for her now. I asked if she was feeling the same as me; if this scene felt like it dragged at all. She said that it did, and that there probably was nothing the actors could do to keep it from feeling like a letdown—it needs cuts. Then we all applauded when Macduff said, “Hail, King of Scotland,” somehow forgetting that Malcolm still had a monologue. Our Malcolm looked down at her script and wryly said, “I am not gonna be saying this shit,” but then gamely gave it a go for this rehearsal.

She did a great job with it, but afterward I posed the same question to the entire ensemble: does this scene drag after the previous ones? All agreed that it did. I suggested that our Malcolm’s instinct not to read her monologue might be a good one; if we all applauded after Macduff’s line, our audience probably would, too, and perhaps that’s the point at which to end the play. We agreed to look for other cuts, too.

As we circled up to brainstorm about costumes, set, and props, one woman leaned over to me and said, “You know what my favorite Shakespeare quote is?” She continued, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” I couldn’t resist saying it along with her. It’s one of my favorites, too. She said she found it in a novel she was reading and loved it so much that she memorized it.

We have some really great ideas for the look of the show; the challenge will be making it all happen with the budget and resources we have. We’ll keep developing these as we get closer to performance. I’m very excited about where we are.


Friday
 

Even though it was a small group tonight, check in took a long time. Two ensemble members told me before we circled up that another ensemble member has been breaking confidentiality and sharing very personal information about others in the group. It’s made them feel understandably unsafe and, as longtime members, angry about the violation and the disrespect they feel it shows the entire ensemble and the program as a whole. I asked if they would like to address this with the other person or with the group at large, and they opted for the latter.

Though the person in question was not present after all, one of those ensemble members chose to share her feelings anyway. We’ve had issues in the past with others doing something similar but clearly identifying the “offending” party, even without using a name, but this woman has been in the group long enough that she knows how to avoid doing that. “I just really need to get this off my chest so maybe I won’t be so upset,” she said, and shared what happened in a general way, focusing on her own feelings. “This is where we come to get away from prison, and this needs to be a safe place,” she said. One woman praised her for “speaking of us collectively.” We agreed that we would talk about this with the larger group on Tuesday. The woman who was upset said, “When we talk about this, we’re going to be civilized, because for us there’s nothing else.”

Another woman who’s been incarcerated for more than 10 years, brought up how impressed she was by the way in which this ensemble member, who’s been in prison even longer, was handling the situation. She said that the first time she met her, she’d just come back from solitary and immediately attacked someone else before she’d even put her stuff down. She used to be unruly and unreasonable, and now here she was, calmly addressing an extremely upsetting situation as constructively as she could. It’s a remarkable transformation. “To watch you change helps me believe that I can change,” she said. Those of us who’ve known her for a long time agreed. “You’re on your way to something big,” said another woman. “Just keep being a superstar.”

We spent the rest of our time talking through costumes and props and covered nearly everything by the time we left. Even with a small group, we’re generally very productive, and tonight was no exception. We’ve just got a few more things to figure out before we submit our performance proposal. June is getting closer!

Season Seven: Week 25

Tuesday

The ensemble member who was cast as Young Siward let me know before we began that she needed to leave the group. Another ensemble member had been interested in playing that role, but deferred, accepting the roles of understudy for that character and playing Fleance as well. When she saw the other woman turning in her books, she approached me quietly. “Is she leaving the group?” she asked. I told her that she was. “So… Can I play Young Siward? I mean, since I was already understudying, can I just play the part? Is that okay?” I said it wasn’t up to me and encouraged her to ask the group. She is much more buoyant and confident this season, but this still intimidated her a bit. So, with her standing right next to me, I turned to the group and said, “I have a question to ask on behalf of [her name].” She started giggling and blushing, but she didn’t leave the stage. I told the ensemble that the woman who’d been cast as Young Siward had left and asked, “Are we all okay with [name] playing Young Siward, since she was already the understudy?” No one objected. She was so excited. It is such a thrill to see her this way. I have loved every moment of working with her, even the difficult ones—and those hard times have made these moments that much more pleasurable. I can’t help but smile every time she smiles. And she smiles a lot now.

