Season Eight: Week 9

Tuesday / October 30
Written by Frannie

We picked up where we left off on Friday, reminding ourselves that we needed to bump our energy level up several notches and work together to make that happen. “Weak energy rubs off on people,” said one woman. “I get discouraged easily if I’m into something and everyone is low energy.” This same woman had come prepared with an absolutely ridiculous game that forced us all to act very, very silly, and it gave us just the boost we needed.

Opening our books to Act IV, scene ii (Feste pretending to be “Sir Topas” as Malvolio pleads for help from within a dark room), we briefly discussed how we might alter our process in order to keep the energy up. The reading seems to be what bogs us down—this play just desperately wants to be performed. “Well,” I said, “We could take a cue from the men’s ensemble. They put almost every scene on its feet right off the bat, even if we haven’t read it yet. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I used to really fight it, but now I have no preference.”

“Well, I’m not gonna be shown up by a man,” joked one woman. “So… we gonna put it on its feet?” another woman asked.

Without missing a beat, a longtime member rose from her chair, reading Maria’s lines as she walked right over to the woman who’d just spoken. She then jumped to her feet, reading Feste’s lines, and the scene was off and running. Without hesitation or discussion, another woman joined in as Sir Toby, and another sprang into action as Malvolio. The woman reading Feste didn’t hesitate for a moment to sing as noted in the text, which is a rarity in our program! She did a little dance, improvising a melody on the fly. It was absolutely terrible—and hilarious. We loved it.

Some aspects of the scene worked, and others didn’t. Still, we gleaned quite a bit from the attempt. “You know what?” said one woman, “This is an evil scene. I mean… talkin’ about PTSD…” We all agreed, musing on how to balance the cruelty with comedy—and on why the “plot” against Malvolio goes to this length in the first place. “Can I just throw out this—” said that same woman, “—all of this is because he just wanted two drunks to be quiet.”

We talked a bit about the scene’s physical logistics—what is this “dark room?” Is it a literal room in a building? Is it some sort of box? If it’s a box, how can we see Malvolio (which we determined was necessary)? We arranged some chairs to represent a three-sided cage to see how that might work.

We switched up most of the actors, but our Feste stayed in the role, much to our delight. Her singing was even worse this time—also to our delight. The scene ended, but another woman clasped her hands together and said, “[NAME], I’d give anything to have you do that last part again.” And so she did! “You should play Feste!” the woman who’d made the request proclaimed. “You found your part!” This Feste nodded enthusiastically, saying, “Yeah, I like this guy.”

We agreed that we liked Malvolio’s being caged in by chairs, but the woman who’d read the part said she’d had a hard time figuring out what she should be doing in there. We threw out some ideas, but they all seemed to require a light source and/or a window, and we don’t want to fight the text (though the idea of Malvolio waving his yellow stockings out the window like a white flag was so funny that I hope we’ll find a way of incorporating it somehow!). Perhaps Feste could more actively torment Malvolio? The balcony set piece we used in Romeo and Juliet and Othello is still in storage, and one woman suggested that if Malvolio were imprisoned beneath it, Feste could tap dance right over his head.

We ran the scene again, and the woman who played Malvolio this time ran into the same issue. Each of our ideas was met with a reason for why it wouldn’t work, and we started to get frustrated. I asked if I could give the scene a try as Malvolio to see what might occur to me in the moment, and we shuffled actors again.

What I found was that the only activities I could engage in were listening and problem solving. There was no space for anything else when my sole focus was on getting out of there. I became more and more desperate as the scene progressed, slowing down and over-articulating my speech to try to get through to Feste, shifting my physical position while always bearing in mind that I was in a cramped space.

It turned out that this, combined with Feste’s complete disregard, worked just as well from the audience’s perspective as from mine. They said that my desperation and increasing frustration both made the scene funnier and increased their empathy for the character.

As we raised the ring, I thanked the ensemble for really “bringing it.” The energy in the room tonight was completely different from what it was on Friday, and that was a huge, collective effort—as is pretty much everything in our program.

Friday / November 2
Written by Matt

Tonight, a veteran member opened the session by diving right into the ensemble’s current slump. Everyone seemed ready to talk about the problem, and many looked grateful to the woman who brought it up. One woman said that she thought it boiled down to two things: the lack of “substance” in Twelfth Night, compared to the other plays we’ve worked on, and the ensemble’s overall feeling of malaise. “It’s rough in here,” she said, going on to explain that sometimes everyone just seems to get in a funk together for not particular reason. As others started to add their thoughts, we quickly lowered the ring in our seats, which we do sometimes before or during potentially tough discussions to metaphorically bind us together and to remind us of the energetic connection we share as an ensemble.

In general, everyone agreed that we have struggled this year, both new members and old hands. And in general, everyone agreed that the problem was some combination of what the first woman to speak up about it had said: the play and the widespread sense that things are hard right now.

The women had plenty to say about Twelfth Night. “The tragedies connected to us more,” said a veteran of the last three, tragic plays. A new member agreed vigorously: “The comedy is really hard for me. Even the places where I feel like should be more serious, they’re funny!” The veteran member came right back to play devil’s advocate, though: “Maybe it’s a challenge,” she posited. “Maybe we can challenge ourselves to let it go.”

Frannie asked whether anyone was connecting with the play or the characters. A few women raised their hands. One said, “I connect! I feel like it’s super Jerry-Springer-ish!” We all laughed at that and agreed that, yes, whatever else Twelfth Night is, its love triangles that turn into love parallelograms and then into a giant mess of mistaken identity and deceit would be very well suited to Jerry Springer. “I personally like comedy,” said a woman who has been in the ensemble for years and has done both tragedies and comedies with us. “I feel like we stick to the darkness of Shakespeare [too much].” She went on to say that she felt like working on Twelfth Night was like “graduating” to the next step. “Some people always don’t connect to the play,” she recalled.

