Session Six: Week 33

Tuesday

Tonight began with a discussion about our options for next season’s play. We reviewed the themes of each play we were considering and then did an anonymous vote. We ended up in a tie between Macbeth and As You Like It, with three people voting for other plays. The ensemble wanted an immediate decision, and our general policy is that decisions get made by the people in the room (unless it predominantly affects one person), so those three ensemble members voted again to break the tie. We ended up with Macbeth. Most of us are very excited about it. Others are a little disappointed, but no one threatened to leave the group or anything! One woman is upset only because she will be leaving prison before the final performance, and she is really intrigued by the play. I hope she’ll stay with us for the exploration part of the season.

We decided to work through the end of the play before we move on to our next goal: making our way through the entire thing in chronological order, no matter who is absent, so we can be sure our entrances, exits, and curtains all work.

We talked through how to stage these scenes, which go back and forth between Richard’s and Richmond’s tents, and then evolve into the battle. We decided as a group that when coming and going from the camp, people would enter and exit from the wings; when leaving the camp, people will enter and exit through the doors on either side of the stage.

We did a lot of detail work with our acting and the text, even though staging was our goal. We talked through the level of urgency needed in the scene between Richmond and Stanley – what are their objectives? How well do they know each other? How quickly does this scene need to happen? Our Richard, although very tired, rallied and delivered a remarkable performance of her post-ghost soliloquy. “That was great,” said one woman. “Every time your thoughts changed, you moved.”

We talked through Ratcliffe’s reaction to Richard’s obvious unraveling. And after our Richmond took a couple of (very effective) stabs at her monologue rallying the troops, I pulled her aside to do some work with the text, specifically with antithesis and key words. Many ensemble members over the years have been bored by this aspect of working with Shakespeare, so we tend not to belabor it, but this ensemble member is “a huge dork,” in her own words, and she was receptive to and excited about exploring this further.

The transition to the battle presented some challenges. One woman suggested that we have a battle soundscape, possibly without any on stage action. But it seemed to us that the stage directions called for a visual. We came up with a very cool solution that involves closing the curtain so that we can strike the tents, Catesby directly appealing to the audience for help, Richard wandering on the floor in front of the stage calling out for a horse, and the curtain opening on Richmond, ready for the fight.

We took a few minutes to review the sword fight and then staged the very end of the play. Several people remarked that they were relieved to have all of that settled and eager to begin at the beginning on Friday.

 


Friday

 

Two ensemble members told us tonight that they have quit their dance class, which conflicts with Shakespeare one night per week, so that they can fully commit to rehearsal. We thanked them for their dedication – it’s a big thing to give up another activity that is so enjoyable, and we do not take it for granted.

We stuck to our plan and began at the beginning of the play. I was involved in a one-on-one conversation with an ensemble member outside of the auditorium, and when we came in, we found our Richard delivering an incredibly powerful opening soliloquy – completely off book. Something that is remarkable about her interpretation is how much humor she’s finding in the role. It’s refreshing after normally seeing Richard played as deadly serious or only mildly sardonic. She’s pushing it much further, and it works very well.

We got to the big scene with Richard and Anne. Our Anne, as you may recall, has severe anxiety and is really pushing herself by playing Anne. She and I had worked out a plan in which she and I would work on her monologue without the rest of the group to get her comfortable with it, but we hadn’t done that yet, and here we were at the scene. I asked her if she would be okay with just going up on stage and saying the lines – if we could let the group know that that’s all she was going to do, and that the acting would come in later. She said that would be fine, and we communicated our plan to the others, who were very encouraging.

Standing back stage preparing to go on, our Anne took a deep breath, smiled shakily, and said, “I’m gonna die.” Before I could say anything, another ensemble member simply, firmly, and kindly said, “No. You’re not. You’ve got this.”

Before we got to that, we took a few minutes to explore the brief scene between Richard and Hastings. Hastings has just gotten out of prison – how should that look? And how does Richard feel vs. the way he behaves? It’s a quick scene, but it’s very interesting!

And then we got to Anne’s entrance. She knelt behind the “corpse” (we are using a table with folded up legs) and said her lines, clearly nervous but not rushing, landing every word and phrase. When she got to the end, the ensemble burst out in applause and cheering. We moved on to the rest of the scene, which involves Richard, and both of the women on stage showed very clearly that they understand the language and have a general idea of what to do in the scene. When we got to the end, everyone cheered again, and we asked our Anne how she felt. She said that it hadn’t been as bad as she thought it would be. That is really, really common in our program – if someone feels safe and empowered enough to get themselves on stage, they universally come out on the other end of the scene feeling relieved and surprised that they got through it. In an earlier post, I shared about another woman in our ensemble who hasn’t had as vocal a journey, but had the same break through very recently. I asked her if she could speak from her experience. “I feel like [our Anne] was into it but can be more open,” she said. “It gets better,” she continued, speaking directly to the woman on stage. “It took me four times to open up.”

I asked if they wanted to do the scene again, and, much to our delight, both women said they did. We asked them both to focus on their characters’ objectives. Our Anne dove further into the language this time, beginning to become rooted in the character’s emotions. She physically recoiled when Richard touched her and began to feel free to move around the stage more. Our Richard also made great adjustments to increase her charm – she was a little too creepy at first!

We kept rolling through the play. At one point, our Richard left the room briefly. When she came back, she saw that the others were mid-scene without her and just flew down the aisle to the stage, saying her lines even though she wasn’t sure exactly where they were. We all laughed, and some people rolled their eyes, but it was all with good humor. We love how enthusiastic she is.

We ended with the scene in which Margaret curses everyone. We worked on this a few weeks ago, so we picked up where we left off – finding movement for Margaret that is specific and won’t weaken her. We found it. Her interpretation is powerful and sparked organic, appropriate reactions in the others on stage. I remarked that this is a truly amazing feature of live theatre – the more you give to others on stage, the more they give to you, and on and on. “Yeah,” said our Richard. “Her energy was high, so my energy could be really high… It was easy to get lost in my part with her.” Two ensemble members who had been sitting at the very back of the auditorium said that they’d been able to hear every word, which is something we’ve always struggled with.

It was a really, really good night. We don’t always fire on all cylinders like that. Things have been a little bumpy lately, so it fired us up to have such a productive, positive session. It puts us in great shape as we move forward and closer to performance.

Session Six: Week 32

Tuesday

 

Before we began tonight, I checked in the woman who, at this point, has been in the group longer than anyone but me. I had some questions for her about ways in which the group has changed operationally over the last few years, and she provided a lot of insight, as she always does. She was very firm about the positive impact that the program has had on her, saying, “It’s given me humanity,” and that, as she is going home soon, she is already grieving its loss. She said that prison hasn’t been an entirely negative experience for her – “Certainly not the worst time in my life,” she said. She feels that she created the chaos that led her here, and she is confident that, because of the skills she’s learned in prison (including in Shakespeare), she will not be coming back.

We held the second focus group of our case study, which took about an hour. I can’t share the details of that conversation at this point, but rest assured that the study will be posted on our website as soon as it’s ready!

The ensemble then broke off into several groups – some women worked on their lines, others staged a scene with Kyle, and I worked with our Richard and Anne to finish cutting their big scene and make sure we were all on the same page with content. We are!

Our Richard then stepped away to join the scene happening on stage, and I continued to work with our Anne. She has already memorized her monologue and part of the scene. She is extremely excited – her having memorized the monologue already is evidence of how hard she’s already pushing herself, even though she’s very afraid of performing. We went through the monologue to make sure she understood at which points she’s talking to whom, as well as some ideas about the text and possible interpretations.

Our plan to ease her into this is for the two of us to work together, separate from the rest of the group, until she feels solid on the piece. At that point, she’ll begin working on it with the ensemble, so we hope she’ll have had plenty of rehearsal in a safe space before performance. This is way, way out of her comfort zone, but she is determined to do it – and to do it well.


Friday

 

Our new Hastings came in tonight asking if we thought we could cut back any of the scene in which the character ignores Stanley’s warning about Richard and is oblivious to Catesby’s “sounding him.” We realized that we really could only cut about two more lines – we’ve already eliminated about half of the scene. It turned out that this woman was mostly worried about a short monologue that she has. A woman who joined the group last year said, “Oh, the monologues are way easier than all the little lines.” She talked about building a train of thought, and how, even though it seems daunting, it’s totally doable.

We then decided to work on that scene. We asked “little” questions, such as: How does Hastings feel about Stanley’s messenger waking him up at 4:00 a.m.? We explored other issues, such as how Catesby feels about Hastings and where the allegiances are. Our Catesby realized that the moment when she realizes that Hastings has sealed his own fate is extremely complicated. This woman hasn’t had a lot of stage time yet – she has a dance class at the same time, and she divides her time between the two – and she lit up more and more as we continued to work.

We worked through to the end of the scene, exploring more questions about Catesby and Stanley. “I wish I knew more about Stanley,” said the woman playing the character. I looked at our “dramaturg.” “You on that?” I asked. She nodded, smiling – she hasn’t gotten to do research in a while, and she loves to do it. She mentioned that the prison library just acquired a big, new Shakespeare dictionary, and there was a lot of excitement in response. It’s really going to aid their work, particularly during the summer when the program is in recess and they’re on their own.

As we continued to explore the scene, I asked our Hastings what the stakes are – does he realize how serious the situation is? She said she didn’t think so, and then she paused. “He’s like me,” she said. “I’m growing out of the character, but I used to shoot my mouth off at the wrong time. I feel like it really is me. I’m smart, but I’m absent-minded. So is he. Smart, but not paying attention. Look what I’ve been through in the past few months. I think this person’s my friend, but she’s over here talking… It’s like in the movie [Shakespeare Behind Bars] – when the part chooses you. It’s God making sure I don’t go back to this when I get out.” We thanked her for sharing that with us – that level of identification doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s something we all honor.

We started to get a little sidetracked, at which point a woman who has frequently emerged as a leader in the group, got our attention and suggested the next scene to work on - the scene in which Ratcliffe, a number of messengers, and then Stanley arrive very quickly to give Richard news of the impending war. We talked about why the scene is structured the way it is – to give a feeling of chaos – and worked together to figure out how to stage it. Once again, our Ratcliffe took the lead – she is becoming increasingly confident in her staging skills – and it worked out very well! We had a lot of fun working with Richard’s reaction to all of the news and the stage slap that is a part of that. Our Richard is working with the image of being stuck in a pinball machine, which seems to be working well for her.

We worked a little more and then circled up for our ending exercise. I suggested that, from now on, we spend every moment we can working – what we have to do is not impossible, but it’s going to take a lot of discipline. The facilitators often do not arrive right at the beginning of our meeting time, but usually when we do arrive, members of the ensemble are trickling in. I suggested working in small groups on lines and staging – everyone in the ensemble knows the play well enough at this point to do both. It can be challenging to be the person to initiate this, but I encouraged them to try.

