Season Eight: Week 11

Tuesday / November 13
Written by Frannie

As we walked in today, a longtime member waved a book at me and said, “[NAME] gave me her book.” This is usually code for “she’s quitting,” and I said, “Is she late or…?” “I don’t know,” replied the woman soberly, “But she gave me her book.” As I nodded my head, clearly disappointed, she said, “I’m just joking—she’ll be here in a few.” Throwing my pad of paper on the table, I said, “Ughhhh! You know you can’t do that to me!” She started laughing hysterically. A few others giggled, but most were confused. “She used to do this to me all the time!” I explained. “I’d walk in for a performance, and she’d be like, ‘I hate to tell you this, but so-and-so went to seg.’ And it was never true!” The woman continued cracking up. “Man, it’s been a long time!” I laughed. “That joke is like three years in the making!”

One of the newbies shared that she’s been reading just the “translation” side of the No Fear edition and that she really likes the story. “It’s a good way to keep up on the plot, isn’t it?” I said. A longtime member smiled and said, “You know, I love the Arden.” I asked if she would have felt that way when she joined the group four years ago. “Hell, no!” she laughed, thumbing through her book a bit. But things are different now. “This year, when we read [the play], it’s kinda cool because I understand what’s going on.”

As part of our quest to keep the energy level up and find more ways of bringing people into active participation, I introduced “Bombs and Shields,” one of my favorite Theatre of the Oppressed exercises. Everyone spreads out around the room and silently chooses one person to be their “bomb” and another to be their “shield.” The objective is to keep the shield between oneself and one’s bomb—and everyone is trying to do so simultaneously. After explaining the game and taking a moment, I launched it with a “Go!”

It was immediate chaos! We were in a small-ish classroom, rather than the auditorium, and it was tough for people to keep themselves “safe.” Just before I counted down from 10, ending the game, one woman picked up her shield, protecting herself at any cost!

I called “Freeze!” and everyone came to a halt, laughing and shouting over one another. I asked if we could try to speak one at a time—there clearly was a lot that folks wanted to say! One thing we noticed was that there was a whole mess of people whose bomb-shield relationships looked a heck of a lot like the “love polygon” in Twelfth Night. “This is just like the play—she’s falling for him, he’s falling for her!” said one woman. “She’s falling for shim!” laughed another. “Then I guess I was a lot like Malvolio,” said one woman. “My shield was like Sonic the Hedgehog!” said another.

After talking some more, determining that only one person had stuck to a strategy while the rest had been in pure survival mode (though a number chose the tallest people in the room as shields), we went for another round. It was even nuttier this time! We discovered afterward that part of what made that happen was that even more people chose the same two ensemble members as either bomb or shield, which both of those women noticed and found somewhat exasperating (but funny).

“I feel like it gives some insight into the play,” mused one woman. “These characters each have their own objectives, but they’re not telling anybody, so they’re all just sneaking around.” Another woman nodded and expanded the conversation to be about the ensemble itself. “We can’t be playing bombs and shields on stage,” she said. We all need to have the same bomb and the same shield.

We decided to see what would happen if we began walking through the play with 1.2, following it with 1.1, as is often done in production. There were many new people in the room, so I went through the basics: we’re walking through right now to get a handle on the plot and write down any ideas we have, and we’re not setting blocking or giving real acting notes. Constructive criticism, though, is important, and I explained what that means in our group. “No one ever does everything wrong. The second you’ve walked on stage, you’ve done something right. There’s always something to build on.”

“All right,” I continued, “Who’s gonna read Viola?” Before anyone else could speak, a brand new member said, “I’ll do it!” Then another newbie said, “I wanna read the Captain!” A couple others and Matt volunteered to be the sailors. The whole bunch rose and walked to the front of the room, preparing to enter the “stage.”

But Viola stayed in the middle of the space, a little lost. “Guys, this is way out of my comfort zone,” she said, and we cheered and applauded her for giving it a go anyway! “Have you read the scene before?” I asked. She hadn’t, and another woman cheerfully summed it up for her. Viola looked down at her book, then back at us. “Do I just wanna read it, or do I act it or… what?” she asked, turning to me. Before I could say anything, a longtime member said, “Frannie, can I take it?” Of course I said she could. “There’s no right or wrong way to do it,” she said. “Read it how you feel it, take your time, and make it natural.”

