Season Eight: Week 29


“You can’t steal my Shakespeare sunshine!”

Tuesday / March 26 / 2019
Written by Coffey

Our session tonight began with a little dramaturgy. One of the women shared with the group the story of the Globe Theatre, one of the crazier Shakespearean anecdotes which goes something like this: When Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company primarily did their work in a theater called simply “The Theater” in central London. The Theater was owned by some of the actors in the company, but the land the theater was on was only rented, and in around 1598 the lease was up. The landlord tried to lay claim to the building in addition to the land, but the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would not have that. Shakespeare and his fellow actors, dressed as soldiers, dismantled the entire theater, brick by brick, and moved it to a new piece of land. This retelling doesn’t have a modicum of the energy and color this woman’s retelling had. Her excitement and amusement were infectious.

Our Maria shared that she was getting ready to be off-book. “I need to get rid of the safety net, “ she said, “Because if it’s there I need to look.” Our Captain shared with the group that she is considering making her character female. “I just think we haven’t done it yet...and I want the outfit to be super cute.”

“Does the gender of the character matter?” Frannie asked. “I don’t think it does,” the woman replied. The group discussed the pros and cons of playing a man and whether changing the character’s gender would have any bearing on the play itself. Ultimately, the Captain decided on being female. “Alright. I’ll just do it.”

We spent most of the night working on Act IV, scene ii. Our new Feste was working through the scene for the first time, and the rest of the team really rose up to help her. Maria stayed with Feste, helping her mark her blocking and entrances. At one point during a run of the scene, Feste was upstaging herself. One woman, without saying a word or disrupting the scene at all, walked onto the stage and gently turned Feste towards the audience. The scene continued without missing a beat. When it came time for Feste to be both Feste and Sir Topas, the women helped her figure out ways to change her voice or her position on stage to make a distinction between the two characters. Feste grew more and more confident as the rehearsal went on and starting bringing her own ideas to the stage. With the space to explore and the support of her colleagues, Feste really started to take shape. It will be exciting to see how the character grows.

At the center (literally) of the scene is the room or cage in which poor Malvolio has been imprisoned by Sir Toby and Fabian. Staging this has been challenging in past sessions, as we couldn’t land on blocking ideas we were thrilled with. Tonight, however, we had a surge of creativity. Our Malvolio began playing with her positioning in the “prison box” and requested that the box be given a breakaway top. Matt advised her to give Malvolio an objective for the scene and to ask herself how Malvolio plans to escape his prison. With a top on the box and an objective for the scene, Malvolio began to move around the small space more “freely,” searching frantically for a door or crack in the wall. At one point she took off her shoe and started cradling it in her arms. When asked what she was doing, she announced that Malvolio had found a pet mouse in prison. “Like in Shawshank?” exclaimed one woman. “Yeah!” Malvolio replied. “Isn’t that The Green Mile?” asked another woman. “Listen, I know my prison movies,” said another member, “and there is no mouse in Shawshank.”

The addition of a top to the prison box ended up inspiring even more exciting ideas. Our Malvolio, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew collaborated on coming up with a hilarious bit in which Feste leaves the stage whistling “Pop Goes the Weasel”; hearing the song, Malvolio discovers her way out and shoots straight up, blowing the top off of the box with the song’s final “pop” before the curtain quickly closes. The sequence got better every time they ran it and never failed to get laughs from the house.

We ended the rehearsal satisfied with IV.ii, but in agreement that it could still use a megaphone, some extra fake beards on sticks, and some kazoos. The zany creativity is nowhere near over and the collaboration among the women is only getting stronger. Together they are creating one hilarious and smart piece of theatre.

Friday / March 29 / 2019
Written by Matt

Tonight was another divide-and-conquer session, so it was nice that we had all hands on deck! We had all the familiar faces with us tonight--actually, the only facilitator not there was Maria. And a good thing, too; there was lots to do.

The session opened with a major gesture: our Sir Toby had crafted a makeshift “feather-duster” for our Maria as a token of affection. Toby got down on one knee to present the gift, and Maria was ecstatic!

We spent the first part of today’s session talking through our props list, which has gotten a little bit out of control. We needed to know what our ensemble really needed to tell the story, rather than just having some funny ideas. We had some very clear “needs:”

-Inflatable palm trees

-Seaweed boas… AND feather boas!

-Inflatable emoji beach balls

-A life-size cardboard cut-out of Fabio (diligent readers of the blog will be familiar)

-Lots and lots of kazoos

-A cookie (for throwing)

-Lots of other goofy things.

We were willing to give up seagull puppets and toy boats for the first scene because there’s already plenty going on. Somehow, we couldn’t even remember what two of our prop ideas were about: a hot dog with relish (???) and a prosthetic arm (?!?!?!).

Meanwhile, Lauren was helping the women take measurements for their costumes, which is always less drama here than at the men’s prison (take that, patriarchy!).

