Season Eight: Week 5

Tuesday / October 2

Written by Frannie

Tonight was our monologue-off! Those of us who shared each brought something a little different. During check-in, a longtime member, who’d said she’d be performing something from a show we did years ago, told me she was going to throw me for a loop: she brought in a piece of her own. “I’m excited,” she said. “Being in my element, people being receptive… I was like, ‘I could do a Shakespeare piece,’ but I wanted to do something that hit home for me, and I thought, ‘What better place to do it?” She was definitely excited — I don’t remember what the segue was, but my next note is, “Turns into Oprah with mints.” (“You get a mint! And you get a mint! And YOU get a mint!”)

The first woman to share was last season’s Porter, performing her version of the drunken monologue and scene. If you were reading along then, you probably remember how freeing it was when she rewrote the piece, in keeping with its spirit, but with language that resonated more for her and, honestly, was much funnier. Somehow it had gotten even more hilarious after a few months, and she’s super comfortable with improvising now, too: when med lines were called and a few people had to leave, she called out (in character), “Where y’all going during my play?!” She then shared the process by which she developed the piece with our newbies to encourage them to get creative rather than give up when things are challenging.

Emma, one of our facilitator apprentices, got up to do one of Anne’s monologues from Richard III. She was honest about being kind of nervous, never really having done any theatre — and she was also honest about how excited she was to put a speech on its feet that she’s always loved. A longtime ensemble member stood in as Richard, and Emma launched into the monologue, at one point pausing to say, “Ooooooh, that felt good!” She reflected afterward that she had felt very liberated by diving in, and that “it’s always fun to curse somebody!”. I asked what everyone had gotten from the piece, and one woman said, “You were pissed off because someone got injured, and you want revenge.”

Then a woman, who was pretty closed off last season but has been much more open this year, shared an original poem, warning us first that it was very dark — and it was. And it was good. “How do you feel?” Kyle asked when she’d finished. “Shaky,” she smiled, saying, too, that she was glad she’d shared it. We asked her if she could tell us more about the piece, and she said it was “about the thoughts that take over your mind and hold you captive in a false reality”. We loved it. “It took a lot of nerves for me to share that,” she said.

The woman who played Edward in Richard III got up to perform her big monologue, albeit in its original form rather than as we’d cut it. “You know I’m shy, right?” she grinned. I looked over at Kyle, who was absolutely beaming — we’ve always loved her take on this piece. She went up on lines several times — it’s a long speech, and it’s been a very long time since she’s performed it — but, rather than getting down on herself the way she used to, she simply asked for line and kept going. Her first comment afterward was about not having remembered some of the lines, but, again, the comment wasn’t harsh. We told her that we’d loved it anyway.

The woman who played Margaret in Richard III rose to perform one of that character’s monologues, but without cuts and with “a different take” than when we staged the show. Instead of railing against those around her, as is traditional, she was very quiet with the piece, almost as if talking to herself. This increased the emotional intensity in a way and made us listen more closely to what she was saying. “It’s kind of what I’m going through,” she said afterward. “The first time I did it, she was very vengeful, and, like, ‘I told you so.’ But I look at those words different now.” Another woman said, “I could feel your emotions in it.”

Then the woman who’d been so excited at check-in asked us all to move from our circle into the house so she could use the whole stage for her piece. It took a few minutes for her to get to a place where she was ready, and then she committed wholeheartedly to an original piece that was part spoken word, part song, and part dance. It was fantastic, personal, and brutally honest, bringing several other ensemble members to tears as they related to what she said. When she was finished, she stood backstage with a friend. We couldn’t see her to know what was going on, but we got the feeling that she was upset. Another ensemble member and Kyle went to her. After a few moments, one of the women said, “Should we all go back?” We did, surrounding her with praise, support, and gratitude for what she’d shared. As we did, one of the women suddenly popped out from the door behind her, making us all laugh and feel ready to move on.

Facilitators also shared monologues, fully committed, and with varying degrees of “success”. I had a particularly spectacular fail, as I attempted to do a piece that I’d memorized only the day before, but just couldn’t stay focused due to a really bad headache. That said, the ensemble fully supported and encouraged me, and no one made me feel badly when I gave up and said I’d try again next week. I thanked them for that, and one woman said, “No, you doing that made us all feel a lot better about when we mess up.”

A new ensemble member shared a poem by Yeats that she really likes, throwing her book on the ground in a moment of total commitment to the piece’s passion. It was great! Afterward, she said that her heart was racing, but that she felt good.

Before we left, I handed out a packet of information about Commedia dell’arte, including pictures of the characters, so we can all think a little more about if/how we’d like to draw on that tradition. We’ll see where it goes!

