We had a guest tonight, filming a piece that we’ll be able to share with you soon! We pretty much went about things as usual, with a few interviews sprinkled in. It was great to have him!
After checking in, I asked the ensemble what they wanted to work on with the camera there. They unanimously agreed on Act I scene i – the visuals they’ve come up with in that scene are really striking. Our First Witch began by bursting through the curtain, letting the fabric linger on her arms like wings, cackling an incredibly eerie cackle. “My heart’s beating from my chest!” exclaimed one woman after the scene was complete. “I was talking, and I was like –” she showed us how she’d frozen to watch. We worked on staying rooted in the earth and adjusted some blocking so that the witches could exit together at scene’s end, rather than splitting focus.
I saw our Porter sitting in the back of the house with another ensemble member, and she looked upset. I went over and asked what was going on. She said she was freaking out about memorizing her lines. She’s having a really hard time, especially with the monologue, and was practically in tears. I tried to calm her down, saying that she could do whatever she wanted with these lines – that the Porter doesn’t impact the story at all and could be cut entirely, so the lines can be altered in almost any way without screwing things up. All we need is the humor, to know she’s drunk ,and for her to take forever to answer the door. I shared the story about when, years ago, our Romeo and Benvolio were so freaked out about their lines that they stopped coming to our meetings. The rest of us decided that preserving the ensemble was more important than preserving the lines, so we cut every one of theirs that we possibly could. It meant that most of the play’s comedy was gone, but our ensemble members came back, the plot still moved forward, and we counted it as a win. That made her feel a lot better, and we strategized a bit about what to do with the monologue. I asked her to get creative and surprise us!
We said goodbye tonight to a longtime ensemble member who was being paroled prior to our next meeting. She told us that she was glad to leave prison, but very sad to leave Shakespeare. We echoed that: we were ecstatic for her to go, and we knew that we would really miss having her in the ensemble. I said that no one could ever say that she hadn’t been dedicated to SIP for even a second – that, in fact, she ranks as high as anyone on that scale, and higher than many. No one could ever have doubted her passion, either. Or her talent.
I’ve been working with this woman for more than three years, and she’s gone through an absolute sea change in that time. She’s done some very challenging work, and not just in terms of her acting. In the beginning, she had a lot of anger and frustration that she didn’t quite know what to do with, and it often expressed itself in her being caustic with other ensemble members – and very hard on herself. There were times when she’d be so shut down or in her own head that no one seemed able to reach her. Except me. I found that I could always get through, and that I could often help her navigate whatever challenge she was facing. I developed sort of a sixth sense for it; I could often see it coming and swoop in to help her stem the tide. We worked together on that. We even had a code word for a while.
At first, and for some time, she frequently said that she was selfish, self-centered, and that she didn’t care about other people; that she was a bad (even evil) person. We pointed out the many times when she proved herself wrong, and she began to recognize her own capacity for empathy – and to put it to work. This past season especially, I’ve been struck by her increasingly personal involvement with others who were going through hard times: her compassion, words of wisdom, holding of space, and checking in, even with those who were not close friends. She’s opened up a lot. I didn’t note even one occasion this season when she treated anyone with disrespect, even when she was upset with herself or anxious about something in her personal life.
I have a lot of respect for every person who walks through the door to work with us, and that admiration only grows for those who stick it out. This woman has always been so frank about her struggles (and her victories) that I’ve been able to do more detailed work with her than I’m usually able to do with others, so the bond goes pretty deep. It’s also worth noting that, with her departure, there is only one person in the ensemble (other than me) who was involved in SIP earlier than fall of 2015. So it feels like the end of an era; like the youngest member of the “old guard” has left the building.
With our newly-given approval to be in touch with, and even work with, alumni when they’ve left prison, I have a lot of hope that we’ll hear from this woman soon. I’m incredibly excited for her to return to the outside world, settle in, and make her mark. Because I believe she’s going to make a big, bold, very loud, incredibly funny, extremely witty mark. My fingers are crossed that I’ll get to be along for the ride.
Several people shared good news during tonight’s check in, but one person was feeling pretty down. In order not to break confidentiality, I won’t share details here, but she’s been dealing with a pretty negative situation in her unit. The group gave her a lot of support, even to the point of silliness, and she was laughing and relaxed by the time we were ready to lower our ring.
We had planned on continuing to work through the play chronologically, but facilitator Assata has stepped into the role of Doctor, and, with her about to be absent for two weeks, our Gentlewoman asked if we could work on the sleepwalking scene. That made perfect sense, so we did it! This woman has become very assertive and enthusiastic about wanting to work on her scenes, and we absolutely love it.
