Session Six: Week 41

Tuesday

Our third performance was the smoothest yet! We flew through the play with very few hiccups and still managed to finish with plenty of time to get our supplies organized to take back out.

The ensemble worked together beautifully as a team, as usual. To be completely honest, though, I was in a bit of a fog, having just learned of the passing of one of our past co-facilitators, and I am having trouble remembering specific anecdotes to tell you. I do think it’s notable, though, that even as I’m having trouble remembering specific things that were positive, I don’t remember anything negative at all.

Friday

Our evening began by finishing out the case study with written surveys and a group discussion. I cannot wait till we can publish this study and share its results!

We continued with a free-form reflection about the season. There was no particular agenda other than to share thoughts in general, on what worked, and on what we can improve going forward. These wrap up sessions have always been invaluable, and this one did not disappoint!

I commented on how remarkable this ensemble has been – for instance, we had the least attrition ever, so little, in fact, that we didn’t have to add people midway through the season as we always have. An example of this just on this particular evening was that every ensemble member attended at least part of the wrap up. That has never happened before – someone has always been absent.

Building on that, the woman who’s been in the group the longest agreed that it had been different from previous years. It was tough when other long term members left – they had become family and integral parts of the ensemble. “But,” she said, “That may not have been a bad thing… I think this group stayed together because we’re not as close as other groups, and people didn’t take things personally.” She reminded us that, in the past, outside drama has seeped in, and Shakespeare drama has leaked out. That didn’t happen this year, at least not to the extent that it has in the past.

She’s got a good point. It’s incredibly interesting to me that this ensemble has bonded in a more “professional” way – they still call SIP a “family,” and they’re close in many ways. But the absence of the intensity that comes with extremely close friendships has resulted in a smoother, maybe safer process – people have felt supported throughout, without suspecting that ulterior motives were ever at play.

A newer member agreed, although that’s not how she had perceived things in the beginning. “At first I wanted to quit because I thought it was clique-ish,” she said, “But then I could see you guys are just close… That gave me encouragement and kept me here.” Other new members agreed, and then one woman interrupted all of us to effusively praise another new member for committing to a scene she had accidentally entered and wasn’t actually in. No one minded that interruption!

The wrap ups tend to turn into “lovefests,” and this one was no different. One woman said, “What I liked best… was both of you [Kyle and me]. You know… I came to Frannie and told her things that were going on with me. And Kyle checked in, pulled me out – we had really good conversations. I’ve never had conversations like that with anyone. If I was shitty when I got here, you guys made sure I wasn’t shitty when I left. I really appreciate that because you really need that in here. It really is a family. Gives me a lot of things to look forward to in the years I’m gonna be here.”

Another woman said, “You never make us feel like we’re not good enough… You really, really do make us feel like we can do it. Sometimes there were… When you start, you think… And when we messed up, you guys never made us feel like we messed up. It was all good, so we can keep on going because you never made us feel like it wasn’t good enough.” Another member agreed. “You made me feel like I’m not in prison. You’re very assertive, Frannie [we all laughed] AND you’re never judgmental!.”

A stalwart ensemble member got somewhat emotional as she described what the group has meant to her. She said that when she joined us last season, she had just come from segregation (solitary). Before that, her addiction had kept her away from her children for six years, and she was suicidal. She said, “Prison didn’t help my self-esteem, but it did get me clean. After this, I have self-esteem, self-worth, accomplishment – I believe in myself on a lot of different levels. Hearing people say I’m good at something… I feel like I can live a different life and be the person I want to be. It seemed like a dream before – the last time I felt like that was when I was a kid.” She said that knowing that other people were counting on her – that her presence in the group was important – had given her a huge boost. “You guys are the rock,” she said. “Cast members may change, but the group isn’t gonna disappear. People let you down, but Shakespeare don’t.”

The eldest member of our group was beaming throughout the evening. She said she was amazed by how much good feedback she was getting from people who’d been in the audience. She was impressed that they were expressing themselves on the walk ways and in the dining areas. She said people she doesn’t even know were good-naturedly shouting questions at her about the play. “I’m proud that we had the guts to do that,” she said, and then, “I prejudged. I didn’t think they would comprehend what we were doing and how hard we worked. But that lady at lunch was naming characters. I was floored.” She continued, “And officers stopped me and said they’d caught a few minutes and thought it was fantastic. There’s an officer that never spoke to me before – she seems frightened of us in the unit. But she came up to me, she got close to me and said, ‘That was great.’”

And THAT is how you change the culture, one person at a time!

One woman said that pulling through the performances changed her perspective on the entire season – that she came to understand what all of that work was leading up to and how such a thing could be accomplished. “I wish we’d run the play sooner,” lamented another person. The first woman said that a longtime ensemble member had told her not to stress, and now she gets it, although it was frustrating throughout the process when people were absent (a constant battle for us).

The woman quoted above about the stability the group has brought her said, “There are things you can’t control.” She said that, as an addict, SIP has taught her how to work in a group in a positive manner. “It’s teaching me skills that I need to go home that I may not have been able to get anywhere else.”

We then discussed some facets of the program that need some work. We are looking for ways of keeping people more accountable while retaining the empathy and flexibility that make our group unique. We are also looking at new methods of bringing new members into the ensemble more quickly and effectively. I cannot wait to put these things into practice.

As we left, many thank yous were said, as well as laments about taking our summer break and excitement to get back to work in September. One woman, about whom I’ve written many times, stopped and impressed upon us how much good the program has done for her. I thanked her for saying that and told her (again!) how inspiring her work has been. “I want you to know that I hardly ever talk about this program without mentioning you and what you’ve done this year,” I said. She smiled brightly. “I’ll be back,” she said. “I’ll see you in September.”

Session Six: Week 40

Tuesday

Everyone arrived tonight nervous but eager to perform. We got things organized, got into costume, and circled up to remind each other to have fun and focus on just getting from the beginning of the play to the end. We got started on time and launched enthusiastically into the performance in front of a smiling and upbeat audience.

Many things went more or less as planned, and the audience stayed with us the whole time. Many things also went haywire, which we fully expected, and the ensemble handled things beautifully, cuing people when they were late on entrances or advising them to just stay off stage if the people on stage had moved on, rolling with the punches when people entered one scene thinking it was a different one, and improvising to skip certain things altogether when necessary.

One woman missed one of her scenes. The other covered for her, but she was upset. Another ensemble member who was in the group last year calmed her down, saying, “Don’t worry! The first show is always a mess, the second is the best, and by the third we’re just ready to be done.” She turned to me, smiling. “Am I right?” I agreed. Last year she was one of our most nervous ensemble members – so nervous she frequently skipped out on rehearsals in the home stretch – but this year she’s been an incredibly steady and calming presence, especially for new members. We’re all so happy that she’s stuck with us.

There were some very funny improvised moments, including one in which our Richard and I simultaneously went up on our lines, and she said, “Well… You take that dead body walking and get out of here.” I started cracking up and said, “Okay, I’ll do that. Farewell.” We then high fived – totally inappropriate for the scene, and I don’t know what possessed us to do it – and the audience laughed right along with us.

In addition to my line flub, Kyle missed an entrance and left a few of us totally hanging on stage. He wasn’t pleased with himself, but I reminded him that it’s not a negative when the facilitators make mistakes like that – it proves our point, that these things happen to everyone, and that it’s nothing to beat ourselves up over.

We made it through to the end of the play – which was our main goal! – and our audience enthusiastically applauded. Some of our Richard’s friends threw candy on stage during curtain call. DPT Producing Artistic Director Courtney Burkett, who was one of our guests, noted that some people toward the back of the auditorium had signs saying, “We love [Richard].”

The woman who was so upset with herself for forgetting lines last week got through the play, mostly laughing off the mistakes that she made. While we were cleaning up after the performance, I asked her how she felt. “Like I want to throw up,” she said, “But I feel like I really accomplished something.” “You absolutely did,” I said. “You did a fantastic job.”

On the way out, I asked a woman who was in the group last year how she felt about the performance. “It was a mess!” she said. “Totally,” I responded, “But Othello was way messier.” “Was it?” she said. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “Don’t you remember someone saying that if we were Broadway actors we’d all be fired, and that it had been a disaster, but it was our disaster and she refused to feel badly about it?” The woman smiled and said, “Oh, yeah. I remember that now.”

Friday

When we circled up prior to our second performance, we talked about how little it seemed to matter to the audience when we skipped over lines and even scenes during the first one. We decided to all keep an eye on the time for this performance, and to judiciously cut things if things were getting tight. Our Richard was concerned about this – she felt like people might do it without too much thought – but I reassured her that it would only happen with the goal of finishing the play; that we would all feel much worse having to cut it off than having to cut monologues and things like that. Another woman told me that she really wanted to be able to say all of her lines. I said that we all appreciated how dedicated she is and how hard she’s worked, but that, ultimately, performances are about the team and not the individual. I said that maybe she wouldn’t have to cut anything herself, but to be prepared just in case.

Friday’s audience was more rowdy than Tuesday’s, but they still seemed engaged for the most part. We repeated some of our mistakes, fixed others, and, of course, found new ones. There was still some skipping around – one scene actually repeated itself for reasons I couldn’t quite figure out – but we rolled with the punches and finished the play again.

One woman went somewhat blank when the curtain opened on a scene in which she has a lot of lines. She fought her way through it, but she was pretty upset afterward. She holds herself to a very high standard, so it was difficult to get through to her what a victory it was that she was able to remember enough to get out all of her main points. I hope that will sink in at some point, because it really was impressive.

There are starting to be some personality clashes based on some decisions being made in performance – either to “save” a scene by improvising or by jumping over large numbers of lines. We’ve dealt with much worse than this grumbling in the past, though – there has sometimes been outright fighting, resulting in people ceasing to speak to each other except on stage. It’s not that bad this year.

It was a good first week of performances, and, as the ensemble member quoted at the beginning of this entry noted, by the third performance we tend to be more relaxed and ready to close out the season. I think that will be the case this year as well.

Session Six: Week 39

This final week of dress rehearsal saw some of the calmest and most empathic collaboration that I have witnessed in the past five years of being in this ensemble.

We had a couple of unexpected absences and early departures on Tuesday, and both the ensemble members and the facilitators threw ourselves into quick thinking to fill the gaps so the play could keep moving. We are getting more solid on the logistics of costumes, props, and scene transitions, so we were able to cut time off of our run again, although we didn’t quite finish the play. I encouraged the group not to stress out – that continuing to cut time is a very good thing, and that, now that our transitions have sped up, we can focus on picking up the pace in our line delivery and responses to one another. I continued to push the idea that as long as we can make it from beginning to end, we will have done our jobs. I asked if everyone would be in favor of doing a “speed through” on Friday, and we all agreed that that was a good idea.

On Thursday, I got word from our staff partner at the prison that our Anne had begun her suspension of activities due to the infraction she committed last week, so I buckled down to make sure I knew her lines and was ready to fill in for her.

