I was out of town during our last meeting, and I used some of my time to put together a list of potential cuts to the script. I have sensed the group wanting to move forward more quickly with staging, and growing frustration with the cutting process. They verified this when I asked them if my instinct was correct. I made sure to note to everyone that this was a list of suggestions, and that any/all of them could be rejected.
We ended up sitting in a circle on the floor going through the cuts, which gave us a feeling of camaraderie and the impetus for a lot of jokes – even more so than usual. I hadn’t really wanted to spend an entire evening making cuts, but it turned out to be pretty fun.
As we got to the scene in which the Murderers banter and then kill Clarence, the question arose of who would play the First Murderer now that the previously cast woman has had to leave the group. To our complete surprise, the woman who had told us in the fall that her extreme anxiety would likely prevent her from performing at all, and who about a month ago volunteered to play only a small non-speaking role, casually said, “I’ll play the First Murderer.” There was silence for a moment. “You will?” someone said. “Yeah,” she said, smiling a little. The group burst into applause and cheers. She looked down, still smiling, saying, “Don’t make a big deal about it, you guys.” We tried to contain our excitement, but this is absolutely huge. Not only is she going to get up on stage, and not only will she speak, but she has a good number of lines! I am so excited to see what this experience does for her.
As we checked in tonight, one of the women said she had something to share. She paused. “You know, I forgot it’s not safe outside of Shakespeare,” she said, telling us about something she said in confidence in her unit that was told to others and blown out of proportion. She is now living in an intensely uncomfortable situation, not knowing exactly how this got out, and not knowing exactly how to deal with it. She’s decided to try to hunker down until it blows over. “I’m just so glad I can come and talk here, and it doesn’t get out,” she said. “This is the one safe place I have here.”
As noted many times throughout this blog, one of the most valuable aspects of our program is that it creates a safe space in a place that otherwise feels unsafe – emotionally, physically, or both. It’s essential to our work that people be able to express themselves freely and feel supported in being their authentic selves. That’s the culture we’ve built over the years, and it’s overwhelmingly respected by participants.
We continued making cuts to our script now that our Duchess was present – our policy is not to make cuts that affect people who are absent, and she wasn’t there on Tuesday. We got through most of what we had left and then decided to work the Clarence/Brakenbury scene since we have new people in both of those roles.
I huddled with those women before we began the scene to make sure we were all on the same page with content and cuts. The woman playing Clarence nervously said that this would be her first time on stage. I encouraged her, for this first time, not to rush, but to avoid stopping to apologize for any mistakes and just plow through to the end. “Then the first time will be over, and you’ll never have to do it for the first time again,” I said. She smiled. The other woman (Michelle) agreed not to stop the scene. I then approached the group and let them know what the plan was, and they also agreed not to interrupt.
Although visibly nervous, the women got through the scene. Afterward, I let the group know that it had been our Clarence’s first time ever on stage, and we gave her a huge round of applause and lots of encouragement. I asked her how she felt. “I felt like I stumbled a lot,” she said. Others in the ensemble reminded her that everyone stumbles at first with Shakespeare. “You’re gonna be your own worst critic,” said one seasoned ensemble member.
Our Clarence, true to her emerging role as one of the group’s natural directors, then expressed dissatisfaction with the way they’d physically staged the scene and suggested some changes. We talked about the relationship between the two men – does Brakenbury know why Clarence is in prison? Does he have empathy for him, and, if so, how much does he express it?
They tried the scene a second time. “It got better,” one woman said enthusiastically. “It did. This time I felt more emotion from you.” Our Clarence said, “I sort of felt like I should kneel for the prayer.” Our Brakenbury then asked how she should respond to that. I encouraged them to follow their instincts in the moment – not to prejudge anything, but to spontaneously respond to each other, within the play’s parameters, and see where it led them. I pointed out that our Clarence had, at one point, reached out and touched our Brakenbury’s arm for emphasis on her line, “Ah, keeper, keeper…” She had instinctively responded to one of Shakespeare’s open vowels, which indicate emotion, and the repetition of a word. No one needed to tell her to do that.
The third time through, they adjusted so that our Clarence didn’t sit on the bench, and then she knelt for her prayer. She said she felt better this third time, although she still wants to make adjustments. The growth in her confidence over just three attempts at the scene was remarkable. It is truly inspiring to see someone taking risks like that, and then to see those risks paying off.