After props, we split again. Frannie took some folks to the back of the room to make cuts, while the rest of us tried to tackle the first few beats of Act V scene i. It’s a complicated scene, but it starts out simply, with Feste and Fabian. Then, as new characters enter, very few of them leave, and eventually the stage is full of actors. And a life-size cardboard cut-out of Fabio.

Our Feste was out today, so Coffey stepped in as the fool. We don’t love doing this, but it can add a jolt of energy when facilitators fill in, and that’s definitely what happened here! Coffey came in at a run, Fabian trailing behind her, turning the first four lines of the scene into a dynamic, high-energy moment that set the pace for the rest of the actors.

We stumbled through each of the short little beats that begin the scene, adding Orsino, Viola, Antonio, and the zannis to the mix. One by one, we felt our way through each little section of dialogue before moving to the next one or putting them all together. This sort of focus on a thirty-second (or ten-second) piece of the script can be frustrating sometimes, but it allows for a lot of repetitions in a short time, and that allows for a lot of creativity. In particular, our Orsino had fun feeling her way into the scene. When we started, she was wrestling with what the words meant and whom they were addressed to, but within a few minutes, she was totally clear on all of that and free to move dynamically in reaction to the other characters.

Fabian dove into her role, too, working with Coffey’s Feste as a hilarious duo. They chased each other and set each other up for physical comedy. Coffey would look at the “gold coin” deposited in her hand, and Fabian’s eyes would grow big and she would point at the imaginary money. It was great! And in reaction, our Orsino was able to be more frustrated with them, which gave purpose to her performance.

The real stroke of genius, though, came with Antonio’s entrance. We decided to try it with the zanni “officers” walking Antonio down through the house and onto the stage, which resulted in a really nice tableau at the end, using the levels of the stage and leaving half the space open for the next big entrance (well, except for Fabian, who lounged on the fountain set-piece pretending to eat popcorn). The trouble was that the path to that setup hadn’t made a lot of sense. Why was Antonio standing there? Why had the zannis stopped? Why was everyone tripping over everyone else? It was awkward at best.

“How are we going to get Antonio onstage?” I asked, not really having any idea myself.

Instantly, one of the women had an idea. “He makes a break for Orsino, of course!”

“Because he’s not a crook!” shouted another.

“And he sees Orsino, and he needs to beg him to understand his position,” added a third.

One of them jumped up on stage to walk our Antonio through the blocking, which looked even better than it had in my head--it solved all of our logistical and blocking problems while also staying true to the characters and their motivations. In fact, it added tension and urgency to the scene! If Antonio’s lines are delivered after breaking free from his guards and falling prostrate before the man who holds his fate in his hands (instead of just standing between two guards), Antonio’s plight becomes clearer and more intense, and the other actors will have more to work with--how to react? What does their character think of this outburst? It was masterful.

“How did that feel?” I asked after we put it all together.

“You should feel great!” shouted a woman from the audience.

“Oh, man! I can’t believe we’re out of time!” said one member. Indeed, it was 8:15, and we had to hurry! We put up the ring and hustled out after a very productive day.

Season Eight: Week 28


We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

Tuesday / March 19 / 2019
Written by Coffey

We started our session with some good but unusual news. Our Toby and Malvolio painted a closet together during the week and took some time during check-in to marvel at the unusual collaboration. “Malvolio and Toby actually accomplished something today by working together,” Toby said. “It’ll never happen again,” Malvolio laughed.

Another highlight of our check-in was the establishment of the official Shakespeare in Prison Sketchbook. One of the women had the great idea to keep a large sketchbook with our supplies as a place where we could draw out costume ideas, set designs, or any moments or ideas we’d want to draw. The role of SIP Sketchbook Keeper was bestowed upon one of our resident artists, who immediately (and in less than fifteen minutes) graced the first blank page with a beautiful drawing of another woman’s smiling face. A great way to start what we hope will be a long tradition.

In our rehearsal, we tackled the longest scene in the play, Act III, scene iv. Matt read in for Sir Toby, as our Toby had to step out for most of the rehearsal. The other actors on stage looked around for makeshift props, with Sir Andrew opting for a drum stick “sword.” Viola, unable to find a drum stick for herself, rolled up her script. “Wait, but you need a sword!” Sir Toby said. “Um, have you ever had a papercut?” Viola replied.

Weapons of minimal destruction in place, we ran the scene. It was pretty shaky, but the women both on and off stage knew exactly what we needed to fix. Their main point of focus was on Antonio and the officers. “I feel like the officers should be stiffened,” one woman said. “Think like, a soldier type.” The women agreed that the scene needed a little bit more energy, volume, and clear, direct movement.

The second run of the scene was much smoother and displayed some genius on the part of our Fabian. While Viola and Antonio had their uncomfortable exchange, Fabian led Sir Andrew and Sir Toby in sneaking behind our fountain set piece and peering around the corner, their faces forming a classic, seven-dwarves-style totem. This elicited a lot of laughter from the house.