We began Friday’s meeting setting up quickly, determined that we would get through to the end of the play. People ran lines and helped each other with costumes as we got going. Our Margaret is also the “curtain queen,” and, as she organized her script and the curtain plot, seemed stressed. I asked her if she was okay, and she said that she’d had an emotional few days and couldn’t seem to shake it. I encouraged her to do what we all do – to give herself over to rehearsal’s tendency to require total presence and commitment, which provides a welcome distraction from anything else going on in our lives. “You might not have as much fun as usual, but at least your focus will be here and not there,” I said. “That’s what I’m hoping for,” she replied.

We dove into our run, and we were excited by the fact that, from the first moments, our Richard greatly sped up her delivery, setting the tone for the rest of us to match her energy. We gently reminded each other as we went to “pick up the pace” and “go faster – faster!” with many ensemble members who don’t normally side-coach joining in with a smile.

Our Clarence, who up until just a few months ago was too afraid to get up on stage, surprised all of us by going on for her second scene without a script. As the scene progressed, she started to go up on her lines. She couldn’t her our “curtain queen” cuing her, so I knelt just off stage and fed her her lines. She skipped ahead a few times, but the others on stage rolled with it, clearly not frustrated and just adapting as they went. When she came off stage, she was completely red in the face, collapsed in a chair and burst into tears.

A couple of ensemble members and I went to her immediately. “Tell me what’s going on,” I said. “That sucked. I forgot all my lines. I suck,” she said. “That did not suck. You do not suck,” I said gently but firmly. “It didn’t go the way you wanted, and it wasn’t perfect. It’s completely okay to be upset about it, but I don’t want you to think for a second that that sucked.” One of the ensemble members said, “Really, you did great.” “For real,” I said, “That was amazing. You were so scared to get on stage until just recently, and tonight you went on stage without a script – which is scary – and you did what all actors, even professionals, do when they go off book for the first time – you forgot a bunch of your lines. We all do it.” “I just feel like I failed everyone,” she said. “Absolutely not,” I said. “Have you noticed that every single one of us is forgetting lines? And we’ll all do it in performance, too. Not a single person is going to be perfect. And none of us are expecting you to be perfect, either. Plus, when you skip lines, you cut time off the play, so you’ve done us all a favor!” She started to calm down. “What you just did was not a failure. You got from the beginning to the end of the scene. When it started to go off the rails, you didn’t give up or have a meltdown on stage. You kept going, and you got all the major plot points out. That’s all you need to do. You entered, you kept the play going, and you exited. That’s not a failure. That’s a victory.” By then she was much calmer – no tears, and most of the redness gone from her face. “I know that wasn’t what you wanted,” I said, “But do you feel a little better now?” She said that she did. She then launched into the rest of the play, in which she plays a couple of other characters, with great gusto and a new level of energy. It was thrilling.

We moved through the play at about the pace we want, but as we got close to the end, it was apparent that we hadn’t gone quite fast enough. When our Richmond got to her “oratory to the soldiers,” she took a breath, raised her fist in the air, and simply yelled, “Let’s go to war!” She exited, looked at me, shrugged, smiled, and said, “We don’t have time for that shit.” I laughed, saying, “We don’t. That was amazing. Great decision.”

As our Richard raced through her lines, people started to pack up, including our Richmond. “No!” I said, “Do the fight! End the play!” “There’s no time!” she said. “There is!” I said, “Just fight fast!”

We did get to the end, when she made another great decision. Instead of giving her final lines and speech, she simply raised her sword in the air and shouted, “The bloody dog is dead!”

We cheered as we packed our things, agreeing to continue to run our lines (for a couple of scenes in particular), and getting excited to begin performances on Tuesday.

Session Six: Week 38

Tuesday

We brought costumes and props in tonight, which is always exciting even if a little chaotic. As we began to unload and set up, one of the ensemble members approached me and let me know that our Anne got in some trouble and might not be able to perform with us. When Anne arrived, she confirmed this; the exact timeline going forward is unclear, but she will almost definitely not be present for all three performances.

She’s upset, but she’s taking responsibility for the actions she took that resulted in this situation. I reassured her that there is no judgment on my part, that I’ve reserved myself as an understudy for situations like this and can take on her role if necessary, and that now we needed to strategize together to figure out a plan. She was able to calm down and think things through with me.

This kind of thing happens sometimes, unfortunately. It’s why last year was the first time that no facilitators played major roles in the performances. Progress isn’t always linear, and we accept that as one of our challenges, trying not to let it frustrate us too much.

After we were more or less organized, we began at the top of the show. At first our Richard got very upset that she was forgetting many of her lines, at which point our facilitator Sarah stepped onto the stage to reassure the entire group that it’s normal to “lose lines” during a first dress rehearsal, even for professional actors. This reassured everyone, and we were able to get back to work.

There was a lot of compassionate adjustment on stage and off throughout the evening, with people reminding others of entrances, exits, and blocking that were miffed, and no one becoming angry or short-tempered.

Our Elizabeth joked with us that we had let her down by only bringing one throne, when we’ve blocked that scene with her seated beside Edward since the beginning. I mentioned that standing beside the throne could provide her with an interesting opportunity. “It’s up to you,” I said. “He’s sick and dying… Maybe you stand there protectively.” She shook her head. “I don’t really like him,” she said. “I mean, come on – ‘if he were dead, what would betide on me?’ He just died, and she’s thinking of herself.”

We got to the halfway mark in terms of pages, although we know that the latter part of the play moves much faster than the first. We’re in a good place and ready to move forward!


Friday
 

I had exciting news to share with the ensemble tonight. As soon as we were in costume and organized, we gathered in a circle, and I announced that we’d won a $36,000 WeWork Creator Award. The group erupted into cheers and applause. “Wait, how many noodles is that?” asked one woman. Kyle did the math: more than 12,000. “We’re rich!” she cheered.

I tried to impress upon them that this recognition is a result of their work more than anything else, and that they should feel proud and take credit for that. “I’m just the pitchwoman for the work that happens in this room,” I said.

We picked up where we had left off in our dress work through, plowing forward and, again, making compassionate adjustments as we went.

One longtime ensemble member arrived late, missing the announcement about the award. I caught her back stage when neither of us had anything to do for a few minutes and told her. She burst into tears, saying, “This is literally the best news ever.” She has an enormous amount of ownership of the program, being my most frequent (constructive!) critic and taking a lot of responsibility upon herself for our success. She also wants to continue to do this kind of work when she goes home, so something like this has enormous meaning for her. It was a thrill to see her so happy and excited – she has worked extremely hard in Shakespeare for years, and I didn’t need to say out loud that she should take a lot of credit for where we are now as a program.

We got to the end of the play far more quickly than anyone had anticipated, which was a very pleasant surprise. Even with adding costumes and props, we’ve shaved a half hour off of the time it took us to work through the play last time.

We gathered again in a circle, and I gave a bit of a pep talk. I encouraged everyone to keep hammering lines, but asked if our goal next week could be simply to get from the play’s beginning to its end, no matter how we do it. Based on my last five years with this program, I said that I thought that would be more valuable than trying to do things perfectly – our performances are always full of hiccups, and we’ll have more confidence having gotten through the entire thing while compensating for mistakes than if we try to get every line right and have no idea if we can get through the play in our allotted time. I reminded everyone that we’ve been working on the play for nine months and could improvise virtually any part of it if needed.

The team seemed confident going into our last week of rehearsal. Every year, this part of the process has been unique; I’m very interested to see how the next few weeks go.

Session Six: Week 37

Tuesday

We were thrilled tonight to welcome some folks from a local news station as we began a work-through of the play. Although some of us were nervous to begin with, we found it relatively easy to get past that and have a great rehearsal.

I was running around quite a bit and didn’t take many notes, but the theme of the night was patience and team work. We’ve been away from some of these scenes for a while, and people took good care of each other as we refreshed and refined. Some ensemble members are also becoming more and more aware of how scenes are functioning artistically. “We’re getting all bunched up,” one woman said at one point, encouraging the others on stage with her to spread out in a way that would be more visually pleasing.

We got through about half of the play, which is great considering it was our first attempt. The main thing slowing us down was uncertainty about entrances and exits, and the speed at which those were happening. We’re all aware of this and working on it. We are still confident that we’ll be able to perform our play in the allotted time!


Friday

When I entered the auditorium, I noticed our Richard standing at the back of the room, leaning on a table on which she’d laid her script, pinching the skin between her eyebrows with her eyes closed. I went to her immediately and asked if she was okay. She ruefully smiled and said, “Not really.” I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, and she said she did.

She is feeling extreme pressure to be perfect, just as she has the past two years. She feels that if she doesn’t know her lines exactly right, she will let everyone down. I listened intently and let her know that I understood – I’m a perfectionist, too – and then I asked her if she was feeling pressure from anyone in the group. She said she wasn’t. I reiterated that no one expects her to be perfect – that none of us will be perfect – and that not even our audience expects perfection. “The only pressure is coming from you,” I said. “You’ve gotta find a way to let yourself off the hook a little.” She responded that she wants to act professionally, and that she needs to live up to that expectation. I reminded her that even very successful actors make mistakes – that’s what blooper reels are! – and that she is not a professional yet. “Think of this as training,” I said. “You’re learning. Mistakes are a valuable part of the process.” I told her that the worst thing in the world is an actor whom you can tell is terrified of messing up. And she’s incredible when she relaxes. “You’re so much fun to watch when you’re having fun,” I said. “I’d much rather watch you enjoy yourself and mess up the lines than for you to get every word right and be stressed out the whole time.”

By the end of the pep talk, she was smiling and relaxed. I know that this is something we’re going to have to keep revisiting – it’s a very deeply-rooted issue for her – but she seems to recover a little more quickly every time we have one of these chats.

I hopped back stage to man the curtain as we continued working through the play. A few ensemble members sat at a table in the wings, going over their lines. One of them put down her script and said, “Frannie, I suck at memorizing lines! I have nothing memorized!” Before I could even respond, another ensemble member said, “Sit back, sweetie. I’m gonna teach you what Kyle taught me last year.” She scooted her chair closer and smiled, sharing some strategies that work for her. Another ensemble member chimed in, and so did I. “You’ve gotta find your own way to do this,” said that first ensemble member. “Me, when I’m doing my lines, people ask me who I’m talking to alone in my bunk, and I say, ‘I’m just doing Shakespeare.’” She shrugged, smiling. She has clearly joined the vast community of actors who don’t care if people think they’re crazy – they just want to get those lines down.

An ensemble member who has been gone for a while was back tonight. Toward the end of the night, I found myself sitting in the front row with her, watching a scene unfold. Suddenly she shook her head and said, “This just makes me sick.” I asked her why. She said that seeing what everyone had accomplished in the time she was gone – seeing how much she’d missed and knowing that it will be hard for her to catch up – is gut-wrenching for her.  We went to the back of the room so we could keep talking without being disruptive. She talked at length about the situation that had led to her long absence and said one of the hardest things was being away from Shakespeare. She reminded me that she’d acted in high school. “When I played Juliet, that was a big part of who I was,” she said. “And now, doing Shakespeare here… This helps take the burden off your shoulders. I can’t explain it…” She paused, thinking. “This helps you dig down inside yourself – and everybody says that. It’s not just me. Everyone in the group says that.” She then told me that the first person she saw after her absence was another ensemble member. When this person saw her, the first thing she said was, “Where have you been? Are you coming back to Shakespeare? You’d better be coming back. I’ll see you tonight.” The ensemble member to whom I was listening tried to impress upon me how incredible that was - to be welcomed back immediately when she’d been gone for so long. “You just don’t get that anywhere else,” she said.

