Season Seven: Week 6

Tuesday

We decided last Friday to spend some time exploring parts of the play that interest us on our feet, and a few people came in tonight with ideas of things to work! We began with Act V scene i, the ubiquitous sleepwalking scene with Lady Macbeth. The woman reading Lady pulled two others in to play the Gentlewoman and the Doctor, and they did not hold back. The woman playing the Gentlewoman was super sassy! We loved it. The woman reading Lady clearly understood what she was doing intellectually, although she rushed through her lines. Even so, we got a lot out of the scene.

One woman said, “Her paranoia and everything she’s done is coming back up in her sleep.” Then someone brought up the letter she references – what could it be? The ensemble came up with some great ideas:

•    Her confession
•    A list of people who’ve been killed
•    A letter placing blame on Macbeth
•    A letter to Lady Macduff
•    A suicide note
•    The rantings of a person who’s going crazy
•    A letter to Macbeth, who is off at war

We wanted to see this scene again, and the woman reading Lady said it was difficult for her to slow down and be spontaneous with the book in her hand. I offered to do a drop-in exercise with her in which I would stay right behind her and softly say her lines a bit at a time for her to repeat with her own interpretation. This worked very well – although I couldn’t really absorb what she was doing because I was focused on giving her what I could, the rest of the ensemble thought she had gone much deeper and loved it.

Unfortunately I was so taken by the following that I didn’t write anything specific, but at this point one woman gave the Gentlewoman some fabulous constructive criticism. It began with something great she’d done, moved gently into something she could do better, explained how she could work toward that and assured her that it would come with more rehearsal, and ended by emphasizing again how great the reading had been. It was truly masterful, and I took a moment to thank her and draw the ensemble’s attention to what she had just said. That’s exactly how to do it!

When we had first circled up to read, I’d asked two long time members to sit next to me. “Aw, man,” said one, “If I sit next to you, I’m really gonna have to behave.” I smiled and said, “Why do you think I want you to sit here?” We have a longstanding rapport that allows me to poke good-natured fun at her frequent side conversations, bursts of vocal enthusiasm, and goofiness. She was talking quite a bit to the woman next to her, and, suddenly inspired, I wrote out a “sign” for her on a piece of paper that said, “I AM A CHATTERBOX.” I handed it to her, and she laughed and held it up. She held it for the rest of our meeting, other than one moment when she handed it to Kyle, and I made her a sign that said, “I AM STILL A CHATTERBOX.” This led to a lot of silliness that, in turn, led to me making signs for everyone, most of which had nothing to do with anything. We need that sometimes!

We proceeded to Act III scene ii, in which Lady and Macbeth discuss his paranoia, their cover-up, and Macbeth’s plot against Banquo (about which he is vague). “Maybe she’s trying to get him to kill Banquo and Fleance,” said one woman.

We continued to ponder the scene and the characters’ motivations. “It’s easier to kill someone and move on than to leave someone wounded… They might come after you,” said one woman. Another woman mused that the scene reminded her of when she committed her crime: “You feel like everybody knows. That’s probably what they’re both feeling.”

The conversation moved to what hesitation, if any, persists in this scene. “Who do you think he feels worse about killing – Duncan or Banquo?” asked one woman. And then Macbeth doesn’t tell Lady about the specifics of his plan. “Maybe he doesn’t trust her conscience – to not be able to fulfill the ruse,” said one participant. “They keep going back and forth,” said another. “It was Lady Macbeth trying to talk him into doing the killing, and now it’s Macbeth trying to put her off.”

“She’s opened a Pandora’s box in a way,” said one woman. Another agreed, saying, “The dynamic has shifted. In the first scene they were like ‘this’ [she crossed two fingers], and now their passion for each other has gone into their crime… It’s like they’re co-defendants. You associate them with the worst possible time in your life.”

“Maybe his mind shifted,” said another woman. “I feel like she degraded him when she placed the swords for him… Now he’s like, ‘I don’t need you. I can do this by myself.’” Another woman disagreed a bit: “He’s keeping her innocent of the knowledge. Is he being condescending or endearing?” Kyle built on that, saying that there were, at first, many emasculating lines from Lady Macbeth, and now Macbeth’s lines have a lot of machismo. Another woman sighed, saying, “It’s really hard to enjoy anything that you ill-got.”

At this point, I noticed that one of the ensemble members was sitting alone in the house, clearly upset. I asked if I could sit with her and spent some time just listening – she was having a very, very rough time. I cannot imagine having a lengthy or life sentence and the strength it takes to survive that; to have the prison be your entire world either for many years or until you die. It did not seem to help her much in that moment to have me there, but I hope that at least she can take with her that someone truly cares about what she’s going through. She left in order not to cry in front of the others any more. Absolutely no one would have judged her, and no one remarked on her leaving, either, although we all saw it and shared looks of concern.

When I returned to the circle, they had read through Banquo’s murder and Fleance’s escape and were deep in conversation about the Third Murderer. Where had he come from? Some think his presence is a result of Macbeth’s paranoia – that he’s been sent to check on the other Murderers. Others think he’s actually a witch. I’m sure we’ll be exploring this further!


Friday

One of the first people to arrive this evening was the ensemble member who’d been so upset on Tuesday. She seemed a bit lighter and made eye contact with me immediately. I asked her how she was doing, and she said with a little smile that she was doing better. I’m so glad. She made eye contact with me many times throughout the evening, still with that little smile, so maybe the time I spent with her on Tuesday did make a difference. Even a small one. I hope so.

We continued to explore scenes on their feet. We didn’t make any linear progress in our reading of the play, but the kind of in-depth work we did was just as valuable, if not more so.

We began with Act I scene vii, in which Macbeth worries about killing Duncan and Lady comes in to convince him to do it. The women who read it have been in the ensemble for just over a year, and they are very confident with the language and inventive with staging. Our Macbeth was, as usual, exciting to watch and listen to – her delivery is always clear and measured. Lady was incredibly interesting, as her interpretation of the character is that she is soft-spoken and “cute” with an underlying darkness and drive. “I loved how you got in her face,” said one woman to Lady. I asked Macbeth what it felt like for her. “I’m getting more into it every time I do it,” she said.

A new ensemble member asked if there was a way to ensure that more people got to read these scenes. I suggested that we revisit an approach that we liked last year – that of tagging people in and out of scenes rather than having entire scenes run with the same cast. Everyone liked that idea, so we’ll return to it soon.

But for tonight we decided to stick with what we were doing. I coached the actors a bit to give some examples of how their approach could evolve. I suggested that Lady slow down and try out different tactics, and that she let the audience in on her frustration with her husband. I asked Macbeth to lower her center so she would be more grounded and suggested that she place a rollercoaster inside her to give her greater uneasiness.

This resulted in a much deeper and more nuanced reading. We definitely saw Lady’s frustration and struggle to find the right approach, and Macbeth sank deep into the language and anxiety, becoming much more convincing. We were all really impressed, but these women want to take it even further. We talked some basic acting techniques to give them some ideas and will revisit the scene at some point.

Two more women volunteered to read the same scene. Their approach was quite different: Lady was aggressive and bold, and Macbeth did not come out of his guilt, even at the end of the scene. “It felt like we were being co-defendants,” said Lady (she observed this same thing on Tuesday). She said they had that rapport, that they were confidants, and that that had influenced her interpretation. “How would I feel if I were doing this with my best friend and partner?”

She then said that the situation reminded her of her crime, so we talked a bit about how we as actors can draw on those kinds of experiences while keeping ourselves safe from further trauma. It’s important that we be able to “go there” with this play, but there is a risk of going too far. I explained a bit about Stanislavsky’s “magic as if,” which is the approach we’ll need to take. They are ready and willing to give it a try.

We also talked a bit about the different approaches of each pair. While one Lady was scary because of her aggression, the other was unsettling because of how quiet and gentle she was. Neither approach is wrong.

