Season Eight: Week 14


This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / December 4
Written by Frannie

Check-in tonight started off kind of silly, with someone sharing her discovery that She’s the Man is an adaptation of Twelfth Night (“Well, I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve really got to check out that Amanda Bynes movie!”). Still in this light-hearted mode, one of the women shared that she’d been asked to write her “Oscar acceptance speech” as an exercise in another group, and what she wrote took her a bit by surprise.

“Frannie,” she said, “you should know you were like 85% of it. More than God!” We all laughed, but she was clear that, though she was joking about me being more important than God, she was serious about the rest of it. “I never realized I could grow as a person,” she said, eyes locked with mine, not letting me off the hook (as she never has). “I never realized that I had a future. I didn’t know that I had a future before, and now I know I do. I owe so much to Shakespeare in Prison. If I was given this much in a few years, how much more could I grow?” She said some other very lovely things as well, none of which I wrote down because I was focused on listening AND somehow keeping it together (the first of which, I did, and the latter of which, I… sort of did). I’ve known this woman for a long time—long enough to have seen this incredible change in her—and, while I will never take credit for the work she’s done, she’s (repeatedly) forced me to take credit for the work I’ve done with her. I told her I didn’t have the words to respond in that moment, so I simply thanked her. And told her she was a jerk for making me cry!

After check-in, we circled up to do some rhythm exercises from Theatre of the Oppressed. We began with a simple rhythm circle: one person at a time jumped into the middle and everyone else copied her movement/vocalization until she “challenged” the next person to lead. This was a lot of fun for all, though it was more comfortable for some than others. “Trying to think of what to do is uncomfortable,” said one woman. Aha—we’d run into overthinking yet again!

But it wasn’t only that. Even those copying the leader had a tough time fully committing. “What made some of these easier than others?” I asked. There were a few factors at play, we agreed. First of all, the catchier, louder rhythms were simpler to catch onto. And, as in the Mirrors exercise, the more dramatic physical motions proved challenging for many of us. That hesitation to commit to big movements is something we need to own as an ensemble so we can both accept the challenge and see what we can do to overcome it.

What it came down to, said one woman, was that the more confident the leader was, the better things worked overall. This was true across the board: one person’s confidence buoyed that of everyone else. That is also something we need to own.

“How come I always forgot my own movements?” said one woman, half-joking. We concluded that there hadn’t been anything “wrong” about what she’d done, she’d just made up such complicated rhythms that she couldn’t remember what they were! “Nobody overcomplicates things the way I do,” said another woman.

So: the vulnerability of making large physical movements is uncomfortable for us, and we overthink/overcomplicate things—but if just one of us is confident, she can bring the rest of us along with her. Awesome. Good to know.

Next, we set out to make a rhythm machine, in which a series of people add complementary rhythms until the Joker (that was me) ups the tempo and then lowers it till the machine stops. The group organically formed a circle, and the combined rhythms became almost hypnotic. I hated to make them stop! Afterward, people started laughing and sharing all at the same time. “Wait, wait, wait!” I shouted above the din. “We want to hear from everyone! How did that feel?”

“Amazing! It was amazing!” said one woman. Another said that she hadn’t intended on joining the circle, but then it looked and sounded so cool that she couldn’t resist. We did a little analysis on why it had worked so well, and then we moved on to make a rhythm machine centered in an emotion. We chose love.

A new member volunteered to start, but we quickly got off-rhythm and had to stop, regroup, and start over with “Love Machine 2.0.” It turned out that people had a wide variety of feelings about love, with some sighing dreamily while others grunted or growled or whined. “People feel differently about love!” one woman joked afterward. We all agreed that that had been enlightening, but the machine itself hadn’t worked all that well. We determined that the main issue had been that people had been so eager to jump in that they hadn’t really listened before doing so, and that had made it nearly impossible for everyone to stay together.

For the final part of the exercise, we made a Malvolio machine! The woman who began stomped her feet and said, “Uh uh uh!”; the next person heaved and whined, another person shushed everyone else, and on and on for several minutes.

This was our favorite and proved far more enlightening than any of us had anticipated. For one thing, we had had an “in” here because we knew the character. It turned out, though, that we got to know Malvolio better through this exercise because we got to see and hear so many interpretations of him (or aspects of him). “I was thinking of Capitano,” said one woman, referencing the character from Commedia dell’Arte. “I was trying to think of what Malvolio wants to be, and ordering people around.” We could have talked for 45 minutes or more and still not gotten from each other what we did through the machine. We concluded that we should do this for every character, and maybe for every scene. At the very least, we’re going to see what happens if we make a machine when we hit a creative wall; we think it’ll be a good, invigorating way of figuring things out.

We decided to put the scene in which Malvolio is tricked by Maria’s letter on its feet. No one wanted to read Malvolio, so I gave it a go. As we moved through the scene, it became apparent that, while it will eventually be very funny, it needs some cuts—and for someone other than me to play Malvolio! Still, there were moments that worked: the box-trees kept following me around, and the group liked when I came into the audience, showed someone the letter, and then improvised chastising them for not being helpful. There were many more ideas for shtick with the box-trees and ways of using the entire stage and the house.

“What is the difference between Malvolio finding this cruel letter, and Viola dressing up as Cesario and Olivia falling in love with her?” pondered one woman. “I feel like the level of deception is the same.” Are the motivations different, though, we asked? She shrugged. “I see both situations the same. Maybe this scene is more emotional.” This led to a brief conversation about how she’s totally right—this is a very cruel trick to play—but the scene is also intended to be funny, and we need to restrain ourselves from telegraphing the extent to which this plot will go, or we’ll ruin the “gut-punch” we want later in the play.

The conversation turned to casting, and we decided to take one more night to explore the play—choosing very short pieces of scenes and letting people play as many characters as possible—before sticking to our plan of casting next Tuesday. I cautioned everyone to be honest with themselves and others about what’s realistic in terms of casting: whose workload is too heavy for a lot of lines? who has to be absent often enough that it’ll interfere with rehearsal? who may just not be ready for a “big” role? “Some are born great,” I said, “Some achieve greatness… and some ensemble members have greatness thrust upon them and freak out and leave the group!”

One woman let us know that she’d had a talk with her boss to let them know she’d be with us each Tuesday and Friday. She had warned us last week that this job might interfere with her participation, and I asked her how the conversation had gone. “Fine,” she said. “They just have to accept it, is all, and they know it. This is a part of my life. Just like my religion and brushing my teeth, Shakespeare is a part of my life. This gives me a sense of purpose, and I’m committed.” The others agreed. “Everyone knows not to question me about [Shakespeare] anymore. They used to be like, ‘Oh, you’re going to [sneering] Shakespeare?’ No more of that,” said one woman as the others nodded.

The woman who started the conversation said, “Life before Shakespeare—” she gave a thumbs down and a “downward” sound with her voice. Another woman gasped in mock indignation and said, “[NAME], that’s cruel. Who wants to think about life before Shakespeare?” A woman in her third season said, “I literally can’t think of what I used to do on Tuesdays and Fridays.”

The woman who’d been “indignant” put her hand on her heart, saying, “It’s like… my chest is caving in, thinking about it.” The first woman shook her hands as if getting something gross off of them and said, “I just try not to think about it.”