We got through to the end of the play with lots of starts and stops – we haven’t worked very much on the last few scenes. We’re in a good place, though. Costumes and props arrive on Tuesday, and we’re ready to start using them. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but no one is freaking out. We are all determined, even those of us who are nervous. This group is very tight and motivated. The next few weeks will be intense, but I know that people are really going to shine. The end of the process is always awe-inspiring.  

Session Six: Week 36

Tuesday

We continued our work through of the play tonight, arriving at the final scenes in Richard’s and Richmond’s camps and on the battle field. These scenes are pretty straightforward, so most of our work was simply reviewing and refining blocking – we initially staged these scenes in the classroom where we sometimes work, and we needed to get on the same page about some details.

The main work of the night was on the ghost scene, which we staged with many stand-ins and without knowing for certain where people needed to enter and exit. We re-assigned roles as needed, refreshed ourselves and introduced new people to the mechanics of the scene, and ran through it several times, writing everything down as we went. Having a “cheat sheet” will help during the remainder of our process, especially if we need to run the scene with stand-ins again.

At the end of the meeting, those of us who’ve been in the group for a while asserted again that we are far ahead of where we usually are in the process at this point. Some years, we’ve been lucky if we’ve been able to work through and run the play once with costumes and props; in fact, our first full play never had a complete run before we performed it, and we didn’t know for certain that we’d be able to get through it in our allotted time. Our plan going forward, with this luxury of having more rehearsal time than usual, is to alternate runs of the play with detailed scene work until the week before performance, at which point we will run it twice with costumes and props.

I’m thrilled that we’re able to do this. We will, of course, still be nervous before our performances, but we will have a solid foundation to give us more confidence than usual, even with those nerves. It will be interesting to see if this changes the dynamics of the play’s execution in front of an audience.

Friday

We spent our time tonight problem solving – one ensemble member who has emerged as a sort of stage manager and I have kept a list of particularly messy scenes/transitions to be worked as time allows. We solved the problem of a mysteriously appearing and disappearing bench, figuring out the best way to get it on and off stage to ensure that it stays a part of a scene in which it’s very helpful to the actors involved. One ensemble member told us that she’d felt particularly awkward during one scene – that it had been difficult for her to figure out how to address certain people because they’d been physically far from her on the stage. So we fixed that blocking!

Our Edward, then, asked to work on her monologue, which she’s memorized. At first she judged herself harshly each time she stumbled, frustrated that she knew the lines when rehearsing in her unit but couldn’t seem to get them out with us. We all encouraged her, saying that this is part of the process, that it’s completely fine to make mistakes, and that it throws all of us off when we go off book in front of people for the first time. As she continued to work, her performance got stronger and stronger. She still felt poorly about how she’d done, but the rest of us felt strongly that she’d done very well, and we reiterated that.

Our next meeting will be an attempt to run through the entire play. I cautioned the group that we might not get through all of it on our first try – that that’s common and nothing to worry about. We’ll see how it goes!

Session Six: Week 35

Tuesday

Written by Matt

Facilitators were held up for a while at security today, which usually promises a delayed start for the group. With so much to do before performance, there wasn’t time to waste, so facilitators hustled over to the programs building, anxious to make up the time.

Inside the auditorium, the curtains were drawn and a scene was being rehearsed: a conversation between Hastings and Catesby that sets up Hastings’s demise. The two women were speaking with confidence and poise, but then a voice cut in at a key moment:

“Wait. Who are you saying that to?”

It was our Richard, sitting in the audience. The scene stopped, and the women paused for a moment and rustled through their scripts.

“Well, isn’t she talking to Stanley?” offered one woman who follows the script closely.

“Let’s think about this,” said a longtime member, while several other women. After a minute or two of discussion, they came to an understanding of the line (a statement by Hastings), and moved on to figuring out how to block the end of the scene.

“That’s real good,” Richard chimed in. “That’s dope. You guys are awesome.”

Our Anne, who has so far mostly avoided weighing in on others’ performances, suggested a change, leaping to her feet and striding to the stage, where she demonstrated her idea.

Playing the scene again from the top, the performances by Hastings, Catesby, and Stanley were tight and considered. “Open up!” shouted Richmond from the audience whenever an actor turned her back to the audience. At the end of the scene, a chorus arose of “that looked great.” One woman took the temperature of the group: “Are we ready to move on? Let’s move on.”

A new member piped up: “Okay! Act Three! Scene Three!”

Richard jumped to her feet. “Ok, we need Ratcliffe, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan!”

All without a word from facilitators—some of the women were surprised, after 45 minutes, to see the facilitators sitting there in the audience.

The feeling of purpose in the room was contagious. Even women who ordinarily take a back seat during scene work were engaged and focused. And that energy from the group enhanced and redoubled the effort onstage. For two and a half hours, the group worked totally undirected and uncoached, sorting out among themselves how to run the rehearsal. And run it they did. We blazed through all seven scenes of Act Three, including several with complicated entrances and exits, first stumbling through each scene, then working it two or three (or more) times to refine blocking and intention.

A highlight came in III.iii, a scene in which Ratcliffe leads Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan to their deaths. Two women were recruited to be halberds, which crowded the narrow playing space before the curtain. “Wait,” said Ratcliffe, halfway through, “I don’t get this scene.” Several women offered suggestions about making the performances more specific and intentional.

“Wait, why are [the prisoners] talking?” asked Ratcliffe.

“The same reason we talk when police are escorting us,” said Richard, who was kneeling to demonstrate to Rivers a potential physical expression of terror, and then leaping up to show “what comfort looks like” to Grey.

“It’s like you in seg on [security level] four and they’re taking you on that walk and it’s like a mile long,” Richard offered to the three prisoners as a final note.

When one of the guards—played by our Anne—broke up the three prisoners, who were huddled together for comfort, the woman playing Grey said, shaking her head, “No touching. Breaking us up. That’s prison.”

Already, as III.iii finished up, women were pulling together the furniture for the next scene.
As we worked through the rest of the act, so many of the women joined in to help, from the usual leaders to those who ordinarily sit back a bit.

When we ended, the group was elated, almost giddy with excitement. “That was dope as hell,” Richard said, and the others murmured assent. The woman who plays Richard’s mother said that, although she had remained quiet throughout most of the rehearsal, she had been riveted by the performances. A new member mentioned as we closed for the day that this was her favorite meeting so far. She said she felt that we had “really done the work,” and commented on how good that made her feel.

Friday

Written by Kyle

Tonight was a great night. I really see the ensemble coming into itself, and I feel less like a teacher or leader and more like a facilitator.  It’s really satisfying that when we get into the space, everyone has already taken it upon themselves to start the workshop.  When Lauren and I got there this evening, the ensemble had already checked in and completed the ring exercise.  They were eager to start rehearsing, and, without much discussion, we launched into rehearsal.  One ensemble member in particular seems to be very good at taking charge.  Up until now she has always been a solid member of the cast, and all of us have been waiting for her to step into this role.  We as a group of facilitators have felt that it was an inevitability that she would emerge as a leader; we just didn’t know when, or what was holding her back.  It feels vindicating that she, without our prompting, has taken such an active role in the group’s productivity.  She was giving notes, organizing the rehearsal, and holding the others accountable in a very humble but clear manner. She seemed to hit that balance perfectly.  Between her and one of the other newer members, they seemed to know the blocking for the whole cast - their energy was contagious.  For the most part, Lauren and I sat back and let the ensemble be the ensemble.

Despite the productivity, there was a fair number of people missing; we didn’t skip a beat, though, and the rest of the ensemble jumped in as needed.  All in all, we finished the entirety of the fourth act, which is a relatively large chunk of text for this group.  I also noticed that there seemed to be a fair number of personal struggles happening in the group with individuals; it was nothing anyone wanted to talk about, nor was there in-fighting within the ensemble - just two or three different women, who were clearly upset, speaking low to each other for support.  With the relatively small turnout for the evening, having two or three in a dark place came out to a high percentage.  It didn’t seem to bother anyone, though. Everyone was pretty content to just get up no matter how they felt and get the job done.

On the way out, I talked with one of the newer members whom I know has been having a hard time lately. This time of year has a lot of family time that she is missing and takes its toll on her.  I asked her if she was okay. She said that she was “only kind [terrible] today,” but that this coming Tuesday she was expecting to be “really terrible.”  I asked if she was still going to come, and she said “probably not.”  I told her to come, tell everyone at check in that she didn’t want to talk, is having a hard time, and to give her some space.  She smiled large and said “We’ll see…”

Session Six: Week 34

Tuesday

 

Tonight I had a series of individual conversations with members of our ensemble while Kyle got the group going by reviewing the scene we ended with on Friday. That strengthened, we moved on to the scene in which the Murderers come for Clarence. We were missing our First Murderer, but we decided to work the scene anyway.

We discovered some funny shtick for the Murderers, whose interpretation is very Laurel and Hardy, but there was a challenge the first time we ran through the scene in that our Clarence remained seated on the ground the entire time. We asked her if she felt that she needed to sit, or if maybe she should stand. She said she wasn’t sure. I asked her what Clarence wants in this scene. She landed on him wanting to stop the murderers from killing him, which is spot on. I suggested that she physically engage in her efforts, pointing out that, even seated, if I want to make a strong point, I’m going to plant my feet and lean forward to do so.  

We went through the scene again with her standing when she felt compelled, and it worked much better! We wondered how to get Clarence’s body off the stage without dragging her across the floor and arrived at the creative solution of the First Murderer stabbing her from behind while the Second Murderer pages the curtain, and then the First Murderer simply pulls Clarence through the opening and follows, returning for the end of the scene.

We went through the scene one last time, encouraging our Clarence to give herself time to absorb the information she’s getting and react to it. She did, and there was a lot of growth!

We moved on to the scene in which peace is brokered by Edward and then word comes of Clarence’s death. There was a bit of a debate over how everyone is arranged on stage at the top of the scene, and finally we figured it out. One of our longtime ensemble members, who is a perfectionist and knows it, smiled and said, “Okay, okay. I was wrong. I was wrong.” Another ensemble member gasped theatrically and said, “You were wrong? You were wrong?! Let the record show that on April 25, 2017, [name] admitted she was wrong.” We all had a good laugh, including the woman who was the subject of the joke.

The scene went beautifully. A quiet member of the ensemble surprised us all by having her lines memorized! And our Edward has clearly been working on her monologue – it’s incredibly strong and impactful.

Our Richard entered the scene with her foam sword tucked in the back of her shirt through her collar. I’m not sure why she did it, but, as I watched, I realized that the bend in the sword made her look hunch backed. You may remember from this blog, months ago, that our Richard has been very resistant to playing Richard’s “deformity” – she hasn’t wanted to alter her physicality or weaken him. Using the sword as a prosthetic was an interesting idea to me, and potentially a compelling artistic choice. I pulled her aside toward the end of our session and asked her what she thought about it. I pointed out that, perhaps, when the curtain opens on her at the top of the play, she could be regarding the sword, endowing it with all of her bitterness and anger, and then at the word “deformed,” she could place it in her shirt, establishing the convention. The sword could then be taken out for the fight, and would work as a pretty cool symbol. She loved these ideas. Problem solved!


