Tonight was our first performance! Though of course there were some nerves at play, the atmosphere in the room was still remarkably calm. We got most things set up quickly, checked in and lowered a ring, and then continued our prep as audience members filed into the auditorium.
I chatted a bit with a couple of women who joined this year. Unprompted, one of them said, “This has been great. I never realized before everything that went into a play.” She described not only the work that goes into a performance, but the way in which a play itself can connect people to one another through storytelling. She said it far better than I ever could, and of course I didn’t have my notepad and pen right with me. I told her that that was the best description of what a play can and should be that I’d ever heard (it truly was) and asked if she’d write it down for me later. She beamed and said she would.
She continued, saying that she’d signed up to re-join the dance group (she quit to work with us), but that she wasn’t sure she’d actually do it… That the waiting list is pretty long, and she won’t be heartbroken if she can’t get in. “I really like this. I’m glad I stuck with it. I wasn’t sure I was going to,” she said. “I wasn’t sure you were going to, either!” I said. “This is great, though,” she continued. “It’s done me a lot of good. Really.”
The other woman nodded vigorously, saying she couldn’t believe how much her work in our group has helped her. “This has been amazing. It’s changed everything,” she said. “I never finished anything before that was good for me. The girls I work with keep asking me, now that Shakespeare’s over for the year, are you gonna go back to normal?” The first woman jumped in, saying, “You tell them this is normal. It’s not even the new normal. This is just you.” The second woman nodded again, smiling.
I stepped out into the house to see if it would be okay to start the show. While I was out there, I chatted briefly with a former ensemble member who was sitting front row center. She said she had canceled something else to see the show, that she missed the ensemble, and that she’d be back in the fall for sure. Another former ensemble member was in the audience as well, but I didn’t get a chance to connect with her other than to smile and wave.
It was a nice, big audience, and they were attentive from the very start. Several facilitators stayed at the back of the auditorium, distributing and collecting anonymous surveys, and they noted afterward that this was the quietest audience we’ve ever had – and that the vast majority of people stayed for the entire performance. I noted this, too, as much as I could from my perch off stage right, where I peep through the curtain in order to run sound. One example happened just a few minutes in. When Duncan announced that Malcolm would be Prince of Cumberland and everyone on stage clapped, several audience members did, too.
I noticed that our Backstage Captain (she really ought to have a formal title at this point) was standing just offstage left behind the curtain, script in hand. I wondered what she was doing there, but then our Lady Macbeth called for line, and it became clear that they’d coordinated to have the former woman on book for the latter. I’m so glad they did that; it really freed up Lady Macbeth, who went further than she ever has in her first scene, excited to murder Duncan and mocking on the line, “Hold! Hold!”
She really was great, even though she frequently called for line, and even though her lines often came out a bit jumbled. She still nailed the character for the most part, although she broke character a few times when things really hit a snag. More on that later…
There was a remarkable “save” in the scene in which Macbeth consults with two murderers. One of those women missed her entrance – actually, she missed the entire scene because by the time she realized what had happened, she couldn’t figure out a logical way to enter. Our other Murderer, though, covered beautifully. When Macbeth asked questions that the other woman was supposed to answer, the woman on stage simply listened intently and responded either with “yes” or “no.” And our Macbeth didn’t miss a beat. It was pretty great.
The most exciting thing for me about this performance happened when our Young Siward was about to go on for that scene. She plays another character as well, and she’s been increasingly confident, but for whatever reason she got spooked. Suddenly she was standing next to me, staring at her script, panicked, asking over and over again, “Where are we?” I showed her, trying to soothe her, and facilitator Kyle joined us as well. “Oh my god,” she said, nervously shaking her hands up and down, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. Holy shit. What did I do?!” I asked her what she meant, reassuring her in the same breath that she was going to be great. “Why’d I take this part? I can’t do this! Oh my god! Where are we?” We showed her again where we were, still trying to calm her. “You’ve got this,” said Kyle. “You know the fight, you know your lines. Just make the stab noise when you go out.” She nervously giggled and told him to “fuck off with that shit,” then told us (not exactly in these words) that her digestive system seemed to be wanting to get involved. “Oh, shit. Where are we? Oh my god, what did I do?” And then it was her cue. “Oh my god,” she said one more time, and then she launched into the scene.
I cannot imagine anyone in the audience knew she’d been having a meltdown. She did know her lines; she did know her fight; and she executed the scene perfectly – even making that “dying” sound, which she hadn’t ever done before. She dragged herself off and literally rolled back to where I was sitting. She sat up, smiling weakly and breathing hard. Kyle and I immediately told her how great she’d been and how proud we were of her, and we asked her how she felt. She rolled her eyes, still smiling. After saying “holy shit” a few more times, she asked how it had gone, interrupting herself to say it had been awful. But we interrupted her right back to tell her it had NOT been awful. It had been amazing. She then let us know that her digestive system seemed to have retreated.
I was so absorbed in this triumph (even running sound sort of faded into the background, though I kept doing it) that I didn’t notice when our Macbeth took a pretty big fall during her fight with Macduff, apparently almost knocked over a flat, and then just got up and kept going like she’d meant to do it.