Friday / December 7
Written by Matt

Tonight, the energy in the room was really positive from the beginning. Three of the women shared that the Prison Creative Arts Project selected their work for its annual show. This always gives a great boost, and it was awesome to have so many this year!

We took that energy and put it right into our work. As we decided on Tuesday, we tried out short (30 seconds to a minute) bits of scenes, which allowed lots of people to read for lots of characters. Alas, Frannie and I couldn’t pick them out beforehand--we stopped bringing our copies of Twelfth Night with us when we realized that we could just use the ones that sit in our box of resources at the prison! There was some chaos as Frannie and Maria (who is a bona fide stage manager!) picked out representative moments from scenes and everyone else tried to figure out which characters they might be interested in. Frannie and I had made up a rough, preliminary list of which women were interested in or might be good in each role. We read it aloud, but few of them spoke up to change anything about it. To make matters worse, the little scenes, or “sides,” naturally fell on different pages in our two editions of the play--and often on different lines. Maria, who is quite literally a pro, scrambled to cross-reference, but we spent a few minutes trying to figure out what was going in.

When we finally got going, though, the energy we had built at the beginning of the meeting carried through to the performances. The first side was from Act I, scene ii, which will likely open our version of the play, with a veteran playing Viola and a new member playing the captain. Both of them brought some style to their performances, with the first woman being a strong anchor for the second.

Another core ensemble member showed off her dance moves in a hilarious rendition of the end of Act I, scene iii, as Sir Toby goads Sir Andrew into ever-sillier dances. Her “caper” was a bouncy modern dance, her “back-trick” morphed into the robot. The cinquepace (or “sink-apace”) saw her trying and failing to breakdance on the floor, then she flopped around in a valiant effort to do the worm when commanded to perform a “galliard.” This was all impressively committed (what with the salt and general winter muck, the floor was not exactly pristine), and the two women challenged each other to take the energy higher during the scene. Two other women stepped up to try the same scene, and they brought a totally different energy to it. Sir Toby was somehow both lethargic and impish, instructing Sir Andrew to do various dances with a wink. This Sir Andrew did not throw herself on the floor, but she capered ably--so ably that Sir Toby broke character. After a too-lengthy pause, she pointed at the dancing woman’s feet and said, “Oh! I was… distracted.” As she left the stage, though, she said of Sir Toby, “He’s my alter ego. He’s my… spirit animal!”

The next side, which came from Act I, scene v, showcased a totally different cast of women. In the moments we played, the fool, Feste, is trying and failing to best Maria at wordplay. The first pair had had their sights set on those characters for a long time. The woman who read for Feste brings huge vivacity to the role, where the woman who read for Maria had nearly opposite energy: sharp, precise, and impatient. The scene was great, and part of what made it so exciting was the performance of Maria. She has mostly hung back so far this season, which is her first. She has read aloud and even jumped into reading some scenes, but not with the same sense of purpose and self-direction with which she strode up to the stage to play Maria. Paired with a woman whose Feste is boisterous and bold, she was able to root her feet to their place on the floor and give the lines an edge that was true to the character and totally her.

Afterwards, the woman playing Feste complimented her scene partner and said that she liked the way she had played Maria. She liked it so much she wanted to switch roles and try it that way. They agreed, and leapt right into the same lines with the roles reversed. It was clear by the end why they had chosen their first characters, but the former Feste played a feisty Maria, and the former Maria--despite her usual reticence--gamely leapt into the role of the fool.

Perhaps emboldened by that performance, two new members jumped in to read it again. The scene changed completely in their hands. The Feste was less performative, more intent on making jokes, and the Maria was more actively annoyed, almost angry, and moved quite a bit more than the first woman to read that role. After they were done, they had cracked each other up so much that they also decided to switch roles, which gave yet another twist on the scene. Both of these women, though they are brand-new to the group (they started partway into this season) have a great feel for the language of Shakespeare, flowing naturally with its rhythms, which is fun to watch. When they were done, a longtime member praised the performances and very gently reminded them to keep their bodies opened to the audience “so we can see and hear you.”

We read another moment from Act I, scene v and a very short bit from Act II, scene i (“Wait! I feel like I got cheated!” exclaimed one woman after finishing). Highlights were another command performance by our new member who is interested in Olivia, a brilliant, over-the-top gesture of going down on one knee with arms extended by a woman reading for Antonio, and general hilarity by both Malvolios in our final scene of the night, from Act II, scene v.

We were having so much fun that everyone (including me!) forgot to look at the time until we only had a few minutes left to gather our things, put up the ring, and scurry out of the room.

Season Eight: Week 13

SIP Photo.jpg

This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / November 27
Written by Frannie

After a rousing game of Twizzle, we grabbed our books and continued our walk-through with Act II, scene i, in which we meet Sebastian and Antonio. The first two women to read struggled a bit through the scene—one is very new to the work, and the other had had an upsetting day—but we still gleaned something from their work! The woman who read Sebastian asked if it had been okay that she’d started yelling a bit. “He’s angry, right?” she said. “Just distressed, I think,” replied another woman. The first woman read over her book, a little puzzled. “There were shouting moments to me,” she said. “I just got this feeling like he had a lot of harshness in his words… He’s venting. He’s definitely venting.” We agreed that the language is blunt, and the feeling of anger—or at least frustration—wasn’t off the mark.

The woman who read Antonio shrugged and said, “I didn’t really put much into it. Sorry.” I thanked her for reading anyway—it gave us something to build on—and I asked the others if they’d learned anything new. One woman mused, “Antonio reminds me of a girl who’s getting broke up with, and grabs onto the guy’s leg and won’t let him leave. ‘Please don’t leave me!’” That struck a chord with all of us, and we asked her to read the part, with another particularly hammy ensemble member reading Sebastian.

It was so, so funny—and so sweet. Antonio followed Sebastian (who was oblivious) around like a puppy, sighing, wiping tears, and eventually reaching out as Sebastian exited, only to pull her hand in toward herself when the gesture proved futile. As we all laughed and applauded, I said, “So, wait… I can’t remember. Did you say you’ve done this kind of thing before? Like, theatre, but not Shakespeare?” She shrugged and said, “No, I’ve never done anything remotely like this before.” Many of us shook our heads in disbelief. “I will tell you what,” I said, “You’ve got great instincts. I mean, we all have great instincts because we’re all humans, but you’ve really got a flair for the dramatic! Don’t ever doubt that you’re good at this—because you’re really good at it!” She beamed and immediately volunteered to read Malvolio in the next scene.

We breezed through that one and into the next. Act II, scene iii, is fairly long and complicated, with late-night partying, drinking, singing, dancing, whining, Malvolio as the ultimate wet blanket, and the beginnings of Maria’s plot against him.

The scene got off to a very frothy start, with light-hearted banter between Sirs Toby and Andrew, followed by the entrance of Feste and their entreating her to sing for them. Upon agreeing to do so, Feste suddenly pulled a maraca out from under her sweatshirt, using it as both an instrument and microphone. The rest of us cracked up to the point that I lost track of where we were in the scene. At that point, Matt entered through one of the doors as Maria, unconsciously delivering the line, “What a caterwauling!” in a way that brought to mind Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (“What a dump!”). When a very petite Malvolio entered, yelling shrilly and stomping her feet, Sir Andrew fell to the floor laughing, where she remained for at least a solid minute until Feste and Sir Toby helped her up. When those three started singing toward the end of the scene, I suddenly had a vision of something that this Feste had mentioned during check-in—a “girl group” she had led as a teenager (they got hung up on when they called an agent). I could barely contain myself, it was so serendipitous and funny, and I scribbled it down on my notepad even as I whispered to another ensemble member.

