Season Eight: Week 22

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Neither a borrower nor a lender be…

Tuesday / February 5 / 2019
Written by Frannie

Tonight was my first session back after a week in California, where I spent time with The Actors’ Gang Prison Project and Marin Shakespeare Company’s Shakespeare in Prison Program. (Tons of gratitude to Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Anton Art Center for the mini-grant that enabled me to make the trip!) It was wonderful to see everyone, and, after our usual check-in, I spent a long time sharing what I learned from these awesome programs and answering a lot of questions.

It was a whirlwind of a week, and there were many specific moments that gave me much-appreciated insight into these programs (on which I’ve had a giant crush for a long time). But as much as I learned about the structural and logistical differences between programs, I was even more struck by the elements that hold true through all of this work, seemingly no matter where it’s being done.

I heard echoes of things SIP’s ensemble members have said over the years: that the work provides immense relief, insight into themselves, and empathy for others. The circles I visited were warm, welcoming, open, and generous. The participants showed incredible bravery, allowing themselves to be vulnerable in places where that can feel dangerous. There was laughter; there were tears. There were things that went smoothly, and others that proved challenging.

I felt that same hope in California as I do in Michigan—in myself, and in others. As one man said, “This class gives me a chance to recharge my optimism and humanity.”

Like I said, this took up most of our time, but we did a little troubleshooting about our play’s logistics before we left. In brief, there’s an awkward scene change that needs to be bridged by some sort of action, and the idea of having zannis swoop in to fill in the audience popped back up. We went through a few improvised scenarios, ultimately landing (at least for now) on a quick scene in which two (very confused) zannis attempt to explain the plot and are steamrolled by Malvolio, who has brought a beautiful presentation on poster board.

Friday / February 8 / 2019
Written by Matt

“I went zanni-CRAZY!” announced one of our veterans today. We’ve all been a little zanni-crazy this season at times, so the feeling was general. To help us with the zanni-crazies (and names), we played a goofy name game that involved saying your name and singing a snippet of some song--whereupon everybody else would repeat your name and the song snippet. People sang all sorts of songs, ranging from “I Will Always Love You” to “Happy Birthday,” by way of the Macarena. Frannie brought up the rear with “I Want It That Way.” Fearless leader, indeed.

To keep the energy up, one of our veterans explained a game we played one other time this season. Everyone began as an “egg” (their job was to run around with their arms tented over their heads, chanting “egg, egg, egg, egg…”), and could progress to be a chicken, a T-Rex, a farmer, a businesswoman, and then, finally, Beyonce. Each stage has its own associated motion and noise. Once you become Beyonce, you win. I never said it made sense. The way a person progressed to the next level was to win a game of rock/paper/scissors with another person at their same level (egg vs. egg, farmer vs. farmer). What’s great about the game is that it’s so darn easy to learn and really fun. It requires lots of short interactions with various other ensemble members, but there’s no pressure to be clever or interesting during those interactions--it’s formulaic: you play rock/paper/scissors, and then you’re done.

Before diving into scene work, we had one more item of business: unfortunately, our Orsino won’t be able to come to SIP anymore. It’s always a shame when we lose someone, but we’ve always rolled with the punches, so we asked if anyone else was interested in that role. Turns out that two of our newbies (today marked a month since they joined!) were game! With minimal convincing, another put her name in, too. We decided to give them until Tuesday to prepare a short part of Act II, scene iv. We’ll make a call after seeing them “audition” then.

We dove into Act II, scene v, which we’ve had on the back burner for a few weeks now, since it’s complicated and requires some people who have been absent for one reason or another. This scene is long but hilarious. Malvolio finds the letter Maria wrote to trick him into thinking that Olivia is in love with him as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew hide in the bushes to observe. It also marks the appearance of Fabian, who has never been mentioned before in the play, but serves as a foil for Toby and Andrew.

The hardest part of the scene, we quickly realized, was that Malvolio has to talk for a long time! First, he talks to himself, then finds and wonders about the letter, then reads the letter, then surmises about its import. It’s a lot of lines--even cut down a bit. To help our Malvolio, who is essentially giving a soliloquy (he thinks he’s alone on stage), Frannie had those of us in the audience vocally react to Malvolio’s words, to help her bring us into her thought process. The blocking was a mess, but the energy was great!

What to do with a moment like this? It’s a complicated scene, a long scene, and we really wanted to preserve the great energy and instincts of the performers. Ordinarily, we shy away from “directing” in SIP in the same way we steer clear of “teaching.” Our process is collaborative (“painfully collaborative” as Kyle puts it), messy, inefficient, and focused on personal growth for the participants, not on putting on a show, and certainly not on putting on a show that is tight, spectacular, or even artistically sound. We sometimes get there, but that’s never the point.

And yet, with a scene like Act II, scene v of Twelfth Night, we sometimes have to break our own guidelines in order to serve that larger purpose. It was immediately apparent to Frannie--and, I think, to many of the women--that blocking this scene in our usual way would be more than simply painfully collaborative; it would be a distraction from the rest of the work, an annoyance as well as a mess.

So Frannie jumped in and asked permission to direct the scene, making sure everyone knew that they could jump in any time to question, contradict, add to, or spin off of her ideas. Everyone, especially the veterans, seemed happy with that offer, and totally unintimidated by Frannie putting on the “Director” hat. “I feel like you can help out,” said a core ensemble member, “and if we don’t like it, we’ll just say, ‘Uh, no.’”

Sure enough, Frannie’s “direction” ended up being more of a conversation than a monologue. As soon as Frannie started talking through blocking the scene, women were coming up with ideas to play off of Frannie’s. Our Sir Toby suggested that Malvolio use the stage levels (and sitting) to create dynamism, and Frannie helped Malvolio find moments to sit and stand. A woman in the audience suggested that Sir Andrew, who is somewhat shorter than our Toby and Fabian, hide behind a shrub while the others hide behind trees--Frannie announced that she even has fake shrubs she could bring in! A woman new to the ensemble this year (Heather) was helping work out positioning on stage. Another woman wondered what would happen if Malvolio tried to smile--but wasn’t sure how to make her face into that shape. In all, it was more collaborative than painful this time.

