We got rather a late start tonight, and we had a long check-in when we did get going. In the midst of that, one of the women told me that a staff member with whom we have a lot of contact mentions Shakespeare every time she sees her, no matter where they are. She tells people what a good actress she is, and how impressed with her work she is. It makes this woman feel really good, and it’s another example of how this type of programming can help to positively affect the culture of the prison—this woman didn’t even know that the staff member knew who she was!
As the group figured out what we should work on, I took aside one ensemble member who has seemed very bored lately. This is her fourth year in the group, and she’s extremely committed, but she’s probably going home before the performance and is kind of lost as to what her purpose is. I asked her, “No three questions, but for real: why are you still coming to Shakespeare? What do you want to get out of it this year?” She cracked a joke and then said that she loves Shakespeare and wants to spend time with the ensemble, but that she doesn’t really know what her goals are. We’ve talked before about her desire to pursue acting when she goes home, so I brought that up and asked if perhaps she’d like to use the rest of her time to do some training—to work on some pieces she could use for auditions and spend a little time on audition technique. She loved that idea. I also suggested that we work on her main “weakness” as an actor: she is incredibly funny and often uses that as sort of a mask when her character is having a moment that is vulnerable. She is absolutely capable of authenticity but fears it a bit. So we’ll work on that, too.
We returned to the ensemble, where people were engaged in one of our favorite improv games. It wasn’t going particularly well—people were doing too much planning ahead, and other ensemble members tried to coach them not to do that. Ultimately, the game became too frustrating, and we moved on.
We then decided to at least read some Shakespeare, so we circled up to look at Act V Scene i. The women who’ve been cast as Lady Macbeth and the Doctor read their parts, and another woman read in for the Gentlewoman. It was a great reading, although Lady Macbeth and Gentlewoman tripped over each other’s lines a bit.
When the scene ended, the Gentlewoman said, “We’re all mixed up!” She said that prior to the CBS Detroit taping, she and Lady Macbeth had practiced reading this scene together, but with these roles reversed. Then, at the last minute, the woman who read Lady Macbeth tonight had insisted that they switch. The latter woman pointed at the other and shouted, “Thou liest!” We all had a big laugh. Then the first woman, who is quite petite, said that she had agreed to switch without a problem: “I decided I was gonna be the bigger person.” The second woman, who is quite tall, burst out laughing and said, “The bigger person!” Another big laugh from the whole ensemble.
Our Lady Macbeth then told us that she’s been writing out “scene breakdowns” – the way she envisions the scenes she’s in and how she should perform them. “I don’t know, what do you think?” she asked us. “Is she really sad, or is there more of her ruthlessness here?” We started to have a casual debate about that. One person suggested that she begin with how the character is feeling, and how she would be feeling in that situation.
That sent up a bit of a red flag for me. The woman who is playing this role has previously shared details of her crime with me that most people in the group (including other facilitators) don’t know, and she’s also shared that she’s dealt (and is dealing) with a lot of guilt that has frequently kept her up at night. She knows she’s grown a lot, but she also knows she’ll never be free of what she’s done.
Because of that, it seems dangerous to me for her to approach the scene in a way that might lead to her leaning on “emotional memory,” an acting technique that actors use to recall their own emotional experiences and put them into a scene (that’s a really simplistic description, but you’ve got the gist). It’s something that can be very touchy if we’re dealing with a traumatic situation, and we definitely are in this case. We keep each other very safe in our ensemble, and part of that is drawing on aspects of our past experiences without reliving them. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and starting with her own feelings could be really traumatic for this woman. This technique can also lead to telling our own stories rather than the characters’.
The person who made the suggestion was not at fault here at all—she doesn’t know the details of the situation and was trying to be helpful. I quickly jumped in, though, to agree that it’s good to think of how we are like our characters, but also how we are not like them, and that it really does work best if we begin with our character’s objective rather than trying to play emotions.
I think what needs to happen here is for me to work individually with our Lady Macbeth, away from the group, to make sure she has the techniques she needs in order to work on the scene safely. I don’t think anyone else should be in on that initial work—she needs to know for certain that she can trust the input she’s getting, and so, at first, it needs to come from someone who knows the details. I’ll be talking with her and the other facilitators about this as soon as I can.
Tonight we decided to dive into staging the first scene of the play! We began by talking about why Shakespeare begins the play this way. Everyone agreed that he wants us to feel a sense of foreboding and being off balance right away, and that the atmosphere should be eerie, dark, gloomy, and evil; that we need thunder, lighting, and fog. We need to figure out how we accomplish those last three—whether the effects should be organic or more technical—but that wasn’t our focus tonight.