Another strong aspect of this run was Antonio’s work. She is typically shy and quiet, but during this run, she planted her feet, and her voice grew louder and stronger. She was clearly getting into the scene and finding her character and voice. The other women noticed. “I was just really shocked because usually you’re so quiet. This is a part for you to shine,” one woman said. Everyone nodded in agreement. “Yeah, I’m starting to like it now,” Antonio replied. “I have to say I love that I can hear everything you’re saying, and I can understand you’re saying, and that’s really important because it’s a really confusing play,” Frannie said. Another woman nodded, quietly adding, “But I’m beginning to understand it now.”

The third run was even more impressive. Our Olivia really brought Cher Horowitz (of the movie Clueless) to the stage. Her performance was more sassy, colorful, and strong than it has ever been. Entrances and exits were timed just right, and comedic bits landed so well that even the actors broke character and laughed. When we finally reached the end of this very long scene, we cheered, and an officer who’d come into the room just at that moment cheered with us.

As we gathered for notes, it was clear that the women had shocked themselves with how good the scene was. “A lot of hard, frustrating work paid off in a big way,” Frannie said. The women made a lot of headway today. Their growing confidence in their own talent and care for the show will make it a beautiful experience come performance-time.

Friday / March 22 / 2019
Written by Matt

“Guess what I found on the bookshelf?” asked one of the women during check-in this evening. She waved a yellow paperback to the ensemble. “Hamlet!” She had read part of the introduction and was making her way through the first scene, she said, and already getting into it. When someone asked whether she was getting a head start on the play for next year, though, she looked confused. “Is this our play for next year?” She had been absent from that conversation, and no one had told her that we’re doing Hamlet next season!

First, though, we need to get through this one! We picked up with Act IV scene i, which, honestly, very few of us remembered at all. Our Feste read a summary beforehand to get us up to speed. Then we stumbled through the scene once to figure out what it needed. Actually, this is one of those scenes where the summary was as long as the scene itself! There’s plenty of mistaken identity humor, but it’s only a minute or two long in all.

The first order of business was to cut the scene down a little. One woman was even up for cutting out entire roles. “Does Fabian need to be there?” she asked. “He doesn’t speak.” Our Fabian laughed and replied, “Yeah, but I’m always kind of just there in the background.” Sir Toby said that a scene like this one would be perfect for Fabian to focus on physical humor: butting in on conversations, for example, or stealing bits of Toby’s costume. So we kept Fabian and cut some lines.

With the scene a little leaner, we ran it twice again and everyone seemed a little bit more comfortable with it. Even our Feste, who threw herself into the role recently and with a lot of anxiety, seemed to find her footing as she got to know the character and situation a little bit better. “Feste is the scarecrow from Wizard of Oz!” said someone. “That’s funny, I feel like that’s Sir Andrew!” said another. “Everyone in this play is the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz!” said a third.

After that scene, we divided up again--at this point in the season, we have to!--with one group going backstage to make cuts with me, and another group staying to work scenes from Act I onstage with Emma and Lauren. Frannie was mostly off to the side having one-on-one conversations, but she joined in when she could. It’s nice to feel like we have the ability to work in several simultaneous groups now--and that we have a group of facilitators ready to jump in like that!

Season Eight: Week 27


Be not afraid of greatness…

Tuesday / March 12 / 2019
Written by Emma

One of this season’s dedicated new members took a seat next to me as the ensemble trickled in. Enthusiastically, she shared with me that she had been noticing Shakespeare everywhere this week—in movies, in books, and even in casual conversation. This was curious, as I too had been seeing reference after reference crop up “in the wild” in recent days. Together we began to ponder the deep cultural impacts of Shakespeare, such that we both in our vastly different day-to-day lives feel the influences of his work regularly. With a smile on her face, this once-shy ensemble member stated that she fully intends to keep building her Shakespeare knowledge once she gets out. Snaps to that!

As check-ins began, it became clear that we were not the only two tuning in to this channel. One woman shared that she too had had a Shakespeare run-in. She is currently enrolled in a creative writing course through Eastern Michigan University. The course syllabus includes a lesson in iambic pentameter, which is to Shakespeare what butter is to Paula Deen. As her instructor explained to the class the rhythmic ins-and-outs of iambic pentameter, she had grown excited. “Like, that’s kind of musical!” she said to us. “And Shakespeare was a really smart dude. And if he was alive today, he would be so cool to sit down with.” She beamed into the circle as us facilitators scrambled to record the quote gold. “He was kind of brilliant! Yeah, I think I fell in love with Shakespeare.”

