We checked in briefly, with some ensemble members sharing a bit about their Christmases, but the general sense was that we wanted to get to work rather than dwell on a holiday spent in prison, so that’s what we did.
The woman playing Macduff very much wanted to work the scene that begins with the Porter’s soliloquy and includes her character’s entrance to the castle. She and our Porter had previously gone over the scene a bit and had some ideas to try out. I felt a little uneasy—our Macduff was very clearly pushing our Porter, who was hesitant. I asked her several times if she’d rather not work the scene yet, but she agreed to do it, so I let it go.
The ensemble collaborated to find the best way to stage the scene. They decided to use our curtain as a literal gate through which the characters could enter, with the knocking coming from back stage. There was some disagreement, though, and I reminded the group that staging a play need not be literal, only logical. I’m not sure that this set up will ultimately work, but we decided to try it out and see.
The woman who’s become such an assertive guide walked the scene briefly with the Porter, and then she gave it a shot. She stumbled on to the stage, sat in a chair, and peppered her speech with drunken hiccups. Though her book mostly covered her face and we have some work to do on the language, there were some very funny moments.
We’re really just getting started on the “rehearsal” phase of our process, and, while all of the feedback was constructive, there was a TON of it. One woman praised the Porter’s approach but said, “I would love to see more action from you.” She was interrupted by another woman who said she hadn’t realized the hiccupping was “fake” and suggested that it not continue to be used. Another woman responded that there was no problem with the hiccups; that the first woman simply hadn’t been paying attention. Another woman said that the hiccups would work, but, “we just don’t need twenty of ’em.” I could see our Porter becoming kind of overwhelmed, so I jumped in to acknowledge that all of this feedback was valuable, and that what I was hearing was that we needed to score the piece so we’d have the ideal number of hiccups in the best possible places, and our Porter wouldn’t have to improvise.
We circled back to the question of how the Porter might move during the scene. We’re fairly limited by the current staging; there isn’t much of anywhere for her to go (that’s part of why I think we’ll ultimately change it). One woman got up to demonstrate ideas she of what that movement could be and what could motivate it.
At that point, our Porter literally covered her eyes with her hand, slumping a bit in her chair. I interrupted (something I generally don’t do) to say, in an upbeat way, that getting this many notes all at once can be overwhelming and that we should cool it for a bit. I then offered to walk the speech with our Porter, and she accepted.
Standing back stage for a moment, I reassured her that she really had done an excellent job—that everyone was trying to be helpful and didn’t realize that it was just too much at once. She nodded and said that she understood. We walked the first part of the piece together, but half way through she stopped, asking if she could take a break and pick it back up another day. Everyone welcomed her to do so with no hesitation, not criticizing her or lingering but working together to form a game plan for what would be next. A couple of women sat with our Porter, quietly reassuring her.
I went back stage to where our Macduff and another woman had been waiting to go on and told them that we were done with the scene for the day. “But I didn’t even get to do my part!” said our Macduff. “You’ll get to do it another day,” I said. “She’s overwhelmed. We pushed too hard. We don’t push hard in this group.” We learned the hard way in our first year or so that if we pushed someone further than she wanted to go, she often left the group rather than expose vulnerability when she didn’t feel safe. Since then, we’ve all agreed to nudge, but not to push; that needs to come from each individual when she’s ready.
We moved on to Act II scene ii, the aftermath of Macbeth’s murder of the King. We decided that the curtain would be closed at the top and open on our Lady Macbeth, who would be pacing. The woman who is in her second year and has been increasingly enthusiastic jumped up to work the curtain and then was cartoonishly excited about opening it as fast as she could. It’s fantastic to see her having so much fun.
As we worked, I overheard a longtime ensemble member, sitting between me and our Porter, quietly encouraging her to stay in the group—not to be discouraged by one lousy day. She said that she struggles with mental illness (sharing detail I’ve never heard her say to the group at large) and that, “Shakespeare always makes me happy. Even when I’m mad. When I come here mad, I leave happy.”
Our Lady Macbeth stopped herself before Macbeth could enter, saying she felt like she had gone too fast and was “stuttering over words.” I encouraged her to slow down and not pressure herself to pace—to move when her thoughts changed and to let the language be percussive. She centered herself as the curtain closed, and when it opened again, what we saw was dynamite.
She had put her hair back, which made her look (and clearly feel) more feminine. She took her time, letting the scene build, and stayed totally focused on our Macbeth when she was on stage. Our Macbeth, in turn, played up a lot of anxiety and clung to Lady Macbeth, who became increasingly horrified.
