Season Seven: Week 42

Tuesday



As we gathered today, the vibe in the room was, again, quite relaxed and confident. During check in, our Lady Macbeth shared that she’d felt “like a supernatural actress” on Friday. We agreed that she’d been amazing! She said her favorite moment was when another woman broke character, but she didn’t, and it made that second woman snap right back into the scene.

As usual, this third performance was our smoothest. As one woman said last year, “The first one is a mess, the second is the best, and by the third we’re just ready to be done!” Our Porter went all out this time, though. She has really loved playing this part, particularly with her rewritten/improvised monologue, and tonight she totally hammed it up. “I just wanna DRINK… and open the gate… and DRINK… and open the gate… You know what I’m saying?”

One of the women, who was dealing with some personal (and totally legitimate) issues, finished up her scenes, folded her costumes, and quietly told me she was leaving. I thanked her for coming in the first place. But then just a few minutes later, I saw her sitting in the house, watching intently with a smile on her face.

Our Young Siward , who had had such a break through during our first performance, was full of joking swagger this time as she got in place. She turned to Kyle and said, “Watch me go squash this shit!” Then she paused and said, “Just kidding… gimme back the script.” She was fantastic, though. And I’m not sure what happened at the end of the scene – maybe she fell a little farther from the curtain than usual – but instead of dragging herself off as rehearsed, one of the other women grabbed her wrists and pulled her off on her stomach, both of them cracking up.

The show ended, and our audience gave us a standing ovation! One woman had made a sign for our Lady Macbeth, which she waved as she cheered. As we closed the curtain and began cleaning up, the woman who had been sitting in the house burst through the curtain. “Oh my god, that was so great from the audience. It’s way funnier from out there!” (Yes, this is Macbeth, but our Act V got pretty silly.) “I never watched the people before! They were like –” she showed us how they leaned on the seat backs, gasped, commented, laughed, etc. I’m glad she stayed and got to have that experience!

And that was that for our Season Seven performances!



Friday



We gathered around a table on the stage tonight, a cheerful little group happy to be together one last time this season and sad to go a couple of months before beginning our work on Twelfth Night. One of the women jokingly pulled out the “sign” I’d made for her in Week 6, when I poked fun at one woman who wouldn’t stop talking by scrawling “I AM A CHATTERBOX” on a piece of paper and handing it to her. I then got on a roll and made “signs” for everyone. And this woman still had hers! (BANQUO’S BFF). “I can’t believe you still have that! That’s awesome!” I laughed. “I save everything from this class,” she said, showing us all of the little mementos she’d gathered along the way.

It was a really interesting wrap up. Usually it’s started out as kind of a “lovefest”, and then we’ve gotten into the operational stuff, but this year we kind of jumped around. It was no better or worse than in years past. It was just different! And I think that’s pretty typical of this ensemble: the work is important, and we are there to work – but the people are even more important, so if we go off on a tangent because someone needs to express herself, that’s more than all right.

Our Lady Macbeth had to leave just a few minutes in. She rose to her feet, saying, “I just wanna say something before I go.” She paused and looked at Kyle. “You can write this down, Kyle,” she said. We all laughed, and he picked up his pen. “I struggled this year. It’s really hard when you have stories on your heart, and you want to attend to that only.” (She’s a writer and is nearly always mid-project.) “I was determined to fight through it. Next year I want to come and be more into it.” She turned to our Macbeth, saying, “You were an amazing husband.” We laughed again, but she wasn’t done. “Me not giving 100% wasn’t fair to the people around me—” she made it clear she was talking specifically about our Macbeth— “She didn’t judge me or look down on me.” A few people were shaking their heads, but she continued, “Hopefully next year I’ll have more of a balance, and I’ll try to treat Shakespeare like the real world. I’ll be more dedicated next year.”

Another woman finally broke in, saying, “No, you didn’t give it 100%. You gave it 110%!” Lady Macbeth shook her head. “Well,” continued the woman, “Then I can’t wait to see 120% next year!”

Our Macbeth then caught Lady Macbeth’s eye and said, “Can I say something in response?” Lady Macbeth nodded. “I’m gonna out myself here. I was skeptical when you came back [she’d left the ensemble for a few months], and I had someone else in mind for the part who didn’t work out.” She paused, eyes locked with her main scene partner. “I’m so glad it was you. I couldn’t have asked for a better person.”

Our Lady Macbeth fanned herself with her hands, saying, “I’m not about to cry—I’m too smooth!” She then thanked us all for a great season, told us to have a wonderful summer, and walked off the stage into the house. She turned to wave, walking backward. And then she kept waving. And walking backward. And waving and walking backward. All the way to the door.

We went back to our discussion about what’s been working and what hasn’t. One of our main frustrations has been attendance; this is something we’ve always struggled with, and I’m honestly not sure that there’s a cure-all. But we keep trying. One woman, who’s been particularly frustrated, suggested that people who “flake” be asked to take a year off from the program till they can “get themselves together”, as some people have voluntarily done in the past.

Others bristled at this. One woman reminded us that we don’t know what others are going through. She said we should practice forgiveness and not keep anyone out, specifically citing at least one person who’d had a small role. Another woman expressed doubt, saying, “It’s not about, you’ve got a big role or not a big role. You make waves in the ensemble. Every man helps the next man — we’re all in this together.” The second woman said she agreed, and she pointed out that the woman she thought the first person was talking about had dropped the ball only because she was having a terrible day and knew we would pick up the slack.

The person who suggested taking the time off clarified that she was talking about multiple people, and things that had happened throughout the year. She looked at me and said, “I’m gonna be real, okay?” I nodded and said, “Yes, please.” She said that there were signs early on from many of the people who ended up having commitment problems, and that I’d ignored those signs and let things “fester” too long. I thanked her for that criticism and said, to her and all, that that’s an ongoing struggle for me; I get this criticism every year. “This is where I really need your help,” I said. “Sometimes I don’t realize the extent of what’s going on, or I don’t see it because I’m focused on something else. It’s not talking smack about someone to bring a potential concern to my attention. It’ll just help me know what to look out for and when it’s time for action.”

Another woman then spoke up. She thought she was one of these people. She said that she’s been in a bad spot for months and knows she’s been off. She believes she could have tried harder and done better, and she feels like she let everyone down. The woman who brought all of this up assured her that she hadn’t been talking about her. “You came, you told us you were having a hard time, and you gave it your all.” But this woman shook her head, saying, “No, I didn’t. I know I didn’t.”

She then explained that one of the people who’d been referred to by name had also been going through a very bad time, and she repeated that we just never know what someone else might be going through. “We shouldn’t blacklist people. I was a mess, but I showed up,” she said. “We let [NAME] back in the group, and she killed it…. We all do this as a family, because that’s what this is.”

Another woman, who was in the ensemble last year, built on that, saying that she had gone through a very hard time, particularly later in the season, and ended up quitting. “I was going through a lot, and I didn’t talk about it, because I’m not good at that stuff.” She said she’d had to get herself together before coming back. “We’re all so different, and we communicate so differently. Some people just don’t know how to express themselves.” She said she was “so glad” we’d let her come back, and we told her effusively how glad we were to have her back. We talked for a while about the journey she’s been on; I’m not going to detail it for confidentiality’s sake, but this was the first time she’s ever openly discussed any of these details with the group, and I think it was an important step for her.

So we landed on forgiveness. In Shakespeare, except for in very rare circumstances, everybody gets a second chance. And a third chance. And a fourth chance.

Another woman asked if she could have a few moments to express herself. “I’ve said it before,” she said. “Technically, this is my third season… In Romeo and Juliet, Frannie took my role because I went to seg. With Taming, I went to seg. When I came back this year, I thought, “I’m not doing it this year.” You don’t know how many times I would’ve went to seg, could’ve went to seg — but I wouldn’t let myself. I took on such a big role because I knew it would give me the ambition and the motivation to move forward, because of you guys. If they told me to pick one group for the rest of my time here, it would be Shakespeare, no competition. This Shakespeare group has strengthened me. You guys are my comfort zone.” She began to tear up. “I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do… I’ve been depressed since Tuesday… This was my sanity, and I don’t know what I’m going to do for the summer… But at least I know there are people in this compound who actually care. I want all you guys to know, individually, you all have your own strengths. And don’t let anyone take that away. I hope to see all of you next year. And thank you all for not judging me. You don’t understand the impact you have on my life.”

She specifically called out the facilitators. “I wasn’t going to let you in, but now we have the outside program, I feel like I can commit. ‘Cause I’m not gonna have much, or hardly anybody, when I go home, and I’m gonna need that support.” Without hesitation, I said, “You’ve got it.” Boom. That’s a big reason why we’re so excited about Shakespeare Reclaimed. The potential longevity of these mentoring relationships has already motivated her to stay in the group, stay out of trouble, and do her very best work. I’m so very grateful to be able to offer her that.

We continued to talk about group practices and policies till we were out of time. As much as this summer might drag without our twice-weekly meetings, we know that we’ll come back together in the fall, and that that ring will be waiting for us when we do.

Season Seven: Week 41

Tuesday


Tonight was our first performance! Though of course there were some nerves at play, the atmosphere in the room was still remarkably calm. We got most things set up quickly, checked in and lowered a ring, and then continued our prep as audience members filed into the auditorium.

