Tonight before we began, an ensemble member excitedly told me that she’d found a biography of Henry VIII and was excited about how much of the history she already knew from working on this play. She was fairly vocal about her excitement in the day room of her unit, and she said that another person in the room thought it was weird and put her down to the extent that she actually left the room crying. Another ensemble member and I reassured her that, yes, what we do and what we get excited about can seem odd to some people, but we need not let that get us down. We’re just interested in different things, and that’s okay!
During check in, one woman stated that even though we’d said we were going to try not to talk about politics, she just couldn’t keep in her fear and anger about the current political climate. The air in the room was one of trepidation – it seemed like no one quite knew what to say or do. I thanked her for her honesty and said that it’s impossible that she’s the only person in our group who feels that way. I reiterated that our group needs to be a safe space for the entire ensemble, which is why we try to eschew politics, but that some things will inevitably creep in, especially given current events. I encouraged everyone to continue to do the good work that they are doing on themselves – the goal of our program is for the people in it to become empowered, and when they do that, the positive outcomes that they experience as individuals ripple out to those around them – and that is an impact that they can all make in times that may make them feel powerless, especially being incarcerated.
We decided to continue working scenes in our circle, and the first person to volunteer asked to read the Richard/Anne scene with Kyle – but with her playing Anne, a major departure because she has a very hard time identifying with women. As this was her first time reading a female part, I asked everyone to make sure to be completely supportive – she was making herself very vulnerable and really trusting us. There were no snide comments and no giggling, and the group gave her a good amount of time in the scene before tagging her out.
We moved onto Act Four, scene four, which is long and great for this style of scene work. Nearly everyone tagged in to the scene at some point, and there was a lot of generosity in terms of the length of time each person was given in the scene. There were varying degrees of emotional commitment, but the participation was great. One hilarious moment was when a woman tagged in as Richard, then turned the page and realized the next line was the beginning of a huge monologue, turned to me and said, “No!” in mock horror. We had to pause to laugh.
That scene with Elizabeth is really something else – the group loves to work with it and discuss it. One woman who is rather quiet was particularly powerful as Elizabeth – there was something about her soft voice speaking so forcefully that was jarring and intense.
Reactions to the scene vary – some people think Elizabeth is just going along with Richard about his marrying her daughter, while others think she’s being manipulated. Everyone, however, is disgusted by the way Richard talks to her – we were particularly revolted by the idea of replanting her dead sons in her daughter’s womb. The phrase “nest of spicery” appears to be the new “Twerks-berry,” and we riffed on that for a while. All in all, we are aghast at Richard’s choices in this scene – who talks like this? It will be interesting to continue to work on once we’re cast.
We took some time to talk about that casting process before we left. We’ve decided to try yet another method – this year, I will be pulling sides (short pieces of scenes) from the play and providing them to the ensemble in packets to study. Everyone will let us know how they prefer to be cast (at least three roles to try to avoid total disappointment), and then after two weeks or so, everyone will audition and vote anonymously.
I’m hopeful that this will work well. The first three seasons, we were able to cast just by discussing things as a group, but in season four that didn’t work well and led to some infighting and tension. Last year’s pseudo-auditions (really just more circle scene work) and anonymous voting were undermined by some behind-the-scenes politicking, which again led to problems. We’ve asked that no one campaign for themselves or anyone else this year to try to avoid that. We’ll see how it goes!
We took some time tonight to do the first written interview of our case study. No one refused to answer the questions, but several people commented on how challenging it was – the questions are very open ended. “I don’t usually share this stuff,” said one woman after being reassured that no one will see these except for SIP staff. “You’re lucky I’m in therapy – I’m able to answer these questions pretty quickly!”
We then went through the list of characters, and everyone interested in each role raised her hand. We didn’t have much time left, then, so we played Freeze till we ran out of time.
During this game, the officer at the desk came to observe us through the window in the door. When I glanced out at her, she was laughing. One woman was the last to leave with me, and when we got to the desk, the following exchange occurred:
Officer: I had no idea you were such a performer!
Frannie: She is SUCH a good actor.
Inmate: I love Shakespeare!
Officer: Well, good job in there.
Inmate: Maybe you can come see the play this year.
Officer: I’d love to!
This is one of the effects we hope to achieve through our work in this program – the positive changing of prison culture, one person at a time. This officer and inmate have a new way to connect on a human (and not at all inappropriate) level, and they both feel pride in the program, which is part of their shared community. We didn’t witness or hear about interactions like this for the first few years of the program, but now that it’s been around longer, we observe more and more of this. It’s really thrilling.