After raising the ring, we dove back in to the scene work that we have been plugging away at for the past few sessions. This type of work is where the play begins to find its feet and take off. However, it is also a quite tedious and practical process. We picked up where we left off with Act 3 Scene IV—an absolute doozy of a scene that has many moving parts and kinks to work out. The slow-moving process meant that some folks were on stage for long stretches hammering out blocking, while others remained in the audience patiently watching.

Within the first few moments of rehearsing it was clear that the energy was a bit distracted. Both the actors on stage and the ensemble members in the audience seemed detached from the play. A good deal of this could be attributed to situational elements, but even more was simply due to the fact that tapping in to comedic energy is not an easy task. One does not need to dive so deep to access feelings of anger and sadness as to access levity and mirth. It takes a lot of effort to get there outside of prison; inside, it is an absolute feat. Yet the ensemble prevailed. We kept moving, incorporating, blocking, growing.

This exhausting process left one of our senior ensemble members agitated. As we moved through the last minutes of rehearsal, she calmly expressed her irritation. Frannie paused work for a moment to validate that irritation and acknowledge that, indeed, this stage is frustrating. It is repetitive, it is nitty gritty, and it is absolutely necessary. As with all good things, this play will not come easy. With all feelings heard, we picked right back up.

Outside of scene work, other “big picture” things were happening. One of our overarching goals for the day was to get all remaining costume ideas nailed down. Costumes can be a powerful vehicle for projecting individual character personality traits, and as such, we aim to give ensemble members as much creative freedom as possible when deciding what their character is going to be wearing. We fielded the query to those who had not yet selected ideas, including our Orsino. Without hesitation, she said “Tights!” This was clearly not her first time envisioning Orsino’s getup. She went on to outline her desired look of a puffy shirt, elf shoes, and floppy hat with feather (described by Frannie as “Renaissance Man”). The whole ensemble laughed at the mental image of a (literally) puffed up Orsino strutting his stuff.

Picking a costume concept can be easier said than done—especially for folks who aren’t accustomed to flexing that creative muscle. One of our first-season members, who is playing Antonio, wasn’t sure what direction she’d like to take her character. “Whatever you think, Frannie,” she said when asked. “Whatever you think is good!” A little while later, she and I sat together away from the scene work to dive into costume details without any of the group pressure. She expressed to me that she wasn’t sure about her costume because she was still figuring out her character—his motives, his experience, etc.—and simply didn’t feel connected to him yet. In a play as convoluted as Twelfth Night, this is entirely understandable. Even more so considering Antonio’s entire romantic drive never gets adequately addressed and is mostly left up to interpretation. We decided that to land on a costume, we should start at the very beginning. As Rodgers and Hammerstein told us, that is a very good place to start.

She and I brushed up on the basic outline of the play, then honed in on Antonio’s role within that outline. We focused on what the play was about from his perspective—what he sees and what he cares about. After a few minutes of this, she was already visibly warming up to Antonio. When we came back to costumes she had some firmer ideas. “Pinks and purples,” she stated, “and a beret!” By the end of the night, she had outlined an entire costume concept, from flowy shirt to patent-leather shoes—a complete 180 from “whatever you think is good,” and an undeniable win in my mind.

We raised the ring, sending with it the frustration, fatigue, and ultimately triumph of the day.

Friday / March 15 / 2019
Written by Matt

One of our new members had an experience familiar to most people who have done theatre: “So, this may be crazy, but I started dreaming about Shakespeare,” she confessed. Everyone was curious--what were these dreams about? What were they like? Were they sad or happy? Was Shakespeare himself in them, or any of the characters? Or were they about SIP meetings?

Turns out they were anxiety dreams about forgetting lines, missing an entrance, or (this has always been my favorite) walking on and realizing that there’s a completely different play happening. The facilitators and a few of the women who have been on stage before nodded along--this woman joined a tradition as old as the theatre: getting nervous about the theatre!

After check-in, we decided to finish the nitpicky table work we started last week. This isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but some ensemble members actually seemed excited to get back to it, especially since energy was fairly low. Frannie took those people to the back of the house to work out cuts.

But what to do with the zannis and people who didn’t want to sit around to talk about cuts? We did the opposite: movement work. Lauren stepped up (with no warning, it should be said!) to lead a group of us on stage in stretches and warm-ups before diving into a high-energy “fashion show,” in which each person strutted their way down a “runway” and showed off their character’s “outfit” while the rest of us oohed and aahed and pretended to take pictures. It was goofy and fun and really good as a way to loosen up and lose some of the self-consciousness that dogs all of us to some extent.

I participated, so my notes aren’t great. Actually, no one’s notes are very good; we were all jumping around or making cuts! But it was a good time, especially when some of the women doing cuts came up to join us on stage.

I’ll close this short entry with one more bit of costume brilliance. Our Curio had been absent during our last costume conversation, so I talked to her quickly about it. What came out was pure gold: “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t really have a vision--” (which is usually the thing people say before describing an amazing vision). “He’s got knee-high boots, greet pants, white shirt. … He’s like Robin Hood! Awwww… he just wants to hunt! And this dude [Orsino] is just a sad sack, and I just want to be, like, ‘Dude, we could go hunting and get us some women and have a good time!’”

