Season Eight: Week 10

Tuesday / November 6
Written by Matt

Today was a little lightly attended, and as people came in, they expressed some surprise that we were present. It’s election day, and many MDOC facilities don’t have the staff to run programs at all--and the ones that do run programs often have to cut them back. But were were there!

After we lowered the ring, everyone was looking around for what to do next. As so often happens, a veteran member cut through the noise to save the day. “We’re playing Freeze!” she announced. A number of the usual suspects jumped right into this game, which is a perennial favorite. Two players create a scene (clearly defining the relationship, the setting, and the conflict) and play it out until anyone from the rest of the ensemble shouts “FREEZE!” The players freeze in position, and the person who stopped the action replaces one of them, taking her exact position, and begins another scene. As much fun as it is, Freeze is actually a really challenging exercise; it requires not just bravery and the ability to think quickly, but also the ability to concisely establish a character and situation out of nothing, and, what is hardest, you have no control over how long your scene goes on.

Even though the game mostly stayed among the regulars, almost everyone jumped in at some point, and it definitely raised the energy level in the room. Highlights were: Frannie establishing that she was in the market for bargain prosthetics, and being handed a peg-leg by one of the women. In another scene, at “The Front,” one woman leapt onto her belly on the floor and began “swimming” to escape the danger. And a woman who got roped into a drab Lord of the Rings-style scene I created in a moment of panic, sick of squatting over the “Pit of Doom” (like I said, a moment of panic), decided that she had a magic wand, closed my pit, opened the “Pit of Gloom,” and tried to get me to jump in it, ending the scene.

After the game, we discussed it. We all agreed that the game is good preparation for the inevitable moments when “you’re on stage and you forget a line and you gotta improvise.” For a moment, we talked about how we’ve supported each other in previous years in those times. Last year’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth remembered a scene that went off the rails during performance, and they had to work together to get through it. “She carried me,” our ex-Lady Macbeth said of Macbeth, who had covered for her. Our former Macbeth allowed that she had done most of the work in that moment, but then added, “I feel like I could only pick it up because, when you were ‘done,’ you gave me a look,” and she knew she needed to cover.

A woman who resisted playing games for a long time added that she would have been better last season (her first) if she had pushed herself to do the games. Another woman, who almost never plays games, said that she enjoys watching the games but doesn’t think she can “do it.” At that, Maria, who is a professional stage manager, shared how hard she finds improv. Even though nobody spoke up directly in response, there are often benefits down the road when facilitators can openly share our own limitations. It demystifies the process, and it validates the difficulty of what we do, whether that struggle is with improv or memorization or reading or speaking in public.

The woman who kicked us off continued to lead us forward, suggesting that we work on the first scene of the play. After a quick discussion of how many people should be on stage, we ended up with a whole entourage--all but a couple of people--lounging all over the stage in Orsino’s pleasure palace. Frannie jumped right in with guidance, giving us prompts based on classic twentieth-century theatre exercises. We tried living in our characters for a moment, almost in tableau, no one speaking, before launching into the scene. Then we tried taking Orsino’s energy/emotions and magnifying them a hundredfold.

Before this round, Orsino took off her shoes in preparation. Another woman asked her why she was doing that. “Because,” the first answered slyly, “I came to slay!”

“If music be the food of love, play on!” she exclaimed. We all swooned and gasped! “Give me excess of it!” We all went wild, and she continued.

“Enough! No more!” she said at last, bringing the ecstasy to a halt as we sobbed into our sleeves around her.

And so on.

Next, we tried it in the opposite way: we expressed the opposite of Orsino’s emotion, magnified a hundredfold. Afterwards, Orsino seemed exhausted and little peeved. “I couldn’t be heard above the laughing,” she said with faux poutiness. A new member seemed a little surprised. “I feel like there were places where that worked!” She explained that maybe the court is sick of Orsino’s antics and may react negatively to the speech. And, on second thought, Orsino said that she hadn’t really paid much attention to what everyone else was doing. Orsino, she said, is oblivious. “I was in my own head.” A few moments later, she added, “He’s just… a ball of confusion.”

Afterwards, we all decided that having a crowd of people onstage was important to telling the story. This play, unlike most of the ones we have done lately, may be one where it makes sense to crowd the stage with bodies. A usually quiet woman had a vision of Orsino pulling petals off a flower. That gave another woman an idea: Curio, the attendant, could be transcribing Orsino’s musings, running after his master with a pad of paper. This led to a whole string of fun ideas, sillier and sillier. People seemed excited just to play around with the text and ideas for staging, which is very encouraging. We’re beginning to find our way forward with this play.

