The ensemble member who was cast as Young Siward let me know before we began that she needed to leave the group. Another ensemble member had been interested in playing that role, but deferred, accepting the roles of understudy for that character and playing Fleance as well. When she saw the other woman turning in her books, she approached me quietly. “Is she leaving the group?” she asked. I told her that she was. “So… Can I play Young Siward? I mean, since I was already understudying, can I just play the part? Is that okay?” I said it wasn’t up to me and encouraged her to ask the group. She is much more buoyant and confident this season, but this still intimidated her a bit. So, with her standing right next to me, I turned to the group and said, “I have a question to ask on behalf of [her name].” She started giggling and blushing, but she didn’t leave the stage. I told the ensemble that the woman who’d been cast as Young Siward had left and asked, “Are we all okay with [name] playing Young Siward, since she was already the understudy?” No one objected. She was so excited. It is such a thrill to see her this way. I have loved every moment of working with her, even the difficult ones—and those hard times have made these moments that much more pleasurable. I can’t help but smile every time she smiles. And she smiles a lot now.
One of our ensemble members asked me to come to the back of the auditorium with her to work on cutting some lines. As I got up to go with her, our Lady Macbeth said, “No! Uh uh, Frannie. We’re about to do the sleepwalking scene!” I asked the other ensemble member if she needed to leave early or if the cuts could wait for a few minutes, since it was important to Lady M that I be able to give feedback on that scene. She said that was totally fine, even though she was clearly anxious. She struggles a bit with impatience, so, even though this was a little thing, it was a big deal.
Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is a challenge for any actor, but it presents a different sort of challenge for people who’ve committed crimes. I knew when we chose Macbeth that this scene might be a little loaded, and I’ve been prepared since then to work through it with whomever played the role. Our Lady Macbeth is a longtime ensemble member with whom I have a very strong bond, and I’ve talked through the scene with her on several occasions, knowing (as much as I can) where she’s coming from as she approaches it.
When she and I spoke about it on Friday, we agreed to try the scene as if she were underwater, moving slowly, weighed down, and seeing things around her distorted. We decided that there also should be (in Michael Chekhov terms) some sort of shivering or vibrating object in her ideal center (chest) to help her experience the character’s anxiety without having to call up her own emotions or experiences. She also told me during that conversation that she knows she’s not a good actor, which is absolutely not true, and I told her that. I said that she has always been a solid actor, but the program hasn’t always been in a place that allowed her to explore that. But people started taking things more seriously during Othello. That discipline grew during Richard III. And now we have an ensemble made up of people who are extremely committed to doing their best work—individually and as an ensemble. They conduct themselves just as seriously as any professional ensemble. They do it with less theatrical experience, but they also do it in a setting where it is much, much more challenging. I admire them so deeply for that.
But back to our Lady Macbeth, and our conversation last week. She smiled and accepted what I said about her acting, and I encouraged her to dive in as much as she was comfortable. She was ready to go on Friday night, but we ran out of time. Now, though, it was her turn.
Two women stood in for our absent Gentlewoman and Doctor. Lady Macbeth entered slowly, carrying her script in one hand and a drumstick (as candle) in the other. This woman, who can be so powerful physically and vocally, was purposefully quiet and sad. The character was clearly disturbed, but not crazy. At one point she dropped the drumstick, and we all jumped as it clattered—she’d sort of put us in a trance!
When the scene ended, we talked about how well so much of it had worked. She said she had felt good, but was annoyed by how physically close the Gentlewoman and the Doctor had been to her. The woman standing in as the Gentlewoman agreed that they needed more space, but they struggled to find a solution. A woman who has a co-director role said that many of us have a tendency to hover. She got on stage to demonstrate some ideas of when the two of them could get close to Lady M and then jump away. Another woman gave suggestions of where to begin and end the scene.
A third woman pointed out that Lady M hadn’t been washing her hands, which is an important aspect of the scene. Lady M said that she couldn’t when she was holding her script, which is, of course, a great point. I asked if she’d like to run the scene with me “dropping in”—standing just beside or behind her, feeding her lines one by one so she wouldn’t have to read her script. She said she would. Our co-director gave her some specific ideas to try out, including talking to herself as if into a mirror at one point.