Session Six: Week 31

Tuesday

 

Tonight we were thrilled to welcome Patrick Hanley for a visit. Patrick is a stage combat choreographer, and he volunteered to choreograph the big showdown between Richard and Richmond. Everyone got a taste of fencing and had a great time. The ensemble decided that this fight should be solely between Richard and Richmond – they felt that any other fighting would be distracting. So while the three of them worked, the rest of us huddled up to resolve some casting issues.

A longtime ensemble member who had been playing Anne has left the group. I asked everyone what we should do about casting the role, thinking it was likely that, having settled into the roles they have, no one would want to take on another with so many lines. It turned out that I was wrong! All I had to do was ask, “Any thoughts on how to cast this?” And without missing a beat, our “extremely anxious” ensemble member – who, remember, just a few months ago said she could never perform, and recently took on a small role – said, “I’ll do it.”

“Really?” a bunch of us said simultaneously. “Yeah,” she said. “I’ve liked Anne since the beginning. I already was reading her with [another ensemble member]. I’d like to play her. I think I can do it.” We all applauded her – this is so exciting! She decided to play the First Murderer as well, at least for now. Another woman volunteered to take on that role if two become too overwhelming.

This is tremendous growth. It’s encouraging not just for the woman making these moves, but for everyone else as well. When we see someone else taking risks like this, it makes it easier for the rest of us.

We distributed the remaining minor roles as well. There was a lot of generosity there, with many people volunteering, compromising, and distributing lines.

With the remaining time, we talked about past plays and audience reactions, both to our successes and mistakes. It was a fun conversation and seemed to alleviate some of the pressure that newer members are feeling – totally normal for this time in the season.

The fight between Richard and Richmond is stellar. We are all very excited about it! Many thanks to Patrick for his work this week.

 

Friday

 

We were thrilled to welcome an ensemble member back to the group whom we thought we wouldn’t be seeing again. The woman who had taken on First Murderer immediately offered the role back to the returning member, who happily took it. She also decided to play Hastings after we lost the woman playing that role.

We spent some time working on Edward’s monologue. The woman playing Edward has an astounding grasp of the language, and she is very powerful on stage. The only issue with her performance is that she’s taking a lot of pauses where there is no punctuation, which is slowing her down and obscuring the meaning. We encouraged her to drive through to each punctuation, and to use her words to really lash out at the other people on stage. This helped somewhat, but she then confided in me that she has an issue with her vision that is the true source of all of the pausing – she simply has trouble reading the words. She is going to focus on memorizing the speech so we can see what her pacing is actually like.

We then moved on to the scene in which Elizabeth and Richard have some back and forth, and then Margaret comes in and curses everyone. This was a lot of fun. We explored different ways of distributing people around the stage, finding movement for the principal characters, and making sure that Margaret’s curses really land. We’ve got some refining to do, but it’s well on the way.

We have just a little more cutting to do to the script, and then, thanks to a generously donated binding machine, I’ll be printing new copies for everyone. We’ve been doing so much crossing out – the “clean” scripts will be most welcome!

Session Six: Week 30

Tuesday

 

I was out of town during our last meeting, and I used some of my time to put together a list of potential cuts to the script. I have sensed the group wanting to move forward more quickly with staging, and growing frustration with the cutting process. They verified this when I asked them if my instinct was correct. I made sure to note to everyone that this was a list of suggestions, and that any/all of them could be rejected.

We ended up sitting in a circle on the floor going through the cuts, which gave us a feeling of camaraderie and the impetus for a lot of jokes – even more so than usual. I hadn’t really wanted to spend an entire evening making cuts, but it turned out to be pretty fun.

As we got to the scene in which the Murderers banter and then kill Clarence, the question arose of who would play the First Murderer now that the previously cast woman has had to leave the group. To our complete surprise, the woman who had told us in the fall that her extreme anxiety would likely prevent her from performing at all, and who about a month ago volunteered to play only a small non-speaking role, casually said, “I’ll play the First Murderer.” There was silence for a moment. “You will?” someone said. “Yeah,” she said, smiling a little. The group burst into applause and cheers. She looked down, still smiling, saying, “Don’t make a big deal about it, you guys.” We tried to contain our excitement, but this is absolutely huge. Not only is she going to get up on stage, and not only will she speak, but she has a good number of lines! I am so excited to see what this experience does for her.

 

Friday

 

As we checked in tonight, one of the women said she had something to share. She paused. “You know, I forgot it’s not safe outside of Shakespeare,” she said, telling us about something she said in confidence in her unit that was told to others and blown out of proportion. She is now living in an intensely uncomfortable situation, not knowing exactly how this got out, and not knowing exactly how to deal with it. She’s decided to try to hunker down until it blows over. “I’m just so glad I can come and talk here, and it doesn’t get out,” she said. “This is the one safe place I have here.”

As noted many times throughout this blog, one of the most valuable aspects of our program is that it creates a safe space in a place that otherwise feels unsafe – emotionally, physically, or both. It’s essential to our work that people be able to express themselves freely and feel supported in being their authentic selves. That’s the culture we’ve built over the years, and it’s overwhelmingly respected by participants.

We continued making cuts to our script now that our Duchess was present – our policy is not to make cuts that affect people who are absent, and she wasn’t there on Tuesday. We got through most of what we had left and then decided to work the Clarence/Brakenbury scene since we have new people in both of those roles.

I huddled with those women before we began the scene to make sure we were all on the same page with content and cuts. The woman playing Clarence nervously said that this would be her first time on stage. I encouraged her, for this first time, not to rush, but to avoid stopping to apologize for any mistakes and just plow through to the end. “Then the first time will be over, and you’ll never have to do it for the first time again,” I said. She smiled. The other woman (Michelle) agreed not to stop the scene. I then approached the group and let them know what the plan was, and they also agreed not to interrupt.

Although visibly nervous, the women got through the scene. Afterward, I let the group know that it had been our Clarence’s first time ever on stage, and we gave her a huge round of applause and lots of encouragement. I asked her how she felt. “I felt like I stumbled a lot,” she said. Others in the ensemble reminded her that everyone stumbles at first with Shakespeare. “You’re gonna be your own worst critic,” said one seasoned ensemble member.

Our Clarence, true to her emerging role as one of the group’s natural directors, then expressed dissatisfaction with the way they’d physically staged the scene and suggested some changes. We talked about the relationship between the two men – does Brakenbury know why Clarence is in prison? Does he have empathy for him, and, if so, how much does he express it?

They tried the scene a second time. “It got better,” one woman said enthusiastically. “It did. This time I felt more emotion from you.” Our Clarence said, “I sort of felt like I should kneel for the prayer.” Our Brakenbury then asked how she should respond to that. I encouraged them to follow their instincts in the moment – not to prejudge anything, but to spontaneously respond to each other, within the play’s parameters, and see where it led them. I pointed out that our Clarence had, at one point, reached out and touched our Brakenbury’s arm for emphasis on her line, “Ah, keeper, keeper…” She had instinctively responded to one of Shakespeare’s open vowels, which indicate emotion, and the repetition of a word.  No one needed to tell her to do that.

The third time through, they adjusted so that our Clarence didn’t sit on the bench, and then she knelt for her prayer. She said she felt better this third time, although she still wants to make adjustments. The growth in her confidence over just three attempts at the scene was remarkable. It is truly inspiring to see someone taking risks like that, and then to see those risks paying off.

Session Six: Week 29

Tuesday

Written by Frannie

We spent tonight collaborating to stage the ghost scene that I had written up from all of our ideas. I was engaged in a one-on-one conversation with an ensemble member during the initial discussion of how to put the scene on its feet, and as I returned to the group and heard the whispered, “Despair and die,” repeated again and again, I felt the energy in the room shift. Everyone was focused. The lines we’d honed in on came out one by one, and the choices we’d made seemed to really work. Physical positioning and movement was rough, but that was to be expected our first time through.

Afterward, I asked the group what they thought. Everyone was enthusiastic – it worked almost exactly as we had envisioned it. Our Richmond said, “Even with my eyes closed… Your voices really creeped me out. Like, I’m kind of having anxiety right now.” She laughed – she was okay, but we talked about the need to really differentiate the energy between Richard and Richmond. So we were glad that she spoke up!

We worked together to refine the movement in the piece, figuring out the best way in which to encircle Richard and then Richmond, as well as the most effective way to move between the two. We looked at Buckingham’s involvement in the scene – he is now essentially leading it, which is very powerful and effective. We then ran through the entire scene and let our Richard continue into her subsequent monologue. The whole thing was positively chilling.

This took nearly all of our time, and it was time well spent. “I loved this process,” said one woman. “It was so much more effective with the lines like that… Even though I didn’t see it staged [because she was on stage]. It transferred. It resonated. It was really intense.”

Friday

Written by Lauren

We got to the room, and it was very warm, which made it difficult to get anyone to start to do anything. Fortunately, after a few minutes, we were told that we could move to a different room that has fans. Everyone was ready to get to work after that!

We started the session with act 4, scene 4 when Richard enters. It was clarified that Elizabeth is Edward's wife. The scene between the two of them is the first time that someone isn't buying what Richard is trying to sell. Our Richard thought that the character should be touching Elizabeth in this scene. Our Elizabeth disagreed. It was discussed that Richard should then change his tactics to convince Elizabeth to listen to him. Our Elizabeth was getting visibly frustrated with our Richard, who was grabbing her arm and not listening to her. They got through the scene, though.

We went on to do a brief analysis on the scene. When asked what Richard wants in this scene, the woman playing him said that he wants Elizabeth to listen to him. When asked what Elizabeth wants in the scene, the woman playing her said that she wants Richard to know how angry she is. We then worked with the "power struggle" that happens between the two on the line "true love's kiss." They both did an amazing and hilarious job with the power struggle!

Session Six: Week 28

Tuesday

Written by Frannie

As has happened every year, we’ve recently lost a few ensemble members due to excessive absences. We began tonight by figuring out how to plug those casting holes.

When I discussed the possibility that we might have to do this with a small group last week, one woman who frequently talks about her lack of confidence and fear of performing mentioned that she might want to play Clarence, one of the vacated roles. I said that I was excited to hear that, that we would make our decisions as a group, and to keep thinking it over. Moments later, a woman who hadn’t heard that exchange mentioned to me that she was interested in playing Clarence – she’s been looking for more roles to take on for a while, and I have encouraged her to jump in when there was an opportunity. I thanked her for doing exactly what we talked about and mentioned that this other woman was also interested, reminding this woman, too, that our decisions would be made as a group. “Oh,” she said thoughtfully, “That’s really great that she wants to do that.”

Tonight, as we began discussing our casting options, the first thing that second woman said was, “I’d like to play Brakenbury.” We all nodded and wrote that down, thanking her for taking it on. As we did that, the first woman leaned over to me and whispered, “I’d like to play Clarence.” I whispered back, “I think you should say that to the group.” She then announced her intention to the ensemble, and everyone burst into applause, smiling and making sure she knew how proud we are of her, and how happy we are that she is taking on such a challenge. It is a very big step.

