When we finished checking in, I asked if anyone would like to lead The Ring, since our newbies hadn’t experienced it yet. A woman who joined the group in September and was having a very bad day unexpectedly volunteered. She led it beautifully. She has been an incredible force in the ensemble almost since her first day, encouraging honesty, compassion, and good humor even when she’s down. She lets us know what’s going on, and then she rallies and carries the rest of us with her. I don’t know if she realizes what a crucial leader she is in the ensemble. I’m very grateful she’s there.
We decided to play Energy Around with names to get to know each other better and loosen up a bit. I explained the game for our new members and asked who would like to start. I was surprised and delighted when a woman who’s now been with us for more than a year (volunteered. She has been open in the past about how vulnerable she feels during some theatre games, and she sometimes sits to the side rather than participate. I’m not sure she’s ever volunteered to lead or begin a game before, and definitely has not when meeting a bunch of new people. She quietly exhibits more and more confidence the longer she works with us.
It was cold in the auditorium, so we did Michael Chekhov’s Six Directions exercise to warm up, and then we settled in to read the play; we want to get our newbies familiar with the material, finish casting, and then go back to working through scenes. We were excited when one of our new members immediately volunteered to read a character. Another soon followed suit. We buzzed through the first few scenes without much discussion, just summing up the crucial information in case anyone had gotten lost in the language. That changed after we read the first scene with Lady Macbeth and her husband, though.
One woman said that she’s gotten more frustrated with this scene – and this relationship – the more time we’ve spent with it. “I don’t get it,” she fumed. “They already have everything they need without the responsibility of being king. Why can’t that just be enough?”
We talked about that briefly, but there was something else bothering her. She said that she strongly felt that Lady Macbeth is evil and/or not thinking, and that Macbeth should take a more traditional role in reining her in. The woman playing Lady, though, countered that she thinks the character is “totally normal.” A new member jumped in, saying, “She’s just thinking like any woman. Any of us would be trying to get what they want.”
The first woman was still frustrated. “They’re thinking about the gain, but nobody’s thinking about the consequences,” she said. “That’s like everyone in Shakespeare,” laughed a woman who’s now in her sixth season. “Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew… Nobody ever thinks!”
Our Lady Macbeth then said again that she felt like someone went through this play and cut scenes before it was printed. She said she wished there was a scene prior to this one that would clarify the couple’s relationship. She felt like people were prejudging her character. The woman who began the conversation said she would love to see a scene like that. She didn’t understand why Macbeth wouldn’t “wear the pants, drive the car.” Kyle said, “That’s what Lady Macbeth is saying!” She shook her head. “Everything ended up bad because it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.”
Another woman said that Lady Macbeth has a power issue; she wants to be king, but she can’t, so she decides to live it through Macbeth. “Oh!” exclaimed a new member. “She’s Hilary Clinton!” We all laughed and reminded each other that we need to try to stay away from politics.
Matt built on that, though, by asking us how much we thought Macbeth’s public persona plays into Lady Macbeth’s attraction to him, as well as her actions in the play. One woman suggested that perhaps Lady had known that it was a mask or façade and saw someone she could dominate. Another woman agreed and said that Lady Macbeth had probably realized she could gain power for herself through him.
Our Lady Macbeth then broke in good-naturedly and asked us if it were possible that at this point Lady Macbeth is simply thinking about her husband’s happiness; she got his letter and thought about how happy being king would make him. She said again that she wished there were a scene between the two of them prior to this, and the woman who was so frustrated agreed again. “All right!” I said, looking back and forth between them, “You write it!” One of the women laughed and shook her head, but our Lady Macbeth, who is a prolific writer, said she would!
We then moved forward in the play, finishing up Act One. We put our ring back up and left for the night, feeling enthusiastic about the dynamic we’re already developing with our new members.
We began tonight with an honest-to-goodness acting warm up, and then, per one ensemble member’s request, we did Augusto Boal’s “Blind Cars” exercise.
In this exercise, people pair up, with one being the “car” and the other being the “driver.” The driver tells the car, who has her eyes closed, where and how to move by touching her with two fingers between the shoulders for “go,” on the right shoulder for “right,” and on the left shoulder for “left.” The amount of pressure indicates speed. The whole thing is done without speaking.