During the second run of the scene, all sorts of things were working better. Frannie gave Maria a pen to use as a “feather duster,” which she used to wrangle Andrew, Toby, and Fabian. Frannie had them pause and suggested that Maria do even more--she’s a lion-tamer! Maria was tickled by that idea, and really backed the others into the bushes. (There will be more feather duster antics to come…)

Afterwards, one of our veterans asked our Maria, “Did that feel natural?”

“No,” she replied. “I felt like I wanted to shoo them, but they wouldn’t shoo.”

Frannie suggested some more forceful movements for her and fetched her a bigger “duster,” this time a drumstick. Silently, one of our quieter members took off her headband and tied it to the tip, so the prop really had some reach--and floppiness! That did the trick.

Malvolio was hilarious as she gave her first lines, but Frannie stopped her partway through. “Wait!” Frannie exclaimed, “aren’t you a stick?” Malvolio said, “Yes.” (She had described her character as “a giant, walking stick” a few weeks ago, which, if Frannie were writing this blog, would have resulted in a bubbly and rambling paragraph about how that’s totally a Michael Chekhov thing, so be grateful, dear reader, that I am on duty for this one).

“Go back and teach us!” said Frannie. “Teach us about being a stick and all the sticky stickness.”

“Okay,” said Malvolio. “Give me a second to get sticky.”

After a second, when she started again, she was. She stood ramrod-straight, and all of her motions and gestures were sudden and in straight lines.

Then, within the framework we had created, all sorts of ideas came bubbling up. One woman wanted Sir Andrew to get angry enough at Malvolio to stalk out towards him, only to be pulled back through the trees. Another agreed, and added that, if the trees were moved to a somewhat different orientation, the sight gag would be funnier. When they ran that moment, Sir Andrew knocked over one of the potted trees in her haste, so we paused, and Frannie suggested that we could have the same effect without toppling trees if Andrew instead did an army crawl and Toby and Fabian pulled her back by her legs. Perfect!

There were several other moments like this, with an actor doing something, one of the other women coming up with an idea of how to do it more effectively, then several others building on the initial idea, and Frannie either weighing in during the conversation or streamlining the final decision. Each time, we came to a solution that no one person (no, not even Frannie!) would have settled on. It was a really beautiful expression of the SIP process.

After working through the scene in chunks, we had a few minutes left. Were we going to end the session or try to squeeze in one more run? One more run, of course! The scene was really tight--well on its way to performance-quality work. Sir Andrew became terrified of the feather-duster-bearing Maria and started cowering behind Fabian, who was herself trying to cower behind Andrew.

After we ended the run, everyone let out a big laugh. It’s a really funny scene! We raced to put everything back in order, put up the Ring, and head out.

Season Eight: Week 21

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Is this a credit card I see before me?

Tuesday / January 29 / 2019
Written by Emma

Despite the biting cold (and the absence of our intrepid leader, Frannie) our ensemble gathered in good spirits. Check-ins were a mixed bag of goofy and serious, and included the reading of a “check-in sonnet” that Frannie had sent to appease us while she is out doing research in sunny California. Everyone in the ensemble seemed relieved that we were meeting, bad weather be damned.

After ringing it, one long-time member shared a quintessential SIP moment from earlier this week. She noticed one of the prison staff wasn’t having a good day and, being the caring individual that she is, she offered them “a woosh.” “A what?” the undoubtedly perplexed staff member asked. “A woosh—y’know, WOOOOSH!” the woman waved her hands as the ensemble broke out in laughter. We eat these anecdotes up—the more SIP-energy that spreads, the better.

After some quick deliberation, we transitioned into active exercises to get our blood flowing and bodies moving. We did a zippy round of Crazy 8s, followed by the loud-and-proud game of “Wah.” Following some gentle encouragement, one of our newest ensemble members bravely joined in our revels—a first for her. Once sufficiently warmed up (ha), we decided it was time to jump into some Shakespeare. In the interim a first season member and a veteran were discussing learning lines. The newer woman was expressing her anxieties concerning memorization. “Aren’t you scared to learn all of the lines? I don’t even have a big part and I’m worried,” she remarked, hands in her pockets. “I just don’t know if I could ever really do that, like, realistically.” Picking up on the apprehension, our sage veteran calmly responded, “The pressure is all within you—you put it on yourself.” She smiled. “My first season I had a small part, too. I even learned all of the lines and then I changed characters. I had to scrap it all and start over. You can do it, believe me.” And just like that, this Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.

We began our evening’s stage work with Act II, scene iv. The meat and potatoes of this scene is an intense exchange between Viola (in disguise as Cesario, because Shakespeare) and Orsino. Heaps of unrequited love, turned up to 11. As the ensemble began hammering out scene transition details, it became clear that there were competing instincts at play. Our Orsino has an incredible comedic intuition that has contributed to a number of schticks that are sure to elicit laughter during performances. One of said schticks includes Orsino flailing and floundering his way on to a too-tall throne in a manner reminiscent of Chris Farley. As the scene opened with this image—Orsino not-so-gracefully hopping atop his lofty seat—our Viola broke character and said, “Is this a real thing that’s happening right now?” Despite the initial discord, the scene continued. Orsino remained seated as the emotional exchange played out, surrounded by his “zanni posse.”

As soon as the scene ended, one of the zannis exclaimed “Ok, you need to get down at some point!” Other ensemble members rushed to agree. Our Viola explained, “So once I come back from seeing Olivia, [Orsino] will be anxious to hear more! He won’t want to remain seated.” This input was met with open arms by our Orsino, who gratefully accepted the constructive criticism. The presence of our goofy zanni posse in the scene was also brought into question, with one woman commenting, “I feel like this is a very serious scene.” After some collaborative brainstorming, we started again from the top.