No vision, indeed.

Season Eight: Week 26


“Shakespeare is for everyone.”

Tuesday / March 5 / 2019
Written by Matt

Tonight started off with some good news: two of the women had “made a third Shakespeare session!” They were running lines at work. “We have admirers,” one of them said, and shared that a co-worker got so into their performances that she asked them to pause while she left the room, so she wouldn’t miss anything!

Then some mixed news: our Feste admitted that she was feeling overwhelmed and didn’t think she’d be able to continue in that role. This is too bad, but, to be honest, it was as much a relief as a disappointment. We appreciated her honesty, and there’s still time for someone to step into that role without causing panic! A couple of our ensemble members said that they had been talking about it, and they wanted to pick a new Feste as soon as possible. Everyone agreed, and almost instantly a new member raised her hand and said that she still didn’t really have a role, but that she had a lot of trepidation about stepping into such a large part.

“I feel like, if you were willing to take on Orsino,” said one woman, referring to the Orsino-off we had a while back, “you could do Feste.” The previous Feste talked her up, too: “You’d be awesome!” Our putative Feste still looked a little bit scared, but Coffey (who has played Feste) said that she’d sit down with her and talk through the part. Frannie assured her that we could totally cut Feste’s part in half or more, and that was that.

...Or almost that. An ensemble member who for years has struggled with stage fright offered--partly as a way to assure our new Feste--to take on the now-open role of Valentine if the other woman, in fact, took over as Feste.

After lowering the ring, we set to work. Our new Feste went to the back of the auditorium with Coffey to talk. Meanwhile, the rest of us talked through Act III, scene iv, the long and varied scene that we stumbled through hilariously last week. More than anything, it turned out, we needed to cut that scene down to size!

As usual, the cutting process was both tedious and liberating. It is, on the one hand, a piece of drudgery that can be frustrating and painstaking. It’s intellectually challenging, requiring knowledge of the text and the characters, but there isn’t much payoff for most people. A few people (and we’ve had some of them!) really enjoy the act of cutting down the play while maintaining the text’s integrity, but most are just happy when it’s over.

On the other hand, however, it is the ultimate act of “ownership” over the text, and successful cutting of the script demonstrates not only knowledge of the play, but understanding of the workings of Shakespeare’s language. The 90-minute version of the play that we produce each year is truly “ours,” reflecting the priorities and character of that year’s ensemble uniquely--another group would produce a different cut, which would be theirs. If it is one of the central tenets of Shakespeare in Prison that no one “owns” Shakespeare because everyone owns Shakespeare, then there is no clearer demonstration of that principle than cutting the play to shreds--our shreds, shreds that still tell Shakespeare’s story, but in our way.

After cutting the scene down to size, we put the new, shorter version on its feet. It was delightful, as usual, and notes are a little sketchy, but here are some highlights:

  • Malvolio experimented with all sorts of funny entrances to show off the yellow stockings and cross garters.

  • The cross-garters, we determined, are actually fishnet stockings.

  • Because! ….Malvolio is, in fact, the leg-lamp from A Christmas Story.

  • And Malvolio may dance on to the theme of Pepe le Pew. And may actually be Bugs Bunny in drag. It’s not clear.

  • Malvolio can’t (or won’t) get Maria’s name right, which drives Maria CRAZY.

  • Maria compulsively dusts off Olivia’s face.

  • Olivia is, in fact, not “like” Cher from Clueless—she is Cher from Clueless.

  • Sir Andrew rides a stick-horse.

I’ll close with a line from Coffey’s notes. She sat in the back with our new Feste (who is now totally psyched to take on the role!) for most of the session. Her notes end: “I’m sitting back here by myself while [Feste] goes to the bathroom. There is so much joy on everyone’s face.”

Friday / March 8 / 2019
Written by Matt

Our Orsino got the Shakespeare Purple Heart / Art is Suffering prize today. Her bunkie was having her demonstrate Orsino’s over-the-top personality, and, in performing, she overdid it with her hamstring. When she revealed that she wasn’t acting out lines from Shakespeare but rather riffing on them, a veteran member gravely warned, “Oh. So you was making fun of him. And he didn’t like that.” Unfortunately for our Orsino, the ensemble was dead-set on doing her first scene!

Orsino gamely hobbled to the “stage” (we were in a classroom today), followed by the zannis and Curio. I challenged her to make her Orsino as big as usual… without further paining her hamstring! In the small space, the group ran through the scene--it’s the “If music be the food of love” scene, which we’ve done a million times with half a million different Orsinos. The result was a little bit flat.

