Season Eight: Week 4

Tuesday / September 25

Written by Matt

The first order of business today was to add new members! It’s still early in the season, and it will never be easier to jump in than now. The group decided to bring on another five people. “Let’s keep it rolling!” said a veteran of many seasons. Another woman looked around at the rest of the ensemble and asked, “Does anybody else want to quit?” People laughed, but she persisted, “No, seriously! So we know how many.”

The first exercise we played was an improv game called Rant, in which one member of the ensemble begins to “rant” about some subject, approaching it with a single, clear emotion. At some point, another member tags and replaces the person in the center, resuming the “rant” with the same emotion as the first, only more intense. The game continues until someone reaches peak intensity in whatever emotion (anger, fear, happiness, etc.).

First up, the rant was about macaroni and cheese, which was something almost everyone could agree on--mostly on their anger about “fancy” mac and cheese. One woman grew so angry that she threw her own shoe at the ground, and another simply screamed with no words, which ended the scene. During the quick debrief after the round, one member seemed confused. Frannie boiled it down: “Mostly, we’re just screaming at each other.” The woman seemed relieved. “I can do that,” she assured us, and hollered one of her lines from last season at the top of her lungs: “WHAT SIGHTS, MY LORD?”

For the second round, the first member to speak picked a topic a little closer to home for many of the women: parole. Quite unlike the generalized, sometimes cartoonish anger they had expressed about mac and cheese, many of the rants about this subject were personal and eloquent. “They have preconceived notions of who I am. What about my change? What about the part of me that is better than it was?” Other women built on the foundation, echoing the desire to be seen and heard. “They’ve never even met me.” “They don’t know us.” “All they see is a piece of paper.” It’s unusual to delve so deeply (and honestly) into something so personal this early in the season, and we thanked the woman who’d jump started it. This also led to a brief, but solid, conversation of how we want to express emotions that are “true”, rather than those that are “real”; this was a good example because, while everyone appreciated what was being done and expressed, they didn’t feel comfortable actively participating.

We played a few more rounds of Rant, trying out different emotions (like fear, in a Hitchcockian sequence about being afraid of birds).

Then we moved on to the text, and we finally finished Act I. After determining that one of our most expressive members was going completely against type in reading the self-serious Malvolio, we quickly ran through the end of Act I, scene v. A number of our veterans are delighted by Twelfth Night, especially after such a long run of tragedies. “I love it!” exclaimed one woman, “There’s just so much you can do with it!” Another woman agreed: “It mimics life in here a lot,” she said, including the shifting gender roles.

Already, many of the women are thinking about the possibilities for staging the play. “You have to figure out how to deliver to the audience that you are someone pretending to be someone else,” one said of Viola, and she said that this scene felt to her like it was straight out of her class on men and masculinity. When we began Act II, that same woman read Viola’s speech, and she--who has been in the group for a long time and has worked hard to get to this level of comfort and confidence with Shakespeare’s language--relished every syllable of the speech. “I nailed it, Frannie,” she said after she ended. Perhaps inspired by her example, the group decided in the closing moments of the session to have a “monologue-off” on Tuesday, whatever that means. I guess we’ll find out!

Friday / September 28

Written by Frannie

After an extended check-in, it was pretty clear that what we all needed was a chill evening — just to relax and have a little fun together, with no pressure to be productive. That’s perfectly fine sometimes, and, frankly, often turns out to be more productive than trying to force ourselves to “work”. That was definitely the case tonight.

I introduced a fabulous improv game called “Beat Poet”. In this game, one person at a time performs a “beat poem”, the title of which is suggested by the audience and often takes the form of two unrelated concepts. The idea is not to give a good performance, or even a mediocre one — both are totally acceptable, but this game is at its most fun when the poems are downright BAD. There is literally no way to do it wrong. The idea is just to let loose and free associate.

The game lasted far longer than I thought it would, which was exciting. There are always a few women in the ensemble who take to the games immediately, but it can be challenging to get a good number of people to participate. Improv is really, really scary when you’ve been conditioned to constantly doubt your ideas and abilities, to see your mistakes as catastrophic, and to fear messing up to a point of being immobilized. Improv can be truly loaded in a correctional setting.

Three of our vets started us off, committing wholeheartedly to some very, very bad poems: Government and Goldfish (“I just thought about how, when I was growing up, I had goldfish, and they just used to die… Like the government…”), Security Cameras on Mars, and Shrimps and Roses. The group grew increasingly relaxed, and one of our newbies said, “I’ll do it.” Everyone cheered — it’s no small thing to put yourself out there, period, and, since this game is particularly freeform, it requires a lot of trust in the ensemble and willingness to be vulnerable.