Friday / October 5

Written by Matt

Today was a little bit sparsely attended—by everybody! Frannie was out of town at a conference with a Shakespeare in Prison alumna, and a couple of our regulars in the group were taking a day off to deal with personal issues. Still, a strong core group was present, and we gathered into a tight circle to read some more monologues after check-in.

Unlike the big performances of Tuesday, the readings today were intimate and performed sitting in our circle. They were no less affecting, however, since we were all so close together and listening intently. A new member read a poem that had stuck with her from another program, and she described wanting to read it to the group as an act of solidarity and support. “Us, as females,” she said, “we usually try to bring each other down,” and she commented on how comfortable she felt in the circle of our ensemble, where everybody was there to lift each other up. A bunch of the other women started nodding and saying, “yes, yes,” as she spoke. Another member, who used to be very shy, read a poem she wrote in a different, and very intense, program. As she read, the others murmured their support and agreement. Afterwards, the woman who read said that she wanted to share her poem because she wants the ensemble to know what she’s struggled with and is striving to overcome. She said that she’s trying to embody the mantra of “catch it, check it, change it” that is taught in a number of other programs.

It had been a long time since we had read anything from the play, so one veteran had to bring us up to speed. It helped that the scene we were reading (Act II, scene iii) is silly and high-energy and relatively easy to follow. It also helped that the woman who volunteered to play Feste was fearless about singing the fool’s lines, many of which are delivered in song, culminating in a drunken duet with Sir Toby Belch. We were having so much fun that when our Sir Andrew Aguecheek had to leave, a notoriously shy ensemble member stepped right up to fill in, and helped to ridicule our hilariously self-serious Malvolio, whose lack of amusement gave everyone even more raucous energy. Maria was played by another normally reticent woman, who figured out halfway through the scene that Maria was “a bitchy bartender.” “Oh, okay,” she said with a definitive nod. “I got this!”

After reading the scene through, some members were confused, but our Feste was ready with a detailed explanation of the entire scene, including the plot hatched by Maria against Malvolio—to convince the humorless steward that Olivia is in love with him. This addition to the already complicated love-triangle-or-is-it-a-rhombus had a few members scratching their heads. “We’re gonna need a whole chart,” offered a new member, whereupon the woman next to her opened a notebook page to draw the diagram out as yet another with a firm grasp of the intrigues talked it out. The chart was a mess of arrows and lines—this is a Shakespearean comedy, after all!—but we all felt more confident after seeing it represented visually.

We put the scene up on its feet, which increased the energy level even more. A new member filled in as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and afterwards said that she preferred reading those lines out while being able to move and interact with others; “it helped to put some feeling behind it,” she said. The woman who played Malvolio, said that she was beginning to identify with his seriousness: “It made me feel kinda powerful,” she said of her entrance into the scene, “like, here are all these kids, and I’m an adult.”

We worked briefly through the next scene before leaving, but agreed that we needed to go back and cover it again with more people and more time—a lot happens, and the love-polygon gets even more complicated as Viola tries to explain her love for Orsino to the clueless man’s own face. What was most exciting about this scene’s first run-through was who volunteered to read. Feste was played by the same veteran, who reprised her singing role. A woman who used to seem super-shy gave an over-the-top reading of Orsino, and a brand-new member volunteered to read Viola, the first time she had read anything in front of the ensemble. It’s always gratifying to see people come into the ensemble, especially now that we have such a strong core group, and find the confidence within themselves—and the support of others—to take their first step into reading Shakespeare aloud in front of the whole group.

Season Eight: Week 4

Tuesday / September 25

Written by Matt

The first order of business today was to add new members! It’s still early in the season, and it will never be easier to jump in than now. The group decided to bring on another five people. “Let’s keep it rolling!” said a veteran of many seasons. Another woman looked around at the rest of the ensemble and asked, “Does anybody else want to quit?” People laughed, but she persisted, “No, seriously! So we know how many.”

The first exercise we played was an improv game called Rant, in which one member of the ensemble begins to “rant” about some subject, approaching it with a single, clear emotion. At some point, another member tags and replaces the person in the center, resuming the “rant” with the same emotion as the first, only more intense. The game continues until someone reaches peak intensity in whatever emotion (anger, fear, happiness, etc.).

First up, the rant was about macaroni and cheese, which was something almost everyone could agree on--mostly on their anger about “fancy” mac and cheese. One woman grew so angry that she threw her own shoe at the ground, and another simply screamed with no words, which ended the scene. During the quick debrief after the round, one member seemed confused. Frannie boiled it down: “Mostly, we’re just screaming at each other.” The woman seemed relieved. “I can do that,” she assured us, and hollered one of her lines from last season at the top of her lungs: “WHAT SIGHTS, MY LORD?”