I chatted a bit with a couple of women who joined this year. Unprompted, one of them said, “This has been great. I never realized before everything that went into a play.” She described not only the work that goes into a performance, but the way in which a play itself can connect people to one another through storytelling. She said it far better than I ever could, and of course I didn’t have my notepad and pen right with me. I told her that that was the best description of what a play can and should be that I’d ever heard (it truly was) and asked if she’d write it down for me later. She beamed and said she would.

She continued, saying that she’d signed up to re-join the dance group (she quit to work with us), but that she wasn’t sure she’d actually do it… That the waiting list is pretty long, and she won’t be heartbroken if she can’t get in. “I really like this. I’m glad I stuck with it. I wasn’t sure I was going to,” she said. “I wasn’t sure you were going to, either!” I said. “This is great, though,” she continued. “It’s done me a lot of good. Really.”

The other woman nodded vigorously, saying she couldn’t believe how much her work in our group has helped her. “This has been amazing. It’s changed everything,” she said. “I never finished anything before that was good for me. The girls I work with keep asking me, now that Shakespeare’s over for the year, are you gonna go back to normal?” The first woman jumped in, saying, “You tell them this is normal. It’s not even the new normal. This is just you.” The second woman nodded again, smiling.

I stepped out into the house to see if it would be okay to start the show. While I was out there, I chatted briefly with a former ensemble member who was sitting front row center. She said she had canceled something else to see the show, that she missed the ensemble, and that she’d be back in the fall for sure. Another former ensemble member was in the audience as well, but I didn’t get a chance to connect with her other than to smile and wave.

It was a nice, big audience, and they were attentive from the very start. Several facilitators stayed at the back of the auditorium, distributing and collecting anonymous surveys, and they noted afterward that this was the quietest audience we’ve ever had – and that the vast majority of people stayed for the entire performance. I noted this, too, as much as I could from my perch off stage right, where I peep through the curtain in order to run sound. One example happened just a few minutes in. When Duncan announced that Malcolm would be Prince of Cumberland and everyone on stage clapped, several audience members did, too.

I noticed that our Backstage Captain (she really ought to have a formal title at this point) was standing just offstage left behind the curtain, script in hand. I wondered what she was doing there, but then our Lady Macbeth called for line, and it became clear that they’d coordinated to have the former woman on book for the latter. I’m so glad they did that; it really freed up Lady Macbeth, who went further than she ever has in her first scene, excited to murder Duncan and mocking on the line, “Hold! Hold!”

She really was great, even though she frequently called for line, and even though her lines often came out a bit jumbled. She still nailed the character for the most part, although she broke character a few times when things really hit a snag. More on that later…

There was a remarkable “save” in the scene in which Macbeth consults with two murderers. One of those women missed her entrance – actually, she missed the entire scene because by the time she realized what had happened, she couldn’t figure out a logical way to enter. Our other Murderer, though, covered beautifully. When Macbeth asked questions that the other woman was supposed to answer, the woman on stage simply listened intently and responded either with “yes” or “no.” And our Macbeth didn’t miss a beat. It was pretty great.

The most exciting thing for me about this performance happened when our Young Siward was about to go on for that scene. She plays another character as well, and she’s been increasingly confident, but for whatever reason she got spooked. Suddenly she was standing next to me, staring at her script, panicked, asking over and over again, “Where are we?” I showed her, trying to soothe her, and facilitator Kyle joined us as well. “Oh my god,” she said, nervously shaking her hands up and down, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. Holy shit. What did I do?!” I asked her what she meant, reassuring her in the same breath that she was going to be great. “Why’d I take this part? I can’t do this! Oh my god! Where are we?” We showed her again where we were, still trying to calm her. “You’ve got this,” said Kyle. “You know the fight, you know your lines. Just make the stab noise when you go out.” She nervously giggled and told him to “fuck off with that shit,” then told us (not exactly in these words) that her digestive system seemed to be wanting to get involved. “Oh, shit. Where are we? Oh my god, what did I do?” And then it was her cue. “Oh my god,” she said one more time, and then she launched into the scene.

I cannot imagine anyone in the audience knew she’d been having a meltdown. She did know her lines; she did know her fight; and she executed the scene perfectly – even making that “dying” sound, which she hadn’t ever done before. She dragged herself off and literally rolled back to where I was sitting. She sat up, smiling weakly and breathing hard. Kyle and I immediately told her how great she’d been and how proud we were of her, and we asked her how she felt.  She rolled her eyes, still smiling. After saying “holy shit” a few more times, she asked how it had gone, interrupting herself to say it had been awful. But we interrupted her right back to tell her it had NOT been awful. It had been amazing. She then let us know that her digestive system seemed to have retreated.

I was so absorbed in this triumph (even running sound sort of faded into the background, though I kept doing it) that I didn’t notice when our Macbeth took a pretty big fall during her fight with Macduff, apparently almost knocked over a flat, and then just got up and kept going like she’d meant to do it.

We got a huge round of applause when we reached the end of the show, and everyone seemed to be feeling good. As we scattered to put away our props and costumes, our Lady Macbeth walked over to me. “How do you feel?” I asked. She paused, knowing that I knew the kind of performance she’d wanted to give – and that she hadn’t exactly given it. “I had fun,” she smiled, still with a bit of hesitation. “Good,” I replied. “That’s the most important thing.”

She planted herself, serious, and asked, “What did you think, Frannie?” I said, “I think if you had fun, that’s great. And if you want to play this character for laughs, she’s yours, and you totally can. But was that the performance you wanted to give?” She shook her head. “What do you think you need to do, then?” I asked. “Buckle down,” she replied. “What does that mean?” I asked again. “Put in more time outside of here,” she said.

“Yeah, that would help,” I agreed, “But a lot can happen out there. And there’s a lot that you can do in here, too.” She knew exactly what I meant – we’ve been working together for a long time – but, still, she asked me to explain. “Every time you messed up, you apologized by breaking character and going for comedy, right?” I asked. She nodded. “You can do whatever you want with this character, and your scene partner will roll with whatever you do, but I’m not sure this is actually how you’ve interpreted Lady Macbeth all year.” She nodded.

“Here’s the thing,” I continued. “You’re not just letting yourself off the hook – you’re letting the audience off, too. You’ve worked hard, and you deserve to give yourself the performance you want. In order to do that, you need to give yourself permission to take yourself seriously. If you laugh at yourself, you give them permission to laugh. But did you notice that during the handwashing scene, when you were so locked in, there wasn’t a peep out there?” She nodded. “They’ll be with you like that for the entire show if you let them. They will not reject you if you take yourself seriously. Because you won’t give them room to.” She nodded, saying firmly, “You’re right. I’m not gonna apologize next time. I got this, Frannie.”

“I know you do,” I replied.


Friday


During our preshow check-in, several women shared that they were feeling off: terrible anxiety (not show-related), lack of focus, or just being in a really bad mood. We thanked them for sharing so that we could be sensitive to them.

Our Banquo then asked if someone could be on book at all times – our Backstage Captain had been on book for an increasing number of people as they noticed how she was helping Lady Macbeth, but she wasn’t prepared, so it hadn’t been consistent. Banquo had gone up a couple of times and felt like she’d been hung out to dry. Backstage Captain said (not heatedly – this was a good conversation) that only Lady Macbeth had asked her to do that, but that she had been planning ever since to be on book for everyone going forward. Banquo assured her that she knew that and hadn’t meant to blame her for anything. We all agreed, too, that when Backstage Captain was on stage, I would be on book, since I’m right behind the curtain anyway. That settled, we raised the ring and continued getting ready.

Our Lady Macbeth was one of those who wasn’t feeling quite her usual self, though I’m not going to go into detail here. “What do you need from us?” I asked. “Patience. And strength,” she replied. “You’ve got it,” I said. “We’ve all got your back.”

Just as I had on Tuesday, I saw and was able to briefly chat with two former ensemble members who were in the audience. One sat in the center section; the other sat in the front row, all the way house left. It was fabulous to know they both were out there!

Everything was going great, and then our Lady Macbeth entered. And she had buckled down as she’d wanted to – she was totally locked in. Though she skipped over quite a few lines, our Macbeth stayed right with her; you’d have thought we’d made those cuts on purpose, they were so much in the moment together. The scenes crackled. It was exciting. Lady Macbeth also took her handwashing scene to the next level, entering with her crown on upside down, wearing only one shoe.

This was an interesting show for audience-watching on my part. Once again, most of the women whom I could see were entirely focused on the onstage action, again clapping when the actors clapped and smiling throughout. I also noted that several staff members and officers watched at least part of the show from the back of the house; one had seemed genuinely excited when we arrived at the building. It’s always wonderful to have their support, even if they can’t stay the whole time. The only thing that was strange was that a large number of people left about midway through the show. Neither I nor facilitator Lauren (who was in the house) could tell why, but it wasn’t terribly disruptive, and the ensemble either didn’t register it or shook it off without missing a beat.

There were, once again, some really exciting moments. Our Lady Macduff got a huge laugh at her line about being able to buy 20 husbands at the market, which was fun. And a scene that had largely fallen apart on Tuesday was much improved today! I also noticed that no one has been hugging the back wall. All of the action happens far enough downstage for the audience to hear, and the staging is visually strong. That might be unprecedented; there are usually a few people who just cannot seem to get themselves down stage. One woman used accents for some reason, without warning us, which threw folks for a loop (including herself!), but it was pretty funny.