The debrief after this scene was just delightful, with all of us sharing feedback and a number of great ideas that were sparked. I brought up the possibility of cutting Feste’s first song (of three)—we’ve got to do the show in under 90 minutes, and this seemed like low-hanging fruit—and most of the women thought it could go. But one woman resisted. She thought the song was important because Feste uses it to prophecy the play’s events, and that’s a valid point. Another woman, though, said she thought that it was pretty subtle from an audience perspective and it could easily be missed. “It’s like those movies: you watch, then you watch it again, and you’re like, ‘Ohhhhh! Clever!’” We agreed to leave the decision till later, when we’ll have a better idea of whether or not we need the song.

Someone brought up casting. “I get asked at least once a week who I’m going to be,” said one woman. “When you tell them, they still won’t know,” joked a longtime member. We talked through the process a bit and decided to stick with what worked last year: I’ll gather everyone’s role preferences, and we’ll talk it out from there. I mentioned that I really thought this casting process—which we decided would happen in two weeks—would be easy, and several heads nodded as one woman said, “The group right now seems really open.” A longtime member emphatically agreed. “This is one of my favorite years,” she said. “I’m feeling the play. I’m feeling the ensemble.”

“We’re on fire!” said another longtime member. Though the start of the season was rocky, we’ve come to a point where we understand each other better, and we know now that this is an ensemble full of warm, nurturing, compassionate people. And, because of this, the more hesitant members of the group are really starting to come out of their shells. We feel solid as a group now. That’s a really good place to be as we tough out the holiday season, cast the show, and prepare to welcome some new members in January.

Friday / November 30
Written by Matt

Circus Tricks! Today’s first exercise was guaranteed to get a lot of laughter and energy going. To play Circus Tricks, one member of the group introduces another as “the fabulous/amazing/notorious/whatever” and announces that she will “perform an amazing/death-defying/shocking/unbelievable feat of…” and adds something completely ordinary: touching her ear, standing on one foot, or whatever. The person who was introduced then performs that “feat,” making it look as difficult as possible, as the crowd cheers her on. It’s a funny game, but also remarkably good at making people feel good about themselves--there’s something about having fifteen people cheering for you that brings good vibes, even if you’re just tapping your left toe with the sole of your right foot!

The group today dove right into it, performing such awe-inspiring feats as:

  • Bending over and touching toes

  • Turning and looking to the left (a shout from the audience: “Oh my God, I saw her in Beijing!!!”)

  • Patting the top of the head (“Oh, she can’t do that!”)

  • The hokey-pokey (this was Lauren’s feat, and she definitely made it feel like something out of Rocky Horror Show)

  • Flipping hair (This was mine. “I didn’t even see this on YouTube!” hollered one woman)

  • Touching the index finger with the thumb.

  • Picking up a plastic chair (“She crazy! She’ll do anything!”)

  • Doing a jumping jack (“I’ve never seen anything like that before!”)

  • Doing a Twizzle (“I’m--the Twizzler!” When she was done, another woman assured her that she’d get an IcyHot pack ready. For bonus points, check out Twizzle on last week’s blog!)

  • Raising only the middle toe (truly death-defying for most of us, but it is a special talent of the woman indicated)

  • Skipping across the stage

  • Pantomiming a tight-rope walk.

At the end, everyone was laughing as we debriefed. “My energy level is up!” exclaimed one woman. “I love games like this because I know they can hear us out in the hall,” said another, gesturing out the door of the auditorium, “and they all think we’re weird!”

We moved on to Act II, scene iv, and a bunch of enthusiastic new members were up first. This is one of those scenes that have given us trouble. It’s got a lot of complexity to it, and some really difficult work for Viola, who has to keep up her deception to Orsino, while also making clear to the audience that she has fallen in love with him.

It happened that our Viola today was playing a female character for the first time. This sometimes happens because of a preference on the part of the ensemble member, but more often simply by accident (there are far fewer female characters). She brought great energy to her performance, which was met by Feste, who broke into full-voice singing in the middle of the scene! Actually, the melody she invented for the song was really sad, and the juxtaposition was unexpectedly touching.

It took a few moments for our Orsino to find her footing in the text, but by the end of the scene, she was making natural gestures along with the language. She insisted afterwards that she had no idea what she was talking about, but it was amazing to see how clearly the language worked through her anyway. She tried to apologize, but none of the women would let her finish. Our longest-serving member told her not to worry about, that it takes time, and it will happen faster than she thinks. Another, who is new, said that she doesn’t know what she’s saying half of the time, but she usually gets it if she sticks with it.

Viola asked about her line, “I am all the daughters of my father’s house.” What was it really about? Wouldn’t Orsino understand that she was a woman from that line? A veteran member nodded, saying that Orsino may be too oblivious to understand the import of the words, but “This is where the audience is gonna know.” Another woman chimed in: “Yeah! This is where she’s slipping.” Then she continued, “But she’s got to act the male role, too.”

Viola chimed in again to suggest that the stage had been too empty, that Orsino needed more distractions around. “The more there is going on around Orsino, the clearer it will be that Viola is focused on him,” she said, to general agreement.

Frannie suggested reading the final moments between Orsino and Viola “straight”--not going for laughs at all. The new Viola and Frannie, as Orsino, fed off the pathos of the scene while sitting on the steps downstage. The approach worked, sparking a conversation about the emotional core of the play and the characters.

The previous Orsino said, impressed, “I totally read it as nonchalant, and you read it as--like, actually consoling each other.” Frannie nodded. “That’s why we experiment,” she said. “Follow the language.”

“I like that part as quiet,” said one of the women. “After everybody leaves, the stage gets so much smaller.” A veteran member who had been quietly observing and taking notes, chimed in, “I feel like the way we could play this is: she’s a woman underneath, and maybe she sits a certain way, then has to check herself. And she’s saying all these deep words, but she can’t go all in.”

As usual, she hit the nail on the head, and others started having ideas that sprung from that one. “The irony, too!” exclaimed one woman. “What if she doesn’t love you? You have to accept it--because I have to accept it, too.” She noted that the next scene is completely slapstick and hilarious. “Yeah,” agreed another woman. “The whole play does that back and forth.”

Frannie mentioned that she had found a place of empathy for Orsino. Other than being played for laughs, she asked, what actually separates him from Hamlet, or Romeo? Always willing to pick a bone, a longtime member shot back, “Well, I haven’t read Hamlet, so I can’t argue with you. But stay tuned!” Back to Orsino: “He romanticizes romance,” suggested a new member. The first woman agreed, saying, “He’s vulnerable. He’s vulnerable.”

Another woman took us in a slightly different direction, musing, “I feel like [Malvolio] is desperate, too. Desperate for money and power, not for love… Everybody knows this guy. He works 90 hours a week. He bags his lunches. He never buys a new car because he wants to save on the payments and insurance. But it’s never clear what he saving for.” She talked a bit about the scene in which Malvolio is locked in a dark room. “I totally empathize with Malvolio. I’ve been there: ‘I’m not crazy. These things happened to me! I am not crazy!’” A lot of the ensemble members nodded along. “Yeah, I get that,” chimed in another woman. “I laugh when I tell stories about by childhood, and people always wondering, ‘Why you laughing? That’s horrible.’ But I guess that’s how I deal with them.”

