After we checked in, we decided to finish our stumble through of the play. The group dispersed a bit, talking in small groups. One woman repeatedly tried to wrangle everyone but failed—she was a little quiet, and people couldn’t hear her or weren’t listening. Finally another woman who has a wonderful, booming voice, called everyone to focus, saying specifically that the other woman had been trying to get something going and asking them to listen to her.
We got a little stuck on the scene in which Malcolm and his army arrive at Birnam Wood and decide to cut down boughs to hold and disguise their numbers. The first staging was a bit awkward, with people unsure of what to do, or even where to place the “forest.” One woman gave suggestions to improve the acting in the scene, pointing out that the idea to use the branches is spontaneous, and they should think about how they would react. “Put yourselves in the position of that so it’s more spontaneous and not rehearsed,” she said. “We don’t want it to look rehearsed.” Another woman pulled two faux trees that are in the auditorium to the center of the stage. There actually is one branch that is unattached, and they decided to use that as well.
They went for it again, and, as one of the actors said, it “felt blah.” The woman who’d given suggestions about spontaneity jumped up, talking through a complex staging idea that would incorporate this scene and the two after. It involved several entrances and exits, as well as using the fluorescent lights above the stage to isolate each side of the performance area, depending on where the focus needs to be.
As we geared up to work through all of this, I pulled our Macduff and Malcolm aside and suggested that they work on taking up space—that they’re warriors—powerful women playing powerful men. They don’t need to apologize for standing strong and being loud. “We’re sensitive, too,” said our Malcolm, and as I nodded, our Macduff said, “I know! All my pretty chickies!”
We worked through the next scene with Macbeth, and then our Malcolm, Macduff, and a woman standing in for Siward made their way back stage for their entrance. I joined them and referred back to something our Malcolm had said earlier, encouraging them to “go total Braveheart.” They did, and it worked fairly well, but not as well as we wanted. I went back stage again and asked them how they felt. “I’m nervous,” said our Malcolm. “I don’t know… I’m scared of rejection.” This woman has come a long way from the quiet, shut down person I met in the fall of 2016, but she still has a lot of fears. The difference is that now she has the confidence to push through them. Our Macduff and I reminded her that she was in a safe space to be strong, loud, and to screw up if that’s what happened. “You’ve gotta rally an army. Use the audience. We’re on your side,” I said. “Take back your country! Take back your castle!”
I ran back into the house (I was excited), and the scene began. Malcolm strode on stage, moving quickly and powerfully, delivering her lines in a voice that carried right through to the back of the house. She stood downstage center and didn’t back off. The others matched what she was doing, and Macduff instinctively built on her energy. It was incredible, particularly for our Malcolm. I don’t think we’ve ever seen her take command of the stage like that. One woman, who joined the group in January, leaned back to me and said, “Good job, Frannie. I love how you got them all hyped up.” I accepted the compliment—I know that sometimes it’s my ridiculous excitement that gives people permission to harness the fire that’s already in them—and reminded her, as I always do, that the real work is being done by the participants, who don’t need to listen to me in the first place!
Even though we were improvising through the staging, the battle scenes were high energy and engaging. When we got to the final scene, that energy dropped. I went and sat beside a woman I’ve known for more than two years, who used to be extremely afraid of giving her opinion and getting on stage. But things are different for her now. I asked if she was feeling the same as me; if this scene felt like it dragged at all. She said that it did, and that there probably was nothing the actors could do to keep it from feeling like a letdown—it needs cuts. Then we all applauded when Macduff said, “Hail, King of Scotland,” somehow forgetting that Malcolm still had a monologue. Our Malcolm looked down at her script and wryly said, “I am not gonna be saying this shit,” but then gamely gave it a go for this rehearsal.
She did a great job with it, but afterward I posed the same question to the entire ensemble: does this scene drag after the previous ones? All agreed that it did. I suggested that our Malcolm’s instinct not to read her monologue might be a good one; if we all applauded after Macduff’s line, our audience probably would, too, and perhaps that’s the point at which to end the play. We agreed to look for other cuts, too.
As we circled up to brainstorm about costumes, set, and props, one woman leaned over to me and said, “You know what my favorite Shakespeare quote is?” She continued, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep. The more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.” I couldn’t resist saying it along with her. It’s one of my favorites, too. She said she found it in a novel she was reading and loved it so much that she memorized it.
We have some really great ideas for the look of the show; the challenge will be making it all happen with the budget and resources we have. We’ll keep developing these as we get closer to performance. I’m very excited about where we are.
Even though it was a small group tonight, check in took a long time. Two ensemble members told me before we circled up that another ensemble member has been breaking confidentiality and sharing very personal information about others in the group. It’s made them feel understandably unsafe and, as longtime members, angry about the violation and the disrespect they feel it shows the entire ensemble and the program as a whole. I asked if they would like to address this with the other person or with the group at large, and they opted for the latter.
Though the person in question was not present after all, one of those ensemble members chose to share her feelings anyway. We’ve had issues in the past with others doing something similar but clearly identifying the “offending” party, even without using a name, but this woman has been in the group long enough that she knows how to avoid doing that. “I just really need to get this off my chest so maybe I won’t be so upset,” she said, and shared what happened in a general way, focusing on her own feelings. “This is where we come to get away from prison, and this needs to be a safe place,” she said. One woman praised her for “speaking of us collectively.” We agreed that we would talk about this with the larger group on Tuesday. The woman who was upset said, “When we talk about this, we’re going to be civilized, because for us there’s nothing else.”
Another woman who’s been incarcerated for more than 10 years, brought up how impressed she was by the way in which this ensemble member, who’s been in prison even longer, was handling the situation. She said that the first time she met her, she’d just come back from solitary and immediately attacked someone else before she’d even put her stuff down. She used to be unruly and unreasonable, and now here she was, calmly addressing an extremely upsetting situation as constructively as she could. It’s a remarkable transformation. “To watch you change helps me believe that I can change,” she said. Those of us who’ve known her for a long time agreed. “You’re on your way to something big,” said another woman. “Just keep being a superstar.”
We spent the rest of our time talking through costumes and props and covered nearly everything by the time we left. Even with a small group, we’re generally very productive, and tonight was no exception. We’ve just got a few more things to figure out before we submit our performance proposal. June is getting closer!