Season Eight: Week 12

Tuesday / November 20
Written by Frannie

A couple of ensemble members shared some great stuff during check-in tonight! One woman was involved in the groundbreaking for the new Vocational Village, which is very exciting, and we were glad to have her perspective on the event. Then she said, “And then the governor spoke… and guess which program he mentioned by name?”

“No way,” I said, and the others started to smile. Beaming, she continued, “Yep. ‘This facility has many great programs, including the wonderful Shakespeare program.’” As regular readers of this blog know, I tend to get a little loopy when something exciting happens, and this generally involves throwing whatever I’m holding on the floor. That is what happened in this moment, as I yelled, “SHUT UP!” She laughed and nodded. There may have been further shouting and pacing… and maybe a little dancing… on my part before we could move on.

Rest assured, I was far from the only one who was excited. We’ve all worked really hard over the years to make our program a trusted, valuable asset to WHV and MDOC—most ensemble members have been fiercely protective of it and have worked side-by-side with me to make the program run as best we can—and this endorsement, while casual, from the top-ranking official in our state is astonishing. It validates all that hard work and growth, and it makes visible to those outside this “world” that an arts program can be one that stands out in a prison community of more than 2,000 people.

Once I’d settled down, we moved on. One ensemble member happily shared that she’s been communicating with her mother every day, which is a very new thing in their relationship. “I’m getting to know her, and it’s making me a better person,” she said. She’s been communicating with other people in her life whom she feels need to move on from the past, as she’s working on doing. “I don’t feel sorry for people no more,” she said. “I believe life is what you make of it. And I’m sick of talking about it… Step outside your comfort zone and get out of the ‘poor me’ mentality.”

“I got a lot out of [Mirrors],” said one woman, “but I really want to do Shakespeare tonight.” We all agreed and moved on with our plan to run 1.2 straight into 1.1, and then 1.3, to make sure we liked that flow on its feet as well as we had in our heads last week.

The woman reading Orsino got a little tripped up on the language as she entered for 1.1 and said we needed to start over. One of the women asked if the sailors and musicians could be played by the same people, who wouldn’t leave the stage between scenes. I agreed that that was a really funny idea and asked if we could see what happened if they left the stage only for a moment before realizing they shouldn’t have exited. Our first go at that was pretty funny, and Orsino’s reading was much stronger, but she still got stuck a few beats in and asked if we could reset again.

Since we’d gotten a bit further into the scene, those of us who were watching had started to get some ideas of more possibilities. We’d really loved a couple of moments when the musicians’ movements either mirrored or followed Orsino’s, and we asked them to play that up a bit more. In our third go at the scene, the musicians refused to stop playing and followed very close behind Orsino; at one point, they formed what looked like a caterpillar and made us all burst out laughing. At the same time, the woman reading Curio declined to have any sense of humor, finally wedging herself physically between the musicians and her boss. This led to very dry (and hilarious) delivery of her line, “Will you go hunt, my lord?”. The musician closest to her then began to play her “violin” right in her face. When the scene ended, we erupted in applause, continuing to laugh and shout out feedback with a ton of enthusiasm.

And we really liked staging the scenes in this order. “It works better because then you understand what Orsino’s going through,” said one woman, “because if you go 1.1 to 1.2, he just looks like a raving lunatic.” “He is!” responded another woman to more peals of laughter. There was unanimous agreement on this count as well as others: the plot points are clearer, it’ll be easier logistically, and we think the energy will feel better overall.

One of the women shared her idea of using cloth backdrops. The men’s ensemble has done that, though at WHV we’ve only ever used flats—which led to some sadness about the idea of painting over the gorgeous Macbeth flats… which led to the hilarious idea of having one of those flats make a surprise appearance in this show! And perhaps Lady Macbeth somehow ends up on stage when Malvolio gets his letter. Let’s just say that there have been so many ridiculous ideas for Macbeth tie-ins that I’m not sure we can—or should—avoid them at this point!

We put Act I, scene iii, on its feet, with two pretty new members reading Maria and Sir Toby. I hadn’t seen where Sir Andrew had gone, and it struck me that she might be hiding in the lectern that lives on stage. She wasn’t—moments later she came stumbling in and fell flat on her face (on purpose)—but the idea launched me backstage to sort of inventory what else we could potentially use in performance. There was quite a bit that had potential… We’ll see what ends up coming in handy!

While I was back there, Sir Andrew sneezed on the line, “Bless you, fair shrew!” and ended the scene by doing the robot, both of which caused the rest of the ensemble to completely lose it. When the scene ended, one woman said, “If she’d’ve done a cartwheel, it would have been over for us!” As we talked through some great ideas people had, someone remarked that things seemed to be popping up pretty organically. As a longtime member scribbled down these ideas in the designated notebook, she quietly said, “It’s not that hard of a play.” Hearing that, I immediately said, “Louder!” She put down her pen, rolled her eyes, shouted, “It’s not that hard of a play!” and sank back into her chair, grinning and continuing to write.

We ended the session with “This Bottle is Not a Bottle,” a Theatre of the Oppressed game. In the variation I chose, the group stands in a circle. The first person holds up an object—we used a pen—and says, “This pen is not a pen. It’s a _____,” and then they pass the object to the next person, who has to briefly interact with the object as if it is what was suggested. This repeats till every person has had a turn.

