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Written by Matt
Today we had a journalist and videographer from Detroit’s local CBS station at our meeting. Despite his trunk full of equipment, we got into the prison in record time. In the programs building, we were met by a group of administrators, including the warden himself.
Far from being thrown off by the camera and administrators in the room, the women seemed energized as they came in. It has usually been true that the worries they have about being on camera while doing the—often silly—things we do in warm-ups usually disappear in a few minutes. Soon after we begin, few women glance at the cameras, and our meetings proceed mostly as normal.
The biggest difference this time was that for much of the session, as we explored scenes and talked about characters on stage, the camera was trained on a series of interviews. Frannie interviewed several of our participants, and was herself interviewed, as the rest of the ensemble continued as usual. The interviewees seemed a bit jittery but happy to discuss the program. More about those interviews from Frannie below!
As the interviews went on in the back of the room, it was business as usual on stage. We focused on having fun with the scenes today, letting them live a bit onstage, and getting used to inhabiting the characters rather than on the mechanics of blocking or staging.
First up, a new member performed the Porter’s long monologue from II.iii, and with gusto! Her Porter was a mix of wit and physical comedy, sassy and brash and plenty inebriated. Her clear understanding of every word in the text—even in this looping and complex speech—was on full display as she emphasized the Porter’s dirty jokes both with her intonation and body language. It was a tour-de-force, and it got the attention of everyone in the room, even momentarily interrupting the interviews that were being filmed.
Act II, scene iii turns dead serious with the discovery of Duncan’s corpse, and the women playing the entourage that files on after the Porter finally lets them in transitioned sharply from slapstick comedy to horror and political intrigue. Afterwards, a few of the women mentioned that they found a lot of humor—dark humor—even as the dead king is discovered and the characters mourn (or, in the Macbeths’ case, dissemble). We agreed to return to the balance of pathos and humor in that scene later, when we could discuss it with the entire group.
Act IV, scene i is the witches’ last official appearance in the play—and the source of the famous “double, double, toil and trouble” incantation—and we went at that scene with an eye simply to making it fun. The witches threw themselves into their sing-song speeches, and several women played apparitions, warning Macbeth of the coming dangers, though he doesn’t understand their import yet. After the scene was over, we agreed that it would be both exciting and challenging to stage—so much is happening, there are so many characters and so much important information given to Macbeth and the audience. We noted that we might need to spend extra time working on making the scene clear without losing the spectacle of it.
Finally, we delved into II.iv, which follows the discovery of Duncan’s body and the flight of Malcom and Donalbain. One member, in her third season, took the lead as the Old Man at the center of the scene. Fully embodying the Old Man’s world-weariness and humorous outlook, she resisted suggestions that her character’s warnings about horses eating each other and other unnatural events were completely serious.
“I think he just likes telling stories,” she said. “He’s seen a lot. There was a just a war and a whole lot of chaos, and this feels like entertainment to him. What does he have to lose?”
After the third or fourth run-through of this short scene drew to a close, so did the evening. As the prison administrators filed out, we put up the ring and left.
The ensemble had previously agreed that they would be more comfortable being interviewed on camera if I were asking questions rather than the reporter (who was wonderful!), and he graciously agreed to do it that way. He gave me questions to ask that addressed much of what we talk about on a regular basis, and their answers were genuine, beautifully worded, and full of the passion, insight, and determination that I’m privileged to see on a regular basis. It was fun and touching to do this with them.
When it came time for my interview, a longtime ensemble member who thrives on being a goofball asked if she could interview me. She ended up being the person to whom I spoke during the interview, even when the reporter asked the questions, and that was a truly moving experience as well. I make no bones about how nervous I always am about being interviewed on camera, and she supported me through those nerves the same way in which I’ve always supported her. That was an incredible feeling.
I’m asked these kinds of questions frequently, but it rarely happens in the room with these remarkable women – and never in exactly this way. She took notes as I spoke (jokingly aping the way that I constantly take notes during our meetings), and she stopped at certain points just to beam and smile back at me. I wish I could do every interview this way. I always mean every word I say, but those words felt like they had more gravity when I said them directly to her.
After a long check-in, during which several ensemble members shared some upsetting experiences they’ve had recently and others jumped in to support them, we dug back into our play, determined to finish reading it.
This was an interesting evening for me, as a longtime ensemble member had brought in her reflections and stream-of-consciousness writing following last Friday’s emotional discussion, and I split my focus between reading that and participating in the reading and discussion. Even though I had to multitask, I was floored by the depth and beauty of what she had written. She reflected on each person who had shared – what she knew of them, their past behavior, and their history with SIP – and she reflected on the impact that the evening had had on her. Then came the poems and the songs. She’s spent years in the group and has never had a night like that. I haven’t either. And I’m so grateful that she shared her thoughts with me.
