Written by Frannie
Tonight began with an ensemble member who is about to go home stopping by to return her books and say goodbye. She said that Shakespeare was the best part of her time in prison, that she felt that she’d grown because of it, and she thanked me. And I thanked her! We talked a bit about the kind of progress she made last year, and it is clear that her work in Shakespeare has made a difference. We’ll miss her, but it’s very exciting that she’s going home. We wish her the best of luck!
We had a check-in that was remarkable for its level of honesty this early in the season. One ensemble member brought in a couple of poems that she’s been working on and wanted to share with us. They were honest, vulnerable, and beautiful. We thanked her for sharing, and I encouraged the rest of the ensemble to bring in any writing or other art that they want to share any time.
We began with a very silly circle game that involves chanting and dancing. People were hesitant at first but got really into it once a few of us had danced. There was absolutely no judgment – we were laughing with, not at, each other. I hope we’ll play it again some time!
We moved into one of my favorite Theatre of the Oppressed exercises: Blind Cars. In this exercise, one person “drives” another, who closes her eyes and works to trust the driver and follow non-verbal commands. It tends to be fun and terrifying at the same time, as the driver has a lot of responsibility, and the car is very vulnerable. There is always a mix of feelings about whether it’s more comfortable to be the car or the driver. It builds trust within the ensemble while simultaneously helping us learn about our own vulnerabilities and the importance of both supporting and leaning on each other in our work.
Kyle then led an acting exercise in which we stood in a circle and took turns stepping in, saying, “I am here,” and then stepping back out. We did this with no prompt and then attempting to be neutral. This led to an animated discussion about authenticity vs. bravado vs. the definition of neutrality. It got a little heated; I think this is because it’s a deceptively simple exercise that is actually kind of advanced, acting-wise. I’m not sure we were ready for it as an ensemble, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens if we return to it later in the season.
We then played the question game, in which we sit in a circle and ask questions of the person next to us, but nobody answers – the goal is to take the question in and then ask a question either to the next person in the circle or back to the person who just asked. It takes quick thinking and focus – if you take too long or ask a question that’s already been asked, you’re out! We often get out because we start laughing and can’t stop. It’s a really fun game.
Tonight’s themes were trust, leadership, vulnerability, and focus. We did great with all four. It was a really fun night.
We spent tonight working through Act II Scene iii, which is all about the Porter. The language is pretty complicated, so it took us awhile!
One of the women likened the Porter’s situation to that of a gate officer at the prison – opening and closing gates, and the monotony of that. That insight led us into how that kind of boredom with his job plays into the Porter’s drunkenness (or being hungover – opinions are mixed on which it is). We remarked at how long the knocking goes on before he opens the door. “Why he ain’t open the door yet?” mused one woman. “He’s forgetting [because he’s drunk or hung over]. He’s conversating, and he’s forgetting.”
The conversation began to take another shape. “It makes me wonder why, considering what’s going on inside the castle, he’s referencing the gates of hell,” said one person. I asked her to dig a little deeper – why had she said that? “Already creepy stuff is happening,” she said. “An evil presence has descended on this castle, and everyone’s affected.”
A new ensemble member who has improv experience but has been intimidated by the language – she did not graduate from high school and has been convinced that she couldn’t handle it – was gently nudged by several people to give this monologue a try because she’s got such great comic timing. She did, and we were totally wowed. Her instincts were amazing – not only did she work with the language and punctuation perfectly, but the way she emphasized certain words, played up antithesis, and varied the pitch and tone of her voice was breathtaking coming from someone who hasn’t been trained. Her first try was better than many trained professionals I’ve seen perform. Holy moly.
I asked her how it felt. “Once I got into it a little bit more, it was easier,” she said. “I have to remember to pace myself and catch my breath. I actually enjoyed it… I thought I was gonna be a lot more nervous.” I am so, so excited about this development. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.
We then talked about whether the Porter knows about what Macbeth and Lady are up to, which is honestly something I’ve never considered before. “Maybe Lady Macbeth got him drunk, too,” suggested one woman. “Yeah,” replied another. “Then he wouldn’t be believed if he saw anything.” Others think he’s simply oblivious and possibly an alcoholic who is generally this drunk. Or perhaps he just got drunk this evening independently of Lady’s plot.
This led us into some ideas of how the scene could be staged. One woman suggested that he could be lying on the steps that lead from the house to the stage through the preceding scene between Macbeth and Lady. Another suggested he might overhear them while hiding. Still others played with ideas of how this might work with the Porter out in the house, in the aisles, with the auditorium doors being the gates, or maybe planting the actor in the audience and starting the monologue from there.
And that led us to begin talking about how this character might be costumed. Some toyed with the idea of his having fallen asleep in the gate house and being in his pajamas – maybe a robe, slippers, and stocking cap. Others don’t feel that he would be in pajamas because this is his job. I wondered whether a combination would be funny – as if he had begun to change his clothes and passed out in the middle of the process. Most people also feel that he should still be holding a bottle, which we’ve been able to manage in past plays by using an empty root beer bottle.
I’ve asked everyone to keep an eye on the recurrence of the number three (and multiples of three) in this play, and one woman noticed it in this scene. “There are three sets of people he talks about coming to hell,” she said, “And it’s 3 a.m. More threes!”
We talked through the casting process a bit – it’s a little complicated for those who’ve never done it before. Our method is for each person to choose at least three characters she’d be comfortable playing, and then we explore scenes on their feet until everyone’s had a chance to explore all of her choices. I put together a ballot with each character and a list of women interested in playing each, we run scenes in a circle as a casual “audition,” and then each person votes anonymously. I serve as the tie-breaker if necessary, and then we have our cast.
It was a really great night. We are rolling right along and beginning to gel as an ensemble. Progress!