For the second round, the first member to speak picked a topic a little closer to home for many of the women: parole. Quite unlike the generalized, sometimes cartoonish anger they had expressed about mac and cheese, many of the rants about this subject were personal and eloquent. “They have preconceived notions of who I am. What about my change? What about the part of me that is better than it was?” Other women built on the foundation, echoing the desire to be seen and heard. “They’ve never even met me.” “They don’t know us.” “All they see is a piece of paper.” It’s unusual to delve so deeply (and honestly) into something so personal this early in the season, and we thanked the woman who’d jump started it. This also led to a brief, but solid, conversation of how we want to express emotions that are “true”, rather than those that are “real”; this was a good example because, while everyone appreciated what was being done and expressed, they didn’t feel comfortable actively participating.

We played a few more rounds of Rant, trying out different emotions (like fear, in a Hitchcockian sequence about being afraid of birds).

Then we moved on to the text, and we finally finished Act I. After determining that one of our most expressive members was going completely against type in reading the self-serious Malvolio, we quickly ran through the end of Act I, scene v. A number of our veterans are delighted by Twelfth Night, especially after such a long run of tragedies. “I love it!” exclaimed one woman, “There’s just so much you can do with it!” Another woman agreed: “It mimics life in here a lot,” she said, including the shifting gender roles.

Already, many of the women are thinking about the possibilities for staging the play. “You have to figure out how to deliver to the audience that you are someone pretending to be someone else,” one said of Viola, and she said that this scene felt to her like it was straight out of her class on men and masculinity. When we began Act II, that same woman read Viola’s speech, and she--who has been in the group for a long time and has worked hard to get to this level of comfort and confidence with Shakespeare’s language--relished every syllable of the speech. “I nailed it, Frannie,” she said after she ended. Perhaps inspired by her example, the group decided in the closing moments of the session to have a “monologue-off” on Tuesday, whatever that means. I guess we’ll find out!

Friday / September 28

Written by Frannie

After an extended check-in, it was pretty clear that what we all needed was a chill evening — just to relax and have a little fun together, with no pressure to be productive. That’s perfectly fine sometimes, and, frankly, often turns out to be more productive than trying to force ourselves to “work”. That was definitely the case tonight.

I introduced a fabulous improv game called “Beat Poet”. In this game, one person at a time performs a “beat poem”, the title of which is suggested by the audience and often takes the form of two unrelated concepts. The idea is not to give a good performance, or even a mediocre one — both are totally acceptable, but this game is at its most fun when the poems are downright BAD. There is literally no way to do it wrong. The idea is just to let loose and free associate.

The game lasted far longer than I thought it would, which was exciting. There are always a few women in the ensemble who take to the games immediately, but it can be challenging to get a good number of people to participate. Improv is really, really scary when you’ve been conditioned to constantly doubt your ideas and abilities, to see your mistakes as catastrophic, and to fear messing up to a point of being immobilized. Improv can be truly loaded in a correctional setting.

Three of our vets started us off, committing wholeheartedly to some very, very bad poems: Government and Goldfish (“I just thought about how, when I was growing up, I had goldfish, and they just used to die… Like the government…”), Security Cameras on Mars, and Shrimps and Roses. The group grew increasingly relaxed, and one of our newbies said, “I’ll do it.” Everyone cheered — it’s no small thing to put yourself out there, period, and, since this game is particularly freeform, it requires a lot of trust in the ensemble and willingness to be vulnerable.

Her poem was Big Butts and Little Cars, and it was absolutely dreadful. We loved it. Then one of our vets, whose apparent role this year is to constantly let people know how much we want them to participate, even when they’re hesitant, slyly suggested that one of last season’s witches take a turn. When she hesitated, the vet said, “Do it as a character! Do it as your witch!” That did it: up she stood! The name of her poem was Witches and Chicken Soup, and, after taking a moment, she dove in, lunging and swooping, having a great time. “It was awesome,” she said afterward. “It just took me a minute to get into character.”

Then Matt, Lauren, and I went right in a row, with poems titled Mattitude with Good Hair; Kittens, Kings, and Costumes; and Coffee, Confidence, and a Sucky Play. (Those women know me so well.) Facilitators never hold back, given the opportunity to be silly and/or fail miserably, and all three of us definitely did both. We echoed what those who’d gone before had said: that knowing there was no way to do it wrong was liberating, even though the prospect of improvising a poem was kind of terrifying.

