Friday / December 28 / 2018
Written by Matt
Today we had a special guest! Kyle was back after taking a hiatus from the ensemble since September. In fact (and I was a little sneaky about writing this two weeks ago, when they planned it), the women had an entire “show” planned out for him when he entered the space. The old-timers razzed him, and the new members introduced themselves--and razzed him.
It was fun and hilarious, and everyone was in high spirits by the end. At check-in, Kyle talked about how hard it’s been for him to be away from the ensemble, but how he didn’t want to be there if he couldn’t be there 100 percent. “I want to apologize--not for taking the time I needed,” he said, “but for how I left. It was abrupt.” Everyone seemed to accept that, even though his sudden departure had been a painful moment for some of them. One woman joked that she has been watching Forensic Files, trying to find him, but then offered that “we’ve got a good system here, and you are always welcome.” Another said that she was really pleased to meet him--she’s heard such great things about him.
We also couldn’t get through check-in without mentioning how it had been a week since we last met--with Christmas and New Year’s Day both falling on Tuesdays, this would be the only meeting during the two holiday weeks. “This was the longest week,” said one of the veterans. “I was having Shakespeare withdrawals! Now, I understand an addict’s pain,” she said jokingly. “But I MADE IT!”
Right after check-in, Frannie and I broached an issue that had been growing for some time now. Ordinarily, our role for the first third of the season is to facilitate group reading and discussion of the text, then we help with rehearsing and staging the play, but mostly we keep out of taking on acting roles unless we absolutely need to. But this season has been really different in a lot of ways, and we’ve been finding different roles for ourselves as facilitators. For Frannie, it’s become clear that the group is at its best when she’s onstage being goofy and over-the-top right along with the other ensemble members, and the best way for her to keep doing that was to allow her to take on a “role” as a permanent on-stage clown. The ensemble has borrowed “zannis” from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte tradition, so a rotating group of mute, clownish characters will play the sailors, attendants, musicians, and others onstage, diving into physical comedy the entire time.
As usual, we took this idea to the ensemble to get their ideas on Frannie becoming the zanni who anchors all the others throughout the performance. “I think that is a wonderful idea!” exclaimed a longtime member. “For some reason, Frannie, when you’re up there with us, it gives off the confidence to do what we want to do.” A new member nodded vigorously and said, “I had that exact same thought for the past two sessions!” Another said, “Being new and just coming in … that energy, it just opened me up!” Another veteran added what might be the most important lesson to take from all of this for us: the less actively involved the facilitators are, the more we feel like “teachers” or “authority figures.” The more we throw ourselves completely into the work--even if we sometimes feel like it’s self-indulgent or hogging the stage--the more we feel like full members of the ensemble. We’re always learning more about what this program “is,” and where we fit into it. This year seems like we’ve learned more than usual just in the first few months!
Before we dove into scene work with Act 1, scene 3, a few people immediately identified a problem. As we have staged the first two scenes, the first scene takes place on “a beach” in front of the closed curtain and the second scene takes place “at Orsino’s home” with the curtain open. The third scene takes place “at Olivia’s home,” so our natural inclination would be to close the curtain to make the distinction. However, Olivia’s home is such an important location, the site of several of the largest scenes, that we decided that we needed to have the curtain open. How, then, to change the set?
We talked it over, coming up with all sorts of ideas, from a quick change with the curtain open, to using our rotating set-piece from Taming of the Shrew, before settling on trying out the second scene in front of a closed curtain. Our Orsino, who had been really enamored of her planned entrance in that scene, was happy with a compromise: a grand flourish of the curtains as she stepped forth. We ran through the first two scenes to make sure they still worked (answer: sort of), then we were off on Act 1, scene 3.
The first thing everybody noticed was that our Maria was off-book! Her lines were memorized, crisply delivered, and pregnant with meaning and subtext. Our Toby, too, was energetic and gave some really great line-readings. Sir Andrew is a core member of the ensemble, and her usual ebullience and work ethic were on full display as she executed a series of hilarious Pratt falls and danced with abandon as Toby cajoled her. When they wriggled offstage, everyone burst into applause and whooping.
“Can I just say: [Maria] is OFF-BOOK!!” shouted a veteran member. “I mean, what the hell?!” That sentiment was echoed by others (“Frannie, this goes down in Shakespeare in Prison history,” offered one woman). “You know, even professional actors often don’t show up off-book to the first rehearsal,” said Frannie. “I told you I had a good memory,” grinned our Maria. Then she encouraged others to stay away from the modern English side of the No Fear Shakespeare when memorizing, warning that it caused a lot of interference when she was trying to get the lines into her head.
About the scene generally, one woman voiced how much she enjoyed Maria’s no-nonsense attitude. “It was so calm at first,” she said, “then, BAM! [Maria] just took charge!” On a second run-through, the scene was even more accomplished. Maria set up a bar and began inventing stage business: wiping glasses, doing dishes, constantly handing drinks to Toby and Andrew and then wiping up after them. It was hilarious. Toby and Andrew decided that they wanted to have a super-complicated secret handshake, and onstage, they both simply decided to give up halfway through and return to drinking.
The final run of this scene had to be done in the final minutes of our session, so we hurried out of the auditorium and out of the building. As we left, everyone seemed in high spirits, especially considering how difficult the holidays are for our participants. We were ebullient, too, as we left. It was the perfect holiday-season evening--a bright spot on one of the longest nights of the year.