We then dove back into the ghost scene. Three ensemble members had edited the scene down to “the meat” – eliminating all lines that seemed non-essential. Another woman had drawn diagrams of her blocking ideas. We spent the next hour putting all of this together, including new ideas that were sparked by the discussion, and finding ways of honoring many individual ideas in our final concept. In our version of this scene:

•    Richard and Richmond are sleeping, one on either side of the stage.
•    Buckingham enters, holding a mask over his face that is white with a red X over the mouth (to reflect the voices of the ghosts that have been silenced), and says, “Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow.”
•    Ten more ghosts enter from various parts of the theatre, whispering, “Despair and die.” They also carry masks.
•    The ghosts circle around Richard, saying lines that we’ve culled from the text. They then move to circle around Richmond in a “figure eight” pattern, say some lines to him, and, as they exit, Buckingham delivers his final lines.

We were pretty satisfied with this idea, but then one woman wondered aloud if having only one conceptual scene like this in the play would be strange and out of place. She had a good point. I asked the group if there were other opportunities in the play to bring in the masks. The ideas started flowing, and what we ended up with is that we will introduce the masks in our yet-to-be-written prologue, making it clear that the masks symbolize death, and then whenever someone in the play is about to exit to his or her death, ghosts carrying masks will enter, give that person a mask, and escort him or her off.

It was an exciting evening, to be sure. I was tasked with taking all of these ideas and coalescing them into a written scene. The goal is for me to write it over the next week, and for us to stage it next Tuesday.

Friday

Written by Kyle

Tonight started off on the slower side as there was a small turnout at the outset, with our Richard and Richmond both absent at the start.  We decided that we would start in Act 5, with Buckingham’s monologue just before he is killed.  This monologue is easily one of my favorites in this play, and, I dare say, one of my favorites in the canon.  It is a profound moment when the Duke of Buckingham, who has been Richard’s right hand man and chief co-conspirator, is betrayed by Richard and suffers the same fate he has been so quick to inflict on others.  There is a solemn moment before he is executed when he simultaneously muses on how the tables have turned and subtly takes responsibility for his actions.  It’s contemplative, yet sobering, and the Bard at his best.  It takes on a different dynamic in the context of the prison; it deals so explicitly with committing a crime and accepting the consequences, I almost felt nervous giving her notes and coaching her through it.  Principally, the actor and I had to tease out an objective, which meant we had to nail down whom she is addressing.  We tried it different ways, each with its own implications: If she is talking to the jailor on stage with her, what does that mean? If she is talking to herself, what does that mean? If she is talking to God, what does that mean?  If she is talking to the ghosts of those she murdered, what does that mean?  It seems a little tedious but I found the conversation to be really incredible.  For whatever reason it was not much of a group activity, and to be honest I feel badly that I didn’t try to include the group more.

After working that scene, we moved backwards to Act 4, scene 4, with Margaret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess.  This is another fascinating scene, in which the play’s major women find common ground in their hate for Richard. The houses of Lancaster and York have done unspeakable deeds to one another, but history doesn’t seem to matter in light of the present terror Richard has inflicted on both.  It’s a somber scene, and the characters have a lot of negative things to say to one another; line for line there are much more of those than of reconciliation, so it was difficult at times to even imagine bringing it to the forefront.  

There was a pretty significant disagreement between the actor playing Elizabeth and the actor playing Margaret about just how the scene should go.  ‘Elizabeth’ thought there should be more reconciliation sooner, and ‘Margaret’ didn’t think there should be any at all. I felt like there was a push from the actors for me to give them direction and be the tiebreaker, but I couldn’t.  That seems to be a real sticking point with a lot of the ensemble this year: collaboration takes time.  Democracy is more rewarding, but infinitely more cumbersome than a dictatorship. To their credit, most professional rehearsal rooms are run like a dictatorship; no matter how giving or collaborative a director can be, at the end of the day they have the option to pull rank on the actors.  It’s my experience that good directors pull rank sparingly, but lead the cast when necessary.  It’s quick and clean, but not one of the core values of Shakespeare in Prison; we have a commitment to collaboration, and it may not be timely, but ultimately it is what is most rewarding.  We spent the rest of the session on this one scene, which is only a few pages long.  One ensemble member even got frustrated with us at one point, saying that the performance was looming and we didn’t have time for this kind of debate.  I disagreed, and urged the actors to keep muddling through. In the end, we found a way in which everyone felt content with the scene.  Collaboration is not always easy, and not always timely, but it achieves the program’s aims such that real changes begin to take hold in our participants.  With Act 4, scene 4, it was definitely worth the wait.  The actors were able to show so much range, and such a clear journey from start to finish that is has become one of the scenes I really look forward to seeing in production. 

Session Six: Week 27

Tuesday

Tonight was all about cuts to the script. We began with the goal of staging Act One, scene three, but after reading through it once, we realized that a lot of it had to go. We made a series of cuts – some of them pretty dramatic – and then read it again. And then we realized that we wanted MORE cuts!

In the course of this process, we eliminated all of Dorset’s and Grey’s lines. The women playing those roles quietly voiced some resentment (they have so few lines to begin with) but rolled with the punches – they prioritize the ensemble pretty consistently. I mulled over this to myself and realized that Rivers still had a bunch of lines in the scene – and she (who is also playing Tyrrel) has been overwhelmed by the thought of memorizing as many lines as she has. I quietly asked her if she’d like to give some of her lines in this scene to Dorset and Grey. She liked that idea, so I asked the three of them to huddle and figure out how to distribute the lines.

After they had done so and shared with me, one of them prodded our Rivers/Tyrrel to tell me about a concern that she had. Tyrrel has a bit of a soliloquy, and the language is fairly complex, both of which were worrying her. We put our heads together and figured out how to cut nearly all of the speech. She was quite relieved!

At that point, we were so in the mode of making cuts that our Richard and Richmond both asked Matt and me to collaborate with them on honing down some of their monologues. It was a great exchange between the four of us – slowly going through those passages to figure out how much we could or should cut. We were able to make some significant changes.

I was concerned that not everyone in the ensemble was involved in the cutting process tonight, but when I conferred with the other facilitators (who hadn’t had their heads buried in a script for two hours), they told me that the others were either engaged in meaningful, reflective conversations or working on their scripts themselves. It was good to know that it had been overall a good, productive night for everyone.

Friday

We had low attendance tonight, which happens sometimes, and we decided to make the best of it by huddling around a table and working to adapt the scene in which the ghosts of Richard’s victims visit him and Richmond.

We have known that we would need to make adjustments to this scene, but we weren’t sure exactly how to do it. We began by reading through the scene to get a feel for the original writing and see what ideas came to us immediately. Aspects of the scene that stuck out to people included the brutality of some of the lines, the effectiveness of certain characters speaking in unison, and the number of ghosts in the scene. We determined that our goals would be to shorten the scene but preserve its intention and impact.

The group was a little stuck in the mode of simply cutting lines, but that kept presenting challenges that could only be overcome by altering the scene in a pretty radical way. I asked the group to go through it and identify key words and phrases that stuck out to them, beginning with the lines directed at Richard and then moving to the ones given to Richmond. We noted that the “Richard words” that struck us were dark, violent, and accusatory; the “Richmond words” were uplifting and encouraging. The core phrases we identified were “despair and die” (Richard) and “live and flourish” (Richmond). We also determined that Buckingham’s closing couplets are so powerful that we wanted to keep them to “drop the mic” on the scene.

I then asked the group why the scene is so repetitive – why did Shakespeare write it that way? There were several ideas about this that built on one another – that the device emphasizes the difference between the characters and that it drives home two points: 1) that what you do comes back to haunt you; there are always consequences, and 2) that Richard has a LOT of victims – not just one, but many lives. “This is one of the biggest parts of the whole play,” said one woman. “Yeah,” agreed another woman. “It’s like, you know how many people he’s killed, but this puts in in your face. We need to keep them all in. We need the magnitude.”

I asked the group why, in addition to the repetition, Shakespeare wrote the ghosts going back and forth between the two men. The group had several ideas about this: that it shows battles within and without; that it shows a shift in power from Richard to Richmond; that it makes the dichotomy between good and evil more dramatic.

So, I asked, what are the effects of the scene on each of the men? Richard is startled awake and has an incredible monologue in which he expresses doubt, fear, guilt, anxiety, and a feeling that he’s lost control. It’s his most human moment in the play. Richmond, on the other hand, feels encouraged, empowered, and energized (insert jokes here about how nearly every word we came up with began with “e”).

Then came the next phase – how did we want to stage this? One woman shared visions of the ghosts wearing tunics with images of how they were killed. We built on that by wondering if they could carry signs. Another woman said she pictured the ghosts wearing white makeup with black circles around their eyes. I pointed out that, while that would be visually very effective, it would be logistically very challenging. I asked if masks might achieve the same effect, and the group felt that that might work. Someone suggested bringing in a smoke machine, which I assumed wouldn’t be allowed and would be very complicated to use even if it were, and someone else suggested using fabric to simulate smoke. Another woman suggested that the ghosts wear “flowy ghost capes.”

Riffing on the phrases “despair and die” and “live and flourish,” we started to wonder if there was a way to stage this as a sort of protest. “Hashtag Ghost Lives Matter,” joked one woman. We started throwing ideas around. We all agreed that the ghosts should enter from all parts of the theatre, and we wondered if they should immediately speak or be silent at first. “This is people who’ve been silenced regaining their voices,” said one woman.

We thought of different types of movement. Should the ghosts move in a crowd? In a figure eight around the men? Should they stand in a line? Flip their signs or hold them steady? Or get rid of the signs altogether?

We struggled with how to put the words and phrases together but all agreed that Buckingham should end the scene. We also wondered how our adapted script would spur Richard’s monologue.

At that point, we realized we were out of time – the night went by very quickly! A few of us decided to keep brainstorming and write down our ideas to bring to the group on Tuesday, when we hope we can hash things out and finalize them.

It was a very exciting, engaging evening, and definitely an unusual one for us. We don’t often do collaborative writing like this – our interpretations are usually pretty straightforward. I’m excited to see where tonight’s brainstorm leads. We have so many good ideas!

Session Six: Week 26

Tuesday

Tonight’s check-in was fairly extended – pretty much everyone in the group was having a rough time and needed to share. Although what we were talking about was pretty dark, there was still humor sprinkled in, along with a great amount of support for one another.

A longtime ensemble member, who is an accurately self-described workhorse, came in during this check-in, realized what we were talking about, and promptly left. This caused me some concern, and when a friend of this ensemble member expressed that she was also concerned, I told her that the ensemble member has, over the years, frequently expressed that she would rather work on Shakespeare than talk about feelings, and that that is probably what caused her to leave. “But this is about so much more than Shakespeare,” she said. Another ensemble member nodded vigorously, saying, “Sometimes the check-ins need to be long. Today we needed to talk.” I agreed that this is an important aspect of what we do. The first inmate said, “We need that honesty, trust, accountability and team work… It makes it feel so good to be here. Not to mention the Shakespeare. I can’t tell you how much I love Shakespeare. It’s so accurate to our experience here – he uses the perfect words. I’m so glad I found this.”