It seemed to us that the sailors needed an activity, and the idea we went with was for them to come stumbling in from the shipwreck, exhausted. We’ve reserved a notebook just for recording our ideas so we don’t forget them, and here’s how one of the ensemble members wrote these down—it captures the moment’s flow pretty perfectly:

Sailors are def. acting shipwrecked and taking fish out of their hats & crabs & eels (unending eels like magic) out of their mouth
Squid stuck to their face. Puke up boat.
Picking seaweed off her & others
Fuck it, have Sponge Bob on there too lol
Sailors can hardly walk

After this magnificent brainstorm (and I’ll cop to the boat-puking idea; most of my Twelfth Night ideas thus far have to do with vomiting for some reason), the scene began. The sailors staggered on with the captain as Viola looked on, confused. “Hold on!” she said (as herself, not the character), “What is going on?!” Someone responded that this is how the scene starts, and she said, “Oh, god, okay. I’m so sorry—my bad.”

“Oh my god, no, that was so funny!” I laughed. “Oh! Maybe we could even start the play that way! If we’re going as silly as we’re talking about, maybe we make it really self-aware about being a play and, like, play with moments like this.” This new woman stared at me, confused. “This could be one of those really magnificent mistakes,” I said. “Like, this could be staged exactly like this. And maybe the actor playing Viola is a diva or something, says exactly what [NAME] just said, and makes them start the play over.” The idea was recorded in the book—we’ll see whether or not it sticks!

We started the scene again and made it all the way through this time. The stand out moment was when Viola said to the Captain, “For saying so, there’s gold,” and all three sailors (who were on their knees) rushed over, putting their hands out in hopes that they could have some gold, too. It was so smooth, it was as if they’d planned it ahead of time—but they hadn’t! One person followed an instinct, and the others followed her. Perfect.

Afterward, Viola stood there for a moment, looking a little dazed. “Was that the first time you’ve done something like that?” I asked. She said it was, and we all applauded her again (no such thing as too much applause!). “How did it feel?” I asked. “Intense,” she replied, “but it felt good… It took me somewhere else.” Matt asked if that had felt good. “Yeah, it felt great, actually,” she said, still a little stunned. “My mind was in a different place… It took me out of right now. I liked it a lot.” A woman who struggled with stage fright last season said, “I applaud you just for getting out of your comfort zone.”

We drifted into a conversation about what it might be like if Viola weren’t actually good at pretending to be a guy—or if there are moments when she could nearly expose herself (no pun intended!). In an all-woman cast, we need to take care that things are clear for our audience, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with this idea. Perhaps the slip-ups are when she’s caught off-guard. “I feel like her most vulnerable moments are her conversations with Orsino,” said one woman. We all agreed—the stakes are very high during all of that double-talk.

“Do you think the audience will sympathize with Viola?” asked one woman. I asked her what she meant. “Well, I don’t know,” she continued. “Because she’s a little shady.” She went on to say that the impetus for the disguise is unclear, and the whole thing seems really “evil” to her: the continued lying, in particular, feels like “preying.” One woman shook her head ruefully and said, “Well, it ain’t nothing we’re not all used to.”

“I mean, she does have a moment when she realizes the harm that can come of disguises,” I said. But the first woman quickly replied, “She realizes it, but she doesn’t do anything to rectify the situation. She just leaves it to time. ‘Oh, time will work this all out.’ She just keeps doing what she’s doing. It’s shady. It is.” Another woman laughed, “It’s a sixteenth century Catfish!” We agreed to keep an eye on this—we made Iago and Richard III sympathetic, I reminded the group, so we can certainly do it with Viola.

I’d had an idea earlier in the conversation that I was sitting on till a good moment came, and now the women told me to spill it. Watching the three folks who’d played the sailors gave me this idea of having three people—a kind of Greek chorus, or a group of zannis—move throughout the scenes, executing a lot of gags and playing the “extras” (and, apparently, operating puppets; there was a request for seagull puppets to peck at people in this scene). “So they wouldn’t speak or anything?” asked one woman. “Nope!” I said. “That would be like me!” exclaimed a woman who told me when she joined just four days ago that she couldn’t possibly perform because of her fear of crowds.

