Season Eight: Week 3

Tuesday / September 18

Written by Frannie

We welcomed one new member tonight and, after a quick round of introductions, launched into a spirited game of “Zumi Zumi”, a sort of call-and response-game, played in a circle, that requires more focus (and rhythm) than most of us can sustain for long. It got very, very silly, with one woman saying to her sole remaining opponent, “I love ya, shorty, but I’m gonna have to take ya out.” When “Shorty” won — I believe for the first time — there was all sorts of laughter, cheering, and clapping. It was a great way to start off the evening.

We stuck to our plan to review the last few scenes on their feet, beginning with 1.3. A couple of women volunteered to read Sir Toby and Maria, and, when no one volunteered to read Sir Andrew, I said I’d give it a go. We gave it our best shot — and the woman playing Sir Toby really committed to the character’s drunken bombast — but the scene still proved difficult to understand for most people, which I think was the result of our not having preplanned a little blocking/business and my not having read the scene in about a month!

One of the women said that it’s helpful for her to see scenes on their feet, even if they were jumbled, because the language makes more sense to her that way. She suggested that we run through the first three scenes of the play, one after the other, to see what we could get out of that. We wrangled enough people to make it happen and then gave it a whirl.

The scenes were still rough, but running through them again began to give us some ideas of the strengths and potential pitfalls of this play, and what we can to do manage them. “When does this work best? What’s it gonna take to tell this story?” I asked. One woman replied, “Big dramatics! Big personalities! Bright colors! And LOUD!”

One woman noted that the language is really complex, and another said she was concerned that, if sitting and reading it is so challenging, it might be impossible for our audience to understand. She said she thought we should make everything very, very physical so that the story would still come through even if the words didn’t make sense. “It’s like charming a snake,” she said of the language. Everyone agreed with that and wondered how to accomplish it.

I asked if anyone had heard of Commedia dell’arte, and no one had. I said that I thought that tradition might provide some really useful tools as we find the physical comedy we want, even if we don’t rest heavy on its archetypal characters and traditional physicalities. I described it a bit, and the group seemed intrigued. I’ll be bringing in more information as soon as I can put it together!

We moved on to 1.4, a brief scene in which Orsino enlists Viola (now disguised as Cesario) to help him woo Olivia. The scene ends with Viola’s aside to the audience, “Yet a barful strife: / Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife,” at which point nearly every ensemble member said, “Dun dun DUN!” (dramatic music foreshadowing something terrible). We all burst out laughing, and one woman said, “Wait, why did we all do that?! Nothing bad is going to happen. It doesn’t make any sense!”

“No!” I replied. “It’s completely inappropriate! But it’s so funny! I think we should keep it!” We realized that we’re probably going to have a TON of funny ideas like this as we go, and we need to keep a record so we don’t forget. This led me to ask who might like to be in charge of that. Last year’s ensemble members grinned and pointed at our Backstage Captain, who managed things SO beautifully when the rest of us were all over the place. “Oh god. Oh no. Okay,” she laughed. We named her The Keeper of the Jokes, and she suggested we call her “Joker” for short. She lit up. “That could be my prison nickname! I’ve never had one!”

By then just a handful of of ensemble members was still in the room, and we had a good amount of time left. Several people (including me) expressed frustration that people are already skipping out so early, just three weeks into the season. Some early departures will always happen due to mandatory callouts that are not within our control, but non-mandatory attendance issues have never cropped up till later in the year. It’s distressing because it interferes not only with our staying on the same page about the play, but with our ability to build trust in the ensemble.

At this point, we’re irritated rather than angry, but it won’t stay that way for long if we don’t address the issue head-on. That said, this is a problem for which we’ve never found a solution. Several ensemble members said (as they have in the past) that their biggest frustration is that inconsistent attendance is disrespectful of the commitment demonstrated by the facilitators. I said I appreciated that and agreed. “But you also have to be in it for yourself or it doesn’t mean anything,” I said, and a longtime ensemble member who used to struggle with her own commitment quietly said, “That’s true.” The more time people spend in the room, doing the work, the more they get out of it.

“I don’t expect anyone to be hardcore,” said one returning member. “I do,” said another. “It’s about dedication. You’re very dedicated to us. We need to be dedicated in return.” There’s a double standard, she said. “What are they gonna do out in the world?” Another woman agreed, “It teaches us accountability, too.”