“Who’s next?” one of the women asked, and a newbie said she’d give it a try. This woman has, quietly but doggedly, held firm to her goal of stepping out of her comfort zone as much as possible to see what kind of confidence she can gain. That doesn’t mean that any of this is easy for her; it’s the opposite, and that makes her effort that much more admirable. She struggled with her poem, Mud Pies and Rollerskates, but no one tuned out or offered any criticism. Everyone stayed right with her, encouraging her and offering suggestions and ideas to help her through. This is what strengthens our ensemble: the willingness to buoy the members of our team who are struggling, to take joy in that, and to celebrate them even when others might say that they failed. We know what success truly looks like. It doesn’t always look like “good art”.

And then a returning member, who has never participated in a game before, said, “I’ll do it.”

“WHAT?!?!?!” I whooped, probably throwing something and, I think, stomping my feet (because I cannot be reasonable in moments like this). “OH MY GOD, FOR REAL????” She grinned and stepped into the circle. “Hot Dogs and Poetry!” someone yelled. The woman paused, thought for a moment, and then sharply raised a pointed index finger in front of her face. We shrieked with laughter, absolutely thrilled, and she performed a terrible, terrible poem with determination and a great sense of humor.

We erupted in applause as she sat back down, beaming, with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen on her face. “What was that like???” I asked (still sort of hyperventilating). “It wasn’t that bad!” she said. “At first I didn’t know what to do, but then when I remembered I couldn’t do it wrong, I kind of relaxed into it. It was kind of freeing.”

The woman who’d gone first took another turn (Caves and Flowers), and then she nudged a longtime member who’d walked in late, dejected and upset about something. She is usually very animated — if she’d been feeling better, she probably would have performed five poems — and she dragged herself to her feet, knowing that forcing herself to do things like this usually makes her feel at least a little better. An ensemble member gave her the title Shattered Glass and Roses, hoping she could use the drama of those images to let out some of her angst, and it seemed to work. “I didn’t feel as melancholy when I was up there,” she said.

And then. And then, and then, and then.

A four-year vet, who, in all that time, has never participated in a game like this (and very, very few besides) said, “Fuck it, I’ll do it.” I shrieked again — I can’t overstate how huge this was — and she entered the circle, clearly nervous but determined to push through it. This woman fought a wicked sword fight in Macbeth, and a returning member shouted, “Swords and Cotton Candy!” She grinned, shook her head, took a deep breath — and plunged to the ground, proceeding to lunge and crawl around the circle while saying words that I so don’t remember because they so didn’t matter, waving an invisible sword all over the place and finally coming to a very dramatic stop. We exploded. “That was amazing!!!” I yelled. “What happened???” With a huge smile, she laughed, “I just really want to be part of the group.” She is — she always has been — but we knew what she meant. “My heart was racing, but you all just seemed to be having so much fun! It was nice to let go.”

We were having such a good time, it didn’t seem like anyone felt like buckling down and doing anything linear, so we sort of stumbled into a “Shakespeare Jam”. One of the women absolutely loves Juliet’s “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” A few of us had some fun letting loose vocally on those lines, and then two of last season’s witches did the parts of “Double, double, toil and trouble…” that they remembered off the tops of their heads. Last season’s Macduff read some of her lines from a Complete Works, I performed Richard III’s opening soliloquy (which is stuck in my head forever, apparently), last season’s Macbeth did part of a monologue, and another woman read some of her lines from Macbeth. It was a good warm up for next Tuesday’s “Monologue-Off”, and we left on a cheery, positive note.

As we gathered our things, I made sure to check in with the two vets who’d played for the first time tonight. They were both beaming, and I’m sure I was, too. I’m practically dancing now, as I’m writing. Any breakthrough is exciting, but when that breakthrough has been a year — or four years — in the making, hoo boy. That is something else. What a thrill.

Season Eight: Week 3

Tuesday / September 18

Written by Frannie

We welcomed one new member tonight and, after a quick round of introductions, launched into a spirited game of “Zumi Zumi”, a sort of call-and response-game, played in a circle, that requires more focus (and rhythm) than most of us can sustain for long. It got very, very silly, with one woman saying to her sole remaining opponent, “I love ya, shorty, but I’m gonna have to take ya out.” When “Shorty” won — I believe for the first time — there was all sorts of laughter, cheering, and clapping. It was a great way to start off the evening.

We stuck to our plan to review the last few scenes on their feet, beginning with 1.3. A couple of women volunteered to read Sir Toby and Maria, and, when no one volunteered to read Sir Andrew, I said I’d give it a go. We gave it our best shot — and the woman playing Sir Toby really committed to the character’s drunken bombast — but the scene still proved difficult to understand for most people, which I think was the result of our not having preplanned a little blocking/business and my not having read the scene in about a month!