One of our ensemble members asked me to come to the back of the auditorium with her to work on cutting some lines. As I got up to go with her, our Lady Macbeth said, “No! Uh uh, Frannie. We’re about to do the sleepwalking scene!” I asked the other ensemble member if she needed to leave early or if the cuts could wait for a few minutes, since it was important to Lady M that I be able to give feedback on that scene. She said that was totally fine, even though she was clearly anxious. She struggles a bit with impatience, so, even though this was a little thing, it was a big deal.

Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is a challenge for any actor, but it presents a different sort of challenge for people who’ve committed crimes. I knew when we chose Macbeth that this scene might be a little loaded, and I’ve been prepared since then to work through it with whomever played the role. Our Lady Macbeth is a longtime ensemble member with whom I have a very strong bond, and I’ve talked through the scene with her on several occasions, knowing (as much as I can) where she’s coming from as she approaches it.

When she and I spoke about it on Friday, we agreed to try the scene as if she were underwater, moving slowly, weighed down, and seeing things around her distorted. We decided that there also should be (in Michael Chekhov terms) some sort of shivering or vibrating object in her ideal center (chest) to help her experience the character’s anxiety without having to call up her own emotions or experiences. She also told me during that conversation that she knows she’s not a good actor, which is absolutely not true, and I told her that. I said that she has always been a solid actor, but the program hasn’t always been in a place that allowed her to explore that. But people started taking things more seriously during Othello. That discipline grew during Richard III. And now we have an ensemble made up of people who are extremely committed to doing their best work—individually and as an ensemble. They conduct themselves just as seriously as any professional ensemble. They do it with less theatrical experience, but they also do it in a setting where it is much, much more challenging. I admire them so deeply for that.

But back to our Lady Macbeth, and our conversation last week. She smiled and accepted what I said about her acting, and I encouraged her to dive in as much as she was comfortable. She was ready to go on Friday night, but we ran out of time. Now, though, it was her turn.

Two women stood in for our absent Gentlewoman and Doctor. Lady Macbeth entered slowly, carrying her script in one hand and a drumstick (as candle) in the other. This woman, who can be so powerful physically and vocally, was purposefully quiet and sad. The character was clearly disturbed, but not crazy. At one point she dropped the drumstick, and we all jumped as it clattered—she’d sort of put us in a trance!

When the scene ended, we talked about how well so much of it had worked. She said she had felt good, but was annoyed by how physically close the Gentlewoman and the Doctor had been to her. The woman standing in as the Gentlewoman agreed that they needed more space, but they struggled to find a solution. A woman who has a co-director role said that many of us have a tendency to hover. She got on stage to demonstrate some ideas of when the two of them could get close to Lady M and then jump away. Another woman gave suggestions of where to begin and end the scene.

A third woman pointed out that Lady M hadn’t been washing her hands, which is an important aspect of the scene. Lady M said that she couldn’t when she was holding her script, which is, of course, a great point. I asked if she’d like to run the scene with me “dropping in”—standing just beside or behind her, feeding her lines one by one so she wouldn’t have to read her script. She said she would. Our co-director gave her some specific ideas to try out, including talking to herself as if into a mirror at one point.

We began the scene a second time, but just as Lady M entered, she stopped and said, “Oh, no, hold on! I’ve got a better idea! Hold on!” She grabbed her coat and put it over her shoulders. “Okay, now you can go,” she said, and re-centered herself as the scene began again. I couldn’t watch her performance—I had to keep my eyes glued to the script—but I could feel how powerful her energy was. At one point she sank to the ground, washing her hands, then tore the coat off her shoulders and used that to wash her hands as well.

