Season Eight: Week 19


Put money in thy—er, our—purse!

Tuesday / January 8 / 2019
Written by Matt

We got 12 new members today! Actually, it was a bit overwhelming. It’s exciting to have so many new faces, but it’s also a reminder of how tight-knit our little ensemble had become this season. We needed them--we were dangerously close to having too few people to put on the play--but the room feels different with so many new folks in it.

For most of the session, though, they were off with Frannie and a veteran doing orientation. After quick introductions, they headed off to a classroom, and the rest of us dove right back into scene work. The next scene up was Act II, scene ii, which is the introduction of Sebastian and Antonio. The women playing those roles had been awaiting their scene with excitement and trepidation. Both are relatively shy and inexperienced, so the scene had a different feel from the last few, which have been full of the raucous energy of some of our most dramatically inclined members.

They stumbled through it once without stopping, but both were focused more on saying the words than on acting--which is fine. It often takes a long time for any actor to step fully into a role, and this is especially true in a setting like this one, in which the text is Shakespeare, and the actors have little or no experience. In fact, doing this scene felt a lot more like a “normal” SIP session, from previous years, when fewer of our members have had such facility with the language.

After the run, a veteran asked the actors how they felt. They seemed a little bit shellshocked still, and they said little, so the woman who had asked them turned to her fellow audience-members. “What did you all see?” As usual, people were brimming with ideas. A veteran with great instincts as a director asked them questions about where they were coming from and going to. “Did you feel like you need to move around?” she queried. When both said yes, a new member suggested that they add a lot of movement to the scene, to give it dynamism. “What if they’re just going all over the space, and Sebastian’s trying to shake Antonio and failing?”

It was all a little bit too much for Antonio. She put her head down and seemed discouraged. At that moment, her scene partner, our Sebastian, stepped in to take care of her, taking comments and suggestions and processing them for her. She even took Antonio to the side and talked her through it gently for a few minutes before diving back in. And, honestly, that’s just the kind of ensemble we have this year. The feedback was all good, all appropriately phrased, all on-point. There wasn’t too much of it. But for our Antonio, it was just too much to deal with on top of her anxiety and everything else. But before I had to say anything, her scene partner, who has been very quiet in the past, swooped in to fill the role of coach, interpreter, and cheerleader. All naturally!

The second run was better, as usual, and both women seemed more confident, and the third run was already starting to look like the rough draft of a scene! A few of the women gently worked with our Antonio to coax her more fully into her character. In the end, we decided that Antonio is trying to physically block Sebastian from getting to her exit, which made for a pretty funny picture on stage!

We decided to move on to the next scene, II.ii, even though we were missing Feste and Malvolio. One of the women remembered that Coffey had played Feste, so she requested a repeat performance, and someone nominated me to play Malvolio.

With two facilitators on stage and Frannie doing orientation, our notes were a little thin on Act II, scene ii. But, honestly, we were just playing around, since we were missing two central characters. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were over-the-top, as always, and Maria was snappy in response. (And, once again, everyone was awed by the fact that Maria is practically off-book!) Coffey sang Feste’s songs as sad pop-ballads, smooth jazz--eliciting weeping and groans from Toby and Andrew. It was great fun!

We had almost no notes after the first run, just some ideas for more shtick (just what we need: more shtick!) and a couple of technical notes about opening up to the audience. Everyone was eager to run it again, and, just in time, Frannie arrived with the newbies! We ran the scene again, this time with zannis running around and causing havoc, and with one of Feste’s songs delivered improbably as Beat poetry.

To finish up, we played two rounds of This Bottle Is Not a Bottle, a Theatre of the Oppressed game we’ve played several times before. It’s a good icebreaker. The first object (or NON-object!) was a tambourine, which morphed into all sorts of things. Highlights: an ad for a dentist, a tiara, the Amulet of Destiny, four cell phones all ringing at the same time, a bag with a puppy, a tractor beam, and Abe Lincoln’s hat. Round two was a drumstick, which changed into a pogo stick, a spaghetti noodle, a unicorn (the receiver poached it for its horn!), a giant Q-tip, a raging bull, and a Golden Globe Award (one woman dashed in to steal it from the receiver, ala Kanye West), among other things.