Friday

 

We began tonight by plugging our First Murderer into the scene we staged on Friday. This threw our Clarence for a bit of a loop, as having a different person in the role changed some of how the scene worked. We reassured her that more rehearsal will help things fall into place. One ensemble member asked our First Murderer why she was “doing an accent,” and she replied that she didn’t seem to be able to help it. I asked her if she knew her character’s objective, and she said she wasn’t sure. I suggested that the “accent” might come from a disconnect with the character, so we talked about how this guy behaves. Why does he let Clarence speak for so long, for instance? We determined that he wants to control the others. She asked if “the cockiness should come into my voice.” I asked her to just focus on her objective for now – that everything else flows from that. The second time running through the scene felt much better for everyone, and we moved on.

We explored the reactions of the characters in Act Two, scene four, in which the Duchess, Queen Elizabeth, and York are told about the imprisonment of Vaughan, Rivers, and Grey. What does this violation of the peace agreement mean for them? Our Duchess and Elizabeth were all in for reacting with horror and dismay, while our York was more hesitant, saying that a child might not understand the implications. We suggested that he would still react to seeing the women so upset, and we found a flow for the scene from there.

We moved on to the scene in which the Prince is brought in by Richard and Buckingham, Hastings informs everyone that Elizabeth and York have taken sanctuary, the Prince is taken to the Tower to meet with his brother, and Buckingham enlists Catesby’s help in finding out if Hastings will be part of the conspiracy to make Richard king.

We worked on blocking very collaboratively, with one member making a great suggestion that Richard linger on the floor in front of the stage, separating him a bit from the group and making more clear what has happening.

In discussing the Prince’s role in this scene and the way the others treat him, we got into somewhat of a debate. Our version of this lengthy scene is extremely truncated; our Prince has stage fright and asked us to cut as much as possible. As a result, we eliminated the entire part of the scene in which the Prince expresses some suspicion, and the boys play around with Richard.  Our Richard, who seemed to be having a bad day in general, pointed out that some ensemble members were interpreting the scene without keeping in mind the material that has been cut. She reminded us that the Prince actually has a lot to say about what’s happening, and that he “isn’t stupid.” She made a good point, but, unfortunately, she made it in such a confrontational way that it shut down the collaborative energy and caused a number of people to get frustrated and upset. I tried to express what she was saying for the group in a more constructive way, but the sour energy remained, and we ended in a bit of a cloud.

It’s an ongoing challenge for this ensemble member – when she’s feeling negative, she often takes it out on others, often without realizing she’s doing it. We keep talking with her about it, trying to help her navigate new ways of handling communication when she’s feeling lousy, and the ensemble continues to be as patient as they can be even when her actions make things difficult. We are all learning and growing.

Session Six: Week 33

Tuesday

Tonight began with a discussion about our options for next season’s play. We reviewed the themes of each play we were considering and then did an anonymous vote. We ended up in a tie between Macbeth and As You Like It, with three people voting for other plays. The ensemble wanted an immediate decision, and our general policy is that decisions get made by the people in the room (unless it predominantly affects one person), so those three ensemble members voted again to break the tie. We ended up with Macbeth. Most of us are very excited about it. Others are a little disappointed, but no one threatened to leave the group or anything! One woman is upset only because she will be leaving prison before the final performance, and she is really intrigued by the play. I hope she’ll stay with us for the exploration part of the season.

We decided to work through the end of the play before we move on to our next goal: making our way through the entire thing in chronological order, no matter who is absent, so we can be sure our entrances, exits, and curtains all work.

We talked through how to stage these scenes, which go back and forth between Richard’s and Richmond’s tents, and then evolve into the battle. We decided as a group that when coming and going from the camp, people would enter and exit from the wings; when leaving the camp, people will enter and exit through the doors on either side of the stage.

We did a lot of detail work with our acting and the text, even though staging was our goal. We talked through the level of urgency needed in the scene between Richmond and Stanley – what are their objectives? How well do they know each other? How quickly does this scene need to happen? Our Richard, although very tired, rallied and delivered a remarkable performance of her post-ghost soliloquy. “That was great,” said one woman. “Every time your thoughts changed, you moved.”

We talked through Ratcliffe’s reaction to Richard’s obvious unraveling. And after our Richmond took a couple of (very effective) stabs at her monologue rallying the troops, I pulled her aside to do some work with the text, specifically with antithesis and key words. Many ensemble members over the years have been bored by this aspect of working with Shakespeare, so we tend not to belabor it, but this ensemble member is “a huge dork,” in her own words, and she was receptive to and excited about exploring this further.

The transition to the battle presented some challenges. One woman suggested that we have a battle soundscape, possibly without any on stage action. But it seemed to us that the stage directions called for a visual. We came up with a very cool solution that involves closing the curtain so that we can strike the tents, Catesby directly appealing to the audience for help, Richard wandering on the floor in front of the stage calling out for a horse, and the curtain opening on Richmond, ready for the fight.

We took a few minutes to review the sword fight and then staged the very end of the play. Several people remarked that they were relieved to have all of that settled and eager to begin at the beginning on Friday.

 


Friday

 

Two ensemble members told us tonight that they have quit their dance class, which conflicts with Shakespeare one night per week, so that they can fully commit to rehearsal. We thanked them for their dedication – it’s a big thing to give up another activity that is so enjoyable, and we do not take it for granted.

We stuck to our plan and began at the beginning of the play. I was involved in a one-on-one conversation with an ensemble member outside of the auditorium, and when we came in, we found our Richard delivering an incredibly powerful opening soliloquy – completely off book. Something that is remarkable about her interpretation is how much humor she’s finding in the role. It’s refreshing after normally seeing Richard played as deadly serious or only mildly sardonic. She’s pushing it much further, and it works very well.

We got to the big scene with Richard and Anne. Our Anne, as you may recall, has severe anxiety and is really pushing herself by playing Anne. She and I had worked out a plan in which she and I would work on her monologue without the rest of the group to get her comfortable with it, but we hadn’t done that yet, and here we were at the scene. I asked her if she would be okay with just going up on stage and saying the lines – if we could let the group know that that’s all she was going to do, and that the acting would come in later. She said that would be fine, and we communicated our plan to the others, who were very encouraging.

Standing back stage preparing to go on, our Anne took a deep breath, smiled shakily, and said, “I’m gonna die.” Before I could say anything, another ensemble member simply, firmly, and kindly said, “No. You’re not. You’ve got this.”

Before we got to that, we took a few minutes to explore the brief scene between Richard and Hastings. Hastings has just gotten out of prison – how should that look? And how does Richard feel vs. the way he behaves? It’s a quick scene, but it’s very interesting!

And then we got to Anne’s entrance. She knelt behind the “corpse” (we are using a table with folded up legs) and said her lines, clearly nervous but not rushing, landing every word and phrase. When she got to the end, the ensemble burst out in applause and cheering. We moved on to the rest of the scene, which involves Richard, and both of the women on stage showed very clearly that they understand the language and have a general idea of what to do in the scene. When we got to the end, everyone cheered again, and we asked our Anne how she felt. She said that it hadn’t been as bad as she thought it would be. That is really, really common in our program – if someone feels safe and empowered enough to get themselves on stage, they universally come out on the other end of the scene feeling relieved and surprised that they got through it. In an earlier post, I shared about another woman in our ensemble who hasn’t had as vocal a journey, but had the same break through very recently. I asked her if she could speak from her experience. “I feel like [our Anne] was into it but can be more open,” she said. “It gets better,” she continued, speaking directly to the woman on stage. “It took me four times to open up.”

I asked if they wanted to do the scene again, and, much to our delight, both women said they did. We asked them both to focus on their characters’ objectives. Our Anne dove further into the language this time, beginning to become rooted in the character’s emotions. She physically recoiled when Richard touched her and began to feel free to move around the stage more. Our Richard also made great adjustments to increase her charm – she was a little too creepy at first!

We kept rolling through the play. At one point, our Richard left the room briefly. When she came back, she saw that the others were mid-scene without her and just flew down the aisle to the stage, saying her lines even though she wasn’t sure exactly where they were. We all laughed, and some people rolled their eyes, but it was all with good humor. We love how enthusiastic she is.

We ended with the scene in which Margaret curses everyone. We worked on this a few weeks ago, so we picked up where we left off – finding movement for Margaret that is specific and won’t weaken her. We found it. Her interpretation is powerful and sparked organic, appropriate reactions in the others on stage. I remarked that this is a truly amazing feature of live theatre – the more you give to others on stage, the more they give to you, and on and on. “Yeah,” said our Richard. “Her energy was high, so my energy could be really high… It was easy to get lost in my part with her.” Two ensemble members who had been sitting at the very back of the auditorium said that they’d been able to hear every word, which is something we’ve always struggled with.

It was a really, really good night. We don’t always fire on all cylinders like that. Things have been a little bumpy lately, so it fired us up to have such a productive, positive session. It puts us in great shape as we move forward and closer to performance.

Session Six: Week 32

Tuesday

 

Before we began tonight, I checked in the woman who, at this point, has been in the group longer than anyone but me. I had some questions for her about ways in which the group has changed operationally over the last few years, and she provided a lot of insight, as she always does. She was very firm about the positive impact that the program has had on her, saying, “It’s given me humanity,” and that, as she is going home soon, she is already grieving its loss. She said that prison hasn’t been an entirely negative experience for her – “Certainly not the worst time in my life,” she said. She feels that she created the chaos that led her here, and she is confident that, because of the skills she’s learned in prison (including in Shakespeare), she will not be coming back.

We held the second focus group of our case study, which took about an hour. I can’t share the details of that conversation at this point, but rest assured that the study will be posted on our website as soon as it’s ready!

The ensemble then broke off into several groups – some women worked on their lines, others staged a scene with Kyle, and I worked with our Richard and Anne to finish cutting their big scene and make sure we were all on the same page with content. We are!

Our Richard then stepped away to join the scene happening on stage, and I continued to work with our Anne. She has already memorized her monologue and part of the scene. She is extremely excited – her having memorized the monologue already is evidence of how hard she’s already pushing herself, even though she’s very afraid of performing. We went through the monologue to make sure she understood at which points she’s talking to whom, as well as some ideas about the text and possible interpretations.

Our plan to ease her into this is for the two of us to work together, separate from the rest of the group, until she feels solid on the piece. At that point, she’ll begin working on it with the ensemble, so we hope she’ll have had plenty of rehearsal in a safe space before performance. This is way, way out of her comfort zone, but she is determined to do it – and to do it well.


Friday

 

Our new Hastings came in tonight asking if we thought we could cut back any of the scene in which the character ignores Stanley’s warning about Richard and is oblivious to Catesby’s “sounding him.” We realized that we really could only cut about two more lines – we’ve already eliminated about half of the scene. It turned out that this woman was mostly worried about a short monologue that she has. A woman who joined the group last year said, “Oh, the monologues are way easier than all the little lines.” She talked about building a train of thought, and how, even though it seems daunting, it’s totally doable.