One of the women said that it’s helpful for her to see scenes on their feet, even if they were jumbled, because the language makes more sense to her that way. She suggested that we run through the first three scenes of the play, one after the other, to see what we could get out of that. We wrangled enough people to make it happen and then gave it a whirl.

The scenes were still rough, but running through them again began to give us some ideas of the strengths and potential pitfalls of this play, and what we can to do manage them. “When does this work best? What’s it gonna take to tell this story?” I asked. One woman replied, “Big dramatics! Big personalities! Bright colors! And LOUD!”

One woman noted that the language is really complex, and another said she was concerned that, if sitting and reading it is so challenging, it might be impossible for our audience to understand. She said she thought we should make everything very, very physical so that the story would still come through even if the words didn’t make sense. “It’s like charming a snake,” she said of the language. Everyone agreed with that and wondered how to accomplish it.

I asked if anyone had heard of Commedia dell’arte, and no one had. I said that I thought that tradition might provide some really useful tools as we find the physical comedy we want, even if we don’t rest heavy on its archetypal characters and traditional physicalities. I described it a bit, and the group seemed intrigued. I’ll be bringing in more information as soon as I can put it together!

We moved on to 1.4, a brief scene in which Orsino enlists Viola (now disguised as Cesario) to help him woo Olivia. The scene ends with Viola’s aside to the audience, “Yet a barful strife: / Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife,” at which point nearly every ensemble member said, “Dun dun DUN!” (dramatic music foreshadowing something terrible). We all burst out laughing, and one woman said, “Wait, why did we all do that?! Nothing bad is going to happen. It doesn’t make any sense!”

“No!” I replied. “It’s completely inappropriate! But it’s so funny! I think we should keep it!” We realized that we’re probably going to have a TON of funny ideas like this as we go, and we need to keep a record so we don’t forget. This led me to ask who might like to be in charge of that. Last year’s ensemble members grinned and pointed at our Backstage Captain, who managed things SO beautifully when the rest of us were all over the place. “Oh god. Oh no. Okay,” she laughed. We named her The Keeper of the Jokes, and she suggested we call her “Joker” for short. She lit up. “That could be my prison nickname! I’ve never had one!”

By then just a handful of of ensemble members was still in the room, and we had a good amount of time left. Several people (including me) expressed frustration that people are already skipping out so early, just three weeks into the season. Some early departures will always happen due to mandatory callouts that are not within our control, but non-mandatory attendance issues have never cropped up till later in the year. It’s distressing because it interferes not only with our staying on the same page about the play, but with our ability to build trust in the ensemble.

At this point, we’re irritated rather than angry, but it won’t stay that way for long if we don’t address the issue head-on. That said, this is a problem for which we’ve never found a solution. Several ensemble members said (as they have in the past) that their biggest frustration is that inconsistent attendance is disrespectful of the commitment demonstrated by the facilitators. I said I appreciated that and agreed. “But you also have to be in it for yourself or it doesn’t mean anything,” I said, and a longtime ensemble member who used to struggle with her own commitment quietly said, “That’s true.” The more time people spend in the room, doing the work, the more they get out of it.

“I don’t expect anyone to be hardcore,” said one returning member. “I do,” said another. “It’s about dedication. You’re very dedicated to us. We need to be dedicated in return.” There’s a double standard, she said. “What are they gonna do out in the world?” Another woman agreed, “It teaches us accountability, too.”

I added that we need to build a lot of trust in each other, as well as a solid understanding of the material, in order to execute the kind of physical comedy we’d been talking about. “This play wants to fly.” I said. “I want to fly!” said one woman. There was some predictable singing and laughing, and the tension in the room eased a bit.

“All right,” I said as we gathered our things to leave. “We’ll talk about this on Friday, and I’ll put my foot down.” One longtime ensemble member said, “I’m so proud of you, Frannie.”

We’ll see how it goes...

Friday / September 21

Written by Matt

Some days at Shakespeare in Prison are about intellectual inquiry. Some days are about getting to know one another better. Some are about learning to speak clearly and with purpose or to let loose and inhabit a character onstage without inhibitions, and some are just plain about having fun. Some days at SIP, though, are about taking a hard look at the group itself and figuring out how best to serve the ensemble, its members, and the program as a whole--and it was time for one of those days.

