Season Seven: Week 23

Tuesday

We continued our stumble-through of the play tonight and made some great discoveries as we went!

The plan was to work through the scenes chronologically, no matter who was absent, and we stuck to that. At first we sped along, deciding to leave discussion till we’re ready to truly stage things. Then we got to Act I Scene iii: the scene that follows Duncan’s murder. Nearly all of the people in these scenes were absent, and others eagerly stepped up to fill in.

A longtime ensemble member volunteered to read the Porter, despite having only a cursory familiarity with the role. She is an extremely gifted performer, though, so she had us laughing hysterically throughout. That set us up to continue to laugh our way through the scene, which was fine—we do have to have fun! When Lady Macbeth entered with her line, “What’s the business?” we, once again, could not keep it together. She has been speaking the line in a very contemporary way – emphasizing and prolonging the first syllable in “business” – and it just cracks us up.

I asked the group if maybe we should attempt to take the scene seriously, since we’ve determined that we want to tell the story that way, and this exercise is meant to give us ideas of how best to do that. We shook it off and started over. Now Lady Macbeth’s line wasn’t funny, and the scene began to take shape. The movement was mostly static—it’s tough to know how to move on stage when you haven’t had much experience—but there was a great moment when Macbeth said, “I do repent me of my fury, that I did kill them,” and Lady Macbeth moved quickly to him, putting her hand on his arm; Macbeth then pulled away.

Afterward, I asked everyone how they felt about the scene. This seemed like one we should talk about before moving on. One new member said she felt that it needed movement, but she wasn’t sure where. A longtime ensemble member said, “I think we should use Kyle’s triangle theory.” We’ve talked through this staging concept in years past, but not yet this season. “You wanna explain it?” I asked her. “Kyle can explain it better than me,” she replied, looking to Kyle. He looked right back at her and, totally deadpan, said, “I forgot.” We all laughed, and then she explained what she meant to the group.

Our facilitator Sarah suggested, too, that everyone on stage should be engaged in active listening. One woman said that if she were one of the characters in the scene, she wouldn’t just be listening, she’d be whispering to the others to see if anyone knew who had committed the murder. Another woman built on that, saying, “People should group up with whoever they feel safe with. If it was me, I’d group with my brother because I’d feel safest with him.” We talked a bit about various characters’ reactions to the assassination. Does this kind of thing happen often? Or did it happen out of nowhere?

We tried the scene again, keeping all of that in mind, and it began to work a bit better. The woman standing in for Banquo did something totally unexpected toward the end of the scene, speaking very quietly to Malcolm and Donalbain when she “should have” been speaking to the entire group. Interestingly, this seemed to raise the stakes, and everyone went right along with her. It was really cool. Afterward, she apologized for not understanding that part of the scene, but we reassured her that that was one of those mistakes we hope for. It changed our understanding of the scene for the better.

One of our ensemble members recently returned to the group. She went through a rough time last season and left for a while, but when she came back, she did so enthusiastically and vocally, promising us that she’d be fully committed this time and take on a significant role. She used to be very quiet and often succumbed to stage fright, and that’s not the case now! She volunteered to read the old man in Act III Scene i but immediately gave the role to another woman who hadn’t heard her. Just after that, though, I looked right at her when we needed a Banquo, and she jumped at the chance to step in. That would never have happened a year ago. I’m so happy that she’s feeling so much better!

Speaking of participation, two new members began to take ownership in totally different ways this evening. One has been volunteering to read in just about every scene. “I just want to get as much practice as possible!” she laughed, and it’s obvious that that’s what’s going on. She has no ego about this – she just wants to learn and excel. Everyone is very welcoming of that and happy to let her read even if it means they don’t get to as often. Another woman, who recently confided in me about her fears of messing up the lines, declined to read one of the servants, but what she said was, “Not tonight.” She’s not counting herself out! She just knows she’s not ready quite yet.

We were maybe a little slaphappy by the time we got to Act III Scene iii, in which Banquo is killed. The woman filling in for Banquo, on reading the line, “It will be rain tonight,” rubbed her arm as if complaining about arthritis. That struck me as so funny that I kind of lost control, and then the rest of the group started laughing, and the scene just kind of tanked from there in a really hilarious way. We left feeling just wonderful!

Season Seven: Week 22

Tuesday
 

We finished our reading of the play tonight! Everyone present chose a role to explore – including one of our ensemble members who had been conflicted about whether she should stick with Shakespeare or rejoin another program that she loves. We are all incredibly excited that she’s made this choice, and she’s taken on a great role to boot. The other woman who was thinking of leaving decided to stick with an off-stage role, saying she wanted to help our resident “director.” She explained, “I am really good at being bossy. I’ll give good off-stage critiques!”

We started musing about our concept again, and we realized that we’ve got a fast-approaching deadline if we want to get everything approved by the facility in time. One ensemble member suggested that we stumble through the entire play, beginning to end, not worrying about blocking; focusing just on establishing the plot the story we want to tell.

Someone asked, “Can we do that?” I said, “We’ve never done that before! But let’s do it! Screw the past six years!” This is something I treasure about Shakespeare in Prison: we’ve established a structure that works well, but we never hesitate to deviate from it when we realize something else might work better. We know that things can change from year to year, and we stay open to that. We’ve all learned a TON of flexibility this way.

As we began our stumble through, a few members of the ensemble took charge in a big way, reminding everyone to pay attention to cues in the text (i.e., Macbeth says the witches put their fingers over their lips) and to try to stay open to the audience. I spent most of the remaining time one-on-one with an ensemble member, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see how well everything was being handled, and how much of it was being handled by people other than facilitators. That’s a really positive thing to be happening in February, particularly as we were trying something new!
 

Friday

 

After a long (much-needed) check in, we decided to get right back to our stumble through. One of our new members approached me, saying that she didn’t yet have a role but wanted to take on something pretty small. She said she was afraid she would “garble the dialogue.” I told her she probably would – that we all do! – and that by the time we get to performances, she’ll be totally comfortable. She smiled and said, “I’m known for having can’t-do-it syndrome.” I suggested that she think of this as a challenge rather than as something “hard.” She said she liked that, and that she’d try.

Meanwhile, no one was on stage! People were sitting in small groups, either talking or looking over their scripts. “Who’s gonna get the ball rolling?” I asked. At this point in the season, facilitators take a back seat as much as possible, so we sat around some more waiting for someone to get us started. Finally, a returning ensemble member stood up and tried to get people’s attention and focus, but the stage remained empty. She looked over at me. “Get up there – they’ll follow you!” I said. “But I’m not in this scene!” she replied. I smiled and said, with more emphasis, “Get UP there! They’ll follow you!!!” She did, and they finally did, too.

When we got to Act I Scene v, our Lady Macbeth got tongue tied during her monologue. We asked her to slow it down and remember that these are all new thoughts. She did, and she and our Macbeth got through the scene, but she wasn’t happy with it. “I didn’t feel prepared. There wasn’t all the emotion,” she said. “What do you suggest, Frannie? What do you propose, ensemble?”

“Do it again, with the holy ghost!” said one ensemble member, hearkening back to when our Lady Macbeth had risen to her feet and engaged with such power in another scene recently. “This is not the holy ghost scene!” said Lady Macbeth. “EVERY scene is the holy ghost scene!” I said.