It was a good day--but it’s a really big circle! In all, 27 people showed up. We’ll see how many stick it out, but it’s a big injection of energy!

Friday / January 11 / 2019
Written by Frannie

As we settled in for check-in, a longtime member gently but firmly said she needed to speak first. “I just have to say this,” she said, “because—and I’m not mad at anybody or anything—but I don’t know if you guys have noticed I haven’t been checking in much and stuff… And it’s because—I guess I just haven’t really been feeling the trust in the ensemble this year.” She paused and looked around the circle, making eye contact with each person as she went. “And I wanna have that trust back, and I want you newbies to know that this is a safe place where you can be open—” she took a deep breath “—and it’s just hard to feel that when someone takes something I said outside of the ensemble.”

Because this woman so rarely brings issues to the circle this way, and because it was clear that she truly wasn’t angry and just wanted us all on the same page, everyone listened carefully as she clarified a comment she made last week. She feared that we may have misinterpreted her, as she had been approached by a former ensemble member who had been told about it and believed it was a slight against her. These two women are friendly, and things were quickly cleared up without escalating, but that wasn’t the point, this ensemble member said. The point was that she should never have heard about it in the first place.

“Oh, oh, oh,” said a woman who joined a couple of months ago, sitting on the edge of her seat, leaning forward toward the longtime member, clearly stricken and rocking a little. “I told [the other woman] about what you said, but I didn’t say it like that. I was just telling her about how we all wanted her to come back in the fall. I said all positive things. I don’t know why she took it that way.”

“That’s my point. This is a circle thing,” the longtime member calmly replied. “I’m really not mad about it—it’s all good now, and it wasn’t a big deal. But what if it had been? That’s what I’m saying. We can’t be repeating stuff people say in here outside the circle.” The other woman, brow furrowed, said, “I know, I know, I just—I guess I didn’t think about it that way, I just knew she was wondering about it. I’m sorry. Really, I’m sorry.” The longtime member said, “I know, and it’s really okay. We all just gotta make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

This feature of SIP is tough, I acknowledged to the group, even for me. We each need to constantly check in with ourselves to make sure we’re not sharing anything with others that is potentially sensitive. For me, the latest challenge has been figuring out how to share ensemble anecdotes, as I often do with all sorts of people, with SIP alumni who’ve been paroled. Even if nothing about the anecdote itself is objectively sensitive, the possibility that an alum knows the people I’m talking about means I have to be even more careful than usual in my storytelling so I don’t inadvertently identify anyone. I can’t make assumptions about what’s okay for old friends to know. I have to protect that safe space. We all do.

Calmly and compassionately (as usual with this group), we agreed to keep our lines of communication open, and to keep everything in the room. (Except for what’s on this blog, of course! They know we’re extremely careful about what we write here. And that I was recently told by an alum’s family member that she’d spent nearly five years trying to figure out when I was writing about her loved one, and she could never do it. That’s a pretty good track record, if you ask me!)

Sadly, the next woman to check in demonstrated exactly why we need that trust—she had gotten some very upsetting news about a loved one and poured her heart out to us. Showing vulnerability like this is something she “never” does, she said, and several women murmured that it was okay—she didn’t need to apologize. “So, yeah,” she said, shifting a bit in her seat, “Today was not a good day, and I’m really glad to be here.” There was a brief silence before a longtime member leaned forward in her chair, grinned, and asked, “Do you need a whoosh?” The first woman, bewildered, said, “Do I need a… what??” We then realized that we had done NO WHOOSHES since this woman joined the ensemble, and that is clearly not acceptable. After a brief explanation of this favorite SIP exercise, she agreed to accept a whoosh after check-in. “Keep us posted on what you need and don’t need, okay?” I said. “I need some Theatre of the Oppressed!” she replied. No problem there!

After a few more women shared their updates, we stood, lowered our ring, and told that member to get in the middle of the circle! As she did, she looked at me, a little apprehensive. “I know it sounds weird. It is weird. It’s really weird,” I said. “But see if you can stay open to it—because it also feels really, really awesome.” On the count of three, we all made a full-body “uplifting” gesture, three times, as we exclaimed, “Whoosh!” “Wow,” she said, “that did feel kinda good.” I asked if there were any other takers for whooshes. Turned out there were five. We need to do more whooshes more often!