In some ways, Shakespeare in Prison--its members and facilitators--is at its best when directly addressing our core values and how to implement them through day-to-day policies. On Tuesday, we had recognized the need for a serious discussion of “showing up,” both in terms of attendance and being fully present for the entirety of each session. Ordinarily, we bring these sorts of discussions to the ensemble in an open-ended way, but there have been a few times when facilitators have needed simply to make a decision, present it to the group, and say that we will reassess at the end of the season. Tonight was one of those times--we have tried every year to address the issue of people leaving early or simply not showing up regularly and the effect of that issue on the group. We decided that we needed to be stricter about following our own guidelines, less flexible in making exceptions, and expand the definition of “attendance” to include more than simply signing in and taking part in some of the basic activities.

So today was one of those rare times when much of the discussion was spent telling people how things were going to be and then opening the floor for reactions to it, rather than developing policies based on the ensemble’s feeling. Honestly, it felt like a relief. Some very dedicated members had been agitating for a tough conversation about attendance for a long time. Some equally important members of the ensemble whose attendance and attention had been spotty or problematic seemed a little relieved to have clearer expectations outlined. When Frannie was done laying down the new rules, there was no pushback.

The first reactions were mea culpas. One member who joined last year and became a key member of the ensemble, admitted that she had not been fully present this season. She explained what else she is going through, acknowledged that those things were not an excuse, and admitted, “I’m not giving it one hundred percent.” She said that she had been thinking since Tuesday about her place in the group, and had concluded that she needed to leave for this season and make space for someone who could actually be fully present every time.

One of the women wanted to be sure that we didn’t assume that her lack of participation in theatre games was a lack of dedication. “This is important to me,” she said. “This means a lot to me, and I don’t want you thinking that I’m not giving it my all.” Another member reminded her that the games can be as beneficial as anything else. When they had played Blind Cars (a Theatre of the Oppressed exercise) together, there had been a disaster: the first woman had driven the second off the stage while her eyes were closed. Still, she said, “I trusted you after that--even though you drove me off the stage--I trusted you more.”

After working through this tough discussion, we decided to play a silly improv game: Bus Stop. In this game, an actor occupies a bus stop, and another comes in, carrying a single, clear quirk that is intended to drive the other away from the bench. It is essentially a battle of opposing motivations. After some truly ridiculous characters (one always offered something disgusting to smell, another chatted loudly on a cell phone, another was a human trafficker looking for a 2-for-1… or something), one woman reflected that it was a lot like any other type of acting: “You have to put yourself out there. You have to step out of the comfort zone.”

At last, we turned to reading Act I, scene v from the play. The women really seemed to enjoy the scene’s over-the-top silliness, especially Malvolio’s dour presence. “Malvolio has no personality!” exclaimed one, “He’s funny because he’s so dull!” Another noted that “Olivia seems so depressed, and Feste needs to be upbeat” to play off her.

At last, we put up the ring and left the room. Tough as it was, the conversation that dominated the day’s activity seems to have reinvigorated the group and, at least for now, helped ensure that our members are present for the entire time of the session. The future will bring new challenges and new versions of old ones, but as we set the ring back up in the air above us, we felt stronger and more connected for having addressed head-on one of the crucial issues facing our ensemble.

Season Eight: Weeks 1 and 2

Friday / September 7

Written by Frannie.

We circled up for our check-in and ring exercise, and then we took our seats for our traditional three questions! Those are:

What brings you to Shakespeare in Prison?

What do you hope to gain from the experience?

What is the gift that you bring?

We spent just about all of our time on this! We heard common threads: people have joined or are remaining in the ensemble because of its being a safe space — a family. Folks are there to gain confidence, try something new, and learn better “people skills”.

A woman who participated in our third season (Romeo and Juliet) is back. In answer to the first question, she said, “I missed you guys, for one. And my growth… I haven’t been here in years because I didn’t have my act right. Now my act is right, so I’m back.”

A new member said she joined because, “I want to be more like myself again.”

One returning member said she hadn’t been sure she’d do this again, but, “Over the summer, I realized coming here kept me focused and offered me a safe spot. And I missed it. So now I’m back.” Another said, “All of these lovely faces. The best people in prison are the people in this group. Probably not just in prison either.” Still another said, “All of you guys. I miss so many of you. And I learned so much about myself last year — how could I not come back when it helped me learn so much about myself that I didn’t know before?”

Another returning member has been with us for several years, though things haven’t always gone smoothly. But last year ended on a very high note. What brings her back is, “You guys and the ensemble… to see what changes will be in myself and what changes will be in others… It’s like little tiny miracles inside myself, and I love to see that happen for other people, too… One of the main things I’ve learned in this group is how to trust other people. It’s pretty cool.” Another woman, who left the group early last season, said, “That year off killed me. Worst year ever, and I totally could have used Shakespeare… The therapy I get out of it really helps me.” She said she wanted to gain “a better understanding on how to deal with my emotions better… Shakespeare has helped me distinguish which emotion I was going through.”