As we circled up to raise our Ring and depart, one woman asked if she could check in since she’d arrived late. She told us that she’s facing some challenges with her family. She is very upset about the situation. The woman with whom I’d spoken last week about her emerging leadership said, “Do you want a woosh?” That’s something we do with one person in the middle of the circle, and we all engage in a full-body uplifting gesture while saying, “Woosh!” It has a way of making things people feel even just a bit better. We wooshed her, and then we wooshed a few others who needed it. Afterward, I pulled the woman who’d suggested the exercise aside and said, “That’s what I’m talking about!” She said, “Oh, you mean what we talked about last week?” I affirmed it. She smiled.

Season Seven: Week 5

Tuesday

We moved on from the Porter into the rest of Act II scene iii tonight. In this scene, the murder of Duncan is discovered, Macbeth kills the guards, and Malcolm and Donalbain flee. As we finished reading, one woman said, “Hey, there’s three again!” calling our attention to Macbeth having now killed three people.

The conversation focused on interpreting Macbeth’s and Lady’s actions. “He’s actually thinking for himself and not just doing what his wife tells him to,” said one woman. “Maybe killing Duncan triggered something for him,” said another. “Maybe he liked [the thrill of getting away with something].” I suggested that maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly, still traumatized from murdering Duncan. “Maybe he is thinking clearly,” mused the first woman. “It makes sense to kill them so they can’t expose him… Why didn’t Lady Macbeth think of this?”

We pondered her actions in this scene; having some sort of fainting spell as Macbeth finishes his description of killing the guards. “I think she’s trying to distract them and shut Macbeth up,” said one woman. Another woman had a different interpretation: “Maybe she is like, ‘Oh my god, what did you just do?’” These were not the only interpretations, but they were the most popular. I reminded the group again that there are multiple ways of interpreting just about every aspect of this play. We decided to keep reading.

Act II Scene iv was a breeze – everyone got right away that Macduff is suspicious of Macbeth rather than the brothers. One woman pointed out that three crazy things happened over night, and another called attention to the Old Man’s referencing “threescore” years. We are really on top of these threes! Matt mentioned that sometimes this scene is staged in such a way that the Old Man is actually one of the witches, and most people were excited by that idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up in our performance.

We began reading Act III scene i and got caught up in talking about Banquo’s monologue.

The first thing we noted was something we hadn’t noticed: that Macbeth now has three titles. There’s our number again. And then we started trying to dissect Banquo’s words.

“He wants what’s coming to him. He’s gonna chill,” said one woman. “He doesn’t know what to do… Maybe Macbeth was involved, but he doesn’t know specifically how,” said another. She continued, “Maybe he thinks it happened the way it was supposed to happen.”

“I don’t know,” said the first woman. “If my friend came to his house and just showed up dead, I’d be pretty suspicious.” Kyle mused that perhaps Banquo was having similar thoughts to Macbeth and just didn’t give in to temptation. This woman was impatient with the whole thing. She said emphatically that Macbeth should have killed Banquo right away. “Why let your competition survive? If you’re gonna do it, just do it. Don’t think about it…. If you want your position, you’re supposed to insulate your position.”

A few people brought up the friendship between Banquo and Macbeth, but some were skeptical. “I don’t think he’s his homeboy,” said one woman. “I think they’re cordial – they were friends, but now it’s about kingship. Everybody is out for each other… I feel like everyone’s out for himself. I don’t think anyone’s really friends.” Another woman agreed, saying, “They have the same drive. They both want something… I’m gonna stick around and kinda leech on.” The first woman jumped back in: “Right now I’ll listen to what you want ‘cause you’re the king. But someday I’m gonna get in.”

We circled back to the witches’ prophecies. I knew in my gut that one of the women who’s been in the group for three years was going to draw a parallel between them and Loki – I just knew it; she finds a parallel with Loki every year. And then she did. “I KNEW you were going to bring up Loki!” I said, and we all laughed. She then emphasized again that Macbeth should have killed Banquo right off the bat, and that that’s what she would have done. She paused. “I’m kinda scared talking about this stuff. I’m realizing things about myself that I never knew before. Things I would do…” That led to revisiting the idea that thoughts don’t necessarily translate to actions, but that, when Macbeth’s do, it’s the result of focusing on the positive in the prophecies and disregarding the negative (a theme that keeps coming up for us).

One person mentioned that perhaps Macbeth thought the prophecy was about to be fulfilled by Duncan visiting his castle. The woman referenced above (she was on a roll) said, “If you put yourself in these situations, you’re gonna do it.” As an example, she brought up that if you’re thinking about cheating on your significant other but really don’t want to act on it, you won’t go out to dinner with the other person or sit on the couch with them. She brought up cookies as well, saying that if you keep them in the cupboard you probably won’t eat them all, but if you put them on the table next to you, you probably will.

“But he didn’t set it up,” Kyle said. “He didn’t invite him over.” We talked about that for a minute. “Well, okay,” I pondered aloud. “So if the situation just comes up, does that make you any less culpable? Does what comes before the action change the quality of the action?” There was no clear answer.

“What a man thinks genuinely, he does. Usually,” said this same woman. Matt then asked if maybe Macbeth says no to Lady Macbeth initially in a way that leaves space for her to push him to do it. Many of us recognized that from our own lives. “When I’m arguing with [my ex-husband], and he’s going on and on and on, and I just say, ‘Okay,’ he changes his mind,” said one woman. We talked about how universal that is and wondered what it says about the couple’s relationship. Has Lady always made the decisions, or is this the first time? We’re divided on that.


Friday

Tonight began with one of our new members pulling me aside. She’s left early a few times and has sometimes been rather quiet, and, while she enjoys Shakespeare and feels that she’s getting a lot out of it, she didn’t want to disrespect the facilitators or the other inmates, or to take up a spot that could be filled by someone else, so she was thinking about leaving the group. I listened and then said, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m not going to try to talk you into anything, but can I share my perspective with you?” She nodded. I said that there have been people in the group over the years who have definitely been disruptive and disrespectful – some so much so that they had to be removed from the group. “But that’s not you,” I said. “It’s okay to leave if you’re upset. You’re being respectful when you do that – you’re making sure that whatever you’re dealing with doesn’t create drama for everyone else.” She hadn’t thought of it that way. She said that she’s also considering joining a different group in January that would conflict with ours. I let her know that, from my perspective, she’s welcome to stay and make the decision later. She thanked me for saying all of that and said she would still like to speak to the ensemble to make sure they knew how she felt, and so they could decide whether or not she could stay. She had to step away but said she’d come back shortly.

We continued with Act III scene i, at first focusing on Macbeth’s soliloquy regarding the need to have Banquo killed. One woman said that she thought the sudden plotting showed a lack of fore-thought. I asked if perhaps Macbeth was exhibiting signs of paranoia. One woman believes this is a manifestation of the evil presence that’s settled on the castle. Another woman spoke up, challenging me: “I don’t think it’s paranoia. I think it’s logical to be threatened by his mere existence.” She’s got a great point.

The woman who’d spoken to me before we began then came back. We waited for an opening, and then I nodded to her. She shared with the group what she’d shared with me. “So… I leave it up to you whether I should stay or go,” she said. Immediately, six women said, “Stay!” A number of them then shared reasons why she hasn’t been a disruption or disrespectful, why they wanted her to stay, why she should stay for herself, and they welcomed her to make her decision about the other program closer to when it will begin. “If you’re getting something out of this, you should stay as long as you want,” said one woman. The woman who’d been thinking about leaving thanked everyone, said she had to go just then, but that she’d see us on Tuesday.

We then returned to the play and read through Macbeth’s interactions with the Murderers. One woman who was in the ensemble last year said, “I’m sorry, but I just keep seeing parallels with him and Richard.” We said that she shouldn’t be sorry! It’s great. We talked about how a big difference between Macbeth and Richard III is that Macbeth has some compunctions about killing people. Or at least he does at first.

“He was all upset about killing somebody, and now he’s a gangster,” said one woman. “He’s trying to convince himself [not to murder Banquo] – he doesn’t really want to do it,” said someone else. “But now he’s keeping his hands clean,” said another woman. “’You make up your mind about this,’ [he says to the Murderers] – so he can keep a clear conscience.”