A woman who had mostly watched quietly piped up: “Orsino feels like he can get anything he wants… He says no woman could ever feel like him. He’s entitled.”

Another woman offered another interpretation. “What if what he’s saying is, ‘No heart is big enough to love me?”

Season Eight: Week 12

Tuesday / November 20
Written by Frannie

A couple of ensemble members shared some great stuff during check-in tonight! One woman was involved in the groundbreaking for the new Vocational Village, which is very exciting, and we were glad to have her perspective on the event. Then she said, “And then the governor spoke… and guess which program he mentioned by name?”

“No way,” I said, and the others started to smile. Beaming, she continued, “Yep. ‘This facility has many great programs, including the wonderful Shakespeare program.’” As regular readers of this blog know, I tend to get a little loopy when something exciting happens, and this generally involves throwing whatever I’m holding on the floor. That is what happened in this moment, as I yelled, “SHUT UP!” She laughed and nodded. There may have been further shouting and pacing… and maybe a little dancing… on my part before we could move on.

Rest assured, I was far from the only one who was excited. We’ve all worked really hard over the years to make our program a trusted, valuable asset to WHV and MDOC—most ensemble members have been fiercely protective of it and have worked side-by-side with me to make the program run as best we can—and this endorsement, while casual, from the top-ranking official in our state is astonishing. It validates all that hard work and growth, and it makes visible to those outside this “world” that an arts program can be one that stands out in a prison community of more than 2,000 people.

Once I’d settled down, we moved on. One ensemble member happily shared that she’s been communicating with her mother every day, which is a very new thing in their relationship. “I’m getting to know her, and it’s making me a better person,” she said. She’s been communicating with other people in her life whom she feels need to move on from the past, as she’s working on doing. “I don’t feel sorry for people no more,” she said. “I believe life is what you make of it. And I’m sick of talking about it… Step outside your comfort zone and get out of the ‘poor me’ mentality.”

“I got a lot out of [Mirrors],” said one woman, “but I really want to do Shakespeare tonight.” We all agreed and moved on with our plan to run 1.2 straight into 1.1, and then 1.3, to make sure we liked that flow on its feet as well as we had in our heads last week.

The woman reading Orsino got a little tripped up on the language as she entered for 1.1 and said we needed to start over. One of the women asked if the sailors and musicians could be played by the same people, who wouldn’t leave the stage between scenes. I agreed that that was a really funny idea and asked if we could see what happened if they left the stage only for a moment before realizing they shouldn’t have exited. Our first go at that was pretty funny, and Orsino’s reading was much stronger, but she still got stuck a few beats in and asked if we could reset again.

Since we’d gotten a bit further into the scene, those of us who were watching had started to get some ideas of more possibilities. We’d really loved a couple of moments when the musicians’ movements either mirrored or followed Orsino’s, and we asked them to play that up a bit more. In our third go at the scene, the musicians refused to stop playing and followed very close behind Orsino; at one point, they formed what looked like a caterpillar and made us all burst out laughing. At the same time, the woman reading Curio declined to have any sense of humor, finally wedging herself physically between the musicians and her boss. This led to very dry (and hilarious) delivery of her line, “Will you go hunt, my lord?”. The musician closest to her then began to play her “violin” right in her face. When the scene ended, we erupted in applause, continuing to laugh and shout out feedback with a ton of enthusiasm.

And we really liked staging the scenes in this order. “It works better because then you understand what Orsino’s going through,” said one woman, “because if you go 1.1 to 1.2, he just looks like a raving lunatic.” “He is!” responded another woman to more peals of laughter. There was unanimous agreement on this count as well as others: the plot points are clearer, it’ll be easier logistically, and we think the energy will feel better overall.

One of the women shared her idea of using cloth backdrops. The men’s ensemble has done that, though at WHV we’ve only ever used flats—which led to some sadness about the idea of painting over the gorgeous Macbeth flats… which led to the hilarious idea of having one of those flats make a surprise appearance in this show! And perhaps Lady Macbeth somehow ends up on stage when Malvolio gets his letter. Let’s just say that there have been so many ridiculous ideas for Macbeth tie-ins that I’m not sure we can—or should—avoid them at this point!

We put Act I, scene iii, on its feet, with two pretty new members reading Maria and Sir Toby. I hadn’t seen where Sir Andrew had gone, and it struck me that she might be hiding in the lectern that lives on stage. She wasn’t—moments later she came stumbling in and fell flat on her face (on purpose)—but the idea launched me backstage to sort of inventory what else we could potentially use in performance. There was quite a bit that had potential… We’ll see what ends up coming in handy!

While I was back there, Sir Andrew sneezed on the line, “Bless you, fair shrew!” and ended the scene by doing the robot, both of which caused the rest of the ensemble to completely lose it. When the scene ended, one woman said, “If she’d’ve done a cartwheel, it would have been over for us!” As we talked through some great ideas people had, someone remarked that things seemed to be popping up pretty organically. As a longtime member scribbled down these ideas in the designated notebook, she quietly said, “It’s not that hard of a play.” Hearing that, I immediately said, “Louder!” She put down her pen, rolled her eyes, shouted, “It’s not that hard of a play!” and sank back into her chair, grinning and continuing to write.

We ended the session with “This Bottle is Not a Bottle,” a Theatre of the Oppressed game. In the variation I chose, the group stands in a circle. The first person holds up an object—we used a pen—and says, “This pen is not a pen. It’s a _____,” and then they pass the object to the next person, who has to briefly interact with the object as if it is what was suggested. This repeats till every person has had a turn.

Our pen became…

A mustache

A top hat

A sword

A microphone

A balloon

A rock

An angry cobra

Cinderella’s slipper

A cane

A snorkel

A fish

A mini anti-gravity machine

Tap shoes

Although most ensemble members were a bit timid (which is not a bad thing), we all had a lot of fun. Just as the Mirrors exercise felt more comfortable than comedic improv, so did this one. “You couldn’t really think about it. You just had to do it,” said one woman. Another agreed, adding that it required us to be compassionate. “I don’t know,” said a quiet member, smiling at the woman who’d handed the pen to her. “You gave me a microphone.”

For round two, we used a notepad. It became…

A frisbee

A hockey puck

A hair comb

A tray of hot cookies

A mirror

A steering wheel

A kangaroo

A black hole

A machine to blow bubbles in space

A kitty

An envelope full of marbles

Your 15-year-old’s diary

A magic carpet

We definitely loosened up more in this round! The woman who was given a kangaroo took a pretty wild ride, that 15-year-old’s diary was quite shocking, and when I was given a kitty, I took it right to a longtime member with a professed horror of cats, causing her to hide behind someone else as we all cracked up.

“We definitely got more creative that time,” said one woman. I asked why she thought that was. “The objects were more active!” another piped up. The consensus was that this game is a winner—so much so that we’re going to make it a regular warm up! It really is a great exercise for this particular ensemble: a gentle warm up for our brains and bodies, in a circle, with no pressure.

