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!
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.