We then decided to work on Act Four, scene two. There was some debate about whether we needed a coronation scene – since the goal is to perform this in 90 minutes or less, we don’t have much time for things like this. We eventually figured out an efficient, symbolic way to make it happen.

In this scene, Richard asks Buckingham to kill the princes. When Buckingham says he needs some time to think about it, Richard turns to a killer for hire, and then makes it very clear to Buckingham that he is out of favor. Buckingham decides to flee while he can.

We asked ourselves if Buckingham knows what Richard is asking from the get-go – is he deflecting, or does he honestly not know what he’s getting at? We leaned toward deflection, and we talked about the distance that immediately grows between the men, who have been so close throughout the play up until this point. I offered that the scene might largely be about the breakdown of that friendship. This was reflected in the women’s initial staging instincts – at first they drifted apart, and then Richard swooped back in to threaten Buckingham.

There was some confusion about the latter part of the scene – Stanley enters, has a brief exchange with Richard, and then stays on stage, saying nothing. We debated whether or not Richard brings him deeper into the conspiracy. We decided that if that happened it would give Stanley more impetus to go against Richard in the end, so we staged it that way – although we decided that Stanley should have some physical distance during Richard’s exchange with Tyrrel.

The woman playing Stanley was at first disappointed that many of her lines had been cut for time, but now she seems to be more enthusiastic about the role. She is certainly taking ownership of it. I’m really happy to see that.

Friday

Tonight we dove into Act Three, scene two, as our Hastings, who has frequently been absent due to work, was eager to get up on her feet. In this scene, Hastings is given a message by Stanley, who then enters the scene, about a dream he had about Richard. Hastings laughs off the danger. Some of our ensemble members found the scene a little obtuse, so we spent some time clarifying the content.

We had a bit of a debate about how entrances to the scene should work, and the scene’s Messenger, who also plays Dorset, spoke up again very strongly. This seems to be built upon the group’s positive reception to her voicing her ideas last week about Dorset – prior to that evening, she had been very quiet. It’s exciting to see her taking more of a stand now.

I have also noticed recently that one of our ensemble members, who nearly flaked toward the end of last season (we had legitimate concerns that she might not show up for our performances), has taken on more of a leadership role this year, becoming one of the ensemble’s most vocal cheerleaders and taking it upon herself to gently and kindly guide new ensemble members through unfamiliar territory. Tonight in particular, she helped a new ensemble member to understand the best way in which to do a cross and the reasons behind stepping downstage of another actor as opposed to upstage. It’s really, really great when that kind of advice comes from an ensemble member rather than a facilitator.

On Fridays, we are usually in a classroom rather than the auditorium, and this can lead to some confusion about our exact blocking. One instance was a brief argument over whether one person stepping backward would land her on the stairs leading to the stage, or if she would have room on the floor to make the move. We generally table these details until we get back in the auditorium. Despite the misunderstandings, things never got heated, and we laughed a lot as we tried to figure out what everyone was talking about.

The woman who is playing the Prince is extremely nervous about the amount of lines she has – she has fairly low confidence and giggled her way nervously through two minor roles in Othello last year. She had expressed a desire to cut the scene with Richard down as much as possible. After checking with the others in the scene, I asked another ensemble member, who is very good at cutting, to take a look at the scene and see what she could do to whittle it down.

Some of the women are already working on memorizing their lines. This is extremely early in the process for this to happen – in fact, I can’t remember it happening in years past. We applauded those women’s efforts and reminded them not to put too much pressure on – we still have three months until we perform. Several of the women have also been working lines and exploring scenes in their units, which, again, shows a lot of dedication that encourages others in the group to follow suit.

Session Six: Week 25

Chuk Nowak returned to the prison tonight to finish filming for a video project we’re putting together tonight some of our process and its effects. Several of the women in the ensemble were interviewed individually for this, sharing some really amazing insight, and then Chuk filmed the remainder of our rehearsal.

We decided to keep moving forward in the play (we’re on a roll!) and work on Act Four, scene one, in which Brakenbury tells Elizabeth that she can’t see her children, Stanley tells Anne she is about to be crowned queen, Elizabeth has a breakdown, and a plan is made for Dorset to flee. It’s quite a scene!

The group collaborated well on blocking in the first part of the scene, working to figure out the best positions for all of the actors and where people should enter and exit. There was some great problem solving. When Brakenbury told Elizabeth that she couldn’t see her children, that actress instinctively swooped in on her, and Anne and the Duchess followed. It was a really effective moment.

We talked a bit about Brakenbury’s slip – when he refers to Richard as the king, even though at this point he is still the Lord Protector. I asked the group what they thought it meant. Everyone was unanimous that this indicates that everyone can see through what Richard is doing.

One woman then suggested that, when the women move in on Brakenbury, Dorset should advance as well. The woman playing Dorset was hesitant to do so, but at first she didn’t speak up about why. This led to some discussion amongst the other members of the group about how Dorset feels upon hearing the news about the children being kept from their mother. Finally, I asked our Dorset how she felt. “I don’t think he would move in,” she said firmly. I asked her why not. “I think it’s self-preservation. I think he sees red flags,” she said. That interpretation was accepted with no further discussion – she had made a good point.

We talked, too, about Stanley’s role in this scene. Unfortunately, the woman playing Stanley wasn’t present, so we didn’t get too deep into it, but we all thought that it seems like Stanley is conflicted in this scene – delivering the message and then offering to help Dorset get away. There is clear conflict here, and we want to talk about it more with the woman who is playing the role.

We started having blocking problems again at this point, and it was here that I decided to step in, since the solution was rooted in details of the text that we haven’t talked about too much yet this year. Elizabeth’s lines upon hearing that Richard is being crowned are:

Ah, cut my lace asunder
That my pent heart may have some scope to beat,
Or else I swoon with this dead-killing news.

We all know why she’s upset here, but we were missing just how deep this goes. I pointed out, first, that when Shakespeare’s characters say “Ah” or “O,” it often isn’t meant to be those literal vowel sounds, but rather emotional exclamations – often raw. So that was our first clue about what needs to happen – that it needs to be raw and emotional. The second thing I pointed out was that that first line is short, and the rhythm is irregular, especially compared to the vast majority of this play, which is pretty faithfully written in iambic pentameter. I asked the group what they thought the significance of that was. After some rumination, we arrived at this irregularity reflecting its being an irregular moment – that it’s jarring, that she’s shocked. And then we parsed out the meaning of the whole phrase – that she is asking someone to cut open the laces of her corset because her heart is beating so hard that she fears she will faint.

Given this new information, I again asked the group what’s going on here. “It’s a collapse,” one person said. “Yes,” I said, “And if the collapse is physical as well, I think we’ve solved our blocking problem.” When our Elizabeth sank down on the edge of the stage, the Duchess and Dorset immediately moved to her, while our Anne hung back, consumed by her own dread. We then found that Anne could move toward Stanley, and then out toward the audience during the monologue in which she realizes that she’s cursed herself. It was then simple for the Duchess to speak to each person individually (something that had really been tripping us up), and the exits revealed themselves naturally.

We spent a lot of time on this very brief scene, but it was warranted. I could tell that our Elizabeth was feeling apprehensive about this emotional collapse, and I assured her that no one expected her to “go there” at this stage of rehearsal, but that she should gear herself up to do it later.

It’s also worth noting that one woman who is usually fairly reticent spoke up frequently tonight, giving really insightful suggestions and feedback on blocking. We encouraged her to keep speaking up – those of us who’ve been doing this for years noted that natural directors emerge every year, and this year it looks like she’s one of them. I hope that she’ll continue to contribute in this way, as she has great instincts, and her success in staging could build confidence that will translate to other areas of her life. It’s happened many times before.

 

Session Six: Week 24

Tuesday

Tonight we worked on Act Three, scene five, in which Richard and Buckingham manipulate the Lord Mayor into trying to persuade the citizens to hear out the reasons why the princes are illegitimate. A minute or so into the scene, a couple of minor characters enter with Hastings’ head (Richard framed and had him executed in the previous scene).

Initially, the scene felt awkward and wooden, so we worked together to fix it. First off, based on how everyone was standing on stage, it would have been impossible for the Lord Mayor to see the head in a bag (we clearly don’t have the budget to replicate our Hastings’ head, nor do we think the prison would allow us to use a severed head…). We revisited what the scene is about – Richard and Buckingham pushing the Lord Mayor into doing this thing and using the head as part of that manipulation. What we arrived at was having them literally manhandle the Lord Mayor around the stage, getting him very close to the head. And then, in a burst of creativity, our Richard took the bag from the messenger and started gesticulating wildly with it, repeatedly putting it in the Lord Mayor’s face. It was hysterically funny, especially because our Lord Mayor stayed almost completely in character as she reacted to it. We might want to pull it back at some point, but for now we absolutely love it.

We then moved on to the Scrivener’s speech, in which he talks about how, while he was in the midst of transcribing Hastings’ indictment, Hastings was already executed. He questions how people could not see through Richard’s machinations; and, if they did see through it, what it would take for them to speak out. Our Scrivener at first didn’t understand some of the language; I explained it to her, and she said, “Oh, okay. So this is exactly the way I feel about politics right now.”

I asked the group why this speech is in the play. We talked about what a scary situation this must be for the “little people,” who would be able to observe events without being able to directly affect them, and who might be drafted into war against their wills. We decided that the main thrust of the speech is to try to get someone to speak up. The second time our Scrivener delivered the speech, all of her intentions were crystal clear. It hit home for many of us.


Friday

 

Before we began tonight, one of our ensemble members pulled me aside to speak to me about her good friend in the group. This friend is extremely nervous about getting up on stage. She also has OCD and is terrified of being touched. I reminded the ensemble member that, first of all, nobody has to do anything that she doesn’t want to do, and that, given the characters she’s playing, there is no need for physical contact. I encouraged her to ask her friend to talk to me herself. But I also suggested that we push her friend just a bit – that we ask her to at least try getting up on stage before she decides that she can’t do it. “Now’s the time,” I said. “We’re still a ways away from performing, so there’s no pressure and no audience.” She said, “That’s exactly what I told her!” We’ll see how it goes.

I had one-on-one conversations with a couple of other ensemble members as well. One is nearing her release date and is very concerned about what’s going to happen when she goes home. Her relationship with her family is complicated, and she has big goals for herself that will be challenging to achieve. I listened attentively and encouraged her not to put too much pressure on herself – that she is certainly going to have challenges, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she will fail. Another ensemble member simply wanted me to know that this is a rough time of year for her, and that’s why she’s been a bit reticent lately. I thanked her for continuing to show up when she’s having such a hard time.

Some ensemble members requested that we do our Six Directions exercise, and this time I challenged the people participating to do it without speaking. We stayed perfectly in sync.

