Season Eight: Week 5

Tuesday / October 2

Written by Frannie

Tonight was our monologue-off! Those of us who shared each brought something a little different. During check-in, a longtime member, who’d said she’d be performing something from a show we did years ago, told me she was going to throw me for a loop: she brought in a piece of her own. “I’m excited,” she said. “Being in my element, people being receptive… I was like, ‘I could do a Shakespeare piece,’ but I wanted to do something that hit home for me, and I thought, ‘What better place to do it?” She was definitely excited — I don’t remember what the segue was, but my next note is, “Turns into Oprah with mints.” (“You get a mint! And you get a mint! And YOU get a mint!”)

The first woman to share was last season’s Porter, performing her version of the drunken monologue and scene. If you were reading along then, you probably remember how freeing it was when she rewrote the piece, in keeping with its spirit, but with language that resonated more for her and, honestly, was much funnier. Somehow it had gotten even more hilarious after a few months, and she’s super comfortable with improvising now, too: when med lines were called and a few people had to leave, she called out (in character), “Where y’all going during my play?!” She then shared the process by which she developed the piece with our newbies to encourage them to get creative rather than give up when things are challenging.

Emma, one of our facilitator apprentices, got up to do one of Anne’s monologues from Richard III. She was honest about being kind of nervous, never really having done any theatre — and she was also honest about how excited she was to put a speech on its feet that she’s always loved. A longtime ensemble member stood in as Richard, and Emma launched into the monologue, at one point pausing to say, “Ooooooh, that felt good!” She reflected afterward that she had felt very liberated by diving in, and that “it’s always fun to curse somebody!”. I asked what everyone had gotten from the piece, and one woman said, “You were pissed off because someone got injured, and you want revenge.”

Then a woman, who was pretty closed off last season but has been much more open this year, shared an original poem, warning us first that it was very dark — and it was. And it was good. “How do you feel?” Kyle asked when she’d finished. “Shaky,” she smiled, saying, too, that she was glad she’d shared it. We asked her if she could tell us more about the piece, and she said it was “about the thoughts that take over your mind and hold you captive in a false reality”. We loved it. “It took a lot of nerves for me to share that,” she said.

The woman who played Edward in Richard III got up to perform her big monologue, albeit in its original form rather than as we’d cut it. “You know I’m shy, right?” she grinned. I looked over at Kyle, who was absolutely beaming — we’ve always loved her take on this piece. She went up on lines several times — it’s a long speech, and it’s been a very long time since she’s performed it — but, rather than getting down on herself the way she used to, she simply asked for line and kept going. Her first comment afterward was about not having remembered some of the lines, but, again, the comment wasn’t harsh. We told her that we’d loved it anyway.

The woman who played Margaret in Richard III rose to perform one of that character’s monologues, but without cuts and with “a different take” than when we staged the show. Instead of railing against those around her, as is traditional, she was very quiet with the piece, almost as if talking to herself. This increased the emotional intensity in a way and made us listen more closely to what she was saying. “It’s kind of what I’m going through,” she said afterward. “The first time I did it, she was very vengeful, and, like, ‘I told you so.’ But I look at those words different now.” Another woman said, “I could feel your emotions in it.”

Then the woman who’d been so excited at check-in asked us all to move from our circle into the house so she could use the whole stage for her piece. It took a few minutes for her to get to a place where she was ready, and then she committed wholeheartedly to an original piece that was part spoken word, part song, and part dance. It was fantastic, personal, and brutally honest, bringing several other ensemble members to tears as they related to what she said. When she was finished, she stood backstage with a friend. We couldn’t see her to know what was going on, but we got the feeling that she was upset. Another ensemble member and Kyle went to her. After a few moments, one of the women said, “Should we all go back?” We did, surrounding her with praise, support, and gratitude for what she’d shared. As we did, one of the women suddenly popped out from the door behind her, making us all laugh and feel ready to move on.