The group was enthusiastic about how it had gone. The Gentlewoman and Doctor said it had felt good to keep more of a distance and be more intentional with their movements. Lady M said the scene had felt more or less the same for her—but it had been good both times!

We started to move on, but then Kyle jumped in. Again, this woman has been in the ensemble for a very long time—longer than Kyle—and he wanted to make sure she knew how impressed he was with her work. He told her how good it was to see her challenging herself, owning her power, and developing as an actor. He said (truthfully) that she’s set a high water mark for the whole ensemble—that it’s really just technique for her now—and as I looked around I saw all the others nodding, taking no offense, honoring the place she’s earned in the group due not just to her longevity, but to her commitment (redoubled this year after a brief absence). I told her that I agreed—emphatically—and that her ability to give so much of herself was (as she and I discussed last week) also a testament to the seriousness and supportiveness of this ensemble. There is much for everyone to be proud of in her continued growth and success.

I then joined our Macduff in the back of the auditorium to work on those cuts, per her request. Our Malcolm was absent, but they’d been looking at this together outside of SIP, so we were able to work without her. Last week, they asked me to go through and look for cuts as well, so we were really just comparing notes. They were nearly all the same.

She had an idea about Malcolm that I don’t think she’s shared with her scene partner, and I’m interested to see if this is going to play out at all. “I think Malcolm’s feeling some kinda way because he’s a virgin,” she said. “I mean, come on,” she continued, “He’s got his crown stolen. He’s banished to a country of refuge… And he’s a VIRGIN. He’s gotta be feeling some kinda way about that.”

When we arrived at the part of the scene when Macduff finds out about his family’s slaughter, she said, “I don’t really know what we can cut. I feel so bad for him here. Like, he’s so disoriented and emotional.” I told her that she was right—that’s exactly how he feels, and we probably don’t need to cut anything. She did suggest that we cut his lines about “all my pretty chickens and their dam,” and before I could stop myself, I said, “Oh, no, no, no! You need that!” I then smiled at her, took a breath, and told her that of course she can cut those lines if she wants, but I think they’ll help her give the performance I know she wants. I said again that she was right about Macduff’s state and showed her exactly how the language backs that up. I walked her through the emotional breakdown, evident in those lines about the chickens—and their parallel to Lady Macduff’s comparing her family to defenseless birds. I guided her through the way the language toward the end of the scene, when it clearly shows him moving from outright grief to anger and tension. As we talked, she lit up, excited to learn how right she’d been without even knowing how to analyze the language this way.

We left the rest of the cuts for when our Malcolm is present. As our Macduff rose from the table, she paused, looked down at me, and said, “It’s good to know that we see eye to eye on this stuff.” I’m seeing a change in this woman as she learns to trust all of us more. She’s very energetic; sometimes a little loud and brash. I think she’s used to rubbing people the wrong way and expects it. But any time I’ve noted it, I’ve also seen the people who’ve been irritated doing their best not to let her see it: taking deep breaths (subtly) or finding something else to do so they wouldn’t engage and hurt her feelings. And it seems like, because she hasn’t gotten the negative reactions she’s used to, she’s dropped some of the defenses that contribute to that brashness. Because she’s done that, the others have become more open to her. And now she’s becoming more open, calmer, and better able to realize when she needs to take a step away or speak with someone in private. Or even just to speak gently, like she did with me. This progress hasn’t been totally linear, and it probably won’t be going forward, but I’ve noticed it. I’m watching it.

Friday

Attendance tonight was low due to some special events and illnesses. We just received permission to make a short film for The Sonnet Project: US, so we decided to spend tonight brainstorming. Running through the final scenes of the play would be difficult with so few people present.

I handed out copies of a few sonnets that reminded me of things we’ve talked about in our group. The idea of these films is that they be location-specific, and, since our location is a prison, the options I chose had specifically to do with themes that come up in conversations with a group of incarcerated women. I asked how we should approach this, and one woman said we should read all of them out loud. “You have to have someone else read it to understand it,” she said.