And one returning member summed it up for all of the others who’ve come back to the group: “I absolutely love Shakespeare, and I found a place where I actually feel like I belong, and I can be me, and everybody accepts it, whether it’s my bad or good.”

Tuesday / September 11

Written by Frannie.

We had a very, very silly evening to start off the season in earnest!

After check-in, we sat in our circle, talking through some things. We kept speaking over each other, though, and it began to be a little frustrating. In the men’s ensemble, we use the code word “orange” to ask people to stop talking and focus, and we use “ratatouille” to call a hold on tangents. (Or at least we’re using ratatouille right now. It was my idea. It may not last. We’ll see.) In any case, I mentioned the code words to the women to see if they’d like to give the idea a try. We have, of course, been able to draw quite heavily on the experiences we’ve had at WHV when working with the guys, and I love the idea of bringing ideas from that ensemble to this one as well. We decided, on a trial basis, to use “ice cream” for “focus up”, and “pineapple” for “tangent”. We’ll see how it goes!

We’re facing some headwinds this fall, as the “No Fear” editions of the play haven’t yet arrived at the prison, so we’ve been working just with the Arden editions — which I wasn’t able to distribute until last week. That said, a couple of “old-timers” and I assured everyone that we used to work with much less (just typewritten copies in manila folders), and that we’d all keep each other on the same page.

We read that great first monologue: “If music be the food of love, play on…” And then we paused. A few people were already feeling lost, and I didn’t blame them! I asked if anyone had gotten the gist — or anything, really. “He has lots of really strong feelings. Of what, I don’t know,” said one woman. Another said, “I feel like he’s in love or just got his heart broken.”

One of the women read the speech aloud. I asked if she’d felt, or if we’d heard, anything in the language — the mechanics of it — that could give us some clues about this guy. “It’s… dramatic,” replied one woman. “Yeah?” I said, excitedly. She looked at the page, laughed, and said, “I picture him as an over-actor.” I’ve known this woman for a couple of years, and I know what a ham she can be. “Oh, do you?” I said. “That’s so interesting. Would you like to — oh, I don’t know — give a dramatic reading?” She started cracking up. “I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” I said. “It’s an invitation, not a demand.”

But of course she got to her feet and gave a HILARIOUS reading, gesticulating melodramatically, even with the book in one hand. We gave her a huge round of applause. I’m so grateful that this happened so organically — that this woman, who is such a well-respected leader in our ensemble, was able to demonstrate, right off the bat, how to just let your hair down and play with Shakespeare.

We read through the rest of the scene, tackling the play’s first puns — and talking about how to deal with some of that wordplay in a mature, professional way. It was a surprise to some of our newbies that Shakespeare’s plays are infamous for their raunchiness, and we don’t shy away from that — we just try not to get TOO silly, and we always keep the conversations focused on our interpretation of the play and how to perform it.

We put the scene on its feet for the first time, with three vets playing the characters. They had a lot of fun with it, and so did we. But none of us were sure we had a much better understanding of the scene.

Meanwhile, I had been sort of dancing in my seat — I honestly had no idea what my “in” to this play would be when we walked in, but just talking and laughing about it with this ensemble gave me so many new, exciting ideas — particularly about Orsino — that I just couldn’t stand it. I asked if we could do the scene again so I could give Orsino a shot. “Whenever someone is as excited as I am right now, they should read, so I want to read!” I said. One new member read Curio, and a vet read Valentine.

I felt strongly that I needed a fainting couch, but of course we didn’t have one of those, so I settled for lounging on the floor. I definitely defied Hamlet’s advice to the players — it was some BAD acting — but, boy oh boy, was it fun, and I wasn’t the only one laughing. Then the woman reading Valentine came crashing into the circle — and, for some reason, did a pratfall right on her face. It was so, so funny.

We moved on to the play’s second scene, which introduces Viola and the seeds of many plot points. I stepped away for a few minutes and came back to more laughter. The group caught me up, and then we talked about how these first scenes are often flipped in production. Why? We saw some good reasons for switching them, and some for keeping them as they are. “It could go either way,” one person said. I snorted and replied, “That could be the tagline for the play. Twelfth Night, or What You Will: It Could Go Either Way.” One of our vets replied, “I mean, this is Shakespeare. You could do it backwards, and it would still make sense.” More and more and more laughter. After three very serious plays in a row, it’s good to be working on a comedy again!