There was a palpable tonal shift almost instantly. Whereas before our Orsino approached the interaction with her natural affability, it was clear that she was now tapping into a new dimension of her character—the Orsino that none of us had met yet. Similarly, Viola dug in and explored the multitudes contained within her character. She explained, “I’m in love with this person, and I’m forgetting I’m disguised as a guy, but I’m fighting to get back—to get back to reality while having these emotions.” As the scene continued, Orsino began wandering across the stage. Breaking character, Viola asked, “Were you talking to me?” Orsino nodded, and Viola continued, “Ok then, you need to make me hear. Let’s do it one more time.” This brief interaction, in my eyes, exemplifies what is so special about this group. Our ensemble members are able to effortlessly provide feedback in a way that is both supportive and effective.

As we wrapped the second run of this scene, more ideas came to light. “I felt kinda lost. I was trying to put emotion in, but the way they’re talking it’s hard to move. I feel like we should be sitting down eating tea,” Orsino commented as chuckles rippled through the ensemble, then quickly added, “I meant eating crumpets—I just couldn’t think of the word.” Cutting through the levity, our Viola responded to Orsino’s suggestion of sitting down: “Don’t reject what you feel is right… always do what you feel for your character.” Another veteran member added, “This is YOUR house—you get to do what you want!” Again, with the supportiveness! The third and final time we ran this scene, it became clear that it had found its legs. By collaboratively incorporating both Orsino and Viola’s instincts, we seemed to have hit the nail square on the head.

Next, we tackled Act III, scene i. A more jovial segment, this scene includes a little bit of everything that makes Twelfth Night what it is: unrequited love, disguises, and drunken buffoonery. We opened the floor to any new ensemble members who would like to give reading a shot, and much to our delight, we got a taker. The new member fearlessly made her way to the front of the stage to read the part of Feste the Joker, commenting happily, “That’s me, for real!” We worked our way through the scene, stopping only briefly to crack up at a few choice moments (when Maria missed an exit, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew whispered loudly from backstage “Maria! Maria!”).

When the scene ended, Olivia and Viola explored the age-old questions of “what worked?” and “what didn’t?” In this scene, Olivia is swooning over Cesario (Viola)—much to Viola’s chagrin. Viola recounted, “This was frustrating, because [Olivia’s] so stuck up! It’s like… what’s my line… westward, ho!” At this, the room erupted in laughter. Redirecting that energy, Viola said to Olivia, “I think we could ping-pong it. You’re happy to see me, but I’m not happy about you.” “Do you like the challenge of her not liking you?” another ensemble member chimed in. “In real life,” our Olivia (Cosi) said, “it can be a really bad situation and [the person you are romantically interested in] can still show up, and just the fact that they’re there is enough,” speaking to the validation Olivia feels simply due to Viola’s presence.

The final time we ran through this scene, Olivia honed in on the annoying puppy-dog energy, and Viola worked on shutting her down. Viola executed a perfectly chilled “I pity you,” landing heavily on the “t” in a way one facilitator described as “very Bette Davis.” Finishing the scene, there was a unanimous opinion that the second round was better—more grounded, more realistic. We concluded a particularly chilly day by raising the ring and bidding one another tidings of warmth, in every sense.


Friday / February 1 / 2019
Written by Matt

Frannie is off in California this week, so for the second time, we were without our fearless leader. She would object to my use of “leader” and probably to my use of “fearless,” but she’s in California as we’re freezing our butts off in Michigan, so she’ll have to deal with it. But this is a blog about the SIP women’s ensemble, not about how much warmer it is in California than Michigan this week (roughly 70 degrees), so I’ll start again.

It was warm and cozy in the auditorium today, despite the Siberian conditions outside—almost like we were in California, where it is 70 degrees warmer, and where Frannie is this week (of all weeks). But we were not jealous. …I’ll start again.

*Note: Matt knows Frannie proofreads and posts all of these blogs. This is as much of a response as his nonsense is going to get.*

There was so much positive energy in the room today when we gathered—focused positive energy, too! Check-in was lean, except for a good deal of wishing we were in California. After giving a quick update from Frannie (who is 70 degrees warmer than we are, but whatever!), one of our most enthusiastic members knew exactly what to do: “Okay!” she announced. “Let’s play two games and then do some Shakespeare!” All right! She suggested playing Wah!, which we introduced on Tuesday. Half of today’s group was new to the game, though, which is part of why she suggested it—it moves quickly, and it’s easy to pick up. Everything went smoothly until the final four, when one of our veterans started getting sneaky! No one could decide who should leave the stage, and no one wanted to run another round, so we called it a four-way draw. Wah! is physical, so we played a mental/verbal warmup as well: the Question game. The rules are simple: you turn to the person next to you and ask a question (any question), and they have to either answer you with a question (any question) or turn to the other person next to them and ask them a question (any question). Funnily enough, the finale of this game featured two of the same women who had “won” Wah!

Our Malvolio was absent, so we ended up skipping ahead to the next big scene that doesn’t involve him. Act III, scene ii is short—maybe, one of the women observed, the only short scene with Sirs Toby and Andrew—and mostly just setting up for a funny sub-sub-plot in which Sir Andrew challenges Cesario to a duel. In addition to being unusually short for an Andrew/Toby/Maria scene, it’s also not especially funny; there are a few jokes, but it mostly just moves the plot.

Maybe for this reason, the first run was especially rough. The actors stepped out and mostly stood in a clump until the exit. “There aren’t a lot of words here that make we want to move,” observed Andrew, and her scene-mates agreed. A group of us clustered together to try to work out what was going on and how to make the scene more dynamic. Between us, we figured out that simply having Toby, Andrew, and Fabian (more on Fabian in a moment) enter from a different spot would give the scene some more action. Andrew realized that she really just wanted to pout, and that the steps in front of the stage were the perfect place to do that.

Round two was worlds better. Sir Andrew discovered that she was the focal point of the scene—the focal point of Sir Toby’s manipulation, really—which meant that she could lead the others around. Whatever she did, the others had to do, too. She stormed in ahead of the others in lieu of her usual pratfall (“I was mad!” she said, by way of explanation). She pouted on the steps, they pouted on the steps. She stalked off upstage, they stalked off upstage. In the end, it wasn’t a great staging, but we found our way to the beginning of something.

The next big question was: what is Fabian doing here? Our Sir Toby had an idea: “Fabian is like a zanni with a voice,” she suggested. Everyone loved this idea, but no one more than Fabian herself!