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m gonna be real,” announced one of the zannis. One of the women in the audience was seized with an idea. “What if we did that exercise--remember?--where the zannis took Orsino’s emotions and made them bigger?” She was referring to something we did months ago as an ensemble, feeding off of Orsino’s energy and reflecting it back (the next step was to do the opposite, and so on), and that seemed like a great idea! She described the exercise more fully, but the zanni who had spoken up at first said, “But we’re having trouble understanding what [Orsino’s] emotion is.”

A-ha! thought another of the women, who coached our Orsino a little bit on making her emotions not just big, but specific. We were ready to roll again, and this woman even got up to urge the zannis on, giving them ideas and encouraging them by turns.

After the second run, another ensemble member pointed to one of the zannis. “I felt like you wanted to go down on the ground and cry,” she observed. “I kinda did…” the zanni replied. “Do it!” said a few people. “Always follow your instinct!” The woman who had suggested the emotion-reflecting exercise this time focused on physical movement, explaining how the three zannis could use different levels (sitting, standing, kneeling, lying down) to vary up their actions and create a more interesting image.

The third run was even better. Our Orsino was getting more comfortable with the text, and the zannis were beginning to hit their stride. Still, a longtime ensemble member noted to one of them, “I can tell you want to do more.” This zanni, who is the shyest of the three, replied, “I do!” “I feel like there’s so much you want to do, and then you don’t.” “Yeah.” The cry came with no hesitation: “Do it!!”

We jumped ahead to Act II, scene ii, so Viola could work her soliloquy. Before she began, Frannie asked her a simple question: “Where are you going, and what are you going to do when you get there?” She thought for a second, then responded, “I’m going to Orsino’s to give him the bad news.”

The run was a little bit flat, but a good start, and Frannie complimented Viola on taking her time with the speech. Also importantly, Viola had thought about cutting the speech down. But, she said, “now that I been through it, I don’t think I need cuts.” We set out to really work on the speech, so we talked about the subtle gradations of emotion in the lines. Frannie explained how this speech is composed of lots of short thoughts, and how each thought needs to surprise the actor for the monologue to work. “It’s like lots of tiny epiphanies,” offered one of the other women, helpfully.

The note worked; in the second run, Viola began naturally to turn her body a bit on each new thought, filling up with words as she silently read each new thought to herself before looking up from her script and making eye contact with a different person in the audience. “Damn, I felt that one!” exclaimed another ensemble member. “She connects with the audience. It’s like she’s talking to me!”

That done, we went back to that old favorite: CUTS!

Since reading a description of making cuts is about as exciting as cutting off your arm with a butter knife, I’ll leave with this: as we were cutting Act I scene v to smithereens, I stepped aside with many of the actors to talk through their ideas for costumes (pending facility approval, of course). What follows are the highlights.

A reminder: our vision for this play is: “A kaleidoscopic, extra cesspool of love.”

  • Maria already has a utility belt of feather-dusters. In addition, she wanted an apron full of cleaning supplies, so she can huffily clean up the others’ messes, like she always does. She also wanted a dress with a “poofy” skirt. (“Did you really just write down ‘poofy’?” she asked. “Yes,” said I. “Oh, god,” she said. I vowed, “And it’s going on the blog.”)

  • Malvolio already has a top hat and a cane. All she wanted in addition was a conservative suit, but one that gets more and more bedraggled and full of holes as Malvolio descends into “madness.” She has yellow stocking with fishnets, of course. And dressy, dressy, dress shoes.

  • The zannis will have, it appears: ballet slippers, clown noses, Hammer pants, and interchangeable hats and glasses for them to steal from each other.

  • Sir Andrew has one clear vision: “I want pink boots.” It came out a few minutes later that she also wanted “an embarrassingly short sword.” She talked about wanting to coordinate “slightly and unintentionally… and in a weird way” with Sir Toby. Which could be easy (cat suspenders?) or very, very difficult, as you shall see:

  • Sir Toby had a LOT of ideas for her costume, probably best expressed as its own list:

    • Suspenders with beer mugs (these Frannie has already located)

    • A two-sizes-too-large button-up shirt to be half tucked in to:

    • Shorts on top of pants with a:

    • Frayed rope belt, like a monk. Or a samurai.

    • A hat. With a feather. But a hat that usually doesn’t have a feather. Or a hat the usually has one kind of feather and this one has the opposite feather. Like a fedora with a peacock plume.

    • Many layers in many different, loud, uncoordinated colors. “The three p’s: polka-dots, plaid, and paisley.”

    • The shoes are not a big deal….

    • She returned a few moments later to tell me she wants “those platform heels with goldfish in them. The dead goldfish, not the living ones.”

  • Fabian may have taken today’s evil genius award. She began by saying that she isn’t very creative and had no ideas for her costume at all and we could do whatever we wanted. Then she said she was “maybe a little unconsciously like Toby. Maybe I get a little more like Toby as the play continues--like, I start plain and in each scene I get something else like Toby has. Or I could maybe steal one of Toby’s layers during each scene, so that I’m wearing them all at the end and Toby’s just got pants and a shirt.”