I also noticed something that I probably should have before, and that’s that our Macbeth physically transforms herself throughout the play using only her hair. She begins the show with her hair in two perfect French braids. After the murder of Duncan, her hair becomes increasingly mussed, scene by scene, till it’s no longer braided at all, but wild, even falling into her eyes.

It’s really effective, and, as always, indicative of how having the kinds of limitations we do (budget, policy, etc.) can actually enhance our work. Had we been able to provide her with progressively deteriorating costumes, as she conceived, she probably would not have had the inspiration to do the same thing with only her hair. That “creativity-by-necessity”, while often a pain in the rear, is also truly empowering when we hit on a solution.

One more performance, a wrap up meeting, and then we break for the summer. Almost there.

Season Seven: Week 40

Tuesday


We were delighted to welcome Mercedes Mejia from Michigan Radio to our dress rehearsal tonight! Click here to listen to her wonderful segment about SIP.

Facilitators arrived in plenty of time to start getting costumes, props, and our beautiful back drops ready to go! By 6:30pm, everyone was in place to start the run — and the atmosphere was so focused and relaxed that the usual pressure to race to the end of the play wasn’t there. We knew that that was our goal, but we also felt very confident that we could do it.

This ensemble is really, really solid. Not only do they know the play extremely well, but they’ve quickly acclimated to the costumes and props, and they’ve taken the stress of these final rehearsals in stride. They know each person’s strengths and play to them; they know each person’s weaknesses and support them. When things go a little haywire, the universal response is to smile, shake it off, and keep going. It feels good in that room.

Even when we got to Act V, which somehow we’d forgotten to discuss prior to the run (so no one was sure which cut we were using), everyone rolled with the punches, calling out new cues and ushering each other in and out of scenes. One of our cuts eliminated a scene during which Macbeth would exit, and our Macbeth didn’t realize that that’s what was happening. “Come back! Come back! They have tied me to the stake!” we shouted, and back she charged, launching right into those lines, out of breath and not sure of what was coming next, but secure enough in her knowledge of the script and her ensemble’s support to just barrel on ahead.

And, with that, we made it to the end of the play! The run lasted just three minutes longer than our goal, which is fantastic. We can take those three minutes off for sure — part of the fun of moving into performances is watching the ensemble’s collective adrenaline propel us not only to play faster, but often to skip over sections of text that it turns out we didn’t need in the first place. I am so excited about where we are in the process and can’t wait to see where we end up.
 

Friday, June 8
 

Tonight’s rehearsal was even more relaxed than Tuesday’s, which was just wonderful. We now know our costumes and props well enough that we got set up very quickly, which meant that we had time for a nice check-in before we got going with our run.

Just because we were relaxed, that didn’t mean we weren’t taking things seriously. From my vantage point on stage right, I can’t see everything that happens on stage, but I see most of what goes on in the wings. So I noticed that our Lady Macbeth and another ensemble member were whispering and having fun looking at something on one of their tablets. I wasn’t concerned, but I wondered if that was going to be an ongoing distraction.

It wasn’t. As soon as the curtain closed prior to Lady Macbeth’s first scene, she rose from her chair and stood in place, prepping. She was so focused that she didn’t notice when I waved to her — so I stopped waving and just watched her take the time she needed to focus and ground herself in her character.

Her work has been bold and strong, but, as I think I’ve noted earlier in this blog, she hasn’t been able to memorize as many of her lines as she would have liked. In general, she works very well with a script in hand, but it definitely gets in the way of her handwashing scene (as it would for just about anyone). On Tuesday, I asked her if she’d like to return to doing the scene as a “drop-in” (with someone quietly prompting her while standing just behind her). That had enabled her to do extremely powerful work in rehearsal several weeks ago.

She liked the idea, and we asked our Banquo if she’d like to be the one to drop in. She said she would, but unfortunately had left by the time we got to that scene, so another ensemble member stood in for her. Now I approached her to ask if she was still into the idea, and she said she’d rather not if that was okay. It’s a really sensitive scene, and I assured her that she absolutely didn’t have to be a part of it; instead, facilitator Matt agreed to do it, as he’s playing Duncan, and we all liked the idea of having one of the sources of Lady Macbeth’s guilt embodied on stage.

On Tuesday, I’d encouraged our Macduff to really bring it tonight — to let loose with her reaction to Duncan’s death and drive it home. She and I briefly made eye contact prior to her entrance, and I asked how she was feeling. “I’m gonna do it,” she said, smiling. “Excellent,” I replied. And, man, did she ever do it! She has a beautiful, booming voice, and she used it so well that it filled the entire room. She paced with a frantic energy, absolutely selling her character’s anxiety and grief at finding the king dead. She also went on without her script, even though she’s not 100% off book, and, as facilitator Assata prompted her on lines, Kyle cheered her on from the wings; he’s worked with her quite a bit one-on-one and knew more than anyone what a huge leap this was.

She came right to me as she exited, gesturing in a way that said, “How’d I do?” “AWESOME,” I said. “YOU DID AWESOME.” She smiled and sort of bobbed her head, clearly proud of herself but not wanting to make a big deal about it. “You feel good?” I asked. “Yeah!” she said before she walked away to prep for her next scene.

There were some misfires that were handled beautifully. A woman who was supposed to play one of the messengers was not in the room when her scene came up. I threw on one of our costume shirts, ready to fill in. But then I saw the woman who’s taken on coordinating everything back stage standing in place, in costume, ready to go. So I sat back down.

I’ve written about this woman a few times this season, but I have to do it again. I cannot tell you what a transformation has taken place in her. There are factors at play other than SIP, of course, but even her taking on these new, more-or-less administrative duties has dramatically affected the way in which she’s involved with the ensemble. Years ago, she would barely speak up and nervously giggled her way through the few lines she had, and last season was particularly rough for her. This year, she’s been incredibly upbeat, even when things have been hard, and totally willing to take on anything we threw at her. Of her own volition, she volunteered not only for a part with lines, not only for a part with a fight – but for TWO parts with lines and fights! And, though it intimidated her at first, she accepted the new role of managing the master script and back stage logistics without hesitation, and MAN is she ever good at it. We’ve been telling her over and over.

When I told her, again, how good she is at this, and how wonderful it is to know we can count on her, she replied, “I know. I feel like I’m actually part of the ensemble now.” I assured her that she’s always been part of the ensemble, reminding her of how she joined just as we needed to recast our Desdemona and let us nudge her into auditioning, even though she didn’t want to — and she was so relieved when she wasn’t cast! She’s just more active now. And when she plays her scenes, there’s no giggling. She knows her lines, she knows her objectives, she knows her blocking, and she just does it. She’s amazing. She’s absolutely amazing.

When we arrived at the banquet scene, Assata seemed not to realize that our Ross was on stage, and read her lines from the audience. Rather than interrupt things or make a big deal about it, our Ross just stayed in character and didn’t say anything. At the end of the scene, she came off stage laughing. I said, “What happened?” She shrugged and said, “I don’t know! Keep it moving! Keep it moving!” Still laughing, she walked away.

We rolled through Act V—we are now all on the same literal pages!—and again made it to the end of the play with plenty of time to spare. We are feeling really, really good. This was, hands down, the smoothest final dress rehearsal we’ve ever had. We’re rolling into performances feeling confident and enthused. Of course there are some nerves, but no one is freaking out. Awesome.

Season Seven: Week 39

Tuesday

 

We brought in the costumes and props tonight! As usual, it was a little hectic getting everyone oriented and figuring out how to set everything up, but we were still able to start our run at 6:35pm. We had till 8:15pm to get through it, and we nearly did!

One woman told me when she arrived that she’d had some dental work done and was in horrible pain, so she might not be 100%. I asked her if she felt well enough to perform at all – health always comes first – and she said that she thought she could do it; that she’d worked too hard to give up the rehearsal, and that she didn’t want to let the team down. I thanked her for her commitment and assured her that, should she feel the need, no one would blame her for leaving early. But she didn’t. She stuck it out. And, frankly, she fought through the pain to an extent that I doubt anyone would have known that anything was wrong. I periodically forgot, myself.

I’m running sound for the show off of our iPod, so I can’t see much of what happens onstage, but much of what I was able to see was thrilling. Our witches are totally committed to their roles and are incredibly fun to watch. One moment that particularly struck me was when the First Witch showed the others the pilot’s thumb (yes, we have a plastic thumb), she was so gleeful that they couldn’t help but get excited, too. Nor could I!

Our Lady Macbeth was running a bit late, and she wasn’t present when her first scene began. I stood in for her (when we reach this point in the process, we stop for no one!), and, just as I was about to say her first lines, she walked in the room. Seeing her, I yelled, “You’re here! Awesome! Jump in!” And she did, without missing a beat.