As we left, a newer member paused to chat with Matt and Emma. “You know,” she said, “this is what I look forward to all day. If I had to miss chow, I’d be here, hungry, and happy!”

Friday / November 23
Written by Matt

“I get excited for Shakespeare!” exclaimed one of our new members. The programs building was pretty empty on the day after Thanksgiving, but we circled up on the stage. Holidays are always hard for our members, but a few of the women wanted to give the program some love! “People are always asking about it,” said another new member, “like, ‘You going to Shakespeare again?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have fun over there!”

We started today with a repeat of Tuesday night’s activity: the Theatre of the Oppressed game This Bottle is Not a Bottle. One of the things we noticed on Tuesday was that the objects grew more interactive—and the “performances” became more active—the more times we did the game. Today, we continued that trend. Among the evening’s highlights were:

A raccoon (which turned into…)

An orangutan (which turned into…)

A screaming 2-year-old (“Oh, nooooooooooo!”)

A ticking time-bomb

A drag-racing car

A dentist’s drill (yikes!)

A superhero cape (“Man, this just makes me feel like a poser!”)

A defective curling iron

A wet cat

A waterfall (in your hands?!)

And a jetski

Feeling a little loosened up, we played an absurd game, called “Twizzle,” in which all but one member of the ensemble are walking in a circle. The one standing aside, who leads the game, calls out commands, which the others must follow exactly or they are “out.” The commands all involve moving (“walk,” “stop,” “jump,” “turn,” and the eponymous “twizzle,” which is a jump with a 360-degree turn). There’s an element of Simon Says to this game, since the leader (called the “Joker”) can call out other words that are non-commands (“go” or “freeze”) or order combinations of movements in quick succession (“jump, twizzle, twizzle, turn”).

Frannie led the first round, which ended pretty quickly, as we were just getting used to the rules of the game. The second time, though, the Joker was immediately calling combinations and, cruelly, saying things like “sizzle” and “bump” to try to catch us out. It worked. By the end, we were more than ready to get back into the play.

This was our third or fourth attempt at putting Act I scenes iv-v on their feet, and they’ve consistently given us trouble. Frannie played the over-the-top duke Orsino, and a new member volunteered to play Viola, who is dressed as Cesario. Valentine and Curio, who are in Orsino’s employ, were also played by new members. The scene moved quickly, but it felt a little “off”—it always has. We did get one good tidbit out of it, though: one of the women thought that Valentine might be jealous of Orsino. We mulled over the comic possibilities of that situation for a few minutes before moving on.

The final scene of Act I is long, complicated, and wordy. We soldiered through it, but there were some real highlights. Sir Toby was hilarious—everyone was laughing out loud—and Feste, whose wordplay drives the first half of the scene, was played by a woman who joined us last year and would definitely not have been playing a smart-aleck jester back then!

Our Olivia struggled a bit with the language as she read, which was a challenge, given that she is onstage for nearly the entire scene. But, in as fitting a metaphor for this season as any, everyone came together to help her through this tough scene, and it worked! At the end, after I (playing Viola/Cesario) had just walked off, a longtime member said, “You know how we were talking about how we can feel sympathy for people even though it’s a comedy? You made me feel sorry for Orsino. Like, ‘Farewell, fair cruelty!’ I felt sorry for him!” Another member, new this year added, “Yeah, I also felt sorry for Orsino.”

When Frannie talked about the difficulty of cutting this scene, that same woman affirmed that some of the wordplay is important to retain so we can see the different personalities interacting. “It’s really important for the characters,” she said. It’s great that people who may have had little or no familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays, characters, or language already feel this type of ownership over the work. They have opinions, and they’re going to be heard!

Season Eight: Week 11

Tuesday / November 13
Written by Frannie

As we walked in today, a longtime member waved a book at me and said, “[NAME] gave me her book.” This is usually code for “she’s quitting,” and I said, “Is she late or…?” “I don’t know,” replied the woman soberly, “But she gave me her book.” As I nodded my head, clearly disappointed, she said, “I’m just joking—she’ll be here in a few.” Throwing my pad of paper on the table, I said, “Ughhhh! You know you can’t do that to me!” She started laughing hysterically. A few others giggled, but most were confused. “She used to do this to me all the time!” I explained. “I’d walk in for a performance, and she’d be like, ‘I hate to tell you this, but so-and-so went to seg.’ And it was never true!” The woman continued cracking up. “Man, it’s been a long time!” I laughed. “That joke is like three years in the making!”

One of the newbies shared that she’s been reading just the “translation” side of the No Fear edition and that she really likes the story. “It’s a good way to keep up on the plot, isn’t it?” I said. A longtime member smiled and said, “You know, I love the Arden.” I asked if she would have felt that way when she joined the group four years ago. “Hell, no!” she laughed, thumbing through her book a bit. But things are different now. “This year, when we read [the play], it’s kinda cool because I understand what’s going on.”

As part of our quest to keep the energy level up and find more ways of bringing people into active participation, I introduced “Bombs and Shields,” one of my favorite Theatre of the Oppressed exercises. Everyone spreads out around the room and silently chooses one person to be their “bomb” and another to be their “shield.” The objective is to keep the shield between oneself and one’s bomb—and everyone is trying to do so simultaneously. After explaining the game and taking a moment, I launched it with a “Go!”

It was immediate chaos! We were in a small-ish classroom, rather than the auditorium, and it was tough for people to keep themselves “safe.” Just before I counted down from 10, ending the game, one woman picked up her shield, protecting herself at any cost!

I called “Freeze!” and everyone came to a halt, laughing and shouting over one another. I asked if we could try to speak one at a time—there clearly was a lot that folks wanted to say! One thing we noticed was that there was a whole mess of people whose bomb-shield relationships looked a heck of a lot like the “love polygon” in Twelfth Night. “This is just like the play—she’s falling for him, he’s falling for her!” said one woman. “She’s falling for shim!” laughed another. “Then I guess I was a lot like Malvolio,” said one woman. “My shield was like Sonic the Hedgehog!” said another.

After talking some more, determining that only one person had stuck to a strategy while the rest had been in pure survival mode (though a number chose the tallest people in the room as shields), we went for another round. It was even nuttier this time! We discovered afterward that part of what made that happen was that even more people chose the same two ensemble members as either bomb or shield, which both of those women noticed and found somewhat exasperating (but funny).

“I feel like it gives some insight into the play,” mused one woman. “These characters each have their own objectives, but they’re not telling anybody, so they’re all just sneaking around.” Another woman nodded and expanded the conversation to be about the ensemble itself. “We can’t be playing bombs and shields on stage,” she said. We all need to have the same bomb and the same shield.

We decided to see what would happen if we began walking through the play with 1.2, following it with 1.1, as is often done in production. There were many new people in the room, so I went through the basics: we’re walking through right now to get a handle on the plot and write down any ideas we have, and we’re not setting blocking or giving real acting notes. Constructive criticism, though, is important, and I explained what that means in our group. “No one ever does everything wrong. The second you’ve walked on stage, you’ve done something right. There’s always something to build on.”

“All right,” I continued, “Who’s gonna read Viola?” Before anyone else could speak, a brand new member said, “I’ll do it!” Then another newbie said, “I wanna read the Captain!” A couple others and Matt volunteered to be the sailors. The whole bunch rose and walked to the front of the room, preparing to enter the “stage.”