A while back, one of our ensemble members introduced the idea of using a hand mirror in this scene so that Lady Macbeth could talk to herself, but it hasn’t really come into play. She mentioned some places in the scene to use it, but those are lines where Lady is clearly talking to Macbeth, so we tried to find other places – we never want to fight the text. We found a few options and decided to let our Lady do it in the moment if she was inspired.
Immediately after that first run, which felt pretty disconnected, I asked Lady if she’d found a spot to use the mirror. “No mirror,” she said, but the ensemble member who’d had this idea began to strategize about ways in which the mirror could still be used. She suggested that perhaps it could be set on a table mid scene. I asked what other function the table would serve; we don’t usually want to use set pieces if they’re not necessary because they just complicate things. Lady made it very clear that she didn’t want to do that, either, and another ensemble member jumped in to suggest that if the table were set very far stage right, there could be a way to use it that would make sense.
At this point, everyone (on either side of the debate) was pretty frustrated, and Lady asked if she could watch someone do the scene so she could get an idea of how it could work (or not). The ensemble member whose idea this was complied, and she went with the option of placing the table far right.
The woman actually playing the role now said she was ready, but, after beginning the scene, she became increasingly frustrated and stopped. I reminded her that she feels better about her work when she centers herself before going on stage; it’s tough to pull off a role like this going in cold. She asked if the woman playing Macbeth could walk behind her with her script, drop in the lines, and be there for her to talk to directly before her exit.
As the Doctor and Gentlewoman restarted the scene, she planted her feet on the ground, placed her hands on chest and back (warming the ideal center), closed her eyes, and then raised her hand to mime holding the taper. She entered the scene completely focused, with a totally different energy than she’d had two minutes before, and really seemed to be sleepwalking through the space. She was so sad – not unhinged, but sad and guilty. She sank to her knees, putting the candle down on the ground and rubbing her hands not only together, but on her thighs, her shirt, her face, the floor, increasingly desperate, but, again, not crazy. She did this just inches from me, and it gave me chills. It was absolutely beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it from her, and she’s been in the group for a long time. It was one of those performances when you start to wonder where the person ends and the acting begins, and, honestly, if I didn’t know for sure that she was using techniques to keep herself emotionally safe, I would have been worried about her. My notes from those moments say, “I buy this 100%.” She got up, drifted across the stage, then turned sharply to Macbeth and spoke directly to him. And then she drifted off.
It was amazing. We were all floored. “What happened?” I asked. “I blanked out,” she said. I asked her what that meant. She paused and then said, “I can’t tell you nothin’.” She shrugged her shoulders, mystified but very pleased. I said that that’s what happens when you’re truly in the moment: it can be difficult or impossible to analyze what you’ve just done. As we lauded Lady Macbeth with praise, our spunky Gentlewoman jokingly piped up, “Was anyone looking at me?!” We all laughed and told her that she’d been great, too.
The energy shifted, though, when we went back to Act I scene v. I wanted to recommend that we hold off on that scene for another night – it’s exhausting to do what Lady Macbeth had just done, and I thought it would be a better idea for her to rest – but I deferred to the group and didn’t say anything. We began joking about how Lady Macbeth always seems to enter from stage left, with one woman saying, “That’s ‘cause it’s your best side. You know.” She turned her head back and forth as if she were posing for pictures.
We rolled through the scene, but Lady Macbeth didn’t seem able to focus, and she didn’t do the kind of work she’d wanted to. She sat down as the group gave her feedback – and it was a lot of feedback. Too much. I could see that she was becoming overwhelmed, and I tried to subtly get everyone to move on, but that was a challenge. They finally did, and I beckoned to Lady to join me off to the side.
I asked her how she was feeling, and she said she was overwhelmed – that she had wanted to scream and run out of the room. It had been too much feedback, and she was spent after the previous scene’s work. I encouraged her to let everyone know that next time. “You have no problem telling me to shut up,” I smiled (she does this by saying, “I got this. Frannie, I got this.”). “You can tell everyone else to shut up, too!” She said that she wanted to defer to the group, not to be selfish. I replied that actors need to be selfish to a certain extent; we need to do whatever it is we need to do to give our best performance, and our team mates will support us in that. I encouraged her not to be afraid to tell us what she needs – we can only give it to her if we know what it is.
She really was exhausted, but she said she felt a bit better after that conversation. I touched base with the other facilitators afterward to give them a heads up, and we’re all going to make sure that we pay close attention so that she doesn’t get that overwhelmed again.