Season Eight: Week 20

Check out this article in American Theatre

A Role for Theatre in Criminal Justice?

So much great information about this work, its impact…
And Shakespeare in Prison is honored to be a part of it!


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Oh, and while you’re at it…

Tuesday / January 15 / 2019
Written by Frannie

After checking in and answering our traditional three questions (which we forgot to do last week!), I asked the ensemble what they wanted to do. Some kind of icebreaker? “SIX DIRECTIONS,” said a longtime member, gleefully rubbing her hands together. This Michael Chekhov exercise (a favorite of some… and not so much of others, but they humor the rest of us) is a good one for centering oneself and warming up for scene work and other exercises. Before moving our energy in each of six directions, we did some physical expansions and contractions. We followed these with a Michael Chekhov “personal atmosphere” exercise, which several ensemble members have been asking for.

In this exercise, each person uses her imagination to conjure a “bubble” of space around herself that is filled with a specific sensation or image that influences her feelings and physicality. We began with each of four tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salty), and then went through a sequence of atmospheres, moving through the space and trying out different activities. Finally, I asked each person (including myself) to choose an atmosphere of either bubbles or cactus spines, and then to interact with each other using only the words “yes” and “no.”

We realized very quickly that all but two people had chosen cactus spines, but those two proved to be very persuasive! It didn’t take long for the cactuses all to be converted to bubbles, and there was a lot of smiling and laughing when I called a hold to the exercise so we could sit together and reflect.

The first thing anyone said was that that she’d noticed how sad everything felt as soon as we stepped into atmospheres of tears. Everyone nodded as another woman said that being in that atmosphere “brought her right into” being with her kids, which was what made her feel sad. I asked if she was okay, and she assured us that she was. “It’s good to show emotions sometimes,” she said. “If you bottle it in, it comes out negative.” I made very sure that everyone knew that our goal is not to re-live painful memories in our acting, but to find ways of being emotionally truthful in our performances—to use our imaginations to call the feelings up. She had experienced the emotion, she said, but it hadn’t been a painful moment in itself.

“When we did the tears, there was a heaviness in the air because everyone was so down,” said one woman. “When I stepped over [into the stage left wing], I almost felt a wall come up. It was weird.” I asked if she’d gotten stuck in that energy, and she said, “No, as soon as I stepped over that line, I left it behind.” … Which is also a Michael Chekhov exercise—creating a threshold to separate one atmosphere from another—but I didn’t want to interrupt the reflection and figured I could tell her (for the umpteenth time) how brilliant she is later.

Still on the subject of tears, another woman said that her atmosphere had been so heavy that, “I didn’t even want to move. Just stand there.” Another woman, who had spent most of the exercise standing just offstage, closely observing, mused, “When we did the bubbles, everybody did their own thing. There were all kinds of bubbles. But when we did the tears, everybody did the exact same thing—the same emotion, the same expression, everything.” She said it had affected her, even though she’d only been watching.

I agreed with her completely, suggesting that maybe that was because everyone experiences the physical sensation of tears pretty much the same way, while “bubbles” can mean anything. That’s why I’d thought the group would like using atmospheres in Twelfth Night, and this woman agreed. “I think that’d really help,” she said, explaining that she tries her lines all sorts of ways in her head, but she’s never sure which is right. “I really don’t know what kind of atmosphere [her character] is supposed to be,” she said. “Sometimes my atmosphere gets mixed up with my character’s.”

I responded that this is a really common challenge for those of us who get stuck in our heads, and that’s why I love Chekhov technique: because it removes the necessity of thinking and uses the body’s memory, rather than the brain’s, to call up truthful emotions. I began to give an example, and then realized that one was sitting right next to me: last year’s Macbeth. “Do you remember ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow?’” I asked her. She thought for a moment. “If I could look at the script for a minute, I think I would,” she said, and, improbably, another ensemble member called out, “I’ve got a copy right here,” waving around a No Fear edition. Ye Olde Macbeth grinned, and, by the time she’d gotten over there (which was all of 15 feet away), the other member had the book open to the correct page.

When we say we’re nerds, we mean it.

As she looked over the speech, I asked The Artist Formerly Known as Macbeth if she remembered what she’d done to access the emotion she wanted for that scene, and she did. The monologue had reminded her of a time when she thought she’d felt the same way: when her entire body had felt “heavy, like a brick.” She sat back down beside me on the edge of the stage and called up the physical sensation. And then she read the piece.

It had lost none of its power since some of us last saw and heard it in June, and we were rapt. In fact, when she finally looked up at the end, and I was able to pull my gaze away from her, the first thing both of us saw was Matt, sitting on the floor in the first row, so moved that he was weeping. “Oh, no! Not the atmosphere of tears!” I joked. Several of us joined forces to whoosh him (see last week’s blog!), and he pulled himself together. “You know,” said a woman who joined the group a couple of months ago, “I’ve never read that. I’ve never seen it. But the way she did it made me have feelings.”

This took us back to atmospheres—and back to tears! But this time, the group focused on all the positive feelings that came out of that atmosphere. One woman, who had sat on the stage taking notes, said that she’d been on edge all day, and that imagining and then shaking off that atmosphere had allowed her to shake off her actual tension, too. “Same here,” said the other woman who’d mostly watched the others. She said she’d been crying before the session, and the feeling had persisted—until she’d dropped the imaginary atmosphere of tears. And then they were both gone. Another woman said it “took a second” for her to dismiss the tears, and “it scared me for a second.” But after that scary moment, the feeling vanished.