“Be you! Give it to us!” said that same ensemble member, and Lady Macbeth took on the challenge. She looked at her script, smirked, and said, “I’m gonna prep it this time. There’s this thing Frannie taught me...” She put her hands on either side of what Michael Chekhov called the ideal center (between breast bone and spine), and it was clear that she was only semi-joking. “If you’re gonna do it, let’s do it!” I said, running on stage to be with her. We turned our backs to the audience, and I coached her through some centering visualizations and breathing. I encouraged her to take her time and stay grounded, and then I went back to the rest of the group, asking that we all give focus even before she began.

She turned to face down stage, looked at her script, and took a deep breath. Quietly but insistently, our Macbeth said, “You got this.” Our Lady Macbeth then gave a powerful performance, much more connected to the text, and much more believable. When the scene ended, the woman who’d told her to get the holy ghost shouted, “THERE we go, [name]! That was IT!” Lady Macbeth clearly felt much better, and we got into some detail about how her performance can grow from there. We revisited the need to breathe on punctuation and went through some examples. This woman, our longest-serving ensemble member, lit up and said, “This remind me of Romeo and Juliet – the Nurse monologue… Even or odd, of all the days of the year, come Lammas eve at night…” I jumped in, “Shall she be fourteen!” She laughed and said, “Yeah, Frannie!”

We moved on, and when we got to Act I Scene vii, I asked our Macbeth (who is off book for this scene) if she was going to do her pre-beat (described earlier in this blog). She nodded and ducked into the stage left stairwell, which has a door leading downstage of the actual stage. I asked the group again to give focus so that when she came out, she wouldn’t be distracted. She came storming in, paused, shook her head (in character; definitely in character) and walked back out. We stayed silent. She burst back in, strode to center, and then paused, taking us all in.

“If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…” This piece has come a long way from the last time we saw her do it. She was confident and played Macbeth’s warring emotions to great effect. It seemed she’d gotten the “holy ghost,” too. We were rapt. She sank to the steps, and then Lady Macbeth entered, towering over her. The scene moved; they connected deeply and spontaneously with each other; the energy was electric. It crackled. We all whooped and clapped when the scene ended. “I’m dropping an F-bomb in my notes!” I shouted. One ensemble member shook her head and smiled, saying, “[Macbeth], you moved me.” I asked her to elaborate. “She just… killed it. She murdered it,” she said. “You were doing the speech, and debating it, and trying to give excuses, and she was like, ‘What?!’” Another woman said, “She was back and forth on the decision… The conflict. You felt it all through the scene.”

I told them that this is exactly what Shakespeare should be: authentic, connected, in the moment, letting the text do the work and just rolling with it. We started citing specific moments that had most affected us. Our facilitator Lauren noted how effective it was when Lady Macbeth got in her husband’s face on, “We fail?” and then backed off as she went into the plan. Lady Macbeth said she wasn’t sure what to do with those two words. “I’m just disgusted by failure, in real life,” she said. “We… FAIL?” she continued, wrinkling her nose, drawing out the word. “Do it that way!” I said, noting that that short phrase gets an entire line of verse, so she has plenty of leeway to linger for as long as she wants.

“This scene feels like a transition,” she said, and we all realized how valuable this stumble through is at this point in the process. This is why I feel – and know – that I’m always on a learning curve in this program. I forget how hard it is to “get” the arc and breadth of any of these plays without seeing or walking the entire thing. Up until last year, there was always at least one ensemble member who wasn’t able to put all the pieces together until our first performance. But this year, we’re seeing the scenes in order in February. It makes me really intrigued about how this will impact the rest of our process. I’m so glad we decided to change things up this way!

Season Seven: Week 21

Tuesday
 

“I’m so glad to be here tonight,” one woman as she checked in with the group. “Everyone on my unit is on ten!” After check-in and warm up, we got right down to reading. We’re very eager to finish this up and get the play fully cast!

We began with Act III Scene i, in which Macbeth plots the murders of Banquo and Fleance. Our Macbeth and I had made some cuts that we apparently forgot to share with the others, including Macbeth’s long “Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men…” monologue. “What, you didn’t want to list all those dogs?” Kyle joked. “I HATE that speech!” she laughed.

“Lady Macbeth didn’t have to push him at all to kill the king,” said our Lady Macbeth. “This shows his true colors… He just wanted her support. All along he just wanted to make sure she was on board.” Our Macbeth gazed intently at her as she said this. “How do you feel about that, Macbeth?” I asked. “I like it,” she said. She went on to say that she felt that Macbeth is feeling very powerful in this scene, and that she agreed that that was in him all along. “They’re both working hard to pull the spike from the train they’ve derailed,” said another woman.

Our Lady Macbeth disagreed. “It’s solely based on what the witches said—not Lady Macbeth.” She continued, “He’s not listening to me. I’ve lost my mind!” Whether or not that’s true, we decided that the witches are important because Macbeth relies on their prophecies. I suggested that we try running the couple’s scenes with a few different interpretations to see what would work best for those two actors. “It’s awful funny he doesn’t include Lady Macbeth. She’s been his ride-or-die all along, and now he’s doing this on his own,” said one woman.

As we continued, it became apparent that the ensemble is taking more and more ownership of the play, and that they feel truly passionate about it. One woman quietly read aloud with our Macbeth—not loud enough to disturb anyone, but enough that she could feel that language and understand it better.

Another woman asked if she could share an idea that “might be controversial.” Her thought was that it would be interesting and potentially powerful if the witches were never seen at all—if we merely heard their voices. She felt that this would give a feeling that they’re spirits or as if Macbeth is hearing voices. Another woman questioned how the audience would know that they’re witches. We agreed to keep this idea in mind as we continue to develop our concept. We think we can combine it with others.

We then returned to our ongoing discussion about whether or not we should cut Hecate. Having now read the entire play and worked it a bit, most of us are in agreement that those scenes should go. It’s very clear to us that they weren’t written by Shakespeare and don’t further the plot, and, since we need to perform our play in 90 minutes or less, we need to cut all the low-hanging fruit we can.

One woman did not agree and spent several minutes outlining reasons why Hecate does enhance the play. “Question: if the playwright did not write that—“ I said, and she cut me off, leaning back in her chair and throwing her hands up. “Aw, [expletive-too-colorful-for-this-blog deleted]. I take it back. Damn it all to hell.” We laughed with her. “Keep reading—it solves the riddle. Don’t add shit to Shakespeare!” she said, and then, “Put that in the blog! Don’t. Add. Shit. To. Shakespeare.”

We moved on to a brief discussion about the visual concept of our play. Our Lady Macbeth began by saying that she envisioned her character in a white dress that was extremely dingy. “Ooooh,” I said, “You just gave me the idea of every costume being dingy. But that’s probably not it. Anyone want to build on that?” Our Macbeth suggested that she and Lady Macbeth begin the play essentially put together, but that their costumes grow more ragged as the play progresses. Another woman then suggested that the color palate for the entire show could be dark colors—at first, we were all thinking of gray and black, but then we remembered that those colors are restricted. “What about dark earth tones?” asked one woman. “Oh, yeah!” said another. “We could go with a whole Druid thing. Those are Druid colors!”