Something else may have happened after I heard that shattering bit of genius, but I wasn’t aware of it. It was a good evening!

Season Eight: Week 25


If money go before, all ways do lie open.

Tuesday / February 26 / 2019
Written by Frannie

This evening was spent working on Act III scene i, which includes a whole bunch of people but led us ultimately to focus on Olivia and Viola.

During our first try at the scene, those two stood mostly still during their exchange, which is too lengthy to have so little movement—but that’s what rehearsal is for. Afterwards, I asked them how it had felt. “I felt stuck,” Viola replied. “My heart is aching. I didn’t know what to do!” Olivia agreed, and another woman said, “You speak the words really well. You did seem kinda bored, though… It’s a long freaking scene, too. We should make some cuts to it.” Olivia said that would be good, adding that, since we hadn’t worked an Olivia scene for awhile, she “felt boring after a few weeks.”

So, how to build on what they had done? “This is a scene where [Olivia’s] professing her love,” mused one woman. “I feel like she should come busting out [from backstage]!” Another added, “You just really gotta let her know, ‘I love you!’” The group agreed, and, as we talked through some more blocking ideas that centered around Olivia’s energy, a thought occurred to me.

I asked Olivia if she had ever seen Clueless. It was a legit question—she’s roughly the same age as the movie—but she looked at me like I was an idiot. “You know I’ve seen Clueless,” she said. “Yes, of course you have. I’m sorry,” I said. “So, what do you think about kind of channeling Alicia Silverstone in that movie?” I started to elaborate, but she cut me off: “Say no more. I’ve got it.” She returned to backstage left, ready to launch back into the scene from the top.

This idea was definitely a pick-me-up. “It felt a little better,” Olivia said, “‘Cause I had something to relate to.” Another woman agreed, “It felt way more relatable… Less like you were reading out of a book!” The scene had still kind of run out of steam, though. I reminded everyone (this is a common challenge) that if something is happening on stage, that means it’s important, and nothing in our acting can be casual. Another woman suggested incorporating the fountain more, and we gave the scene another whirl. But still, it fell flat, and the actors’ sense of frustration seemed like it might start getting in the way of their work.

Something that’s been different about this season has been that my role in the ensemble—which is always responsive to the group’s needs—has become much more involved in staging the play (though I am definitely not directing). Twelfth Night is challenging in a different way from the others we’ve explored. The action is often buried in the language, and our usual, leaderless, “painfully” collaborative blocking process runs the risk of being disempowering if people become so frustrated they no longer want to engage. So, with the understanding that my ideas shouldn’t get in the way of better ones from other ensemble members, I’ve been very hands-on.

It wasn’t enough simply to ask for more urgency or more movement—those notes were too general and overwhelming—and picking apart the text seemed to be driving the actors a little nuts. So I pulled an acting exercise out of my bag of tricks. “This is kind of a chase scene, right?” I asked. The actors seemed puzzled. Our Olivia was flailing more than Viola, who is an old hand at this, so I gestured to the latter and said, “Okay, you and me. We’re going to do this scene, and our only lines are ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Move as much as you want.” We went back and forth for a minute or so, trying different tactics as we went, and then Viola turned to Olivia and shouted, “NO!” Olivia stood, shouting, “YES!” They kept going for several minutes, moving all around the auditorium, till they mutually found a good place to stop. “That hit it,” Viola said. “So little, but so much!”

We tried the scene again, and it definitely grew. But it still wasn’t what they wanted. “I don’t like being so cruel to her,” Viola said. “It’s not sitting well with me, because I care that I put her in this position. Maybe it’s because I am a woman… I’m more sensitive.” I agreed. “What if it’s not about being cruel, though?” I asked. “You’re right—you’re hurting her. You’re causing her to feel the same pain you do. You saying ‘no’ is taking care of her. It could be, anyway. What do you think?” She nodded and said, “I like it.”

“Olivia reminds me of my daughter when she was little,” one woman said, sharing a story about a time when her daughter had thrown a fit when she wanted to help in the kitchen and was told that she couldn’t. “She just wants it so bad,” said this woman, “and you’re like, ‘Please, no, for the love of god…’” Some others bristled at this, saying that Olivia isn’t childlike. “I don’t really know if Olivia understands the word ‘no’,” said one woman. “It’s Cher [in Clueless] to a tee.”

“I feel like you need to cry,” one woman said to Olivia, who responded, “That’s a big demand!” Actual tears don’t have to be the goal, I agreed, but the stakes being high enough to make Olivia cry makes sense.

To marry those ideas, we tried moving much of the scene out into the house, with the two going up one aisle and then down the other. As we went, we cut a bunch of lines to tighten up the dialogue, which was such a relief to Olivia that I made a mental note to ask her later if maybe that’s what’s been holding her back. As the ensemble has proven time and again, our members are more important than the lines. There’s quite a lot that can be cut if it’ll make her feel more relaxed and confident.

