Written by Frannie
It was great to officially get started tonight! We had a meeting last week to give our newbies a sense of what the group is all about and how we operate, and most of them were back.
We began with our now-traditional “three questions:”
What brings you to Shakespeare?
What do you hope to get out of this experience?
What is the gift that you bring?
I was struck by how many past ensemble members have returned primarily because of the bonds they’ve forged with others and the excitement they get from witnessing individuals’ transformations – that their reasons for coming back had so much to do with the mutual support they give and receive in Shakespeare, and less to do, at least in this first sharing, with skills they hope to build for themselves. We all remarked last year on how unusually cohesive the ensemble was, and just based on tonight, I think the primary reason for that is clear. It’s all about empathy for these women.
This is also the first time that I remember not a single new member stating that she didn’t know why she was there or what she hoped to get out of the experience. They have all been on the waiting list for a long time and are hungry for the growth, support, and knowledge that they’ve heard so many past and current ensemble members talk about. Their immediate enthusiasm, bolstered and encouraged by those of us so ecstatic to get back to work, was infectious and heartening.
A longtime ensemble member who is soon returning home pulled me aside for a much-needed, lengthy one-on-one. It is humbling and inspiring to be brought into someone’s confidence who is navigating such a daunting transition. I simply cannot imagine the grit and courage it takes, and I am honored just to listen to her as she ponders what this will be like, what her goals are, and how she intends to accomplish them. We will be rooting very hard for her, as we do for every ensemble member on the outside. I think of people often whom I haven’t seen in four or five years. I haven’t seen them because they have not returned to prison. The strength that that takes in the face of statistics that tell us how easy coming back can be – I don’t know if I would have it.
While I was chatting with her, the rest of the group gathered to play some improv games. Many of the new folks jumped right in alongside returning members. At one point, during a game of Hitchhiker, Kyle and a longtime member apparently did some brutal and hilarious impressions of me. I was totally absorbed in the one-on-one and didn’t notice. I may have to request a repeat performance.
It was a fun and uplifting evening. A very auspicious start to our seventh season.
The group wanted to get started on reading Macbeth right away, so we circled up and opened our books. I described our usual method of reading together – we’ll read a chunk of or an entire scene, make sure everyone is on the same page, discuss, and sometimes put the scene on its feet to explore it further. I gave the newbies a heads up that pacing is a challenge, as people move at different speeds, and that everyone should feel free to express frustration as long as it’s constructive. One woman who moves through the material extremely quickly shared her frustrations from the past but acknowledged what worked for others and why that compromise was important.
Act I, scene i, is very brief – the witches planning their upcoming encounter with Macbeth. The ensemble dove into an enthusiastic conversation. One woman said, “This reminds me of Hocus Pocus. Like, before they got hung.” That led to a discussion about the lore of witches.
I asked the group why they thought the playwright chose to begin in this way. “The opening is catching,” said one woman. “It’s three witches… What are they doing?” Another woman added, “Who are they? What are they gonna do?” We agreed that this scene plunges us immediately into a place of suspense and foreboding. “It’s like the beginning of a horror flick,” said one woman.
I brought the group’s attention to the number three, which occurs over and over again in the play. We briefly discussed its significance. One woman said, “Once is good. Twice is good. You do it three times, it’s set in stone, so you gotta be careful.”
We moved quickly and smoothly through the next scene and then returned to the witches in Act I, scene iii. We stopped before the entrance of Macbeth and Banquo. I asked what our impressions of the witches in this scene were, beginning with, “I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.” Why that phrase? I asked.
“It doesn’t say what she’s gonna do,” said one woman. “But it really says it all,” said another. She elaborated that the vagueness of the phrase gives it the power to mean just about anything. A woman who, last year, had no preference in casting, went with the flow, and grew to love the process leaned over to me, eyes gleaming, and said, “I wanna be a witch!”
What does the story about the woman and her husband tell us about the witches? I asked. “They’re vindictive. They were all in, automatically. No questions,” said one woman. “They’re very powerful,” said another. “I wouldn’t wanna cut ‘em off in traffic.”
We kept going through the part of the scene in which the witches make predictions to Macbeth and Banquo and then vanish. One woman was able to read the play over the summer, and mused, “Banquo and Macbeth are sometimes opposites in the play. Good and bad. Foul and fair… Someone’s foul, and someone’s fair.”
We talked more about the prophecies and where they could lead – why Macbeth reacts as he does, stunned into silence. “It’s like winning $10 million,” said one woman. “But then you find out about the taxes… It sounds sweet at first till you learn more.”
We put this part of the scene on its feet. I asked what our first impressions were. “We need ninja vanishing powder,” said one woman. We all laughed and then brainstormed things we could do to achieve a vanishing effect. We then returned to impressions of the characters. “I feel like the first witch is the boss,” said one woman. “She can tell them to jump off a bridge, and they’ll do it.”
We put the scene up again with a different mix of actors, one of whom was the woman who was so excited about the possibility of playing a witch. She got really into the scene, and, as soon as it was over, said, “I need to practice these words!”
“Being a witch felt good,” said one woman. I asked her why. “Because you have power. You can do what you want.” she said. “I feel like Banquo is Macbeth’s little Chihuahua,” said another woman, and everyone laughed.
I asked why, after all of the battles and killing, this is what trips up Macbeth. One woman said, “They told him something that’s coming true, so he’s like, okay…” Another woman jumped in, “But he’s apprehensive.” The first woman agreed. “It’s too good to be true. It’s so good, but you got the fine print… Banquo’s telling him that they probably don’t have your best intentions at heart.”
The second woman continued to mull it over. “He himself prophecies without knowing… The dark deeds that are gonna have to happen… Subconsciously he knows it but spoke it into existence.” We continued to discuss, and she piped up again. “The poisonous trap they laid for him – he had no ambition. But now he has ambition.” And again. “Knowing you’re good at something, but you know the dirty work that goes with it… But sometimes ambition wins. It’s like dealing drugs. You know what you’re capable of, but you don’t want to think of the ugly things you’re capable of doing.”
We departed for the night, having covered a lot of ground, with a unanimous feeling of being incredibly excited about the play.