We read #109 first. Two of the women liked it right off the bat. One of them said, “Especially being in prison—it plays to the part, like, our heart’s in absence right now. Another woman added, “It makes you think about your family and loved ones.”

#29 was next. One woman said, “It’s speaking from the heart.” Another said she liked how it flowed. A third, who was kind of on edge, said, “It’s about isolation. You’re isolating yourself—talking about your friends and stuff, but you’re cursed. Your fate is not what theirs is. You’re putting yourself in a category by yourself.”

All but one ensemble member disliked #19. The one who enjoyed it said she’d liked it enough to read it to herself twice, but admitted that it had jumped out at her because it mentions a tiger, and she loves cats.

#35 hit everyone very hard. As the reader finished, one woman said, “That’s SO deep,” and another exclaimed, “I LIKE THAT ONE!” They identified with the conflict in the poem, even without breaking it down for its specific meaning. “It’s like going between my old life and my new life: before prison and after prison,” said one woman. “All men have faults,” said another woman. “We all fall short.” Another added, “This is prison. We don’t know whether we’re coming or going. We’re back and forth between the dark and the light.” Another said, “That describes everything… Addiction… Everything…”

We read a couple others, but it was very clear that #35 was the one. Give how unanimous the women in the room were, we were confident that the others will feel the same.

The poem is this:

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense--
Thy adverse party is thy advocate--
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate
    That I an accessory needs must be
    To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

We went through the sonnet in depth. In it, they saw others—and themselves—trying to forgive them. At the core of this poem, we found the idea that we all make mistakes, and we are all deserving of forgiveness. They are struggling to believe that. They are living it. “This poem could be the poster child for codependency,” said one woman.

“I think that’s why this hits home for everybody,” said another woman. “A lot of us are in for drugs and stuff, and we’ve been forgiven more times than maybe we deserved.” Another agreed. “That’s our problem. We love others more than ourselves.” Another, responding directly to language in the sonnet, said, “A lot of us have seen that we may be roses, but… with the drugs and stuff… we can grow some thorns.”

We began to brainstorm ideas of how to translate this to film, and we started to stray pretty far afield from our initial reactions. I put it out there that all of these ideas were interesting, but that our first impulse was that this poem was about us.

One woman said, “I see more than one or two people playing into this. With the actions here, I see three or four people here. I see a group collectively consoling each other here.” She said that there could be a few specific stories, “but in the end, it all comes together.” Another woman interjected, “Why don’t we end with The Ring? The Ensemble Ring?” We all responded strongly to that.

“We’re all together. Everyone can play a part,” said one woman, just as the first woman said, “We all come together.” She added, “Each of us—we’ve hurt somebody. We’ve hurt somebody sometime.” We then agreed that we should enter from various directions to become the Ring, with the poem read as a voiceover.

We got a little hung up on literal images of conflict that would need to be forgiven, and it got a little frustrating, but not to the point where anyone was irritated or wanted to give up. We simply knew we needed input from the rest of our ensemble.

We lifted our Ring back up, and people started to leave. Our Malcolm reminded me that we had cuts to look at, and we did. We’re definitely on the same page. She paused before she left. She’d shared with us earlier that her TV had broken, and she was pretty upset about it. “But I’ve got a lot to do,” she said, tapping her script on the table. “I feel like maybe my TV broke for a reason. So I can focus more on this. I really want to do a good job with my acting this year.”

Season Seven: Week 24

Written by Kyle

Tuesday

All in all, it was a very productive night. There is something about this play that has the ensemble moving. We were able to complete the banquet and witches’ cauldron scenes (the famous “Double, double, toil and trouble…”), each of which I thought could take an entire session on its own. Even though we are not really blocking “for keeps,” each scene contain a lot of logistical problems that are difficult for students and professionals alike to navigate. Don’t get me wrong, the scenes need work and are far from completed, but I see a general shape emerging; we’re not moving at this pace because of the facilitators, it’s the ensemble that is pushing us along.