Our Porter also stepped up her game in a big way. If you’ve been reading along for a while, you’ll recall that she was very timid until just a couple of months ago; her first try at her scene was very difficult and discouraging for her. But the others rallied around her, building her up and assuring her that she could do it, and she quickly gained confidence with their support. When she had trouble with the lines, I suggested that she do her own thing with them, and she did, largely rewriting the monologue and coming up with some funny shtick for the rest of the scene. And tonight, all that hard work showed – in that it didn’t show at all. Her performance seemed effortless, and it was clear that she was having a ton of fun. Whether we were on stage or off, we couldn’t help but laugh at her; she’s so funny!

Another woman, who’s been a little wishy washy all year, has recently become more focused, which has enabled her to do better and better work. Where she might have been goofing around even a few weeks ago, she now sat at the keyboard back stage, intently going over her script, mouthing her lines. In fact, she was so focused on that that she missed one of her entrances!

We’ve had increasing ownership of the play all through this season, and tonight, that ownership really seemed to solidify. The addition of costumes and props seems to have that effect every year. There’s something about having those physical objects to aid in storytelling – objects that you and your ensemble dreamed up and specifically requested; that you’ve been imagining and miming up till now – that makes the whole thing seem more real. It makes it feel more legit. This is when the whole process begins to crystallize for many people, and it’s a really exciting thing to be a part of.


Friday
 

We facilitators were able to arrive a bit early this evening to set up, and the first things we noticed were the absolutely GORGEOUS backdrops. One of our ensemble members is an incredibly talented visual artist, and she designed an anchor image for these a while back. We’re extremely fortunate (and extremely grateful) to have the support of the prison’s building trades program, which has helped us build and paint our sets and backdrops for years now. The women in that program did absolutely beautiful work; these backdrops are so incredible that, even though we’ve painted over them each year (as per usual in theatre, to conserve budget and materials), we really don’t want to this time. I’m not sure what our storage options are, though. Time will tell!

A few people were absent; we had known that two of them would be, but the others were a surprise (although one turned out only to be late). We decided that things would go smoother if, rather than asking someone unfamiliar with the scenes to fill in, facilitator Lauren (who was on book anyway) would simply read their lines. That worked out pretty well!

Our Lady Macbeth has had a lot going on and hasn’t gotten as far in memorizing her lines as she had planned. Tonight before she went on, as I showed her where some of her props had been set, she said, “I’ve been in my Shakespeare all week. No pressure or anything.” She smiled. “You’re feeling good?” I asked. “Yeah, Frannie,” she replied. “I got this.” She was just about off book for her first couple of scenes – only occasionally calling for line – and after that, though she was holding her script, she hardly looked at it. It was clear that she had, indeed, put a lot of time in, and it’s greatly enhancing her performance.

Our Banquo was one of the people whom we'd known would be absent, and, like I said, since I’m running sound I can’t see much of what happens on stage, so I was surprised when suddenly, instead of Lauren’s voice reading Banquo’s lines, I heard that ensemble member’s. She had walked in, immediately recognized which scene was up, and started saying her lines even from the house. That was a lovely surprise; obviously, we all feel much better when our whole ensemble is present. And she kicks butt in that part.

We made it to the end of the play, when there was some confusion because our Macduff was absent. From where I was, I couldn’t tell exactly what was going on. Then, giving up on finding an actual solution, our Macbeth strode on stage, proclaiming victory (which, of course, is the opposite of how the play actually ends). Any frustrations we’d had immediately faded as we laughed together and just sort of ended the play there.

We were not much over the run time we’re limited to (90 minutes), but it was enough to cause some concern. Based on how things had gone on Tuesday, I’d taken a little time to see how much we could safely cut from Act V (which is where things really slow down for us). I asked if anyone wanted to take a look, with the caveat that I’d made these as a “safety net”, and we didn’t have to use them. Everyone who was in Act V said they were open to this new approach. We’ll see how things shake out on Tuesday.  

Our Porter, who also plays Menteith, came over to me as we cleaned up, saying, “Where’d I go in this act?” I replied, “I just cut as much as I could to save time!” She smiled wryly and said, “Frannie, you just made my acting career much shorter!” I told her that we could certainly add her lines back in, but she shook her head and said, “No, no, that’s fine. That’s definitely fine!” She’s got such a great sense of humor, especially now that she’s gained so much confidence – and she has no ego about it at all. She’s conquered the challenge that tripped her up to begin with, and now she’s just in it to have fun and be a solid member of the team. Awesome.

Season Seven: Week 38

Tuesday
 

Written by Frannie

As always with the last few weeks of the season, I’ve been running around so much that I haven’t been able to take many notes! But here’s what I’ve got.

Tonight we had a quick check-in. One of our ensemble members recently organized an event at the prison that was incredibly successful, so much so that she’s now decided to organize a similar event every year if she’s able. The entire ensemble cheered her on; what she’s accomplished is no small thing, she’s never done anything like it before, so, even beyond the event, this is enormous, and we took the time to acknowledge that.

We set out to work through the play, knowing it would be full of fits and starts, and that it was likely that we wouldn’t get to the end. Facilitator Kyle challenged everyone to avoid making apologies or getting down on themselves for things like going up on their lines, and they totally rose to that challenge.

Midway through the evening, the fire alarm sounded. As we left the room and gathered outside the building, I joked that we shouldn’t be surprised that this was happening — we’re working on Macbeth, after all, which is famously thought to be cursed. That said, it wasn’t a terribly long interruption, and, when we returned to the auditorium with the alarm still sounding (but an assurance that there wasn’t an actual fire), we gathered in the back of the house to touch base. We all were feeling good, and several people said that all we really needed to do was to “get used to it.” I agreed, encouraged them to have more fun (particularly our Porter!), and to work over the next couple of weeks to “take the air out” of scenes and monologues: to avoid long pauses for no reason, and to keep the action moving forward.

The rest of the work-through went well, if slowly. We had to stop when we finished Act IV scene i, but we left feeling pretty good about where we were.
 

Friday
 

Written by Matt

The main thing that everyone could agree on today was that it was hot! A few of the women who came in early indicated that we might be missing our Lady Macbeth and at least one other who were on visits. Our Macbeth came rushing in to tell us that she was being called back to her unit and might not return that evening. One of our new members, who has thrown herself enthusiastically into the role of Second Witch, revealed that she had had some painful healthcare-related procedures that made it hard to speak or even smile. We sent her back to her unit to rest after she started laughing at a joke and then doubled over from the pain.

Missing our two leads and many of the other characters who appear in so many scenes in this play, we had to come up with a strategy for the evening. First, we discovered that it was a little cooler in the classroom where we usually meet on Fridays. After moving in there, we set to work on a few scenes that needed work and did not include our leads.

Act III, scene iii was an obvious choice. Three murderers (who, in our staging, also appear to be the witches…) kill Banquo and attempt to kill his son, Fleance. It is a short scene, but heavy on logistics, with a lot of movement and quick bursts of dialogue, as well as the violence itself. After stumbling through, we talked a bit about what the scene needed and was lacking. One member who is especially good with movement had some suggestions, and the small size of today’s group allowed a few of the newer, quieter members to take a stronger role in figuring out how to stage the scene. A small group of women worked their way through the meanings of a couple of tough lines to get them perfect.

We took some time also to work through Act IV, scene ii, another with the murderers carrying out Macbeth’s impetuous orders. In this case, it is Lady Macduff and her son who are victims. After stumbling through once, a facilitator asked what relationship Lady Macduff and the son were establishing in their dialogue. The dialogue is famously difficult to interpret, both morbid and light-hearted, and the writing leaves the son’s age almost entirely open to interpretation.

“I feel like she’s being cute about this terrible news to soften the blow,” offered a new member.

“No,” said Lady Macduff firmly. “He’s dead to me. I’m angry. I’m angry at him for abandoning me, and I want my son to grow up quick.”

After going back through the middle of the scene with anger in mind, a new and interesting character emerged from Lady Macduff--both stronger on the surface and, paradoxically, more fragile underneath. Everyone was spellbound. The facilitator who had started the discussion applauded our Lady Macduff for her bold choice, and suggested that she find a few moments to soften the anger a bit. A final run of the scene landed perfectly.

Our Macduff, who had needed to leave, returned, and we went right into the next scene: Act IV, scene iii, which is a long conversation between Macduff and Malcolm. We have rehearsed this scene many times, but it is a protracted and difficult scene to stage. It is little more than two characters standing and speaking, and it often drags even in professional productions of the play. The women in the scene were getting tripped up over lines, so they opted to hold scripts to be able to get through it. They moved well through the rest of the scene, but--even with our cuts--it was still a slog, taking almost twenty-five minutes from beginning to end. And the low light of late evening was cooking the room even more than before. By the time they walked off, both women were spent, and we all agreed to move on. Sometimes, even this close to the performance date, a scene falls apart, and we just need to leave it behind and work on something else. The ability to do that without losing focus is as valuable a skill as any in this process.

We talked through a couple of minor logistical details--our Banquo came up with the idea that, on her character’s death, the murderers should rip her “team Macbeth” badge off and take it to show Macbeth in the next scene. But by eight o’clock so many people either had to go or felt completely enervated that we decided to call it a day. The women who were present looked frustrated with the slow pace of work and the many absences, but we managed to maintain a modicum of good humor and morale throughout, and we left with high hopes for the first dress rehearsal on Tuesday.