“Wait,” said another woman. “Isn’t he doing to them what Lady Macbeth was doing to him in the beginning?” Most of us hadn’t thought of that, but she’s absolutely right. She also thinks he’s starting to lose it.

We then read and talked about Macbeth’s interaction with Lady Macbeth in Act III scene ii. “Now he’s this crazed, psychotic killer, and she’s the one trying to calm him down!” said one woman. “She created a monster!” said another.

We decided that, for Tuesday’s meeting, everyone would choose a piece of the play that they’re interested in exploring on its feet. But then one new member asked if we could put Act III scene i on its feet, saying, “I learn better when I see it or do it.” She offered her scene partners some advice about trying to follow the stage directions, and I encouraged them to take it slow and try to connect with one another.

The woman who read Macbeth has been in the group for a couple of years, and she’s always thrown herself into whatever she’s done with a lot of showmanship, but something about this scene really clicked for her. We were totally drawn in from the first moments of her soliloquy. She absolutely nailed the language and clearly connected with the emotion of the scene. When she finished, we erupted in applause and praise. I actually threw my book on the floor and said, “[Name]! What just happened?!” Another woman said, “You were really feeling it, huh?”

She smiled, a little embarrassed but clearly pleased. “I don’t know… I wasn’t really feeling it until the dogs… I really connected with that for some reason. Like, he’s not different than any other dog. He’s just a f**king dog.”

“You had it before then,” another woman said immediately. “Yeah,” I said, “I guess we were feeling it before you were feeling it. Your work was so solid, your grasp of the language was so powerful… You’ve worked really hard at that over the years, and it shows. You drew us all right in.”

“I guess I can relate to Macbeth,” she said. “I’ve been stabbed in the back trying to do the most for everyone… And I’ve got a vindictive way of thinking.” She described some of the – admittedly creative – ways in which she’s gotten back at people in her life. “I don’t do well with people trying to screw me over or take advantage of the people I care about.”

“So you really connect with this character,” someone said. “Yeah…” she paused. “If it weren’t so many lines, I would maybe consider it.”

“Do it!!!” a bunch of us exclaimed. “You guys,” she said jokingly, “I quit every day.” But we all encouraged her to explore this further. “Don’t shut any doors because you think you can’t do it,” I said. “Remember that we’ve always been able to cut everyone’s lines down to the point that they’re comfortable. If you feel a connection to this character, don’t make any bones about it. Go for it. Even if you’re not cast, take the time to explore in rehearsal.” Everyone agreed. “If you’re connecting with this character, there’s a reason,” I said. “Sometimes the character chooses you.”

As we circled up for our final Ring exercise, she said quietly to me that this just isn’t something she’d considered before. “Well, I’ve actually been wanting to talk with you about this,” I said. “Can we chat for a minute before we leave?”

We stood apart a bit as everyone left. I said again that she shouldn’t count herself out for this part – that I think she’s ready for it. “Really?” she said. “Absolutely,” I replied. “You’ve grown so much over the past two years, and you could totally handle this now.” She asked what I meant. “Well, during Othello, you were really nervous, right?” She nodded. “Kind of wishy washy? You weren’t sure you’d follow through. We weren’t sure you’d follow through! But you did. You showed up for every performance, and you proved to all of us that you could do it. And then last year, you became a leader in the group.”

She was shocked that I’d described her as a leader. “Are you kidding?” I said. “I can’t tell you how many times I wrote in my notes about you encouraging others, uplifting them, comforting them, and being the first one to jump in when people needed it. You saved a couple of very nervous actors in a scene when they were forgetting their lines, and you were right there when one of them started crying back stage. Not only that, but you’re a team player. You were totally willing to cut your lines on the fly if it looked like we were running out of time, and then you taped one of your monologues inside your hat so you’d have it there if we did have time.” She smiled. “So you’re a team player and a leader,” I said, “And that’s really important in a major role like this. And, yeah, you joke about quitting every day. But the point is that you never do. You always come back. And you know what it takes to want to quit and keep coming back. We need anchor members in those roles. And you’re an anchor member. And a really good actor!”

She had completely lit up by then and seemed more eager to explore the possibility of playing Macbeth. “It just feels so good to say those lines,” she said. She talked about trauma from her childhood that is difficult for her to deal with, along with the challenges of her life behind bars. She described feeling a sense of catharsis through playing the character. “That’s great, and it’s a really common thing,” I said, “It can feel really, really good. And if you end up cast in a role like this, we can keep that going while keeping you safe from experiencing any more trauma. You just need to think about whether or not you’re comfortable with that. I’m confident that we can keep you safe, but I’m not you – I can’t make that decision.”

“You get me, though,” she said quickly. “I can open up to you more than I can to most people. Really, to anyone. You get me right here,” she said, tapping her forehead. “You’ve really helped me.”

“That is such an honor,” I said. “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m so happy that I’ve been able to help. You do really great work in here. I love being a part of it.”

She left, assuring me that she’d continue to mull this over. I truly have been hoping that this would be the year when she’d dive into a role that has more guts. I’ve got all my fingers crossed that it happens for her if she’s ready.

Season Seven: Week 4

Written by Frannie


Tuesday

Tonight began with an ensemble member who is about to go home stopping by to return her books and say goodbye. She said that Shakespeare was the best part of her time in prison, that she felt that she’d grown because of it, and she thanked me. And I thanked her! We talked a bit about the kind of progress she made last year, and it is clear that her work in Shakespeare has made a difference. We’ll miss her, but it’s very exciting that she’s going home. We wish her the best of luck!

We had a check-in that was remarkable for its level of honesty this early in the season. One ensemble member brought in a couple of poems that she’s been working on and wanted to share with us. They were honest, vulnerable, and beautiful. We thanked her for sharing, and I encouraged the rest of the ensemble to bring in any writing or other art that they want to share any time.

We began with a very silly circle game that involves chanting and dancing. People were hesitant at first but got really into it once a few of us had danced. There was absolutely no judgment – we were laughing with, not at, each other. I hope we’ll play it again some time!

We moved into one of my favorite Theatre of the Oppressed exercises: Blind Cars. In this exercise, one person “drives” another, who closes her eyes and works to trust the driver and follow non-verbal commands. It tends to be fun and terrifying at the same time, as the driver has a lot of responsibility, and the car is very vulnerable. There is always a mix of feelings about whether it’s more comfortable to be the car or the driver. It builds trust within the ensemble while simultaneously helping us learn about our own vulnerabilities and the importance of both supporting and leaning on each other in our work.

Kyle then led an acting exercise in which we stood in a circle and took turns stepping in, saying, “I am here,” and then stepping back out. We did this with no prompt and then attempting to be neutral. This led to an animated discussion about authenticity vs. bravado vs. the definition of neutrality. It got a little heated; I think this is because it’s a deceptively simple exercise that is actually kind of advanced, acting-wise. I’m not sure we were ready for it as an ensemble, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens if we return to it later in the season.

We then played the question game, in which we sit in a circle and ask questions of the person next to us, but nobody answers – the goal is to take the question in and then ask a question either to the next person in the circle or back to the person who just asked. It takes quick thinking and focus – if you take too long or ask a question that’s already been asked, you’re out! We often get out because we start laughing and can’t stop. It’s a really fun game.

Tonight’s themes were trust, leadership, vulnerability, and focus. We did great with all four. It was a really fun night.

 

Friday

We spent tonight working through Act II Scene iii, which is all about the Porter. The language is pretty complicated, so it took us awhile!

One of the women likened the Porter’s situation to that of a gate officer at the prison – opening and closing gates, and the monotony of that. That insight led us into how that kind of boredom with his job plays into the Porter’s drunkenness (or being hungover – opinions are mixed on which it is). We remarked at how long the knocking goes on before he opens the door. “Why he ain’t open the door yet?” mused one woman. “He’s forgetting [because he’s drunk or hung over]. He’s conversating, and he’s forgetting.”

The conversation began to take another shape. “It makes me wonder why, considering what’s going on inside the castle, he’s referencing the gates of hell,” said one person. I asked her to dig a little deeper – why had she said that? “Already creepy stuff is happening,” she said. “An evil presence has descended on this castle, and everyone’s affected.”