We discovered a lot of the usual pitfalls, though: How is it that Macbeth doesn’t see Banquo when he calms himself? Where on stage does he confer with the murderers that makes it look like the rest of the guests can see? Where does he confer with Lady Macbeth in a place that makes sense? All of these questions need to be ironed out, and I can’t wait to see the end result. Our Banquo has great instincts and continues to wipe blood from her face; there are so many references to blood, and she is really playing into them in a way that is really exciting.  

The real rallying point for me came with the 4.1 (“Double, double, toil and trouble…”), which the women in the scene created one hundred percent on their own. Two groups huddled on either side of the stage before beginning, planning things out based on ideas they had a while ago. They looked more like football huddles than a theatre troupe. The women playing Macbeth and Lennox couldn’t understand why Lennox was in the scene, and came up with an “amazing, collaborative idea:” the witches “bring the cave” into Macbeth’s bedroom, and the whole interaction could be a dream—or not. It clears up why Lennox is in the scene and doesn’t manage to see the witches, and it explains how Macbeth just magically knows where to find their coven. Most masterfully, though, it places Macbeth at the center of the stage while the witches move around him, thereby making him the charm they are conjuring. It’s brilliant. I couldn’t believe how effective it was action. If that weren’t enough, IT ALSO MEANS WE DON’T HAVE TO SOURCE A CAULDRON!

The staging needs some work to bring it to where it needs to be; one woman in particular said that the witches need to own the space--that it belongs to them, not Macbeth. We all felt that Macbeth spent way too much time down stage center to give that impression, so when we go back and put together the final staging, we need to keep that in mind. The performances were great as well. All the witches seemed to really be jumping headfirst into their roles. One woman in particular, who openly struggles with low self-esteem, took some really bold risks with her physicality. She had the whole ensemble singing her praises during and after the run. It seemed as though the Shakespeare Holy Ghost visited again tonight, and is hopefully here to stay.

Friday

Tonight I talked to one of the women about some of the heavy-duty stressors that come with prison-life. There was much talk of it on Tuesday as well with another member. For the sake of anonymity, I’m omitting the details, but I feel like amidst all the success we are having with the ensemble, a clear picture of all that the program entails needs a mention. Despite all our great work in the group, ensemble members often come in with a level of stress that is hard to really describe, and even harder to imagine. Despite spending so much time with them, I’ll never really understand the daily decisions they are faced with that leave lasting imprints on their psyches, spirits, and sentences. The stakes of most of my decisions often seem so small, and the majority of what I worry about seems so trite. I feel very blessed and humbled by their willingness to share their vulnerability and to keep showing up.

We worked the Lady Macduff murder scene, which, to be honest, always makes me a little nervous. There is a very gruesome murder of a woman and her child on stage, and it just always gives me pause. I think it has the potential to be a high-voltage issue for many in the ensemble, so I always tread a little lightly whilst we work. But it also happens to be a very difficult scene to actually stage. The timing is precarious, the child actor has to be really advanced, and there can be a really high frequency of “bad guy” acting from the murderers.

It was difficult enough to wade through how cumbersome the scene can actually be that most ensemble members struggled to make much of a connection to the content of the scene. Perhaps it was for the best, as it gave whomever might be struggling with the scene more exposure to it before it’s set.

After that, we worked on the Malcolm/Macduff scene, in which the two join forces and decide to take down Macbeth. In the grand tradition of everyone who has ever played that scene, it dragged. We talked a great deal about cuts, and I was happy with the conversation. So frequently, cuts are imposed on us (someone can’t remember the lines, we have to cut for time, or any number reasons), but tonight we really tried to address what mattered most in the scene. We decided that this was determinedly Macduff’s scene, and that the climax is when he learns of his family’s massacre at the hands of Macbeth.

