Written by Matt
Despite facilitators arriving at the auditorium a bit late, we were able to start on time, and people were ready to go! Before we started to stumble through the second half of the play, though, an ensemble member shared about a really difficult situation in her family that has been weighing on her. Everyone was attentive and vocal in their support for her, and even though she waved away hugs and outstretched hands, she made it clear that the group’s openness, cohesion, and safety was key to getting through this tough part of her life. “I’m not usually this open,” she said to the circled ensemble, “but I feel supported enough here to say what I feel.”
“Well,” said a longtime member, “I don’t know if this makes you feel better, but I also had something terrible happen. I tripped. Over the floor.”
“Wait, you tripped over what?” asked the first woman.
“The floor. There wasn’t nothing there. And it was in front of an officer and everyone.”
Her levity had the desired effect: the group fell to laughing and trading strategies for recovering from embarrassing stumbles.
“That didn’t make me feel any better,” the woman who first shared said between bouts of laughter. “But it sure gave me something to laugh about, and I needed that.”
With that, we lowered the ring and set our minds to Macbeth.
The first few scenes did not go smoothly. In part because everyone was distracted by trying to remember their lines—it was our first day off book—and in part because the first few scenes of the second half of the play are complicated and long, we got off to a rocky start. We stopped frequently to rehash blocking or try to remember who entered or exited where. The first scene we worked today, the banquet scene (III.iv), has been rehearsed many times already, but often without all of the key actors present. So by the time we finished, everyone was frustrated. The actors in smaller roles, who are onstage all scene, were tired of having to repeat the same actions and reactions while others stumbled over lines. The leads were confused about blocking and extremely hard on themselves for forgetting or mixing up their lines. Those of us in the audience were restless and mostly wanted the process to just move on. But as so often happens, a couple of the women came forward to push the scene forward, leading by example. The process still took a long time, but they got each other through it, and we marked that scene for intensive work in the future.
The next scene was only slightly easier. Act IV Scene i is long, involving the three witches (“Double, double, toil and trouble!”), long speeches by Macbeth, and a coda after the witches leave that sets us up for the roller-coaster of the final two acts. No one knew where to go or how to move, and the actors spent almost as much time chastising themselves for missing cues and lines as they did acting out the roles. This is a frequent issue with all amateur actors, not just with our ensemble members, and it has been a minor problem in the past. Today was especially rough: our group this year is led by several perfectionists. This has been a boon to us all season long, but it can also prove challenging—our leads are so concerned with “doing it right” that they sometimes don’t quite get to just “doing it.” After we finally finished IV.i, several women, including our Macbeth, retreated to the wings, castigating themselves harshly for their perceived failures—for letting the group down, for letting themselves down—and the rehearsal ground to a halt.
In the end, it was a facilitator who intervened to help us forward. In a short speech, he said that there was entirely too much shame being felt about lines. “This is our first day off book,” he said. “It’s going to be rough.” He reminded everyone that no one was going to judge them, that we all forget our lines sometimes, and that the first day off book is always challenging, even in professional theatre. We had a student facilitator on book, he reminded us, and all anyone needed to do was call “line,” and move on. No problem. After a minute, we moved on to the next scene. A lot of what we do in Shakespeare in Prison is to foster a space in which our ensemble members can solve problems on their own without fear of judgement, reprisal, or resentment. Sometimes, though, it is just as important for a facilitator to step in strongly and set us on the right path. Having facilitators who know when to take this step—and, more often, when not to—is central to the success of SIP.
The success of this brief reminder was, if not magical, at least marked. As we moved into the long scene of Lady Macduff’s murder and, even longer, Macduff’s attempt to recruit Malcolm, we faced some challenges, but excessive self-flagellation about lines was not one of them. One of the witches (who also plays the hired assassin who kills Lady Macduff and her son) brought up the issue of staging a child’s murder with appropriate sensitivity, given our audience. We tabled this conversation for another day, but her point resonated with several people.
Moving into Act V, our Lady Macbeth was distracted. She had been offstage for more than an hour, and had to make the transition—difficult for any actor—into embodying Lady Macbeth’s madness. She had been especially frustrated with herself earlier for missing her lines, and she was distracted by something on the small handheld device that prisoners have. But when her cue to go onstage came, something in her clicked. She dropped the device and turned to our Macbeth, asking her to “drop in,” or read her lines to her softly so that she could say them without holding her script or relying on memory. The effect was mesmerizing. Freed from her script and from the need to strain to recall the words, she created a chilling performance. Our Macbeth was so unobtrusive that a few people didn’t realize that anything was unusual about the scene until it was mostly done.
The rest of Act V was a mess, but it was a fun mess. The transitions from scene to scene, which come quickly, made for utter chaos, but we were determined to finish the session and finish it well. Everyone came together for the final push to the end, and we wrapped with a few minutes to spare.
Written by Kyle
Friday night went well, all in all, but it was very difficult to really move forward the way we needed. The attendance just was not there tonight; although we were able to take a deeper dive on the scenes we could, we didn’t quite get through the volume of scenes that we had hoped. We started with the re-staging of Lady Macduff’s murder — the scene where the text calls for a child to be killed on stage. It can be a hot-button issue, and, although it hadn’t been up until tonight, it had seemed to come to a head. We began to debate the impact of the scene, and many members wanted to be sensitive to what could be triggering to the ensemble and the audience. Everyone made good points; however, I could feel the edges of our ensemble start to fray the longer we debated. We just weren’t going to get anywhere by talking about it further. We needed to get it up on its feet. Luckily, we were able to work in the auditorium that night, so we moved over there, and then we got down to business. Ultimately, we were able to achieve the best of both worlds: we kept the severity of the scene, without being too explicit. All of the characters are on stage, and, just before any violence occurs, the primary characters disappear behind the curtain to finish the scene with sound effects. It’s effective, yet sensitive to all who may be enjoying the show. It was difficult for the actors, as it required a nuance in timing that was new to some of our ensemble members. They were able to get it, but it took a couple of tries, which I think was both frustrating and satisfying for the ensemble. Frustrating to work the same five seconds of stage time over and again, but satisfying when we all shouted, “Got it!”
After that, the officers were very gracious in letting us use an additional empty room so we could “divide and conquer” a bit with other scenes. Facilitators Matt and Lauren stayed in the auditorium to work on Act IV scene ii, the famous “Double double, toil and trouble” scene, particularly the part when the witches summon the apparitions. Although the women knew their objectives and lines well enough, there were enough logistical staging issues that needed some work, and we were glad to give it some attention. While that was happening, I was able to work with our Macduff and Malcolm on their scene. We made some much needed cuts, and tried to whittle away all that wasn’t working with the actors. We started by just having the actors sit across one another and trying to maintain eye contact: no blocking, no props or staging, just trying to connect to one another with the text. With the deadline of the show looming large, it was easier said than done. They took to it, though, and I think it working in a small group allowed the women to take some acting risks they may not have otherwise. It also allowed them to clarify the meaning of select passages without feeling embarrassed. We finished working the scene, and I think that it really came a long way.
We finished the night working a scene that has been pared down to just me and one other ensemble member. We tried a staging idea from a while ago that we never got to see through. This is the scene when two lords have a secret discussion about a growing rebellion against Macbeth. We tried having someone,unrelated to the scene walk by, forcing us to stop talking and “act normal.” This was met with laughs of identification, and the group loved the addition. It was a great way to end the night, and we put the ring up with a firm resolution to hit the ground running on Tuesday.