We burst into applause when they had finished. They said they had felt pretty good, but we had more detail to give them! “You were just a MESS,” said one woman to Lady Macbeth. She also praised Macbeth for committing to what is clearly the right direction for the scene. “You must have read my mind, because that’s exactly what I was picturing,” she said.
The consensus was that what had been so powerful about the scene was the level of anxiety—and that we wanted more of that. I suggested a kind of “keep-away” exercise for Macbeth with the daggers, but the actors decided to simply explore physical distance instead. Fine by me—I’m not the director here!
We tried again, but midway through our Lady Macbeth stopped again, frustrated. “I feel thrown off,” she said. We asked her why, and she said that she had wanted to pull the chair out from under Macbeth but hadn’t felt like she should. “Go with your instinct!” shouted one woman. We all agreed. The woman who’d been on the curtain ran out from back stage and demonstrated how that chair pull could work. She acted out both parts—even throwing herself to the ground and putting her hands up, saying, “Oh my god, crazy lady!” This woman has always done her best, but she’s been reserved and shy in performance. Coaching in this moment, though, I saw a glimmer of real acting. So now I know she can do it. And I’m not gonna let that go—or let her let it go. Stay tuned.
She closed the curtain, and we tried again. This time the scene really picked up. Pulling the chair out from under Macbeth worked great, although our Lady Macbeth laughed afterward that she’d pulled with such intensity that she’d broken a nail. We gushed about how great the scene was already and gave suggestions for moving forward: heighten the paranoia, and don’t back off of those bloody hands. Our Lady Macbeth is itching to try the scene again once she’s off book, but it’ll be a few weeks till then because of another project she’s working on.
While I stepped aside with one woman to talk through some of her long term goals, the others began to stage Act III Scene iii. What they came up with, even in just those 15 minutes, was very cool. The witches circled Macbeth and Banquo, moving in various ways and at many different levels. They swooped in on whomever they were talking to. We need to refine it, but this was a great start.
It was a very productive, positive night, and, given that it was the day after Christmas, that speaks volumes about the focus and drive of this ensemble. We’ve had a lot of “downtime” this month as they’ve dealt with the challenges of the holiday season behind bars, and now they’re eager to move forward.
We began tonight by working Act I Scene ii, in which the Captain and Ross update Duncan on what’s happened on the battlefield. At first the scene was very still, and we brainstormed ways of giving it more movement and visual interest. Our Duncan said she felt like she should be at a bit of a remove from the others, which is completely appropriate. As we found ways of achieving that, another woman playfully admonished her for being quiet. “You talk louder than that in the unit, [name],” she teased. “Use that voice of yours!”
As the ensemble continued to problem solve, I stepped aside with the ensemble member who is going home soon and has a side project so she won’t be so bored. I coached her through the first monologue I pulled for her—Hermione’s “Sir, spare your threats…” from The Winter’s Tale—and she proved to have as much empathy for and insight into the character as always. She also has cracker jack instincts with the language and had begun to memorize it after just a few minutes. She’s going to do some work on her own and then explore it with the group.
While I was working with her, the group slowed down a bit, and it was difficult to convince anyone to get on their feet with a scene. Finally, our Lady Macbeth volunteered, although she was clear with the group that she really wasn’t feeling it. As a result, she pushed hard in her acting and was quite frustrated. I gave her some suggestions, and she tried again, but she still didn’t feel great about her work. “I’m just tired today,” she said. I asked her what she thought would happen if she honored that instead of pushing against it, but she said she really didn’t want to work anymore. “Thank you for being game even though you didn’t feel like it,” I said. “That’s what being a team player is all about,” she replied.
We then explored Act V Scene v (Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…) a bit, with one of our witches standing in for the messenger. She had a lot of fun with it—so much so that we found ourselves focusing on her. “How should I react to him?” she said of Macbeth. “How did you want to react?” asked someone else. She said she had wanted to be nervous, even afraid, and that she also wasn’t sure she wanted to exit with him at the end. Those instincts are fabulous, and we told her so. “So are you playing the messenger?” one woman teased. “Yeah, I’ll do it!” she responded. We all clapped. “I don’t know what I’m getting myself into!” she laughed.
We’re going to come back to this scene on Tuesday to explore that and try some different things with our Macbeth. Her reading tonight was intellectually spot-on, but she’s having trouble portraying her gut interpretation of the scene. We can definitely help her with that.