This led us to start to think about what the most important elements in the scene were. From those questions sprang others. At one point, the actor playing Macduff said, “I don’t even know where we are! Are we at a bar getting drinks? Are we under an apple tree? What are we actually doing?” The need for some “stage business” came up, as well as a discussion about the complete lack of consensus that the ensemble’s natural directors have about the scene’s setting. It highlights a big change from past seasons in the ensemble’s process of devising this production. I feel like, even last year, ninety percent of the cuts were done by ten percent of the ensemble. Now we had the whole ensemble chipping in and having a lively debate. It makes for such a nice change, and it’s one of the many ways in which I see this program expanding and solidifying right before my eyes.

Season Seven: Week 23

Tuesday

We continued our stumble-through of the play tonight and made some great discoveries as we went!

The plan was to work through the scenes chronologically, no matter who was absent, and we stuck to that. At first we sped along, deciding to leave discussion till we’re ready to truly stage things. Then we got to Act I Scene iii: the scene that follows Duncan’s murder. Nearly all of the people in these scenes were absent, and others eagerly stepped up to fill in.

A longtime ensemble member volunteered to read the Porter, despite having only a cursory familiarity with the role. She is an extremely gifted performer, though, so she had us laughing hysterically throughout. That set us up to continue to laugh our way through the scene, which was fine—we do have to have fun! When Lady Macbeth entered with her line, “What’s the business?” we, once again, could not keep it together. She has been speaking the line in a very contemporary way – emphasizing and prolonging the first syllable in “business” – and it just cracks us up.

I asked the group if maybe we should attempt to take the scene seriously, since we’ve determined that we want to tell the story that way, and this exercise is meant to give us ideas of how best to do that. We shook it off and started over. Now Lady Macbeth’s line wasn’t funny, and the scene began to take shape. The movement was mostly static—it’s tough to know how to move on stage when you haven’t had much experience—but there was a great moment when Macbeth said, “I do repent me of my fury, that I did kill them,” and Lady Macbeth moved quickly to him, putting her hand on his arm; Macbeth then pulled away.

Afterward, I asked everyone how they felt about the scene. This seemed like one we should talk about before moving on. One new member said she felt that it needed movement, but she wasn’t sure where. A longtime ensemble member said, “I think we should use Kyle’s triangle theory.” We’ve talked through this staging concept in years past, but not yet this season. “You wanna explain it?” I asked her. “Kyle can explain it better than me,” she replied, looking to Kyle. He looked right back at her and, totally deadpan, said, “I forgot.” We all laughed, and then she explained what she meant to the group.

Our facilitator Sarah suggested, too, that everyone on stage should be engaged in active listening. One woman said that if she were one of the characters in the scene, she wouldn’t just be listening, she’d be whispering to the others to see if anyone knew who had committed the murder. Another woman built on that, saying, “People should group up with whoever they feel safe with. If it was me, I’d group with my brother because I’d feel safest with him.” We talked a bit about various characters’ reactions to the assassination. Does this kind of thing happen often? Or did it happen out of nowhere?

We tried the scene again, keeping all of that in mind, and it began to work a bit better. The woman standing in for Banquo did something totally unexpected toward the end of the scene, speaking very quietly to Malcolm and Donalbain when she “should have” been speaking to the entire group. Interestingly, this seemed to raise the stakes, and everyone went right along with her. It was really cool. Afterward, she apologized for not understanding that part of the scene, but we reassured her that that was one of those mistakes we hope for. It changed our understanding of the scene for the better.

One of our ensemble members recently returned to the group. She went through a rough time last season and left for a while, but when she came back, she did so enthusiastically and vocally, promising us that she’d be fully committed this time and take on a significant role. She used to be very quiet and often succumbed to stage fright, and that’s not the case now! She volunteered to read the old man in Act III Scene i but immediately gave the role to another woman who hadn’t heard her. Just after that, though, I looked right at her when we needed a Banquo, and she jumped at the chance to step in. That would never have happened a year ago. I’m so happy that she’s feeling so much better!

