After warming up, playing one new game and reviewing another, we decided to get right into our Hamlet monologue. We decided to begin working with one person on stage and the rest of us in the audience. The first participant to read has been with the group since February. She gave a very confident reading, but she did not really connect to the piece. I asked her why. She said that she had just launched into it without taking a moment to focus, as we’ve discussed. She tried again, this time taking some time before beginning. This reading was much better. She said that she “stopped thinking” and felt more spontaneous, although she said that she didn’t feel she could truly be spontaneous without the lines being memorized. I volunteered that that is the case for some actors, who want to memorize lines right off the bat, while others wait until the last minute to get off book.
Another participant who is a “veteran” volunteered to read next. She, too, did not connect with the piece emotionally. I asked her what happened, and she said it felt “a little too read.”
Then an exercise popped into my head that I thought would be beneficial for them, since they are all having trouble getting out of their heads. Everyone put her script away and got a chair. I instructed them to envision that the seat of the chair was actually 6-8 inches higher up than it actually was. I did the exercise with them. Once we had “convinced ourselves” that the seat was higher, we circled the chair, continuing to focus on the imaginary seat. Then we sat, aiming for the higher seat – but of course came down on what was actually there. Not all of them committed to this and sat down far too easily. We did it again. This time everyone came crashing down. “Sit in that feeling,” I said. “Let it register with you.” Then I asked them what it felt like.
“It made my stomach feel weird,” said one. “It hurt to sit down so hard,” said another. “Okay,” I said, “So you feel the sensation of falling physically. Do you recognize this feeling?” They nodded. “We’ve all sat down too hard before,” I said, “But when else in your life have you felt this way that had nothing to do with physically falling down?”
“That’s the way I felt the first time I walked into prison,” said one immediately. Everyone nodded. “I felt that way when I first came to County,” said another. More nodding. I asked them if there were other times in their lives when they felt that way, and everyone continued to agree. We did it again, letting it sink in even more. We talked more about the feelings it brought up. Some said it made them sad or depressed. Another said it made her void of feeling – numb. “So why are we doing this?” I asked. “Because this is how Hamlet feels,” said one of them. “Right,” I said. I asked them if they could see how this might be a more effective way of calling up the emotion in the piece than trying to just manufacture feelings by thinking about them. They said they could.
We then fell again, but this time we reached out for help, eventually giving up – because, again, this is what is happening in the piece we are working on. This clicked for them as well. We did it one more time, but this time after we fell, we spoke the first lines of the monologue. The pieces continued to fall into place for them.
We sat in a circle and took turns reading. The participant who had read just before the exercise read again, and the transformation was incredible. I asked her what happened. “It’s like prison,” she said, “It’s like the beauty of life is passing me by while I’m sitting here feeling this way.” She said that she had dug deeper with each pause, and she felt much more connected to the piece now. The others who read also connected more deeply and showed a greater understanding of the material. There was a feeling of discovery, of being supported while experiencing difficult emotions, and the bond between the women strengthened even as they gained confidence in their individual performances.
Everyone was very encouraged by the group’s progress today.