Season Eight: Week 6

Tuesday / October 9
Written by Frannie

We welcomed two new members to the ensemble tonight. Both of these women signed up for the waiting list after having seen one performance (or more!), so they pretty much knew what they were getting into. [insert smiley face emoji here] Several women made sure they knew they were in a safe space. “I couldn’t ask for a better family,” said one. “What goes on in here stays in here.” Another woman added, “Kinda like Vegas… except it’s Shakespeare.”

We asked the first newbie our traditional three questions, and, though she was clearly nervous to an extent that expressed itself physically, she gave straightforward answers and got a lot of smiles in return. One woman, reacting (I think) to the new member’s anxiety, reassured her loudly and soothingly that her answers were great and we were all glad she was there. The other new member then exuberantly introduced herself, organically covering everything we were going to ask as she did. “Well, you just answered all three questions in one fell swoop!” I joked. Last year’s Macduff gasped, “Oh!” Her whole face lit up. “That’s my line! Remember? All my pretty chickies in one fell swoop!” To say she was tickled is an understatement. I absolutely love when those things happen — it reinforces, for all of us, just how much ownership we have of these plays.

We began our reading with Act II scene v, in which Malvolio finds the letter Maria planted to make him think Olivia is in love with him. There was a little bit of a tussle between two ensemble members who are good friends, and who both, for whatever reason, are very drawn to Malvolio. Eventually one ceded the part to the other, and I made her promise that she’d be on deck to read him next. There was no bad blood here — they “play” bicker all the time — but the former member doesn’t often gravitate to particular characters and did seem a little miffed.

Twelfth Night has turned out to be an interesting play to work on within our usual structure, and without the No Fear editions (which are still en route) — some of the wordplay is complex enough that it can obscure or distract from the larger meaning and/or action of the scene. But there are still plenty of moments that are crystal clear, to varying degrees, for all of us. When we arrived at Malvolio’s reading aloud, “Remember who commended thy yellow stockings and wished to see thee ever cross-gartered…” the longtime ensemble member who was reading the part burst out laughing so hard that she had to pause the reading. “I’m sorry,” she said, trying to catch her breath, “I’m just picturing whoever plays Malvolio—” and her own laughter cut her off again.

I’ve been working with this woman for a long time, and she’s always had a gift for getting at least some meaning from any Shakespeare we’ve read, but this is the most effortless text work I’ve seen her do yet. It just clicks for her. The jokes crack her up on first reading, she’s able to sum up scenes in detail without further analysis, and she keeps having all these clear, fully formed staging ideas that are absolutely spot-on. It’s not like she hasn’t been creative in the past — to the contrary, she’s been one of our best problem-solvers — but she’s on another level this year. In fact, I’d been mildly concerned about how few people have been speaking up to summarize and analyze scenes, but as I watched the others react to her obvious delight, I realized that this is (at least partly) because she just gets it, and they’re eager to hear her insight before giving their own. It usually doesn’t work for one person to so “dominate” scene analysis, but in this case I think it’s actually very beneficial to the ensemble. She’s not overpowering the conversation in any way; the rest of us are simply deferring to her position as an elder in the group and, at least for the moment, the person most in tune with the way this play works.

We realized, though, that this scene wasn’t going to make total sense until we put it on its feet, so we expanded our circle and brought over some artificial trees to create the playing space we needed. A few people wanted a particular ensemble member, who has lately come out of her shell, to read Toby. She was hesitant until Kyle volunteered to read Fabian, and they turned out to be a dynamic duo, without question. Another woman, who’s been challenging herself a lot this season, volunteered to read Maria, and I insisted that the woman who’d demurred to read Malvolio earlier do so now.

It took a minute to get going — the woman reading Sir Toby got to the word “niggardly” and burst out laughing. “It doesn’t mean what it sounds like now!” I shouted. Still chuckling, she decided to use the word “mean” in its place. “Take two!” someone shouted, and the scene began again. But our Toby jumped one of Fabian’s lines, everyone got confused, we all cracked up again, and they restarted the scene. “Take three… Action!”