On the third go-around, Fabian stole the show. Toby was working on Andrew, and they were sitting side-by-side on the steps in front of the stage. On Fabian’s line, she put her hands between the two Sirs, as if parting a curtain, and pushed her way into the middle of the conversation. We were all in stitches from just that movement, which was perfect and funny, but then she started buttonholing Andrew, giving him the Johnson Treatment. At last, Fabian started stealing the cups of the others whenever they stood up or made a gesture that put the cup in reach. It was so funny, and it naturally created tension and character development and dynamic movement—all the things that the scene was lacking at the beginning.

Not content with that, we moved onto the next scene, which is the second appearance of Sebastian and Antonio (halfway through the play? Why not?). Our Sebastian was present, but our Antonio was not. As so often happens, an absence made a great opening for someone else to step up. This time, it was a brand-new member, who confessed that she had never even set foot on a stage to speak except once in AA. She dove right in as Antonio with truly minimal prep—a few of us mumbled something about how he’s a bit pirate-y and madly in bro-love with Sebastian. The first run through was predictably rough, but one of our veterans jumped right in to take the reins. She talked the actors through the plot of the scene and asked what they needed to tell that story.

This timely intervention by an experienced, dedicated ensemble member did the trick. Sebastian and Antonio quickly realized that their conversation needed some space to move. The curtain was closed, so they had to come through the house to give the scene the long walk that it needed before they naturally wound up at the center part of the curtain, where Antonio gave Sebastian money before slinking away. By the third time, some chemistry had developed between the characters, and our Antonio stand-in had shaken off some of the stage fright. It’s always wonderful when a person’s first experience acting can be so positive. Really good vibes today.

Season Eight: Week 20

Check out this article in American Theatre

A Role for Theatre in Criminal Justice?

So much great information about this work, its impact…
And Shakespeare in Prison is honored to be a part of it!


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Oh, and while you’re at it…

Tuesday / January 15 / 2019
Written by Frannie

After checking in and answering our traditional three questions (which we forgot to do last week!), I asked the ensemble what they wanted to do. Some kind of icebreaker? “SIX DIRECTIONS,” said a longtime member, gleefully rubbing her hands together. This Michael Chekhov exercise (a favorite of some… and not so much of others, but they humor the rest of us) is a good one for centering oneself and warming up for scene work and other exercises. Before moving our energy in each of six directions, we did some physical expansions and contractions. We followed these with a Michael Chekhov “personal atmosphere” exercise, which several ensemble members have been asking for.

In this exercise, each person uses her imagination to conjure a “bubble” of space around herself that is filled with a specific sensation or image that influences her feelings and physicality. We began with each of four tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salty), and then went through a sequence of atmospheres, moving through the space and trying out different activities. Finally, I asked each person (including myself) to choose an atmosphere of either bubbles or cactus spines, and then to interact with each other using only the words “yes” and “no.”

We realized very quickly that all but two people had chosen cactus spines, but those two proved to be very persuasive! It didn’t take long for the cactuses all to be converted to bubbles, and there was a lot of smiling and laughing when I called a hold to the exercise so we could sit together and reflect.

The first thing anyone said was that that she’d noticed how sad everything felt as soon as we stepped into atmospheres of tears. Everyone nodded as another woman said that being in that atmosphere “brought her right into” being with her kids, which was what made her feel sad. I asked if she was okay, and she assured us that she was. “It’s good to show emotions sometimes,” she said. “If you bottle it in, it comes out negative.” I made very sure that everyone knew that our goal is not to re-live painful memories in our acting, but to find ways of being emotionally truthful in our performances—to use our imaginations to call the feelings up. She had experienced the emotion, she said, but it hadn’t been a painful moment in itself.

“When we did the tears, there was a heaviness in the air because everyone was so down,” said one woman. “When I stepped over [into the stage left wing], I almost felt a wall come up. It was weird.” I asked if she’d gotten stuck in that energy, and she said, “No, as soon as I stepped over that line, I left it behind.” … Which is also a Michael Chekhov exercise—creating a threshold to separate one atmosphere from another—but I didn’t want to interrupt the reflection and figured I could tell her (for the umpteenth time) how brilliant she is later.

Still on the subject of tears, another woman said that her atmosphere had been so heavy that, “I didn’t even want to move. Just stand there.” Another woman, who had spent most of the exercise standing just offstage, closely observing, mused, “When we did the bubbles, everybody did their own thing. There were all kinds of bubbles. But when we did the tears, everybody did the exact same thing—the same emotion, the same expression, everything.” She said it had affected her, even though she’d only been watching.

I agreed with her completely, suggesting that maybe that was because everyone experiences the physical sensation of tears pretty much the same way, while “bubbles” can mean anything. That’s why I’d thought the group would like using atmospheres in Twelfth Night, and this woman agreed. “I think that’d really help,” she said, explaining that she tries her lines all sorts of ways in her head, but she’s never sure which is right. “I really don’t know what kind of atmosphere [her character] is supposed to be,” she said. “Sometimes my atmosphere gets mixed up with my character’s.”

I responded that this is a really common challenge for those of us who get stuck in our heads, and that’s why I love Chekhov technique: because it removes the necessity of thinking and uses the body’s memory, rather than the brain’s, to call up truthful emotions. I began to give an example, and then realized that one was sitting right next to me: last year’s Macbeth. “Do you remember ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow?’” I asked her. She thought for a moment. “If I could look at the script for a minute, I think I would,” she said, and, improbably, another ensemble member called out, “I’ve got a copy right here,” waving around a No Fear edition. Ye Olde Macbeth grinned, and, by the time she’d gotten over there (which was all of 15 feet away), the other member had the book open to the correct page.

When we say we’re nerds, we mean it.

As she looked over the speech, I asked The Artist Formerly Known as Macbeth if she remembered what she’d done to access the emotion she wanted for that scene, and she did. The monologue had reminded her of a time when she thought she’d felt the same way: when her entire body had felt “heavy, like a brick.” She sat back down beside me on the edge of the stage and called up the physical sensation. And then she read the piece.