We’re going to keep brainstorming, but this was a great start. We have quite a few costume pieces in stock that could be used for this, which makes gathering anything we don’t have much easier! Of course, we are always happy to receive in-kind donations of costumes and materials. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.


Friday
 

We welcomed back a longtime ensemble member tonight. She left the ensemble before performing last season but is clearly thrilled to be back and firm in her commitment to follow through this time. It’s wonderful to have her in the room with us again.

We dove right back into our reading. When we arrived at the scene in which Macbeth’s mercenaries massacre Macduff’s family, we paused to discuss. This is a highly sensitive scene for some in the ensemble, and I don’t ever want to treat it casually. So I asked the group why they thought the scene was in the play. We all agreed that its function is to show Macbeth’s progression as a killer. “We see how far gone he is: he’s willing to kill women and children,” said one woman.

Kyle then pointed out that Duncan is killed off stage, but everyone else is killed in view of the audience. Why is that? “Duncan was his friend—someone he valued,” said one woman. “Off stage, to me, was him not wanting to do it… ‘I’m gonna do this and try to hide it because I really care about this person… After that first taste of blood, he gets into a blood rage. He just can’t stop. But now he puts it out in the open.” She clarified that the violence grows more explicit as Macbeth grows bolder.

The conversation made me realize something I’d never thought of before – the only murders that Macbeth commits with his own hands are those of Duncan and the guards—which happen off stage—and Young Siward; someone he doesn’t know in the course of a battle. Interesting! “It makes me wonder whether he’s really the great warrior they say he is,” said one woman. “He seems afraid of actually doing the deed.” Another woman disagreed, saying, “Killing in war is less intimate. It’s his job.” A third woman built on that: “Maybe it’s what invited his killing spree.”

Another woman pondered whether Macbeth employing people to kill on his behalf parallels the work he used to do as a subject of Duncan. “Was he a mercenary, though?” I asked. “I totally see Macbeth as a mercenary,” said another woman.

We got to Act IV Scene iii, which is a very long scene mostly between Malcolm and Macduff. “All right,” said our Malcolm wryly, “Kyle is fired for making me take this part.” I told her not to worry, that we’d cut the scene down. Our Macduff objected, and I told her that we have to make cuts wherever we can. “We HAVE to pay taxes,” she said, “We don’t HAVE to cut the scene!” But when we’d finished it, she said, “That was the longest scene ever!” I laughed and said, “Yeah! That’s why we have to cut it!” Several others jumped in, “But not the end!” referring to Macduff’s reaction to the massacre of his family. “The end is beautiful. There’s so much emotion,” one person said.

We then arrived at the famous sleepwalking scene. We can’t touch this scene without talking! One woman felt that Lady Macbeth knows that her husband had Banquo and Lady Macduff killed. “She’s saying, stop!” said another woman. “No,” said our Lady Macbeth, “She wants him to stop being so obvious. I don’t think she’s against the murders—it’s she’s worried about being caught.” She said she thought that Macbeth fills his wife in on what he’s been doing between scenes—we as the audience just don’t see it happen. Our Macbeth countered that she didn’t think Macbeth explicitly tells Lady Macbeth that he ordered the murders. She thought that he is vague about it, and Lady Macbeth puts two and two together.

We noted more of Macbeth’s evolution as we read through Act V Scene iii. Our Macbeth pointed out that when the character talks to the doctor about Lady Macbeth, he never calls her “my wife.” Another woman said that he’s completely shut down at this point. “He don’t see her that way anymore,” she said. “He’s done so much horrible stuff; he’s trying to suppress what he’s feeling.”

One ensemble member then said, “Frannie, my body is falling asleep.” She asked if she could teach us an improv game she’d seen on TV, and it turned out to be extremely fun. One woman in particular wowed us with her sharp instincts and timing.

We’re almost at the end of the play! Our plan for Tuesday is to finish reading, cast the remaining roles, and move forward with staging. We should be able to stick to it!

Season Seven: Week 20

Tuesday

 

When we finished checking in, I asked if anyone would like to lead The Ring, since our newbies hadn’t experienced it yet. A woman who joined the group in September and was having a very bad day unexpectedly volunteered. She led it beautifully. She has been an incredible force in the ensemble almost since her first day, encouraging honesty, compassion, and good humor even when she’s down. She lets us know what’s going on, and then she rallies and carries the rest of us with her. I don’t know if she realizes what a crucial leader she is in the ensemble. I’m very grateful she’s there.

We decided to play Energy Around with names to get to know each other better and loosen up a bit. I explained the game for our new members and asked who would like to start. I was surprised and delighted when a woman who’s now been with us for more than a year (volunteered. She has been open in the past about how vulnerable she feels during some theatre games, and she sometimes sits to the side rather than participate. I’m not sure she’s ever volunteered to lead or begin a game before, and definitely has not when meeting a bunch of new people. She quietly exhibits more and more confidence the longer she works with us.

It was cold in the auditorium, so we did Michael Chekhov’s Six Directions exercise to warm up, and then we settled in to read the play; we want to get our newbies familiar with the material, finish casting, and then go back to working through scenes. We were excited when one of our new members immediately volunteered to read a character. Another soon followed suit. We buzzed through the first few scenes without much discussion, just summing up the crucial information in case anyone had gotten lost in the language. That changed after we read the first scene with Lady Macbeth and her husband, though.

One woman said that she’s gotten more frustrated with this scene – and this relationship – the more time we’ve spent with it. “I don’t get it,” she fumed. “They already have everything they need without the responsibility of being king. Why can’t that just be enough?”

We talked about that briefly, but there was something else bothering her. She said that she strongly felt that Lady Macbeth is evil and/or not thinking, and that Macbeth should take a more traditional role in reining her in. The woman playing Lady, though, countered that she thinks the character is “totally normal.” A new member jumped in, saying, “She’s just thinking like any woman. Any of us would be trying to get what they want.”

The first woman was still frustrated. “They’re thinking about the gain, but nobody’s thinking about the consequences,” she said. “That’s like everyone in Shakespeare,” laughed a woman who’s now in her sixth season. “Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew… Nobody ever thinks!”

Our Lady Macbeth then said again that she felt like someone went through this play and cut scenes before it was printed. She said she wished there was a scene prior to this one that would clarify the couple’s relationship. She felt like people were prejudging her character. The woman who began the conversation said she would love to see a scene like that. She didn’t understand why Macbeth wouldn’t “wear the pants, drive the car.” Kyle said, “That’s what Lady Macbeth is saying!” She shook her head. “Everything ended up bad because it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.”

Another woman said that Lady Macbeth has a power issue; she wants to be king, but she can’t, so she decides to live it through Macbeth. “Oh!” exclaimed a new member. “She’s Hilary Clinton!” We all laughed and reminded each other that we need to try to stay away from politics.

Matt built on that, though, by asking us how much we thought Macbeth’s public persona plays into Lady Macbeth’s attraction to him, as well as her actions in the play. One woman suggested that perhaps Lady had known that it was a mask or façade and saw someone she could dominate. Another woman agreed and said that Lady Macbeth had probably realized she could gain power for herself through him.

Our Lady Macbeth then broke in good-naturedly and asked us if it were possible that at this point Lady Macbeth is simply thinking about her husband’s happiness; she got his letter and thought about how happy being king would make him. She said again that she wished there were a scene between the two of them prior to this, and the woman who was so frustrated agreed again. “All right!” I said, looking back and forth between them, “You write it!” One of the women laughed and shook her head, but our Lady Macbeth, who is a prolific writer, said she would!