We chose to work on Act Three, scene seven, in which Buckingham and Richard continue their manipulation to make Richard king. A running theme in the play is Richard’s religious hypocrisy, and nowhere is it more evident than in this scene. Our Richard took this to heart, repeatedly dropping to her knees and praying, laying it on thick as she resisted Buckingham’s pleas to take the crown. It was hilarious. She really understands the humor in this role (which is often missed), and she is so much fun to watch.

The other thing that was really remarkable was when we asked who would play the aldermen (who don’t speak) in this scene. The woman who, months ago, told us that her anxiety might prevent her from getting on stage at all, volunteered to play one of the roles. No one had pushed her (we all agreed not to when she originally expressed the concern) – she just decided to do this of her own accord. These kinds of moments are my favorite part of this program – when someone who initially thought she couldn’t do something decides to give it a go. It shows so much growth and courage.

Session Six: Week 23

Tuesday

Written by Matt

A rainstorm seemed to keep turnout tonight a little low, but the women who came were ready to work. A short check-in led into some physical warm-up exercises, and one woman reflected that she has used a particularly meditative warm-up (a Michael Chekhov-inspired movement of energy in six direction) to calm herself when faced with a potentially explosive situation in the prison gym.

From the warmup, we dove straight into the text, focusing on Act II, Scene 2, which we had started to explore on Friday. In the scene, Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess (Richard’s mother), mourn the death of the ailing King Edward. Richard barges into the scene with his usual lack of subtlety and disrupts the mourning while ostensibly commiserating with the women. The scene is our introduction to the Duchess, and is an important scene in establishing Richard’s family background, all through subtext.

After stumbling through a couple of times, we began to work on refining the blocking—using the characters’ movements and body language to convey the core of the scene. Richard dove into this project with gusto, skulking in as the women wept and approaching Queen Elizabeth with a cartoonish expression of grief. After a few lines to Elizabeth, Richard pushed her aside with a dismissive backhand that had everyone in the audience laughing out loud; it perfectly encapsulated Richard’s sociopathy. Richard spoke afterwards about wanting to keep that gesture without losing its spontaneity.

When we determined that this scene is, in fact, the first time that we meet the Duchess, the woman playing her reflected that she wanted to convey how “sick she is of Richard.” A few other suggestions came from the group of ways to approach the Duchess’s role. Is her benediction to Richard perhaps a last-ditch effort to save him? Or it could be that she simply feels cornered and utters the words without clear intent—in which case the meaning of the interaction would need to come through entirely with body language. We resolved to try the scene several times until some way of performing it felt right.
We then turned our attention to Richard’s motivation; it turns out that his entire purpose in talking to Queen Elizabeth is to get her to reduce the number of bodyguards who will accompany the heir to the throne (a child) to the palace. Richard intends to kidnap the heir (which he later succeeds in), so the size of the royal entourage is important to him. We discussed how Richard needs to approach the task of convincing his superiors that a small group is safest, and we came back again to subtext and body language—a theme for the night.

We spent the remainder of our session discussing props and costumes, as we will need to come up with a full list soon. We went to take stock of our inventory of set pieces and flats, which are held backstage, and we started to brainstorm ideas for working within the prison’s restrictions on costuming. There are colors to avoid, types of garment that cannot be worn, and broad prohibitions on anything “military.” All of this, we decided, can be worked around in some way.

Friday

Written by Frannie

Tonight as we gathered, a couple of longtime ensemble members privately expressed frustration to me with another longtime ensemble member whose attendance has been spotty lately. One of these women actually confronted the her, asking her bluntly why she hasn’t been showing up and reminding her that we chose our play largely because of her input.

When that ensemble member arrived, she sat next to me. I quietly asked her whether or not she is still in the group. “I’m half in,” she replied. I said, “We need you either all the way in or all the way out. Halfway isn’t going to work.” She said she would think about it.

We worked on Act III, scene iii, in which Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan are led to their deaths. We discussed the relationships in this scene and the feelings of anger and injustice that these men have relative to their impending executions. Our Ratcliffe also inspired us with her utter lack of caring for the men – she was stone-faced, impassive, with monotone responses to their pleas. It was exciting and chilling.

We then moved to Act III, scene iv, in which several lords debate on when the coronation of the prince should take place, and Richard suddenly accuses Hastings of treason and orders his execution. This scene is pretty straightforward, and the ensemble managed it well, with Richard getting right up in Hastings’ face, being incredibly intimidating even though she is physically smaller than the woman playing Hastings, and then storming out. Our Hastings hesitated before her “Woe, woe for England…” speech, and we encouraged her to really dive in and not judge herself. She did, and it was very moving. She sometimes has a hard time approaching the material seriously – she gets self-conscious and reacts by laughing a lot – but when she buckles down, she can be very powerful.

I chatted with the ensemble member who’s been absent a lot again before she left. She said that she’s been working quite a bit and focusing on her writing, but that every time she makes up her mind to leave the ensemble, she can’t quite do it. I encouraged her to make the best decision for herself, but to do it soon because her absences are hurting our process. She assured me that she would make the decision within the next week.

 

Session Six: Week 22

Tuesday

Written by Frannie

Before we began tonight, one of our ensemble members came to me for a private conversation. She feels like she’s been wasting the ensemble’s time because she hasn’t been participating very much. She has been focused on introspection and learning about herself recently, having been reunited with a family member with whom she hasn’t had much contact in years. She loves Shakespeare and doesn’t really want to leave the group, but she is concerned that she’s getting in the way. I reassured her that she isn’t in the way at all – that there have been participants in the past who have literally sat in the back of the auditorium doing crossword puzzles, and that that was a problem, but that her being more quiet and reflective has not been brought to my attention by anyone as troublesome. I promised to tell her if it gets to be a problem and reminded her that everyone is in the group for different reasons, to accomplish different things. It’s okay if she hangs back for a while.

I also had a one-on-one conversation with another ensemble member who is concerned that much of her part was cut from the script. She was wondering if she could add anything back in. I reminded her that all cuts have been made in the interest of streamlining the play – we need to perform it in 90 minutes or less – and that if she’s going to add anything back in, it needs to be brief, and she needs to be able to make a case for why we need it. I also reassured her that these cuts were not personal – that they were made in the best interests of the team. I encouraged her to find some other small roles to fill, and also to volunteer to fill in when people are absent. This will make it easier, if someone leaves the group, for her to jump in and replace that person in a larger role. I encouraged her to be the first to volunteer in that instance. She seemed to be relieved by our conversation.

We worked on a scene between Richard and Buckingham, making cuts as we went. We got a little distracted talking about other Shakespeare plays, but this was fruitful in that we do need to explore our options for next season. There was also some confusion about the play’s timeline, which led to a brief discussion about making fiction out of the history and how the two don’t always match up.

Week 22-Tuesday
January 31, 2016
Attendance: 14
Facilitators: Frannie, Matt

Written by Frannie

Tanya brought in more research about the play. Her therapist has been printing these articles for her. He is very supportive of her involvement in the program and is planning on seeing a performance.

Before we began tonight, one of our ensemble members (Jessica S.) came to me for a private conversation. She feels like she’s been wasting the ensemble’s time because she hasn’t been participating very much. She has been focused on introspection and learning about herself recently, having been reunited with a family member with whom she hasn’t had much contact in years. She loves Shakespeare and doesn’t really want to leave the group, but she is concerned that she’s getting in the way. I reassured her that she isn’t in the way at all – that there have been participants in the past who have literally sat in the back of the auditorium doing crossword puzzles, and that that was a problem, but that her being more quiet and reflective has not been brought to my attention by anyone as troublesome. I promised to tell her if it gets to be a problem and reminded her that everyone is in the group for different reasons, to accomplish different things. It’s okay if she hangs back for a while.

I also had a one-on-one conversation with another ensemble member (Michelle) who is concerned that much of her part was cut from the script. She was wondering if she could add anything back in. I reminded her that all cuts have been made in the interest of streamlining the play – we need to perform it in 90 minutes or less – and that if she’s going to add anything back in, it needs to be brief, and she needs to be able to make a case for why we need it. I also reassured her that these cuts were not personal – that they were made in the best interests of the team. I encouraged her to find some other small roles to fill, and also to volunteer to fill in when people are absent. This will make it easier, if someone leaves the group, for her to jump in and replace that person in a larger role. I encouraged her to be the first to volunteer in that instance. She seemed to be relieved by our conversation.

We worked on a scene between Richard and Buckingham, making cuts as we went. We got a little distracted talking about other Shakespeare plays, but this was fruitful in that we do need to explore our options for next season. There was also some confusion about the play’s timeline, which led to a brief discussion about making fiction out of the history and how the two don’t always match up.

Friday

Written by Kyle

I began Friday night having a longer conversation with one of our newer members who has spent the majority of her child’s life incarcerated.  It was incredibly frank for such a spur of the moment conversation.  She said that motherhood has been a double edged sword; on one hand going to prison changed her life and she has been clean ever since, but on the other hand she worries what toll her incarceration has in her child’s life.  It is a constant ray of sunshine that also seems to cast shadow of pain at the same time.  This is my third season, and, especially once we begin rehearsals, it can be tempting to forget that this isn’t an ordinary theatre troupe; we get working on the production, we laugh, have inside jokes, and sometimes it can seem so commonplace to my experience working in theatre. Tonight I was really reminded just what is happening not too far below the surface of any given rehearsal.

After check in and warmups, we started to work on Act 1 Scene 4, in which Edwards learns of his brother Clarence’s death.  It’s a difficult scene because there are lots of people on stage who have compelling backstories and conflict, but that are secondary to the central conflict of Edward learning of the death.  It made for difficult staging, which tends to be the ensemble’s weakest link anyway.  There was a lot of discussion as to just how sick Edward needs to be; if she is too sick to stand, how can we put the needed movement in the scene to make it move along?  If not, what other kinds of sickness can King Edward display that makes her condition clear?  It was getting disproportionately heated for such a seemingly small matter, and some people felt like their suggestions were not being heeded; we had to stress that it is ultimately up to the actor playing King Edward to make the final decision, and we moved on to the next scene.  The actor playing Richard was having somewhat of a difficult night - there was definitely something off, and she seemed a little short tempered.  I pulled her aside and asked if something was wrong. I think she may have apologized twenty times.  She was having issues with a family member and didn’t realize she was being as short as she was. It was really positive, and I’m glad I talked to her about it. We only had a little bit of time to work on Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess's scene, in which they learn of King Edward's death, but I had a pet idea for staging that the ensemble was kind enough to humor me and try.  It’s always a delicate balance trying to be an ensemble member myself and a facilitator.  I want to have ideas, but I want to facilitate their ideas as well; unfortunately tonight, the former won out.  We didn’t finish the scene, but I was glad we worked right up to 8:30.

