One of the participants came in today with a copy of The Tempest in her hand. I asked her what she thought of it. She said she was really enjoying it, and that there was a lot in it that seemed pertinent to issues they deal with in prison: a father/daughter relationship, Caliban being treated like an idiot even though he’s not, Ariel being the voice of reason. She also said she could see certain people in the group playing certain characters. We warmed up and did an exercise called Blind Cars, which is meant to build trust with one another and comfort with responsibility. The last group, overall, did not enjoy this exercise, even though they saw its value, but this group took to it for the most part. Some said that they weren’t used to trusting others, and that it felt good – even liberating. Others said that it was difficult for them to give up control. We discussed why the exercise is important to what we’re doing, and then the women who’ve been in the group the longest brought up how much more open this group is than the last one. We talked about how important that has already been and will continue to be.
The first participant who wanted to perform the monologue said after her reading that she felt “weird,” wasn’t ready and hadn’t “embodied the character.” The others said that sometimes she had seemed connected, but not all the time. I asked her why she thought that was. She said that she had been worried about the audience, what we would think, and that that had left her unable to focus on herself. I shared that sometimes actors need to be selfish – if she focuses on herself, what she’s feeling, how she’s connecting, she is much more likely to get the effect she wants across to the audience without actually thinking about it. I assured her that that’s what her peers and her facilitator are for – to analyze what she’s doing so that she can focus on just doing it. I advised her to take a pre-beat before beginning again, and she did. During her second performance, she connected much more. She said she had been imagining that it was her father who had died, and this made her feel more hurt than angry. The other participants applauded her, talking about how much they love her voice, which is very strong and powerful. They asked her if she could face the audience more, and she said she didn’t feel like she should, so we had a discussion then about why it’s important for the audience to see an actor’s face, and at what times one might make a decision to hide one’s face.
The next to read was very nervous. She has some background in performance, but it’s been a long time since she’s been on stage. She read very quickly at first, but fell in at the phrase “self-same hand” and was extremely strong through the finish. We asked her about her performance. She said that the feelings of betrayal and anger had been easy for her to access because she’s been betrayed by someone very close to her, but that it was much more difficult to access the sadness she wanted in the first part of the piece. I assured her that this is totally normal – often, that’s what holds actors back – that fear of being vulnerable. She said she wanted to work towards it, and tried again, but stopped because she was too afraid of the emotion. She said she feared that if she started crying, she wouldn’t be able to stop. Again, I assured her that that was normal, and that we will work on ways of making sure the emotions never get too scary – and part of that is being perfectly fine with backing off when it gets extremely uncomfortable. It takes time to get to a place of comfort, being that emotional in front of others.
We didn’t have much time left, and the women asked me to perform the piece. As I always do, I did so with the caveat that they should not copy me, but rather get ideas from my interpretation, which, of course, would not be the “right” one. I also asked that they look for places where I could improve my performance. After I read, I asked for their feedback. One of the women who’s been in the group since April said that what she loves about watching me perform is that I “practice what I preach” to them. She said that she noticed that I took my time, didn’t think ahead, committed fully to the emotions in the piece and didn’t judge myself when I said the wrong word in one place. Another said that during the cursing I had become “a wicked witch,” which is an interpretation that hadn’t occurred to her. They liked that I hadn’t moved much and faced forward the entire time, although when I asked them if that was “better” than what others had done, they affirmed that it was not, it was just different, and they liked it. They also really liked how slowly I had gone through the piece, which was partly not having it memorized, but they remarked that I had never dropped my energy when pausing – that there was power in the silence. And that, of course, is something I’ve been telling them.
That is the reason I am willing to perform for them sometimes – it really seems to help them understand the advice that I give them when they can see the example of how I take it myself. It’s good to show them that I hold myself accountable, and it seems to help them be more willing to take the risks I’m encouraging them to take if I do it myself.