We then moved forward in the play, finishing up Act One. We put our ring back up and left for the night, feeling enthusiastic about the dynamic we’re already developing with our new members.


Friday

 

We began tonight with an honest-to-goodness acting warm up, and then, per one ensemble member’s request, we did Augusto Boal’s “Blind Cars” exercise.

In this exercise, people pair up, with one being the “car” and the other being the “driver.” The driver tells the car, who has her eyes closed, where and how to move by touching her with two fingers between the shoulders for “go,” on the right shoulder for “right,” and on the left shoulder for “left.” The amount of pressure indicates speed. The whole thing is done without speaking.

We did the exercise twice, switching roles midway through. When we reflected afterward, people gave all sorts of feedback about their challenges being the car – not so much when they were the driver. A couple of people shared with us that being the car brought on intense anxiety – their hearts were still racing. I thanked them for sharing and made sure everyone knew that, while it can be a positive thing to push through mild anxiety, any time it starts to feel overwhelming or dangerous it’s perfectly fine – and probably a good idea – to take a break from the exercise. Both women said that, while it really hadn’t felt good, they didn’t want to back off.

Then one longtime member pointed out that everyone had paired off with someone else with whom they were already comfortable. She wondered how thing would go if we mixed it up a bit – so we did! Unsurprisingly, the exercise proved to be more challenging this way, but it also proved to be a good ice breaker. And the women who were feeling anxious got through it just fine!

As we reflected on that second round, I asked the group what they thought the value of the exercise was – in general, in theatre, and in our ensemble. Establishing trust is always what we go to immediately, and someone pointed out that this is especially valuable in a prison setting. We also talked about the relevance of the exercise to our rehearsal and performance process – the freedom of knowing that we don’t always need to be in control because we have the ensemble’s support. “This exercise is kind of symbolic of SIP,” I said. “This needs to be a place where we can relax and trust others. We all need to be able to be the car here.”

We then returned to our read-through of the play. It was a run-of-the-mill reading at first, but when we got to Act II Scene ii, things took a turn for the dramatic!

Our Lady Macbeth began her reading intelligently, as always, but without much passion. Our Macbeth’s energy was a bit higher, although she was not emotionally engaged. But when they arrived at, “These deeds must not be thought after these ways…” Lady Macbeth moved quickly from her seat into the chair next to Macbeth. This sudden proximity caused Macbeth to bump it up a notch. Their reading intensified, and suddenly Lady Macbeth rose to her feet, clearly feeling her character’s anxiety and frustration. Macbeth then rose to her feet, matching that energy and raising the bar. They continued to feed off of each other, and the scene exploded with a fullness of energy and language that we haven’t seen yet from anyone this season. It was incredible – even those who were new to the program put down their books to watch.

When the scene ended, we burst into applause. “That was amazing!” several people said. “What happened?” one woman asked Lady Macbeth. “I got the Shakespeare Holy Ghost!” she laughed, and we all laughed with her. “Then I was like, all right! Let’s go!” More laughter. “But seriously,” she continued, “It took over!” Our Macbeth agreed – she’d been carried away as well.

The woman who’d suggested the exercise we began with tonight said, “Isn’t that just like the car game? Depending on each other?” Yes, it is!

“I honestly, for the first time, think I read it really good,” said Lady Macbeth. “Not only that…Normally I try and sound cool, but this time I felt like I played the scene exactly how I wanted it to go.” Macbeth said that when Lady “went for it,” she had been able to roll with it effortlessly. “Her chair moved,” said one woman. “I wanted some popcorn!” It was the best either of them had ever felt.

“That’s how this works!” I said. “You had an instinct, and [Macbeth] backed you up, which gave you permission to keep going with it. Shakespeare does all the work for you if you roll with it and trust your scene partner. Were you thinking at all?” I asked Lady Macbeth. She shook her head and said she hadn’t been able to think – she’d just felt it. “Right,” I said. “This language is pure emotion. If you let it drive you – if you can be the car – you don’t need to think at all about times in your life when you’ve experienced similar feelings; you don’t need to go anywhere near past trauma. Trauma is dangerous, but feelings aren’t. This language will call up all the emotion you need if you let it.”

Our Lady Macbeth then said that she had really loved our vocal reactions to what she had been doing; several of us just hadn’t been able to keep from giving her feedback in real time, we were so taken with her performance. “That’s not distracting?” asked a new member. “No, it really fed me!” she said. “Vocal feedback is good!” I said. “That’s when we truly know the audience is with us.” One woman joked that it had felt like witnessing. “Yes! For real!” I said. “Rehearsal can be like church!”

We read through the next scene with the remaining time. One new member is already pretty set on playing Lennox, although we agreed not to cast anything till we’ve read the whole play; she might change her mind!

 We wrapped up, laughing together and feeling extremely positive. I pulled Lady Macbeth aside before we left to tell her how much I appreciated her diving in and showing our new members what it looks like to fully commit to a scene. “That’s what I do!” she said. “And you’ve done it since Day One,” I replied.

Season Seven: Week 19

Tuesday

Tonight the ensemble checked in and played some games as I gathered with some new folks for an orientation in a nearby classroom. I chatted with them about SIP’s goals, how it works, and I answered all of their questions. Then we headed into the auditorium to observe the work already in progress and chat about it.

That had been the entire plan for the evening, but when I checked in with two longtime ensemble members, they said that they thought the newcomers might be bored. I asked if we should include them in a game or demo some Shakespeare, but one of the women said, “No. No! Three questions!” The other woman nodded vigorously, so I invited the first to ask everyone to circle up.

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

As usual, many people have joined us to try something that's out of their comfort zones, to open up, to make friends, and to learn something new. Most of our newbies have been recruited by past and current ensemble members.

One longtime ensemble member joked, "Shakespeare is like a marriage you cannot get out of… It’s such a commitment. The good days outweigh the bad days… Your mood is gonna get better just by being here.” Another said, “I’m just good, you know? Turns out I’m naturally good at Shakespeare.”

A woman who joined us in the fall shared that there are many reasons she joined and stays in our ensemble. "I needed to try something new – not get out [of prison] and do the same things over and over again... I know nothing but the drug life. This has actually helped save my life. If I hadn’t done this, my state of mind would have been the same as it was: getting out and getting high.”

The ensemble member with whom we joke so often about being older than the rest of us joked, when asked what she hoped to get out of the experience, "I don’t know. Age." We all laughed, and someone asked her about the gift that she brings. "Personality," she said. "And age!"

The woman who emerged as such an integral ensemble member last season - who came in so defeated and is now so confident - said, “I am… good at… Frannie’s staring at me and willing me to say it… directing. I try not to take charge and just give people good advice.” I immediately replied, "That’s WHY you’re a good director!"

A number of people needed to leave, so we wrapped up for the night. Next up: reading through the play with our new ensemble members and finishing up with casting!

Season Seven: Week 18

Tuesday
 

Almost right away, our Porter, who had been so overwhelmed last week, let us know that she wanted to try her scene again. Multiple people (including me!) joyfully exclaimed, “Really?!” We were surprised and excited that she’d rallied in such a big way and was being so assertive.