But Viola stayed in the middle of the space, a little lost. “Guys, this is way out of my comfort zone,” she said, and we cheered and applauded her for giving it a go anyway! “Have you read the scene before?” I asked. She hadn’t, and another woman cheerfully summed it up for her. Viola looked down at her book, then back at us. “Do I just wanna read it, or do I act it or… what?” she asked, turning to me. Before I could say anything, a longtime member said, “Frannie, can I take it?” Of course I said she could. “There’s no right or wrong way to do it,” she said. “Read it how you feel it, take your time, and make it natural.”

It seemed to us that the sailors needed an activity, and the idea we went with was for them to come stumbling in from the shipwreck, exhausted. We’ve reserved a notebook just for recording our ideas so we don’t forget them, and here’s how one of the ensemble members wrote these down—it captures the moment’s flow pretty perfectly:

Sailors are def. acting shipwrecked and taking fish out of their hats & crabs & eels (unending eels like magic) out of their mouth
Squid stuck to their face. Puke up boat.
Picking seaweed off her & others
Fuck it, have Sponge Bob on there too lol
Sailors can hardly walk

After this magnificent brainstorm (and I’ll cop to the boat-puking idea; most of my Twelfth Night ideas thus far have to do with vomiting for some reason), the scene began. The sailors staggered on with the captain as Viola looked on, confused. “Hold on!” she said (as herself, not the character), “What is going on?!” Someone responded that this is how the scene starts, and she said, “Oh, god, okay. I’m so sorry—my bad.”

“Oh my god, no, that was so funny!” I laughed. “Oh! Maybe we could even start the play that way! If we’re going as silly as we’re talking about, maybe we make it really self-aware about being a play and, like, play with moments like this.” This new woman stared at me, confused. “This could be one of those really magnificent mistakes,” I said. “Like, this could be staged exactly like this. And maybe the actor playing Viola is a diva or something, says exactly what [NAME] just said, and makes them start the play over.” The idea was recorded in the book—we’ll see whether or not it sticks!

We started the scene again and made it all the way through this time. The stand out moment was when Viola said to the Captain, “For saying so, there’s gold,” and all three sailors (who were on their knees) rushed over, putting their hands out in hopes that they could have some gold, too. It was so smooth, it was as if they’d planned it ahead of time—but they hadn’t! One person followed an instinct, and the others followed her. Perfect.

Afterward, Viola stood there for a moment, looking a little dazed. “Was that the first time you’ve done something like that?” I asked. She said it was, and we all applauded her again (no such thing as too much applause!). “How did it feel?” I asked. “Intense,” she replied, “but it felt good… It took me somewhere else.” Matt asked if that had felt good. “Yeah, it felt great, actually,” she said, still a little stunned. “My mind was in a different place… It took me out of right now. I liked it a lot.” A woman who struggled with stage fright last season said, “I applaud you just for getting out of your comfort zone.”

We drifted into a conversation about what it might be like if Viola weren’t actually good at pretending to be a guy—or if there are moments when she could nearly expose herself (no pun intended!). In an all-woman cast, we need to take care that things are clear for our audience, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with this idea. Perhaps the slip-ups are when she’s caught off-guard. “I feel like her most vulnerable moments are her conversations with Orsino,” said one woman. We all agreed—the stakes are very high during all of that double-talk.

“Do you think the audience will sympathize with Viola?” asked one woman. I asked her what she meant. “Well, I don’t know,” she continued. “Because she’s a little shady.” She went on to say that the impetus for the disguise is unclear, and the whole thing seems really “evil” to her: the continued lying, in particular, feels like “preying.” One woman shook her head ruefully and said, “Well, it ain’t nothing we’re not all used to.”

“I mean, she does have a moment when she realizes the harm that can come of disguises,” I said. But the first woman quickly replied, “She realizes it, but she doesn’t do anything to rectify the situation. She just leaves it to time. ‘Oh, time will work this all out.’ She just keeps doing what she’s doing. It’s shady. It is.” Another woman laughed, “It’s a sixteenth century Catfish!” We agreed to keep an eye on this—we made Iago and Richard III sympathetic, I reminded the group, so we can certainly do it with Viola.

I’d had an idea earlier in the conversation that I was sitting on till a good moment came, and now the women told me to spill it. Watching the three folks who’d played the sailors gave me this idea of having three people—a kind of Greek chorus, or a group of zannis—move throughout the scenes, executing a lot of gags and playing the “extras” (and, apparently, operating puppets; there was a request for seagull puppets to peck at people in this scene). “So they wouldn’t speak or anything?” asked one woman. “Nope!” I said. “That would be like me!” exclaimed a woman who told me when she joined just four days ago that she couldn’t possibly perform because of her fear of crowds.

Things have started to gel with this ensemble since we’ve all made an effort to come at the work with more energy, and tonight felt like things had really begun to fall into place. I’m personally feeling much better, and my impression is that the others are, too.

Friday / November 16
Written by Matt

At check-in today, our budding dramaturge had some more goodies for us. Reading a seemingly unrelated book about mythology, she found a reference to Twelfth Night! She talked about a Greek myth about a man who saw a goddess naked and, as punishment, was turned into a deer. His story didn’t end well--he was stalked and killed by his own hounds--but this tidbit explains some of the dialogue in the first scene. Everyone was impressed not only with this information, but with the woman’s keen eye and knack for explaining complicated references. What a treat!

The core of today’s session was the Mirror series, which comes from the same theatrical tradition as Tuesday’s game of Bombs and Shields. At its simplest, mirroring is done by two partners. One, the “subject,” makes slow, fluid motions of their body. The other, the “image,” follows those motions exactly. Ideally, the subject’s motions would be so clearly communicated and the image’s attention to detail would be such that an observer would not know which one was leading and which was following. The partners then switch roles.

The game progresses from there to more subtle and complex mirroring exercises, but even the most basic version is challenging. Being the image requires intense concentration and willingness to be led into positions that may feel uncomfortable in one way or another. Being the subject requires the ability to take care of the partner--keeping movements easy to follow and slow enough to keep up with, and safeguarding the physical and emotional safety of the image--and also, like all improv, being the subject carries the challenge of silencing or ignoring the part of one’s mind that worries about making the “wrong” move. For both, maintaining focus and eye contact is a challenge, as the game can go on for a long time.

From the simplest expression of the game, partners progress to combine the subject/image roles: each partner is both subject and image, as the two move together organically, passing leadership between them or allowing the “leader” role to dissolve completely. From there, the game changes to encourage distortions and responsive gestures; synchronization becomes less important than passing energy between partners. The next exercise takes that concept up a notch, as both partners express their own beauty (the “Narcissistic Mirror”) before finally, in the last iteration, coming naturally to a neutral stance together.

The whole progression took about a half hour, and we settled in to debrief after.

The first pair to check in spoke for many of us. One woman said she didn’t completely understand the point of the game. She added that she struggled to take it seriously enough; she was constantly fighting back self-consciousness and discomfort. Instantly, her partner jumped in: “But you regrouped yourself!” she said in support. “I feel like I was dependent on [my partner] for most of the exercises.” Her partner expressed surprise and said, “Well, I felt like I was depending on you!” The second woman explained that she felt comfortable with the simple movements, but she really relied on her partner for the emotional content of the exercise, which came later on. “Okay!” said the first woman with finality. “I think I understand the game now! We worked together.”