A new ensemble member who has improv experience but has been intimidated by the language – she did not graduate from high school and has been convinced that she couldn’t handle it – was gently nudged by several people to give this monologue a try because she’s got such great comic timing. She did, and we were totally wowed. Her instincts were amazing – not only did she work with the language and punctuation perfectly, but the way she emphasized certain words, played up antithesis, and varied the pitch and tone of her voice was breathtaking coming from someone who hasn’t been trained. Her first try was better than many trained professionals I’ve seen perform. Holy moly.

I asked her how it felt. “Once I got into it a little bit more, it was easier,” she said. “I have to remember to pace myself and catch my breath. I actually enjoyed it… I thought I was gonna be a lot more nervous.” I am so, so excited about this development. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.

We then talked about whether the Porter knows about what Macbeth and Lady are up to, which is honestly something I’ve never considered before. “Maybe Lady Macbeth got him drunk, too,” suggested one woman. “Yeah,” replied another. “Then he wouldn’t be believed if he saw anything.” Others think he’s simply oblivious and possibly an alcoholic who is generally this drunk. Or perhaps he just got drunk this evening independently of Lady’s plot.

This led us into some ideas of how the scene could be staged. One woman suggested that he could be lying on the steps that lead from the house to the stage through the preceding scene between Macbeth and Lady. Another suggested he might overhear them while hiding. Still others played with ideas of how this might work with the Porter out in the house, in the aisles, with the auditorium doors being the gates, or maybe planting the actor in the audience and starting the monologue from there.

And that led us to begin talking about how this character might be costumed. Some toyed with the idea of his having fallen asleep in the gate house and being in his pajamas – maybe a robe, slippers, and stocking cap. Others don’t feel that he would be in pajamas because this is his job. I wondered whether a combination would be funny – as if he had begun to change his clothes and passed out in the middle of the process. Most people also feel that he should still be holding a bottle, which we’ve been able to manage in past plays by using an empty root beer bottle.

I’ve asked everyone to keep an eye on the recurrence of the number three (and multiples of three) in this play, and one woman noticed it in this scene. “There are three sets of people he talks about coming to hell,” she said, “And it’s 3 a.m. More threes!”

We talked through the casting process a bit – it’s a little complicated for those who’ve never done it before. Our method is for each person to choose at least three characters she’d be comfortable playing, and then we explore scenes on their feet until everyone’s had a chance to explore all of her choices. I put together a ballot with each character and a list of women interested in playing each, we run scenes in a circle as a casual “audition,” and then each person votes anonymously. I serve as the tie-breaker if necessary, and then we have our cast.

It was a really great night. We are rolling right along and beginning to gel as an ensemble. Progress!

Season Seven: Week 3

Written by Frannie


Tuesday


We begin and end every meeting with our Ring exercise, in which we lower a ring of positive light and energy and spread it around the room. As we finished lowering and spread out, an inmate poked her head into the auditorium to watch. “I wanna be in this class!” she exclaimed.

We began by reviewing Act I Scene vii, as a number of people left early on Friday and missed much of our discussion. A new member recommended reading the contemporary language before each session because that has made it easier for her to grasp the Shakespeare when it’s read aloud. “You’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God!’” she said.

“His conscience is working on him,” said one woman, “and his wife is pushing him toward the violence because she has ulterior motives.” She thought that those motives have to do with moving up in the ranks of society. We pondered why she pushes Macbeth in this way. “I don’t think she has the guts to do it herself,” said one person. The first woman countered, “I think she does – she just doesn’t want the blood on her hands.” Another woman agreed: “If she can control somebody else to do her dirty work, why not?”

We moved on to Act II Scene I, which centers around Banquo’s conversation with Fleance, Macbeth’s putting Banquo off of talking about the three sisters, and the famous “Is this a dagger…” soliloquy. One of last year’s members urged people to read the scene on their feet immediately, but we reminded her that it’s usually better to read seated first to make sure we all understand the scene and know what’s coming. “I love to see them on their feet, too, but we need to be patient!” I said to her. She smiled and replied, “You’re rubbing off on me, Frannie!”

Some of the women interpreted Banquo’s lines to mean that the witches had literally visited him in his sleep. One wondered if, in visiting him, they had told him more than he said out loud to Macbeth. Another woman pondered that, saying, “They plant the seed and set the ball rolling.” The conversation continued to include some musing about how Banquo and Macbeth might fulfill the prophecies even in trying not to. Several women referenced Oedipus.

As we moved into talking about the soliloquy, the conversation intensified. “He thinks he sees a sign,” said one woman. Another emphasized that she doesn’t think the dagger is real, saying, “You know that you’re doing something wrong, so you’re gonna find a way to justify it.”

One woman shook her head and said, “I’m like Macbeth. I analyze everything… And then I retro-analyze!” But, she continued, “You can commit a crime and then throw away thoughts of guilt.”

“No!” exclaimed another woman. “I’m sayin’ it ‘cause I’m here for murder.” She described her crime and train of thought in great detail, most of which I am not recording here to protect her identity. “Beforehand, my mind was saying, ‘It’s wrong! It’s wrong! You shouldn’t do it…’ In one half of my mind, I’m like Macbeth, seeing it’s wrong… But my dumb ass did it anyway. But the thoughts of guilt didn’t go away.”

The first woman built on that. “Am I satisfied or am I not satisfied? I knew it was wrong, but I said, ‘To hell with the consequences…’ I thought if I got caught I’d get two years or something…” She then described what led to her crime, which was not violent, in more detail. “I don’t wanna hurt anyone, but I don’t wanna starve or sleep outside one more night… But then later, the guilt comes back. You can shuck it, but only for a minute.” Another woman responded, “Before you did it, you were justifying so you could do it.”

Another participant said, “I’ve never been the one to dwell on anything. In my mind I knew I was gonna do it. [She said she had warned her victim.] Even now I don’t regret what I did… I have remorse, but I don’t feel guilty.” The first woman said, “I feel like what I did was just.” And this participant agreed, saying she felt that in taking a life, she had saved another’s life.

The woman who first spoke of murder further explained, “For me it was kind of a sense of freedom. And greed… I was trying to go so far, but I went too far… It was my impulse control and my greed… Even though my real self is a good person. But the person who wants to get further pushes that person to the side. It’s kind of like…” she paused and looked around the circle. “Macbeth.”

I want to emphasize, since my notes here are not of every word, nor can I possibly capture the feelings of the women and the way in which they said these things, that there was no moment when anyone was the least bit flippant. It was a serious conversation – they talked through what led them to commit these crimes, they did not excuse their actions, they did not glorify what they had done, and there was no question that these women own both their crimes and the consequences, and that they’re working through a process of gaining insight into themselves, their actions, and how they move forward so that they won’t do similar things in the future.

For example, the first woman said that, although she sometimes has those negative impulses and ambitions, she’s in better control now. “I know what I’d like to do, but now I focus on changing what I need to do to get what I really want.”

A woman who’d been rather quiet said that this conversation brought up something for her that she’s struggled with for a long time. “I’ve listened to a lot of people who want to commit suicide. I always ask why. [A person in her life committed suicide.] They cannot deal with decisions they’ve made in life – cannot forgive themselves for things they’ve done. They can get bound up by that. So sometimes it’s the opposite effect.” We talked a bit about this, and I encouraged her to dig into the play as we go to see if it gives her any insight.

One of the women then read the piece on its feet. We followed her intently – it was a deliberate, effective reading. “I could feel Macbeth’s anxiety and fear,” she said. The conversation then lightened up a bit – it pretty much had to by that point, and we left it at being intrigued and excited to work on the next scene – the aftermath of the murder of Duncan.

I want to note that, while exploring these plays often leads to somewhat detailed conversations about the process of committing a crime – before, during, and after – there have been varying levels of detail depending on each individual who’s participated, and discussions of crimes resulting in death have tended to be on the general side, and usually not until later in the season. It’s unusual for anyone to share about a violent crime in such detail – let alone two people – let alone two people who are new to the ensemble – let alone so early in the season.

