We finished our reading of the play tonight! Everyone present chose a role to explore – including one of our ensemble members who had been conflicted about whether she should stick with Shakespeare or rejoin another program that she loves. We are all incredibly excited that she’s made this choice, and she’s taken on a great role to boot. The other woman who was thinking of leaving decided to stick with an off-stage role, saying she wanted to help our resident “director.” She explained, “I am really good at being bossy. I’ll give good off-stage critiques!”
We started musing about our concept again, and we realized that we’ve got a fast-approaching deadline if we want to get everything approved by the facility in time. One ensemble member suggested that we stumble through the entire play, beginning to end, not worrying about blocking; focusing just on establishing the plot the story we want to tell.
Someone asked, “Can we do that?” I said, “We’ve never done that before! But let’s do it! Screw the past six years!” This is something I treasure about Shakespeare in Prison: we’ve established a structure that works well, but we never hesitate to deviate from it when we realize something else might work better. We know that things can change from year to year, and we stay open to that. We’ve all learned a TON of flexibility this way.
As we began our stumble through, a few members of the ensemble took charge in a big way, reminding everyone to pay attention to cues in the text (i.e., Macbeth says the witches put their fingers over their lips) and to try to stay open to the audience. I spent most of the remaining time one-on-one with an ensemble member, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see how well everything was being handled, and how much of it was being handled by people other than facilitators. That’s a really positive thing to be happening in February, particularly as we were trying something new!
After a long (much-needed) check in, we decided to get right back to our stumble through. One of our new members approached me, saying that she didn’t yet have a role but wanted to take on something pretty small. She said she was afraid she would “garble the dialogue.” I told her she probably would – that we all do! – and that by the time we get to performances, she’ll be totally comfortable. She smiled and said, “I’m known for having can’t-do-it syndrome.” I suggested that she think of this as a challenge rather than as something “hard.” She said she liked that, and that she’d try.
Meanwhile, no one was on stage! People were sitting in small groups, either talking or looking over their scripts. “Who’s gonna get the ball rolling?” I asked. At this point in the season, facilitators take a back seat as much as possible, so we sat around some more waiting for someone to get us started. Finally, a returning ensemble member stood up and tried to get people’s attention and focus, but the stage remained empty. She looked over at me. “Get up there – they’ll follow you!” I said. “But I’m not in this scene!” she replied. I smiled and said, with more emphasis, “Get UP there! They’ll follow you!!!” She did, and they finally did, too.
When we got to Act I Scene v, our Lady Macbeth got tongue tied during her monologue. We asked her to slow it down and remember that these are all new thoughts. She did, and she and our Macbeth got through the scene, but she wasn’t happy with it. “I didn’t feel prepared. There wasn’t all the emotion,” she said. “What do you suggest, Frannie? What do you propose, ensemble?”
“Do it again, with the holy ghost!” said one ensemble member, hearkening back to when our Lady Macbeth had risen to her feet and engaged with such power in another scene recently. “This is not the holy ghost scene!” said Lady Macbeth. “EVERY scene is the holy ghost scene!” I said.
“Be you! Give it to us!” said that same ensemble member, and Lady Macbeth took on the challenge. She looked at her script, smirked, and said, “I’m gonna prep it this time. There’s this thing Frannie taught me...” She put her hands on either side of what Michael Chekhov called the ideal center (between breast bone and spine), and it was clear that she was only semi-joking. “If you’re gonna do it, let’s do it!” I said, running on stage to be with her. We turned our backs to the audience, and I coached her through some centering visualizations and breathing. I encouraged her to take her time and stay grounded, and then I went back to the rest of the group, asking that we all give focus even before she began.
She turned to face down stage, looked at her script, and took a deep breath. Quietly but insistently, our Macbeth said, “You got this.” Our Lady Macbeth then gave a powerful performance, much more connected to the text, and much more believable. When the scene ended, the woman who’d told her to get the holy ghost shouted, “THERE we go, [name]! That was IT!” Lady Macbeth clearly felt much better, and we got into some detail about how her performance can grow from there. We revisited the need to breathe on punctuation and went through some examples. This woman, our longest-serving ensemble member, lit up and said, “This remind me of Romeo and Juliet – the Nurse monologue… Even or odd, of all the days of the year, come Lammas eve at night…” I jumped in, “Shall she be fourteen!” She laughed and said, “Yeah, Frannie!”
We moved on, and when we got to Act I Scene vii, I asked our Macbeth (who is off book for this scene) if she was going to do her pre-beat (described earlier in this blog). She nodded and ducked into the stage left stairwell, which has a door leading downstage of the actual stage. I asked the group again to give focus so that when she came out, she wouldn’t be distracted. She came storming in, paused, shook her head (in character; definitely in character) and walked back out. We stayed silent. She burst back in, strode to center, and then paused, taking us all in.
“If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…” This piece has come a long way from the last time we saw her do it. She was confident and played Macbeth’s warring emotions to great effect. It seemed she’d gotten the “holy ghost,” too. We were rapt. She sank to the steps, and then Lady Macbeth entered, towering over her. The scene moved; they connected deeply and spontaneously with each other; the energy was electric. It crackled. We all whooped and clapped when the scene ended. “I’m dropping an F-bomb in my notes!” I shouted. One ensemble member shook her head and smiled, saying, “[Macbeth], you moved me.” I asked her to elaborate. “She just… killed it. She murdered it,” she said. “You were doing the speech, and debating it, and trying to give excuses, and she was like, ‘What?!’” Another woman said, “She was back and forth on the decision… The conflict. You felt it all through the scene.”
I told them that this is exactly what Shakespeare should be: authentic, connected, in the moment, letting the text do the work and just rolling with it. We started citing specific moments that had most affected us. Our facilitator Lauren noted how effective it was when Lady Macbeth got in her husband’s face on, “We fail?” and then backed off as she went into the plan. Lady Macbeth said she wasn’t sure what to do with those two words. “I’m just disgusted by failure, in real life,” she said. “We… FAIL?” she continued, wrinkling her nose, drawing out the word. “Do it that way!” I said, noting that that short phrase gets an entire line of verse, so she has plenty of leeway to linger for as long as she wants.
“This scene feels like a transition,” she said, and we all realized how valuable this stumble through is at this point in the process. This is why I feel – and know – that I’m always on a learning curve in this program. I forget how hard it is to “get” the arc and breadth of any of these plays without seeing or walking the entire thing. Up until last year, there was always at least one ensemble member who wasn’t able to put all the pieces together until our first performance. But this year, we’re seeing the scenes in order in February. It makes me really intrigued about how this will impact the rest of our process. I’m so glad we decided to change things up this way!