As we went around the room, we discovered that each pair had a story, and each story was different. Lauren shared that she had a tough time making the switch to call and response, rather than simply mirroring movements. “Yeah,” her partner added. “I didn’t know what to do there.” But, Lauren and her partner added, they felt that by the end of the first exercise (subject/image), they felt so in-synch that there was almost no transition at all to the next, leaderless exercise. Another woman said that she and her partner actually did really well at the call and response, passing energy fluidly between them.

My partner, who is brand new to the group, checked in for herself. “At first, I was really self-conscious,” she said, adding that she was preoccupied with the difference in our heights. Then she voiced two common feelings: “I was trying so hard to be ‘right,’” she said, and “For me, looking into someone’s eyeballs is an intimate thing.” A lot of people nodded along to both of these sentiments. “Me and my partner was just stuck,” chimed in a woman who, with her partner, had had trouble focusing on the game at all. “I couldn’t think of what to do.”

A veteran shared that she couldn’t get her partner to move as freely as she wanted to. She said that she kept trying different movements, testing her partner’s limitations, until--and this is a testament to this woman’s sharp intuition and role as a leader in the group--she decided to push the boundaries in another way. “I couldn’t really get her to move,” she said, “that’s how we ended up on the floor. I was, like, we going down!” Everyone laughed. Then she connected the exercise to our work on the plays. “It’s like working with a partner on the stage,” she said, “and you want to go bigger and do more, but the other person won’t do it. And it just puts you in your shell.”

“The eye contact was really personal,” shared a brand-new member, circling back to what my partner had shared earlier. But she said she really liked the feeling eventually. “You trust that person, and some of that trust bounces back onto you,” she explained. “I feel like the purpose was to become one,” said the senior member who had spoken a moment before.

One woman, who is usually very quiet and rarely participates in games, jumped in to say that it went really well for her. Actually, she said, eye contact was toughest for her when she wasn’t moving. Another woman said that she had a strange sensation during the exercise of observing herself gazing at her partner. Outside of prison, she said, “I dress loud. I’ve had lots of experiences of being stared at,” but that she felt like she was “giving the creep stare.” The first woman commented on that. “Naturally, to look into someone’s eyes is an intimate experience,” she said, adding that it must be really common to feel uncomfortable. Someone else said, “It’s like you’re looking into their soul.”

Frannie mentioned that, for many people, it’s not so much staring into someone else’s eyes that is uncomfortable and vulnerable, it’s having someone else stare into our eyes. Being seen. What do they see there? “Oh my god, you’re so right,” said one woman. This clearly resonated with a lot of the women—a few actually started crying—and Frannie quickly pointed out that you can always take yourself out of the game if you need to.

This section written by Frannie

The conversation continued. One woman said the hardest thing for her had been the “narcissistic” part of the exercise: “I didn’t know, like, how your body could look happy or whatever… I feel like you can only really express that with your face.” Another woman agreed, saying, “Yeah, we should do more stuff to work on our faces.”

“See,” I said, revving a bit, “This is what society does to women. This is what it does to us.” (There is nothing like working with incarcerated women to feed and shape your own brand of feminism.) “I shouldn’t need to see your face to know you’re happy. You should be able to express joy with your whole body. But we’re so shut down physically, we don’t know how to do it.” I paused, looking around the circle of women, all of whom were fully locked in to what I was saying. “Damn, Frannie,” said one.

“Joy is big! It’s huge!” I continued. “It’s a giant, crazy emotion! But look at us! Look how we’re all sitting!” Lots of crossed arms, crossed legs, hunching over—and it was not cold in that room. “We take up as little space as possible when we should be free to be BIG. If I can’t just express joy with my face. I need my whole body. I need to do something like this!” I demonstrated a few expansive gestures and a happy dance.

“But we don’t feel like we’re allowed to do that,” I said. I hearkened back to the pair who’d ended up on the floor because the “image” wouldn’t follow the “subject” into large gestures. “It’s hard to go that big, isn’t it? Especially if you’ve experienced trauma. Because it makes us vulnerable—just as much as eye contact does. So I don’t blame you for a second. You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said to the image, who had begun to chastise herself. “It’s not that you can’t go there. It’s that you’re not there yet.” I turned to the subject. “You are there, and that’s great. But look how you took care of your partner. You didn’t try to force her to do what she was clearly uncomfortable with. You adapted so she could stay with you. That’s what we have to do as an ensemble.”

Back to Matt!

We transitioned into a less emotional conversation. A woman who has been slowly dipping her toe into games and reading on stage said that she has really enjoyed the last two days of games. “It’s a good introduction to improv,” she said, saying she felt intimidated by a lot of the other games we play, which are based in improv comedy and require a lot of quick thinking on your feet and which put a lot of pressure on individuals to be funny. In particular, she said, these games were easier because they required no speaking--in fact, they forbade it--and everybody was doing the game at the same time, so there was no “audience.”

The activities this week have made clear that we need to work a lot on moving and working together as an ensemble. Bombs & Shields and Mirrors have been so successful, and what we learn from them seems so directly related to our work on Twelfth Night, that a path forward seems increasingly obvious. This season has been different from the others--at least in recent years--but it’s good to feel like we’ve found fertile ground. We always say that each season of Shakespeare in Prison is different, and that our path is always dictated by the needs of the ensemble. It feels like this season has been putting that philosophy to the test. As frustrating as the past few months have been sometimes, and as lost as we have sometimes felt, it feels good to know that we are sticking to our word, trying all sorts of strategies to see what works. We’ve learned a lot. Taking a long view, it’s really exciting! Stay tuned!

Season Eight: Week 10

Tuesday / November 6
Written by Matt

Today was a little lightly attended, and as people came in, they expressed some surprise that we were present. It’s election day, and many MDOC facilities don’t have the staff to run programs at all--and the ones that do run programs often have to cut them back. But were were there!

After we lowered the ring, everyone was looking around for what to do next. As so often happens, a veteran member cut through the noise to save the day. “We’re playing Freeze!” she announced. A number of the usual suspects jumped right into this game, which is a perennial favorite. Two players create a scene (clearly defining the relationship, the setting, and the conflict) and play it out until anyone from the rest of the ensemble shouts “FREEZE!” The players freeze in position, and the person who stopped the action replaces one of them, taking her exact position, and begins another scene. As much fun as it is, Freeze is actually a really challenging exercise; it requires not just bravery and the ability to think quickly, but also the ability to concisely establish a character and situation out of nothing, and, what is hardest, you have no control over how long your scene goes on.

Even though the game mostly stayed among the regulars, almost everyone jumped in at some point, and it definitely raised the energy level in the room. Highlights were: Frannie establishing that she was in the market for bargain prosthetics, and being handed a peg-leg by one of the women. In another scene, at “The Front,” one woman leapt onto her belly on the floor and began “swimming” to escape the danger. And a woman who got roped into a drab Lord of the Rings-style scene I created in a moment of panic, sick of squatting over the “Pit of Doom” (like I said, a moment of panic), decided that she had a magic wand, closed my pit, opened the “Pit of Gloom,” and tried to get me to jump in it, ending the scene.