It leaves me pondering how and why it happened tonight. What is the balance between the personalities and personal journeys of the people who shared, the “in” provided by the woman who began by sharing the details of her nonviolent crime, the level of trust already built up in the group (which hasn’t seemed to me to particularly take yet – and that’s normal), and this play itself. How much does Macbeth, which plunges us immediately into a dark and imbalanced world and drives so hard and so fast through crime after crime – which is so straightforward and so graphic – have to do with bringing about such a brutally honest conversation so early in the process?  

I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know that I’ll find it. I know that I deeply appreciate the honesty of the women who shared tonight. I think that’s enough for now.

 

Friday

 

We dove right into Act II Scene ii! After reading through and making sure we all understood the content, two people volunteered to read it on its feet. As they were reading, there was a loud knocking sound on the roof, which we all took jokingly as a sign that we were reading the right scene at the right time. Both women said they felt very good about their reading. The woman who was in last year’s ensemble was extremely enthusiastic. She had a small role last year but is really gung ho on doing more this time around. Another pair read and totally committed to the urgency of the lines. “We fed off each other,” said one of them.

A longtime member read the scene on its feet with Kyle. She played it very calm, while he focused on Macbeth’s anxiety. One woman put down her book and just watched, and she said that it helped her “feel it more.” I read the scene with another woman in a way that was somewhat opposite to the previous reading – I read Lady Macbeth in a way that brought her anxiety into focus, while she stayed fairly calm (albeit upset) as Macbeth. “He’s so reactional,” she said. “He’s stuck in freak out mode… She’s his rock. She steadies him.” I asked her if I had made her feel steadied. “No – but if she wasn’t there, God knows where he would have been.” We talked about this interpretation of the scene, which is a bit different from where we started. I shared that, having worked with it a lot, my interpretation currently is that Macbeth is in a state of shock that has him sort of sleepwalking through the scene, which further agitates Lady Macbeth. I reminded everyone that my interpretation isn’t definitive. Some of them like it, and some of them don’t.

A new participant said, “I understand this scene more than I understand any of the other scenes because so many people have acted it out.” This is why we stop to get on our feet as we read through!

Another pair read. It was this Lady’s first time reading, and she said that she felt she hadn’t done well because she stumbled over lines. Many others jumped in to tell her that she had done well, and several of them mentioned specific things she’d done that they loved. She brought up Lady’s first lines in the scene: “I was feelin’ that – that’s how I am. ‘Cause if I’m drunk, I’m really bold.”

The woman who had just read Macbeth is interested in exploring theatre and film when she goes home, so we went a little more in depth while analyzing her reading. We asked her to try it slightly differently to see what would happen. A new member volunteered to read with her. After the reading, this new member said, “I understood it a lot better doing it.” That’s usually the case! Another woman said to Macbeth, “You did a lot better. You were relating it more to you. I felt it more.”

“I didn’t feel like I told my story,” she responded. I asked her what was missing.  She responded that she wanted different movement, more effective pauses in her delivery, and she was frustrated that she had tripped on a stool on purpose but hadn’t fallen. She has been in the group for a long time and frequently has great ideas that are tough to execute without a lot of rehearsal, and we assured her that the tripping would have worked given more time. “In my mind’s eye… There would be perfect projection, the flow of my natural body… Does that ever happen?” Another longtime member said, “I’ve seen you have that! You had that once you had [your role] down. You were so fun to watch.”

We talked a little more about the scene. “Macbeth is not even Macbeth at this point,” said one woman. “He’s freaking out.”

We then took some time to say goodbye to a longtime ensemble member who is going home before our next meeting. She has been consistently and fiercely dedicated not only to her own work and journey, and not only to the well being of others in the group and the ensemble as a whole, but to the program itself. She has spoken many times, with great power, about the impact that her work in the group has had on her, and she has been steadfast in doing whatever she could to further the program’s mission and strengthen the way we work. She has been an ardent and constructive mentor, critic, actor, and coach. She has fostered close friendships with people in the ensemble and encouraged them to keep coming back even when things were tough. Even when she’s been frustrated (including with herself, and often with me!), she’s always looked for solutions. And she’s been a lot of fun to work with. We will miss her presence in the ensemble, but we’re thrilled for her and thinking lots of good thoughts as she begins the next chapter of her life.

Season Seven: Week 2

Written by Frannie

Tuesday
 

We got right down to reading tonight, beginning with Act I scene iv, in which Duncan praises Macbeth and Banquo and makes Malcolm the Prince of Cumberland. It’s a brief scene, and we were struck by Macbeth’s immediate response to Malcolm’s promotion; he sort of talks around what he’s thinking about. “All these dark things are in his mind, but he doesn’t want to say it yet,” said one woman. Others remarked how much Duncan likes Macbeth. A long time member smiled sardonically and said, “Yeah, Othello liked Iago, too.”

We moved on to Act I scenes v-vii, in which Lady Macbeth reads her husband’s letter and forms a plan to help him gain the crown, welcomes Duncan to the castle, and solidifies the plan while bolstering Macbeth’s determination to carry it out. This led to an extremely engaged and passionate discussion – in fact, I took seven pages of notes that I can hardly read, I was writing so fast, so I’m going to pick and choose what to include here!

One woman said, pondering both of Lady's monologues in I.v, “She wants her conscience done away with.” Another woman nodded her head, thinking. “It only took a letter from her husband to get her there. This must be something she wanted to do.” Another jumped in, “She’s probably always been ambitious, and in those days you could only get as far as your husband… Power is never seized by the kind hearted. She probably never wanted to be evil… But the chance arose, and now’s her chance… You’d be surprised how fast you can get there.” She said that she thinks Lady is a fairly young woman. “Sometimes when you’re young, you can commit more atrocities because you don’t understand the consequences of what you do.” Many people agreed with her, the conversation progressed, and she built on it, saying that Macbeth told Lady about the prophecy because he knew he needed her help: “’Be behind me in this…’ If she’d said, ‘This is evil,’ he would have been like, ‘All right.’”

A woman who’d been fairly quiet piped up, “Maybe she’s always had this darker side.” Another woman disagreed, saying, “There’s so much passion… Maybe it’s about getting the best for him. She shares in his accomplishment by seeing how happy he is.” And another woman disagreed with her! “I think she’s the man in the relationship, and she’s gonna get what she wants.”

We moved on to Act I scene vi, the welcome of Duncan to the castle. The conversation here was brief but built on what we were already discussing. “He’s really flaky," said one woman. "He changes the way he thinks every time something changes.” Another woman added, “I feel like Macbeth is, in fact, every human being. You could do evil, or you could not…”

Act I scene vii, in which Lady goads Macbeth into continuing with the plan, sparked a lot of interest immediately. We circled back around to the couple’s motivation. “I think he’s doing it to please his wife. She’s the one who’s ambitious,” said one woman. Another woman disagreed: “He planted the seed, though. He didn’t have to send her that letter.” Another woman disagreed with her. “I think he wrote the letter to say, ‘Hey, guess what? Be happy for me.’ I think she planted the seed in his head.” Yet another disagreed, saying, “He asked those witches what was gonna happen in between. It’s so easy to just blame the woman. I mean, Adam and Eve. It’s such an easy out.”

Lady’s language in this scene struck a nerve for many of us. “She was trying as hard as she could to belittle him,” said one of the women who’s read ahead. “I don’t believe she would actually do it. She’s just as flip-floppy as Macbeth – you just don’t see it till later in the play.” One woman said, “When I first read this scene, I thought she was the classic abuser in the domestic violence wheel. She’s using her child to get him to man up.” This led to a heated discussion about Lady as an abuser, which is honestly an interpretation that never occurred to me before – nor did it come up with the men with whom we worked this summer. At least one woman disagreed, though, saying, “This is how marriage works. You push each other to be better.”

Another woman shook her head. “It’s all about timing. Planting that seed at the right time… She’ll keep going at him and going at him and going at him till the time is right. You chisel at something long enough, it forms to what you want it to become.”