We then decided to work on that scene. We asked “little” questions, such as: How does Hastings feel about Stanley’s messenger waking him up at 4:00 a.m.? We explored other issues, such as how Catesby feels about Hastings and where the allegiances are. Our Catesby realized that the moment when she realizes that Hastings has sealed his own fate is extremely complicated. This woman hasn’t had a lot of stage time yet – she has a dance class at the same time, and she divides her time between the two – and she lit up more and more as we continued to work.

We worked through to the end of the scene, exploring more questions about Catesby and Stanley. “I wish I knew more about Stanley,” said the woman playing the character. I looked at our “dramaturg.” “You on that?” I asked. She nodded, smiling – she hasn’t gotten to do research in a while, and she loves to do it. She mentioned that the prison library just acquired a big, new Shakespeare dictionary, and there was a lot of excitement in response. It’s really going to aid their work, particularly during the summer when the program is in recess and they’re on their own.

As we continued to explore the scene, I asked our Hastings what the stakes are – does he realize how serious the situation is? She said she didn’t think so, and then she paused. “He’s like me,” she said. “I’m growing out of the character, but I used to shoot my mouth off at the wrong time. I feel like it really is me. I’m smart, but I’m absent-minded. So is he. Smart, but not paying attention. Look what I’ve been through in the past few months. I think this person’s my friend, but she’s over here talking… It’s like in the movie [Shakespeare Behind Bars] – when the part chooses you. It’s God making sure I don’t go back to this when I get out.” We thanked her for sharing that with us – that level of identification doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s something we all honor.

We started to get a little sidetracked, at which point a woman who has frequently emerged as a leader in the group, got our attention and suggested the next scene to work on - the scene in which Ratcliffe, a number of messengers, and then Stanley arrive very quickly to give Richard news of the impending war. We talked about why the scene is structured the way it is – to give a feeling of chaos – and worked together to figure out how to stage it. Once again, our Ratcliffe took the lead – she is becoming increasingly confident in her staging skills – and it worked out very well! We had a lot of fun working with Richard’s reaction to all of the news and the stage slap that is a part of that. Our Richard is working with the image of being stuck in a pinball machine, which seems to be working well for her.

We worked a little more and then circled up for our ending exercise. I suggested that, from now on, we spend every moment we can working – what we have to do is not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of discipline. The facilitators often do not arrive right at the beginning of our meeting time, but usually when we do arrive, members of the ensemble are trickling in. I suggested working in small groups on lines and staging – everyone in the ensemble knows the play well enough at this point to do both. It can be challenging to be the person to initiate this, but I encouraged them to try.

Session Six: Week 31

Tuesday

 

Tonight we were thrilled to welcome Patrick Hanley for a visit. Patrick is a stage combat choreographer, and he volunteered to choreograph the big showdown between Richard and Richmond. Everyone got a taste of fencing and had a great time. The ensemble decided that this fight should be solely between Richard and Richmond – they felt that any other fighting would be distracting. So while the three of them worked, the rest of us huddled up to resolve some casting issues.

A longtime ensemble member who had been playing Anne has left the group. I asked everyone what we should do about casting the role, thinking it was likely that, having settled into the roles they have, no one would want to take on another with so many lines. It turned out that I was wrong! All I had to do was ask, “Any thoughts on how to cast this?” And without missing a beat, our “extremely anxious” ensemble member – who, remember, just a few months ago said she could never perform, and recently took on a small role – said, “I’ll do it.”

“Really?” a bunch of us said simultaneously. “Yeah,” she said. “I’ve liked Anne since the beginning. I already was reading her with [another ensemble member]. I’d like to play her. I think I can do it.” We all applauded her – this is so exciting! She decided to play the First Murderer as well, at least for now. Another woman volunteered to take on that role if two become too overwhelming.

This is tremendous growth. It’s encouraging not just for the woman making these moves, but for everyone else as well. When we see someone else taking risks like this, it makes it easier for the rest of us.

We distributed the remaining minor roles as well. There was a lot of generosity there, with many people volunteering, compromising, and distributing lines.

With the remaining time, we talked about past plays and audience reactions, both to our successes and mistakes. It was a fun conversation and seemed to alleviate some of the pressure that newer members are feeling – totally normal for this time in the season.

The fight between Richard and Richmond is stellar. We are all very excited about it! Many thanks to Patrick for his work this week.

 

Friday

 

We were thrilled to welcome an ensemble member back to the group whom we thought we wouldn’t be seeing again. The woman who had taken on First Murderer immediately offered the role back to the returning member, who happily took it. She also decided to play Hastings after we lost the woman playing that role.

We spent some time working on Edward’s monologue. The woman playing Edward has an astounding grasp of the language, and she is very powerful on stage. The only issue with her performance is that she’s taking a lot of pauses where there is no punctuation, which is slowing her down and obscuring the meaning. We encouraged her to drive through to each punctuation, and to use her words to really lash out at the other people on stage. This helped somewhat, but she then confided in me that she has an issue with her vision that is the true source of all of the pausing – she simply has trouble reading the words. She is going to focus on memorizing the speech so we can see what her pacing is actually like.

We then moved on to the scene in which Elizabeth and Richard have some back and forth, and then Margaret comes in and curses everyone. This was a lot of fun. We explored different ways of distributing people around the stage, finding movement for the principal characters, and making sure that Margaret’s curses really land. We’ve got some refining to do, but it’s well on the way.

We have just a little more cutting to do to the script, and then, thanks to a generously donated binding machine, I’ll be printing new copies for everyone. We’ve been doing so much crossing out – the “clean” scripts will be most welcome!

Session Six: Week 30

Tuesday

 

I was out of town during our last meeting, and I used some of my time to put together a list of potential cuts to the script. I have sensed the group wanting to move forward more quickly with staging, and growing frustration with the cutting process. They verified this when I asked them if my instinct was correct. I made sure to note to everyone that this was a list of suggestions, and that any/all of them could be rejected.

We ended up sitting in a circle on the floor going through the cuts, which gave us a feeling of camaraderie and the impetus for a lot of jokes – even more so than usual. I hadn’t really wanted to spend an entire evening making cuts, but it turned out to be pretty fun.

As we got to the scene in which the Murderers banter and then kill Clarence, the question arose of who would play the First Murderer now that the previously cast woman has had to leave the group. To our complete surprise, the woman who had told us in the fall that her extreme anxiety would likely prevent her from performing at all, and who about a month ago volunteered to play only a small non-speaking role, casually said, “I’ll play the First Murderer.” There was silence for a moment. “You will?” someone said. “Yeah,” she said, smiling a little. The group burst into applause and cheers. She looked down, still smiling, saying, “Don’t make a big deal about it, you guys.” We tried to contain our excitement, but this is absolutely huge. Not only is she going to get up on stage, and not only will she speak, but she has a good number of lines! I am so excited to see what this experience does for her.

 

Friday

 

As we checked in tonight, one of the women said she had something to share. She paused. “You know, I forgot it’s not safe outside of Shakespeare,” she said, telling us about something she said in confidence in her unit that was told to others and blown out of proportion. She is now living in an intensely uncomfortable situation, not knowing exactly how this got out, and not knowing exactly how to deal with it. She’s decided to try to hunker down until it blows over. “I’m just so glad I can come and talk here, and it doesn’t get out,” she said. “This is the one safe place I have here.”

As noted many times throughout this blog, one of the most valuable aspects of our program is that it creates a safe space in a place that otherwise feels unsafe – emotionally, physically, or both. It’s essential to our work that people be able to express themselves freely and feel supported in being their authentic selves. That’s the culture we’ve built over the years, and it’s overwhelmingly respected by participants.

We continued making cuts to our script now that our Duchess was present – our policy is not to make cuts that affect people who are absent, and she wasn’t there on Tuesday. We got through most of what we had left and then decided to work the Clarence/Brakenbury scene since we have new people in both of those roles.

I huddled with those women before we began the scene to make sure we were all on the same page with content and cuts. The woman playing Clarence nervously said that this would be her first time on stage. I encouraged her, for this first time, not to rush, but to avoid stopping to apologize for any mistakes and just plow through to the end. “Then the first time will be over, and you’ll never have to do it for the first time again,” I said. She smiled. The other woman agreed not to stop the scene. I then approached the group and let them know what the plan was, and they also agreed not to interrupt.

Although visibly nervous, the women got through the scene. Afterward, I let the group know that it had been our Clarence’s first time ever on stage, and we gave her a huge round of applause and lots of encouragement. I asked her how she felt. “I felt like I stumbled a lot,” she said. Others in the ensemble reminded her that everyone stumbles at first with Shakespeare. “You’re gonna be your own worst critic,” said one seasoned ensemble member.

Our Clarence, true to her emerging role as one of the group’s natural directors, then expressed dissatisfaction with the way they’d physically staged the scene and suggested some changes. We talked about the relationship between the two men – does Brakenbury know why Clarence is in prison? Does he have empathy for him, and, if so, how much does he express it?

They tried the scene a second time. “It got better,” one woman said enthusiastically. “It did. This time I felt more emotion from you.” Our Clarence said, “I sort of felt like I should kneel for the prayer.” Our Brakenbury then asked how she should respond to that. I encouraged them to follow their instincts in the moment – not to prejudge anything, but to spontaneously respond to each other, within the play’s parameters, and see where it led them. I pointed out that our Clarence had, at one point, reached out and touched our Brakenbury’s arm for emphasis on her line, “Ah, keeper, keeper…” She had instinctively responded to one of Shakespeare’s open vowels, which indicate emotion, and the repetition of a word.  No one needed to tell her to do that.

The third time through, they adjusted so that our Clarence didn’t sit on the bench, and then she knelt for her prayer. She said she felt better this third time, although she still wants to make adjustments. The growth in her confidence over just three attempts at the scene was remarkable. It is truly inspiring to see someone taking risks like that, and then to see those risks paying off.

Session Six: Week 29

Tuesday

Written by Frannie

We spent tonight collaborating to stage the ghost scene that I had written up from all of our ideas. I was engaged in a one-on-one conversation with an ensemble member during the initial discussion of how to put the scene on its feet, and as I returned to the group and heard the whispered, “Despair and die,” repeated again and again, I felt the energy in the room shift. Everyone was focused. The lines we’d honed in on came out one by one, and the choices we’d made seemed to really work. Physical positioning and movement was rough, but that was to be expected our first time through.

Afterward, I asked the group what they thought. Everyone was enthusiastic – it worked almost exactly as we had envisioned it. Our Richmond said, “Even with my eyes closed… Your voices really creeped me out. Like, I’m kind of having anxiety right now.” She laughed – she was okay, but we talked about the need to really differentiate the energy between Richard and Richmond. So we were glad that she spoke up!

We worked together to refine the movement in the piece, figuring out the best way in which to encircle Richard and then Richmond, as well as the most effective way to move between the two. We looked at Buckingham’s involvement in the scene – he is now essentially leading it, which is very powerful and effective. We then ran through the entire scene and let our Richard continue into her subsequent monologue. The whole thing was positively chilling.

