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.

Session Six: Week 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Six: Week 38

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Six: Week 37

Tuesday

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

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

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


Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Session Six: Week 36

Tuesday

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

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

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

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

Friday

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

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

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

Session Six: Week 35

Tuesday

Written by Matt

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

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

“Wait. Who are you saying that to?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday

Written by Kyle

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

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

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

Session Six: Week 34

Tuesday

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday

 

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

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

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

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

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

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