I added that we need to build a lot of trust in each other, as well as a solid understanding of the material, in order to execute the kind of physical comedy we’d been talking about. “This play wants to fly.” I said. “I want to fly!” said one woman. There was some predictable singing and laughing, and the tension in the room eased a bit.

“All right,” I said as we gathered our things to leave. “We’ll talk about this on Friday, and I’ll put my foot down.” One longtime ensemble member said, “I’m so proud of you, Frannie.”

We’ll see how it goes...

Friday / September 21

Written by Matt

Some days at Shakespeare in Prison are about intellectual inquiry. Some days are about getting to know one another better. Some are about learning to speak clearly and with purpose or to let loose and inhabit a character onstage without inhibitions, and some are just plain about having fun. Some days at SIP, though, are about taking a hard look at the group itself and figuring out how best to serve the ensemble, its members, and the program as a whole--and it was time for one of those days.

In some ways, Shakespeare in Prison--its members and facilitators--is at its best when directly addressing our core values and how to implement them through day-to-day policies. On Tuesday, we had recognized the need for a serious discussion of “showing up,” both in terms of attendance and being fully present for the entirety of each session. Ordinarily, we bring these sorts of discussions to the ensemble in an open-ended way, but there have been a few times when facilitators have needed simply to make a decision, present it to the group, and say that we will reassess at the end of the season. Tonight was one of those times--we have tried every year to address the issue of people leaving early or simply not showing up regularly and the effect of that issue on the group. We decided that we needed to be stricter about following our own guidelines, less flexible in making exceptions, and expand the definition of “attendance” to include more than simply signing in and taking part in some of the basic activities.

So today was one of those rare times when much of the discussion was spent telling people how things were going to be and then opening the floor for reactions to it, rather than developing policies based on the ensemble’s feeling. Honestly, it felt like a relief. Some very dedicated members had been agitating for a tough conversation about attendance for a long time. Some equally important members of the ensemble whose attendance and attention had been spotty or problematic seemed a little relieved to have clearer expectations outlined. When Frannie was done laying down the new rules, there was no pushback.

The first reactions were mea culpas. One member who joined last year and became a key member of the ensemble, admitted that she had not been fully present this season. She explained what else she is going through, acknowledged that those things were not an excuse, and admitted, “I’m not giving it one hundred percent.” She said that she had been thinking since Tuesday about her place in the group, and had concluded that she needed to leave for this season and make space for someone who could actually be fully present every time.

One of the women wanted to be sure that we didn’t assume that her lack of participation in theatre games was a lack of dedication. “This is important to me,” she said. “This means a lot to me, and I don’t want you thinking that I’m not giving it my all.” Another member reminded her that the games can be as beneficial as anything else. When they had played Blind Cars (a Theatre of the Oppressed exercise) together, there had been a disaster: the first woman had driven the second off the stage while her eyes were closed. Still, she said, “I trusted you after that--even though you drove me off the stage--I trusted you more.”

After working through this tough discussion, we decided to play a silly improv game: Bus Stop. In this game, an actor occupies a bus stop, and another comes in, carrying a single, clear quirk that is intended to drive the other away from the bench. It is essentially a battle of opposing motivations. After some truly ridiculous characters (one always offered something disgusting to smell, another chatted loudly on a cell phone, another was a human trafficker looking for a 2-for-1… or something), one woman reflected that it was a lot like any other type of acting: “You have to put yourself out there. You have to step out of the comfort zone.”

At last, we turned to reading Act I, scene v from the play. The women really seemed to enjoy the scene’s over-the-top silliness, especially Malvolio’s dour presence. “Malvolio has no personality!” exclaimed one, “He’s funny because he’s so dull!” Another noted that “Olivia seems so depressed, and Feste needs to be upbeat” to play off her.

At last, we put up the ring and left the room. Tough as it was, the conversation that dominated the day’s activity seems to have reinvigorated the group and, at least for now, helped ensure that our members are present for the entire time of the session. The future will bring new challenges and new versions of old ones, but as we set the ring back up in the air above us, we felt stronger and more connected for having addressed head-on one of the crucial issues facing our ensemble.