The conversation kept rolling, and the excitement — the joy — was palpable. One woman loudly proclaimed, “I wanna be Viola!” This is her third season, and this is a huge change from day one. When I met her, she was very tense and quiet, hardly ever volunteered to read or perform, but begrudgingly took a role in the performance to continue spending time with her friends in the ensemble. Something clicked for her at the end of that first season, though — she gushed all through our wrap up meeting. When we started back up, exactly a year ago, she turned to me during the reading of the second witch scene in Macbeth and quietly said, “I wanna be a witch!” And now Viola, and broadcasting it to the group. That’s a really clear and exciting progression for her.

Another longtime ensemble member stated that this finally seems to be the time to fulfill a dream she’s been pushing since Othello: to set a play “in spacetime.” This led to a lively discussion of what exactly that could mean, and I encouraged her to keep thinking it over. It’s entirely possible that this play could work in a space setting. Or a space time. I’m still not sure exactly what this means, but if I know anything about this woman, it’s that she’ll explain it in great detail over the next few months.

Meanwhile, a woman who joined us last fall found the page she was looking for in her book and said, “Excuse me! Could I please bring your attention to this bit about her pretending to be a eunuch? I just felt like we went through it too fast.” She told us the page and paragraph of the Arden intro that she was referencing and then read it aloud, taking us through her thoughts about all of it. I thanked her for filling us in. “It caught me off-guard, so I decided I wanted to read about it!” she said, grinning. This is the woman who, just a year ago, told me she thought she might have to quit because she wasn’t smart enough to understand the language. And now here she was, leading us through this somewhat-archaic concept while reading out of a pretty scholarly text. It’s absolutely wild.

Friday / September 14

Written by Matt.

Today’s session was a little bit lightly attended, which frustrated the core group that showed up. Since reading the first scene of the play, a number of our most dedicated members have been embracing the joyousness of reading a comedy after three years of tragedies, but the small group deflated the energy a little bit. This is not the first time that this problem has come up in Shakespeare in Prison, and we try to deal with it the way we try to deal with everything: head-on and with the best interests of the ensemble in mind.

Also sapping everyone’s energy was the cold! It was freezing in the auditorium, so we decided to open the session with our Six Directions exercise, which comes from Michael Chekhov’s acting technique. It is a highly physical exercise in which each actor moves their energy in each of six directions (right, left, up, down, forward, back), alternately moving with a staccato or legato quality. Warmed up and feeling more positive and connected, we read Act I, scene iii. The previous scenes had been funny, but I.iii is plain slapstick. From the introduction of the characters (one of whom is named “Sir Toby Belch” and another is “Sir Andrew Aguecheek”), the women in the circle connected with the bawdy humor and wild abandon of the characters, especially Sir Toby. At least two of them felt really drawn to him and his reckless abandon.

“Wait,” said one member. “How do you pronounce this place?” When another one said, “Ill-EAR-ia,” the first woman muttered, “Sounds like a medication…,” which had everyone laughing again.

Since these Twelfth Night scenes--and especially these scenes--want to be acted out physically, we quickly transitioned to reading them on our feet, and really hamming it up. One member who was away last year jumped into Sir Toby without having even heard the first read-through, and it was spectacular! All of us were struggling to contain ourselves every time she hit a punchline, which she did instinctively and with panache.

Asked afterwards why acting drunk is so much fun, she thought for a second and said, “Drinking and getting high for people is how they release. This guy (Toby, that is) was probably real uptight until he’s drinking, when he’s everybody’s best friend.” She thought for another second, then said that the fun of acting that way is that “[Toby] doesn’t hold back, and he doesn’t stop himself.” Then she turned to her scene partner, who was also hilarious. “Thanks for sitting me down,” she deadpanned. “Well,” the other woman replied, “you couldn’t stand up! You were spilling beer everywhere!”

The next scene has some comedy, but it is mostly to set up for the main plot of Viola wooing Olivia on behalf of Orsino. We were able to talk about gender roles in Twelfth Night here, since Viola is dressed up as a man (Cesario), but the reason Orsino sends her/him to woo Olivia is that she looks like a man who doesn’t look like a man. A few of the women were really interested in this point, reading over the lines in Act I, scene iv about Viola/Cesario’s “smooth and rubious” lips and high voice. The netherworld of gender that Viola inhabits (a woman dressing up as a man who resembles a woman) has always been an interesting part of the play, but it seems to have a special pull on many of the women here, who live for years at a time among other women, and for whom the pageantry of gender roles can become very complicated very quickly. It’s early yet to be able to explain exactly what that pull is, but some of our members seemed to feel that part of I.iv deeply.

Season Seven: Week 42


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!


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.