It had lost none of its power since some of us last saw and heard it in June, and we were rapt. In fact, when she finally looked up at the end, and I was able to pull my gaze away from her, the first thing both of us saw was Matt, sitting on the floor in the first row, so moved that he was weeping. “Oh, no! Not the atmosphere of tears!” I joked. Several of us joined forces to whoosh him (see last week’s blog!), and he pulled himself together. “You know,” said a woman who joined the group a couple of months ago, “I’ve never read that. I’ve never seen it. But the way she did it made me have feelings.”

This took us back to atmospheres—and back to tears! But this time, the group focused on all the positive feelings that came out of that atmosphere. One woman, who had sat on the stage taking notes, said that she’d been on edge all day, and that imagining and then shaking off that atmosphere had allowed her to shake off her actual tension, too. “Same here,” said the other woman who’d mostly watched the others. She said she’d been crying before the session, and the feeling had persisted—until she’d dropped the imaginary atmosphere of tears. And then they were both gone. Another woman said it “took a second” for her to dismiss the tears, and “it scared me for a second.” But after that scary moment, the feeling vanished.

One woman said that the atmospheres had been cool, but she HATED the expansion/contraction exercise. “A lot of us do!” I said, and I asked if she had any thoughts about that. “I can’t put my finger on it… It makes you, like, vulnerable,” she said, grimacing. “It was easier to be in a contracted ball, but it felt better to be expanded,” said one woman, and I asked if she knew why that was. “You’re vulnerable when you’re expanded,” she said, “but it’s powerful. Being in a little ball felt bad, but safe.” “Yeah, I agree,” said another woman.

That all took longer than anticipated, but we had a little time left for scene work, and we returned to the Olivia/Viola section of Act I, scene v. We tried out some atmospheres: Viola used sparkles, Olivia used bees (which changed to butterflies when she fell in love), and Maria used butter (which, I confess, was my lame idea). There were some definite changes in the scene, though this way of working will take some getting used to. Still, “It feels good to change,” said our Olivia. A woman who’d been watching agreed, “You could feel the irritation, and then the change.” Our Viola, who was irritated with me for taking so long with the exercise, conceded, “This was a good start.” Another woman took it further, saying that she could see “a lot of improvement.”

Friday / January 18 / 2019
Written by Matt

“Thank god I’m here,” announced one of our veterans (Sarah) when we sat down for check-in, “because it’s been a day! I was like, ‘I gotta get to Shakespeare, cause this is my sanity!”

Our group was already feeling a little less huge today--more like our usual size. Still, there were a lot of new folks in the circle, so after check in and the ring, we played a name game. We’d played one last week, but there are so many new people that we needed another! Of all the name games, we settled on the least “interesting,” but probably the most effective: we were going to a hypothetical picnic, and each of us was bringing something that happened to begin with the same letter (or sound) as our name. We went around in a circle, saying who we were, and what we were bringing. The trick is that you have to remember (and recite!) the names and offerings of every person who went before you. Like I said, not an earth-shattering game, but mnemonic devices sure help memory! And cause panic. One of the women froze up, looked at her hands, and said, in surprise, “My palms are sweating!” Who knew that the name game would be the most stressful part of the evening?

We started out by running through Act 2, scene 1 again. Last week, the women in that scene had needed a few run-throughs to “find” the scene. Today, it was still a little bit rough, but they told the story clearly, and there were some really funny moments. Most importantly, our Antonio made a big, dramatic cross to get in front of Sebastian. Everyone seemed pretty pleased with it as a rough draft, so we moved on.

We ran Act 2, scene 2 for the first time. A short scene between Malvolio and Viola is followed by Viola’s famous speech about being torn--between conflicting desires, conflicting duties, and conflicting genders. In stumbling through it the first time, our Malvolio found some totally hilarious gestures. Instinctively, she began doing all of her gestures with a straight, extended arm. On giving Olivia’s ring to Viola (which Olivia said was Cesario’s ring, and Cesario is Viola in disguise… oh, Shakespeare!), Malvolio thrust the object within two inches of our Viola’s face. Viola had clearly been working on her monologue (“Ha ha! I am the man!” she exclaimed). Only two women had time to give quick notes before our Malvolio demanded that we run the scene again, now!

They continued to refine the second and third times through. Malvolio raced to pop up in front of Viola and doubled down on the stiff-armed gestures. And after the monologue, our Viola walked off beaming. “I was wanting to do it just like that,” she said, “I really wanted the audience to go, ‘Woah, what’s this girl gonna do?’”

We did Act 2, scene 3 last week, but without Feste and Malvolio. Our Feste, in particular, was ready to get up on stage and act! Everyone has been doing brilliant work this season, but the women in this scene are on another comedic level! From the moment the curtain opened, we knew it was going to be funny--mostly because Sir Andrew, who has been the queen of pratfalls, fell on her face when the curtain opened on her. For the rest of the scene, we were teetering on the edge of chaos. Feste forgot her script, and piled shtick upon shtick as Frannie and the other zanni ran around looking for it. A few minutes later, Feste dropped her script and, instantly, Sir Toby offered hers.

All of this insanity gave Maria plenty to work with when she entered. She was not amused. Still less amused (but still more amusing) was Malvolio, who stalked around the stage and berated the others. As Malvolio raged, the zannis tied Sir Andrew’s shoes together under the table. The highlight of the run, though, was a beautiful tableau of Feste, Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew gathered around the “bar,” plotting their revenge on Malvolio. It looked like something designed by a director, but they just naturally found it: Maria holding court at the bar, Sirs Toby and Andrew on either side and seated, and Feste, who instinctively knew to kneel in front of the bar and open to the audience. We’re not here to create professional-quality theatre, but it’s so cool when we do by instinct what someone with training would have done.

Round two of the scene was even more delightful. Our Feste is really enjoying her role as zanni-meister, and relishing the freedom of playing the fool. She sang the songs in the wrong order--at one point adding the lyrics, “Oh, I’m totally singing the wrong song!”--instructed the zannis to grab musical instruments and play; and stole Frannie’s pen, dusted it off, and replaced it in her hand. When everyone got lost, she started clearing her throat, which led everyone onstage (except Malvolio) to clear her throat. All the havoc seemed to help Maria find her character. The zannis cowered on her entrance, and she was constantly shooing them away, which gave her some pretty funny stage business. To banish them, she snapped her fingers authoritatively and pointed to the exit.