We played a name-game version of “Energy Around,” followed by a couple rounds of “Bombs and Shields.” When we reflected afterward, one woman said the game “kinda makes you lose your inhibitions in a way.” I agreed and asked the group what else they’d gotten out of it. “I can lean on her,” was one woman’s immediate response, referring to a quiet member who, it turned out, had been chosen by four people to be their shield. She beamed, subtly as always, but I saw her!

“How are you doing?” a longtime member asked the woman who’d been so upset during check-in. “Good,” she replied, “and so glad I’m here.” I asked if she needed more games, or if she needed some Shakespeare. “Shakespeare!” was the reply, and our Malvolio agreed: “I’m ready for some Shakespeare. Let’s do a Malvolio scene!” I whooped a little (because I’m a professional) as one of the women threw it back to a favorite inside joke that started last season. “I feel like you got the Shakespeare Holy Ghost!” she said to Malvolio, who threw back her shoulders and said, “I feel like I do!” I continue to be in awe of this woman, who, last season, was so quiet and unsure, practically until the last moment, about whether she wanted to stay in the group. And now she’s one of our liveliest members. She’s amazing.

Se launched headlong into Act I, scene v, adding a “zanni posse” for Feste and deciding not to plan ahead even a little bit. Though the scene was, of course, a mess, it was also extremely fun, engaging, and energetic. “Can we keep going? This is awesome!” one of the women exclaimed when it was over. “I feel like…” mused our Malvolio, “I don’t know… Can I be, like, constantly rolling my eyes, or would that be too much?” It would not be too much, came the reply from multiple people. In fact, we weren’t sure it would be possible for her to go too far in that direction!

We identified a couple of problems: the zannis’ shuffling feet made it difficult to hear the lines at times, and we apparently overstayed our welcome on stage. The first solution is likely simple: some of our costume budget will go toward ballet slippers or soft-soled shoes! The second required more creativity.

“Maybe you don’t have to leave—I think you were just moving around too much,” said one woman. “No, I think at some point the zannis can get, like, fed up and leave,” said another. “OH!” exclaimed a longtime member, the way she always does when she has a particularly inspired idea. “Maybe they get more and more frustrated every time someone says, ‘Take the fool away,’ and on the last one, two of the zannis turn on the third one and arrest him!”

We spent some time, too, on the Viola/Olivia part of the scene. “I just feel bored,” said our Viola. “Like I’m just standing up there talking.” I asked her what her character’s objective is, and we talked our way to one: to make Olivia fall in love with Orsino via Viola. But is that really what Viola wants? “She’s conflicted,” our Viola said, reminding us that she is in love with Orsino. “It’s a lot of frustration in this scene.” One ensemble member pondered whether Viola might not actually be trying very hard to woo Olivia, but another woman firmly said no, that’s not what’s in the text: Viola always does her best for Orsino.

We ran just this portion of the scene again, and the actors didn’t feel much better about it. A few people gave helpful, creative suggestions. One woman suggested to our Olivia that she “give less” to Viola.

Olivia agreed at first, and then she seemed to drift a bit, lost in thought. “I kind of do that too much, anyway,” she said in the way that often precedes an SIP-style epiphany. “I mean…” Another long pause. And then, “Never mind,” she said, eyes downcast, dropping whatever it was she’d been thinking. Or at least trying to drop it. “You were about to go real deep, weren’t you?” a friend gently teased. “Frannie’s gonna go home and Google your name!” I shook my head as some members laughed, while others were clearly uncomfortable, and the woman onstage looked at me with some trepidation. This is a very, very sensitive subject that almost never comes up in the ensemble, even one-on-one. When it does, it’s always driven by ensemble members—never by facilitators—and this time, we quickly moved on without further discussion.

It’s a subject for a different blog, I think. But tonight, we—the people in the room, and no one else—circled up, dispelled the ring of energy we’d created together, clapped and thanked each other as we always do, and left on a positive note. And when I got home, I didn’t Google anyone.