So, where should these witches start? One person suggested they all come from the wings. Another suggested they begin circled up behind the curtain. But then a woman who was in the ensemble last year strongly suggested that the first witch come through the curtain as the others come down the two aisles in the house. We all loved that idea and set about putting it in practice.
What followed was some absolutely incredible collaboration. Nearly everyone contributed ideas and even walked parts of the scene with the people playing those characters. I walked the aisles with those witches a couple of times just because the pacing was difficult to explain, encouraged them not to crouch too low (so they could be seen above people’s heads), and then I pretty much just sat and observed. It was difficult for them to work with their books, so three other ensemble members volunteered to drop in their lines.
The scene was downright amazing. Our first witch came bursting through the curtain, arms out so those curtains actually look like wings, laughing an absolutely chilling “evil” laugh. The others dove in as well, whispering, hissing, laughing, and generally just having a great time. It’s some of the best work I’ve seen at this point in the process. “I think we answered the question you asked, Frannie,” said one woman. “I think the audience is gonna feel what we want them to feel.” Absolutely. I would stage it this way if I were directing it professionally!
I sat to the side with one ensemble member to talk about something specific at that point, but from the corner of my eye I could see the collaboration continuing with very little input from Kyle. It was very exciting.
The ensemble member with whom I spoke was the one playing Lady Macbeth. As I mentioned above, I had some concerns about how we should approach the sleepwalking scene. I explained those to her, and she agreed that we should work it without the rest of the group at first. “It’ll be good to have that one-on-one trust,” she said. This woman has difficulty with the content of another scene in the play, but after having an in-depth talk with a good friend who’s in the ensemble, she’s decided to try to face her discomfort rather than running from it. “It’s hard to face something that hurts so much,” she said. But she knows that facing it in our safe space will be easier than facing it elsewhere.
As the evening progressed, I continued to mostly sit silently to the side, taking notes. The woman who’d had that great idea for the first scene continued to kindly but firmly take charge when needed. She talked through our Macbeth’s entrance for her “If it ’twere done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…” and then jumped up on stage with her to walk it. Another woman also leapt up to contribute her ideas, all of which the other two took in stride. Others were simultaneously involved in a friendly debate about other staging options. And then I looked over and saw two people working on a scene of theirs in the back of the house, completely unprompted.
When our Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were ready to begin, the woman who’d been taking charge called the group to focus. Our Macbeth had memorized the scene, so she was a little hesitant in certain places, but it was a great read anyway. She ended the soliloquy by sitting on the edge of the stage, so when Lady Macbeth entered she stood on the steps, towering over her. The latter woman is significantly taller than our Macbeth anyway, so this visual was incredibly powerful.
When they had finished, we all told them how great the reading had been. They said it had felt good for them, too, and then I asked everyone what we could do to build on it. One woman began giving notes to our Macbeth, and I was struck by what she was saying. In acting jargon, she was speaking to the character’s prebeat and objective from beat to beat—she didn’t use those words, of course, but she sounded like any professional director giving notes. It was pretty exciting.
Two women had been debating some staging ideas, and things had gotten to a place that wasn’t totally constructive. Kyle had mediated it well, but I hadn’t overheard it in detail and approached one of the women during the next run to see what was going on. This is the woman, about whom I often write, who has such amazing instincts about staging. She had a really creative idea for this scene that we definitely want to try. It isn’t totally textually supported (which was the other woman’s point), but it’s worth a try anyway in case it works or leads us to something that does.
A number of people then left early, so I asked our Macbeth if she wanted to try some “actor stuff” with her soliloquy. We try to stay away from making this an “acting class,” but some of the women really dig that kind of detail, and she’s one of them. We talked about the anxiety Macbeth has at the top of this piece and came up with an image she could place in what Michael Chekhov calls the “ideal center” (literally in the center of your chest, beside your heart). That image was a jackhammer. I also urged her to focus on an objective of getting help from the audience—of trying to get us to tell her not to do it.
Her performance was quite powerful. It petered out toward the end, and we talked about the need to build rather than back off. Before we left, one woman said, “I love this monologue. This is our everyday. We deal with thinking through the right thing all day long… It’s like, after you’ve been in jail, you know you shouldn’t drive. But by day two, you’re like, ‘Where are my keys?’”