The ensemble began with a couple of improv games this evening, continuing to build trust and laugh together. But we want to get to the end of this play, so before long we hunkered down to read some more.
We got those who were absent on Friday up to speed on Act IV scene iii, and then we continued on to Act V scene i, the famous sleepwalking scene. Several women mused that passion used to bring Lady and Macbeth together, and now guilt is tearing them apart.
“That sucks,” said one woman. “They just can’t deal with the consequences. I just don’t understand how they didn’t even think about how they would feel after they killed him.” Another woman replied, “I didn’t think about how I would feel after I tried to commit my crime. I got caught, thank god. If it had gone through, I don’t think I could have lived with myself afterward. But you don’t think about that stuff before.”
Another woman said, regarding her crime, “I knew what I was going to do and why.” Drawing a parallel between herself and Macbeth, she continued, “If I get caught, I could lose a lot, but if I do it, I could gain so much more… When I did get caught, I refused to see the actuality of my crime. And then when my guard was down when I was asleep, my Banquo would come to me… Thank god I had help and didn’t kill myself, but I could have got there. It was slowly driving me insane, and I had to get ahold of myself… Once I accepted responsibility, my ghosts subsided.”
In response, Kyle asked what Lady Macbeth could have done to take responsibility. This same woman replied, “She has to see that she’s the one who set the ball rolling. But she could have stopped it from going as far as it did a long time ago… ‘Honey, maybe we’re going too far… Maybe it’s time for us to allow things just to happen.’” Another woman agreed that Lady could have intervened, but that she would not have asked for outside help. “You can’t just tell on your old man,” she said, and the first woman agreed.
Another ensemble member took it back a few minutes in the conversation. “You were caught and doing time when you were talking in your sleep,” she said. “You have a conscience. Maybe this is her finger print to get caught.” We asked her to elaborate. “Maybe it’s because nobody knows… When people commit crimes and leave fingerprints, they get caught. Her fingerprint is talking in her sleep.” Another woman, pointing to a particular passage, said, “That’s what the doctor says.” She read the lines aloud to us. “Pillows talk,” she said.
We returned to the ongoing theme of how responsible each character is for the play’s events, focusing on the witches. One woman argued that the responsibility is really not on them. “They also planted a seed in Banquo’s mind,” she said. “Macbeth is responsible.” She took the metaphor further to illustrate her point, saying that Macbeth took that seed and cultivated it while Banquo just let nature take its course. And she brought that back around to her own experience. “Someone else gave me the idea to do what I did. And I went, ‘Hmm…’ But I did what I did.”
One woman maintained that the witches are still in there somewhere, pulling strings. She’s not the only one who thinks that, but I’m getting the sense that the majority of the women are drifting away from an interpretation that leans heavily on the witches’ “magical” influence.
“They have bad communication skills also,” said one woman, explaining that they should have talked things through instead of letting this chasm grow. “They’re not talking to each other, and it’s making their crazy even harder… Even if you’ve really fucked up, you can still make an effort to fix it… You can still try to do better.”
“You could be in the same room with someone, and be going through the same thing, and have no idea. I’ve been there,” shared another person.
The conversation wrapped up as our time ended. We’re all excited to keep rolling on Friday – we should be able to finish this first reading very soon.
We continued on with Act V tonight but did not end up finishing the play due to an extremely intense but important conversation.
We began with Act V scene ii, which is pretty straightforward (the rebels obscure their numbers by shielding themselves with tree branches), and then we rolled into Act V scene iii, in which we hear from Macbeth that he is ready for battle and completely unafraid.
“He’s becoming overwhelmed because of his conscience… He’s kicking his own ass,” said one person. Another said, “He knows he messed up… He doesn’t care if he lives or dies because he doesn’t have the friends and loyalty he used to have.” The first woman said, “Who would have thought of a C-section?” Another said, “He’s cocky. He’s too sure of himself.”
I asked about the intent behind the prophecies. One woman said she thought the witches were trying to appease Macbeth. Another thought that they were trying to throw him off. I posited that it’s worth exploring how literal the prophecies are versus how he takes them.
The conversation continued. “I feel like cuts have been made,” said a longtime ensemble member. “It seems like there’s stuff missing. Lady Macbeth goes from this dominant person to, like, this fragile vegetable.” Another woman agreed. “You don’t really see what happens to Lady Macbeth. But you see all of Macbeth.”
I asked if maybe, when staged, we could see the beginning of Lady’s unraveling during the banquet scene. Then the sleepwalking wouldn’t come out of nowhere. Or, I pondered, is it better if it does come out of nowhere? Maybe there’s a reason for that. “Maybe she does see the ghost!” exclaimed one woman.
Another ensemble member asked us to return to the prophecies, making a joke about being constantly interrupted by another woman (who laughed). She said it really hadn’t occurred to her that “of woman born” would exclude a C-section. I asked everyone what they had thought when they first read the scene.
“I thought Hecate was going to bring the trees to life,” said one woman, citing specific parts of the text that gave her that impression. “Because his head was getting too big and she was finna bring him back down.” Another woman thought that the witches would employ trickery, while another thought that the prophecy about Birnam Wood referred to an earthquake or landslide. Yet another woman asserted that she’d immediately thought about soldiers cutting trees down to use as weapons and shields; she said also that the “of woman born” language brought to mind “test tube babies.”
We also talked about the conversation between Macbeth and the doctor regarding Lady Macbeth’s mental state. “He’s becoming cold to her,” said one person. “She’s the least of his worries,” said another. The first woman nodded, saying, “She’s not important to him anymore. She’s not – I just think he don’t have time for her to lose her mind.”
“It’s like Richard in the scene with all the messengers coming at him,” exclaimed one of last year’s ensemble members. “He’s gonna haul off and smack the doctor.”