Season Seven: Week 37

Tuesday

Written by Matt
 
Despite facilitators arriving at the auditorium a bit late, we were able to start on time, and people were ready to go! Before we started to stumble through the second half of the play, though, an ensemble member shared about a really difficult situation in her family that has been weighing on her. Everyone was attentive and vocal in their support for her, and even though she waved away hugs and outstretched hands, she made it clear that the group’s openness, cohesion, and safety was key to getting through this tough part of her life. “I’m not usually this open,” she said to the circled ensemble, “but I feel supported enough here to say what I feel.”

“Well,” said a longtime member, “I don’t know if this makes you feel better, but I also had something terrible happen. I tripped. Over the floor.”

“Wait, you tripped over what?” asked the first woman.

“The floor. There wasn’t nothing there. And it was in front of an officer and everyone.”

Her levity had the desired effect: the group fell to laughing and trading strategies for recovering from embarrassing stumbles.

“That didn’t make me feel any better,” the woman who first shared said between bouts of laughter. “But it sure gave me something to laugh about, and I needed that.”

With that, we lowered the ring and set our minds to Macbeth.

The first few scenes did not go smoothly. In part because everyone was distracted by trying to remember their lines—it was our first day off book—and in part because the first few scenes of the second half of the play are complicated and long, we got off to a rocky start. We stopped frequently to rehash blocking or try to remember who entered or exited where. The first scene we worked today, the banquet scene (III.iv), has been rehearsed many times already, but often without all of the key actors present. So by the time we finished, everyone was frustrated. The actors in smaller roles, who are onstage all scene, were tired of having to repeat the same actions and reactions while others stumbled over lines. The leads were confused about blocking and extremely hard on themselves for forgetting or mixing up their lines. Those of us in the audience were restless and mostly wanted the process to just move on. But as so often happens, a couple of the women came forward to push the scene forward, leading by example. The process still took a long time, but they got each other through it, and we marked that scene for intensive work in the future.

The next scene was only slightly easier. Act IV Scene i is long, involving the three witches (“Double, double, toil and trouble!”), long speeches by Macbeth, and a coda after the witches leave that sets us up for the roller-coaster of the final two acts. No one knew where to go or how to move, and the actors spent almost as much time chastising themselves for missing cues and lines as they did acting out the roles. This is a frequent issue with all amateur actors, not just with our ensemble members, and it has been a minor problem in the past. Today was especially rough: our group this year is led by several perfectionists. This has been a boon to us all season long, but it can also prove challenging—our leads are so concerned with “doing it right” that they sometimes don’t quite get to just “doing it.” After we finally finished IV.i, several women, including our Macbeth, retreated to the wings, castigating themselves harshly for their perceived failures—for letting the group down, for letting themselves down—and the rehearsal ground to a halt.

In the end, it was a facilitator who intervened to help us forward. In a short speech, he said that there was entirely too much shame being felt about lines. “This is our first day off book,” he said. “It’s going to be rough.” He reminded everyone that no one was going to judge them, that we all forget our lines sometimes, and that the first day off book is always challenging, even in professional theatre. We had a student facilitator on book, he reminded us, and all anyone needed to do was call “line,” and move on. No problem. After a minute, we moved on to the next scene. A lot of what we do in Shakespeare in Prison is to foster a space in which our ensemble members can solve problems on their own without fear of judgement, reprisal, or resentment. Sometimes, though, it is just as important for a facilitator to step in strongly and set us on the right path. Having facilitators who know when to take this step—and, more often, when not to—is central to the success of SIP.

The success of this brief reminder was, if not magical, at least marked. As we moved into the long scene of Lady Macduff’s murder and, even longer, Macduff’s attempt to recruit Malcolm, we faced some challenges, but excessive self-flagellation about lines was not one of them. One of the witches (who also plays the hired assassin who kills Lady Macduff and her son) brought up the issue of staging a child’s murder with appropriate sensitivity, given our audience. We tabled this conversation for another day, but her point resonated with several people.

Moving into Act V, our Lady Macbeth was distracted. She had been offstage for more than an hour, and had to make the transition—difficult for any actor—into embodying Lady Macbeth’s madness. She had been especially frustrated with herself earlier for missing her lines, and she was distracted by something on the small handheld device that prisoners have. But when her cue to go onstage came, something in her clicked. She dropped the device and turned to our Macbeth, asking her to “drop in,” or read her lines to her softly so that she could say them without holding her script or relying on memory. The effect was mesmerizing. Freed from her script and from the need to strain to recall the words, she created a chilling performance. Our Macbeth was so unobtrusive that a few people didn’t realize that anything was unusual about the scene until it was mostly done.

The rest of Act V was a mess, but it was a fun mess. The transitions from scene to scene, which come quickly, made for utter chaos, but we were determined to finish the session and finish it well. Everyone came together for the final push to the end, and we wrapped with a few minutes to spare.


Friday

Written by Kyle

Friday night went well, all in all, but it was very difficult to really move forward the way we needed. The attendance just was not there tonight; although we were able to take a deeper dive on the scenes we could, we didn’t quite get through the volume of scenes that we had hoped. We started with the re-staging of Lady Macduff’s murder — the scene where the text calls for a child to be killed on stage. It can be a hot-button issue, and, although it hadn’t been up until tonight, it had seemed to come to a head. We began to debate the impact of the scene, and many members wanted to be sensitive to what could be triggering to the ensemble and the audience. Everyone made good points; however, I could feel the edges of our ensemble start to fray the longer we debated. We just weren’t going to get anywhere by talking about it further. We needed to get it up on its feet. Luckily, we were able to work in the auditorium that night, so we moved over there, and then we got down to business. Ultimately, we were able to achieve the best of both worlds: we kept the severity of the scene, without being too explicit. All of the characters are on stage, and, just before any violence occurs, the primary characters disappear behind the curtain to finish the scene with sound effects. It’s effective, yet sensitive to all who may be enjoying the show. It was difficult for the actors, as it required a nuance in timing that was new to some of our ensemble members. They were able to get it, but it took a couple of tries, which I think was both frustrating and satisfying for the ensemble. Frustrating to work the same five seconds of stage time over and again, but satisfying when we all shouted, “Got it!”

After that, the officers were very gracious in letting us use an additional empty room so we could “divide and conquer” a bit with other scenes. Facilitators Matt and Lauren stayed in the auditorium to work on Act IV scene ii, the famous “Double double, toil and trouble” scene, particularly the part when the witches summon the apparitions. Although the women knew their objectives and lines well enough, there were enough logistical staging issues that needed some work, and we were glad to give it some attention. While that was happening, I was able to work with our Macduff and Malcolm on their scene. We made some much needed cuts, and tried to whittle away all that wasn’t working with the actors. We started by just having the actors sit across one another and trying to maintain eye contact: no blocking, no props or staging, just trying to connect to one another with the text. With the deadline of the show looming large, it was easier said than done. They took to it, though, and I think it working in a small group allowed the women to take some acting risks they may not have otherwise. It also allowed them to clarify the meaning of select passages without feeling embarrassed.  We finished working the scene, and I think that it really came a long way.

We finished the night working a scene that has been pared down to just me and one other ensemble member. We tried a staging idea from a while ago that we never got to see through. This is the scene when two lords have a secret discussion about a growing rebellion against Macbeth. We tried having someone,unrelated to the scene walk by, forcing us to stop talking and “act normal.” This was met with laughs of identification, and the group loved the addition. It was a great way to end the night, and we put the ring up with a firm resolution to hit the ground running on Tuesday.

Season Seven: Week 36

Tuesday
 

We arrived a few minutes late today, and only a few people were present. We’d agreed last week to use every possible moment, so I encouraged them to begin working on what they could, mainly running the fights and their lines. Ensemble members continued to trickle in, and, while we were not working together on one task, when I looked around the room a half hour into our session, everyone was at work in small groups.

The woman playing Banquo pulled me aside to ask about a speech of hers that includes a lot of commas. She said that she wasn’t sure how to work with that punctuation, and that she thought she was doing it wrong. Before I explained anything, I asked her to give it a read so I could hear where she was at. And it was perfect; her delivery is nearly always perfect. She was surprised to hear that. “You’re really good at this,” I said. “You don’t know that?” She shook her head, a look of disbelief mingling with the beginnings of delight. “You are naturally good at working with Shakespeare,” I continued. “Most actors have to be trained to do what you’ve been able to do since day one. You are really good at this, and you should not be afraid to own that. You know I don’t bullshit about acting; it’s at the core of what I do, and it’s too important to me to bullshit about it. You are very good at this, and you should have absolute confidence in yourself to do it right.” She smiled and thanked me. I can’t say for sure that she’s never been told anything like that, but I certainly got the impression that, if she has, it hasn’t been often.

A couple of staff members came into the room and beckoned to me. One of them has seen the backdrops for our show as they’ve been in the process of being painted. (One of our ensemble members designed the core element based on our interpretation of the play, and it’s being supplemented with other complementary images.) Ensemble members who’ve seen the work in progress have been effusive, and this staff member was no different. He encouraged me to let him know whenever he could help us out with sets and props; that he’s seen the positive results of our program and wants to do whatever he can to support that. Having this kind of enthusiasm from staff is huge; it legitimizes the work we do and helps us continue to engage with staff in increasingly positive and constructive ways.