This took nearly all of our time, and it was time well spent. “I loved this process,” said one woman. “It was so much more effective with the lines like that… Even though I didn’t see it staged [because she was on stage]. It transferred. It resonated. It was really intense.”

Friday

Written by Lauren

We got to the room, and it was very warm, which made it difficult to get anyone to start to do anything. Fortunately, after a few minutes, we were told that we could move to a different room that has fans. Everyone was ready to get to work after that!

We started the session with act 4, scene 4 when Richard enters. It was clarified that Elizabeth is Edward's wife. The scene between the two of them is the first time that someone isn't buying what Richard is trying to sell. Our Richard thought that the character should be touching Elizabeth in this scene. Our Elizabeth disagreed. It was discussed that Richard should then change his tactics to convince Elizabeth to listen to him. Our Elizabeth was getting visibly frustrated with our Richard, who was grabbing her arm and not listening to her. They got through the scene, though.

We went on to do a brief analysis on the scene. When asked what Richard wants in this scene, the woman playing him said that he wants Elizabeth to listen to him. When asked what Elizabeth wants in the scene, the woman playing her said that she wants Richard to know how angry she is. We then worked with the "power struggle" that happens between the two on the line "true love's kiss." They both did an amazing and hilarious job with the power struggle!

Session Six: Week 28

Tuesday

Written by Frannie

As has happened every year, we’ve recently lost a few ensemble members due to excessive absences. We began tonight by figuring out how to plug those casting holes.

When I discussed the possibility that we might have to do this with a small group last week, one woman who frequently talks about her lack of confidence and fear of performing mentioned that she might want to play Clarence, one of the vacated roles. I said that I was excited to hear that, that we would make our decisions as a group, and to keep thinking it over. Moments later, a woman who hadn’t heard that exchange mentioned to me that she was interested in playing Clarence – she’s been looking for more roles to take on for a while, and I have encouraged her to jump in when there was an opportunity. I thanked her for doing exactly what we talked about and mentioned that this other woman was also interested, reminding this woman, too, that our decisions would be made as a group. “Oh,” she said thoughtfully, “That’s really great that she wants to do that.”

Tonight, as we began discussing our casting options, the first thing that second woman said was, “I’d like to play Brakenbury.” We all nodded and wrote that down, thanking her for taking it on. As we did that, the first woman leaned over to me and whispered, “I’d like to play Clarence.” I whispered back, “I think you should say that to the group.” She then announced her intention to the ensemble, and everyone burst into applause, smiling and making sure she knew how proud we are of her, and how happy we are that she is taking on such a challenge. It is a very big step.

We then dove back into the ghost scene. Three ensemble members had edited the scene down to “the meat” – eliminating all lines that seemed non-essential. Another woman had drawn diagrams of her blocking ideas. We spent the next hour putting all of this together, including new ideas that were sparked by the discussion, and finding ways of honoring many individual ideas in our final concept. In our version of this scene:

•    Richard and Richmond are sleeping, one on either side of the stage.
•    Buckingham enters, holding a mask over his face that is white with a red X over the mouth (to reflect the voices of the ghosts that have been silenced), and says, “Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow.”
•    Ten more ghosts enter from various parts of the theatre, whispering, “Despair and die.” They also carry masks.
•    The ghosts circle around Richard, saying lines that we’ve culled from the text. They then move to circle around Richmond in a “figure eight” pattern, say some lines to him, and, as they exit, Buckingham delivers his final lines.

We were pretty satisfied with this idea, but then one woman wondered aloud if having only one conceptual scene like this in the play would be strange and out of place. She had a good point. I asked the group if there were other opportunities in the play to bring in the masks. The ideas started flowing, and what we ended up with is that we will introduce the masks in our yet-to-be-written prologue, making it clear that the masks symbolize death, and then whenever someone in the play is about to exit to his or her death, ghosts carrying masks will enter, give that person a mask, and escort him or her off.

It was an exciting evening, to be sure. I was tasked with taking all of these ideas and coalescing them into a written scene. The goal is for me to write it over the next week, and for us to stage it next Tuesday.

Friday

Written by Kyle

Tonight started off on the slower side as there was a small turnout at the outset, with our Richard and Richmond both absent at the start.  We decided that we would start in Act 5, with Buckingham’s monologue just before he is killed.  This monologue is easily one of my favorites in this play, and, I dare say, one of my favorites in the canon.  It is a profound moment when the Duke of Buckingham, who has been Richard’s right hand man and chief co-conspirator, is betrayed by Richard and suffers the same fate he has been so quick to inflict on others.  There is a solemn moment before he is executed when he simultaneously muses on how the tables have turned and subtly takes responsibility for his actions.  It’s contemplative, yet sobering, and the Bard at his best.  It takes on a different dynamic in the context of the prison; it deals so explicitly with committing a crime and accepting the consequences, I almost felt nervous giving her notes and coaching her through it.  Principally, the actor and I had to tease out an objective, which meant we had to nail down whom she is addressing.  We tried it different ways, each with its own implications: If she is talking to the jailor on stage with her, what does that mean? If she is talking to herself, what does that mean? If she is talking to God, what does that mean?  If she is talking to the ghosts of those she murdered, what does that mean?  It seems a little tedious but I found the conversation to be really incredible.  For whatever reason it was not much of a group activity, and to be honest I feel badly that I didn’t try to include the group more.

After working that scene, we moved backwards to Act 4, scene 4, with Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess.  This is another fascinating scene, in which the play’s major women find common ground in their hate for Richard. The houses of Lancaster and York have done unspeakable deeds to one another, but history doesn’t seem to matter in light of the present terror Richard has inflicted on both.  It’s a somber scene, and the characters have a lot of negative things to say to one another; line for line there are much more of those than of reconciliation, so it was difficult at times to even imagine bringing it to the forefront.  

There was a pretty significant disagreement between the actor playing Elizabeth and the actor playing Margaret about just how the scene should go.  ‘Elizabeth’ thought there should be more reconciliation sooner, and ‘Margaret’ didn’t think there should be any at all. I felt like there was a push from the actors for me to give them direction and be the tiebreaker, but I couldn’t.  That seems to be a real sticking point with a lot of the ensemble this year: collaboration takes time.  Democracy is more rewarding, but infinitely more cumbersome than a dictatorship. To their credit, most professional rehearsal rooms are run like a dictatorship; no matter how giving or collaborative a director can be, at the end of the day they have the option to pull rank on the actors.  It’s my experience that good directors pull rank sparingly, but lead the cast when necessary.  It’s quick and clean, but not one of the core values of Shakespeare in Prison; we have a commitment to collaboration, and it may not be timely, but ultimately it is what is most rewarding.  We spent the rest of the session on this one scene, which is only a few pages long.  One ensemble member even got frustrated with us at one point, saying that the performance was looming and we didn’t have time for this kind of debate.  I disagreed, and urged the actors to keep muddling through. In the end, we found a way in which everyone felt content with the scene.  Collaboration is not always easy, and not always timely, but it achieves the program’s aims such that real changes begin to take hold in our participants.  With Act 4, scene 4, it was definitely worth the wait.  The actors were able to show so much range, and such a clear journey from start to finish that is has become one of the scenes I really look forward to seeing in production. 

Session Six: Week 27

Tuesday

Tonight was all about cuts to the script. We began with the goal of staging Act One, scene three, but after reading through it once, we realized that a lot of it had to go. We made a series of cuts – some of them pretty dramatic – and then read it again. And then we realized that we wanted MORE cuts!

In the course of this process, we eliminated all of Dorset’s and Grey’s lines. The women playing those roles quietly voiced some resentment (they have so few lines to begin with) but rolled with the punches – they prioritize the ensemble pretty consistently. I mulled over this to myself and realized that Rivers still had a bunch of lines in the scene – and she (who is also playing Tyrrel) has been overwhelmed by the thought of memorizing as many lines as she has. I quietly asked her if she’d like to give some of her lines in this scene to Dorset and Grey. She liked that idea, so I asked the three of them to huddle and figure out how to distribute the lines.

After they had done so and shared with me, one of them prodded our Rivers/Tyrrel to tell me about a concern that she had. Tyrrel has a bit of a soliloquy, and the language is fairly complex, both of which were worrying her. We put our heads together and figured out how to cut nearly all of the speech. She was quite relieved!

At that point, we were so in the mode of making cuts that our Richard and Richmond both asked Matt and me to collaborate with them on honing down some of their monologues. It was a great exchange between the four of us – slowly going through those passages to figure out how much we could or should cut. We were able to make some significant changes.

I was concerned that not everyone in the ensemble was involved in the cutting process tonight, but when I conferred with the other facilitators (who hadn’t had their heads buried in a script for two hours), they told me that the others were either engaged in meaningful, reflective conversations or working on their scripts themselves. It was good to know that it had been overall a good, productive night for everyone.

Friday

We had low attendance tonight, which happens sometimes, and we decided to make the best of it by huddling around a table and working to adapt the scene in which the ghosts of Richard’s victims visit him and Richmond.

We have known that we would need to make adjustments to this scene, but we weren’t sure exactly how to do it. We began by reading through the scene to get a feel for the original writing and see what ideas came to us immediately. Aspects of the scene that stuck out to people included the brutality of some of the lines, the effectiveness of certain characters speaking in unison, and the number of ghosts in the scene. We determined that our goals would be to shorten the scene but preserve its intention and impact.

The group was a little stuck in the mode of simply cutting lines, but that kept presenting challenges that could only be overcome by altering the scene in a pretty radical way. I asked the group to go through it and identify key words and phrases that stuck out to them, beginning with the lines directed at Richard and then moving to the ones given to Richmond. We noted that the “Richard words” that struck us were dark, violent, and accusatory; the “Richmond words” were uplifting and encouraging. The core phrases we identified were “despair and die” (Richard) and “live and flourish” (Richmond). We also determined that Buckingham’s closing couplets are so powerful that we wanted to keep them to “drop the mic” on the scene.

I then asked the group why the scene is so repetitive – why did Shakespeare write it that way? There were several ideas about this that built on one another – that the device emphasizes the difference between the characters and that it drives home two points: 1) that what you do comes back to haunt you; there are always consequences, and 2) that Richard has a LOT of victims – not just one, but many lives. “This is one of the biggest parts of the whole play,” said one woman. “Yeah,” agreed another woman. “It’s like, you know how many people he’s killed, but this puts in in your face. We need to keep them all in. We need the magnitude.”

I asked the group why, in addition to the repetition, Shakespeare wrote the ghosts going back and forth between the two men. The group had several ideas about this: that it shows battles within and without; that it shows a shift in power from Richard to Richmond; that it makes the dichotomy between good and evil more dramatic.

So, I asked, what are the effects of the scene on each of the men? Richard is startled awake and has an incredible monologue in which he expresses doubt, fear, guilt, anxiety, and a feeling that he’s lost control. It’s his most human moment in the play. Richmond, on the other hand, feels encouraged, empowered, and energized (insert jokes here about how nearly every word we came up with began with “e”).

