We were a little unfocused to begin with tonight, but we got back on track pretty quickly after playing one of our favorite circle games. It got very silly, to the point where nearly everyone in the room was laughing. Then, feeling more relaxed and ready to work, we got back to exploring scenes from the play.
We began with Banquo’s murder. As the women moved through the scene on its feet, it became clear how complicated the scene is even though it’s so brief. More often than not, the facilitators take a somewhat passive role as the ensemble members work out staging challenges, but this scene presented so many challenges and so few obvious textual clues that I jumped up to help before anyone could get too frustrated. And honestly, at this point in the process I feel okay about doing that. There are some women in the ensemble who have an innate knack for staging, but most do not, and seeing examples of how it can be guided helps to spark ideas in them. That leads to confidence in taking over later.
That said, once I nudged them in a certain direction, they took it over and further developed the ideas. I stepped away and simply encouraged rather than continuing to put forth my own ideas.
We moved on to Act III Scene i. Before anyone could even ask who wanted to work, one of the women said, loud and clear, “I wanna be Banquo.” Another woman said, “You just read Banquo.” “No,” said the first woman firmly. “I mean I wanna be Banquo. For real.” It’s really exciting to see her becoming so invested in the play and so assertive about her role in the ensemble. She was in the ensemble last year, and it took awhile for her to come out of her shell. At no point, though, did she assert herself like she’s doing this year. The entire nine-month process is important, and this is why performing at the end is imperative: that’s when things crystallize for most of the women. She behaved very differently after our performances, even in our wrap up, and she came back this fall with fierce dedication, ownership, and enthusiasm.
We read through the scene before putting it on its feet. It went well, but I didn’t realize that the woman reading Banquo had wanted to read through it by herself beforehand because she has trouble processing the language while reading aloud. The others jumped in to encourage her and give her some tips. One woman reminded her to breathe on the punctuation – something we talk about a lot, but that is tough to remember in the moment. Another woman suggested that she also take a moment to breathe whenever things start moving too fast. “Take a breath, then keep going,” she said. A longtime ensemble member recommended working with the language on her own as well. “I like to walk around in the rhythm of the words,” she said.
The woman playing Macbeth absolutely nailed the “To be thus is nothing…” soliloquy. So far she is the only person who’s expressed interest in playing the part. I’m curious about whether people are staying away from it in deference to how much she wants it and how beautifully she performs it or because they truly don’t want to play Macbeth. She’s not domineering in the least – I have no doubt that if someone decides they are interested, it will be a friendly “competition” – but I’m not sure that’s going to happen.
I asked them how the scene had felt. The woman who’d read Lady Macbeth said of Macbeth, “It’s like he’s angry, but he’s also scared.” The woman who’d read Macbeth shook her head and said, “Less angry, more fearful. And yet he’s also king, and that makes him pompous.”
There was some more back and forth, and, while it wasn’t heated, there was clearly some frustration building. “Maybe we can marry what you two are seeing,” I said. “Could we maybe call it ‘intensity’ rather than ‘fear’ or ‘anger?’” They agreed that that word was accurate.
It was a great night. We took the time we needed to get on the same page and then worked collaboratively and effectively. While we are generally not overly “productive” during this season, that’s not the point. Until we get on the other side of the holidays, it’s really about easing tension and stress, and continuing to develop our bonds as an ensemble.
Tonight during check-in, one of our ensemble members read us a poem she had written. It absolutely floored us; several of us had vocal reactions throughout. We enthusiastically praised her when she had finished – the poem was raw and real; gritty and elegant. It was a wonderful moment of coming together for all of us, and, I hope, provided a deeper sense of comfort with the ensemble for the woman who’d read.
We continued our exploration with Act I, Scene iii, in which Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches and are then informed that the prophecy about Macbeth becoming the Thane of Cawdor has come true. The first three women to read the witches decided to begin sitting on the floor, which they envisioned as an open field, just kind of chilling and talking. That was interesting and gave us a very different perspective on the witches’ relationship.
We were in a classroom tonight, so we worked in the round. The woman reading Macbeth said that she had felt strange taking the asides while being so physically close to the others on stage, but another woman said it had worked well because Macbeth had turned her back to the others each time; it had made the separation very clear.
We talked then about how we could build upon what we had just done. One woman envisioned the witches circling Macbeth and taunting him. Her idea gave me the idea that the same effect could be accomplished by having them do the opposite – moving away and making him follow. Another woman said that that would be effective in actually leaving Banquo out. Either approach could tell that story visually.
That led to a further discussion about the witches’ delivery and pacing. Should their three “hails” be delivered slowly? quickly? overlapping? We decided to try it a few different ways.
Our witches began seated again, but they got tongue tied and stopped. I encouraged them to start over and really enjoy themselves. Another woman suggested that they jump up for the story about the sailor and his wife.
“It seemed more real,” one of the witches said afterward. “You guys were feeding off each other,” said another woman. The woman reading Macbeth had also gained some clarity. “He’s weighing the pros and cons,” she said.
We then switched up casting, and I ended up reading one of the witches with two longtime ensemble members. We’ve been working together for years and have a chemistry that definitely enhanced our exploration. And it was so fun to read with them. Two of us began by crawling out from under the tables, and we improvised together very effectively; for example, we all began circling Macbeth at the same time without planning it, and we laughed at many of the same lines.
But, as usual with these two, as soon as the scene was over they focused on the others who’d read. The woman reading Ross had, in a moment of totally unexpected inspiration, read his lines as if she were extremely bored. It had actually seemed painful for her to speak the words. “I loved how you did that, man,” said one of the women who’d read a witch. “It was so freaking dope.”
But the group steered us back toward talking about the witches. “Did I move too much?” asked one. Everyone emphatically said no. “I liked that you were having fun,” said Kyle. The first woman said that she’d fed off of the two of us, particularly my physical commitment. “Do you know how much I was holding back?” I asked her. “With more rehearsal, we could all go even further.” One of the women likened our interpretation to the sisters in Hocus Pocus. She had even decided which sister each of us was.
We then looked at Act I Scene ii, specifically the Captain’s speeches. The woman who first read that part had previously been very focused on Hecate and upset that the entire character might be cut. Kyle had been working with her to identify another role that would satisfy what she wants to accomplish, and this was one of them. She lolled in a chair and delivered her lines clearly and effectively. “It felt great!” she said when the scene was over.
One of the women then jokingly nagged another woman who has been hesitant to read very much thus far – she had quietly told me earlier in the evening that she’s been trying to make room for the others since they have been so excited. But she was convinced to try the Captain tonight. The woman who’d done the convincing turned to me and said, “See, Frannie? I got the skillz.”
And she was FABULOUS. She read that part like a trained actor. There were levels vocally; she relished the language; she painted pictures; she took her time. It got us really revved up.
Throughout the evening, I approached each ensemble member to get an idea of what roles they’re interested in playing. I was intrigued to find that there is no overlap so far in people’s first choices. It’s possible that that will come – there were a few people absent – but it’s equally possible that we could cast this the old-fashioned way: just sitting in a circle and talking it out. That would be so fabulous. We’ll wait and see, but I don’t think casting is far off.