One woman said that the atmospheres had been cool, but she HATED the expansion/contraction exercise. “A lot of us do!” I said, and I asked if she had any thoughts about that. “I can’t put my finger on it… It makes you, like, vulnerable,” she said, grimacing. “It was easier to be in a contracted ball, but it felt better to be expanded,” said one woman, and I asked if she knew why that was. “You’re vulnerable when you’re expanded,” she said, “but it’s powerful. Being in a little ball felt bad, but safe.” “Yeah, I agree,” said another woman.

That all took longer than anticipated, but we had a little time left for scene work, and we returned to the Olivia/Viola section of Act I, scene v. We tried out some atmospheres: Viola used sparkles, Olivia used bees (which changed to butterflies when she fell in love), and Maria used butter (which, I confess, was my lame idea). There were some definite changes in the scene, though this way of working will take some getting used to. Still, “It feels good to change,” said our Olivia. A woman who’d been watching agreed, “You could feel the irritation, and then the change.” Our Viola, who was irritated with me for taking so long with the exercise, conceded, “This was a good start.” Another woman took it further, saying that she could see “a lot of improvement.”

Friday / January 18 / 2019
Written by Matt

“Thank god I’m here,” announced one of our veterans (Sarah) when we sat down for check-in, “because it’s been a day! I was like, ‘I gotta get to Shakespeare, cause this is my sanity!”

Our group was already feeling a little less huge today--more like our usual size. Still, there were a lot of new folks in the circle, so after check in and the ring, we played a name game. We’d played one last week, but there are so many new people that we needed another! Of all the name games, we settled on the least “interesting,” but probably the most effective: we were going to a hypothetical picnic, and each of us was bringing something that happened to begin with the same letter (or sound) as our name. We went around in a circle, saying who we were, and what we were bringing. The trick is that you have to remember (and recite!) the names and offerings of every person who went before you. Like I said, not an earth-shattering game, but mnemonic devices sure help memory! And cause panic. One of the women froze up, looked at her hands, and said, in surprise, “My palms are sweating!” Who knew that the name game would be the most stressful part of the evening?

We started out by running through Act 2, scene 1 again. Last week, the women in that scene had needed a few run-throughs to “find” the scene. Today, it was still a little bit rough, but they told the story clearly, and there were some really funny moments. Most importantly, our Antonio made a big, dramatic cross to get in front of Sebastian. Everyone seemed pretty pleased with it as a rough draft, so we moved on.

We ran Act 2, scene 2 for the first time. A short scene between Malvolio and Viola is followed by Viola’s famous speech about being torn--between conflicting desires, conflicting duties, and conflicting genders. In stumbling through it the first time, our Malvolio found some totally hilarious gestures. Instinctively, she began doing all of her gestures with a straight, extended arm. On giving Olivia’s ring to Viola (which Olivia said was Cesario’s ring, and Cesario is Viola in disguise… oh, Shakespeare!), Malvolio thrust the object within two inches of our Viola’s face. Viola had clearly been working on her monologue (“Ha ha! I am the man!” she exclaimed). Only two women had time to give quick notes before our Malvolio demanded that we run the scene again, now!

They continued to refine the second and third times through. Malvolio raced to pop up in front of Viola and doubled down on the stiff-armed gestures. And after the monologue, our Viola walked off beaming. “I was wanting to do it just like that,” she said, “I really wanted the audience to go, ‘Woah, what’s this girl gonna do?’”

We did Act 2, scene 3 last week, but without Feste and Malvolio. Our Feste, in particular, was ready to get up on stage and act! Everyone has been doing brilliant work this season, but the women in this scene are on another comedic level! From the moment the curtain opened, we knew it was going to be funny--mostly because Sir Andrew, who has been the queen of pratfalls, fell on her face when the curtain opened on her. For the rest of the scene, we were teetering on the edge of chaos. Feste forgot her script, and piled shtick upon shtick as Frannie and the other zanni ran around looking for it. A few minutes later, Feste dropped her script and, instantly, Sir Toby offered hers.

All of this insanity gave Maria plenty to work with when she entered. She was not amused. Still less amused (but still more amusing) was Malvolio, who stalked around the stage and berated the others. As Malvolio raged, the zannis tied Sir Andrew’s shoes together under the table. The highlight of the run, though, was a beautiful tableau of Feste, Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew gathered around the “bar,” plotting their revenge on Malvolio. It looked like something designed by a director, but they just naturally found it: Maria holding court at the bar, Sirs Toby and Andrew on either side and seated, and Feste, who instinctively knew to kneel in front of the bar and open to the audience. We’re not here to create professional-quality theatre, but it’s so cool when we do by instinct what someone with training would have done.

Round two of the scene was even more delightful. Our Feste is really enjoying her role as zanni-meister, and relishing the freedom of playing the fool. She sang the songs in the wrong order--at one point adding the lyrics, “Oh, I’m totally singing the wrong song!”--instructed the zannis to grab musical instruments and play; and stole Frannie’s pen, dusted it off, and replaced it in her hand. When everyone got lost, she started clearing her throat, which led everyone onstage (except Malvolio) to clear her throat. All the havoc seemed to help Maria find her character. The zannis cowered on her entrance, and she was constantly shooing them away, which gave her some pretty funny stage business. To banish them, she snapped her fingers authoritatively and pointed to the exit.

Have I mentioned they’re doing really hilarious, amazing work? We’ve never had this many people, with so much energy, feeding so beautifully off of one another’s energy.