As we made our way through the scene, we had to pause now and then as we found action in the text and looped back to do it. At Toby’s first exclamation during Malvolio’s letter-reading, that ensemble member burst through the artificial trees — with Malvolio directly facing her. It was incredibly funny, but clearly not what the scene called for, so we paused, figured out a solution, and took it back. At one point, when Malvolio had been reading for a while, the three folks hiding behind the trees picked up those trees and slowly moved behind Malvolio to the other side of the playing space. They stayed there for a bit and then started slowly inching toward Malvolio, as if to hear her better. Meanwhile, our Malvolio arrived at the line, “I do not fool myself—” paused, said, “I’m gettin’ tired,” to another huge burst of ensemble laughter, and then kept plugging away.

The scene ended, and we all agreed that, while of course it will need work (and a lot of cutting), the bit with the trees absolutely has to stay. One woman, who was on fire, suggested that those hiding in the trees could throw out lines from Macbeth (in Birnam Wood) and perhaps reprimand each other for getting the plays confused. This led to a brief brainstorm about what else we could throw into the mix in that way; the comedy is so broad and ridiculous in Twelfth Night that it seems like it could stand for us to go a little bonkers with gags like that. The Keeper of the Jokes recorded all of this in our dedicated notebook.

Rather than delve into the next scene, we decided to use the rest of our time for monologues. A longtime ensemble member, who has been frank about identifying with Viola but intrigued by Sir Toby (she is an incredible comedian), said she had chosen one just that day. Or, rather, it had been chosen for her. “I asked the universe to give me the proper character. My girlfriend [who’s been pushing for Viola] was right… I opened the book — I said, ‘I need a good one’ — BOOM. Viola. Then I was like… ‘You bitch.” We all laughed with her. Her reading of the piece was a bit halting because she’d only begun to work with it today, but she clearly understands the piece — and the character — in a way that I’m not sure the rest of us do. I hope she keeps exploring this.

After my glorious fail last week, I promised the ensemble that I’d make it up to them by performing four monologues tonight, and I did. It was a mixed bag for me personally, and reactions were a bit varied as well. I felt best about the first two (Edmund from King Lear; Viola from Twelfth Night), not good about the third (Hermione from The Winter’s Tale), and iffy about the last (Anne from Richard III). My analysis was that I’ve been trying to get a handle on that Hermione monologue for a really long time, and it just never works the way I want it to; I think I’m done with it now, and that’s okay. My being off on that one, though, colored my performance of the last, which was much quieter than I’ve done it before, and even resigned toward the end. It’s something I’d want to explore in a more formal environment; maybe being a bit numb or spent when Richard enters gives the scene an interesting tone. But that’s not what we’re in SIP to do!

My personal thoughts aside, I got some very positive feedback from ensemble members (though I welcomed them to give more pointed critiques in journal entries if they wanted to). I was mostly glad just to have followed through on what I said I would do (and why I said I would do it, I have no idea — I get a little slap-happy sometimes), and equally glad to have had more success than last week. “You are a monologue monster!” said one woman.

Friday / October 12
Written by Matt

Among the several joyous check-ins today was a conversation about Banksy! It came up because of something one of the women had painted on a big plastic mug, but quickly turned to how badass they thought it was that Banksy’s most recent high-profile art piece had sold for $1.4 million and, at the moment of its sale, shredded itself, using a shredder embedded in the frame.

After lowering the ring, we dove into the play. Everyone was pretty tired today, so we focused on reading. We are into Act III now, and we ended up reading the first three scenes. The first went by quickly--everyone seemed to understand, which is huge! Before we started using the No Fear Shakespeare editions, which have contemporary English “translations” on the facing page, we often struggled simply to comprehend the plays even after the first read-through. We now have enough veteran members with deep knowledge of the language that everyone is carried along with them, even though we don’t have No Fear Twelfth Nights yet.

We moved directly on to scene ii. Among the highlights in this ridiculous scene was a returning member giving a perfect rendition of badly mispronounced French. I mentioned that the entire subplot of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria has always struck me as just a bunch of friends sitting in the basement and making up plots. “Sounds like some of my friends at home!” chimed in one of the women, right on cue. Another veteran member has really taken to Maria. She will likely be home before the show, but “if I were here for the play,” she assured us, “I’d be Maria. I’d do it good!” This was a remarkable statement from a woman who could barely be coaxed out on stage as recently as last year--Maria is in at least half a dozen scenes and has dozens of lines.

