Written by Frannie
We begin and end every meeting with our Ring exercise, in which we lower a ring of positive light and energy and spread it around the room. As we finished lowering and spread out, an inmate poked her head into the auditorium to watch. “I wanna be in this class!” she exclaimed.
We began by reviewing Act I Scene vii, as a number of people left early on Friday and missed much of our discussion. A new member recommended reading the contemporary language before each session because that has made it easier for her to grasp the Shakespeare when it’s read aloud. “You’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God!’” she said.
“His conscience is working on him,” said one woman, “and his wife is pushing him toward the violence because she has ulterior motives.” She thought that those motives have to do with moving up in the ranks of society. We pondered why she pushes Macbeth in this way. “I don’t think she has the guts to do it herself,” said one person. The first woman countered, “I think she does – she just doesn’t want the blood on her hands.” Another woman agreed: “If she can control somebody else to do her dirty work, why not?”
We moved on to Act II Scene I, which centers around Banquo’s conversation with Fleance, Macbeth’s putting Banquo off of talking about the three sisters, and the famous “Is this a dagger…” soliloquy. One of last year’s members urged people to read the scene on their feet immediately, but we reminded her that it’s usually better to read seated first to make sure we all understand the scene and know what’s coming. “I love to see them on their feet, too, but we need to be patient!” I said to her. She smiled and replied, “You’re rubbing off on me, Frannie!”
Some of the women interpreted Banquo’s lines to mean that the witches had literally visited him in his sleep. One wondered if, in visiting him, they had told him more than he said out loud to Macbeth. Another woman pondered that, saying, “They plant the seed and set the ball rolling.” The conversation continued to include some musing about how Banquo and Macbeth might fulfill the prophecies even in trying not to. Several women referenced Oedipus.
As we moved into talking about the soliloquy, the conversation intensified. “He thinks he sees a sign,” said one woman. Another emphasized that she doesn’t think the dagger is real, saying, “You know that you’re doing something wrong, so you’re gonna find a way to justify it.”
One woman shook her head and said, “I’m like Macbeth. I analyze everything… And then I retro-analyze!” But, she continued, “You can commit a crime and then throw away thoughts of guilt.”
“No!” exclaimed another woman. “I’m sayin’ it ‘cause I’m here for murder.” She described her crime and train of thought in great detail, most of which I am not recording here to protect her identity. “Beforehand, my mind was saying, ‘It’s wrong! It’s wrong! You shouldn’t do it…’ In one half of my mind, I’m like Macbeth, seeing it’s wrong… But my dumb ass did it anyway. But the thoughts of guilt didn’t go away.”
The first woman built on that. “Am I satisfied or am I not satisfied? I knew it was wrong, but I said, ‘To hell with the consequences…’ I thought if I got caught I’d get two years or something…” She then described what led to her crime, which was not violent, in more detail. “I don’t wanna hurt anyone, but I don’t wanna starve or sleep outside one more night… But then later, the guilt comes back. You can shuck it, but only for a minute.” Another woman responded, “Before you did it, you were justifying so you could do it.”
Another participant said, “I’ve never been the one to dwell on anything. In my mind I knew I was gonna do it. [She said she had warned her victim.] Even now I don’t regret what I did… I have remorse, but I don’t feel guilty.” The first woman said, “I feel like what I did was just.” And this participant agreed, saying she felt that in taking a life, she had saved another’s life.
The woman who first spoke of murder further explained, “For me it was kind of a sense of freedom. And greed… I was trying to go so far, but I went too far… It was my impulse control and my greed… Even though my real self is a good person. But the person who wants to get further pushes that person to the side. It’s kind of like…” she paused and looked around the circle. “Macbeth.”
I want to emphasize, since my notes here are not of every word, nor can I possibly capture the feelings of the women and the way in which they said these things, that there was no moment when anyone was the least bit flippant. It was a serious conversation – they talked through what led them to commit these crimes, they did not excuse their actions, they did not glorify what they had done, and there was no question that these women own both their crimes and the consequences, and that they’re working through a process of gaining insight into themselves, their actions, and how they move forward so that they won’t do similar things in the future.
For example, the first woman said that, although she sometimes has those negative impulses and ambitions, she’s in better control now. “I know what I’d like to do, but now I focus on changing what I need to do to get what I really want.”
A woman who’d been rather quiet said that this conversation brought up something for her that she’s struggled with for a long time. “I’ve listened to a lot of people who want to commit suicide. I always ask why. [A person in her life committed suicide.] They cannot deal with decisions they’ve made in life – cannot forgive themselves for things they’ve done. They can get bound up by that. So sometimes it’s the opposite effect.” We talked a bit about this, and I encouraged her to dig into the play as we go to see if it gives her any insight.