We revisited Act V scene v, as many ensemble members left last week before we had finished it. One woman was immediately incensed by the treatment of Lady’s death. She felt that she is such an important character that this merits more than just two lines. I asked her why she thought Shakespeare wrote it that way. “Because she’s a woman,” she said immediately, bitterly, sarcastically. She got very heated about this seeming dismissal of a character who arguably drives many of the play’s events. She was particularly miffed that the death happens off stage.
Another woman said, “Just because it’s one line doesn’t mean it can’t be made into more.” She said that she thought there was a possibility of staging the scene so that Macbeth would see the suicide happen toward the edge of the stage in a somewhat symbolic manner.
“Do we know it was suicide?” I asked. “It says it was,” said one woman. “Where do you see that in the text?” I pressed. Several people started combing through the scene to see where they’d gotten that idea. “I don’t think it’s there,” I said. A few women tossed around opinions about why Lady would have committed suicide; one said that her guilt had made her weak. Another hesitated and then said, “It takes strength to commit suicide. It really does.”
Before we could continue down that path, one woman said, “Oh!” She had found the direct reference to suicide – in the No Fear Shakespeare character description. “Yeah, that’s where I got it, too,” said another woman.
“Oh, that’s so interesting,” I said. I reminded them that this version of the play is meant to be a study guide to aid people in understanding the content, and there’s little (if any) nuance to it. “It’s a widely accepted interpretation that she commits suicide,” I said, “And I think that’s why it says so in that description. But it’s really not in the actual text, is it?” We all agreed that it isn’t.
One woman shared that she really didn’t think it was suicide. “I think she died of a nervous breakdown,” she said, referring specifically to a possible cardiac arrest while sleeping. We pondered that, tossing ideas back and forth. There were many differing points of view.
“This is what’s so cool about this play,” I said. “Remember when we read the first scene, and we said that we immediately felt apprehensive and off balance? We’re meant to feel that way throughout the whole thing. Nothing is settled – everything is up for interpretation. It’s disorienting. And that’s the point.”
The woman who had initially been so upset about Lady’s death was even more infuriated now, continuing to focus on the mention of suicide in the book’s character description. “Why’d they have to put that in my head?” she said. She wished that she had gone in without that idea – she wondered what her own interpretation would have been.
I was really excited by this discussion – I talked a lot tonight! I jumped in here, saying that this is a great example of what happens when these plays are approached by people who think they “know” them – who’ve been taught what they’re “supposed to be.” It shuts down creativity and discovery in a big way. “That’s one thing that I love about working on these plays with you,” I said. “Most of you approach them without those centuries of tradition bogging you down, and you interpret them in these original and eye-opening ways… I’ve learned so much in this group. You’ve all taught me so much.”
It turns out that there are quite a few people in our ensemble who agree that Lady’s death should be given more attention. We toyed with the idea of staging the death as a pantomime. The woman who first introduced the idea said, “It would be a silent scene to the audience can get an interpretation of what’s going on.” Many of them felt that it could be overlooked otherwise.
We went back to the play, reading through the final battle scenes and applauding when we reached the end. “Thoughts?” I asked.
“What happened to Fleance?” asked one woman. “Aha!” I exclaimed, accidentally throwing my pen in the air (like I said, I was really excited), “That’s always the first question!” Another woman said, “I’m just thinking… Finally! I was ready for that dude to die.”
But the conversation stayed focused on Fleance (this happened immediately upon finishing the play this summer at Parnall – nearly the exact same conversation). “Maybe the witches said that stuff about Banquo just to sir Macbeth up,” said one woman. “Maybe it’s not actually true.”
“Or Malcolm might give the throne to Fleance because he doesn’t have any sons,” said another woman. “Or he could give it to any descendant of Banquo.”
What about Donalbain, asked one person. “Donalbain’s just out – he’s not coming back,” said another woman emphatically. “I don’t think Fleance is either. He doesn’t know who he can trust, who set up Banquo, who’s in it with Macbeth. It could still be dangerous for him in Scotland.” Another woman disagreed, saying that she thought that Fleance would get the throne and Donalbain would return.
We wrapped up at that point. I remarked that, while we are thrilled to have our wonderful male facilitators, there is something nice about meeting just as a group of women. “I know,” said one woman. “I like them, but I’m more comfortable when they’re not here. I feel like I can open up more.” I said that I got where she was coming from, adding, “The thing is, though, those guys might as well be women.” A longtime ensemble member laughed, nodded, and said, “They really might as well be.” The first woman smiled and said, “I know. It’s just different.” I said again that I knew what she meant and assured her that if she ever wants to open up more with them here, I just want her to know that she’ll be safe. She said she’d keep it in mind.
Since the ensemble first decided in 2013 that they wanted to bring in male facilitators, we’ve touched base frequently about how that works. The consensus has always been that we value having their perspective, which is different from ours, but that we need to be very picky about which men we bring in – they need to have a great deal of sensitivity, warmth, and respect for women. So far, so good – these guys are really fabulous. I do understand what she means, though. And I’m really glad that she was honest about it.