Written by Kyle

I began Friday night having a longer conversation with one of our newer members who has spent the majority of her child’s life incarcerated.  It was incredibly frank for such a spur of the moment conversation.  She said that motherhood has been a double edged sword; on one hand going to prison changed her life and she has been clean ever since, but on the other hand she worries what toll her incarceration has in her child’s life.  It is a constant ray of sunshine that also seems to cast shadow of pain at the same time.  This is my third season, and, especially once we begin rehearsals, it can be tempting to forget that this isn’t an ordinary theatre troupe; we get working on the production, we laugh, have inside jokes, and sometimes it can seem so commonplace to my experience working in theatre. Tonight I was really reminded just what is happening not too far below the surface of any given rehearsal.

After check in and warmups, we started to work on Act 1 Scene 4, in which Edwards learns of his brother Clarence’s death.  It’s a difficult scene because there are lots of people on stage who have compelling backstories and conflict, but that are secondary to the central conflict of Edward learning of the death.  It made for difficult staging, which tends to be the ensemble’s weakest link anyway.  There was a lot of discussion as to just how sick Edward needs to be; if she is too sick to stand, how can we put the needed movement in the scene to make it move along?  If not, what other kinds of sickness can King Edward display that makes her condition clear?  It was getting disproportionately heated for such a seemingly small matter, and some people felt like their suggestions were not being heeded; we had to stress that it is ultimately up to the actor playing King Edward to make the final decision, and we moved on to the next scene.  The actor playing Richard was having somewhat of a difficult night - there was definitely something off, and she seemed a little short tempered.  I pulled her aside and asked if something was wrong. I think she may have apologized twenty times.  She was having issues with a family member and didn’t realize she was being as short as she was. It was really positive, and I’m glad I talked to her about it. We only had a little bit of time to work on Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess's scene, in which they learn of King Edward's death, but I had a pet idea for staging that the ensemble was kind enough to humor me and try.  It’s always a delicate balance trying to be an ensemble member myself and a facilitator.  I want to have ideas, but I want to facilitate their ideas as well; unfortunately tonight, the former won out.  We didn’t finish the scene, but I was glad we worked right up to 8:30.

Session Six: Week 21

Written by Kyle

Tuesday

This week I started the evening talking to one of the newer members of the group about Shakespeare’s verse; we don’t always get to take a deep dive into the intricacies of his verse. It can get dry and too academic for many in the group.  So I always jump at the chance to ‘nerd out’ when I see one of the ensemble members willing to go there with me.  It turned into a much longer conversation, though, about the philosophy of the group.  It was an interesting conversation. She was craving some more heavy-handed direction, which we intentionally avoid because the group strives to be non-hierarchical.  I reiterated that it is an ideal to which we will always fall short, and that it can make the process seem more laborious at times; ultimately, though, the extra effort is worth the sense of ownership that a communal process fosters.  I appreciated the frankness of the conversation and the perspective of a newcomer to the group.  One of the highlights of the check-in was when one of the ensemble members told the group that she will be seeing her son for the first time in two and a half years; that this is a direct result of the positive changes that she has made to her life, and that SIP was a big part of that.

We had a fairly well attended session at the outset so we elected to skip a scene or two and begin with Act 1 Scene 3, in which old Queen Margaret crashes the party.  The ensemble oscillates between creating some truly compelling acting work (by anyone’s standards) and learning the basics of stagecraft: where does one stand on stage, how to counter your scene partner with your movement, if you are a messenger with only a line or two where do you stand that’s out of the way, etc.  These are all commonplace discussions that happen just about every couple of minutes in these first rehearsals.  It’s encouraging to see the newer members challenge the group to acknowledge royalty, suggest cuts to a scene, and identify possible inconsistencies in the text.  This scene is packed with a fair amount of back history, and it's difficult to not get bogged down; you can easily spend all your time talking and not actually get around to rehearsing.  Once the scene got going we had some really powerful stuff from our Margaret and Richard; both actors could have easily held their own in a university setting or professional actor training program.  It was also great to have Sarah in attendance tonight. Her point of view is always so authoritative and inspires such discernment from the ensemble.  It’s pretty amazing, actually, the caliber of acting that is happening so early in the process.  At a certain point, though, the actors began to lose the thread of the scene, and we had to sit and hammer things out reading in a circle.

We’ve been having an issue with conflicts and the ensemble leaving early. It’s been happening all along, but it plays out a little differently now that we are in rehearsals.  I hope it is something that we can address in the coming sessions; although there is a part of me that enjoys working with the actors in a more intimate group, ultimately it becomes the same collaborative question that came up in private conversation at the start of the session.  Great work was accomplished by the members who stayed, but it felt somewhat lost because so much of the ensemble had left early.

Friday

Today we had the update from our ensemble member who was reunited with her son.  These things never quite go the way you’d think, and the story she told was no exception.  She said it was a start, though, and it was wonderful to see the whole group share in her joy.

During the latter part of the check in, one of the other ensemble members brought up the attendance policy and how everyone had bailed before the end of the session on Tuesday.  It was really well said, and without rancor or judgment; I was really impressed by how well she navigated potential conflict with good natured poise, all without walking backwards on her position.  It did drive home just how many people have legitimate conflicts. It felt like people were skipping out early on Tuesday, but I’m rethinking that assessment.  A large number of our group have other approved commitments, and I imagine it will be something we revisit several times before the performances this summer.

After the warm-up we worked the famous scene in which Richard courts Lady Anne.  It’s a truly challenging scene, and it is nice to have two veterans from the group be at the helm.  Unfortunately, it's a two-hander, and quite long at that, so much of the group were not rehearsing their scenes tonight; everyone was really good about following the scene and contributing ideas where they could.  The actor playing Richard has really taken it on herself to play and experiment in her scenes.  I’ve not seen this kind of freedom from her in seasons past. She’s always been a committed actor and taken direction well, but I’ve never quite had the feeling like she might do anything at any moment.  It’s exhilarating to watch her play - she walked right up to one of the servants and flicked her in the face.  It happened so organically, and there were many more moments just like it; every couple of lines Richard would give a look to the audience letting us know what she really thought of the scene.  It seemed like there were a hundred little eye rolls, winks, and inside jokes she started with the audience.  I’m really not sure when it sunk in that she could have as much fun experimenting in the scene, but if tonight’s rehearsal is anything to go by, she has learned the lesson well.

Session Six: Week 20

Tuesday

Written by Matt

Tonight many women seemed to be feeling strained, and their comments at check-in touched on moments in the last week that have made them feel on edge or melancholy. Two talked about how many of their friends are in segregation or stuck in their bunks on sanctions. One longtime member said that her brother had been in a car accident, and that she was feeling acutely “how fast life can change.” Between the dark cloud hanging over the group and the oppressive heat in the theatre space, most women didn’t seem especially excited to move around, but one woman who has emerged as a leader led us all through a vigorous physical warmup that left everyone energized, if a little sweaty.

The rest of this session was taken up with work on the opening monologue. This sort of intensive work on a single woman’s scene can be taxing (or boring!) for other participants, who mostly sit around, but today, every member of the ensemble was actively invested in Richard’s success. After a rough initial read-through with Richard standing in the middle of a circle of ensemble-members, we discussed Richard’s deformity and how it should manifest onstage. A facilitator jumped in to say that perhaps we should leave aside the staging of Richard’s deformity—whatever it turns out to be—until we all have a better sense of the more essential parts of his role (his desires, his worldview, his motivations). On a second performance, the permission to abandon the limp seemed to free Richard. She was more expansive, funnier, and sharper. We all laughed out loud at her impish delivery of some of Richard’s snarky lines. Little, inspired flourishes started to come through in this iteration; Richard, in declaring that “I am determined to prove a villain,” toppled the chair in front of her with a flick of the wrist and a little smirk.

After this second time through, the women talked about how they had used the “Imaginary Bodies” exercise from a previous session to mold their characters already. Four or five women chimed in to say that they had learned about their characters through this technique. The group decided to let Richard run through the entire first scene, this time on stage, with the ensemble in the audience. Richard really let loose this time through, moving through the aisles and coming to individual audience members in the front two rows during the two monologues in the scene. The effect was to deepen Richard’s glee at planning and plotting. A member commented that “I really love Richard coming down to us.”
Before leaving, we talked briefly about Richard’s view of women, especially because this first scene leads into I.ii, the argument with—and wooing of--Anne. “Women,” said our Richard, “are just puppets and toys.” The group nodded silently in agreement.

Friday

Written by Frannie

Before we began, I had a private conversation with our Richard. She has been really concerned about Richard’s deformity and resistant to working with it. She views Richard as a “sexy badass,” and that’s not an incorrect interpretation. She and I had miscommunicated about the deformity – she thought I was prescribing for her what it is, which was not my intention. I explained to her that it’s important to the character that something be physically wrong with him – he mentions it in the first few lines of the play – but that we can work on exactly what it is. I also made sure she understood that this deformity does not have to be a weakness – that many people with disabilities or physical deformities are extremely strong and charismatic, so she does not have to let go of her interpretation of the character. She was reassured, and we are now on the same page.

Many of our ensemble members had to leave early tonight, but fortunately we were left with most of the women who are in Act One, scene four, in which Clarence tells of his nightmare and is then murdered by two mercenaries. Our Brakenbury was one of the people who had to leave early, so a woman who lives in her unit stood in for her, taking notes that she would then pass on. One of the women who was in the group last year reminded all of us that some of our interpretation of the scene needs to be left for when the actual Brakenbury is present.

Our Clarence then mentioned that we hadn’t done our physical Six Directions warm up, and said that it helped her so much she really wanted to do it. I said that I would do it with her, and then everyone else joined in.

We went through the scene once. It didn’t seem quite right. We explored the relationship between Brakenbury (whom we have merged with the Keeper in this scene, and so is the “officer”) and Clarence, who is the prisoner. “He has compassion for me. He’s really listening,” said our Clarence. The woman standing in for Brakenbury said, though, that as the officer she felt odd about letting Clarence touch her or sitting on a bench with her. “You’re royalty,” said one of the women to Clarence. “You’re a good dude, and he doesn’t like seeing you in this position. But he’s gotta do his job.” Another woman said, “We have officers who are good and compassionate, but they wouldn’t come sit in the dayroom and eat with us.”

The woman playing Clarence then emotionally said that she wanted Brakenbury to have compassion for Clarence because she is so sick of dealing with officers who have no empathy for the prisoners under their watch. I pointed out that this is a great instinct and one that she can use, even if our interpretation is that there is no physical contact – that the desire for contact can be the obstacle to her character’s objective and help to motivate how upset she is. We reminded her, too, that some of this needs to be left up to the woman actually playing Brakenbury, and a woman who knows that ensemble member well pointed out that she has OCD and likely would not want to be touched in any case. That seems to have decided things – we like to gently push people out of their comfort zones in terms of participation, but we absolutely do not want to push on something like that.

We tried changing up the staging of the scene a bit, so that our Clarence would direct more of her monologues outward toward the audience, leaving Brakenbury a bit distant from her. This proved to be a bit of an emotional gut punch, as she sank to her knees to pray, and Brakenbury then gently came over to sit with her as she went to sleep. It was extremely effective.