A couple of ensemble members quietly expressed frustration to me about the number of people who continue to arrive very late and/or leave very early. Some folks have given us a heads up on legitimate reasons for that to happen occasionally, or even regularly with our approval, but others give the impression of flaking or not taking things seriously, and that’s frustrating to those who do.

That was a side conversation, but then a few others began venting their frustrations about the exact same thing, so we decided to take a few minutes and have a group discussion. One woman in particular went on a heated but eloquent rant about how angry this makes her, especially given that she has taken on (and is beautifully executing) a very large role on top of a heavy work schedule and other issues in her personal life. She feels that if she can buckle down and make this happen, others should be able to do so as well. What she said was the most articulate explanation I’ve heard yet about the importance of consistent attendance, so much so that we all applauded, and I asked her to write it down so we’d be able to use it in the future.

I also encouraged her to express all of this to the group at large, since she (rightly) didn’t name any individuals, but what she said mostly applied to folks who weren’t there (which was part of the issue). Another woman, though, said she thought it would be better to talk with each person directly. She said that if we were able to stick to the facts and leave our emotions out of it — being very careful about choosing our words — they would likely be receptive and better understand how their actions are hurting the group. There were many nods of agreement, and we decided to consider how best to do this.

Another woman began sharing some suggestions, at which point (I can’t remember the impetus for this), our Lady Macbeth launched casually into her first soliloquy (which is off book), drowning out the other’s comments, and breaking the tension as we dissolved into laughter. Then a woman who hadn’t been there (for a legitimate, pre-approved reason), and whom we’d all expected to be absent for the entire session, walked in to actual cheering from the entire group. She has rearranged her weekly visits so she can be at all of our rehearsals, and it’s an enormous, greatly appreciated sacrifice. “I feel like everybody that walks through that door gets a handclap,” said one woman.

We’ll figure out what the policy should be in the future when we get there, but the pressing issue was how we should deal with this right now. We determined that we needed to figure out how many people really should be removed due to excessive absences, and we decided to put in place a system of understudies. I talked that through briefly with a woman who volunteered to coordinate that, and then I went to check with staff about whether anyone should be removed. It turned out that, as I suspected, a couple of people had absences in excess of what’s allowed, so I was able to return to the group and help solidify who would take on those roles.

The woman who is in charge of our master script dove deeper into her task tonight, gathering more of the cues she needs to be aware of and gaining confidence in asking for and recording that information. She’s been in the group for several years but has taken on a somewhat passive role for the most part, although she volunteered for and is doing great work with two roles in this play. This offstage role, though, appears to be the most impactful yet. “I actually feel like I’m part of the ensemble,” she said to me with a smile. Of course, she’s always been part of the ensemble — and, at least in my view, an important one — but the fact that she finally feels herself that she has a purpose in the group is a fantastic development.

We continued to work specific scenes, and our Porter was eager to do her monologue (which, you may recall, she has drastically rewritten), but I kept being pulled aside, and other scenes continued to take the stage. When I finally made my way closer, she turned to me and emphatically said, “We’re not leavin’ out of here until I do my monologue for you.”

And when she did, it was just awesome. She’s mixing contemporary language and ideas with the originals, and it’s hilarious. This approach has also freed her up to dive deeper into the comedy, which we feel is far more important than preserving the original text. At one point, for example, she shrugged her shoulders, grumbling, “What do I know? I’m just a porter at hell’s gate.”

I also want to note that I spoke with another prisoner who is not in our ensemble, but who expressed her enthusiasm for the program and said there was no way she was missing the show; she’s seen the last few and absolutely loved them. “I was never into Shakespeare before — I didn’t even really know about it till I got here,” she said. She’s being paroled soon, and she told me she’s planning on finding local theatres as soon as she does; she just loves theatre now. “I’m really looking to seeing more when I get home,” she said. “This is something new, that I didn’t know was a part of me, that I’m so excited to explore.”

Of course the impact that is most visible to us is that which takes place within the ensemble, but we are also always on the lookout for evidence of the ripple effect we know exists as a result of our ensemble members’ work. And this exchange makes clear the way arts programming can shift and change the attitudes even of people who experience it simply as an audience, and how that has the potential to impact the prison’s culture for everyone.


Friday
 

After a brief check-in, we got everything prepped for our first work-through of the play. We reminded each other that, while the goal was to stop as little as possible, there would be times when we’d need to hold to figure things out; likewise, that if a scene was really a mess, we would take a note to fix it later rather than holding up this part of the process.

The woman who’s been in a director role recently took on a couple of characters that had belonged to those who were just removed from the group. She has made great contributions all along, and she’s always been honest about, and open to being accountable for, being “a little bit of a control freak.” As we got into place for the top of the show, she stood up and briefly addressed the ensemble. “I just want to say something really quick, because this is my first time actually doing something in the show,” she said. “Because I’m bossy and critical and controlling, please feel free to be the same way with me. Please be honest, because I respect each and every one of you, and I want your opinions. And if I disagree, I will respectfully tell you.” I don’t think anyone has had a problem with her at any point, because she always owns this aspect of herself, but I’m glad she welcomed us to work with her this way. I imagine there were at least a couple of people who would have been nervous to critique her if she hadn’t.

We started off strong with our witches, all of whom are just about off book. As we moved through the second scene, our Banquo (who is also very close to being off book) got stuck on some of her lines, shook her head, apologized, and grabbed her script to look at that page. “You got it!” a number of us said, with one woman joking, “Just don’t do it again!”

Of course we have a lot of work to do, but there were some really beautiful moments, and I’m not even talking about the performances. Though this is a stressful time, there was a warm, encouraging energy in the room that lent itself to cracking jokes about mistakes instead of beating ourselves up. At one point, our Macbeth launched into a speech — “I do forget…” — she trailed off — “... my lines,” she finished, getting a big laugh from the rest of us. When we came to a scene with a messenger who hadn’t been cast, one woman jumped in without hesitation, not just for the moment, but for the long haul.

We knew that our Porter would be late, but we’d also all agreed previously that we weren’t going to stop the work-through for anyone. Just as we arrived at that scene, as one person rose to fill in, our Porter walked in the door, a little out of breath; she’d rushed from her other obligation to get there as fast as she could. A cheer broke out, and, pausing only long enough to throw her coat over a chair, she jumped right in. Apparently, we never made sure that the entire ensemble knew about the way in which she’s rewritten her monologue, and there was a little confusion as some tried to follow along. Toward the end, one woman gently interrupted, “Where are we?” Our Porter paused, said, “We’re back on script after this. I’m freestyling here,” and went right back to her speech. She is SO comfortable and confident now — a far cry from her first attempt at this several months ago. It’s incredibly exciting for all of us.

We arrived at the scene in which the murder of Duncan is discovered. We hadn’t worked it in quite a bit, there are new cuts that not everyone knew about, and it began to fall apart immediately. Our Lady Macbeth, who is seldom short of enthusiasm, kept the scene going anyway, albeit not exactly in the way it was intended. With over-dramatic facial expressions, pumping her open hands up and down, she sarcastically shouted, “WHAT! ALAS! IN OUR HOUSE?!” As we stared at her, a little taken aback, she looked around at all of us, smiled, and said, “I sold it.” Cue laughter. Our Banquo had, during this, been figuring out a cue of hers that had been changed; she found her way back to the scene and restarted it, saying dryly, “All right, murder in our house, you sold it.” And we moved on.

Despite lingering tension about focus and attendance, the ensemble banded together to problem-solve and collaborate, scene by scene. The Keeper of the Master Script paid close attention throughout, writing down every entrance, exit, and cue that seemed necessary to record. Not everyone realized that she was just getting a lot of this information now, and some began to get impatient when she couldn’t give them information they needed. She mentioned this to me quietly. I encouraged her not to take it personally, and to let them know the actual situation. She did so, calmly but firmly, and all were receptive and understanding.

We got to another scene that included an unassigned messenger. Kyle jokingly volunteered one woman; I simultaneously volunteered another; but a third woman spoke loudly and forcefully right over us, saying, “No! [Porter]!” She then nabbed that woman and began to guide her through the scene, again telling all of us, “This one’s [Porter].” And our Porter, who, again, has found so much of this so challenging, was totally game, not hesitating for a moment. “I’m gonna write this in your book,” said the woman who’d volunteered her as she talked her through the blocking. Then, within the scene, our Porter saluted Macbeth before she exited, which was so weird and funny that we actually had to pause the scene to laugh and compliment her. As the woman who’d encouraged her sat down beside me, saying that she wanted our Porter to take on some of the other messengers and servants, I told her that I thought that would be fine as long as she doesn’t get overwhelmed, as she did some time back. But this woman smiled broadly, saying, “She’s okay now.” And she’s right. She totally is.

We got halfway through the play, which I think is unprecedented in SIP history! It’s generally been my experience in theatre on the outside that the first work-through takes about twice as long as the play will actually run, but it’s always taken longer on the inside. Not tonight — we need our play to run no longer than 90 minutes, and that is how long we spent on the first half. So, as I said to the ensemble as we wrapped up, it’s a mess at this point — but it’s a really good mess. There is a ton of great work happening, both on and off stage. We just need to keep our focus and momentum. We’re in a great place.