Things have started to gel with this ensemble since we’ve all made an effort to come at the work with more energy, and tonight felt like things had really begun to fall into place. I’m personally feeling much better, and my impression is that the others are, too.

Friday / November 16
Written by Matt

At check-in today, our budding dramaturge had some more goodies for us. Reading a seemingly unrelated book about mythology, she found a reference to Twelfth Night! She talked about a Greek myth about a man who saw a goddess naked and, as punishment, was turned into a deer. His story didn’t end well--he was stalked and killed by his own hounds--but this tidbit explains some of the dialogue in the first scene. Everyone was impressed not only with this information, but with the woman’s keen eye and knack for explaining complicated references. What a treat!

The core of today’s session was the Mirror series, which comes from the same theatrical tradition as Tuesday’s game of Bombs and Shields. At its simplest, mirroring is done by two partners. One, the “subject,” makes slow, fluid motions of their body. The other, the “image,” follows those motions exactly. Ideally, the subject’s motions would be so clearly communicated and the image’s attention to detail would be such that an observer would not know which one was leading and which was following. The partners then switch roles.

The game progresses from there to more subtle and complex mirroring exercises, but even the most basic version is challenging. Being the image requires intense concentration and willingness to be led into positions that may feel uncomfortable in one way or another. Being the subject requires the ability to take care of the partner--keeping movements easy to follow and slow enough to keep up with, and safeguarding the physical and emotional safety of the image--and also, like all improv, being the subject carries the challenge of silencing or ignoring the part of one’s mind that worries about making the “wrong” move. For both, maintaining focus and eye contact is a challenge, as the game can go on for a long time.

From the simplest expression of the game, partners progress to combine the subject/image roles: each partner is both subject and image, as the two move together organically, passing leadership between them or allowing the “leader” role to dissolve completely. From there, the game changes to encourage distortions and responsive gestures; synchronization becomes less important than passing energy between partners. The next exercise takes that concept up a notch, as both partners express their own beauty (the “Narcissistic Mirror”) before finally, in the last iteration, coming naturally to a neutral stance together.

The whole progression took about a half hour, and we settled in to debrief after.

The first pair to check in spoke for many of us. One woman said she didn’t completely understand the point of the game. She added that she struggled to take it seriously enough; she was constantly fighting back self-consciousness and discomfort. Instantly, her partner jumped in: “But you regrouped yourself!” she said in support. “I feel like I was dependent on [my partner] for most of the exercises.” Her partner expressed surprise and said, “Well, I felt like I was depending on you!” The second woman explained that she felt comfortable with the simple movements, but she really relied on her partner for the emotional content of the exercise, which came later on. “Okay!” said the first woman with finality. “I think I understand the game now! We worked together.”

As we went around the room, we discovered that each pair had a story, and each story was different. Lauren shared that she had a tough time making the switch to call and response, rather than simply mirroring movements. “Yeah,” her partner added. “I didn’t know what to do there.” But, Lauren and her partner added, they felt that by the end of the first exercise (subject/image), they felt so in-synch that there was almost no transition at all to the next, leaderless exercise. Another woman said that she and her partner actually did really well at the call and response, passing energy fluidly between them.

My partner, who is brand new to the group, checked in for herself. “At first, I was really self-conscious,” she said, adding that she was preoccupied with the difference in our heights. Then she voiced two common feelings: “I was trying so hard to be ‘right,’” she said, and “For me, looking into someone’s eyeballs is an intimate thing.” A lot of people nodded along to both of these sentiments. “Me and my partner was just stuck,” chimed in a woman who, with her partner, had had trouble focusing on the game at all. “I couldn’t think of what to do.”

A veteran shared that she couldn’t get her partner to move as freely as she wanted to. She said that she kept trying different movements, testing her partner’s limitations, until--and this is a testament to this woman’s sharp intuition and role as a leader in the group--she decided to push the boundaries in another way. “I couldn’t really get her to move,” she said, “that’s how we ended up on the floor. I was, like, we going down!” Everyone laughed. Then she connected the exercise to our work on the plays. “It’s like working with a partner on the stage,” she said, “and you want to go bigger and do more, but the other person won’t do it. And it just puts you in your shell.”

