We arrived a few minutes late today, and only a few people were present. We’d agreed last week to use every possible moment, so I encouraged them to begin working on what they could, mainly running the fights and their lines. Ensemble members continued to trickle in, and, while we were not working together on one task, when I looked around the room a half hour into our session, everyone was at work in small groups.
The woman playing Banquo pulled me aside to ask about a speech of hers that includes a lot of commas. She said that she wasn’t sure how to work with that punctuation, and that she thought she was doing it wrong. Before I explained anything, I asked her to give it a read so I could hear where she was at. And it was perfect; her delivery is nearly always perfect. She was surprised to hear that. “You’re really good at this,” I said. “You don’t know that?” She shook her head, a look of disbelief mingling with the beginnings of delight. “You are naturally good at working with Shakespeare,” I continued. “Most actors have to be trained to do what you’ve been able to do since day one. You are really good at this, and you should not be afraid to own that. You know I don’t bullshit about acting; it’s at the core of what I do, and it’s too important to me to bullshit about it. You are very good at this, and you should have absolute confidence in yourself to do it right.” She smiled and thanked me. I can’t say for sure that she’s never been told anything like that, but I certainly got the impression that, if she has, it hasn’t been often.
A couple of staff members came into the room and beckoned to me. One of them has seen the backdrops for our show as they’ve been in the process of being painted. (One of our ensemble members designed the core element based on our interpretation of the play, and it’s being supplemented with other complementary images.) Ensemble members who’ve seen the work in progress have been effusive, and this staff member was no different. He encouraged me to let him know whenever he could help us out with sets and props; that he’s seen the positive results of our program and wants to do whatever he can to support that. Having this kind of enthusiasm from staff is huge; it legitimizes the work we do and helps us continue to engage with staff in increasingly positive and constructive ways.
A couple of ensemble members quietly expressed frustration to me about the number of people who continue to arrive very late and/or leave very early. Some folks have given us a heads up on legitimate reasons for that to happen occasionally, or even regularly with our approval, but others give the impression of flaking or not taking things seriously, and that’s frustrating to those who do.
That was a side conversation, but then a few others began venting their frustrations about the exact same thing, so we decided to take a few minutes and have a group discussion. One woman in particular went on a heated but eloquent rant about how angry this makes her, especially given that she has taken on (and is beautifully executing) a very large role on top of a heavy work schedule and other issues in her personal life. She feels that if she can buckle down and make this happen, others should be able to do so as well. What she said was the most articulate explanation I’ve heard yet about the importance of consistent attendance, so much so that we all applauded, and I asked her to write it down so we’d be able to use it in the future.
I also encouraged her to express all of this to the group at large, since she (rightly) didn’t name any individuals, but what she said mostly applied to folks who weren’t there (which was part of the issue). Another woman, though, said she thought it would be better to talk with each person directly. She said that if we were able to stick to the facts and leave our emotions out of it — being very careful about choosing our words — they would likely be receptive and better understand how their actions are hurting the group. There were many nods of agreement, and we decided to consider how best to do this.
Another woman began sharing some suggestions, at which point (I can’t remember the impetus for this), our Lady Macbeth launched casually into her first soliloquy (which is off book), drowning out the other’s comments, and breaking the tension as we dissolved into laughter. Then a woman who hadn’t been there (for a legitimate, pre-approved reason), and whom we’d all expected to be absent for the entire session, walked in to actual cheering from the entire group. She has rearranged her weekly visits so she can be at all of our rehearsals, and it’s an enormous, greatly appreciated sacrifice. “I feel like everybody that walks through that door gets a handclap,” said one woman.
We’ll figure out what the policy should be in the future when we get there, but the pressing issue was how we should deal with this right now. We determined that we needed to figure out how many people really should be removed due to excessive absences, and we decided to put in place a system of understudies. I talked that through briefly with a woman who volunteered to coordinate that, and then I went to check with staff about whether anyone should be removed. It turned out that, as I suspected, a couple of people had absences in excess of what’s allowed, so I was able to return to the group and help solidify who would take on those roles.
The woman who is in charge of our master script dove deeper into her task tonight, gathering more of the cues she needs to be aware of and gaining confidence in asking for and recording that information. She’s been in the group for several years but has taken on a somewhat passive role for the most part, although she volunteered for and is doing great work with two roles in this play. This offstage role, though, appears to be the most impactful yet. “I actually feel like I’m part of the ensemble,” she said to me with a smile. Of course, she’s always been part of the ensemble — and, at least in my view, an important one — but the fact that she finally feels herself that she has a purpose in the group is a fantastic development.
We continued to work specific scenes, and our Porter was eager to do her monologue (which, you may recall, she has drastically rewritten), but I kept being pulled aside, and other scenes continued to take the stage. When I finally made my way closer, she turned to me and emphatically said, “We’re not leavin’ out of here until I do my monologue for you.”
And when she did, it was just awesome. She’s mixing contemporary language and ideas with the originals, and it’s hilarious. This approach has also freed her up to dive deeper into the comedy, which we feel is far more important than preserving the original text. At one point, for example, she shrugged her shoulders, grumbling, “What do I know? I’m just a porter at hell’s gate.”
I also want to note that I spoke with another prisoner who is not in our ensemble, but who expressed her enthusiasm for the program and said there was no way she was missing the show; she’s seen the last few and absolutely loved them. “I was never into Shakespeare before — I didn’t even really know about it till I got here,” she said. She’s being paroled soon, and she told me she’s planning on finding local theatres as soon as she does; she just loves theatre now. “I’m really looking to seeing more when I get home,” she said. “This is something new, that I didn’t know was a part of me, that I’m so excited to explore.”