We began the scene a second time, but just as Lady M entered, she stopped and said, “Oh, no, hold on! I’ve got a better idea! Hold on!” She grabbed her coat and put it over her shoulders. “Okay, now you can go,” she said, and re-centered herself as the scene began again. I couldn’t watch her performance—I had to keep my eyes glued to the script—but I could feel how powerful her energy was. At one point she sank to the ground, washing her hands, then tore the coat off her shoulders and used that to wash her hands as well.
The group was enthusiastic about how it had gone. The Gentlewoman and Doctor said it had felt good to keep more of a distance and be more intentional with their movements. Lady M said the scene had felt more or less the same for her—but it had been good both times!
We started to move on, but then Kyle jumped in. Again, this woman has been in the ensemble for a very long time—longer than Kyle—and he wanted to make sure she knew how impressed he was with her work. He told her how good it was to see her challenging herself, owning her power, and developing as an actor. He said (truthfully) that she’s set a high water mark for the whole ensemble—that it’s really just technique for her now—and as I looked around I saw all the others nodding, taking no offense, honoring the place she’s earned in the group due not just to her longevity, but to her commitment (redoubled this year after a brief absence). I told her that I agreed—emphatically—and that her ability to give so much of herself was (as she and I discussed last week) also a testament to the seriousness and supportiveness of this ensemble. There is much for everyone to be proud of in her continued growth and success.
I then joined our Macduff in the back of the auditorium to work on those cuts, per her request. Our Malcolm was absent, but they’d been looking at this together outside of SIP, so we were able to work without her. Last week, they asked me to go through and look for cuts as well, so we were really just comparing notes. They were nearly all the same.
She had an idea about Malcolm that I don’t think she’s shared with her scene partner, and I’m interested to see if this is going to play out at all. “I think Malcolm’s feeling some kinda way because he’s a virgin,” she said. “I mean, come on,” she continued, “He’s got his crown stolen. He’s banished to a country of refuge… And he’s a VIRGIN. He’s gotta be feeling some kinda way about that.”
When we arrived at the part of the scene when Macduff finds out about his family’s slaughter, she said, “I don’t really know what we can cut. I feel so bad for him here. Like, he’s so disoriented and emotional.” I told her that she was right—that’s exactly how he feels, and we probably don’t need to cut anything. She did suggest that we cut his lines about “all my pretty chickens and their dam,” and before I could stop myself, I said, “Oh, no, no, no! You need that!” I then smiled at her, took a breath, and told her that of course she can cut those lines if she wants, but I think they’ll help her give the performance I know she wants. I said again that she was right about Macduff’s state and showed her exactly how the language backs that up. I walked her through the emotional breakdown, evident in those lines about the chickens—and their parallel to Lady Macduff’s comparing her family to defenseless birds. I guided her through the way the language toward the end of the scene, when it clearly shows him moving from outright grief to anger and tension. As we talked, she lit up, excited to learn how right she’d been without even knowing how to analyze the language this way.
We left the rest of the cuts for when our Malcolm is present. As our Macduff rose from the table, she paused, looked down at me, and said, “It’s good to know that we see eye to eye on this stuff.” I’m seeing a change in this woman as she learns to trust all of us more. She’s very energetic; sometimes a little loud and brash. I think she’s used to rubbing people the wrong way and expects it. But any time I’ve noted it, I’ve also seen the people who’ve been irritated doing their best not to let her see it: taking deep breaths (subtly) or finding something else to do so they wouldn’t engage and hurt her feelings. And it seems like, because she hasn’t gotten the negative reactions she’s used to, she’s dropped some of the defenses that contribute to that brashness. Because she’s done that, the others have become more open to her. And now she’s becoming more open, calmer, and better able to realize when she needs to take a step away or speak with someone in private. Or even just to speak gently, like she did with me. This progress hasn’t been totally linear, and it probably won’t be going forward, but I’ve noticed it. I’m watching it.