No one had the energy to walk through this scene on its feet, so we went right into the next one. Scene iii is a dialogue between Sebastian and Antonio--and the second time we have seen them in the play. A number of the women were taken by the intimate language between them. “Wow!” exclaimed one. “Antonio has the hots for Sebastian--clearly!” She imitated Antonio’s imagined low voice: “‘Hey, you go into town. Here’s my purse; buy yourself something nice.’” Everyone laughed.

Another member pushed back gently. “I don’t think it’s nothing funny here… I feel like he landed here and he found this guy, and he has to trust him.” The first woman countered, “But they just met!” The second woman stuck to her understanding. “But if you was on an island,” she said, “and somebody popped up and needed help, and it was just much would it matter to you that you just met?” She went on, talking about how, in Romeo & Juliet (in which she played the nurse five years ago), “people fall in love at first sight. They just see them and decide, that’s what I want.”

Frannie asked about all the love at first sight in Twelfth Night, especially Olivia, who falls in love with Orsino offstage. The same woman came right back with “I thought Olivia was just vulnerable.” Her statement caused a little buzz in the group, as people considered this simple but interesting assessment. “Yeah,” agreed a new member, “she didn’t want to see men for, like, seven years?... After the death of her brother.”

The longtime member who had begun by offering an alternate explanation of Sebastian and Antonio’s intimacy was far from done, though (she warned us that “I feel the [Shakespeare] Holy Ghost coming on!” a reference to an amazing moment last season). “I think sometimes we’re crippled by the No Fear,” she said. She talked about how for years she had felt unable to understand the language of the plays. She even talked about how, when she was in The Tempest, she didn’t fully understand some of the lines until she was saying or hearing them onstage in performance. And she described a moment of laughing aloud at a joke in Twelfth Night while reading it in the original. At that moment, she said, she felt pride in her progress over years of work with Shakespeare in Prison. This moment, familiar to all of us who grow to love Shakespeare, when the words no longer seem like an arcane code that takes tremendous effort to decipher, is a pleasure that we could recognize. But for this woman, it is that and more--her accomplishment is truly staggering, to get to a place where she could laugh aloud to herself while reading a Shakespearean comedy on her bunk. Frannie told her how exciting this was to hear, while at the same time reassuring everyone that there’s nothing wrong with relying on the No Fear—not only does it take time to get as comfortable with the language as she is, there are different learning styles best suited to different versions of the text. It’s been very beneficial to have ensemble members at Parnall reading from two editions, and it will make our work go that much faster at WHV to have someone so fluent in the ensemble. “Congratulations,” said Frannie to her, “you have become a resource!”

At last, a new member who has expressed a lot of anxiety about performing in public read a short monologue from Richard III. Her eyes were glued to the text, but she got through it, and everyone gave her a big round of applause! “That got my heart racing!” she exclaimed. She said that it was the first time she had ever done anything like that. She also shared about wanting to do an angry monologue (which this one certainly was!) because of some anger she feels at her family situation. A monologue felt like a safe place to put that feeling, and she said that she was a little frustrated that she couldn’t channel it more during her performance. “I have the anger,” she said. “But whenever I come into the ensemble, I can’t keep the anger. It all goes away.” Frannie made sure she knew that she’s allowed to express anger in the circle, and the others nodded vigorously, but she said she just didn’t want that. She also described taking steps to ensure that her work at prison would not interfere with this group. “I’m not going to let them take that away from me,” she said emphatically. “This is a space where I feel like myself.”

What was most striking about her words was not the sentiment they expressed--it is always good to hear such positive and affirming things about the program, but many of our members have shared similar feelings--it was how early in her first season she had come to feel this way. Barely six weeks in, she feels like she has found a home. More than anything, this speaks to the open, safe, welcoming culture that is nurtured and sustained by the core members of our ensemble. They have set the tone, and they have made Shakespeare in Prison the sort of ensemble that can enfold and become indispensable in a person’s life in so short a time. This is nothing short of remarkable.