Season Eight: Week 14


This holiday season, give the gift of hope.

Tuesday / December 4
Written by Frannie

Check-in tonight started off kind of silly, with someone sharing her discovery that She’s the Man is an adaptation of Twelfth Night (“Well, I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve really got to check out that Amanda Bynes movie!”). Still in this light-hearted mode, one of the women shared that she’d been asked to write her “Oscar acceptance speech” as an exercise in another group, and what she wrote took her a bit by surprise.

“Frannie,” she said, “you should know you were like 85% of it. More than God!” We all laughed, but she was clear that, though she was joking about me being more important than God, she was serious about the rest of it. “I never realized I could grow as a person,” she said, eyes locked with mine, not letting me off the hook (as she never has). “I never realized that I had a future. I didn’t know that I had a future before, and now I know I do. I owe so much to Shakespeare in Prison. If I was given this much in a few years, how much more could I grow?” She said some other very lovely things as well, none of which I wrote down because I was focused on listening AND somehow keeping it together (the first of which, I did, and the latter of which, I… sort of did). I’ve known this woman for a long time—long enough to have seen this incredible change in her—and, while I will never take credit for the work she’s done, she’s (repeatedly) forced me to take credit for the work I’ve done with her. I told her I didn’t have the words to respond in that moment, so I simply thanked her. And told her she was a jerk for making me cry!

After check-in, we circled up to do some rhythm exercises from Theatre of the Oppressed. We began with a simple rhythm circle: one person at a time jumped into the middle and everyone else copied her movement/vocalization until she “challenged” the next person to lead. This was a lot of fun for all, though it was more comfortable for some than others. “Trying to think of what to do is uncomfortable,” said one woman. Aha—we’d run into overthinking yet again!

But it wasn’t only that. Even those copying the leader had a tough time fully committing. “What made some of these easier than others?” I asked. There were a few factors at play, we agreed. First of all, the catchier, louder rhythms were simpler to catch onto. And, as in the Mirrors exercise, the more dramatic physical motions proved challenging for many of us. That hesitation to commit to big movements is something we need to own as an ensemble so we can both accept the challenge and see what we can do to overcome it.

What it came down to, said one woman, was that the more confident the leader was, the better things worked overall. This was true across the board: one person’s confidence buoyed that of everyone else. That is also something we need to own.

“How come I always forgot my own movements?” said one woman, half-joking. We concluded that there hadn’t been anything “wrong” about what she’d done, she’d just made up such complicated rhythms that she couldn’t remember what they were! “Nobody overcomplicates things the way I do,” said another woman.

So: the vulnerability of making large physical movements is uncomfortable for us, and we overthink/overcomplicate things—but if just one of us is confident, she can bring the rest of us along with her. Awesome. Good to know.

Next, we set out to make a rhythm machine, in which a series of people add complementary rhythms until the Joker (that was me) ups the tempo and then lowers it till the machine stops. The group organically formed a circle, and the combined rhythms became almost hypnotic. I hated to make them stop! Afterward, people started laughing and sharing all at the same time. “Wait, wait, wait!” I shouted above the din. “We want to hear from everyone! How did that feel?”

“Amazing! It was amazing!” said one woman. Another said that she hadn’t intended on joining the circle, but then it looked and sounded so cool that she couldn’t resist. We did a little analysis on why it had worked so well, and then we moved on to make a rhythm machine centered in an emotion. We chose love.

A new member volunteered to start, but we quickly got off-rhythm and had to stop, regroup, and start over with “Love Machine 2.0.” It turned out that people had a wide variety of feelings about love, with some sighing dreamily while others grunted or growled or whined. “People feel differently about love!” one woman joked afterward. We all agreed that that had been enlightening, but the machine itself hadn’t worked all that well. We determined that the main issue had been that people had been so eager to jump in that they hadn’t really listened before doing so, and that had made it nearly impossible for everyone to stay together.

For the final part of the exercise, we made a Malvolio machine! The woman who began stomped her feet and said, “Uh uh uh!”; the next person heaved and whined, another person shushed everyone else, and on and on for several minutes.