After a brief huddle with a couple of ensemble members, she launched into her monologue. Occasionally she stopped and apologized when she stumbled over words, but each time she did at least five people would shout, “Don’t apologize! You’ve got this! Keep going!” And even though her performance was halting, she laughed off each mistake, bolstered by her own determination and the vocal support of the ensemble. At one point, Kyle asked if she wanted him to “drop in” the lines so she wouldn’t have to read, but she smiled and said, “No. I can finish it.” And she did. And it was amazing. No one ever would have known how discouraged she had been from what she accomplished tonight.

We then did some problem solving with our staging. If you’ve been reading along, you might recall that I had been doubtful that we would stick with what we’d come up with, and I tried to introduce some of my concerns and ideas without being pushy. I explained that as an audience member I would be confused by the curtain closing between the post-murder scene and the porter’s; it would make me think that the location had changed, but we’d determined as an ensemble that it doesn’t. We decided to try leaving the curtain open, slightly adjusting some of our blocking. That seemed to work well, at least for now.

When we arrived at Banquo’s entrance, we were reminded that that role was still open. The woman playing Lady Macduff jumped up to fill in. I was having a quiet conversation with another ensemble member when I heard her say, “Did you hear that, Frannie?” I gave my attention to her and asked what I had missed. “I’m gonna be Bankroll,” she said (the inside jokes are well underway). “Oh, you’re gonna fill in tonight?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I mean I’m gonna really BE Bankroll.” Simultaneously, Kyle and I shouted, “You are?! That’s awesome!” She began to move on with the scene, but I couldn’t let it go. This is the woman who had only a small role last year, and has blossomed and taken charge this season in a big way. “How are Kyle and I more excited about this than you are?” I exclaimed. She shrugged her shoulders and smiled. She clearly IS excited – we all are – but she didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, so we moved on.

We stumbled our way through the scene, and everyone made great blocking adjustments in real time. Of course, it’s difficult to see the big picture when you’re on stage, so there was a lot of collaborative criticism afterward as we tried to figure it out. One woman thought that the Porter should fall asleep on stage and that Macduff should wake her on “ring the bell.” That works logically, but it made everyone in the audience laugh, so I’m not sure that we’ll keep it.

We tried the scene again, giving our Macduff some suggestions to help her increase her sense of urgency. Our Lady Macbeth had had to leave early, so another woman stood in for her. When she fainted, she did so all the way downstage, clinging to Macbeth as she did so. It was quite effective, but we all agreed that the staging will ultimately be up to the woman playing the role. We’ll show her how this worked, but we’ll all be completely fine if she wants to go in a different direction.

With the time we had left, we decided to work with the ensemble member pursuing acting on her monologue. She’s using “Sir, spare your threats…” from The Winter’s Tale to explore allowing herself to be both vulnerable and powerful. She tried it once with script in hand, and it was a solid reading, but she didn’t feel good about it. “I don’t know,” she said. “I wanted to go further.” She had the piece semi-memorized, so I asked if she might like to try it with me on book. I also helped her clarify the character’s objective and tactics to strengthen her already apt approach. She centered herself and began, glaring at her “imaginary other,” speaking low and with great intensity. Then she stopped. “No! Keep going!” we all shouted. “I didn’t get past the first sentence!” she said. “Yeah, but it was a great first sentence,” several of us said.

She took a deep breath and began again. There was an incredible amount of power in what she was doing. I sat on the edge of the stage to cue her and quietly rev her up when she started to lose steam, saying things like, “How could he do this to you? Rip him to shreds. Don’t back off.” Even so early in her work, she was able to harness deep emotion and pummel the other character with it. When the piece ended, she looked at me. “How did that feel?” I asked. She smiled a little. “It felt pretty good,” she said.

“It was SO good,” I said. “How did it feel to the rest of us out here?” I asked the others. Every person was shaking their head. One woman gazed at the person on stage and simply said, “Chills.” Another said she had been almost in tears.

The woman who had performed described her process thus far. “You know, I thought Frannie was full of shit,” she said, smiling at me. We all laughed. “But you were right. I do use comedy to mask things… And it does sound better in my own voice. I thought I’d need an accent, but this is better. It feels more true.” We agreed with her wholeheartedly. “And I really love this monologue,” she said. “This feels real.”

Another woman approached me afterward and asked if she could do monologue work, too. I replied that of course she could; Macbeth is a much shorter play than we’re used to, and we will definitely have time to do some experimentation. I asked what kind of monologue she wanted, and she said she’d like something out of her comfort zone. I asked her what that would be. “Something I can really put myself into… Something emotional,” she said. I’ll be bringing some options to our next meeting!


Friday
 

We spent the bulk of our time tonight brainstorming on some program development. I can’t share those details yet but hope to have more for you soon!

With the time we had left, we played a very silly circle game. After so much sitting and talking, it was a relief to move around and laugh. It’s a very strong ensemble. We’re very fortunate to be able to work together.

Season Seven: Week 17

Tuesday

 

We checked in briefly, with some ensemble members sharing a bit about their Christmases, but the general sense was that we wanted to get to work rather than dwell on a holiday spent in prison, so that’s what we did.

The woman playing Macduff very much wanted to work the scene that begins with the Porter’s soliloquy and includes her character’s entrance to the castle. She and our Porter had previously gone over the scene a bit and had some ideas to try out. I felt a little uneasy—our Macduff was very clearly pushing our Porter, who was hesitant. I asked her several times if she’d rather not work the scene yet, but she agreed to do it, so I let it go.

The ensemble collaborated to find the best way to stage the scene. They decided to use our curtain as a literal gate through which the characters could enter, with the knocking coming from back stage. There was some disagreement, though, and I reminded the group that staging a play need not be literal, only logical. I’m not sure that this set up will ultimately work, but we decided to try it out and see.

The woman who’s become such an assertive guide walked the scene briefly with the Porter, and then she gave it a shot. She stumbled on to the stage, sat in a chair, and peppered her speech with drunken hiccups. Though her book mostly covered her face and we have some work to do on the language, there were some very funny moments.

We’re really just getting started on the “rehearsal” phase of our process, and, while all of the feedback was constructive, there was a TON of it. One woman praised the Porter’s approach but said, “I would love to see more action from you.” She was interrupted by another woman who said she hadn’t realized the hiccupping was “fake” and suggested that it not continue to be used. Another woman responded that there was no problem with the hiccups; that the first woman simply hadn’t been paying attention. Another woman said that the hiccups would work, but, “we just don’t need twenty of ’em.” I could see our Porter becoming kind of overwhelmed, so I jumped in to acknowledge that all of this feedback was valuable, and that what I was hearing was that we needed to score the piece so we’d have the ideal number of hiccups in the best possible places, and our Porter wouldn’t have to improvise.

We circled back to the question of how the Porter might move during the scene. We’re fairly limited by the current staging; there isn’t much of anywhere for her to go (that’s part of why I think we’ll ultimately change it). One woman got up to demonstrate ideas she of what that movement could be and what could motivate it.

At that point, our Porter literally covered her eyes with her hand, slumping a bit in her chair. I interrupted (something I generally don’t do) to say, in an upbeat way, that getting this many notes all at once can be overwhelming and that we should cool it for a bit. I then offered to walk the speech with our Porter, and she accepted.