Facilitators also shared monologues, fully committed, and with varying degrees of “success”. I had a particularly spectacular fail, as I attempted to do a piece that I’d memorized only the day before, but just couldn’t stay focused due to a really bad headache. That said, the ensemble fully supported and encouraged me, and no one made me feel badly when I gave up and said I’d try again next week. I thanked them for that, and one woman said, “No, you doing that made us all feel a lot better about when we mess up.”

A new ensemble member shared a poem by Yeats that she really likes, throwing her book on the ground in a moment of total commitment to the piece’s passion. It was great! Afterward, she said that her heart was racing, but that she felt good.

Before we left, I handed out a packet of information about Commedia dell’arte, including pictures of the characters, so we can all think a little more about if/how we’d like to draw on that tradition. We’ll see where it goes!

Friday / October 5

Written by Matt

Today was a little bit sparsely attended—by everybody! Frannie was out of town at a conference with a Shakespeare in Prison alumna, and a couple of our regulars in the group were taking a day off to deal with personal issues. Still, a strong core group was present, and we gathered into a tight circle to read some more monologues after check-in.

Unlike the big performances of Tuesday, the readings today were intimate and performed sitting in our circle. They were no less affecting, however, since we were all so close together and listening intently. A new member read a poem that had stuck with her from another program, and she described wanting to read it to the group as an act of solidarity and support. “Us, as females,” she said, “we usually try to bring each other down,” and she commented on how comfortable she felt in the circle of our ensemble, where everybody was there to lift each other up. A bunch of the other women started nodding and saying, “yes, yes,” as she spoke. Another member, who used to be very shy, read a poem she wrote in a different, and very intense, program. As she read, the others murmured their support and agreement. Afterwards, the woman who read said that she wanted to share her poem because she wants the ensemble to know what she’s struggled with and is striving to overcome. She said that she’s trying to embody the mantra of “catch it, check it, change it” that is taught in a number of other programs.

It had been a long time since we had read anything from the play, so one veteran had to bring us up to speed. It helped that the scene we were reading (Act II, scene iii) is silly and high-energy and relatively easy to follow. It also helped that the woman who volunteered to play Feste was fearless about singing the fool’s lines, many of which are delivered in song, culminating in a drunken duet with Sir Toby Belch. We were having so much fun that when our Sir Andrew Aguecheek had to leave, a notoriously shy ensemble member stepped right up to fill in, and helped to ridicule our hilariously self-serious Malvolio, whose lack of amusement gave everyone even more raucous energy. Maria was played by another normally reticent woman, who figured out halfway through the scene that Maria was “a bitchy bartender.” “Oh, okay,” she said with a definitive nod. “I got this!”

After reading the scene through, some members were confused, but our Feste was ready with a detailed explanation of the entire scene, including the plot hatched by Maria against Malvolio—to convince the humorless steward that Olivia is in love with him. This addition to the already complicated love-triangle-or-is-it-a-rhombus had a few members scratching their heads. “We’re gonna need a whole chart,” offered a new member, whereupon the woman next to her opened a notebook page to draw the diagram out as yet another with a firm grasp of the intrigues talked it out. The chart was a mess of arrows and lines—this is a Shakespearean comedy, after all!—but we all felt more confident after seeing it represented visually.

We put the scene up on its feet, which increased the energy level even more. A new member filled in as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and afterwards said that she preferred reading those lines out while being able to move and interact with others; “it helped to put some feeling behind it,” she said. The woman who played Malvolio, said that she was beginning to identify with his seriousness: “It made me feel kinda powerful,” she said of her entrance into the scene, “like, here are all these kids, and I’m an adult.”

We worked briefly through the next scene before leaving, but agreed that we needed to go back and cover it again with more people and more time—a lot happens, and the love-polygon gets even more complicated as Viola tries to explain her love for Orsino to the clueless man’s own face. What was most exciting about this scene’s first run-through was who volunteered to read. Feste was played by the same veteran, who reprised her singing role. A woman who used to seem super-shy gave an over-the-top reading of Orsino, and a brand-new member volunteered to read Viola, the first time she had read anything in front of the ensemble. It’s always gratifying to see people come into the ensemble, especially now that we have such a strong core group, and find the confidence within themselves—and the support of others—to take their first step into reading Shakespeare aloud in front of the whole group.