Our pen became…

A mustache

A top hat

A sword

A microphone

A balloon

A rock

An angry cobra

Cinderella’s slipper

A cane

A snorkel

A fish

A mini anti-gravity machine

Tap shoes

Although most ensemble members were a bit timid (which is not a bad thing), we all had a lot of fun. Just as the Mirrors exercise felt more comfortable than comedic improv, so did this one. “You couldn’t really think about it. You just had to do it,” said one woman. Another agreed, adding that it required us to be compassionate. “I don’t know,” said a quiet member, smiling at the woman who’d handed the pen to her. “You gave me a microphone.”

For round two, we used a notepad. It became…

A frisbee

A hockey puck

A hair comb

A tray of hot cookies

A mirror

A steering wheel

A kangaroo

A black hole

A machine to blow bubbles in space

A kitty

An envelope full of marbles

Your 15-year-old’s diary

A magic carpet

We definitely loosened up more in this round! The woman who was given a kangaroo took a pretty wild ride, that 15-year-old’s diary was quite shocking, and when I was given a kitty, I took it right to a longtime member with a professed horror of cats, causing her to hide behind someone else as we all cracked up.

“We definitely got more creative that time,” said one woman. I asked why she thought that was. “The objects were more active!” another piped up. The consensus was that this game is a winner—so much so that we’re going to make it a regular warm up! It really is a great exercise for this particular ensemble: a gentle warm up for our brains and bodies, in a circle, with no pressure.

As we left, a newer member paused to chat with Matt and Emma. “You know,” she said, “this is what I look forward to all day. If I had to miss chow, I’d be here, hungry, and happy!”

Friday / November 23
Written by Matt

“I get excited for Shakespeare!” exclaimed one of our new members. The programs building was pretty empty on the day after Thanksgiving, but we circled up on the stage. Holidays are always hard for our members, but a few of the women wanted to give the program some love! “People are always asking about it,” said another new member, “like, ‘You going to Shakespeare again?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have fun over there!”

We started today with a repeat of Tuesday night’s activity: the Theatre of the Oppressed game This Bottle is Not a Bottle. One of the things we noticed on Tuesday was that the objects grew more interactive—and the “performances” became more active—the more times we did the game. Today, we continued that trend. Among the evening’s highlights were:

A raccoon (which turned into…)

An orangutan (which turned into…)

A screaming 2-year-old (“Oh, nooooooooooo!”)

A ticking time-bomb

A drag-racing car

A dentist’s drill (yikes!)

A superhero cape (“Man, this just makes me feel like a poser!”)

A defective curling iron

A wet cat

A waterfall (in your hands?!)

And a jetski

Feeling a little loosened up, we played an absurd game, called “Twizzle,” in which all but one member of the ensemble are walking in a circle. The one standing aside, who leads the game, calls out commands, which the others must follow exactly or they are “out.” The commands all involve moving (“walk,” “stop,” “jump,” “turn,” and the eponymous “twizzle,” which is a jump with a 360-degree turn). There’s an element of Simon Says to this game, since the leader (called the “Joker”) can call out other words that are non-commands (“go” or “freeze”) or order combinations of movements in quick succession (“jump, twizzle, twizzle, turn”).

Frannie led the first round, which ended pretty quickly, as we were just getting used to the rules of the game. The second time, though, the Joker was immediately calling combinations and, cruelly, saying things like “sizzle” and “bump” to try to catch us out. It worked. By the end, we were more than ready to get back into the play.

This was our third or fourth attempt at putting Act I scenes iv-v on their feet, and they’ve consistently given us trouble. Frannie played the over-the-top duke Orsino, and a new member volunteered to play Viola, who is dressed as Cesario. Valentine and Curio, who are in Orsino’s employ, were also played by new members. The scene moved quickly, but it felt a little “off”—it always has. We did get one good tidbit out of it, though: one of the women thought that Valentine might be jealous of Orsino. We mulled over the comic possibilities of that situation for a few minutes before moving on.

The final scene of Act I is long, complicated, and wordy. We soldiered through it, but there were some real highlights. Sir Toby was hilarious—everyone was laughing out loud—and Feste, whose wordplay drives the first half of the scene, was played by a woman who joined us last year and would definitely not have been playing a smart-aleck jester back then!

Our Olivia struggled a bit with the language as she read, which was a challenge, given that she is onstage for nearly the entire scene. But, in as fitting a metaphor for this season as any, everyone came together to help her through this tough scene, and it worked! At the end, after I (playing Viola/Cesario) had just walked off, a longtime member said, “You know how we were talking about how we can feel sympathy for people even though it’s a comedy? You made me feel sorry for Orsino. Like, ‘Farewell, fair cruelty!’ I felt sorry for him!” Another member, new this year added, “Yeah, I also felt sorry for Orsino.”

When Frannie talked about the difficulty of cutting this scene, that same woman affirmed that some of the wordplay is important to retain so we can see the different personalities interacting. “It’s really important for the characters,” she said. It’s great that people who may have had little or no familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays, characters, or language already feel this type of ownership over the work. They have opinions, and they’re going to be heard!