Written by Jamie
“None of us has ever killed a king.”
I looked around the auditorium, into the eyes of many women. No, none of us has ever killed a king. Chances are no one in the entire prison has ever killed a king. Hell, I don’t think one prison in Michigan holds a king killer. I don’t think many “civilians” in the Midwest can lay claim to that burden, either- let alone any of the professional actors that I know. I’ve never killed a king.
“But we have all done something in our lives, at some point, that has caused us extreme guilt, anxiety, panic. We all know what that is like, how that affects us. And knowing that, remembering that- helps us identify with what Macbeth may be going through.”
Frannie has such a wonderful way with the women in the group. The mutual respect and appreciation are palpable during our sessions. During her years of working with these women she’s developed the “appropriate camaraderie.” The communication is fluid and the goals are the same. It’s a well-oiled machine to behold, and these women take this group very, very seriously. They are fiercely protective of it.
I entered in as a facilitator late last session. I started working in the machine when it was well-established and in mid-to-late stride, two months before opening Romeo and Juliet. Now I continue in the group, but this time, from the beginning of the process. With veterans and newcomers. We interview each other, improvise together, dissect texts and produce scene work before entering in on the official rehearsal process: The Taming of the Shrew.
Macbeth is a fine choice for scene work - for anybody. We talk about how wonderful Shakespeare is in many capacities: there is a reason it has stood the test of time. It’s all there. Everything. In some ways, Macbeth is still the perfect suspense. From the characters to the way the words are placed on the page.
There is SO much to chew on. Reading it with these women, dissecting the text, watching them arrive at conclusions and realize that they indeed DO know what these characters are saying and what is happening in the play: this fills me with such excitement and reminds me of when I first fell in love with Shakespeare. Like Frannie has told me many times, watching these women anatomize the scenes (specifically, Act 2, Scene 2: “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold”), discuss possible meanings, subtexts: sometimes they arrive at a conclusion that I’ve never even thought of. Conclusions that are absolutely possible, and more interesting than I had ever seen done. For example, when Macbeth enters after he has “done the deed”:
Who lies I’ the second chamber?
This is a sorry sight.
A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight.
There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried, “Murder!”
That they did wake each other. I stood and heard them.
But they did say their prayers, and addressed them
Again to sleep.
There are two lodged together.
So here we see Macbeth - panicked and babbling - and Lady Macbeth, dismissive and condescending. Macbeth wants to know who lies in the second chamber. That is his first coherent inquiry. Why does he ask this? Is Lady wondering the same thing? One woman said that she is. She’s never seen her husband behave this way. The women came up with an interesting subtext for, “There are two lodged together.” What does that even mean? It could be a complete non-response, but our Lady isn’t speaking much yet in this scene, which could mean that every word counts. “There are two lodged together.” Maybe that’s news to her. Maybe when Macbeth asked who was there, she was wondering if he was a possible witness. When she realizes from Macbeth’s babbling that there are, in fact, two lodged together, her list of witnesses that she may have to get rid of grows. This adds a whole lot more to the seemingly simple line, “There are two lodged together.”
At the end of each session, we have met with only the veterans, to check in and see how they feel about the progress of the newly grown group. This is when I can really see how much they care about Shakespeare in Prison. You can see you how watchful they are of the dynamic, how earnestly assiduous they are about the program. You cannot help but feel the same, and lucky to be in on something so well cared for and held so dear. They build something beautiful from nothing in that prison auditorium. For me, being a part of a production that is so strictly about each other and the text - stripped down to what it SHOULD be about- growing together, learning together, empowering each other: This is the best theatre experience I’ve ever been a part of.
Written by Frannie
After some rousing warm ups and an engaging game, the ensemble was ready to dive right back in to scene work. We decided to revisit the scene from Macbeth that we explored last time, as more women wanted to get on their feet with it.
There were two readings of this scene that were particularly remarkable. In the first reading, the ensemble noted how simply and honestly Lady Macbeth delivered her lines. The bareness of the way she said, “Macbeth shall sleep no more,” chilled me right through. She, however, was concerned that she was focusing on what she said, not on how she said it. Both the facilitators and experienced members of the group reassured her that this is actually a good thing – that thinking too much about how one sounds can hamper one’s interpretation. She instinctively did something that many people must train for years to do.
Next, the group encouraged one of our members who is rather shy to give the scene a whirl. At first she declined, saying she would be ready next week, but then a friend who is in the group offered to go on with her. Boosted by this, she decided to read Lady Macbeth. At the beginning of the scene, she was a little quiet, a little timid in her delivery. But her scene partner didn’t back off (she’s read the scene a few times and clearly loves it), giving her all sorts of energy and commitment. Lady M gained steam throughout the scene; both her voice and body communicated increased confidence the longer she stayed on stage. When they were finished, they were given a huge round of applause by the group (one woman even stood up to applaud). A number of the women stated how proud they were of her, how impressed they were as she not only got through the scene but shone in it. As one said, “That was frickin’ awesomesauce.”
After this, the group decided to move on to a new scene from As You Like It: Act I, Scene iii, in which Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind and Celia decides to go with her. This was possibly the quickest text analysis we’ve ever done – they are really falling into the language, and they hardly needed any help breaking down the scene. The energy in the room was so positive that we got ourselves distracted riffing on the idea of setting the play in the world of the movie “Clueless” (we would call it “Like, As You Like It!”). It’s moments like these that, while perhaps not the most “on point” on their surface, create bonds within the group and give freedom to be wildly creative as we move forward.
We put the scene on its feet after discussing it a bit, and what the women did with it was truly exciting. Having only discussed it intellectually and emotionally – not in terms of how we might stage it – the women who read the scene stayed true to their characters with simple, organic blocking, saying “yes” to each other… again, things that professional actors often must train to do. Celia linked arms instinctively with Rosalind early on, refusing to let go even when the Duke tried physically to break them up. The Duke let this frustrate her and motivate her lines. Then Celia physically stood between them to defend her cousin. None of this was discussed beforehand, but they let their instincts guide them, and there isn’t much any of us would tweak if we were prepping for a performance.
These first two weeks have been extremely positive, and all of us are feeling optimistic that, while we will certainly face challenges along the way, some of our biggest “problems” are behind us. The group is ready to begin work on Shrew, and we’ll dive in next week.