Friday / November 9
Written by Coffey

Tonight we welcomed four new members into the ensemble. As we all brought down the ring together with Frannie explaining the exercise, step by step, a veteran member jumped in, guiding the new members through the ring exercise.

Once the ring was brought down, the new members left with Frannie and a longtime member for their orientation, and one woman shared some Twelfth Night dramaturgy she had discovered over the weekend. She shared first the background of the setting of Twelfth Night, describing the traditional celebration of the twelfth night of Christmas as “a time when you could let off steam within confines, like the purge.” According to her research, the twelfth night of Christmas was traditionally a time of role reversals, pranks, heavy drinking, and nonstop parties, which explained the shenanigans within the play. She also shared background information on the play itself, revealing that the story of Twelfth Night isn’t an original of Shakespeare’s, but a spoof of themes found in other popular stories of the era. “Shakespeare was the original spoofer!” she explained, as she described Of Apollonius and Silla and The Deceived Ones, two stories from which Shakespeare drew most of his material for Twelfth Night. “This is the 1500s version of Scary Movie,” the woman said. “Since it’s already kind of a spoof, maybe we could find ways to incorporate modern TV and movie references.” This began a brainstorming session as the women came up with ways to include our own spoofs of modern TV shows and celebrities in our performances of Twelfth Night (Cheers and a cardboard cutout of Fabio came up as promising spoof sources).

After the brainstorming session we set to work by putting Act, Scene iii, on its feet. It was during this scene that one ensemble member found an opportunity for us to spoof, noting that Sir Andrew’s ridiculous dancing “should be the Hammer dance or a break dance”. One woman noted the recognizable aspects of the scene. “Sometimes fact is funnier than fiction,” she said, pointing out that Sir Toby’s freeloading and Sir Andrew’s obnoxious behavior are comic tropes that can still be found in our own society.

As we moved into Act I, Scene iv, the energy began to dissolve. This was partially due to a lack of clarity regarding Viola’s/Cesario’s motivations and her relationship with Orsino. This led to an interesting discussion, as some women suggested that Orsino could be subconsciously attracted to Cesario, which could add a layer of tension, given that Viola doesn’t want to be found out. Two women got up and re-did the scene with that tension in mind, which gave the scene a bit more texture.

Moving into Act I, scene v, we lost a good portion of our energy, as various distractions took us repeatedly out of the scene. The two women playing Maria and Feste found the top of the scene difficult, as the characters’ convoluted string of jokes proved a bit hard to follow. The woman playing Feste suggested that they sit and perform the first section of the scene face to face rather than on its feet. This helped the scene to have a better pace and drew more attention to the intricacies of the language, but didn’t help to get the energy back up as we continued the long scene. Though the scene is an important one to the rest of the play, we all discovered together that, without enough energy, I.v can easily get jumbled and bland. In reflecting on the scene, however, the women were able to advise each other, reminding each other to slow down, breathe, and pay attention to punctuation. In our post-scene discussion, we also spent some time analyzing Duke Orsino. One woman suggested that we, the audience, should feel sympathy for him: “Everybody understands Orsino. He want what he want, but he can’t have it, which is tragic, and we feel for him.”

As we wrapped up I.v, Frannie brought the new members back from their orientation. A veteran ensemble member led the new members in a round of “three questions” in which the new members introduced themselves by sharing what brought them to SIP, what they hope to gain from SIP, and what gift they bring to the ensemble. The new women shared their hopes for their work, with one woman explaining that she had been inspired to join by the transformation she had seen in an SIP alumna she used to live with.

The new members’ offerings of hope and enthusiasm for the group helped us to end on a positive note. As we raised the ring with the new members, a woman who joined in September and has been very slowly easing her way into active participation said, “Could I do a late check-in?” We called a “blue car” (focus and listen!) and gave her all our attention. “I just wanna say…” she began, clearly nervous but determined to express this, “That I really do wanna do the improv, but I’ve got PTSD and freak out when anyone touches me. So I get scared to get up because I don’t know what anyone’s gonna do. But I think if no one touches me, I might be able to do it. So… I just wanted to tell you guys that.”

Every person in the room nodded and murmured their support. “Thank you so much for sharing that with us,” Frannie said. “We can definitely do the improv without touching you! Feel free to remind us before you go on stage each time, too, to make sure we don’t forget.” Everyone agreed, and the woman thanked us, looking relieved. We raised the ring together, invigorated and hopeful for what the rest of the season might bring.