Season Seven: Week 35

Tuesday

 

Tonight was our long-anticipated visit from fight choreographer (and Parnall/youth facilitator) Patrick Hanley! We had an absolute blast with him last spring, and his fights were (obviously) so much better than the very basic ones I’m capable of coming up with that we were all eager for him to come back.

I’d sent him notes about the fight scene that our Banquo rough-blocked in a moment of inspiration, and we started with that. It was exciting to all of us that he’d taken her ideas and built on them, and the fight looked great. As did the others!

That’s what took up the bulk of our time. And, while some of us worked on stage with Patrick, the rest of us multitasked in small groups around the auditorium.

I went and sat with our Porter, who had been so worried about learning her lines the week before, to see how she was doing. She’s feeling much better: she has some of her dialogue with Macduff down, and she’s come up with a great way to cut down/improvise her way through her monologue. I told her that as long as Macduff knew her cues to knock, she could do whatever she wanted.

“That makes me feel so good,” she said. I told her that as long as she gets from the beginning of her scene to the end, she’s good! That our goals in putting on a show are not to make high art or be Broadway-quality actors, but simply to show up, tell a good story, do our best, and have fun.” You make it fun,” she said. “You don’t put pressure on us. It gives me confidence to do other things.” She described signing up for a special program that required hands-on participation and said she’d had no qualms about raising her hand to be the first to participate. “I’m usually the last person, but now I’m the first person.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. She continued, “You said you’d rather have me than the lines. That feels really good, because you don’t hear that that much. And that makes me want to work harder and learn my lines more.” She said she’d been nervous when she signed up for Shakespeare, but she was so glad that she did. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. People said, ‘You’re gonna open up.’ Well, you can’t help but open up! And that’s what I did.”

As I paused to write down as much of what she’d said as I could (asking her to repeat phrases I’d only partially gotten down), our Macduff came over to check in. “We gotta go through this and find your cues,” said our Porter, pointing at her script. “But I already memorized all the damn lines!” Macduff exclaimed. “Your lines are all good,” I said. “She’s just making some changes to her monologue, and we want to make sure you’re both on the same page about when the knocking comes in.” “Oh, phew!” she said, smiling. “Yeah, I’ll do whatever you want on that!” They went to another part of the auditorium to talk it through.

As I continued scribbling down notes, our Banquo and Third Murderer came over to me, smiling and a little breathless. “How’d it go?” I asked, as they’d just learned their fight. “GREAT,” said our Third Murderer, smiling and leaning against the wall. “I feel great right now.” Our Banquo nodded vigorously, saying, “They should have this in prison. It’s a real stress reliever.” They agreed that, with an outlet like stage combat, people might feel calmer and less apt to be physically violent. “I was having a pissy day, and these sword fights took away all that tension,” said our Third Murderer. “Like, I don’t feel that stress no more. It’s like, ‘Stress-free!’”

She’d had a rough day the last time I saw her, and I asked how it was going with the woman in her unit who’d been bothering her. Not much better. “I was gonna beat her up today, but I thought about Shakespeare and I was like, no — I’ve worked too hard for this. I’ve got my characters, I’ve memorized my lines — I’m not getting in trouble. I’m not doing that to my team.” I told her that that was great and applauded her for keeping it together. This kind of self-control is pretty new for her. “I’m telling you, Frannie, this is my saving grace. Any time anything bad happens in my life, I’m like, at least I’ve got Shakespeare.” She showed me a copy of Interréd With Their Bones, which she’s reading, and told me how exciting it is — she can’t stop talking about it. “And everyone in my unit is like —" She raised an eyebrow and looked down her nose “— ‘Shakespeare nerd.’ And I’m like —” she shrugged and smiled. I told her she’s in good company!

We wrapped up, all in great moods, some of us breathing deeply and flushed from working those fights. It was a really, really great night.


Friday
 

Tonight, I spent a lot of time with an ensemble member whom last year’s Curtain Queen and I sort of drafted to be this year’s Keeper of the Master Script. Our 2017 Curtain Queen is playing Macbeth this year, so she obviously needs to trade one imaginary crown for another. And this other ensemble member accepted her new role excitedly, even though she was pretty nervous to take on that much responsibility.

We’ve found that it’s extremely helpful to have a script on either side of the stage that has all of the information we could possibly need: curtain cues, sound cues, entrances, exits, when sets and strikes occur, etc. I coordinated this last year with CQ, but I’ve got a few absences coming up (I’m directing a play; a commitment I made only after asking permission from the ensemble), and someone with consistent attendance needs to be on top of this for the rest of us. And, thus, the 2018 Keeper of the Master Script was duly initiated.

Our Macbeth actually ended up sitting with us for a bit while other scenes were worked, helping us remember the curtain cues that I didn’t have written down. We decided not to write in the sound cues just yet, but I talked through some sound design questions I had with them, and they were excited to help in that way.

Focus was split throughout the evening, but that was largely due to ensemble members’ need to do things like write their cues and lines on index cards, highlight their new scripts (with cuts removed), or, of course, work on a scene. Our numbers had dwindled by the end of the night, and we discussed our game plan moving forward. We’re bumping it up a notch: leaving less time to chat and check in when we arrive, and asking that people arrive on time and stay till we’re done unless absolutely impossible. The timeline for each session actually came from an ensemble member who’s nearly always on time, but also nearly always leaves early, and she said that if we stuck to it, she wouldn’t have a problem staying — she just hates to feel like she’s wasting her time because there’s a lot on her plate. All were agreed.

We also talked through a schedule for the rest of our time. We’re in the home stretch! One ensemble member said that she was getting really nervous, particularly about memorizing her lines. We assured her that that was normal and suggested some tips. She still seemed on edge. I told her that no one would have her lines down perfectly and asked if she would be angry with anyone who messed up. “Definitely not,” she said. “Then who’s gonna be mad at you if your lines aren’t perfect?” I asked. Facilitator Kyle asked the room if anyone there would be upset with her for that reason, and we all shook our heads emphatically. “The only pressure to be perfect is coming from you,” I said. “So try to relax and let it go, because freaking out isn’t going to help!” She said that she would have been much more anxious a few months ago, and that she credited her new resolve to her participation in SIP. “I’m worried about getting in front of people… But, being in here, I’ve cracked my shell… It helped me speak my mind and express my feelings. It made me stronger. And other people outside of Shakespeare have noticed something’s going on.” Those of us in the room said that we have definitely noticed!

That was a lovely note to end on. We’ve got a list of scenes to work on Tuesday, and then we’re into work-throughs, runs, dress rehearsals, and — at long last — performances. Watch this space.

Season Seven: Week 34

Tuesday
 

We had a guest tonight, filming a piece that we’ll be able to share with you soon! We pretty much went about things as usual, with a few interviews sprinkled in. It was great to have him!

After checking in, I asked the ensemble what they wanted to work on with the camera there. They unanimously agreed on Act I scene i – the visuals they’ve come up with in that scene are really striking. Our First Witch began by bursting through the curtain, letting the fabric linger on her arms like wings, cackling an incredibly eerie cackle. “My heart’s beating from my chest!” exclaimed one woman after the scene was complete. “I was talking, and I was like –” she showed us how she’d frozen to watch. We worked on staying rooted in the earth and adjusted some blocking so that the witches could exit together at scene’s end, rather than splitting focus.

I saw our Porter sitting in the back of the house with another ensemble member, and she looked upset. I went over and asked what was going on. She said she was freaking out about memorizing her lines. She’s having a really hard time, especially with the monologue, and was practically in tears. I tried to calm her down, saying that she could do whatever she wanted with these lines – that the Porter doesn’t impact the story at all and could be cut entirely, so the lines can be altered in almost any way without screwing things up. All we need is the humor, to know she’s drunk ,and for her to take forever to answer the door. I shared the story about when, years ago, our Romeo and Benvolio were so freaked out about their lines that they stopped coming to our meetings. The rest of us decided that preserving the ensemble was more important than preserving the lines, so we cut every one of theirs that we possibly could. It meant that most of the play’s comedy was gone, but our ensemble members came back, the plot still moved forward, and we counted it as a win. That made her feel a lot better, and we strategized a bit about what to do with the monologue. I asked her to get creative and surprise us!

We said goodbye tonight to a longtime ensemble member who was being paroled prior to our next meeting. She told us that she was glad to leave prison, but very sad to leave Shakespeare. We echoed that: we were ecstatic for her to go, and we knew that we would really miss having her in the ensemble. I said that no one could ever say that she hadn’t been dedicated to SIP for even a second – that, in fact, she ranks as high as anyone on that scale, and higher than many. No one could ever have doubted her passion, either. Or her talent.

I’ve been working with this woman for more than three years, and she’s gone through an absolute sea change in that time. She’s done some very challenging work, and not just in terms of her acting. In the beginning, she had a lot of anger and frustration that she didn’t quite know what to do with, and it often expressed itself in her being caustic with other ensemble members – and very hard on herself. There were times when she’d be so shut down or in her own head that no one seemed able to reach her. Except me. I found that I could always get through, and that I could often help her navigate whatever challenge she was facing. I developed sort of a sixth sense for it; I could often see it coming and swoop in to help her stem the tide. We worked together on that. We even had a code word for a while.