We read Act V scene iv, which is another straightforward “going to war” scene. And then we arrived at Act V scene v. We made it as far as the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” monologue, and then we paused to let that passage sink in a bit.
I encouraged one woman to read it aloud slowly, allowing herself to really feel the language and breathe into it. “He’s just done,” she said afterward. “Life comes and goes, and it’s nothing but an illusion… Almost like it’s not real. It’s just –“
“Maybe he feels like it’s not real,” another woman interjected. “He’s not in the moment.” The first woman nodded, saying, “He’s on the outside watching it happen.” Another woman chimed in, “He might be numb to what is happening… It’s her as well as him.”
Another woman volunteered to read the piece a second time, and, again, I encouraged her to take her time and let the words do the work. “It feels like he’s just done,” she reflected afterward. “He’s stepped outside himself. Whatever happens is gonna happen – nothing he can do about it.”
“You get what you get, you do what you do, and then you end up dead… He’s empty. He’s drained. There’s nothing left,” said one woman. “Oh my god,” said another, “I’ve been there.”
“It makes me think of my family’s reaction to my crime,” said another woman. Softly, from the other side of the room, I heard someone say, “Oh my god, that’s what I was thinking.” The first woman said that her family had “seen something coming” and that that wasn’t the same as being numb. She told us about this in more detail, but I’m not recording it here in order to avoid identifying her.
“I remember that gut-empty feeling when my sentence was handed to me, and sitting all night in the tank just empty. I imagine that felt pretty similar [to Macbeth],” said another woman. Another woman continued to ponder numbness. “We have expectations,” she said. “People let you down, and let you down, and let you down… It makes you numb.” A new ensemble member agreed, saying, “You keep people at arm’s length.” Many others nodded.
The woman who spoke of her family’s reaction took it back to the feeling of being sentenced and going to prison. “I’m sure you were feeling so much,” she said. “I’m not sure… It’s a shock. When I hear numb – to me, that means you don’t care. But numb is, it hasn’t hit you yet, and you’re afraid of what you’ll do when it does hit you.”
“You go through little shit all the time, but then something big happens. And till something else hits that level, nothing else compares,” said someone else. Again, there was nearly universal agreement.
One woman then said that the worst thing ever to happen to her was prison, and several people said they disagreed – that prison had benefited them in some way, as horrible as it is – for some, it saved their lives, gave them a wakeup call, and/or taught them surprising things about themselves. Prison is terrible not just because they are missing out on their own lives, but because their friends and family are missing out their lives, too.
But that was not what that first woman had meant, and she was determined to make us understand. She detailed the lead up to her crime and the crime itself – that time in her life and all of the decisions she made that led her to prison – that was what she meant by saying that prison was the worst thing that had happened to her. She was brutally honest with us and was clearly becoming upset.
Another woman agreed – she emphatically said that she agreed, locking eyes with the woman who’d been speaking. She also committed a violent crime, and she told us in graphic detail about events in her life that built up until “all of that from my past came out on one person.” She drew clear parallels with the first woman’s experience, again emphasizing that she had been heard and understood.
Another woman shared that prison itself wasn’t the worst thing that has happened to her, but the accompanying loss of faith was. That said, she’s become more self-reliant, and she recognizes that as being a good thing. Another shared her own experience of having survived trauma and committed a crime, only slowly coming to fully understand its gravity and feel remorse (as opposed to the others, who felt it immediately). She said that “feeling is a good thing because it makes you realize what you’ve done so you don’t make the same mistakes.”
A new ensemble member then began to describe her past and her crime, and as she spoke, the words poured out faster and faster, the emotions coming from deeper and deeper within her. The trauma she’s survived is nearly unspeakable – I don’t know how she had the strength to speak it – and she feels intense remorse for her crime. A longtime ensemble member who sometimes struggles to feel or express empathy for others jumped in as things started to spiral, drawing on her own experience to reassure this woman that she understood what she was saying. And then she began to emphasize that there is hope in this woman’s situation – that she will go home some day and have the opportunity to make things right. The longtime member spoke only to the woman who’d been sharing, focusing on her completely, not speaking to the rest of us at all. She did not give up eye contact – she held it firmly. She reached with her energy deep into the woman’s heart and caressed it, lifted it up – that’s the only way I can describe what this looked and felt like.
The new ensemble member was clearly affected by this, and she shared more with us. Her emotions became difficult for her to control. She began to shake and cry. Another woman quietly went to her and gave her a (completely appropriate) hug. “You’re okay,” she said quietly, and the other woman placed her hand on the encircling arm, closing her eyes, calming down.
I really don’t know how to describe these moments except to say that the air felt full of that embrace – that compassion, deep empathy, and reaching toward healing came from all of us and was palpable. I’ve never felt anything like it – not in our ensemble; not anywhere.
Still holding the new ensemble member, the woman who’d embraced her said, “We need to give her some wooshes.” This is an exercise we do in which we encircle one ensemble member and make a large physical gesture of lifting them up while saying, “Woosh!” It sounds silly – it is kind of silly – but it really does make us feel better. We “wooshed” our new ensemble member, who said it felt weird but smiled. We wooshed a few others, too.
Intense – incredibly intense. Unprecedented. While we’ve had many honest and emotional conversations over the years, we’ve never had one like this, with so many people giving so much of themselves, in such detail, and lifting each other up as they did. I’ve been processing this evening for days now, and I don’t feel like I’m done. I’m so grateful have been included in this kind of introspection – to have been allowed just to sit, listen, and give all of my energy to people sharing so bravely. I don’t know what else to say about it – I don’t know that I have the words. But if I find them, I’ll let you know.