A new member said, “Can I say something that might be off topic or, like, totally off?” We said that of course she could! She then drew a parallel between this relationship to both Samson and Delilah and Adam and Eve: “The woman has the power to lure the man into doing whatever she wants.” A number of people jumped in, excited by this line of thinking.

“Bottom line: you have your own free will.”
“There are three different types of manipulation. Macbeth could have said no. Why is he allowing her to manipulate her? Is it because he loves her?”
“The serpent tricked her!”
“He allowed her to lure him. It’s not all the woman… He’s just stupid.”
“He started the ball rolling with the letter. A man knows his wife.”

It turns out that the Bible is not “off topic” at all – it’s clearly an influence, at least from our perspective. I asked the group to think about why, though, there’s not a direct parallel – where does Shakespeare diverge from the archetype? – where does he make it more complex? – and why? Who is the serpent? All seemed to agree that that role is filled by the witches.

“Yeah, what about the witches? Who started this?” asked one woman. “Are they making the future – creating the future?” asked another.

The first woman, who is new this year, excitedly said, “Oh, so many more questions are popping up! Do the witches have something to gain?” Assata, one of our student facilitators, pondered, “How do we know this wasn’t a test of his soul?” One woman added, “Is it fate or destiny? The witches could be testing him.”

“That’s us in everyday life, right?” said one woman. “Every single choice we make.” Another woman brought up the moment when Macbeth learned he was Thane of Cawdor. “Why wasn’t that enough?” she asked. “Because when he became the Thane of Cawdor, he thought, ‘Well, now I gotta do something more,’” replied another woman.

A longtime ensemble member who is going home in less than a year, launched into a train of thought that she clearly needed to get off her chest. “I’m glad we chose this play because of the thoughts I’m having about going home… [these thoughts focus on obtaining and/or dealing drugs, which is what she used to do]. I stopped and said, ‘What? I don’t need to sell drugs, so why the f**k just possessed me to think that?’ I just have these evil thoughts in my head constantly… He doesn’t need this. I don’t need this. So why the f**k am I thinking this? Why? I just wanna be not doing that, but yet my mind just goes there.” A couple of women started to respond, but she wasn’t done. “It’s not just that we’re manipulating others – we’re manipulating our own thoughts. It’s like my crime – I didn’t want to do it, but greed convinced me to do it.”

The new member who had said so much tonight said, “I’m sorry, can I just say something real quick?” We welcomed her to do so. She shared with us that she had been thinking about quitting the group – she thought maybe this wasn’t for her – but she’s excited now and is going to stay. “I never thought I’d be smart enough to sit and have this kind of discussion about a book like this,” she said. “You are!” said someone else. And the feeling she gets out of it, the woman said, is empowerment. We’re all so glad.


Friday
 

We welcomed several new members to the group tonight, combining our usual orientation with the conversation we’ve been wanting to have, setting down this year’s expectations in writing. It was a very constructive conversation until we began trying to settle on an attendance policy. There were a several disagreements and misunderstandings, and some ensemble members from last year left in frustration. We agreed that we would put something in writing just for now and re-assess in a month or so.

Those of us still in the room pondered what we should do next. On Tuesday, we had all agreed to get to know those scenes better so we could explore them further, and I jokingly mentioned that I had memorized the scenes (I already had them half-memorized and just went for it) but would wait to work on them till Tuesday. “No!” a number of them shouted. “You are doing this now!” said one woman.

Kyle and one of the new members read Act I scene v on their feet first. “It felt kinda good!” she said afterward. “It was easy to put the passion in the words, knowing what I wanted, and that I would be the one to enter into the achievement of it.”

I then ran the scene with a woman who was in last year’s ensemble. “It felt really good,” she said. The group praised her for her clarity and honest reactions. “Frannie was like a Chihuahua!” she said. They asked me how I felt, and I shared that it hadn’t gone the way I’d wanted it to – I didn’t incorporate my full interpretation. So we went for it again. “I felt more of a struggle,” said the woman, and I shared that I felt a bit better, too, although it still wasn’t what I wanted. The woman who had made me do this in the first place asked the woman performing with me if she could memorize it for Tuesday, and if we would try it again. We agreed.

Kyle then ran the scene with another of last year’s members. She said it felt good – she had the scene partially memorized, but she found that she got tongue twisted. We reminded her that this is totally normal.

The plan for next week is to play with these scenes a little more and then keep reading. We are absolutely, unanimously loving this play.

Season Seven: Week 1

Written by Frannie

Tuesday

It was great to officially get started tonight! We had a meeting last week to give our newbies a sense of what the group is all about and how we operate, and most of them were back.

We began with our now-traditional “three questions:”

What brings you to Shakespeare?
What do you hope to get out of this experience?
What is the gift that you bring?

I was struck by how many past ensemble members have returned primarily because of the bonds they’ve forged with others and the excitement they get from witnessing individuals’ transformations – that their reasons for coming back had so much to do with the mutual support they give and receive in Shakespeare, and less to do, at least in this first sharing, with skills they hope to build for themselves. We all remarked last year on how unusually cohesive the ensemble was, and just based on tonight, I think the primary reason for that is clear. It’s all about empathy for these women.

This is also the first time that I remember not a single new member stating that she didn’t know why she was there or what she hoped to get out of the experience. They have all been on the waiting list for a long time and are hungry for the growth, support, and knowledge that they’ve heard so many past and current ensemble members talk about. Their immediate enthusiasm, bolstered and encouraged by those of us so ecstatic to get back to work, was infectious and heartening.

A longtime ensemble member who is soon returning home pulled me aside for a much-needed, lengthy one-on-one. It is humbling and inspiring to be brought into someone’s confidence who is navigating such a daunting transition. I simply cannot imagine the grit and courage it takes, and I am honored just to listen to her as she ponders what this will be like, what her goals are, and how she intends to accomplish them. We will be rooting very hard for her, as we do for every ensemble member on the outside. I think of people often whom I haven’t seen in four or five years. I haven’t seen them because they have not returned to prison. The strength that that takes in the face of statistics that tell us how easy coming back can be – I don’t know if I would have it.

While I was chatting with her, the rest of the group gathered to play some improv games. Many of the new folks jumped right in alongside returning members. At one point, during a game of Hitchhiker, Kyle and a longtime member apparently did some brutal and hilarious impressions of me. I was totally absorbed in the one-on-one and didn’t notice. I may have to request a repeat performance.

 It was a fun and uplifting evening. A very auspicious start to our seventh season.


Friday
 

The group wanted to get started on reading Macbeth right away, so we circled up and opened our books. I described our usual method of reading together – we’ll read a chunk of or an entire scene, make sure everyone is on the same page, discuss, and sometimes put the scene on its feet to explore it further. I gave the newbies a heads up that pacing is a challenge, as people move at different speeds, and that everyone should feel free to express frustration as long as it’s constructive. One woman who moves through the material extremely quickly shared her frustrations from the past but acknowledged what worked for others and why that compromise was important.

Act I, scene i, is very brief – the witches planning their upcoming encounter with Macbeth. The ensemble dove into an enthusiastic conversation. One woman said, “This reminds me of Hocus Pocus. Like, before they got hung.” That led to a discussion about the lore of witches.

I asked the group why they thought the playwright chose to begin in this way. “The opening is catching,” said one woman. “It’s three witches… What are they doing?” Another woman added, “Who are they? What are they gonna do?” We agreed that this scene plunges us immediately into a place of suspense and foreboding. “It’s like the beginning of a horror flick,” said one woman.

I brought the group’s attention to the number three, which occurs over and over again in the play. We briefly discussed its significance. One woman said, “Once is good. Twice is good. You do it three times, it’s set in stone, so you gotta be careful.”

We moved quickly and smoothly through the next scene and then returned to the witches in Act I, scene iii. We stopped before the entrance of Macbeth and Banquo. I asked what our impressions of the witches in this scene were, beginning with, “I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.” Why that phrase? I asked.

“It doesn’t say what she’s gonna do,” said one woman. “But it really says it all,” said another. She elaborated that the vagueness of the phrase gives it the power to mean just about anything. A woman who, last year, had no preference in casting, went with the flow, and grew to love the process leaned over to me, eyes gleaming, and said, “I wanna be a witch!”