Then came the next phase – how did we want to stage this? One woman shared visions of the ghosts wearing tunics with images of how they were killed. We built on that by wondering if they could carry signs. Another woman said she pictured the ghosts wearing white makeup with black circles around their eyes. I pointed out that, while that would be visually very effective, it would be logistically very challenging. I asked if masks might achieve the same effect, and the group felt that that might work. Someone suggested bringing in a smoke machine, which I assumed wouldn’t be allowed and would be very complicated to use even if it were, and someone else suggested using fabric to simulate smoke. Another woman suggested that the ghosts wear “flowy ghost capes.”

Riffing on the phrases “despair and die” and “live and flourish,” we started to wonder if there was a way to stage this as a sort of protest. “Hashtag Ghost Lives Matter,” joked one woman. We started throwing ideas around. We all agreed that the ghosts should enter from all parts of the theatre, and we wondered if they should immediately speak or be silent at first. “This is people who’ve been silenced regaining their voices,” said one woman.

We thought of different types of movement. Should the ghosts move in a crowd? In a figure eight around the men? Should they stand in a line? Flip their signs or hold them steady? Or get rid of the signs altogether?

We struggled with how to put the words and phrases together but all agreed that Buckingham should end the scene. We also wondered how our adapted script would spur Richard’s monologue.

At that point, we realized we were out of time – the night went by very quickly! A few of us decided to keep brainstorming and write down our ideas to bring to the group on Tuesday, when we hope we can hash things out and finalize them.

It was a very exciting, engaging evening, and definitely an unusual one for us. We don’t often do collaborative writing like this – our interpretations are usually pretty straightforward. I’m excited to see where tonight’s brainstorm leads. We have so many good ideas!

Session Six: Week 26

Tuesday

Tonight’s check-in was fairly extended – pretty much everyone in the group was having a rough time and needed to share. Although what we were talking about was pretty dark, there was still humor sprinkled in, along with a great amount of support for one another.

A longtime ensemble member, who is an accurately self-described workhorse, came in during this check-in, realized what we were talking about, and promptly left. This caused me some concern, and when a friend of this ensemble member expressed that she was also concerned, I told her that the ensemble member has, over the years, frequently expressed that she would rather work on Shakespeare than talk about feelings, and that that is probably what caused her to leave. “But this is about so much more than Shakespeare,” she said. Another ensemble member nodded vigorously, saying, “Sometimes the check-ins need to be long. Today we needed to talk.” I agreed that this is an important aspect of what we do. The first inmate said, “We need that honesty, trust, accountability and team work… It makes it feel so good to be here. Not to mention the Shakespeare. I can’t tell you how much I love Shakespeare. It’s so accurate to our experience here – he uses the perfect words. I’m so glad I found this.”

We then decided to work on Act Four, scene two. There was some debate about whether we needed a coronation scene – since the goal is to perform this in 90 minutes or less, we don’t have much time for things like this. We eventually figured out an efficient, symbolic way to make it happen.

In this scene, Richard asks Buckingham to kill the princes. When Buckingham says he needs some time to think about it, Richard turns to a killer for hire, and then makes it very clear to Buckingham that he is out of favor. Buckingham decides to flee while he can.

We asked ourselves if Buckingham knows what Richard is asking from the get-go – is he deflecting, or does he honestly not know what he’s getting at? We leaned toward deflection, and we talked about the distance that immediately grows between the men, who have been so close throughout the play up until this point. I offered that the scene might largely be about the breakdown of that friendship. This was reflected in the women’s initial staging instincts – at first they drifted apart, and then Richard swooped back in to threaten Buckingham.

There was some confusion about the latter part of the scene – Stanley enters, has a brief exchange with Richard, and then stays on stage, saying nothing. We debated whether or not Richard brings him deeper into the conspiracy. We decided that if that happened it would give Stanley more impetus to go against Richard in the end, so we staged it that way – although we decided that Stanley should have some physical distance during Richard’s exchange with Tyrrel.

The woman playing Stanley was at first disappointed that many of her lines had been cut for time, but now she seems to be more enthusiastic about the role. She is certainly taking ownership of it. I’m really happy to see that.

Friday

Tonight we dove into Act Three, scene two, as our Hastings, who has frequently been absent due to work, was eager to get up on her feet. In this scene, Hastings is given a message by Stanley, who then enters the scene, about a dream he had about Richard. Hastings laughs off the danger. Some of our ensemble members found the scene a little obtuse, so we spent some time clarifying the content.

We had a bit of a debate about how entrances to the scene should work, and the scene’s Messenger, who also plays Dorset, spoke up again very strongly. This seems to be built upon the group’s positive reception to her voicing her ideas last week about Dorset – prior to that evening, she had been very quiet. It’s exciting to see her taking more of a stand now.

I have also noticed recently that one of our ensemble members, who nearly flaked toward the end of last season (we had legitimate concerns that she might not show up for our performances), has taken on more of a leadership role this year, becoming one of the ensemble’s most vocal cheerleaders and taking it upon herself to gently and kindly guide new ensemble members through unfamiliar territory. Tonight in particular, she helped a new ensemble member to understand the best way in which to do a cross and the reasons behind stepping downstage of another actor as opposed to upstage. It’s really, really great when that kind of advice comes from an ensemble member rather than a facilitator.

On Fridays, we are usually in a classroom rather than the auditorium, and this can lead to some confusion about our exact blocking. One instance was a brief argument over whether one person stepping backward would land her on the stairs leading to the stage, or if she would have room on the floor to make the move. We generally table these details until we get back in the auditorium. Despite the misunderstandings, things never got heated, and we laughed a lot as we tried to figure out what everyone was talking about.

The woman who is playing the Prince is extremely nervous about the amount of lines she has – she has fairly low confidence and giggled her way nervously through two minor roles in Othello last year. She had expressed a desire to cut the scene with Richard down as much as possible. After checking with the others in the scene, I asked another ensemble member, who is very good at cutting, to take a look at the scene and see what she could do to whittle it down.

Some of the women are already working on memorizing their lines. This is extremely early in the process for this to happen – in fact, I can’t remember it happening in years past. We applauded those women’s efforts and reminded them not to put too much pressure on – we still have three months until we perform. Several of the women have also been working lines and exploring scenes in their units, which, again, shows a lot of dedication that encourages others in the group to follow suit.

Session Six: Week 25

Chuk Nowak returned to the prison tonight to finish filming for a video project we’re putting together tonight some of our process and its effects. Several of the women in the ensemble were interviewed individually for this, sharing some really amazing insight, and then Chuk filmed the remainder of our rehearsal.

We decided to keep moving forward in the play (we’re on a roll!) and work on Act Four, scene one, in which Brakenbury tells Elizabeth that she can’t see her children, Stanley tells Anne she is about to be crowned queen, Elizabeth has a breakdown, and a plan is made for Dorset to flee. It’s quite a scene!

The group collaborated well on blocking in the first part of the scene, working to figure out the best positions for all of the actors and where people should enter and exit. There was some great problem solving. When Brakenbury told Elizabeth that she couldn’t see her children, that actress instinctively swooped in on her, and Anne and the Duchess followed. It was a really effective moment.

We talked a bit about Brakenbury’s slip – when he refers to Richard as the king, even though at this point he is still the Lord Protector. I asked the group what they thought it meant. Everyone was unanimous that this indicates that everyone can see through what Richard is doing.

One woman then suggested that, when the women move in on Brakenbury, Dorset should advance as well. The woman playing Dorset was hesitant to do so, but at first she didn’t speak up about why. This led to some discussion amongst the other members of the group about how Dorset feels upon hearing the news about the children being kept from their mother. Finally, I asked our Dorset how she felt. “I don’t think he would move in,” she said firmly. I asked her why not. “I think it’s self-preservation. I think he sees red flags,” she said. That interpretation was accepted with no further discussion – she had made a good point.

We talked, too, about Stanley’s role in this scene. Unfortunately, the woman playing Stanley wasn’t present, so we didn’t get too deep into it, but we all thought that it seems like Stanley is conflicted in this scene – delivering the message and then offering to help Dorset get away. There is clear conflict here, and we want to talk about it more with the woman who is playing the role.

We started having blocking problems again at this point, and it was here that I decided to step in, since the solution was rooted in details of the text that we haven’t talked about too much yet this year. Elizabeth’s lines upon hearing that Richard is being crowned are:

Ah, cut my lace asunder
That my pent heart may have some scope to beat,
Or else I swoon with this dead-killing news.

We all know why she’s upset here, but we were missing just how deep this goes. I pointed out, first, that when Shakespeare’s characters say “Ah” or “O,” it often isn’t meant to be those literal vowel sounds, but rather emotional exclamations – often raw. So that was our first clue about what needs to happen – that it needs to be raw and emotional. The second thing I pointed out was that that first line is short, and the rhythm is irregular, especially compared to the vast majority of this play, which is pretty faithfully written in iambic pentameter. I asked the group what they thought the significance of that was. After some rumination, we arrived at this irregularity reflecting its being an irregular moment – that it’s jarring, that she’s shocked. And then we parsed out the meaning of the whole phrase – that she is asking someone to cut open the laces of her corset because her heart is beating so hard that she fears she will faint.

Given this new information, I again asked the group what’s going on here. “It’s a collapse,” one person said. “Yes,” I said, “And if the collapse is physical as well, I think we’ve solved our blocking problem.” When our Elizabeth sank down on the edge of the stage, the Duchess and Dorset immediately moved to her, while our Anne hung back, consumed by her own dread. We then found that Anne could move toward Stanley, and then out toward the audience during the monologue in which she realizes that she’s cursed herself. It was then simple for the Duchess to speak to each person individually (something that had really been tripping us up), and the exits revealed themselves naturally.

We spent a lot of time on this very brief scene, but it was warranted. I could tell that our Elizabeth was feeling apprehensive about this emotional collapse, and I assured her that no one expected her to “go there” at this stage of rehearsal, but that she should gear herself up to do it later.

It’s also worth noting that one woman who is usually fairly reticent spoke up frequently tonight, giving really insightful suggestions and feedback on blocking. We encouraged her to keep speaking up – those of us who’ve been doing this for years noted that natural directors emerge every year, and this year it looks like she’s one of them. I hope that she’ll continue to contribute in this way, as she has great instincts, and her success in staging could build confidence that will translate to other areas of her life. It’s happened many times before.

 

Session Six: Week 24

Tuesday

Tonight we worked on Act Three, scene five, in which Richard and Buckingham manipulate the Lord Mayor into trying to persuade the citizens to hear out the reasons why the princes are illegitimate. A minute or so into the scene, a couple of minor characters enter with Hastings’ head (Richard framed and had him executed in the previous scene).

Initially, the scene felt awkward and wooden, so we worked together to fix it. First off, based on how everyone was standing on stage, it would have been impossible for the Lord Mayor to see the head in a bag (we clearly don’t have the budget to replicate our Hastings’ head, nor do we think the prison would allow us to use a severed head…). We revisited what the scene is about – Richard and Buckingham pushing the Lord Mayor into doing this thing and using the head as part of that manipulation. What we arrived at was having them literally manhandle the Lord Mayor around the stage, getting him very close to the head. And then, in a burst of creativity, our Richard took the bag from the messenger and started gesticulating wildly with it, repeatedly putting it in the Lord Mayor’s face. It was hysterically funny, especially because our Lord Mayor stayed almost completely in character as she reacted to it. We might want to pull it back at some point, but for now we absolutely love it.