Speaking of participation, two new members began to take ownership in totally different ways this evening. One has been volunteering to read in just about every scene. “I just want to get as much practice as possible!” she laughed, and it’s obvious that that’s what’s going on. She has no ego about this – she just wants to learn and excel. Everyone is very welcoming of that and happy to let her read even if it means they don’t get to as often. Another woman, who recently confided in me about her fears of messing up the lines, declined to read one of the servants, but what she said was, “Not tonight.” She’s not counting herself out! She just knows she’s not ready quite yet.

We were maybe a little slaphappy by the time we got to Act III Scene iii, in which Banquo is killed. The woman filling in for Banquo, on reading the line, “It will be rain tonight,” rubbed her arm as if complaining about arthritis. That struck me as so funny that I kind of lost control, and then the rest of the group started laughing, and the scene just kind of tanked from there in a really hilarious way. We left feeling just wonderful!

Season Seven: Week 22

Tuesday
 

We finished our reading of the play tonight! Everyone present chose a role to explore – including one of our ensemble members who had been conflicted about whether she should stick with Shakespeare or rejoin another program that she loves. We are all incredibly excited that she’s made this choice, and she’s taken on a great role to boot. The other woman who was thinking of leaving decided to stick with an off-stage role, saying she wanted to help our resident “director.” She explained, “I am really good at being bossy. I’ll give good off-stage critiques!”

We started musing about our concept again, and we realized that we’ve got a fast-approaching deadline if we want to get everything approved by the facility in time. One ensemble member suggested that we stumble through the entire play, beginning to end, not worrying about blocking; focusing just on establishing the plot the story we want to tell.

Someone asked, “Can we do that?” I said, “We’ve never done that before! But let’s do it! Screw the past six years!” This is something I treasure about Shakespeare in Prison: we’ve established a structure that works well, but we never hesitate to deviate from it when we realize something else might work better. We know that things can change from year to year, and we stay open to that. We’ve all learned a TON of flexibility this way.

As we began our stumble through, a few members of the ensemble took charge in a big way, reminding everyone to pay attention to cues in the text (i.e., Macbeth says the witches put their fingers over their lips) and to try to stay open to the audience. I spent most of the remaining time one-on-one with an ensemble member, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see how well everything was being handled, and how much of it was being handled by people other than facilitators. That’s a really positive thing to be happening in February, particularly as we were trying something new!
 

Friday

 

After a long (much-needed) check in, we decided to get right back to our stumble through. One of our new members approached me, saying that she didn’t yet have a role but wanted to take on something pretty small. She said she was afraid she would “garble the dialogue.” I told her she probably would – that we all do! – and that by the time we get to performances, she’ll be totally comfortable. She smiled and said, “I’m known for having can’t-do-it syndrome.” I suggested that she think of this as a challenge rather than as something “hard.” She said she liked that, and that she’d try.

Meanwhile, no one was on stage! People were sitting in small groups, either talking or looking over their scripts. “Who’s gonna get the ball rolling?” I asked. At this point in the season, facilitators take a back seat as much as possible, so we sat around some more waiting for someone to get us started. Finally, a returning ensemble member stood up and tried to get people’s attention and focus, but the stage remained empty. She looked over at me. “Get up there – they’ll follow you!” I said. “But I’m not in this scene!” she replied. I smiled and said, with more emphasis, “Get UP there! They’ll follow you!!!” She did, and they finally did, too.

When we got to Act I Scene v, our Lady Macbeth got tongue tied during her monologue. We asked her to slow it down and remember that these are all new thoughts. She did, and she and our Macbeth got through the scene, but she wasn’t happy with it. “I didn’t feel prepared. There wasn’t all the emotion,” she said. “What do you suggest, Frannie? What do you propose, ensemble?”