The Murderers then entered. They had decided previously that the First Murderer is the brains, and the Second Murderer is the muscle, and that he is flamboyant. Without us noticing, they had altered how they were wearing their uniforms to reflect this – the First Murderer wore her over-shirt open and walked with a swagger, and the Second Murderer pulled her pants up under her ribcage and walked leading with her pelvis.

I don’t think any of us realized how FUNNY this scene is until they began to interact with each other. I don’t even know that it’s generally staged that way, but what they were doing was completely motivated by the text and worked beautifully. We talked about how what the Second Murderer’s objective changes in this scene – from wanting to get out of doing the murder to remembering the reward and re-committing to the action. At one point the First Murderer accidentally said, “The Gluke of Gloucester,” and we all burst out laughing.

It was a really fun, uplifting evening.

 

Session Six: Week 19

Tuesday

Tonight began with a discussion of what we might be able to do with our time, as we are still waiting for our rehearsal scripts to be approved.

A longtime ensemble member suggested that we try paraphrasing our way through some scenes to get more meaning out of them. I welcomed her to lead the exercise, but in practice it proved to be too soon in our process for this to work – we just don’t know the material well enough yet to mark through it like that. This was frustrating, but we will revisit the exercise down the line.

We then decided to work some monologues even without the cuts. Our Richard asked to work on “Was ever woman in this humor wooed…” Her first instinct was to try to make us laugh and to showcase her arrogance, and this was fun, but we asked her to go deeper with it – to make us worship her brilliance rather than just making us laugh. This made the piece absolutely sing – she was clearly having fun with it, which is absolutely appropriate, and we loved it, too. She is also beginning to explore Richard’s “deformity” – she wants him to be strong and sexy, but we pointed out that he talks repeatedly about being deformed, so she needs to find a way in to something along those lines. This will be a challenging balance to strike, but I’m confident that she will find a solution that works for her.

Our Richmond then worked her speech to the troops. She is very strong in this piece, but we wanted her to go for more specificity. When she did it a second time, we interrupted her occasionally, asking for clarity on things like, “WHO will welcome us home?” This led to a much more detailed interpretation.

We continued to talk about ways of finding detail in these long monologues – our Richard is feeling challenged by the soliloquy that follows the ghosts’ visits – finding movement when thoughts change and not simply wandering around the stage. We will continue to explore this!

As the group worked, one woman turned to me and said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m in the twilight zone. Everything seems so strange. But I’m starting to feel comfortable here [in SIP]. I always laugh. But it’s just being in prison… I guess it’s good. It means I’m not getting used to it.”

Friday

Tonight the ensemble member who is acting as our dramaturg arrived with materials she’d gathered about various historical aspects of the play. She had specifically pulled an article called “Anne Neville: Victim?” for the woman playing Anne, since she’s expressed a lot of conflict about how she should interpret the character. Our Anne was excited and grateful for the resource, and the woman who provided it beamed. What a thrill that working on this play in particular has provided this role to someone who is so enthusiastic about it – she really loves being a resource for the group and is working hard to provide whatever information she can as we work through the play.

As we gathered, I sat and chatted with an ensemble member who, upon seeing our Richard pass by, jokingly said, “Hey there, Dick.” “That’s King Dick to you,” she responded with her nose in the air.

The group seemed listless, as we still do not have our rehearsal scripts, so I launched us into some more exploration of Chekhov technique, this time Imaginary Centers. In brief, the idea is that any character’s energy comes from one of three centers at any given time – thinking (mainly the head), feeling (mainly the heart), or willing (mainly the pelvis). There are images associated with those centers – a stick with thinking, a veil with feeling, and a ball with willing. We spent the majority of our time exploring and experimenting with those centers and those images, which involved full body explorations and lots of movement.

Several women connected more to their willing than to their thinking centers. Kyle reflected that, when he was a ball, he was more eager to interact with people. One woman said, “I feel like I’m a super ball – each type connected to a different part of my personality.” She mentioned that, when we channeled a ping pong ball, she felt connected to the part of her that has been abused. Kyle volunteered that he felt the opposite as a ping pong ball – free and easy. This technique is very subjective!

When another woman reflected that she did not enjoy exploring the feeling center, saying “it’s just too much,” that led us into a conversation about where our own personal dominant centers are. We are a diverse bunch - answers ranged throughout the three centers, with some noting a conflict between two, such as feeling and thinking. One woman said, "I'm a bouncy ball being hit with a baseball bat, covered by a veil." I always love when we think outside of the box!

We had done a lot of moving around, and everyone was tired, so when one woman asked how exactly we use this in our rehearsal process, I asked the group if they would like me to demonstrate, and they said yes. I asked them to give me one image at a time with which to explore the first four lines of our play, and we went through at least ten, maybe more – I was having fun and lost count! Using different images changes the quality of performance, and that came through even as we stumbled on images that didn’t work as well for those lines – or at least they didn’t for me. Our Richard gave an image that didn’t work for me a try, and it worked great for her! Musing over her character, she said, “I have to have will to conquer and take over, but I also want to give you a little bit of my veil.”

The group was tired – it was warm in the room, and we’d been very active – so we agreed to leave early. Nearly everyone agreed that these tools will be valuable to them in their exploration of the play – our Anne in particular was enthusiastic about what this will do for her process. She is a feeling-centered person and believes that playing Anne primarily through her willing center will be her “way in.”

I’m very glad that these techniques are proving to be interesting and helpful for the group. I try to avoid making our program into an acting class, but I’ve always found these tools to be valuable, and while we’re waiting to be able to work with our actual scripts, this has been an enjoyable way to spend our time.

Session Six: Week 18

Tuesday

We spent tonight playing improv games, since our rehearsal script isn’t yet ready and some group members pointed out that it’s been awhile since we’ve done improv. It’s important for us to continue to sharpen those skills so that we can react constructively when things go “haywire” in performance. We had a lot of fun!

During one of the games, the woman playing Richard came over to me. “I tried not to do it, I really tried,” she said, “But Richard III was on TV, and I watched it. And… I don’t know if I can really say this… But I didn’t like the Richard in the movie. I think I can play him better. Can I say that?” I replied that of course she can! I asked her why she felt that way. “The guy in the movie played him with no feelings. Just evil. I don’t want to play a character like that. I think he has feelings.”

An inmate who is not in our group came in and handed me an ensemble member’s book, saying that she wanted me to be able to make the cuts even though she couldn’t be present because of another program. It was good to be able to make those cuts rather than waiting another few days!

We wrapped up by saying good bye to an ensemble member who is going home in a couple of days. We are excited for her and will be rooting her on as she makes her transition.


Friday

Tonight when I arrived, one of the women shared with me that she’s been referencing part of the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary lately – in one scene, a man admits to a particularly heinous crime and then expresses his wish that he be judged on the totality of his life, and not solely by the worst thing he’s ever done. This woman has been quoting that in order to stem judgment and bullying in her unit. It resonates for her – as someone who was heavily involved in drugs, there were things that she witnessed people doing upon which she sat in judgment… but later engaged in those activities herself. She said that it’s hard not to judge someone who’s done something that you consider to be the worst possible thing, until you’ve done it yourself. And then you must work on forgiving yourself. “I’m not that person anymore,” she said.

The energy in the room as we all gathered was extremely low. One of the lifers in our group shared during check in that the days have lost meaning for her – she forgot about Christmas Eve, and the change in the year isn’t hitting her at all. This negativity, which is completely understandable, hung heavy in the room. Since we still don’t have our rehearsal script, I suggested that we delve into the acting techniques that we’ve been dancing around – I’ve personally always felt healed and energized through work with Chekhov technique, and I hoped that we could arouse some of that tonight when it was so sorely needed.

After an energetic warm up, we began to work with something called “imaginary body.” In essence, the imaginary body can be imagined, shaped, and then “worn” like a costume, changing the way an actor moves and interacts with people and objects around them. We experimented with changing different parts of the body (i.e., you are extremely tall/short, you have an extremely long neck, you have hands made of glass), and then I welcomed everyone to “sculpt” an imaginary body for their characters out of the air, then stepping in and moving throughout the space. The group was game for this and the mood began to lighten considerably.

I then moved around the room asking, “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” with each person responding absolutely appropriately from her character’s perspective. We then came up with full body gestures expressing that want.

This took some time, and we gathered in a circle to reflect. The consensus was that these were useful exercises. A longtime ensemble member said, “It helped me get into my character more than in previous years, sooner.” She also shared that she loved the warm up exercise, as it activated her energy and made her feel more connected to her body. The woman playing the Duchess discovered that, “even though she’s eighty, she’s going to be a vibrant eighty.” The woman playing Richard said, “I got to put the traits I want him to have on him. He’s handsome. He’s gorgeous.”

The woman playing Anne then shared, “It made me realize I don’t feel comfortable with Anne… I don’t feel comfortable with her values. I don’t know what this woman wants – to maintain her lifestyle? Or does she want love…?” Another woman who had seen a version of our play on TV shared that, in that version, it was clear that Anne didn’t have a choice in her actions because Richard was the Lord Protector.

“I’m so excited about this year,” said another woman. “I know that when I go on stage I can be this Clarence who I’ve created.”

“It helped me look at her outside of the text, as a person, not just words on paper,” said one woman.

“Before today,” shared another woman, “I knew who I was playing but never really thought about it. When you asked what I wanted it really clicked for me: I do not want to die, and that’s what I want through the whole play.”

The woman playing the Duchess, said, “The Duchess might just want the bloodshed to stop, but in the meantime, I want my son to be cursed.”

The woman playing Buckingham said, “Thinking about what my character wants helps me think about why he wants the things that he wants. He wants stuff, reputation, power… He wants reputation, validation, recognition. He has a lot, but he wants more. He’s calculating and greedy.” A woman who was in the group last year jokingly quoted from Othello, saying, “Reputation, reputation, reputation!” We talked about all of our different interpretations of Buckingham – what she expressed is very different from the views of some of the women who view him as true and loyal, just having chosen the one person to whom to be loyal.

The room felt much lighter as we departed. As usual, this acting technique had served to buoy the entire group. I am very glad that we’ve chosen to delve in like this.

Session Six: Week 17

Tuesday

Tonight we were given the opportunity to see a performance by one of Prison Creative Arts Project’s groups, and we took it!

Before the program began, we facilitators took seats near some members of our ensemble. The conversation quickly turned to our rehearsal script – we need to make the first round of cuts so that we can print the copies we’ll use until June. One of the women had brought her book, and I gave her mine so she could transfer her cuts from one to the other. She and another ensemble member have split the play down the middle – one made cuts to the first half, and the other to the second half. They are finding it difficult to cut because a lot of the banter is very tight. The second ensemble member, who has been in the group for several years, remarked that it was challenging for her, too, even though she is very skilled at cutting, because she doesn’t know the play as well as she would like. We know that we will make more cuts as we work through it together.