One of the women then read the piece on its feet. We followed her intently – it was a deliberate, effective reading. “I could feel Macbeth’s anxiety and fear,” she said. The conversation then lightened up a bit – it pretty much had to by that point, and we left it at being intrigued and excited to work on the next scene – the aftermath of the murder of Duncan.
I want to note that, while exploring these plays often leads to somewhat detailed conversations about the process of committing a crime – before, during, and after – there have been varying levels of detail depending on each individual who’s participated, and discussions of crimes resulting in death have tended to be on the general side, and usually not until later in the season. It’s unusual for anyone to share about a violent crime in such detail – let alone two people – let alone two people who are new to the ensemble – let alone so early in the season.
It leaves me pondering how and why it happened tonight. What is the balance between the personalities and personal journeys of the people who shared, the “in” provided by the woman who began by sharing the details of her nonviolent crime, the level of trust already built up in the group (which hasn’t seemed to me to particularly take yet – and that’s normal), and this play itself. How much does Macbeth, which plunges us immediately into a dark and imbalanced world and drives so hard and so fast through crime after crime – which is so straightforward and so graphic – have to do with bringing about such a brutally honest conversation so early in the process?
I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know that I’ll find it. I know that I deeply appreciate the honesty of the women who shared tonight. I think that’s enough for now.
We dove right into Act II Scene ii! After reading through and making sure we all understood the content, two people volunteered to read it on its feet. As they were reading, there was a loud knocking sound on the roof, which we all took jokingly as a sign that we were reading the right scene at the right time. Both women said they felt very good about their reading. The woman who was in last year’s ensemble was extremely enthusiastic. She had a small role last year but is really gung ho on doing more this time around. Another pair read and totally committed to the urgency of the lines. “We fed off each other,” said one of them.
A longtime member read the scene on its feet with Kyle. She played it very calm, while he focused on Macbeth’s anxiety. One woman put down her book and just watched, and she said that it helped her “feel it more.” I read the scene with another woman in a way that was somewhat opposite to the previous reading – I read Lady Macbeth in a way that brought her anxiety into focus, while she stayed fairly calm (albeit upset) as Macbeth. “He’s so reactional,” she said. “He’s stuck in freak out mode… She’s his rock. She steadies him.” I asked her if I had made her feel steadied. “No – but if she wasn’t there, God knows where he would have been.” We talked about this interpretation of the scene, which is a bit different from where we started. I shared that, having worked with it a lot, my interpretation currently is that Macbeth is in a state of shock that has him sort of sleepwalking through the scene, which further agitates Lady Macbeth. I reminded everyone that my interpretation isn’t definitive. Some of them like it, and some of them don’t.
A new participant said, “I understand this scene more than I understand any of the other scenes because so many people have acted it out.” This is why we stop to get on our feet as we read through!
Another pair read. It was this Lady’s first time reading, and she said that she felt she hadn’t done well because she stumbled over lines. Many others jumped in to tell her that she had done well, and several of them mentioned specific things she’d done that they loved. She brought up Lady’s first lines in the scene: “I was feelin’ that – that’s how I am. ‘Cause if I’m drunk, I’m really bold.”
The woman who had just read Macbeth is interested in exploring theatre and film when she goes home, so we went a little more in depth while analyzing her reading. We asked her to try it slightly differently to see what would happen. A new member volunteered to read with her. After the reading, this new member said, “I understood it a lot better doing it.” That’s usually the case! Another woman said to Macbeth, “You did a lot better. You were relating it more to you. I felt it more.”
“I didn’t feel like I told my story,” she responded. I asked her what was missing. She responded that she wanted different movement, more effective pauses in her delivery, and she was frustrated that she had tripped on a stool on purpose but hadn’t fallen. She has been in the group for a long time and frequently has great ideas that are tough to execute without a lot of rehearsal, and we assured her that the tripping would have worked given more time. “In my mind’s eye… There would be perfect projection, the flow of my natural body… Does that ever happen?” Another longtime member said, “I’ve seen you have that! You had that once you had [your role] down. You were so fun to watch.”
We talked a little more about the scene. “Macbeth is not even Macbeth at this point,” said one woman. “He’s freaking out.”
We then took some time to say goodbye to a longtime ensemble member who is going home before our next meeting. She has been consistently and fiercely dedicated not only to her own work and journey, and not only to the well being of others in the group and the ensemble as a whole, but to the program itself. She has spoken many times, with great power, about the impact that her work in the group has had on her, and she has been steadfast in doing whatever she could to further the program’s mission and strengthen the way we work. She has been an ardent and constructive mentor, critic, actor, and coach. She has fostered close friendships with people in the ensemble and encouraged them to keep coming back even when things were tough. Even when she’s been frustrated (including with herself, and often with me!), she’s always looked for solutions. And she’s been a lot of fun to work with. We will miss her presence in the ensemble, but we’re thrilled for her and thinking lots of good thoughts as she begins the next chapter of her life.