Tuesday We were thrilled to welcome several new members to the group today. We spent some time on “orientation” and introductions, including our “interviews” which turned into sort of an improv game. We found that we were somewhat focused on the “safe environment” part of our guidelines, so we segued from there into some exercises from Theatre of the Oppressed.
The first couple of exercises were brief, and the group was able to get what they needed out of them quickly. These had to do with feeding off of each other’s energy and staying focused on a goal. They also served to be great ice breakers, as they were high energy exercises that resulted in a lot of smiles and laughter.
We then moved into the Blind Cars exercise, which is a perennial favorite in this program. In this exercise, one person is the “blind car,” who keeps her eyes closed as she is “driven” by her partner with only the touch of a hand. As generally happens when we do this exercise, some people were more respectful of the rules than others; some took better care of their partners than others (which led to some “traffic jams” and “fender benders”). The exercise has so much to do with trust and vulnerability, and those are things that can be hard to come by in a prison setting (and perhaps in many of the women’s lives prior to incarceration). We found parallels in our work. “I don’t trust anyone here with my life,” said one woman emphatically, and we talked about how we don’t necessarily need to have that level of trust in one another, but we do need to be able to trust each other enough to be vulnerable creatively and to take risks in our program. Another woman, who was being “driven” through the aisles in the house, said she simply couldn’t keep her eyes closed and her hands down the whole time because she couldn’t stop thinking about all of the chairs she might crash into. I asked her if it was mistrust of her partner that led to this fear. “No, it’s not her,” she said, “It’s just that those chairs are there, and I can’t get them out of my mind.”
The parallel here, of course, is that the chairs will always be there, whatever they are to each individual – stage fright, fear of expressing opinions, fear of taking risks and being judged, fear of reading aloud – but if we can trust “the driver” – in this case, the rest of the ensemble – we can relax enough to be confident that no one is going to let us collide with those obstacles. No one in our group will “fail,” because we will not let that happen. We will support each other through our fears and come out stronger. This seemed to resonate with the women in the group. We will likely revisit this exercise a little down the road and see how it goes then.
With the time we had left, the women who have been with the group since last month decided to put the first scene of the play on its feet and see what the “newbies” got out of it. Despite the fact that we had not discussed the staging, our staged reading was strong enough that the new members got the gist of the scene, including some details about the relationships in it. This was really encouraging for all of us because it means we’ve already got this scene to a place where it’s accessible, and we know we can communicate the basics of what’s going on just by improvising with scripts in our hands.
When we were checking in today, one of the women mentioned a personal issue she’s been having. Since our policy now is that any issues that are brought into the group will be discussed/supported by the entire group, I asked her if she wanted to discuss it further or leave it at the door. She wanted to share and get input from the others so we spent some time talking. It was a very constructive and supportive conversation; we listened to everything she had to say, and many of the women offered advice based on their own experiences. We didn’t stop talking until she felt like she was in a better place, and we all assured her that she has our support.
We did our warm up, and then the group decided to spend the entire time today on Shakespeare. We read through Act I Scene I again, and then I asked, “How do you see this scene happening on stage? If you were directing it, what would you do?”
The first interpretation was offered by one of our “veterans”, who said, “I think Tranio might be gay. I don’t know why I see him that way, it’s just a feeling I have. I think he’s in love with Lucentio.” We discussed how this might not be off the mark, and that it would add complexity to a character whose objective throughout the play is to hook Lucentio up with Bianca. Another member was adamant that Tranio is NOT gay; that the two are “blood brothers” and “homies.” Another woman said she saw Tranio as “part wing man, part let’s-go-do-this.” This led to a discussion about the many ways we can interpret the text, and how we need to resist the urge to make permanent judgments about characters at this point in the process – we want to explore any idea that is brought to the table, so long as it’s rooted in the text.
We decided to see how it would work on its feet with some set staging. The same veteran referred to earlier clearly had a vision of how the scene would look, so we invited her to direct it. We then worked through it, establishing to whom each person is talking, how we establish relationships straight away with our staging, and what our physicality says about us. The women who read already have a very strong handle on all of this, and we were cracking up at some of the readings, especially from Gremio and Hortensio.
We’ve spent a lot of time on this scene now, so I think we’ll be ready to move forward next week.