Have I mentioned they’re doing really hilarious, amazing work? We’ve never had this many people, with so much energy, feeding so beautifully off of one another’s energy.

Season Eight: Week 19

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Put money in thy—er, our—purse!

Tuesday / January 8 / 2019
Written by Matt

We got 12 new members today! Actually, it was a bit overwhelming. It’s exciting to have so many new faces, but it’s also a reminder of how tight-knit our little ensemble had become this season. We needed them--we were dangerously close to having too few people to put on the play--but the room feels different with so many new folks in it.

For most of the session, though, they were off with Frannie and a veteran doing orientation. After quick introductions, they headed off to a classroom, and the rest of us dove right back into scene work. The next scene up was Act II, scene ii, which is the introduction of Sebastian and Antonio. The women playing those roles had been awaiting their scene with excitement and trepidation. Both are relatively shy and inexperienced, so the scene had a different feel from the last few, which have been full of the raucous energy of some of our most dramatically inclined members.

They stumbled through it once without stopping, but both were focused more on saying the words than on acting--which is fine. It often takes a long time for any actor to step fully into a role, and this is especially true in a setting like this one, in which the text is Shakespeare, and the actors have little or no experience. In fact, doing this scene felt a lot more like a “normal” SIP session, from previous years, when fewer of our members have had such facility with the language.

After the run, a veteran asked the actors how they felt. They seemed a little bit shellshocked still, and they said little, so the woman who had asked them turned to her fellow audience-members. “What did you all see?” As usual, people were brimming with ideas. A veteran with great instincts as a director asked them questions about where they were coming from and going to. “Did you feel like you need to move around?” she queried. When both said yes, a new member suggested that they add a lot of movement to the scene, to give it dynamism. “What if they’re just going all over the space, and Sebastian’s trying to shake Antonio and failing?”

It was all a little bit too much for Antonio. She put her head down and seemed discouraged. At that moment, her scene partner, our Sebastian, stepped in to take care of her, taking comments and suggestions and processing them for her. She even took Antonio to the side and talked her through it gently for a few minutes before diving back in. And, honestly, that’s just the kind of ensemble we have this year. The feedback was all good, all appropriately phrased, all on-point. There wasn’t too much of it. But for our Antonio, it was just too much to deal with on top of her anxiety and everything else. But before I had to say anything, her scene partner, who has been very quiet in the past, swooped in to fill the role of coach, interpreter, and cheerleader. All naturally!

The second run was better, as usual, and both women seemed more confident, and the third run was already starting to look like the rough draft of a scene! A few of the women gently worked with our Antonio to coax her more fully into her character. In the end, we decided that Antonio is trying to physically block Sebastian from getting to her exit, which made for a pretty funny picture on stage!

We decided to move on to the next scene, II.ii, even though we were missing Feste and Malvolio. One of the women remembered that Coffey had played Feste, so she requested a repeat performance, and someone nominated me to play Malvolio.

With two facilitators on stage and Frannie doing orientation, our notes were a little thin on Act II, scene ii. But, honestly, we were just playing around, since we were missing two central characters. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were over-the-top, as always, and Maria was snappy in response. (And, once again, everyone was awed by the fact that Maria is practically off-book!) Coffey sang Feste’s songs as sad pop-ballads, smooth jazz--eliciting weeping and groans from Toby and Andrew. It was great fun!

We had almost no notes after the first run, just some ideas for more shtick (just what we need: more shtick!) and a couple of technical notes about opening up to the audience. Everyone was eager to run it again, and, just in time, Frannie arrived with the newbies! We ran the scene again, this time with zannis running around and causing havoc, and with one of Feste’s songs delivered improbably as Beat poetry.

To finish up, we played two rounds of This Bottle Is Not a Bottle, a Theatre of the Oppressed game we’ve played several times before. It’s a good icebreaker. The first object (or NON-object!) was a tambourine, which morphed into all sorts of things. Highlights: an ad for a dentist, a tiara, the Amulet of Destiny, four cell phones all ringing at the same time, a bag with a puppy, a tractor beam, and Abe Lincoln’s hat. Round two was a drumstick, which changed into a pogo stick, a spaghetti noodle, a unicorn (the receiver poached it for its horn!), a giant Q-tip, a raging bull, and a Golden Globe Award (one woman dashed in to steal it from the receiver, ala Kanye West), among other things.

It was a good day--but it’s a really big circle! In all, 27 people showed up. We’ll see how many stick it out, but it’s a big injection of energy!


Friday / January 11 / 2019
Written by Frannie

As we settled in for check-in, a longtime member gently but firmly said she needed to speak first. “I just have to say this,” she said, “because—and I’m not mad at anybody or anything—but I don’t know if you guys have noticed I haven’t been checking in much and stuff… And it’s because—I guess I just haven’t really been feeling the trust in the ensemble this year.” She paused and looked around the circle, making eye contact with each person as she went. “And I wanna have that trust back, and I want you newbies to know that this is a safe place where you can be open—” she took a deep breath “—and it’s just hard to feel that when someone takes something I said outside of the ensemble.”

Because this woman so rarely brings issues to the circle this way, and because it was clear that she truly wasn’t angry and just wanted us all on the same page, everyone listened carefully as she clarified a comment she made last week. She feared that we may have misinterpreted her, as she had been approached by a former ensemble member who had been told about it and believed it was a slight against her. These two women are friendly, and things were quickly cleared up without escalating, but that wasn’t the point, this ensemble member said. The point was that she should never have heard about it in the first place.

“Oh, oh, oh,” said a woman who joined a couple of months ago, sitting on the edge of her seat, leaning forward toward the longtime member, clearly stricken and rocking a little. “I told [the other woman] about what you said, but I didn’t say it like that. I was just telling her about how we all wanted her to come back in the fall. I said all positive things. I don’t know why she took it that way.”