What does the story about the woman and her husband tell us about the witches? I asked. “They’re vindictive. They were all in, automatically. No questions,” said one woman. “They’re very powerful,” said another. “I wouldn’t wanna cut ‘em off in traffic.”

We kept going through the part of the scene in which the witches make predictions to Macbeth and Banquo and then vanish. One woman was able to read the play over the summer, and mused, “Banquo and Macbeth are sometimes opposites in the play. Good and bad. Foul and fair… Someone’s foul, and someone’s fair.”

We talked more about the prophecies and where they could lead – why Macbeth reacts as he does, stunned into silence. “It’s like winning $10 million,” said one woman. “But then you find out about the taxes… It sounds sweet at first till you learn more.”

We put this part of the scene on its feet. I asked what our first impressions were. “We need ninja vanishing powder,” said one woman. We all laughed and then brainstormed things we could do to achieve a vanishing effect. We then returned to impressions of the characters. “I feel like the first witch is the boss,” said one woman. “She can tell them to jump off a bridge, and they’ll do it.”

We put the scene up again with a different mix of actors, one of whom was the woman who was so excited about the possibility of playing a witch. She got really into the scene, and, as soon as it was over, said, “I need to practice these words!”

“Being a witch felt good,” said one woman. I asked her why. “Because you have power. You can do what you want.” she said. “I feel like Banquo is Macbeth’s little Chihuahua,” said another woman, and everyone laughed.

I asked why, after all of the battles and killing, this is what trips up Macbeth. One woman said, “They told him something that’s coming true, so he’s like, okay…” Another woman jumped in, “But he’s apprehensive.” The first woman agreed. “It’s too good to be true. It’s so good, but you got the fine print… Banquo’s telling him that they probably don’t have your best intentions at heart.”

The second woman continued to mull it over. “He himself prophecies without knowing… The dark deeds that are gonna have to happen… Subconsciously he knows it but spoke it into existence.” We continued to discuss, and she piped up again. “The poisonous trap they laid for him – he had no ambition. But now he has ambition.” And again. “Knowing you’re good at something, but you know the dirty work that goes with it… But sometimes ambition wins. It’s like dealing drugs. You know what you’re capable of, but you don’t want to think of the ugly things you’re capable of doing.”

We departed for the night, having covered a lot of ground, with a unanimous feeling of being incredibly excited about the play.

Pilot Intensive at Parnall Correctional Facility. Part 2 of 2.

From July 10-21, 2017, Assistant Director Kyle Grant, with frequent support from Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates, facilitated SIP's first-ever program with incarcerated men at Parnall Correctonal Facility in Jackson, Michigan. These are Frannie's reflections on the experience. Kyle's are in the entry below this one.

Following Kyle’s beautiful recap about our first ever program with men, I wanted to share some thoughts as well! I was not able to be present for every meeting, but I was there quite a bit. I felt completely folded into the ensemble, honored to be a part of the work, and deeply moved by the whole experience.

The conversations we had about the play were deep, enlightening, and, according to a number of the men, the first of that kind that they’d ever had in prison; for some, it was their first experience of such discussions in their lives. And they were totally on board with exploring scenes on their feet. It was not even slightly challenging to get people to read Lady Macbeth, which can sometimes be an issue in other men’s programs. They were all about it. All of it.

In week two, they worked with Kyle to put together a workshop performance of the play, using both original and adapted language to stage their favorite scenes, connected by narration. Every bit of work they did was heartfelt, committed, and creative, but we unanimously agreed that their “Double, double” scene was the best: they turned the incantation into a rap, with a bunch of guys (including Kyle) dancing around a trash can that stood in for a cauldron, another guy playing a drum, and three others (which eventually included me) reading/rapping the witches’ lines (complete with silly voices). Kyle describes the creative process in more detail below. It was so freaking cool, and so effective. And so fun!

I got to join them again on the last day of the intensive for final rehearsals and performance. The rehearsals were collaborative, supportive, good-humored, and fun.

The performance was incredible, and incredibly well-received. The audience of about 150 inmates was silent other than laughing at the funny parts and applauding between scenes. Most of them were riveted. During the bow, about 10 of them stood for an ovation. In the talk back, multiple people asked when we were doing it again and how they could join. Apparently a bunch of them went out on yard and told people who’d left before we started that they had missed something incredible.

Perhaps my favorite part of the talk back was when one man said (good naturedly) to our Lady Macbeth (who is extremely tall), “Hey, 6’8, you get ready by looking in the mirror at how pretty you are?” Amid laughter, our LM said, “Hey, I’m the only guy here who’s man enough to play a woman.” The whole crowd laughed, cheered, and applauded.

We went back to a classroom to debrief, and a few younger members of the audience just kind of followed us in and sat in on the conversation. One wrote down his thoughts for us before he left - he was so excited. Here are some select quotes from the time we took to reflect - tough to choose, given these 12 guys, in 20 minutes, hit every single one of our objectives without us even having told them what they were.

“I was shocked that this would happen at a men’s prison… They [the audience] were quiet, attentive… They were great. We changed their minds at the end - they were like, ‘Aw, man, Shakespeare weak.’ Now they all want to do it.”

“It really does bring you into another place… When you’re out there acting, you can’t think of prison… I started to feel like myself again.”

“It gives everyone a different vision of you. Gives them a new idea of who you are.”

“There’s something to be said about performing arts. When people lose the small-minded thinking and form a real group… It’s a very escaping form of art in that it allows you to get out of your head and where you are… The most fun part of the experience is not what I did on my own, but what we all did together.”

“Overall, this is something you shouldn’t take lightly. Kyle and Frannie grew up with this. But the diversity of this group - there’s no other way this group would’ve come together in here. I thought it would be horrible… But each of us clicked, and something sparked. The crowd saw the group’s diversity on the stage - they saw gangsters, drug dealers, Muslims, Christians, blacks, whites… They saw what we could do together. The crowd was with us ‘cause we was in it… It’s gonna transcend beyond this program… It’s a door opener that all inmates need to engage in. I got friends, and I definitely got comrades for life in Shakespeare Unchained.” (that’s what they named their ensemble)

“I been locked up for 13 months. This is the best part of my bit. I thought two people would have been timid to come into prison… That first day, playing silly games, we got out of our comfort zone… Watching people express themselves in a creative way, I want to express myself in a creative way. It was inspiring as hell.”

“I was on the way to a visit when [friend's name] stopped me and made me sign up… Doing the play - if we look deeper than the play, there’s a message. Challenges can be conquered. [Regarding prison:] We can conquer this.”

“This is larger than life to me. Look beyond. This is something I’m trying to stay involved in, not just here. It kept us focused on yard… This is something I want to teach my kids. I love it.”

“… What this program has done for everyone: It’s cultivated courage and nurtured it."

This was all after just two weeks of working with Shakespeare.

We learned a lot during this pilot, and most of the guys are writing reflections so we can learn even more - what worked, what needs to be adjusted, what their thoughts and feelings are. I told them that they have set the bar extremely high. They were an absolute dream to work with. I can’t tell you how floored I am.

We are eager to get back to Parnall and continue the work these men have begun, bringing more inmates into the program amid this initial buzz and excitement. We will keep you updated on our progress!

Pilot intensive at Parnall Correctional Facility. Part 1 of 2.

From July 10-21, 2017, Assistant Director Kyle Grant, with frequent support from Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates, facilitated SIP's first-ever program with incarcerated men at Parnall Correctonal Facility in Jackson, Michigan. These are Kyle's reflections on the experience.

 

It’s difficult to sum up the entirety of the experience over these past two weeks. I can only start by reiterating the same sentiment I and the other facilitators have rehashed a hundred times over the past couple years: I am completely humbled by the privilege of working with Shakespeare in Prison.