“The eye contact was really personal,” shared a brand-new member, circling back to what my partner had shared earlier. But she said she really liked the feeling eventually. “You trust that person, and some of that trust bounces back onto you,” she explained. “I feel like the purpose was to become one,” said the senior member who had spoken a moment before.

One woman, who is usually very quiet and rarely participates in games, jumped in to say that it went really well for her. Actually, she said, eye contact was toughest for her when she wasn’t moving. Another woman said that she had a strange sensation during the exercise of observing herself gazing at her partner. Outside of prison, she said, “I dress loud. I’ve had lots of experiences of being stared at,” but that she felt like she was “giving the creep stare.” The first woman commented on that. “Naturally, to look into someone’s eyes is an intimate experience,” she said, adding that it must be really common to feel uncomfortable. Someone else said, “It’s like you’re looking into their soul.”

Frannie mentioned that, for many people, it’s not so much staring into someone else’s eyes that is uncomfortable and vulnerable, it’s having someone else stare into our eyes. Being seen. What do they see there? “Oh my god, you’re so right,” said one woman. This clearly resonated with a lot of the women—a few actually started crying—and Frannie quickly pointed out that you can always take yourself out of the game if you need to.

This section written by Frannie

The conversation continued. One woman said the hardest thing for her had been the “narcissistic” part of the exercise: “I didn’t know, like, how your body could look happy or whatever… I feel like you can only really express that with your face.” Another woman agreed, saying, “Yeah, we should do more stuff to work on our faces.”

“See,” I said, revving a bit, “This is what society does to women. This is what it does to us.” (There is nothing like working with incarcerated women to feed and shape your own brand of feminism.) “I shouldn’t need to see your face to know you’re happy. You should be able to express joy with your whole body. But we’re so shut down physically, we don’t know how to do it.” I paused, looking around the circle of women, all of whom were fully locked in to what I was saying. “Damn, Frannie,” said one.

“Joy is big! It’s huge!” I continued. “It’s a giant, crazy emotion! But look at us! Look how we’re all sitting!” Lots of crossed arms, crossed legs, hunching over—and it was not cold in that room. “We take up as little space as possible when we should be free to be BIG. If I can’t just express joy with my face. I need my whole body. I need to do something like this!” I demonstrated a few expansive gestures and a happy dance.

“But we don’t feel like we’re allowed to do that,” I said. I hearkened back to the pair who’d ended up on the floor because the “image” wouldn’t follow the “subject” into large gestures. “It’s hard to go that big, isn’t it? Especially if you’ve experienced trauma. Because it makes us vulnerable—just as much as eye contact does. So I don’t blame you for a second. You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said to the image, who had begun to chastise herself. “It’s not that you can’t go there. It’s that you’re not there yet.” I turned to the subject. “You are there, and that’s great. But look how you took care of your partner. You didn’t try to force her to do what she was clearly uncomfortable with. You adapted so she could stay with you. That’s what we have to do as an ensemble.”

Back to Matt!

We transitioned into a less emotional conversation. A woman who has been slowly dipping her toe into games and reading on stage said that she has really enjoyed the last two days of games. “It’s a good introduction to improv,” she said, saying she felt intimidated by a lot of the other games we play, which are based in improv comedy and require a lot of quick thinking on your feet and which put a lot of pressure on individuals to be funny. In particular, she said, these games were easier because they required no speaking--in fact, they forbade it--and everybody was doing the game at the same time, so there was no “audience.”

The activities this week have made clear that we need to work a lot on moving and working together as an ensemble. Bombs & Shields and Mirrors have been so successful, and what we learn from them seems so directly related to our work on Twelfth Night, that a path forward seems increasingly obvious. This season has been different from the others--at least in recent years--but it’s good to feel like we’ve found fertile ground. We always say that each season of Shakespeare in Prison is different, and that our path is always dictated by the needs of the ensemble. It feels like this season has been putting that philosophy to the test. As frustrating as the past few months have been sometimes, and as lost as we have sometimes felt, it feels good to know that we are sticking to our word, trying all sorts of strategies to see what works. We’ve learned a lot. Taking a long view, it’s really exciting! Stay tuned!