Standing back stage for a moment, I reassured her that she really had done an excellent job—that everyone was trying to be helpful and didn’t realize that it was just too much at once. She nodded and said that she understood. We walked the first part of the piece together, but half way through she stopped, asking if she could take a break and pick it back up another day. Everyone welcomed her to do so with no hesitation, not criticizing her or lingering but working together to form a game plan for what would be next. A couple of women sat with our Porter, quietly reassuring her.

I went back stage to where our Macduff and another woman had been waiting to go on and told them that we were done with the scene for the day. “But I didn’t even get to do my part!” said our Macduff. “You’ll get to do it another day,” I said. “She’s overwhelmed. We pushed too hard. We don’t push hard in this group.” We learned the hard way in our first year or so that if we pushed someone further than she wanted to go, she often left the group rather than expose vulnerability when she didn’t feel safe. Since then, we’ve all agreed to nudge, but not to push; that needs to come from each individual when she’s ready.

We moved on to Act II scene ii, the aftermath of Macbeth’s murder of the King. We decided that the curtain would be closed at the top and open on our Lady Macbeth, who would be pacing. The woman who is in her second year and has been increasingly enthusiastic jumped up to work the curtain and then was cartoonishly excited about opening it as fast as she could. It’s fantastic to see her having so much fun.

As we worked, I overheard a longtime ensemble member, sitting between me and our Porter, quietly encouraging her to stay in the group—not to be discouraged by one lousy day. She said that she struggles with mental illness (sharing detail I’ve never heard her say to the group at large) and that, “Shakespeare always makes me happy. Even when I’m mad. When I come here mad, I leave happy.”

Our Lady Macbeth stopped herself before Macbeth could enter, saying she felt like she had gone too fast and was “stuttering over words.” I encouraged her to slow down and not pressure herself to pace—to move when her thoughts changed and to let the language be percussive. She centered herself as the curtain closed, and when it opened again, what we saw was dynamite.

She had put her hair back, which made her look (and clearly feel) more feminine. She took her time, letting the scene build, and stayed totally focused on our Macbeth when she was on stage. Our Macbeth, in turn, played up a lot of anxiety and clung to Lady Macbeth, who became increasingly horrified.

We burst into applause when they had finished. They said they had felt pretty good, but we had more detail to give them! “You were just a MESS,” said one woman to Lady Macbeth. She also praised Macbeth for committing to what is clearly the right direction for the scene. “You must have read my mind, because that’s exactly what I was picturing,” she said.

The consensus was that what had been so powerful about the scene was the level of anxiety—and that we wanted more of that. I suggested a kind of “keep-away” exercise for Macbeth with the daggers, but the actors decided to simply explore physical distance instead. Fine by me—I’m not the director here!

We tried again, but midway through our Lady Macbeth stopped again, frustrated. “I feel thrown off,” she said. We asked her why, and she said that she had wanted to pull the chair out from under Macbeth but hadn’t felt like she should. “Go with your instinct!” shouted one woman. We all agreed. The woman who’d been on the curtain ran out from back stage and demonstrated how that chair pull could work. She acted out both parts—even throwing herself to the ground and putting her hands up, saying, “Oh my god, crazy lady!” This woman has always done her best, but she’s been reserved and shy in performance. Coaching in this moment, though, I saw a glimmer of real acting. So now I know she can do it. And I’m not gonna let that go—or let her let it go. Stay tuned.

She closed the curtain, and we tried again. This time the scene really picked up. Pulling the chair out from under Macbeth worked great, although our Lady Macbeth laughed afterward that she’d pulled with such intensity that she’d broken a nail. We gushed about how great the scene was already and gave suggestions for moving forward: heighten the paranoia, and don’t back off of those bloody hands. Our Lady Macbeth is itching to try the scene again once she’s off book, but it’ll be a few weeks till then because of another project she’s working on.

While I stepped aside with one woman to talk through some of her long term goals, the others began to stage Act III Scene iii. What they came up with, even in just those 15 minutes, was very cool. The witches circled Macbeth and Banquo, moving in various ways and at many different levels. They swooped in on whomever they were talking to. We need to refine it, but this was a great start.

It was a very productive, positive night, and, given that it was the day after Christmas, that speaks volumes about the focus and drive of this ensemble. We’ve had a lot of “downtime” this month as they’ve dealt with the challenges of the holiday season behind bars, and now they’re eager to move forward.


Friday

 

We began tonight by working Act I Scene ii, in which the Captain and Ross update Duncan on what’s happened on the battlefield. At first the scene was very still, and we brainstormed ways of giving it more movement and visual interest. Our Duncan said she felt like she should be at a bit of a remove from the others, which is completely appropriate. As we found ways of achieving that, another woman playfully admonished her for being quiet. “You talk louder than that in the unit, [name],” she teased. “Use that voice of yours!”

As the ensemble continued to problem solve, I stepped aside with the ensemble member who is going home soon and has a side project so she won’t be so bored. I coached her through the first monologue I pulled for her—Hermione’s “Sir, spare your threats…” from The Winter’s Tale—and she proved to have as much empathy for and insight into the character as always. She also has cracker jack instincts with the language and had begun to memorize it after just a few minutes. She’s going to do some work on her own and then explore it with the group.

While I was working with her, the group slowed down a bit, and it was difficult to convince anyone to get on their feet with a scene. Finally, our Lady Macbeth volunteered, although she was clear with the group that she really wasn’t feeling it. As a result, she pushed hard in her acting and was quite frustrated. I gave her some suggestions, and she tried again, but she still didn’t feel great about her work. “I’m just tired today,” she said. I asked her what she thought would happen if she honored that instead of pushing against it, but she said she really didn’t want to work anymore. “Thank you for being game even though you didn’t feel like it,” I said. “That’s what being a team player is all about,” she replied.

We then explored Act V Scene v (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…) a bit, with one of our witches standing in for the messenger. She had a lot of fun with it—so much so that we found ourselves focusing on her. “How should I react to him?” she said of Macbeth. “How did you want to react?” asked someone else. She said she had wanted to be nervous, even afraid, and that she also wasn’t sure she wanted to exit with him at the end. Those instincts are fabulous, and we told her so. “So are you playing the messenger?” one woman teased. “Yeah, I’ll do it!” she responded. We all clapped. “I don’t know what I’m getting myself into!” she laughed.

We’re going to come back to this scene on Tuesday to explore that and try some different things with our Macbeth. Her reading tonight was intellectually spot-on, but she’s having trouble portraying her gut interpretation of the scene. We can definitely help her with that.

Season Seven: Week 16

Tuesday
 

We got rather a late start tonight, and we had a long check-in when we did get going. In the midst of that, one of the women told me that a staff member with whom we have a lot of contact mentions Shakespeare every time she sees her, no matter where they are. She tells people what a good actress she is, and how impressed with her work she is. It makes this woman feel really good, and it’s another example of how this type of programming can help to positively affect the culture of the prison—this woman didn’t even know that the staff member knew who she was!

