Written by Molly
Low temperatures made the attendance lower than usual this Tuesday. As we had already made our way through the entire play, it was time to get on stage and start imagining what the staging would look like. Throughout the course of the evening, we worked through several scenes, skipping around to accommodate the people who were there by working with scenes that featured their characters.
When it came to staging, the women were very enthusiastic yet slightly restrained. It was easy to tell they were fairly comfortable with each other, but need to work with each other more to get better physicality. As many of the women are not used to being on stage, it often seemed like they weren’t sure what to do with their bodies during the scene. The women were eager to share their ideas about what they could be doing to make them feel less awkward. The woman playing Juliet suggested that she have a vanity during Act I, scene iii where she could be brushing her hair during the parts where her character was more taciturn. The woman playing the Nurse suggested bringing in some couches from another place in the Programs area. It was easy to tell they are already envisioning how the scenes might play out in front of an audience and have plenty of ideas.
While at times it seemed some women were more reserved during staging, some were uninhibited and quite creative with their characterization. During a scene where we needed some Montague extras, two women volunteered and outshined the rest of the group with their conversation, miming, and making fun of the other characters on stage. While it was a little bit much, I reassured the group that it was good to start by overacting so you feel more comfortable being on stage. Then it is easy to bring it back and make the scene both natural and dynamic.
The last scene we went into was Act 3, scene 5, and unfortunately we didn’t have enough time left to tackle this complicated scene. As the majority of the women didn’t remember reading this scene, we decided to just read it again before putting it on its feet. The woman playing Juliet admitted she didn’t understand what was happening in the scene at all, and we worked through what the characters were really talking about while repeatedly referring to “the lark” and “the nightingale” – young lovers flirting and trying to prolong their time with one another. After that, the women just started staging again without any prompting from me, creatively arranging the chairs on stage to be a bed for Romeo and Juliet. They agreed that it was a very complicated, emotional scene that deserved more time, but we will have to save it for another night.
Today began with the women giving me a recap of the past two weeks, when weather and other circumstances have prevented me from attending. “Don’t worry, we’ve been fine without you,” they said, and that was truly great to hear. I knew that the group had been making headway with the other facilitators, but what surprised me was that, when none of us were able to make it, the women were still meeting and working on the script. The ensemble is getting stronger and less dependent on me, which is fantastic.
We talked a bit about our show’s concept today. Since the program received a generous grant from Eileen Fisher, we will be able to purchase or rent more things this time around. It gives us greater flexibility and freedom to imagine a production that will look more like what we see in our heads. There has been some talk of setting the play in the 1920s and making the families rival gangs during Prohibition, but the question of what weapons we’d be allowed to use in the fights keeps coming up. We have been allowed to use foam swords in the past, but a few of the women have been in performances when they were not allowed to use stand-ins for more modern weapons. We’ve given ourselves a deadline of two weeks from now to solidify the setting of the play, and then we’ll go from there.
We decided to focus today on a couple of ensemble members who haven’t had much stage time. First, we messed with our cast list a little, since it turned out that the woman who was cast as the Prince had only said “maybe,” and, after she thought more about it, did not want to play that part after all. We’ve recast her as Balthasar, and the woman who was playing Lady Montague is now playing the Prince.
We began our scene work with the Tybalt/Capulet exchange in Act I Scene V (the “party scene”). After going through it once, we went a bit deeper into the characters. The woman playing Tybaltjoined the group rather recently and missed our reading of the first half of the play, so we had to catch her up a bit – although she has been working on the script a lot on her own. I asked her what she knows so far about Tybalt. “Well, he’s an a—hole,” she said. We laughed, but then I suggested that, while an outside perspective that he’s a jerk is completely fine, as an actor playing a character, it won’t help her to judge him. We likened it to our own experiences of being labeled and judged by people who don’t know our entire story – something I don’t need to preach to this group about. She re-framed her feelings as, “He thinks he’s better than everyone else,” which is a great starting point for this character. She then asked for clarification on Tybalt’s last speech, saying, “I know he’s angry, but I don’t know exactly what he’s saying.” We went through it with her and talked about focusing on a character’s objective, not trying to play an emotion. The woman playing Capulet is struggling, meanwhile, to find the extremes in her character – a jovial party animal who changes to threats of violence on a dime, and back again. He must foreshadow his violent nature in this scene, but finding the best way to do it is a challenge. We kept playing with the scene, one of the women suggesting, “Go too far! If you REALLY go too far, we’ll bring you back,” which is something I often say when directing or teaching acting. The scene is on its way.
We then moved on to the Prince’s monologue at the end of Act I Scene I. The woman playing this part turns out to have a very powerful voice, which surprised and thrilled us all, but she also tends to smile a lot when she’s nervous. We worked on getting her to stop smiling and stand her ground more. I asked her to consider how she would talk to people over whom she has absolute power when they are threatening her community through their behavior. “It's like you're the warden,” said one of the women. This analogy proved to be a great one because it’s nearly a direct parallel. The stakes were raised, and the woman’s performance grew more distinct and powerful. One of the women also reminded all of us that pausing at punctuation would help, since this participant is a “fast-talker,” and this is something we’ll continue to work with.
This was a very positive, productive session. We are all hoping for no more crazy weather so we can really get into a groove!