At first, and for some time, she frequently said that she was selfish, self-centered, and that she didn’t care about other people; that she was a bad (even evil) person. We pointed out the many times when she proved herself wrong, and she began to recognize her own capacity for empathy – and to put it to work. This past season especially, I’ve been struck by her increasingly personal involvement with others who were going through hard times: her compassion, words of wisdom, holding of space, and checking in, even with those who were not close friends. She’s opened up a lot. I didn’t note even one occasion this season when she treated anyone with disrespect, even when she was upset with herself or anxious about something in her personal life.

I have a lot of respect for every person who walks through the door to work with us, and that admiration only grows for those who stick it out. This woman has always been so frank about her struggles (and her victories) that I’ve been able to do more detailed work with her than I’m usually able to do with others, so the bond goes pretty deep. It’s also worth noting that, with her departure, there is only one person in the ensemble (other than me) who was involved in SIP earlier than fall of 2015. So it feels like the end of an era; like the youngest member of the “old guard” has left the building.

With our newly-given approval to be in touch with, and even work with, alumni when they’ve left prison, I have a lot of hope that we’ll hear from this woman soon. I’m incredibly excited for her to return to the outside world, settle in, and make her mark. Because I believe she’s going to make a big, bold, very loud, incredibly funny, extremely witty mark. My fingers are crossed that I’ll get to be along for the ride.
 

Friday
 

Several people shared good news during tonight’s check in, but one person was feeling pretty down. In order not to break confidentiality, I won’t share details here, but she’s been dealing with a pretty negative situation in her unit. The group gave her a lot of support, even to the point of silliness, and she was laughing and relaxed by the time we were ready to lower our ring.

We had planned on continuing to work through the play chronologically, but facilitator Assata has stepped into the role of Doctor, and, with her about to be absent for two weeks, our Gentlewoman asked if we could work on the sleepwalking scene. That made perfect sense, so we did it! This woman has become very assertive and enthusiastic about wanting to work on her scenes, and we absolutely love it.

A while back, one of our ensemble members introduced the idea of using a hand mirror in this scene so that Lady Macbeth could talk to herself, but it hasn’t really come into play. She mentioned some places in the scene to use it, but those are lines where Lady is clearly talking to Macbeth, so we tried to find other places – we never want to fight the text. We found a few options and decided to let our Lady do it in the moment if she was inspired.

Immediately after that first run, which felt pretty disconnected, I asked Lady if she’d found a spot to use the mirror. “No mirror,” she said, but the ensemble member who’d had this idea began to strategize about ways in which the mirror could still be used. She suggested that perhaps it could be set on a table mid scene. I asked what other function the table would serve; we don’t usually want to use set pieces if they’re not necessary because they just complicate things. Lady made it very clear that she didn’t want to do that, either, and another ensemble member jumped in to suggest that if the table were set very far stage right, there could be a way to use it that would make sense.

At this point, everyone (on either side of the debate) was pretty frustrated, and Lady asked if she could watch someone do the scene so she could get an idea of how it could work (or not). The ensemble member whose idea this was complied, and she went with the option of placing the table far right.

The woman actually playing the role now said she was ready, but, after beginning the scene, she became increasingly frustrated and stopped. I reminded her that she feels better about her work when she centers herself before going on stage; it’s tough to pull off a role like this going in cold. She asked if the woman playing Macbeth could walk behind her with her script, drop in the lines, and be there for her to talk to directly before her exit.

As the Doctor and Gentlewoman restarted the scene, she planted her feet on the ground, placed her hands on chest and back (warming the ideal center), closed her eyes, and then raised her hand to mime holding the taper. She entered the scene completely focused, with a totally different energy than she’d had two minutes before, and really seemed to be sleepwalking through the space. She was so sad – not unhinged, but sad and guilty. She sank to her knees, putting the candle down on the ground and rubbing her hands not only together, but on her thighs, her shirt, her face, the floor, increasingly desperate, but, again, not crazy. She did this just inches from me, and it gave me chills. It was absolutely beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it from her, and she’s been in the group for a long time. It was one of those performances when you start to wonder where the person ends and the acting begins, and, honestly, if I didn’t know for sure that she was using techniques to keep herself emotionally safe, I would have been worried about her. My notes from those moments say, “I buy this 100%.” She got up, drifted across the stage, then turned sharply to Macbeth and spoke directly to him. And then she drifted off.

It was amazing. We were all floored. “What happened?” I asked. “I blanked out,” she said. I asked her what that meant. She paused and then said, “I can’t tell you nothin’.” She shrugged her shoulders, mystified but very pleased. I said that that’s what happens when you’re truly in the moment: it can be difficult or impossible to analyze what you’ve just done. As we lauded Lady Macbeth with praise, our spunky Gentlewoman jokingly piped up, “Was anyone looking at me?!” We all laughed and told her that she’d been great, too.

The energy shifted, though, when we went back to Act I scene v. I wanted to recommend that we hold off on that scene for another night – it’s exhausting to do what Lady Macbeth had just done, and I thought it would be a better idea for her to rest – but I deferred to the group and didn’t say anything. We began joking about how Lady Macbeth always seems to enter from stage left, with one woman saying, “That’s ‘cause it’s your best side. You know.” She turned her head back and forth as if she were posing for pictures.

We rolled through the scene, but Lady Macbeth didn’t seem able to focus, and she didn’t do the kind of work she’d wanted to. She sat down as the group gave her feedback – and it was a lot of feedback. Too much. I could see that she was becoming overwhelmed, and I tried to subtly get everyone to move on, but that was a challenge. They finally did, and I beckoned to Lady to join me off to the side.

I asked her how she was feeling, and she said she was overwhelmed – that she had wanted to scream and run out of the room. It had been too much feedback, and she was spent after the previous scene’s work. I encouraged her to let everyone know that next time. “You have no problem telling me to shut up,” I smiled (she does this by saying, “I got this. Frannie, I got this.”). “You can tell everyone else to shut up, too!” She said that she wanted to defer to the group, not to be selfish. I replied that actors need to be selfish to a certain extent; we need to do whatever it is we need to do to give our best performance, and our team mates will support us in that. I encouraged her not to be afraid to tell us what she needs – we can only give it to her if we know what it is.

She really was exhausted, but she said she felt a bit better after that conversation. I touched base with the other facilitators afterward to give them a heads up, and we’re all going to make sure that we pay close attention so that she doesn’t get that overwhelmed again.

Season Seven: Week 33

Written by Kyle

 

Tuesday

During check-in, two members had a confrontation dramatic enough that we had to focus on trying to mediate, rather than doing the work we had planned. Both parties were pretty irate and unwilling to concede anything; in the end, they left the auditorium with the conflict unresolved. It hurt our morale, truth be told, and it was well into the evening before we really felt like we were back in the groove of working on Shakespeare. We do our best to mediate conflict and minimize its impact on the group, but sometimes we have to recognize our own limitations as facilitators. I hope some kind of understanding can be reached, but it was clearly not going to happen Tuesday night so we had to let it go.

We managed to have a good night, though. I am really proud of the group for bouncing back and being able to keep the goal in mind by moving forward. A few ensemble members started working Act I, scene iii: one of the witches’ scenes. They worked specifically on their physicality, and another ensemble member had some really great insight for them, which is always ideal. When the direction comes from them, it is all the more empowering, both to the individual and to the group. Despite many of the women having different levels of comfort with conflict, work still happened, and we were all able to leave smiling.

Friday

Friday was a much more productive day, in as much as we were able to work on more of the play. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood; perhaps, with the conflict reaching finality on Tuesday, the group was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps it had been weighing on us more than met the eye, and sometimes you can only feel the true tension in its absence. On the other hand, after a long winter it was the first truly spring-like day, and I’m sure a little sunshine played a part as well! Whatever the reason, the good spirits were very welcome after Tuesday’s session.

The first item on the agenda was to pick the play for next year. Ensemble members were encouraged to make a “One-Minute Pitch” for the play for which they would wanted the others to vote. Like everything in SIP, a seemingly straightforward assignment was met with abundant creativity, and it ended with my face hurting from smiling. There were rebuttals, pleas, tag-teams, and a dance-off. In the end, Twelfth Night was chosen in a landslide victory. Honorable mentions went to Julius Caesar, and The Winter’s Tale. The overarching sentiment was that the group wanted something lighter after working on Macbeth (and, for some of them, Richard III… and Othello…). A particularly funny moment in the debate was one of the women brought up some of the logistical problems with Twelfth Night. She said there’s a lot to keep track of, and a lot of “cross dressing.” One woman responded, “We’re all cross dressing in every play, anyway, so what’s the difference?!” It was a really great way to start the night: light, fun, and looking to the future.

After we chose the play, we had to reassign some of the roles that had belonged to women who’d left the group. I was assigned the role of Lennox, and was told in no uncertain terms that I would not be given an extension for learning my lines. After that, we actually worked many Lennox’s scenes, so I was on stage a lot, and my notes got a little spotty. The ideas were flowing all night, particularly when trying to get everyone on the same page with just each characters’ objective. We stayed mainly in Act V, which can get a little dicey when it comes to logistics. Entrances, pacing, the crux of each scene; all still need a fair amount of ironing out. The cheerfulness continued throughout the night, with the ensemble member goading each other on, challenging each other to “pump it up” and shouting “good!” when the actors hit their mark. All in all, it was a great way to end a difficult week.