As the group figured out what we should work on, I took aside one ensemble member who has seemed very bored lately. This is her fourth year in the group, and she’s extremely committed, but she’s probably going home before the performance and is kind of lost as to what her purpose is. I asked her, “No three questions, but for real: why are you still coming to Shakespeare? What do you want to get out of it this year?” She cracked a joke and then said that she loves Shakespeare and wants to spend time with the ensemble, but that she doesn’t really know what her goals are. We’ve talked before about her desire to pursue acting when she goes home, so I brought that up and asked if perhaps she’d like to use the rest of her time to do some training—to work on some pieces she could use for auditions and spend a little time on audition technique. She loved that idea. I also suggested that we work on her main “weakness” as an actor: she is incredibly funny and often uses that as sort of a mask when her character is having a moment that is vulnerable. She is absolutely capable of authenticity but fears it a bit. So we’ll work on that, too.

We returned to the ensemble, where people were engaged in one of our favorite improv games. It wasn’t going particularly well—people were doing too much planning ahead, and other ensemble members tried to coach them not to do that. Ultimately, the game became too frustrating, and we moved on.

We then decided to at least read some Shakespeare, so we circled up to look at Act V Scene i. The women who’ve been cast as Lady Macbeth and the Doctor read their parts, and another woman read in for the Gentlewoman. It was a great reading, although Lady Macbeth and Gentlewoman tripped over each other’s lines a bit.

When the scene ended, the Gentlewoman said, “We’re all mixed up!” She said that prior to the CBS Detroit taping, she and Lady Macbeth had practiced reading this scene together, but with these roles reversed. Then, at the last minute, the woman who read Lady Macbeth tonight had insisted that they switch. The latter woman pointed at the other and shouted, “Thou liest!” We all had a big laugh. Then the first woman, who is quite petite, said that she had agreed to switch without a problem: “I decided I was gonna be the bigger person.” The second woman, who is quite tall, burst out laughing and said, “The bigger person!” Another big laugh from the whole ensemble.

Our Lady Macbeth then told us that she’s been writing out “scene breakdowns” – the way she envisions the scenes she’s in and how she should perform them. “I don’t know, what do you think?” she asked us. “Is she really sad, or is there more of her ruthlessness here?” We started to have a casual debate about that. One person suggested that she begin with how the character is feeling, and how she would be feeling in that situation.

That sent up a bit of a red flag for me. The woman who is playing this role has previously shared details of her crime with me that most people in the group (including other facilitators) don’t know, and she’s also shared that she’s dealt (and is dealing) with a lot of guilt that has frequently kept her up at night. She knows she’s grown a lot, but she also knows she’ll never be free of what she’s done.

Because of that, it seems dangerous to me for her to approach the scene in a way that might lead to her leaning on “emotional memory,” an acting technique that actors use to recall their own emotional experiences and put them into a scene (that’s a really simplistic description, but you’ve got the gist). It’s something that can be very touchy if we’re dealing with a traumatic situation, and we definitely are in this case. We keep each other very safe in our ensemble, and part of that is drawing on aspects of our past experiences without reliving them. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and starting with her own feelings could be really traumatic for this woman. This technique can also lead to telling our own stories rather than the characters’.

The person who made the suggestion was not at fault here at all—she doesn’t know the details of the situation and was trying to be helpful. I quickly jumped in, though, to agree that it’s good to think of how we are like our characters, but also how we are not like them, and that it really does work best if we begin with our character’s objective rather than trying to play emotions.

I think what needs to happen here is for me to work individually with our Lady Macbeth, away from the group, to make sure she has the techniques she needs in order to work on the scene safely. I don’t think anyone else should be in on that initial work—she needs to know for certain that she can trust the input she’s getting, and so, at first, it needs to come from someone who knows the details. I’ll be talking with her and the other facilitators about this as soon as I can.


Friday


Tonight we decided to dive into staging the first scene of the play! We began by talking about why Shakespeare begins the play this way. Everyone agreed that he wants us to feel a sense of foreboding and being off balance right away, and that the atmosphere should be eerie, dark, gloomy, and evil; that we need thunder, lighting, and fog. We need to figure out how we accomplish those last three—whether the effects should be organic or more technical—but that wasn’t our focus tonight.

So, where should these witches start? One person suggested they all come from the wings. Another suggested they begin circled up behind the curtain. But then a woman who was in the ensemble last year strongly suggested that the first witch come through the curtain as the others come down the two aisles in the house. We all loved that idea and set about putting it in practice.

What followed was some absolutely incredible collaboration. Nearly everyone contributed ideas and even walked parts of the scene with the people playing those characters. I walked the aisles with those witches a couple of times just because the pacing was difficult to explain, encouraged them not to crouch too low (so they could be seen above people’s heads), and then I pretty much just sat and observed. It was difficult for them to work with their books, so three other ensemble members volunteered to drop in their lines.

The scene was downright amazing. Our first witch came bursting through the curtain, arms out so those curtains actually look like wings, laughing an absolutely chilling “evil” laugh. The others dove in as well, whispering, hissing, laughing, and generally just having a great time. It’s some of the best work I’ve seen at this point in the process. “I think we answered the question you asked, Frannie,” said one woman. “I think the audience is gonna feel what we want them to feel.” Absolutely. I would stage it this way if I were directing it professionally!

I sat to the side with one ensemble member to talk about something specific at that point, but from the corner of my eye I could see the collaboration continuing with very little input from Kyle. It was very exciting.

The ensemble member with whom I spoke was the one playing Lady Macbeth. As I mentioned above, I had some concerns about how we should approach the sleepwalking scene. I explained those to her, and she agreed that we should work it without the rest of the group at first. “It’ll be good to have that one-on-one trust,” she said. This woman has difficulty with the content of another scene in the play, but after having an in-depth talk with a good friend who’s in the ensemble, she’s decided to try to face her discomfort rather than running from it. “It’s hard to face something that hurts so much,” she said. But she knows that facing it in our safe space will be easier than facing it elsewhere.

As the evening progressed, I continued to mostly sit silently to the side, taking notes. The woman who’d had that great idea for the first scene continued to kindly but firmly take charge when needed. She talked through our Macbeth’s entrance for her “If it ’twere done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…” and then jumped up on stage with her to walk it. Another woman also leapt up to contribute her ideas, all of which the other two took in stride. Others were simultaneously involved in a friendly debate about other staging options. And then I looked over and saw two people working on a scene of theirs in the back of the house, completely unprompted.

When our Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were ready to begin, the woman who’d been taking charge called the group to focus. Our Macbeth had memorized the scene, so she was a little hesitant in certain places, but it was a great read anyway. She ended the soliloquy by sitting on the edge of the stage, so when Lady Macbeth entered she stood on the steps, towering over her. The latter woman is significantly taller than our Macbeth anyway, so this visual was incredibly powerful.

When they had finished, we all told them how great the reading had been. They said it had felt good for them, too, and then I asked everyone what we could do to build on it. One woman began giving notes to our Macbeth, and I was struck by what she was saying. In acting jargon, she was speaking to the character’s prebeat and objective from beat to beat—she didn’t use those words, of course, but she sounded like any professional director giving notes. It was pretty exciting.

Two women had been debating some staging ideas, and things had gotten to a place that wasn’t totally constructive. Kyle had mediated it well, but I hadn’t overheard it in detail and approached one of the women during the next run to see what was going on. This is the woman, about whom I often write, who has such amazing instincts about staging. She had a really creative idea for this scene that we definitely want to try. It isn’t totally textually supported (which was the other woman’s point), but it’s worth a try anyway in case it works or leads us to something that does.