For the past two weeks, Frannie and I have gone to Parnall Correctional Facility for a SIP intensive; there were two sessions each day from eight in the morning until ten thirty, and again from twelve thirty to three fifteen. There were twelve ensemble members in addition to Frannie and me, although I think that all fourteen of us were not actually in the same room at the same time until the last day. We were contacted several months ago by Ms. Jamie Griffith, one of the instructors at the school who had read about us in the Detroit Free Press. Having no precedent at that facility, many of the men were a little unsure as to what to expect, and it was really her doing that piqued interest (and, in some cases, provided some friendly “arm-twisting”) to get our group together. We can’t thank her enough for the facilitation of the program, and the men at Parnall are truly lucky to be in her class. The intensive was, same as the nine month program, divided into two parts: 1) the reading and study of the play and 2) the creation of the performance.

When we arrived at the chapel (where we met most days) the mood was pleasant, but there was definitely an air of uncertainty. I tried not to let it show, but I was feeling a little uncertain myself - would it be different from working with the women? Would I find my place in the group? Would I dry out of material? Could I facilitate here, too? All these insecurities swirled around my brain as I shook hands with the men in the ensemble. I was really glad that Frannie was there, because she didn’t seem shaken at all - just her usual energetic self. We sat in a circle and went through the initial three questions we ask each ensemble: 1) What brings you to Shakespeare? 2) What do you hope to get out of Shakespeare? And 3) What is your your gift to the ensemble? Although not the unanimous response, the overwhelming response to what brought each person here today was some version of, “I’m not sure yet,” or, “I’m trying something new.” Despite the uncertainty (from both parties, apparently!), they seemed as a group to jump into the work. That first set of messenger speeches, as mundane as they are, jumped right off the page; they quickly took turns performing the, “Unseamed him from the knave to the chops,” section as dramatically as they could. It seemed as though they were hooked. By the end of the morning session, the men had recruited eleven more members - so many that we had to form a waiting list for next time. By the end of the afternoon session, we had several nods of agreement when one member said that for those few hours, he had forgotten that he was in prison.

The days went on like that with conversations that were rich, intimate, lively, and insightful - it frequently seemed too good to be true. Frannie and I couldn’t quite get over just how quickly the men in the ensemble had bought into the process. Part of me thinks that we, as facilitators, may be getting better at this, and part of me thinks that there was something very special about this cohort of men. One of the big responses we got from the post-workshop wrap was that it was the games that broke those barriers down quicker than anything. They didn’t seem to worry about the silliness quite like I thought they might; in fact, there was a certain amount of bravado that I hadn’t really expected. It seems kind of naive now that I didn’t expect it, but there was an unapologetic quality and a certainty to their silliness that was impossible to miss. They seemed to play off of each other’s strengths just right and make up for each other’s shortcomings in the same breath. It was exciting to be a part of, and humbling to facilitate. The major challenges that we faced most days were that the ensemble did not quite know what to expect, so they hadn’t really budgeted how much time or energy an intensive workshop like this would take. They frequently were exhausted at the end of the day or had to come and go for other call-outs with various groups in the facility. The other major challenge for the group was the heat. Many of the sessions got broken up because we were moving to a space with air conditioning, or had already moved and found out that another group had booked the space. As the weather heated up, there was a constant question as to where we were going to meet, or if we were going to stay. The ensemble members also said that many of them find it difficult to sleep in those conditions, so with our 8am start time, many of them were coming in with only a few hours of sleep.

After we had finished the play, chock full of the all rich points and counterpoints about Lady Macbeth, predetermination, moral ambiguity, etc., that Macbeth demands, we began working on the performance. The original idea was that the ensemble would write a sequel to Macbeth about how Fleance comes back to kill Donalbain and Malcolm; however, we abandoned the idea because we thought that writing a whole new text would take the entire week and give us a 5-10 minute final performance. So we as a group started to generate a list of what we thought the audience would need to know about Macbeth to get a basic understanding of the play. We narrowed it down to eight scenes and divided them up from there, the main caveat being that if anyone decided they wanted to work a specific section, that would trump whatever distillation of the play we had rendered. One member immediately said he only wanted to be the narrator, our most enthusiastic member said he wanted to do the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow…” monologue, and another said he wanted to do the “Porter” scene. We took out a few sections and ran with our program. Some updated the language in their pieces, some memorized, some read from a script, some engaged in heated debates over the editing of a scene, some took leading roles, and some took supporting roles; all in all, the performance ran the gamut and managed to capture the oddly cohesive spirit of our group.

Now, I’m not exactly sure how the following happened or when, but it’s one of my favorite experiences with the theatrical process. Anyone who has ever been in a play knows the scenario well: someone does something funny, goofs a line, breaks a prop, makes fun of the script, loses their mind for a moment...  Whatever the case may be, someone else watches and utters those immortal words we all know: “We should do that in the show.” And that is how the ensemble at Parnall Correctional Facility came to perform an interpretive dance to the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble...” scene. As I said, I’m not sure who had the idea or quite how it came about - it just sort of happened. I think someone started reading it, and someone else decided they weren’t reading it with enough chutzpah, someone demonstrated by reading to the beat, so someone else provided the beat, then someone started dancing to the beat, then everyone was dancing, then we all laughed till our faces hurt, then someone said, “So that’s how we’re doing it, right?” and I said “Oh, hell yeah.” That’s the story and, indeed, how it was done in the performance. They turned the scene into a song, with a dance in which everyone dabbed, and there were no fewer than six dance solos, (including mine) in which we popped-and-locked to, “Eye of newt and toe of frog…” It was a thing of beauty - true artistry, and some of the most organic collaboration in which I have ever participated. Another such moment came with naming of the ensemble. Frannie suggested that we name our ensemble, so we set out to find a name that suited us. Some of the ideas were, “The Shakespeare Thugs,” “The Pilots,”  and “The O.G. Shakespeareans,” but there was never a real consensus. The day came when the program needed to be printed, and suddenly we had five minutes to decide. Then someone just said it: “Shakespeare Unchained.”  Everyone stopped discussing and started nodding their heads, and we knew that we didn’t need to discuss it further. As organically as the “Double Double…” dance had come about, so came our name, and it stuck.  

One of my favorite moments in the two weeks happened right before the show, when I asked two of the members if they were scared to perform. One immediately said no. The other struggled to say what he was feeling since he wasn’t feeling scared but was feeling something like being scared. I said that it’s okay to be nervous, and there is a difference between being afraid and being nervous. Being afraid is when you might bail on the task at hand; being nervous is when you know you’re not going to quit no matter what, but you don’t know how it’s going to go, and you want it to go well. It’s just nerves. They both immediately said that they nervous as hell - they weren’t quitting, but they were both very nervous. It was a rare moment of vulnerability from them, and for me it was emblematic of the week. One of those men later told me that he struggles with depression, and that he writes in his journal every night to help him deal with the complicated feelings with which he struggles. He told me that during the two weeks, he hadn’t written in his journal once. There were plenty of such stories. One of the members told me that he had lost his son a few days before starting the program; his friend knew of his loss and convinced him to join the group. He didn’t tell me, or anyone in the ensemble, till the one-on-one interviews after the wrap. He said he had just wanted to focus on something positive. He said that prison life was difficult, and that he was touched that we believed in him (and the group) the way we did. “It’s like you saw the potential in us before we did…” and that gives him hope to bring back to his family when he gets out.

It’s taken me almost a month to get my thoughts together from this experience. There were so many more discoveries and powerful moments that I could have talked at length about. The days were exhausting for me; they were full of discoveries, walls of prejudice breaking down, and nuanced moments in which I saw the best of these men over and over again. The answer that I give for the “What brings me to Shakespeare?” question is always the same: Shakespeare in Prison brings out the best me. It takes all best parts of me to do it right; I have to be my most patient, collaborative, giving, creative, flexible, and humble self. I like myself best while I’m doing Shakespeare in Prison - it’s my favorite version of myself that I see all week. Sometimes I feel like I spend the rest of my week trying to be the guy who shows up to SIP - because when I’m there, it just seems come out of me effortlessly. I can’t help but feel like the guys from Shakespeare Unchained would share that same sentiment.

Session Six: Week 41

Tuesday

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

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

Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Six: Week 40

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday

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

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

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

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

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