After the game, we discussed it. We all agreed that the game is good preparation for the inevitable moments when “you’re on stage and you forget a line and you gotta improvise.” For a moment, we talked about how we’ve supported each other in previous years in those times. Last year’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth remembered a scene that went off the rails during performance, and they had to work together to get through it. “She carried me,” our ex-Lady Macbeth said of Macbeth, who had covered for her. Our former Macbeth allowed that she had done most of the work in that moment, but then added, “I feel like I could only pick it up because, when you were ‘done,’ you gave me a look,” and she knew she needed to cover.

A woman who resisted playing games for a long time added that she would have been better last season (her first) if she had pushed herself to do the games. Another woman, who almost never plays games, said that she enjoys watching the games but doesn’t think she can “do it.” At that, Maria, who is a professional stage manager, shared how hard she finds improv. Even though nobody spoke up directly in response, there are often benefits down the road when facilitators can openly share our own limitations. It demystifies the process, and it validates the difficulty of what we do, whether that struggle is with improv or memorization or reading or speaking in public.

The woman who kicked us off continued to lead us forward, suggesting that we work on the first scene of the play. After a quick discussion of how many people should be on stage, we ended up with a whole entourage--all but a couple of people--lounging all over the stage in Orsino’s pleasure palace. Frannie jumped right in with guidance, giving us prompts based on classic twentieth-century theatre exercises. We tried living in our characters for a moment, almost in tableau, no one speaking, before launching into the scene. Then we tried taking Orsino’s energy/emotions and magnifying them a hundredfold.

Before this round, Orsino took off her shoes in preparation. Another woman asked her why she was doing that. “Because,” the first answered slyly, “I came to slay!”

“If music be the food of love, play on!” she exclaimed. We all swooned and gasped! “Give me excess of it!” We all went wild, and she continued.

“Enough! No more!” she said at last, bringing the ecstasy to a halt as we sobbed into our sleeves around her.

And so on.

Next, we tried it in the opposite way: we expressed the opposite of Orsino’s emotion, magnified a hundredfold. Afterwards, Orsino seemed exhausted and little peeved. “I couldn’t be heard above the laughing,” she said with faux poutiness. A new member seemed a little surprised. “I feel like there were places where that worked!” She explained that maybe the court is sick of Orsino’s antics and may react negatively to the speech. And, on second thought, Orsino said that she hadn’t really paid much attention to what everyone else was doing. Orsino, she said, is oblivious. “I was in my own head.” A few moments later, she added, “He’s just… a ball of confusion.”

Afterwards, we all decided that having a crowd of people onstage was important to telling the story. This play, unlike most of the ones we have done lately, may be one where it makes sense to crowd the stage with bodies. A usually quiet woman had a vision of Orsino pulling petals off a flower. That gave another woman an idea: Curio, the attendant, could be transcribing Orsino’s musings, running after his master with a pad of paper. This led to a whole string of fun ideas, sillier and sillier. People seemed excited just to play around with the text and ideas for staging, which is very encouraging. We’re beginning to find our way forward with this play.

Friday / November 9
Written by Coffey

Tonight we welcomed four new members into the ensemble. As we all brought down the ring together with Frannie explaining the exercise, step by step, a veteran member jumped in, guiding the new members through the ring exercise.

Once the ring was brought down, the new members left with Frannie and a longtime member for their orientation, and one woman shared some Twelfth Night dramaturgy she had discovered over the weekend. She shared first the background of the setting of Twelfth Night, describing the traditional celebration of the twelfth night of Christmas as “a time when you could let off steam within confines, like the purge.” According to her research, the twelfth night of Christmas was traditionally a time of role reversals, pranks, heavy drinking, and nonstop parties, which explained the shenanigans within the play. She also shared background information on the play itself, revealing that the story of Twelfth Night isn’t an original of Shakespeare’s, but a spoof of themes found in other popular stories of the era. “Shakespeare was the original spoofer!” she explained, as she described Of Apollonius and Silla and The Deceived Ones, two stories from which Shakespeare drew most of his material for Twelfth Night. “This is the 1500s version of Scary Movie,” the woman said. “Since it’s already kind of a spoof, maybe we could find ways to incorporate modern TV and movie references.” This began a brainstorming session as the women came up with ways to include our own spoofs of modern TV shows and celebrities in our performances of Twelfth Night (Cheers and a cardboard cutout of Fabio came up as promising spoof sources).

After the brainstorming session we set to work by putting Act, Scene iii, on its feet. It was during this scene that one ensemble member found an opportunity for us to spoof, noting that Sir Andrew’s ridiculous dancing “should be the Hammer dance or a break dance”. One woman noted the recognizable aspects of the scene. “Sometimes fact is funnier than fiction,” she said, pointing out that Sir Toby’s freeloading and Sir Andrew’s obnoxious behavior are comic tropes that can still be found in our own society.

As we moved into Act I, Scene iv, the energy began to dissolve. This was partially due to a lack of clarity regarding Viola’s/Cesario’s motivations and her relationship with Orsino. This led to an interesting discussion, as some women suggested that Orsino could be subconsciously attracted to Cesario, which could add a layer of tension, given that Viola doesn’t want to be found out. Two women got up and re-did the scene with that tension in mind, which gave the scene a bit more texture.

Moving into Act I, scene v, we lost a good portion of our energy, as various distractions took us repeatedly out of the scene. The two women playing Maria and Feste found the top of the scene difficult, as the characters’ convoluted string of jokes proved a bit hard to follow. The woman playing Feste suggested that they sit and perform the first section of the scene face to face rather than on its feet. This helped the scene to have a better pace and drew more attention to the intricacies of the language, but didn’t help to get the energy back up as we continued the long scene. Though the scene is an important one to the rest of the play, we all discovered together that, without enough energy, I.v can easily get jumbled and bland. In reflecting on the scene, however, the women were able to advise each other, reminding each other to slow down, breathe, and pay attention to punctuation. In our post-scene discussion, we also spent some time analyzing Duke Orsino. One woman suggested that we, the audience, should feel sympathy for him: “Everybody understands Orsino. He want what he want, but he can’t have it, which is tragic, and we feel for him.”

As we wrapped up I.v, Frannie brought the new members back from their orientation. A veteran ensemble member led the new members in a round of “three questions” in which the new members introduced themselves by sharing what brought them to SIP, what they hope to gain from SIP, and what gift they bring to the ensemble. The new women shared their hopes for their work, with one woman explaining that she had been inspired to join by the transformation she had seen in an SIP alumna she used to live with.

The new members’ offerings of hope and enthusiasm for the group helped us to end on a positive note. As we raised the ring with the new members, a woman who joined in September and has been very slowly easing her way into active participation said, “Could I do a late check-in?” We called a “blue car” (focus and listen!) and gave her all our attention. “I just wanna say…” she began, clearly nervous but determined to express this, “That I really do wanna do the improv, but I’ve got PTSD and freak out when anyone touches me. So I get scared to get up because I don’t know what anyone’s gonna do. But I think if no one touches me, I might be able to do it. So… I just wanted to tell you guys that.”

Every person in the room nodded and murmured their support. “Thank you so much for sharing that with us,” Frannie said. “We can definitely do the improv without touching you! Feel free to remind us before you go on stage each time, too, to make sure we don’t forget.” Everyone agreed, and the woman thanked us, looking relieved. We raised the ring together, invigorated and hopeful for what the rest of the season might bring.