“That’s my point. This is a circle thing,” the longtime member calmly replied. “I’m really not mad about it—it’s all good now, and it wasn’t a big deal. But what if it had been? That’s what I’m saying. We can’t be repeating stuff people say in here outside the circle.” The other woman, brow furrowed, said, “I know, I know, I just—I guess I didn’t think about it that way, I just knew she was wondering about it. I’m sorry. Really, I’m sorry.” The longtime member said, “I know, and it’s really okay. We all just gotta make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

This feature of SIP is tough, I acknowledged to the group, even for me. We each need to constantly check in with ourselves to make sure we’re not sharing anything with others that is potentially sensitive. For me, the latest challenge has been figuring out how to share ensemble anecdotes, as I often do with all sorts of people, with SIP alumni who’ve been paroled. Even if nothing about the anecdote itself is objectively sensitive, the possibility that an alum knows the people I’m talking about means I have to be even more careful than usual in my storytelling so I don’t inadvertently identify anyone. I can’t make assumptions about what’s okay for old friends to know. I have to protect that safe space. We all do.

Calmly and compassionately (as usual with this group), we agreed to keep our lines of communication open, and to keep everything in the room. (Except for what’s on this blog, of course! They know we’re extremely careful about what we write here. And that I was recently told by an alum’s family member that she’d spent nearly five years trying to figure out when I was writing about her loved one, and she could never do it. That’s a pretty good track record, if you ask me!)

Sadly, the next woman to check in demonstrated exactly why we need that trust—she had gotten some very upsetting news about a loved one and poured her heart out to us. Showing vulnerability like this is something she “never” does, she said, and several women murmured that it was okay—she didn’t need to apologize. “So, yeah,” she said, shifting a bit in her seat, “Today was not a good day, and I’m really glad to be here.” There was a brief silence before a longtime member leaned forward in her chair, grinned, and asked, “Do you need a whoosh?” The first woman, bewildered, said, “Do I need a… what??” We then realized that we had done NO WHOOSHES since this woman joined the ensemble, and that is clearly not acceptable. After a brief explanation of this favorite SIP exercise, she agreed to accept a whoosh after check-in. “Keep us posted on what you need and don’t need, okay?” I said. “I need some Theatre of the Oppressed!” she replied. No problem there!

After a few more women shared their updates, we stood, lowered our ring, and told that member to get in the middle of the circle! As she did, she looked at me, a little apprehensive. “I know it sounds weird. It is weird. It’s really weird,” I said. “But see if you can stay open to it—because it also feels really, really awesome.” On the count of three, we all made a full-body “uplifting” gesture, three times, as we exclaimed, “Whoosh!” “Wow,” she said, “that did feel kinda good.” I asked if there were any other takers for whooshes. Turned out there were five. We need to do more whooshes more often!

We played a name-game version of “Energy Around,” followed by a couple rounds of “Bombs and Shields.” When we reflected afterward, one woman said the game “kinda makes you lose your inhibitions in a way.” I agreed and asked the group what else they’d gotten out of it. “I can lean on her,” was one woman’s immediate response, referring to a quiet member who, it turned out, had been chosen by four people to be their shield. She beamed, subtly as always, but I saw her!

“How are you doing?” a longtime member asked the woman who’d been so upset during check-in. “Good,” she replied, “and so glad I’m here.” I asked if she needed more games, or if she needed some Shakespeare. “Shakespeare!” was the reply, and our Malvolio agreed: “I’m ready for some Shakespeare. Let’s do a Malvolio scene!” I whooped a little (because I’m a professional) as one of the women threw it back to a favorite inside joke that started last season. “I feel like you got the Shakespeare Holy Ghost!” she said to Malvolio, who threw back her shoulders and said, “I feel like I do!” I continue to be in awe of this woman, who, last season, was so quiet and unsure, practically until the last moment, about whether she wanted to stay in the group. And now she’s one of our liveliest members. She’s amazing.

Se launched headlong into Act I, scene v, adding a “zanni posse” for Feste and deciding not to plan ahead even a little bit. Though the scene was, of course, a mess, it was also extremely fun, engaging, and energetic. “Can we keep going? This is awesome!” one of the women exclaimed when it was over. “I feel like…” mused our Malvolio, “I don’t know… Can I be, like, constantly rolling my eyes, or would that be too much?” It would not be too much, came the reply from multiple people. In fact, we weren’t sure it would be possible for her to go too far in that direction!

We identified a couple of problems: the zannis’ shuffling feet made it difficult to hear the lines at times, and we apparently overstayed our welcome on stage. The first solution is likely simple: some of our costume budget will go toward ballet slippers or soft-soled shoes! The second required more creativity.

“Maybe you don’t have to leave—I think you were just moving around too much,” said one woman. “No, I think at some point the zannis can get, like, fed up and leave,” said another. “OH!” exclaimed a longtime member, the way she always does when she has a particularly inspired idea. “Maybe they get more and more frustrated every time someone says, ‘Take the fool away,’ and on the last one, two of the zannis turn on the third one and arrest him!”

We spent some time, too, on the Viola/Olivia part of the scene. “I just feel bored,” said our Viola. “Like I’m just standing up there talking.” I asked her what her character’s objective is, and we talked our way to one: to make Olivia fall in love with Orsino via Viola. But is that really what Viola wants? “She’s conflicted,” our Viola said, reminding us that she is in love with Orsino. “It’s a lot of frustration in this scene.” One ensemble member pondered whether Viola might not actually be trying very hard to woo Olivia, but another woman firmly said no, that’s not what’s in the text: Viola always does her best for Orsino.

We ran just this portion of the scene again, and the actors didn’t feel much better about it. A few people gave helpful, creative suggestions. One woman suggested to our Olivia that she “give less” to Viola.

Olivia agreed at first, and then she seemed to drift a bit, lost in thought. “I kind of do that too much, anyway,” she said in the way that often precedes an SIP-style epiphany. “I mean…” Another long pause. And then, “Never mind,” she said, eyes downcast, dropping whatever it was she’d been thinking. Or at least trying to drop it. “You were about to go real deep, weren’t you?” a friend gently teased. “Frannie’s gonna go home and Google your name!” I shook my head as some members laughed, while others were clearly uncomfortable, and the woman onstage looked at me with some trepidation. This is a very, very sensitive subject that almost never comes up in the ensemble, even one-on-one. When it does, it’s always driven by ensemble members—never by facilitators—and this time, we quickly moved on without further discussion.