Her poem was Big Butts and Little Cars, and it was absolutely dreadful. We loved it. Then one of our vets, whose apparent role this year is to constantly let people know how much we want them to participate, even when they’re hesitant, slyly suggested that one of last season’s witches take a turn. When she hesitated, the vet said, “Do it as a character! Do it as your witch!” That did it: up she stood! The name of her poem was Witches and Chicken Soup, and, after taking a moment, she dove in, lunging and swooping, having a great time. “It was awesome,” she said afterward. “It just took me a minute to get into character.”

Then Matt, Lauren, and I went right in a row, with poems titled Mattitude with Good Hair; Kittens, Kings, and Costumes; and Coffee, Confidence, and a Sucky Play. (Those women know me so well.) Facilitators never hold back, given the opportunity to be silly and/or fail miserably, and all three of us definitely did both. We echoed what those who’d gone before had said: that knowing there was no way to do it wrong was liberating, even though the prospect of improvising a poem was kind of terrifying.

“Who’s next?” one of the women asked, and a newbie said she’d give it a try. This woman has, quietly but doggedly, held firm to her goal of stepping out of her comfort zone as much as possible to see what kind of confidence she can gain. That doesn’t mean that any of this is easy for her; it’s the opposite, and that makes her effort that much more admirable. She struggled with her poem, Mud Pies and Rollerskates, but no one tuned out or offered any criticism. Everyone stayed right with her, encouraging her and offering suggestions and ideas to help her through. This is what strengthens our ensemble: the willingness to buoy the members of our team who are struggling, to take joy in that, and to celebrate them even when others might say that they failed. We know what success truly looks like. It doesn’t always look like “good art”.

And then a returning member, who has never participated in a game before, said, “I’ll do it.”

“WHAT?!?!?!” I whooped, probably throwing something and, I think, stomping my feet (because I cannot be reasonable in moments like this). “OH MY GOD, FOR REAL????” She grinned and stepped into the circle. “Hot Dogs and Poetry!” someone yelled. The woman paused, thought for a moment, and then sharply raised a pointed index finger in front of her face. We shrieked with laughter, absolutely thrilled, and she performed a terrible, terrible poem with determination and a great sense of humor.

We erupted in applause as she sat back down, beaming, with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen on her face. “What was that like???” I asked (still sort of hyperventilating). “It wasn’t that bad!” she said. “At first I didn’t know what to do, but then when I remembered I couldn’t do it wrong, I kind of relaxed into it. It was kind of freeing.”

The woman who’d gone first took another turn (Caves and Flowers), and then she nudged a longtime member who’d walked in late, dejected and upset about something. She is usually very animated — if she’d been feeling better, she probably would have performed five poems — and she dragged herself to her feet, knowing that forcing herself to do things like this usually makes her feel at least a little better. An ensemble member gave her the title Shattered Glass and Roses, hoping she could use the drama of those images to let out some of her angst, and it seemed to work. “I didn’t feel as melancholy when I was up there,” she said.

And then. And then, and then, and then.

A four-year vet, who, in all that time, has never participated in a game like this (and very, very few besides) said, “Fuck it, I’ll do it.” I shrieked again — I can’t overstate how huge this was — and she entered the circle, clearly nervous but determined to push through it. This woman fought a wicked sword fight in Macbeth, and a returning member shouted, “Swords and Cotton Candy!” She grinned, shook her head, took a deep breath — and plunged to the ground, proceeding to lunge and crawl around the circle while saying words that I so don’t remember because they so didn’t matter, waving an invisible sword all over the place and finally coming to a very dramatic stop. We exploded. “That was amazing!!!” I yelled. “What happened???” With a huge smile, she laughed, “I just really want to be part of the group.” She is — she always has been — but we knew what she meant. “My heart was racing, but you all just seemed to be having so much fun! It was nice to let go.”

We were having such a good time, it didn’t seem like anyone felt like buckling down and doing anything linear, so we sort of stumbled into a “Shakespeare Jam”. One of the women absolutely loves Juliet’s “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” A few of us had some fun letting loose vocally on those lines, and then two of last season’s witches did the parts of “Double, double, toil and trouble…” that they remembered off the tops of their heads. Last season’s Macduff read some of her lines from a Complete Works, I performed Richard III’s opening soliloquy (which is stuck in my head forever, apparently), last season’s Macbeth did part of a monologue, and another woman read some of her lines from Macbeth. It was a good warm up for next Tuesday’s “Monologue-Off”, and we left on a cheery, positive note.

As we gathered our things, I made sure to check in with the two vets who’d played for the first time tonight. They were both beaming, and I’m sure I was, too. I’m practically dancing now, as I’m writing. Any breakthrough is exciting, but when that breakthrough has been a year — or four years — in the making, hoo boy. That is something else. What a thrill.