Season Eight: Weeks 1 and 2

Friday / September 7

Written by Frannie.

We circled up for our check-in and ring exercise, and then we took our seats for our traditional three questions! Those are:

What brings you to Shakespeare in Prison?

What do you hope to gain from the experience?

What is the gift that you bring?

We spent just about all of our time on this! We heard common threads: people have joined or are remaining in the ensemble because of its being a safe space — a family. Folks are there to gain confidence, try something new, and learn better “people skills”.

A woman who participated in our third season (Romeo and Juliet) is back. In answer to the first question, she said, “I missed you guys, for one. And my growth… I haven’t been here in years because I didn’t have my act right. Now my act is right, so I’m back.”

A new member said she joined because, “I want to be more like myself again.”

One returning member said she hadn’t been sure she’d do this again, but, “Over the summer, I realized coming here kept me focused and offered me a safe spot. And I missed it. So now I’m back.” Another said, “All of these lovely faces. The best people in prison are the people in this group. Probably not just in prison either.” Still another said, “All of you guys. I miss so many of you. And I learned so much about myself last year — how could I not come back when it helped me learn so much about myself that I didn’t know before?”

Another returning member has been with us for several years, though things haven’t always gone smoothly. But last year ended on a very high note. What brings her back is, “You guys and the ensemble… to see what changes will be in myself and what changes will be in others… It’s like little tiny miracles inside myself, and I love to see that happen for other people, too… One of the main things I’ve learned in this group is how to trust other people. It’s pretty cool.” Another woman, who left the group early last season, said, “That year off killed me. Worst year ever, and I totally could have used Shakespeare… The therapy I get out of it really helps me.” She said she wanted to gain “a better understanding on how to deal with my emotions better… Shakespeare has helped me distinguish which emotion I was going through.”

And one returning member summed it up for all of the others who’ve come back to the group: “I absolutely love Shakespeare, and I found a place where I actually feel like I belong, and I can be me, and everybody accepts it, whether it’s my bad or good.”

Tuesday / September 11

Written by Frannie.

We had a very, very silly evening to start off the season in earnest!

After check-in, we sat in our circle, talking through some things. We kept speaking over each other, though, and it began to be a little frustrating. In the men’s ensemble, we use the code word “orange” to ask people to stop talking and focus, and we use “ratatouille” to call a hold on tangents. (Or at least we’re using ratatouille right now. It was my idea. It may not last. We’ll see.) In any case, I mentioned the code words to the women to see if they’d like to give the idea a try. We have, of course, been able to draw quite heavily on the experiences we’ve had at WHV when working with the guys, and I love the idea of bringing ideas from that ensemble to this one as well. We decided, on a trial basis, to use “ice cream” for “focus up”, and “pineapple” for “tangent”. We’ll see how it goes!

We’re facing some headwinds this fall, as the “No Fear” editions of the play haven’t yet arrived at the prison, so we’ve been working just with the Arden editions — which I wasn’t able to distribute until last week. That said, a couple of “old-timers” and I assured everyone that we used to work with much less (just typewritten copies in manila folders), and that we’d all keep each other on the same page.

We read that great first monologue: “If music be the food of love, play on…” And then we paused. A few people were already feeling lost, and I didn’t blame them! I asked if anyone had gotten the gist — or anything, really. “He has lots of really strong feelings. Of what, I don’t know,” said one woman. Another said, “I feel like he’s in love or just got his heart broken.”

One of the women read the speech aloud. I asked if she’d felt, or if we’d heard, anything in the language — the mechanics of it — that could give us some clues about this guy. “It’s… dramatic,” replied one woman. “Yeah?” I said, excitedly. She looked at the page, laughed, and said, “I picture him as an over-actor.” I’ve known this woman for a couple of years, and I know what a ham she can be. “Oh, do you?” I said. “That’s so interesting. Would you like to — oh, I don’t know — give a dramatic reading?” She started cracking up. “I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” I said. “It’s an invitation, not a demand.”

But of course she got to her feet and gave a HILARIOUS reading, gesticulating melodramatically, even with the book in one hand. We gave her a huge round of applause. I’m so grateful that this happened so organically — that this woman, who is such a well-respected leader in our ensemble, was able to demonstrate, right off the bat, how to just let your hair down and play with Shakespeare.

We read through the rest of the scene, tackling the play’s first puns — and talking about how to deal with some of that wordplay in a mature, professional way. It was a surprise to some of our newbies that Shakespeare’s plays are infamous for their raunchiness, and we don’t shy away from that — we just try not to get TOO silly, and we always keep the conversations focused on our interpretation of the play and how to perform it.

We put the scene on its feet for the first time, with three vets playing the characters. They had a lot of fun with it, and so did we. But none of us were sure we had a much better understanding of the scene.

Meanwhile, I had been sort of dancing in my seat — I honestly had no idea what my “in” to this play would be when we walked in, but just talking and laughing about it with this ensemble gave me so many new, exciting ideas — particularly about Orsino — that I just couldn’t stand it. I asked if we could do the scene again so I could give Orsino a shot. “Whenever someone is as excited as I am right now, they should read, so I want to read!” I said. One new member read Curio, and a vet read Valentine.

I felt strongly that I needed a fainting couch, but of course we didn’t have one of those, so I settled for lounging on the floor. I definitely defied Hamlet’s advice to the players — it was some BAD acting — but, boy oh boy, was it fun, and I wasn’t the only one laughing. Then the woman reading Valentine came crashing into the circle — and, for some reason, did a pratfall right on her face. It was so, so funny.