This was our favorite and proved far more enlightening than any of us had anticipated. For one thing, we had had an “in” here because we knew the character. It turned out, though, that we got to know Malvolio better through this exercise because we got to see and hear so many interpretations of him (or aspects of him). “I was thinking of Capitano,” said one woman, referencing the character from Commedia dell’Arte. “I was trying to think of what Malvolio wants to be, and ordering people around.” We could have talked for 45 minutes or more and still not gotten from each other what we did through the machine. We concluded that we should do this for every character, and maybe for every scene. At the very least, we’re going to see what happens if we make a machine when we hit a creative wall; we think it’ll be a good, invigorating way of figuring things out.

We decided to put the scene in which Malvolio is tricked by Maria’s letter on its feet. No one wanted to read Malvolio, so I gave it a go. As we moved through the scene, it became apparent that, while it will eventually be very funny, it needs some cuts—and for someone other than me to play Malvolio! Still, there were moments that worked: the box-trees kept following me around, and the group liked when I came into the audience, showed someone the letter, and then improvised chastising them for not being helpful. There were many more ideas for shtick with the box-trees and ways of using the entire stage and the house.

“What is the difference between Malvolio finding this cruel letter, and Viola dressing up as Cesario and Olivia falling in love with her?” pondered one woman. “I feel like the level of deception is the same.” Are the motivations different, though, we asked? She shrugged. “I see both situations the same. Maybe this scene is more emotional.” This led to a brief conversation about how she’s totally right—this is a very cruel trick to play—but the scene is also intended to be funny, and we need to restrain ourselves from telegraphing the extent to which this plot will go, or we’ll ruin the “gut-punch” we want later in the play.

The conversation turned to casting, and we decided to take one more night to explore the play—choosing very short pieces of scenes and letting people play as many characters as possible—before sticking to our plan of casting next Tuesday. I cautioned everyone to be honest with themselves and others about what’s realistic in terms of casting: whose workload is too heavy for a lot of lines? who has to be absent often enough that it’ll interfere with rehearsal? who may just not be ready for a “big” role? “Some are born great,” I said, “Some achieve greatness… and some ensemble members have greatness thrust upon them and freak out and leave the group!”

One woman let us know that she’d had a talk with her boss to let them know she’d be with us each Tuesday and Friday. She had warned us last week that this job might interfere with her participation, and I asked her how the conversation had gone. “Fine,” she said. “They just have to accept it, is all, and they know it. This is a part of my life. Just like my religion and brushing my teeth, Shakespeare is a part of my life. This gives me a sense of purpose, and I’m committed.” The others agreed. “Everyone knows not to question me about [Shakespeare] anymore. They used to be like, ‘Oh, you’re going to [sneering] Shakespeare?’ No more of that,” said one woman as the others nodded.

The woman who started the conversation said, “Life before Shakespeare—” she gave a thumbs down and a “downward” sound with her voice. Another woman gasped in mock indignation and said, “[NAME], that’s cruel. Who wants to think about life before Shakespeare?” A woman in her third season said, “I literally can’t think of what I used to do on Tuesdays and Fridays.”

The woman who’d been “indignant” put her hand on her heart, saying, “It’s like… my chest is caving in, thinking about it.” The first woman shook her hands as if getting something gross off of them and said, “I just try not to think about it.”

Friday / December 7
Written by Matt

Tonight, the energy in the room was really positive from the beginning. Three of the women shared that the Prison Creative Arts Project selected their work for its annual show. This always gives a great boost, and it was awesome to have so many this year!