Attendance tonight was low due to some special events and illnesses. We just received permission to make a short film for The Sonnet Project: US, so we decided to spend tonight brainstorming. Running through the final scenes of the play would be difficult with so few people present.
I handed out copies of a few sonnets that reminded me of things we’ve talked about in our group. The idea of these films is that they be location-specific, and, since our location is a prison, the options I chose had specifically to do with themes that come up in conversations with a group of incarcerated women. I asked how we should approach this, and one woman said we should read all of them out loud. “You have to have someone else read it to understand it,” she said.
We read #109 first. Two of the women liked it right off the bat. One of them said, “Especially being in prison—it plays to the part, like, our heart’s in absence right now. Another woman added, “It makes you think about your family and loved ones.”
#29 was next. One woman said, “It’s speaking from the heart.” Another said she liked how it flowed. A third, who was kind of on edge, said, “It’s about isolation. You’re isolating yourself—talking about your friends and stuff, but you’re cursed. Your fate is not what theirs is. You’re putting yourself in a category by yourself.”
All but one ensemble member disliked #19. The one who enjoyed it said she’d liked it enough to read it to herself twice, but admitted that it had jumped out at her because it mentions a tiger, and she loves cats.
#35 hit everyone very hard. As the reader finished, one woman said, “That’s SO deep,” and another exclaimed, “I LIKE THAT ONE!” They identified with the conflict in the poem, even without breaking it down for its specific meaning. “It’s like going between my old life and my new life: before prison and after prison,” said one woman. “All men have faults,” said another woman. “We all fall short.” Another added, “This is prison. We don’t know whether we’re coming or going. We’re back and forth between the dark and the light.” Another said, “That describes everything… Addiction… Everything…”
We read a couple others, but it was very clear that #35 was the one. Give how unanimous the women in the room were, we were confident that the others will feel the same.
The poem is this:
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense--
Thy adverse party is thy advocate--
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate
That I an accessory needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
We went through the sonnet in depth. In it, they saw others—and themselves—trying to forgive them. At the core of this poem, we found the idea that we all make mistakes, and we are all deserving of forgiveness. They are struggling to believe that. They are living it. “This poem could be the poster child for codependency,” said one woman.
“I think that’s why this hits home for everybody,” said another woman. “A lot of us are in for drugs and stuff, and we’ve been forgiven more times than maybe we deserved.” Another agreed. “That’s our problem. We love others more than ourselves.” Another, responding directly to language in the sonnet, said, “A lot of us have seen that we may be roses, but… with the drugs and stuff… we can grow some thorns.”
We began to brainstorm ideas of how to translate this to film, and we started to stray pretty far afield from our initial reactions. I put it out there that all of these ideas were interesting, but that our first impulse was that this poem was about us.
One woman said, “I see more than one or two people playing into this. With the actions here, I see three or four people here. I see a group collectively consoling each other here.” She said that there could be a few specific stories, “but in the end, it all comes together.” Another woman interjected, “Why don’t we end with The Ring? The Ensemble Ring?” We all responded strongly to that.
“We’re all together. Everyone can play a part,” said one woman, just as the first woman said, “We all come together.” She added, “Each of us—we’ve hurt somebody. We’ve hurt somebody sometime.” We then agreed that we should enter from various directions to become the Ring, with the poem read as a voiceover.
We got a little hung up on literal images of conflict that would need to be forgiven, and it got a little frustrating, but not to the point where anyone was irritated or wanted to give up. We simply knew we needed input from the rest of our ensemble.
We lifted our Ring back up, and people started to leave. Our Malcolm reminded me that we had cuts to look at, and we did. We’re definitely on the same page. She paused before she left. She’d shared with us earlier that her TV had broken, and she was pretty upset about it. “But I’ve got a lot to do,” she said, tapping her script on the table. “I feel like maybe my TV broke for a reason. So I can focus more on this. I really want to do a good job with my acting this year.”