We moved on to the play’s second scene, which introduces Viola and the seeds of many plot points. I stepped away for a few minutes and came back to more laughter. The group caught me up, and then we talked about how these first scenes are often flipped in production. Why? We saw some good reasons for switching them, and some for keeping them as they are. “It could go either way,” one person said. I snorted and replied, “That could be the tagline for the play. Twelfth Night, or What You Will: It Could Go Either Way.” One of our vets replied, “I mean, this is Shakespeare. You could do it backwards, and it would still make sense.” More and more and more laughter. After three very serious plays in a row, it’s good to be working on a comedy again!

The conversation kept rolling, and the excitement — the joy — was palpable. One woman loudly proclaimed, “I wanna be Viola!” This is her third season, and this is a huge change from day one. When I met her, she was very tense and quiet, hardly ever volunteered to read or perform, but begrudgingly took a role in the performance to continue spending time with her friends in the ensemble. Something clicked for her at the end of that first season, though — she gushed all through our wrap up meeting. When we started back up, exactly a year ago, she turned to me during the reading of the second witch scene in Macbeth and quietly said, “I wanna be a witch!” And now Viola, and broadcasting it to the group. That’s a really clear and exciting progression for her.

Another longtime ensemble member stated that this finally seems to be the time to fulfill a dream she’s been pushing since Othello: to set a play “in spacetime.” This led to a lively discussion of what exactly that could mean, and I encouraged her to keep thinking it over. It’s entirely possible that this play could work in a space setting. Or a space time. I’m still not sure exactly what this means, but if I know anything about this woman, it’s that she’ll explain it in great detail over the next few months.

Meanwhile, a woman who joined us last fall found the page she was looking for in her book and said, “Excuse me! Could I please bring your attention to this bit about her pretending to be a eunuch? I just felt like we went through it too fast.” She told us the page and paragraph of the Arden intro that she was referencing and then read it aloud, taking us through her thoughts about all of it. I thanked her for filling us in. “It caught me off-guard, so I decided I wanted to read about it!” she said, grinning. This is the woman who, just a year ago, told me she thought she might have to quit because she wasn’t smart enough to understand the language. And now here she was, leading us through this somewhat-archaic concept while reading out of a pretty scholarly text. It’s absolutely wild.

Friday / September 14

Written by Matt.

Today’s session was a little bit lightly attended, which frustrated the core group that showed up. Since reading the first scene of the play, a number of our most dedicated members have been embracing the joyousness of reading a comedy after three years of tragedies, but the small group deflated the energy a little bit. This is not the first time that this problem has come up in Shakespeare in Prison, and we try to deal with it the way we try to deal with everything: head-on and with the best interests of the ensemble in mind.

Also sapping everyone’s energy was the cold! It was freezing in the auditorium, so we decided to open the session with our Six Directions exercise, which comes from Michael Chekhov’s acting technique. It is a highly physical exercise in which each actor moves their energy in each of six directions (right, left, up, down, forward, back), alternately moving with a staccato or legato quality. Warmed up and feeling more positive and connected, we read Act I, scene iii. The previous scenes had been funny, but I.iii is plain slapstick. From the introduction of the characters (one of whom is named “Sir Toby Belch” and another is “Sir Andrew Aguecheek”), the women in the circle connected with the bawdy humor and wild abandon of the characters, especially Sir Toby. At least two of them felt really drawn to him and his reckless abandon.

“Wait,” said one member. “How do you pronounce this place?” When another one said, “Ill-EAR-ia,” the first woman muttered, “Sounds like a medication…,” which had everyone laughing again.

Since these Twelfth Night scenes--and especially these scenes--want to be acted out physically, we quickly transitioned to reading them on our feet, and really hamming it up. One member who was away last year jumped into Sir Toby without having even heard the first read-through, and it was spectacular! All of us were struggling to contain ourselves every time she hit a punchline, which she did instinctively and with panache.

Asked afterwards why acting drunk is so much fun, she thought for a second and said, “Drinking and getting high for people is how they release. This guy (Toby, that is) was probably real uptight until he’s drinking, when he’s everybody’s best friend.” She thought for another second, then said that the fun of acting that way is that “[Toby] doesn’t hold back, and he doesn’t stop himself.” Then she turned to her scene partner, who was also hilarious. “Thanks for sitting me down,” she deadpanned. “Well,” the other woman replied, “you couldn’t stand up! You were spilling beer everywhere!”

The next scene has some comedy, but it is mostly to set up for the main plot of Viola wooing Olivia on behalf of Orsino. We were able to talk about gender roles in Twelfth Night here, since Viola is dressed up as a man (Cesario), but the reason Orsino sends her/him to woo Olivia is that she looks like a man who doesn’t look like a man. A few of the women were really interested in this point, reading over the lines in Act I, scene iv about Viola/Cesario’s “smooth and rubious” lips and high voice. The netherworld of gender that Viola inhabits (a woman dressing up as a man who resembles a woman) has always been an interesting part of the play, but it seems to have a special pull on many of the women here, who live for years at a time among other women, and for whom the pageantry of gender roles can become very complicated very quickly. It’s early yet to be able to explain exactly what that pull is, but some of our members seemed to feel that part of I.iv deeply.