Tuesday / February 5 / 2019
Written by Frannie
Tonight was my first session back after a week in California, where I spent time with The Actors’ Gang Prison Project and Marin Shakespeare Company’s Shakespeare in Prison Program. (Tons of gratitude to Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Anton Art Center for the mini-grant that enabled me to make the trip!) It was wonderful to see everyone, and, after our usual check-in, I spent a long time sharing what I learned from these awesome programs and answering a lot of questions.
It was a whirlwind of a week, and there were many specific moments that gave me much-appreciated insight into these programs (on which I’ve had a giant crush for a long time). But as much as I learned about the structural and logistical differences between programs, I was even more struck by the elements that hold true through all of this work, seemingly no matter where it’s being done.
I heard echoes of things SIP’s ensemble members have said over the years: that the work provides immense relief, insight into themselves, and empathy for others. The circles I visited were warm, welcoming, open, and generous. The participants showed incredible bravery, allowing themselves to be vulnerable in places where that can feel dangerous. There was laughter; there were tears. There were things that went smoothly, and others that proved challenging.
I felt that same hope in California as I do in Michigan—in myself, and in others. As one man said, “This class gives me a chance to recharge my optimism and humanity.”
Like I said, this took up most of our time, but we did a little troubleshooting about our play’s logistics before we left. In brief, there’s an awkward scene change that needs to be bridged by some sort of action, and the idea of having zannis swoop in to fill in the audience popped back up. We went through a few improvised scenarios, ultimately landing (at least for now) on a quick scene in which two (very confused) zannis attempt to explain the plot and are steamrolled by Malvolio, who has brought a beautiful presentation on poster board.
Friday / February 8 / 2019
Written by Matt
“I went zanni-CRAZY!” announced one of our veterans today. We’ve all been a little zanni-crazy this season at times, so the feeling was general. To help us with the zanni-crazies (and names), we played a goofy name game that involved saying your name and singing a snippet of some song--whereupon everybody else would repeat your name and the song snippet. People sang all sorts of songs, ranging from “I Will Always Love You” to “Happy Birthday,” by way of the Macarena. Frannie brought up the rear with “I Want It That Way.” Fearless leader, indeed.
To keep the energy up, one of our veterans explained a game we played one other time this season. Everyone began as an “egg” (their job was to run around with their arms tented over their heads, chanting “egg, egg, egg, egg…”), and could progress to be a chicken, a T-Rex, a farmer, a businesswoman, and then, finally, Beyonce. Each stage has its own associated motion and noise. Once you become Beyonce, you win. I never said it made sense. The way a person progressed to the next level was to win a game of rock/paper/scissors with another person at their same level (egg vs. egg, farmer vs. farmer). What’s great about the game is that it’s so darn easy to learn and really fun. It requires lots of short interactions with various other ensemble members, but there’s no pressure to be clever or interesting during those interactions--it’s formulaic: you play rock/paper/scissors, and then you’re done.
Before diving into scene work, we had one more item of business: unfortunately, our Orsino won’t be able to come to SIP anymore. It’s always a shame when we lose someone, but we’ve always rolled with the punches, so we asked if anyone else was interested in that role. Turns out that two of our newbies (today marked a month since they joined!) were game! With minimal convincing, another put her name in, too. We decided to give them until Tuesday to prepare a short part of Act II, scene iv. We’ll make a call after seeing them “audition” then.
We dove into Act II, scene v, which we’ve had on the back burner for a few weeks now, since it’s complicated and requires some people who have been absent for one reason or another. This scene is long but hilarious. Malvolio finds the letter Maria wrote to trick him into thinking that Olivia is in love with him as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew hide in the bushes to observe. It also marks the appearance of Fabian, who has never been mentioned before in the play, but serves as a foil for Toby and Andrew.
The hardest part of the scene, we quickly realized, was that Malvolio has to talk for a long time! First, he talks to himself, then finds and wonders about the letter, then reads the letter, then surmises about its import. It’s a lot of lines--even cut down a bit. To help our Malvolio, who is essentially giving a soliloquy (he thinks he’s alone on stage), Frannie had those of us in the audience vocally react to Malvolio’s words, to help her bring us into her thought process. The blocking was a mess, but the energy was great!