“Do it again, with the holy ghost!” said one ensemble member, hearkening back to when our Lady Macbeth had risen to her feet and engaged with such power in another scene recently. “This is not the holy ghost scene!” said Lady Macbeth. “EVERY scene is the holy ghost scene!” I said.

“Be you! Give it to us!” said that same ensemble member, and Lady Macbeth took on the challenge. She looked at her script, smirked, and said, “I’m gonna prep it this time. There’s this thing Frannie taught me...” She put her hands on either side of what Michael Chekhov called the ideal center (between breast bone and spine), and it was clear that she was only semi-joking. “If you’re gonna do it, let’s do it!” I said, running on stage to be with her. We turned our backs to the audience, and I coached her through some centering visualizations and breathing. I encouraged her to take her time and stay grounded, and then I went back to the rest of the group, asking that we all give focus even before she began.

She turned to face down stage, looked at her script, and took a deep breath. Quietly but insistently, our Macbeth said, “You got this.” Our Lady Macbeth then gave a powerful performance, much more connected to the text, and much more believable. When the scene ended, the woman who’d told her to get the holy ghost shouted, “THERE we go, [name]! That was IT!” Lady Macbeth clearly felt much better, and we got into some detail about how her performance can grow from there. We revisited the need to breathe on punctuation and went through some examples. This woman, our longest-serving ensemble member, lit up and said, “This remind me of Romeo and Juliet – the Nurse monologue… Even or odd, of all the days of the year, come Lammas eve at night…” I jumped in, “Shall she be fourteen!” She laughed and said, “Yeah, Frannie!”

We moved on, and when we got to Act I Scene vii, I asked our Macbeth (who is off book for this scene) if she was going to do her pre-beat (described earlier in this blog). She nodded and ducked into the stage left stairwell, which has a door leading downstage of the actual stage. I asked the group again to give focus so that when she came out, she wouldn’t be distracted. She came storming in, paused, shook her head (in character; definitely in character) and walked back out. We stayed silent. She burst back in, strode to center, and then paused, taking us all in.

“If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…” This piece has come a long way from the last time we saw her do it. She was confident and played Macbeth’s warring emotions to great effect. It seemed she’d gotten the “holy ghost,” too. We were rapt. She sank to the steps, and then Lady Macbeth entered, towering over her. The scene moved; they connected deeply and spontaneously with each other; the energy was electric. It crackled. We all whooped and clapped when the scene ended. “I’m dropping an F-bomb in my notes!” I shouted. One ensemble member shook her head and smiled, saying, “[Macbeth], you moved me.” I asked her to elaborate. “She just… killed it. She murdered it,” she said. “You were doing the speech, and debating it, and trying to give excuses, and she was like, ‘What?!’” Another woman said, “She was back and forth on the decision… The conflict. You felt it all through the scene.”

I told them that this is exactly what Shakespeare should be: authentic, connected, in the moment, letting the text do the work and just rolling with it. We started citing specific moments that had most affected us. Our facilitator Lauren noted how effective it was when Lady Macbeth got in her husband’s face on, “We fail?” and then backed off as she went into the plan. Lady Macbeth said she wasn’t sure what to do with those two words. “I’m just disgusted by failure, in real life,” she said. “We… FAIL?” she continued, wrinkling her nose, drawing out the word. “Do it that way!” I said, noting that that short phrase gets an entire line of verse, so she has plenty of leeway to linger for as long as she wants.

“This scene feels like a transition,” she said, and we all realized how valuable this stumble through is at this point in the process. This is why I feel – and know – that I’m always on a learning curve in this program. I forget how hard it is to “get” the arc and breadth of any of these plays without seeing or walking the entire thing. Up until last year, there was always at least one ensemble member who wasn’t able to put all the pieces together until our first performance. But this year, we’re seeing the scenes in order in February. It makes me really intrigued about how this will impact the rest of our process. I’m so glad we decided to change things up this way!