We did the exercise twice, switching roles midway through. When we reflected afterward, people gave all sorts of feedback about their challenges being the car – not so much when they were the driver. A couple of people shared with us that being the car brought on intense anxiety – their hearts were still racing. I thanked them for sharing and made sure everyone knew that, while it can be a positive thing to push through mild anxiety, any time it starts to feel overwhelming or dangerous it’s perfectly fine – and probably a good idea – to take a break from the exercise. Both women said that, while it really hadn’t felt good, they didn’t want to back off.
Then one longtime member pointed out that everyone had paired off with someone else with whom they were already comfortable. She wondered how thing would go if we mixed it up a bit – so we did! Unsurprisingly, the exercise proved to be more challenging this way, but it also proved to be a good ice breaker. And the women who were feeling anxious got through it just fine!
As we reflected on that second round, I asked the group what they thought the value of the exercise was – in general, in theatre, and in our ensemble. Establishing trust is always what we go to immediately, and someone pointed out that this is especially valuable in a prison setting. We also talked about the relevance of the exercise to our rehearsal and performance process – the freedom of knowing that we don’t always need to be in control because we have the ensemble’s support. “This exercise is kind of symbolic of SIP,” I said. “This needs to be a place where we can relax and trust others. We all need to be able to be the car here.”
We then returned to our read-through of the play. It was a run-of-the-mill reading at first, but when we got to Act II Scene ii, things took a turn for the dramatic!
Our Lady Macbeth began her reading intelligently, as always, but without much passion. Our Macbeth’s energy was a bit higher, although she was not emotionally engaged. But when they arrived at, “These deeds must not be thought after these ways…” Lady Macbeth moved quickly from her seat into the chair next to Macbeth. This sudden proximity caused Macbeth to bump it up a notch. Their reading intensified, and suddenly Lady Macbeth rose to her feet, clearly feeling her character’s anxiety and frustration. Macbeth then rose to her feet, matching that energy and raising the bar. They continued to feed off of each other, and the scene exploded with a fullness of energy and language that we haven’t seen yet from anyone this season. It was incredible – even those who were new to the program put down their books to watch.
When the scene ended, we burst into applause. “That was amazing!” several people said. “What happened?” one woman asked Lady Macbeth. “I got the Shakespeare Holy Ghost!” she laughed, and we all laughed with her. “Then I was like, all right! Let’s go!” More laughter. “But seriously,” she continued, “It took over!” Our Macbeth agreed – she’d been carried away as well.
The woman who’d suggested the exercise we began with tonight said, “Isn’t that just like the car game? Depending on each other?” Yes, it is!
“I honestly, for the first time, think I read it really good,” said Lady Macbeth. “Not only that…Normally I try and sound cool, but this time I felt like I played the scene exactly how I wanted it to go.” Macbeth said that when Lady “went for it,” she had been able to roll with it effortlessly. “Her chair moved,” said one woman. “I wanted some popcorn!” It was the best either of them had ever felt.
“That’s how this works!” I said. “You had an instinct, and [Macbeth] backed you up, which gave you permission to keep going with it. Shakespeare does all the work for you if you roll with it and trust your scene partner. Were you thinking at all?” I asked Lady Macbeth. She shook her head and said she hadn’t been able to think – she’d just felt it. “Right,” I said. “This language is pure emotion. If you let it drive you – if you can be the car – you don’t need to think at all about times in your life when you’ve experienced similar feelings; you don’t need to go anywhere near past trauma. Trauma is dangerous, but feelings aren’t. This language will call up all the emotion you need if you let it.”
Our Lady Macbeth then said that she had really loved our vocal reactions to what she had been doing; several of us just hadn’t been able to keep from giving her feedback in real time, we were so taken with her performance. “That’s not distracting?” asked a new member. “No, it really fed me!” she said. “Vocal feedback is good!” I said. “That’s when we truly know the audience is with us.” One woman joked that it had felt like witnessing. “Yes! For real!” I said. “Rehearsal can be like church!”
We read through the next scene with the remaining time. One new member is already pretty set on playing Lennox, although we agreed not to cast anything till we’ve read the whole play; she might change her mind!
We wrapped up, laughing together and feeling extremely positive. I pulled Lady Macbeth aside before we left to tell her how much I appreciated her diving in and showing our new members what it looks like to fully commit to a scene. “That’s what I do!” she said. “And you’ve done it since Day One,” I replied.