It’s a subject for a different blog, I think. But tonight, we—the people in the room, and no one else—circled up, dispelled the ring of energy we’d created together, clapped and thanked each other as we always do, and left on a positive note. And when I got home, I didn’t Google anyone.

Season Eight: Week 18

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Nothing comes amiss, so money comes withal…

Friday / January 4 / 2018
Written by Matt

Ordinarily, the holidays are a tough time for SIP--a tough time for people in prison generally. But this year, even though plenty of individual ensemble members are feeling down, the general mood of the group is up. A number of the women even checked in to say that they’re doing “generally well,” which is pretty unusual for a January check-in!

“The year is amazing already,” shared on of our longest-serving members, who has been writing a lot on her own. “I’m just so blessed to have so many unique stories in me and so many ways to tell them. It’s just so--they’re just coming out of me!”

Our first order of business was to make a decision about adding new members to the ensemble. Actually, Frannie’s first order of business was the read her contemporaneous notes from watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (pronounced “Romeo PLUS Juliet”; the one with Leonardo DiCaprio), but I can’t possibly do them justice, so I’ll get to the point: Frannie has been wrong about the movie for all the years she’s been ridiculing it. It’s actually quite good, she’s decided. It’s hard to overstate how much of an about-face this represents, and it would have been earth-shaking enough on its own, but coincidentally, one of our alums from Romeo and Juliet watched the movie at the same time… and hated it! In fact, this alumna and Frannie had completely swapped positions on the film through some crazy, karmic Shakespeare-mind-meld. Or something. I digress.

Note from Frannie: This was a surprising and exciting development! And before any of you (beloved) Shakespeare snobs out there judge me, just you wait. I’ll write something up about this soon!

The ensemble was of two minds on adding new members. “I’m afraid that someone will come in and make waves,” said one member, “but I think that they’ll come in and see how tight we are, and go with that.” Another reminded people that she had dropped out and rejoined before becoming one of the core members of the group. “People had apprehension when I wanted to come back,” she said, and went on to say that there’s always hesitancy about adding new folks. “The kindness and passion in the room makes you want to be a part of it,” added a new member.

As we came to agreement on adding new people (a bunch of them!), one of our veterans said that last year had felt cliquey. “And I was part of that,” she admitted. “That’s why I really didn’t want to do that this year.” And she attributed this year’s success to the bonding in the group: “We stayed together because that’s what makes us great.”

To kick off scene work, the people in Act 1, scene 5 went to the back of the room to get their script cuts straight--our Feste had some issues with Frannie’s proposed truncations. Meanwhile, we ran Act 1, scene 4 onstage. Before we could run it, though, we needed to work out some logistics. There are a lot of back-to-back scenes that switch between Orsino’s court and Olivia’s. Both settings require a good deal of space, so closing the curtain for one of them doesn’t really make sense. We tossed around some ideas for cleverly changing the scene (rotating setpieces? zannis running around to do it?) and decided to table the discussion until more people were present. We figured that we could simply assume that, if the curtain needs to be open, we’ll figure out a way to do it. In fact, our Viola pointed out, this scene doesn’t even need to be at Orsino’s court. She had us try it with the curtain closed, as though Orsino and Viola (dressed as Cesario) were meeting in the street.

The first run was a little rough. “It was dry,” pointed out one of the women with a director’s eye. Our Viola pushed back: “I don’t feel like it needs to be over-the-top.” Another woman who was watching asked a good question: “What’s happening in this scene?” and our Viola explained the context. “According to the text,” she told our Orsino, “this is the first time you’ve told me that you’re close to me.” What was Viola’s attitude to Orsino, someone asked. “She’s kinda reluctant, kinda sarcastic, kinda jealous” replied Viola. “I heard about the duke, but now I’m here on his turf.”

We ran the scene again, and everyone was able to be more over-the-top. Orsino wanted everyone to have goofy capes to flail around in. One woman wanted a line-up of zannis imitating Orsino’s moves. Frannie even had an idea to do part of it as a Motown number. We’ll see.

On to Act 1, scene 5! This one definitely upped the energy level in the room. Our Feste was making big movements, using all of the stage, and improvising all sorts of goofy actions. At one point, my pen fell from behind my ear (I was reading in for Malvolio), and Feste kicked it across the stage--later to tiptoe out and steal it from where it lay. People had all sorts of ideas about how to make the scene even shtickier, which was great. I really love that we have so many opportunities to be goofy this season, and so many chances to just spitball ridiculous ideas. It’s awesome, and so different from working on a tragedy, where there’s less leeway in performance.

Our Maria, though, mentioned that there were some logical problems with the cuts. She’s been really on top of all things textual--and she’s a heck of an actor, to boot! She went through a bunch of places in which the agreed-upon version of the script contradicted itself or left off the punchline of a joke. Many of these logical breakdowns required a lot of facility with Shakespeare’s language to understand, and many were about recurring jokes that disappeared and then reappeared several pages later. Very cool.

“It needs to be all of [the original scene] or the cut way,” she said, referring to Frannie’s original cut. Our Feste, who had had a hand in the cuts, admitted that, “Basically, everything I wanted to cut, she said, ‘Nope, doesn’t work like that!’” She shook her head, good-naturedly. “Damn.”

Someone noted that the text requires that Sir Toby and Maria have a flirtation--or at least that others perceive them to be an item. Our Maria had missed that. “Understanding that helps me connect to my character,” she said. “I’m not just, like, ‘Where’s Toby?’ I’m like, ‘Where have you been all day?’”

An already delightful day was made even better when, in the final minutes of the session, our Sir Toby offered that perhaps Maria took the job as a bartender because that was the only way she’d be able to spend time with her hard-drinking boyfriend. Everyone burst out laughing at that point, none less than Maria herself. We put up the ring and left the building, but Frannie, Lauren, and I were still chuckling about that idea. Of all the memorable and novel backstories that our ensemble members have contrived for their characters, that one might just be the best. A day in SIP history, indeed!