We had mentioned on Tuesday that the men’s ensemble likes to put scenes on their feet even before they’ve read all the way through, and one woman suggested that we follow suit. “We should take a cue from the guys,” she said. “We just need to come in and just jump in and try to do it.”

Frannie said that we could continue to try to work through Twelfth Night if we wanted, but that it was not yet too late to pivot to another play. We could still do a comedy, she suggested, but perhaps one that has more accessible characters, like As You Like It. What we have discovered is that Twelfth Night is a brilliant piece of theatre, but not an especially profound work of literature (no gasps of horror necessary; even Shakespearean scholars have admitted as much). There are some interesting ideas and themes to talk about, and one or two characters who seem fully human, but mostly it is a masterful piece of comedy--a tour-de-force of wordplay, situation comedy, farce, and old-fashioned slapstick--that relies on the clownishness of its characters to succeed. With As You Like It, Frannie suggested, we could have just as much fun (and cross-dressing!) without giving up the strong, fleshed-out characters that have sparked so many great discussions in our group over the years.

In reaction to Frannie’s suggestion, lots of women raised their hands. The first, though, had a very simple suggestion. “Does this mean we could do Midsummer?” Those of us who have been in the ensemble for a long time laughed--this woman has been pushing for A Midsummer Night’s Dream for years! We have long maintained that Midsummer doesn’t contain enough substance for good discussions, but here we are in that very situation. After a second, Frannie looked at her and said, “You know, that’s… that’s actually not a bad idea.”

A brand-new member suggested that perhaps, as suggested earlier, putting the play on its feet right away might solve some of our problems. Along with her, a number of people began pushing back against the idea of changing. Perhaps, one pondered, we just don’t have the perspective yet to identify with people in silly situations--maybe it would be good to try. A veteran of many seasons spoke up strongly for Twelfth Night, saying that she had been drawn to the play from the beginning, and she was looking forward to incorporating Commedia dell'Arte into her work. “My commitment level is through the roof,” she said. She said that giving up on the play would feel like a failure.

Frannie clarified that changing course wouldn’t be a “failure,” but rather about being honest with ourselves about where we are at as a group, and how to get out of the season what we want out of it. The woman who had started the entire discussion closed the loop by suggesting that we finish reading the play before making any decisions. All agreed, and we moved on.

Another issue that came up before and during the larger discussion of what to do with this season was about the departure of two members. One of them had felt targeted by a joke she heard Frannie make on Tuesday, and she had decided in the intervening days not to return to SIP. A friend, a new member, decided to leave with her, though for different reasons (she decided that Shakespeare wasn’t her thing at the moment). The rest of the ensemble hadn’t heard the joke and questioned whether Frannie had actually said it. Frannie said that she didn’t remember it either, but that she could imagine saying something like it offhandedly and not directed at anybody. “I wish she had come to talk to me,” said Frannie, not to argue over who said what to whom, but to express a desire to hear this member out and have a chance to respond. “I feel like we’ve always been able to work it out when people come talk to me,” she said, mentioning times when ensemble members—including some in the room—had confronted her with complaints or concerns. One longtime member spoke up strongly about her feelings. She was upset that a member of the group would nurse a grievance and quit the group without airing it. This incident, she said, actually betrayed a lack of respect for the group, and she was a little angry that people hadn’t spoken more strongly to the woman who left. “I feel like we’re an ensemble,” she said, “and the job of us in here is to protect this program.”

To complete the trio of tough conversations, we talked for a bit about turnover. Not yet two months into the season, we’ve lost a third of our members. A few of those people were released from prison, and some quit to focus on their schoolwork, but many simply faded away or left without a clear reason. We always have some of that in a season, but never this early. More importantly, we talked about how crucial it is to recruit all sorts of people for the group, not just friends, and not just the sorts of people we think will be “good at Shakespeare.” It is often the least likely people who end up being best for the ensemble--and for whom being in the ensemble is transformational. We made sure that it was clear that no one in the room was at fault for any of our challenges—and we also made sure it was clear that it’s up to the ensemble as a whole to find a way to deal with them.

At last, when we had run through these important but draining topics, a new member had a monologue memorized for us! She recited a speech from Julius Caesar, even giving a full synopsis of the play beforehand! After she was done, she reflected that she loved Caesar’s earnestness, but also saw the seeds of his impending downfall: “I mean, he’s so full of himself!” she exclaimed. “I mean, he compares himself to the north star!”

Even before we turned back to the play, the same veteran member who both started and ended the first discussion took the reins. “Okay!” she shouted, “we’re doing this on its feet!” Through the force of her leadership, everyone in the room leapt up to participate. As luck would have it, the final scene (Act V, scene i) includes nearly every character in the play, and required everyone in the room to participate. We didn’t even think that we would make it all the way through--it’s a long scene!--so members of the “audience” were always needing to jump in to fill roles. One woman who is new and who only just recently started reading aloud, leapt in as the defeated Malvolio, reading his final curse (“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”) with gusto! We built on each others’ energy--Feste singing badly but enthusiastically, Frannie as Orsino dry-heaving at the news of Olivia’s marriage, and a lot of funny twin-shtick with Viola and Sebastian.

At the end, we all had a good laugh. It was the perfect way to end a tumultuous first phase of the season. One of the core membersspoke for everyone when she said, “It was a hot mess, but it was funny!”