Several ensemble members were excited to tell us that they’ve discovered “The Hollow Crown” on PBS, which is a series about the Wars of the Roses. I am definitely going to check it out!

The PCAP performance was a great experience. Women from both the creative writing and theatre workshops performed, showing great skill and ingenuity. When some of the women were clearly nervous, the audience cheered them on – it was one of the most encouraging, positive audiences of which I’ve ever been a part.

After the performance, an ensemble member who wrote and produced an original play at the prison called me over to a friend who’d been in the performance. This friend then sang a couple of songs that our ensemble member wrote, and another woman performed short snippets from the play. This ensemble member has really come into her own as an artist – it seems like there’s nothing she can’t do!

Friday

Tonight we had a small group due to some miscommunications – a number of people were under the impression that our meeting had been canceled. Even so, we had a positive evening.

We took our time with our check in. A couple of women shared that they’d had some wonderful and rare visits with family members – very welcome during the holidays, which can be very dark for incarcerated people. We also reflected on the PCAP performance, with all of us saying how much we’d enjoyed it.

At one point during our check in, an ensemble member in her early twenties referred to people in their sixties as being “old.” A woman in our group who IS in her sixties jokingly corrected her, saying, “oldER.” Later, during a theatre game, the latter woman got the first woman out and teased her, saying, “That’s what happens when you’re older!” We all had a good laugh at that.

The game that we played involves sitting in a circle, asking a question to the person next to you, who does not answer but turns to the person next to her and asks another question, and so on. It’s a challenging game, great for teaching us to think quickly and trust our instincts. I won the first round, and a very competitive ensemble member won the second round. The group then decided that the two of us should face off. I jokingly start dancing and snapping my fingers, ala “West Side Story,” and we circled each other for several minutes, peppering each other with questions, until I finally folded. It was hilarious.

As we sat together, the conversation shifted to some personal issues some members of our group have been having. One of the women remarked that often all one has to do when faced with a challenge is to ask for help. Several others pointed out that there are many women in prison who have no one to whom they can go. The first woman insisted that there is always someone who will be willing to help. Others said that first one needs the self-worth and courage to do it, with one woman admitting that she simply has too much pride to ask for help in most situations.

Although we didn’t work on any Shakespeare tonight, it was a good meeting. We need all the positive energy we can muster this time of year. We’ll get rolling on our play again soon

Session Six: Week 16

Tuesday

 

Tonight I distributed our cast list as people came into the room. Fortunately, everyone was cast in a role that was on her list, so we did not have any drama or tension.

One woman who auditioned for Richard and Buckingham breathed a sigh of relief as she saw that she had been cast as the latter. She sat next to me and said how glad she was not to have been cast as Richard. I asked her why she had volunteered for the role if she didn’t really want it. She said that she had raised her hand because there was only one other person who was interested in the role, and she felt it would mean more to her if she earned the role than if it was handed to her. But then she thought, “I have a 50% chance that I could get this. Oh, crap! I had ten lines last year. But I guess [the woman who played Othello] didn’t think she could do it last year, and she did. So I guess I could, too. But I really just wanted [the woman cast as Richard] to feel like it was something she’d worked for.” What an extraordinary gesture!

Another woman who had been quite vocal about wanting to play Margaret wound up cast as Elizabeth, her second choice. I was a bit concerned that this would be upsetting to her, but she told me that, after the audition, she realized that she actually preferred Elizabeth, and it would be a better role for her.

We gathered for check-in, and afterward we discussed our game plan for the next phase of the program. The first order of business is to do a first round of cuts to the play – we need to perform in 90 minutes or less, so we always end up cutting quite a bit. The woman playing Richard, who played Othello last year, said, “This year I’m gonna work super duper hard to be pro-cuts. ‘Cause I have way too many lines.” Last year she was very resistant to cuts because she loved the language so much, and it’s good to know that she’s gained perspective and will be more flexible this time around. Another woman, who is our resident cutting queen, offered some advice to the group: “Remember that you’re cutting for your audience. If we have trouble understanding it, they probably will, too.” We decided that everyone who is comfortable making cuts will bring them on Friday so that I can gather them and have a bound rehearsal script for us very soon.

We also discussed how we want to explain the history of the play to our audience – it’s very hard to understand the relationships and much of the plot without prior knowledge. Some of us favor a spoken prologue, while others think a visual guide would be better. We’ll keep discussing it – we always figure out how to overcome these challenges, and I know the ensemble will come up with a great solution.

The next topic of conversation was costumes. The group is mulling over how close to period we should go. Usually we do a hybrid modern/period mix of costumes, but there is potential this year to stick more to period pieces, with the prison’s approval. This is something we’ll continue to talk about over the next month or so until we need to make our decision.

One of the woman gave a little pep talk to the group, reminding everyone that, now that we’re in rehearsal, it’s important for everyone to behave well in order to remain in the group and have consistent attendance.  We wrapped up playing a few games and left feeling good about where we are in our process.

 

Session Six: Week 15

Tuesday

 

Tonight we continued working on our audition sides.

The first woman to rehearse chose King Edward’s monologue, in which he expresses anger and regret at the execution of his brother. She was mesmerizing, performing with the absolute appropriate emotions, lots of vocal variety, and the “chewing on the words” that we strive for. We were all completely wowed by her work – she is often quiet and has trouble reading aloud, stumbling over words, so it was clear that she’d worked really hard on this piece.

The next woman to perform read Richmond’s monologue rallying the troops. Her first read felt natural to her, and we asked her to add more painting of pictures and really striving to get us on her side. “It’s like Sun Tzu’s ‘moral law’ in The Art of War,” she mused. Before she read again, I encouraged the ensemble to participate – to resist joining her until she had us convinced. This worked very well, with all of us eventually jumping to our feet, cheering, and even pounding on the tables with enthusiasm. The woman performing reflected that it felt very good to connect with her audience in that way – that the noise got her blood pumping and even made her feel primal.

Another woman who knows she will be absent for our audition day decided to do hers this evening. She read first for the Second Murderer. She is a natural with the language, and the scene worked very well. She then read the Richmond monologue, and we all agreed to participate the same way we had with the first woman who read it. She performed with great gusto, and we all ended up on our feet, shouting and pounding the tables again. We all applauded at the conclusion of the piece. “Thanks,” she joked, “I’ll be here for a couple more years.”

Three others then volunteered to read a side featuring Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and the Duchess. The first read clearly demonstrated that they understood what they were reading, but it lacked emotional commitment. One of the women admitted to the group that she had been scared – that it had been her first time doing anything like this. The whole group erupted in applause and praise for her. We then worked a bit on finding that emotional connection – whether through Stanislavksy’s “magic as if” or through a bit of Chekhov technique through which I guided the group. They read again and were more emotionally grounded. The woman reading Elizabeth asked if it was okay that she drew on her own experience to get at the character’s grief, to which I responded that this is an okay crutch to use in rehearsal, but that, for one thing, she needs to keep herself safe and withdraw from scene work if it ever starts feeling dangerous, and for another, that she will need to let go of that in performance so she is telling her character’s story and not her own.

It was a very productive, warm meeting. Everyone is clearly preparing for auditions and casting, and, while there is competition for some of the roles, I haven’t gotten a sense of the kind of drama that has colored the past few casting processes. We’ll see if we can sustain our current positive feeling.

 

Friday

 

Tonight during check-in, several people shared that they were nervous about auditions – a couple of people even said they might forego their auditions out of anxiety. While I made sure everyone knew that auditions were not required, an ensemble member who was in the group last year encouraged everyone to push through that fear. “We’re all in it together,” she reminded us.

Everyone present ended up participating, either by auditioning, reading with another ensemble member, or both. Everyone had clearly worked on their sides – readings were intelligent and thoughtful. After one woman read for Margaret, the woman who volunteered to be her “other” remarked, “I think she did good because I feel like I hate her now!”

Another woman was clearly very nervous to read Richard’s opening soliloquy. She wants the part very badly. As she entered the playing area, another woman said, “Find your center… do your Frannie!” The whole group, including the woman, laughed, and she did her Frannie impression, which is hilarious. This seemed to calm her a bit, and she had a great reading.

Then the woman who read King Edward so beautifully on Tuesday read the piece again. “You’re awesome!” said another ensemble member. “How come you don’t read more often in class?” The woman shrugged, saying, “I don’t know.” The first woman said, “Well, I’m gonna start bugging you!”

A woman who had expressed extreme anxiety about auditioning then volunteered to read. Everyone cheered as she stood and walked into the playing area. After she read, a longtime ensemble member said, “You don’t even seem like you have anxiety!” And then she read again!

We wrapped up as people cast their votes via anonymous ballots and decided to end early since a number of people had to leave early anyway. I will be tallying up the votes this weekend and distributing a cast list on Tuesday.

Session Six: Week 14

Tuesday

 

Tonight we conducted an oral interview with the group for our case study. I can’t publish the interviews here, but they were extremely insightful.

We also briefly discussed auditions and casting again. The group is in agreement on our method, sides have been distributed, and we will begin working with them on Friday.

 

Friday

 

Tonight one of the women pulled me aside to talk about concerns she is having about her daughter. She has a life sentence and is trying to cope with feelings of helplessness where her child is concerned. It hit home for me, as a mother, very hard. She apologized for “burdening” me, and I reassured her that it is no burden – that I’m there to listen to and support everyone in the group.

We spent our evening rehearsing the sides we’ll use for our auditions. We focused on the basics – identifying what the character wants (the objective) and how to go after it (the tactics). We also tried to find appropriate movement and delved slightly into vocal techniques.

Two different women read the scene in which Clarence meets Richard on his way to the Tower. Their interpretations were vastly different. The first played him as trusting in his brothers to do the right thing, while the second interpreted him as being feisty and angry. Both of these takes worked on their feet. It will be very interesting to see where we end up once the role is cast.

One of the women showcased an impression she does of me when I’m about to do a monologue. That got a lot of laughs. I do some kind of weird acting prep, and I don’t hold back in order to give others “permission” to do whatever they need to do. It is funny, though, and she does the impression very well. At first, this ensemble member, working on Richard’s opening soliloquy, was very focused on objects in the room that she was miming. We encouraged her to let go of that. Another longtime ensemble member reminded her not to judge her character, and I asked her to work with the objective of getting us (the audience) on her side. Her subsequent reading was electrifying. Whether she is cast in the role remains to be seen, but it was a very strong performance.

The woman who read Richard had envisioned the scene taking place in a bedchamber, but, because Clarence enters with an armed guard, en route to imprisonment, it would be tough to justify the scene happening in a setting like that. One of the women said she envisioned the curtain opening at the top of the show to reveal Richard sitting in a chair. Some in the group feel that that would work and could still be set outside.

This led to a brief conversation about the locations in the play. Strangely, there are no locations noted in the “No Fear” copy of the play that the women are working with, although there are in the Arden version that I always have with me. We talked about changing locations, and even time period, and what the perks and the pitfalls of that can be.

We ended by deciding to continue rehearsing sides on Tuesday, with auditions and casting next Friday.