Of course the impact that is most visible to us is that which takes place within the ensemble, but we are also always on the lookout for evidence of the ripple effect we know exists as a result of our ensemble members’ work. And this exchange makes clear the way arts programming can shift and change the attitudes even of people who experience it simply as an audience, and how that has the potential to impact the prison’s culture for everyone.
After a brief check-in, we got everything prepped for our first work-through of the play. We reminded each other that, while the goal was to stop as little as possible, there would be times when we’d need to hold to figure things out; likewise, that if a scene was really a mess, we would take a note to fix it later rather than holding up this part of the process.
The woman who’s been in a director role recently took on a couple of characters that had belonged to those who were just removed from the group. She has made great contributions all along, and she’s always been honest about, and open to being accountable for, being “a little bit of a control freak.” As we got into place for the top of the show, she stood up and briefly addressed the ensemble. “I just want to say something really quick, because this is my first time actually doing something in the show,” she said. “Because I’m bossy and critical and controlling, please feel free to be the same way with me. Please be honest, because I respect each and every one of you, and I want your opinions. And if I disagree, I will respectfully tell you.” I don’t think anyone has had a problem with her at any point, because she always owns this aspect of herself, but I’m glad she welcomed us to work with her this way. I imagine there were at least a couple of people who would have been nervous to critique her if she hadn’t.
We started off strong with our witches, all of whom are just about off book. As we moved through the second scene, our Banquo (who is also very close to being off book) got stuck on some of her lines, shook her head, apologized, and grabbed her script to look at that page. “You got it!” a number of us said, with one woman joking, “Just don’t do it again!”
Of course we have a lot of work to do, but there were some really beautiful moments, and I’m not even talking about the performances. Though this is a stressful time, there was a warm, encouraging energy in the room that lent itself to cracking jokes about mistakes instead of beating ourselves up. At one point, our Macbeth launched into a speech — “I do forget…” — she trailed off — “... my lines,” she finished, getting a big laugh from the rest of us. When we came to a scene with a messenger who hadn’t been cast, one woman jumped in without hesitation, not just for the moment, but for the long haul.
We knew that our Porter would be late, but we’d also all agreed previously that we weren’t going to stop the work-through for anyone. Just as we arrived at that scene, as one person rose to fill in, our Porter walked in the door, a little out of breath; she’d rushed from her other obligation to get there as fast as she could. A cheer broke out, and, pausing only long enough to throw her coat over a chair, she jumped right in. Apparently, we never made sure that the entire ensemble knew about the way in which she’s rewritten her monologue, and there was a little confusion as some tried to follow along. Toward the end, one woman gently interrupted, “Where are we?” Our Porter paused, said, “We’re back on script after this. I’m freestyling here,” and went right back to her speech. She is SO comfortable and confident now — a far cry from her first attempt at this several months ago. It’s incredibly exciting for all of us.
We arrived at the scene in which the murder of Duncan is discovered. We hadn’t worked it in quite a bit, there are new cuts that not everyone knew about, and it began to fall apart immediately. Our Lady Macbeth, who is seldom short of enthusiasm, kept the scene going anyway, albeit not exactly in the way it was intended. With over-dramatic facial expressions, pumping her open hands up and down, she sarcastically shouted, “WHAT! ALAS! IN OUR HOUSE?!” As we stared at her, a little taken aback, she looked around at all of us, smiled, and said, “I sold it.” Cue laughter. Our Banquo had, during this, been figuring out a cue of hers that had been changed; she found her way back to the scene and restarted it, saying dryly, “All right, murder in our house, you sold it.” And we moved on.
Despite lingering tension about focus and attendance, the ensemble banded together to problem-solve and collaborate, scene by scene. The Keeper of the Master Script paid close attention throughout, writing down every entrance, exit, and cue that seemed necessary to record. Not everyone realized that she was just getting a lot of this information now, and some began to get impatient when she couldn’t give them information they needed. She mentioned this to me quietly. I encouraged her not to take it personally, and to let them know the actual situation. She did so, calmly but firmly, and all were receptive and understanding.
We got to another scene that included an unassigned messenger. Kyle jokingly volunteered one woman; I simultaneously volunteered another; but a third woman spoke loudly and forcefully right over us, saying, “No! [Porter]!” She then nabbed that woman and began to guide her through the scene, again telling all of us, “This one’s [Porter].” And our Porter, who, again, has found so much of this so challenging, was totally game, not hesitating for a moment. “I’m gonna write this in your book,” said the woman who’d volunteered her as she talked her through the blocking. Then, within the scene, our Porter saluted Macbeth before she exited, which was so weird and funny that we actually had to pause the scene to laugh and compliment her. As the woman who’d encouraged her sat down beside me, saying that she wanted our Porter to take on some of the other messengers and servants, I told her that I thought that would be fine as long as she doesn’t get overwhelmed, as she did some time back. But this woman smiled broadly, saying, “She’s okay now.” And she’s right. She totally is.
We got halfway through the play, which I think is unprecedented in SIP history! It’s generally been my experience in theatre on the outside that the first work-through takes about twice as long as the play will actually run, but it’s always taken longer on the inside. Not tonight — we need our play to run no longer than 90 minutes, and that is how long we spent on the first half. So, as I said to the ensemble as we wrapped up, it’s a mess at this point — but it’s a really good mess. There is a ton of great work happening, both on and off stage. We just need to keep our focus and momentum. We’re in a great place.