A number of people then left early, so I asked our Macbeth if she wanted to try some “actor stuff” with her soliloquy. We try to stay away from making this an “acting class,” but some of the women really dig that kind of detail, and she’s one of them. We talked about the anxiety Macbeth has at the top of this piece and came up with an image she could place in what Michael Chekhov calls the “ideal center” (literally in the center of your chest, beside your heart). That image was a jackhammer. I also urged her to focus on an objective of getting help from the audience—of trying to get us to tell her not to do it.

Her performance was quite powerful. It petered out toward the end, and we talked about the need to build rather than back off. Before we left, one woman said, “I love this monologue. This is our everyday. We deal with thinking through the right thing all day long… It’s like, after you’ve been in jail, you know you shouldn’t drive. But by day two, you’re like, ‘Where are my keys?’”

Season Seven: Week 15

Tuesday
 

Tonight we embarked on casting as planned! After our check-in, we grabbed chairs and circled up.

As anticipated, most casting was settled on quickly and easily – there was almost no overlap between first choices. Where multiple people were interested in the same role, we worked together to find compromises. The most exciting compromise was between two women who wanted to play the Third Witch. One of them leaves early on Tuesdays for another commitment, so the other one agreed to understudy/role share to avoid holding up rehearsals with absences; this woman is taking on another role that she really wanted as well.

As we talked through the casting of the witches, one woman floated the idea that, rather than casting other people as the apparitions, the witches could be possessed by them and deliver the lines themselves. We were all pretty excited about that. We’ll see how it works in practice!

A number of roles are vacant, as we’ve recently lost some ensemble members. We decided to leave those roles open for now. The plan is to read through the play with our initial cast looking for cuts and places to eliminate or combine characters. Then we’ll add new members, read through the play with them to get them oriented and determine their casting, and go full steam ahead into the next phase of the program.

Two women who had planned to leave the group in January to participate in another asked the rest of the ensemble if they might be able to stay in an “off-stage” capacity, since they would always be able to be present for part of the time before going to their other commitment. We all agreed that that would be great; they can provide valuable input from the audience, stand in for people who are absent, and help out back stage during the show. We’re all very glad that they’ll be able to stay.


Friday


We had fairly low attendance tonight. Several people came briefly to let us know what was going on and then had to leave. Some of this was situational and some was emotional. Others were absent entirely.

But we still do good work with a smaller group! Our focus tonight was on making the first cuts to our script now that most parts have been cast. We decided that we would leave alone the lines of those characters who’ve been cast, but whose actors were absent. But we also decided that it would be fine to cut lines of characters who haven’t been cast for efficiency’s sake; if we add a new person to play a given role who strongly feels that something should be added back in, we can do that then.

The process of making cuts is always more fun for some than others. It took a little while to get our newbies acclimated to our strategy, too. When we make cuts, we don’t approach it in an academic way. Our decision-making process is essentially:

•    Is this information vital for the actor playing the character?
•    Is this information vital to understand the plot?
•    Is there an individual word or phrase here that will make understanding easier for the audience?
•    Does the cut still make sense as a sentence or phrase?
•    If certain lines are tripping an ensemble member up, and that’s why they need to be cut or altered, how do we deal with that creatively?
•    If an ensemble member truly loves certain lines, is it okay to leave them in place? (The answer to that is usually yes.)

At this point, we’re looking for obvious cuts rather than detailed ones – the need for those will be clearer once we’re on our feet. We also came up with a few ideas of how to keep people engaged who don’t enjoy this part of the process, and we’ll start implementing those next week.

One of the women shared with us that she had been watching Jeopardy when “Shakespeare” was a category, and she’d been really excited about it. Another woman said she’d seen it, too. “It feels so cool when you can answer Jeopardy questions, and it’s because of this class,” one of them said.

The woman who is playing Lady Macbeth jokingly said to our Macbeth, “I feel like Lady Macbeth is gonna be the ruler of you.” We all laughed. She continued, “My bunkie – she’s wondering, ‘I wonder if milk’s gonna be the same price when I get out.’ And I’m wondering, “I wonder if [Macbeth] is gonna let me boss her around.”

Season Seven: Week 14

Tuesday

We revisited Act IV scene ii and the ongoing debate about Lady Macduff’s son’s age. We are still divided on this – some really think he’s under the age of 11, and some feel firmly that he’s older. We discussed textual evidence for both interpretations, and then one woman said that she thought he might be a young teen with the mentality of a younger child. I asked her what evidence there was in the text for that – I hadn’t seen any – and she pointed out specific passages that illustrated her point. So it’s there.

One woman likened this interpretation to the child in Mad Max, also humorously offering, “Back then, the life span was, like, thirty… So at ten, you’re, like, half dead.”

Things started to get a bit heated, and I reminded everyone that there are many aspects of this play on which we’re never all going to agree, and this is one. It’s going to be up to the woman who ends up playing the character.

One woman was extremely frustrated with the whole conversation. She came down on the side of him being a young child, and she really didn’t see the merits of the other interpretations. She was sitting next to me, and I leaned over and said, “I can see that you’re upset. This is a little frustrating for me, too, because I agree with you. But there really are openings for other interpretations. And you’ve gotta ask yourself, how much does this matter? Is this a hill worth dying on?” She cracked a little smile, visibly relaxed a bit, and said, “No, it’s not. You’re right.”

In the meantime, I discussed some things aside with a couple of ensemble members. I talked through where we were on casting with a longtime member, who had some great input. Another woman asked me what I thought about a woman who dropped earlier this season due to a conflict rejoining – it turns out her conflict isn’t happening. We are going to put it to the group to see what they think.

At that point, programming for the evening was canceled per the facility, so we ended about an hour early. It was an abrupt end to the meeting, but we’re not in a time crunch right now, so it won’t hurt the work we’re doing.

Friday

It turned out that tonight needed to be a time for sharing and support, as well as some planning, so we never got around to scene work. As previously stated in this blog, though, it’s very typical for us to ditch productivity in favor of accommodating heightened emotions this time of year, so it was still a very positive night.

Our check-in was extremely long. Usually it takes about 15 minutes, and tonight it took 45. The things that were shared were very personal, and I can’t record them here, but I do want you to know that the ensemble was as wonderful as usual about lifting each other up, giving advice where appropriate, being encouraging, and giving whatever space was needed.

Finally, we caved, grabbed chairs, and sat in a circle. We talked about some potential projects for the group, and we talked about casting. It was decided that we would cast the play on Tuesday with whomever is there. The people who were present said they would try to get the word out to everyone else not let them know.

Many people were also concerned about the number of others who have recently dropped. That has happened for a variety of reasons. I realized that most people in the room have only been in the group this year or since last year; the latter was an outlier in that no one left the group until very late in the season – and then it wasn’t very many people.

I asked them to try not to get discouraged – that it’s actually typical for us to lose a number of people over the holidays. I suggested that we go ahead and cast most of the roles and then consider adding a new group of people in January or February. My guess is that that’s what we’ll do. It’s impossible to anticipate who might drop and when, so, even though we have enough people to cast the play right now, there’s no guarantee that everyone will still be around for the performance. Particularly because a few ensemble members want only small roles, it’ll probably be our best bet to add 5-10 more people.