What to do with a moment like this? It’s a complicated scene, a long scene, and we really wanted to preserve the great energy and instincts of the performers. Ordinarily, we shy away from “directing” in SIP in the same way we steer clear of “teaching.” Our process is collaborative (“painfully collaborative” as Kyle puts it), messy, inefficient, and focused on personal growth for the participants, not on putting on a show, and certainly not on putting on a show that is tight, spectacular, or even artistically sound. We sometimes get there, but that’s never the point.
And yet, with a scene like Act II, scene v of Twelfth Night, we sometimes have to break our own guidelines in order to serve that larger purpose. It was immediately apparent to Frannie--and, I think, to many of the women--that blocking this scene in our usual way would be more than simply painfully collaborative; it would be a distraction from the rest of the work, an annoyance as well as a mess.
So Frannie jumped in and asked permission to direct the scene, making sure everyone knew that they could jump in any time to question, contradict, add to, or spin off of her ideas. Everyone, especially the veterans, seemed happy with that offer, and totally unintimidated by Frannie putting on the “Director” hat. “I feel like you can help out,” said a core ensemble member, “and if we don’t like it, we’ll just say, ‘Uh, no.’”
Sure enough, Frannie’s “direction” ended up being more of a conversation than a monologue. As soon as Frannie started talking through blocking the scene, women were coming up with ideas to play off of Frannie’s. Our Sir Toby suggested that Malvolio use the stage levels (and sitting) to create dynamism, and Frannie helped Malvolio find moments to sit and stand. A woman in the audience suggested that Sir Andrew, who is somewhat shorter than our Toby and Fabian, hide behind a shrub while the others hide behind trees--Frannie announced that she even has fake shrubs she could bring in! A woman new to the ensemble this year (Heather) was helping work out positioning on stage. Another woman wondered what would happen if Malvolio tried to smile--but wasn’t sure how to make her face into that shape. In all, it was more collaborative than painful this time.
During the second run of the scene, all sorts of things were working better. Frannie gave Maria a pen to use as a “feather duster,” which she used to wrangle Andrew, Toby, and Fabian. Frannie had them pause and suggested that Maria do even more--she’s a lion-tamer! Maria was tickled by that idea, and really backed the others into the bushes. (There will be more feather duster antics to come…)
Afterwards, one of our veterans asked our Maria, “Did that feel natural?”
“No,” she replied. “I felt like I wanted to shoo them, but they wouldn’t shoo.”
Frannie suggested some more forceful movements for her and fetched her a bigger “duster,” this time a drumstick. Silently, one of our quieter members took off her headband and tied it to the tip, so the prop really had some reach--and floppiness! That did the trick.
Malvolio was hilarious as she gave her first lines, but Frannie stopped her partway through. “Wait!” Frannie exclaimed, “aren’t you a stick?” Malvolio said, “Yes.” (She had described her character as “a giant, walking stick” a few weeks ago, which, if Frannie were writing this blog, would have resulted in a bubbly and rambling paragraph about how that’s totally a Michael Chekhov thing, so be grateful, dear reader, that I am on duty for this one).
“Go back and teach us!” said Frannie. “Teach us about being a stick and all the sticky stickness.”
“Okay,” said Malvolio. “Give me a second to get sticky.”
After a second, when she started again, she was. She stood ramrod-straight, and all of her motions and gestures were sudden and in straight lines.
Then, within the framework we had created, all sorts of ideas came bubbling up. One woman wanted Sir Andrew to get angry enough at Malvolio to stalk out towards him, only to be pulled back through the trees. Another agreed, and added that, if the trees were moved to a somewhat different orientation, the sight gag would be funnier. When they ran that moment, Sir Andrew knocked over one of the potted trees in her haste, so we paused, and Frannie suggested that we could have the same effect without toppling trees if Andrew instead did an army crawl and Toby and Fabian pulled her back by her legs. Perfect!
There were several other moments like this, with an actor doing something, one of the other women coming up with an idea of how to do it more effectively, then several others building on the initial idea, and Frannie either weighing in during the conversation or streamlining the final decision. Each time, we came to a solution that no one person (no, not even Frannie!) would have settled on. It was a really beautiful expression of the SIP process.
After working through the scene in chunks, we had a few minutes left. Were we going to end the session or try to squeeze in one more run? One more run, of course! The scene was really tight--well on its way to performance-quality work. Sir Andrew became terrified of the feather-duster-bearing Maria and started cowering behind Fabian, who was herself trying to cower behind Andrew.
After we ended the run, everyone let out a big laugh. It’s a really funny scene! We raced to put everything back in order, put up the Ring, and head out.