Today was the first day back after a summer break. I was accompanied by two of Shakespeare in Prison’s new co-facilitators: Matthew and Molly. I am deeply grateful to all four of these folks (the other two being Dominique and Sarah) and very excited to share this session’s journey with them. They come from diverse backgrounds but all share a love of learning, social justice, and, of course, Shakespeare. A page on this site with bios of all of the facilitators is in the works, and all of the others will share their thoughts on the blog when they are so moved.
The returning participants were energetic and eager to get going, and their energy was infectious, both to the new participants and the facilitators. This came through even as the “veterans” helped me to explain the goals, guidelines and potential pitfalls of the group – even when we addressed problems we’ve had in the past, we did it with an air of optimism that we can overcome them going forward. The women were glad to hear that I listened to their input at the end of the last session, and we will be working on Romeo & Juliet this time around.
We spent about an hour talking, introducing ourselves and answering questions about the group. There are some joining us who have past experience with Shakespeare and others who have none. We even had a couple of participants who misunderstood what they had signed up for – one thought she was there to see a performance, and another thought it was a poetry group. To their credit, they stuck with it (at least for the day) and had a positive attitude.
We got up, then, and did some physical warm ups. We followed this up with our “ring” exercise, which we do at the beginning and end of each meeting. We played a theatre game to introduce concepts of waiting for your cue, having strong eye contact and paying attention. We converted this game into one for learning names and everyone had a decent handle on those by the time we were done.
I asked the women what they would rather do next: learn an improv game or dip our toes into Shakespeare. They opted to begin work on Romeo’s monologue that begins, “’Tis torture and not mercy…” We read the piece as a group, from punctuation to punctuation. We then discussed what each woman had gotten out of it. Some had already gained a good understanding of the piece, while others were pretty lost, but no one seemed frustrated. We read through the piece again, discussed it some more, and then a couple of women “read it with feeling.” The first was unsure of herself and nearly gave up midway through, but she finished it. The rest of the group immediately commended her for sticking with it and gave her feedback on what was already great about her reading (her pace and articulation were excellent – we could understand every word) – and what could be improved. The second was more confident, and the group gave her constructive criticism as well.
The entire session was very positive, and the women were beaming as they left. And so were the facilitators! It was a great start to the season.
Dominique and I arrived today to find the women still upbeat and ready to get started. We began by reviewing the theatre game that we played last time and refreshing ourselves on names. We then played another theatre game that we have played in past sessions. This game got rather competitive, but in a very friendly way. There was a lot of laughter.
We then played an improv game that has to do with teamwork and quick thinking. The women really enjoyed this game and were very free, for the most part, in allowing themselves to let go and be spur-of-the-moment while working toward a goal. This is a great skill to develop not only for theatre, but for many situations in life.
Some of the women had mentioned in the last meeting that they were interested in watching a film version of Romeo & Juliet. I said that I was hesitant to do that because it would put ideas in their heads of how the characters “should” be played, and it might stifle their creativity. They saw my point but wondered if there was a good way to get a basic understanding of the story before delving into the actual text.
It just so happens that I wrote a 20-minute, very irreverent version of Romeo & Juliet for a teen acting class I taught awhile back. I asked if they would be interested in using that as our jumping-off point, and, since they were, I brought it in and we sat in a circle and read it aloud.
Most of the women were very eager to read, and some of them are clearly gravitating toward certain characters already. I was very impressed by one woman who kept volunteering to read even though reading aloud is clearly difficult for her. It speaks volumes about her courage, and it also is a testament to how open and supportive the group has been already.
Reading this truncated version of the play, which is mostly modern language interspersed with actual text, proved to be an effective and efficient way to introduce those who were unfamiliar with the story to its “bare bones” and character elements. I’m very glad it worked out.
One of the women mentioned that she’s always been annoyed by Juliet – she thinks she’s stupid and doesn’t like her. This led to a brief discussion about how we can learn about the people in our lives by dealing with characters who are foreign or unlikable to us, and we can gain empathy for people for whom we wouldn’t normally have it.
We are all feeling energized, inspired and positive. One of the new participants said she has been “bragging” about the group and inspired two more women to add themselves to the waiting list. We are off to a very, very good start.