After a little more detail work, we ended with the scene in a good place. Both actors felt more solid, and I didn’t hear any complaints from the rest of the ensemble about spending so much time on just two people. They’re so supportive of each other. Broken record over here, I know, but it really is something else.

Friday / March 1 / 2019
Written by Matt

Everyone was itching to do scene work today. We started with Act III, scene iii, which we only did briefly before, and without one of the women involved. This scene, the second between Antonio and Sebastian, is at once straightforward and subtle, and there are some challenging nuances to it, especially for the women in the scene, who are both shy.

The action is fairly simple: Sebastian is headed to the city that houses both Orsino and Olivia. Antonio is a wanted man and tries unsuccessfully to keep Sebastian from going. In our rough blocking, we have the two walking through the house from the back to the stage, finally reaching the center part of the curtain--the “entrance” to the city.

After stumbling through it once, a group of other women took charge of gently working it into shape. “What’s the story here?” asked one. “Yeah,” asked another, “what are we trying to project?” Our Sebastian, after a moment of silence, laid out the whole thing in detail, narrating the dynamic between Antonio and Sebastian and the main thrust of this scene.

“So, we need some urgency,” remarked one of the women, “but each of you for different reasons.”

“Yeah,” added another, her eye already on cutting the scene down, “what lines do we need?”

We spent ten minutes or so cutting some of the lines to make the scene move more quickly, and that seemed to help the actors out on the second round. When that was done, an ensemble member said, “This scene reminds me of the interplay between Olivia and Viola!” This idea was immediately exciting to a number of people, and Frannie encouraged her to get up and demonstrate. She did, using the “yes/no” format from Tuesday! The demonstration worked, and our Sebastian walked the whole ensemble through the places where the text was pushing her to start or stop in her progression down the aisle.

The third round was even better, but it was still missing a little something. Frannie suggested that two women who really understand the scene work as “shadows” of Sebastian and Antonio, to help them know when to move and stop, when Sebastian should push past Antonio and when Antonio should play defense like a basketball player.

The shadows worked so well that one of the women suggested doing a fourth run, with the actual actors shadowing the shadows! By the end of that, both of the women in the scene seemed happy with the direction their dynamic was taking. I flashed a thumbs-up to our Antonio, who gave me one back.

The next scene is SUPER-long. Except for the fact that the stage is never fully cleared at any point, it could easily be two or three scenes--even four. It has wordplay, physical comedy, situational comedy, and plenty of dramatic irony.

Looking it over, we thought we’d just do the first few pages. Our Malvolio, who was feeling tired today, was trying to figure out what to do in the scene to show off her cross-gartered yellow stockings. All at once, she got an idea and leapt up from her chair. When this woman gets an idea, look out! She went over to our rotating fountain set piece and started testing it for strength and stability. No one was quite sure what would happen, but it was sure to be good.

My first note during the run of the scene is: “OMG [Malvolio] is an evil genius.” As soon as she strode onstage, she projected supreme confidence in her ability to win Olivia. Within a few lines, she had stuck her leg out onto the fountain’s edge (“leggy on the fountain” is my note), placing her hand atop her knee, the better to display the shapliness of her imaginarily stockinged leg.

“Some are born great,” Malvolio began, climbing atop the fountain as she uttered one of the most famous lines in the play. “Some achieve greatness,” she continued, climbing still higher. “And some!” she hollered, feet wide apart on top of the fountain, “have greatness thrust upon ‘em!!”

They were supposed to stop there, but they just kept going. I don’t know if there was any communication about that--I was laughing too hard to pay attention to anything else, and I had thrown my pad of paper in the air anyway, so I wouldn’t have notes about it.

In the end, they ran through the entire half-hour-long scene, with many of the women who were expecting to sit and watch needing to jump in when their part came up (only a few characters are not in this scene). When it was over, everyone was exhilarated. The scene had been messy and rough, but we had gotten through it, and the best moments had been some of the funniest in the whole play--and entirely unplanned. We had never run the scene before with the cast.

Recapping, everyone agreed that we could use some cuts, and we would probably need some of Frannie’s directorial input to make the scene run smoothly, but there was so much good stuff! There wasn’t nearly enough time to run the scene again, but Frannie did get to teach Malvolio how to do a fan-kick after one of our veterans offered some great blocking suggestions that put Malvolio on the fountain next to Olivia. The fan-kick idea was funny, but in the hands of our Malvolio, it was so funny I fell out of my seat. She exaggerated the move so much that it seemed both desperate and inept--just like Malvolio! Every idea she had was pure gold today, and she is so unafraid to go with her instincts, and to take an idea too far… it was pure joy to watch.

As we gathered to leave, she commented, “I got some of that--what do you call it?--Shakespeare Holy Ghost!”