We took that energy and put it right into our work. As we decided on Tuesday, we tried out short (30 seconds to a minute) bits of scenes, which allowed lots of people to read for lots of characters. Alas, Frannie and I couldn’t pick them out beforehand--we stopped bringing our copies of Twelfth Night with us when we realized that we could just use the ones that sit in our box of resources at the prison! There was some chaos as Frannie and Maria (who is a bona fide stage manager!) picked out representative moments from scenes and everyone else tried to figure out which characters they might be interested in. Frannie and I had made up a rough, preliminary list of which women were interested in or might be good in each role. We read it aloud, but few of them spoke up to change anything about it. To make matters worse, the little scenes, or “sides,” naturally fell on different pages in our two editions of the play--and often on different lines. Maria, who is quite literally a pro, scrambled to cross-reference, but we spent a few minutes trying to figure out what was going in.

When we finally got going, though, the energy we had built at the beginning of the meeting carried through to the performances. The first side was from Act I, scene ii, which will likely open our version of the play, with a veteran playing Viola and a new member playing the captain. Both of them brought some style to their performances, with the first woman being a strong anchor for the second.

Another core ensemble member showed off her dance moves in a hilarious rendition of the end of Act I, scene iii, as Sir Toby goads Sir Andrew into ever-sillier dances. Her “caper” was a bouncy modern dance, her “back-trick” morphed into the robot. The cinquepace (or “sink-apace”) saw her trying and failing to breakdance on the floor, then she flopped around in a valiant effort to do the worm when commanded to perform a “galliard.” This was all impressively committed (what with the salt and general winter muck, the floor was not exactly pristine), and the two women challenged each other to take the energy higher during the scene. Two other women stepped up to try the same scene, and they brought a totally different energy to it. Sir Toby was somehow both lethargic and impish, instructing Sir Andrew to do various dances with a wink. This Sir Andrew did not throw herself on the floor, but she capered ably--so ably that Sir Toby broke character. After a too-lengthy pause, she pointed at the dancing woman’s feet and said, “Oh! I was… distracted.” As she left the stage, though, she said of Sir Toby, “He’s my alter ego. He’s my… spirit animal!”

The next side, which came from Act I, scene v, showcased a totally different cast of women. In the moments we played, the fool, Feste, is trying and failing to best Maria at wordplay. The first pair had had their sights set on those characters for a long time. The woman who read for Feste brings huge vivacity to the role, where the woman who read for Maria had nearly opposite energy: sharp, precise, and impatient. The scene was great, and part of what made it so exciting was the performance of Maria. She has mostly hung back so far this season, which is her first. She has read aloud and even jumped into reading some scenes, but not with the same sense of purpose and self-direction with which she strode up to the stage to play Maria. Paired with a woman whose Feste is boisterous and bold, she was able to root her feet to their place on the floor and give the lines an edge that was true to the character and totally her.

Afterwards, the woman playing Feste complimented her scene partner and said that she liked the way she had played Maria. She liked it so much she wanted to switch roles and try it that way. They agreed, and leapt right into the same lines with the roles reversed. It was clear by the end why they had chosen their first characters, but the former Feste played a feisty Maria, and the former Maria--despite her usual reticence--gamely leapt into the role of the fool.

Perhaps emboldened by that performance, two new members jumped in to read it again. The scene changed completely in their hands. The Feste was less performative, more intent on making jokes, and the Maria was more actively annoyed, almost angry, and moved quite a bit more than the first woman to read that role. After they were done, they had cracked each other up so much that they also decided to switch roles, which gave yet another twist on the scene. Both of these women, though they are brand-new to the group (they started partway into this season) have a great feel for the language of Shakespeare, flowing naturally with its rhythms, which is fun to watch. When they were done, a longtime member praised the performances and very gently reminded them to keep their bodies opened to the audience “so we can see and hear you.”

We read another moment from Act I, scene v and a very short bit from Act II, scene i (“Wait! I feel like I got cheated!” exclaimed one woman after finishing). Highlights were another command performance by our new member who is interested in Olivia, a brilliant, over-the-top gesture of going down on one knee with arms extended by a woman reading for Antonio, and general hilarity by both Malvolios in our final scene of the night, from Act II, scene v.

We were having so much fun that everyone (including me!) forgot to look at the time until we only had a few minutes left to gather our things, put up the ring, and scurry out of the room.