We then moved on to the Scrivener’s speech, in which he talks about how, while he was in the midst of transcribing Hastings’ indictment, Hastings was already executed. He questions how people could not see through Richard’s machinations; and, if they did see through it, what it would take for them to speak out. Our Scrivener at first didn’t understand some of the language; I explained it to her, and she said, “Oh, okay. So this is exactly the way I feel about politics right now.”

I asked the group why this speech is in the play. We talked about what a scary situation this must be for the “little people,” who would be able to observe events without being able to directly affect them, and who might be drafted into war against their wills. We decided that the main thrust of the speech is to try to get someone to speak up. The second time our Scrivener delivered the speech, all of her intentions were crystal clear. It hit home for many of us.


Friday

 

Before we began tonight, one of our ensemble members pulled me aside to speak to me about her good friend in the group. This friend is extremely nervous about getting up on stage. She also has OCD and is terrified of being touched. I reminded the ensemble member that, first of all, nobody has to do anything that she doesn’t want to do, and that, given the characters she’s playing, there is no need for physical contact. I encouraged her to ask her friend to talk to me herself. But I also suggested that we push her friend just a bit – that we ask her to at least try getting up on stage before she decides that she can’t do it. “Now’s the time,” I said. “We’re still a ways away from performing, so there’s no pressure and no audience.” She said, “That’s exactly what I told her!” We’ll see how it goes.

I had one-on-one conversations with a couple of other ensemble members as well. One is nearing her release date and is very concerned about what’s going to happen when she goes home. Her relationship with her family is complicated, and she has big goals for herself that will be challenging to achieve. I listened attentively and encouraged her not to put too much pressure on herself – that she is certainly going to have challenges, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she will fail. Another ensemble member simply wanted me to know that this is a rough time of year for her, and that’s why she’s been a bit reticent lately. I thanked her for continuing to show up when she’s having such a hard time.

Some ensemble members requested that we do our Six Directions exercise, and this time I challenged the people participating to do it without speaking. We stayed perfectly in sync.

We chose to work on Act Three, scene seven, in which Buckingham and Richard continue their manipulation to make Richard king. A running theme in the play is Richard’s religious hypocrisy, and nowhere is it more evident than in this scene. Our Richard took this to heart, repeatedly dropping to her knees and praying, laying it on thick as she resisted Buckingham’s pleas to take the crown. It was hilarious. She really understands the humor in this role (which is often missed), and she is so much fun to watch.

The other thing that was really remarkable was when we asked who would play the aldermen (who don’t speak) in this scene. The woman who, months ago, told us that her anxiety might prevent her from getting on stage at all, volunteered to play one of the roles. No one had pushed her (we all agreed not to when she originally expressed the concern) – she just decided to do this of her own accord. These kinds of moments are my favorite part of this program – when someone who initially thought she couldn’t do something decides to give it a go. It shows so much growth and courage.

Session Six: Week 23

Tuesday

Written by Matt

A rainstorm seemed to keep turnout tonight a little low, but the women who came were ready to work. A short check-in led into some physical warm-up exercises, and one woman reflected that she has used a particularly meditative warm-up (a Michael Chekhov-inspired movement of energy in six direction) to calm herself when faced with a potentially explosive situation in the prison gym.

From the warmup, we dove straight into the text, focusing on Act II, Scene 2, which we had started to explore on Friday. In the scene, Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess (Richard’s mother), mourn the death of the ailing King Edward. Richard barges into the scene with his usual lack of subtlety and disrupts the mourning while ostensibly commiserating with the women. The scene is our introduction to the Duchess, and is an important scene in establishing Richard’s family background, all through subtext.

After stumbling through a couple of times, we began to work on refining the blocking—using the characters’ movements and body language to convey the core of the scene. Richard dove into this project with gusto, skulking in as the women wept and approaching Queen Elizabeth with a cartoonish expression of grief. After a few lines to Elizabeth, Richard pushed her aside with a dismissive backhand that had everyone in the audience laughing out loud; it perfectly encapsulated Richard’s sociopathy. Richard spoke afterwards about wanting to keep that gesture without losing its spontaneity.

When we determined that this scene is, in fact, the first time that we meet the Duchess, the woman playing her reflected that she wanted to convey how “sick she is of Richard.” A few other suggestions came from the group of ways to approach the Duchess’s role. Is her benediction to Richard perhaps a last-ditch effort to save him? Or it could be that she simply feels cornered and utters the words without clear intent—in which case the meaning of the interaction would need to come through entirely with body language. We resolved to try the scene several times until some way of performing it felt right.
We then turned our attention to Richard’s motivation; it turns out that his entire purpose in talking to Queen Elizabeth is to get her to reduce the number of bodyguards who will accompany the heir to the throne (a child) to the palace. Richard intends to kidnap the heir (which he later succeeds in), so the size of the royal entourage is important to him. We discussed how Richard needs to approach the task of convincing his superiors that a small group is safest, and we came back again to subtext and body language—a theme for the night.

We spent the remainder of our session discussing props and costumes, as we will need to come up with a full list soon. We went to take stock of our inventory of set pieces and flats, which are held backstage, and we started to brainstorm ideas for working within the prison’s restrictions on costuming. There are colors to avoid, types of garment that cannot be worn, and broad prohibitions on anything “military.” All of this, we decided, can be worked around in some way.

Friday

Written by Frannie

Tonight as we gathered, a couple of longtime ensemble members privately expressed frustration to me with another longtime ensemble member whose attendance has been spotty lately. One of these women actually confronted the her, asking her bluntly why she hasn’t been showing up and reminding her that we chose our play largely because of her input.

When that ensemble member arrived, she sat next to me. I quietly asked her whether or not she is still in the group. “I’m half in,” she replied. I said, “We need you either all the way in or all the way out. Halfway isn’t going to work.” She said she would think about it.

We worked on Act III, scene iii, in which Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan are led to their deaths. We discussed the relationships in this scene and the feelings of anger and injustice that these men have relative to their impending executions. Our Ratcliffe also inspired us with her utter lack of caring for the men – she was stone-faced, impassive, with monotone responses to their pleas. It was exciting and chilling.

We then moved to Act III, scene iv, in which several lords debate on when the coronation of the prince should take place, and Richard suddenly accuses Hastings of treason and orders his execution. This scene is pretty straightforward, and the ensemble managed it well, with Richard getting right up in Hastings’ face, being incredibly intimidating even though she is physically smaller than the woman playing Hastings, and then storming out. Our Hastings hesitated before her “Woe, woe for England…” speech, and we encouraged her to really dive in and not judge herself. She did, and it was very moving. She sometimes has a hard time approaching the material seriously – she gets self-conscious and reacts by laughing a lot – but when she buckles down, she can be very powerful.

I chatted with the ensemble member who’s been absent a lot again before she left. She said that she’s been working quite a bit and focusing on her writing, but that every time she makes up her mind to leave the ensemble, she can’t quite do it. I encouraged her to make the best decision for herself, but to do it soon because her absences are hurting our process. She assured me that she would make the decision within the next week.

 

Session Six: Week 22

Tuesday

Written by Frannie

Before we began tonight, one of our ensemble members came to me for a private conversation. She feels like she’s been wasting the ensemble’s time because she hasn’t been participating very much. She has been focused on introspection and learning about herself recently, having been reunited with a family member with whom she hasn’t had much contact in years. She loves Shakespeare and doesn’t really want to leave the group, but she is concerned that she’s getting in the way. I reassured her that she isn’t in the way at all – that there have been participants in the past who have literally sat in the back of the auditorium doing crossword puzzles, and that that was a problem, but that her being more quiet and reflective has not been brought to my attention by anyone as troublesome. I promised to tell her if it gets to be a problem and reminded her that everyone is in the group for different reasons, to accomplish different things. It’s okay if she hangs back for a while.

I also had a one-on-one conversation with another ensemble member who is concerned that much of her part was cut from the script. She was wondering if she could add anything back in. I reminded her that all cuts have been made in the interest of streamlining the play – we need to perform it in 90 minutes or less – and that if she’s going to add anything back in, it needs to be brief, and she needs to be able to make a case for why we need it. I also reassured her that these cuts were not personal – that they were made in the best interests of the team. I encouraged her to find some other small roles to fill, and also to volunteer to fill in when people are absent. This will make it easier, if someone leaves the group, for her to jump in and replace that person in a larger role. I encouraged her to be the first to volunteer in that instance. She seemed to be relieved by our conversation.

We worked on a scene between Richard and Buckingham, making cuts as we went. We got a little distracted talking about other Shakespeare plays, but this was fruitful in that we do need to explore our options for next season. There was also some confusion about the play’s timeline, which led to a brief discussion about making fiction out of the history and how the two don’t always match up.

 

Friday

Written by Kyle

I began Friday night having a longer conversation with one of our newer members who has spent the majority of her child’s life incarcerated.  It was incredibly frank for such a spur of the moment conversation.  She said that motherhood has been a double edged sword; on one hand going to prison changed her life and she has been clean ever since, but on the other hand she worries what toll her incarceration has in her child’s life.  It is a constant ray of sunshine that also seems to cast shadow of pain at the same time.  This is my third season, and, especially once we begin rehearsals, it can be tempting to forget that this isn’t an ordinary theatre troupe; we get working on the production, we laugh, have inside jokes, and sometimes it can seem so commonplace to my experience working in theatre. Tonight I was really reminded just what is happening not too far below the surface of any given rehearsal.

After check in and warmups, we started to work on Act 1 Scene 4, in which Edwards learns of his brother Clarence’s death.  It’s a difficult scene because there are lots of people on stage who have compelling backstories and conflict, but that are secondary to the central conflict of Edward learning of the death.  It made for difficult staging, which tends to be the ensemble’s weakest link anyway.  There was a lot of discussion as to just how sick Edward needs to be; if she is too sick to stand, how can we put the needed movement in the scene to make it move along?  If not, what other kinds of sickness can King Edward display that makes her condition clear?  It was getting disproportionately heated for such a seemingly small matter, and some people felt like their suggestions were not being heeded; we had to stress that it is ultimately up to the actor playing King Edward to make the final decision, and we moved on to the next scene.  The actor playing Richard was having somewhat of a difficult night - there was definitely something off, and she seemed a little short tempered.  I pulled her aside and asked if something was wrong. I think she may have apologized twenty times.  She was having issues with a family member and didn’t realize she was being as short as she was. It was really positive, and I’m glad I talked to her about it. We only had a little bit of time to work on Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess's scene, in which they learn of King Edward's death, but I had a pet idea for staging that the ensemble was kind enough to humor me and try.  It’s always a delicate balance trying to be an ensemble member myself and a facilitator.  I want to have ideas, but I want to facilitate their ideas as well; unfortunately tonight, the former won out.  We didn’t finish the scene, but I was glad we worked right up to 8:30.