We got a huge round of applause when we reached the end of the show, and everyone seemed to be feeling good. As we scattered to put away our props and costumes, our Lady Macbeth walked over to me. “How do you feel?” I asked. She paused, knowing that I knew the kind of performance she’d wanted to give – and that she hadn’t exactly given it. “I had fun,” she smiled, still with a bit of hesitation. “Good,” I replied. “That’s the most important thing.”
She planted herself, serious, and asked, “What did you think, Frannie?” I said, “I think if you had fun, that’s great. And if you want to play this character for laughs, she’s yours, and you totally can. But was that the performance you wanted to give?” She shook her head. “What do you think you need to do, then?” I asked. “Buckle down,” she replied. “What does that mean?” I asked again. “Put in more time outside of here,” she said.
“Yeah, that would help,” I agreed, “But a lot can happen out there. And there’s a lot that you can do in here, too.” She knew exactly what I meant – we’ve been working together for a long time – but, still, she asked me to explain. “Every time you messed up, you apologized by breaking character and going for comedy, right?” I asked. She nodded. “You can do whatever you want with this character, and your scene partner will roll with whatever you do, but I’m not sure this is actually how you’ve interpreted Lady Macbeth all year.” She nodded.
“Here’s the thing,” I continued. “You’re not just letting yourself off the hook – you’re letting the audience off, too. You’ve worked hard, and you deserve to give yourself the performance you want. In order to do that, you need to give yourself permission to take yourself seriously. If you laugh at yourself, you give them permission to laugh. But did you notice that during the handwashing scene, when you were so locked in, there wasn’t a peep out there?” She nodded. “They’ll be with you like that for the entire show if you let them. They will not reject you if you take yourself seriously. Because you won’t give them room to.” She nodded, saying firmly, “You’re right. I’m not gonna apologize next time. I got this, Frannie.”
“I know you do,” I replied.
During our preshow check-in, several women shared that they were feeling off: terrible anxiety (not show-related), lack of focus, or just being in a really bad mood. We thanked them for sharing so that we could be sensitive to them.
Our Banquo then asked if someone could be on book at all times – our Backstage Captain had been on book for an increasing number of people as they noticed how she was helping Lady Macbeth, but she wasn’t prepared, so it hadn’t been consistent. Banquo had gone up a couple of times and felt like she’d been hung out to dry. Backstage Captain said (not heatedly – this was a good conversation) that only Lady Macbeth had asked her to do that, but that she had been planning ever since to be on book for everyone going forward. Banquo assured her that she knew that and hadn’t meant to blame her for anything. We all agreed, too, that when Backstage Captain was on stage, I would be on book, since I’m right behind the curtain anyway. That settled, we raised the ring and continued getting ready.
Our Lady Macbeth was one of those who wasn’t feeling quite her usual self, though I’m not going to go into detail here. “What do you need from us?” I asked. “Patience. And strength,” she replied. “You’ve got it,” I said. “We’ve all got your back.”
Just as I had on Tuesday, I saw and was able to briefly chat with two former ensemble members who were in the audience. One sat in the center section; the other sat in the front row, all the way house left. It was fabulous to know they both were out there!
Everything was going great, and then our Lady Macbeth entered. And she had buckled down as she’d wanted to – she was totally locked in. Though she skipped over quite a few lines, our Macbeth stayed right with her; you’d have thought we’d made those cuts on purpose, they were so much in the moment together. The scenes crackled. It was exciting. Lady Macbeth also took her handwashing scene to the next level, entering with her crown on upside down, wearing only one shoe.
This was an interesting show for audience-watching on my part. Once again, most of the women whom I could see were entirely focused on the onstage action, again clapping when the actors clapped and smiling throughout. I also noted that several staff members and officers watched at least part of the show from the back of the house; one had seemed genuinely excited when we arrived at the building. It’s always wonderful to have their support, even if they can’t stay the whole time. The only thing that was strange was that a large number of people left about midway through the show. Neither I nor facilitator Lauren (who was in the house) could tell why, but it wasn’t terribly disruptive, and the ensemble either didn’t register it or shook it off without missing a beat.
There were, once again, some really exciting moments. Our Lady Macduff got a huge laugh at her line about being able to buy 20 husbands at the market, which was fun. And a scene that had largely fallen apart on Tuesday was much improved today! I also noticed that no one has been hugging the back wall. All of the action happens far enough downstage for the audience to hear, and the staging is visually strong. That might be unprecedented; there are usually a few people who just cannot seem to get themselves down stage. One woman used accents for some reason, without warning us, which threw folks for a loop (including herself!), but it was pretty funny.
I also noticed something that I probably should have before, and that’s that our Macbeth physically transforms herself throughout the play using only her hair. She begins the show with her hair in two perfect French braids. After the murder of Duncan, her hair becomes increasingly mussed, scene by scene, till it’s no longer braided at all, but wild, even falling into her eyes.
It’s really effective, and, as always, indicative of how having the kinds of limitations we do (budget, policy, etc.) can actually enhance our work. Had we been able to provide her with progressively deteriorating costumes, as she conceived, she probably would not have had the inspiration to do the same thing with only her hair. That “creativity-by-necessity”, while often a pain in the rear, is also truly empowering when we hit on a solution.
One more performance, a wrap up meeting, and then we break for the summer. Almost there.