Season Eight: Week 23


Once more unto the link, dear friends, once more!

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Tuesday / February 12 / 2019
Written by Frannie

Tonight’s session was one of those that, from the outside, might seem largely unproductive—but it was emblematic of this ensemble’s (and this program’s) values and priorities. This is a long post, y’all. Hang on tight.

The first (and, it turned out, only) order of business was to cast a new Orsino through an “Orsino-off.” After an ensemble member identified the best “audition cut” of 2.4 (which was EXACTLY what I would have chosen for a professional audition), we decided the order in which people would audition, and the first of three walked onto the stage with our Viola.

We were surprised when this woman voiced her interest in Orsino—she’s new to the group and is pretty quiet—but we were delighted. So she got nothing but support as she stumbled awkwardly through her first go at the scene. Immediately, a veteran asked, “How did that feel?” Giggling a little, she said she’d been nervous. That same veteran gently asked, “Want to do it again or not?” She said she wasn’t sure, but the ensemble encouraged her, saying that she had taken the first step and could only feel better from there. I asked her what Orsino’s objective was and if she could focus on that, rather than putting pressure on herself to do everything else that was in her head.

The second time, she said she “felt better.” She was still nervous, but she’d also looked up more from her script and, in doing that and focusing on an objective, connected more with our Viola. She seemed thrilled by that, and our Viola (who has been in the ensemble for a very long time) warmly said she’d felt the same. I asked if this woman wanted to try one more time, and she said she did. This time, I asked if she could imagine that this was the most important conversation ever as she went after her objective.

She did, and it showed. “You had more confidence this time!” proclaimed a longtime member who absolutely glories in these kinds of breakthroughs. The woman said she’d felt better each time—the urgency especially “helped [her] feel the connection”—though she’d continued to make mistakes. I reassured her that mistakes don’t matter: what we want to see in any audition is a progression and openness to adjustments, and that’s exactly what she’d had. So it was a perfect audition!

The next member to audition sprang to her feet and launched into the scene almost before we knew what was happening! Her energy was incredible—Viola looked quite literally blown away—but, as the auditionee acknowledged afterwards, she raced through so fast that she didn’t give herself time to do much acting. I asked her to take it back to her character’s objective. (And I’m noting here, readers, that I owe you a dedicated blog post about how important this question—this basic acting technique—turns out to be for our ensemble members. Please hold me to that!) She said that Orsino has GOT to get Cesario to pull off this wooing of Olivia. “He’s naïve,” she said. “[Viola] is talking, and it’s clear that she’s in love with him, but he doesn’t hear her.” And that’s why she’d spoken so quickly. “Well,” I pondered, “If that’s the objective, but you feel you went too fast, what could be a reason for him to slow down?” She said again that he just really needed to get his point across, to which the ensemble member who’d come up with the audition cut replied, “Well… I don’t think they give ages [in the text], but I feel like Orsino is talking to Viola like you talk to a little kid.” She said that often, when we need to get our point across, we slow down to make sure people understand us. Well, again, she totally said what I was going to say right before I said it! She’s got a knack for this.

And then the group launched into the kind of analytical conversation that’s usually reserved for the first part of SIP’s season—but this play is different for us, and so is this process.

One woman said she thought speaking quickly was merited, given the importance of the situation. Another said Orisno was being unrealistic. But another woman said it was more than that—that he’s actually delusional. “He’s in his own little world,” she mused. “He doesn’t realize he’s not gonna get Olivia.” Another member nodded, saying, “Cesario is his last hope.” A third woman jumped in, saying that this is exactly the reason for both the urgency and the delusion: “This is the only one who’s come back with anything resembling—”

“—or even the first one to talk to her, after God knows how many others,” exclaimed our Viola, finishing the other woman’s sentence. They beamed at each other. Viola continued, “He’s gotten the same answer for so long, he already knows what Cesario’s about to say—so he doesn’t let him go on and on…” She paused, thinking, brow furrowed. “You know, I’m starting to think I see him differently.” The woman who was auditioning asked if they could do the scene again. “Yeah,” Viola said, “Let’s do this scene again.”

They did, and it changed—big time. The auditionee played with pacing quite a bit without dropping her energy, which was much more effective than her first time through. And our Viola—her performance was deeper, more complex, more interesting. Before anyone else could speak, a veteran said, “[Name], I could totally tell you see him differently now! Your whole demeanor is different.” She laughed. “It was really distracting, actually. But in a good way!”

“Yeah, I was really feeling that,” said the auditionee, and that gave us pause. The text seems to indicate that Orsino doesn’t see Viola’s feelings—how could we justify that? “He feels like he’s got a chance,” the auditionee said. “This is his one hope.”

An ensemble member who is serving a very long sentence said, “Well, it’s like—you know when a lifer is about to see the [parole] board?” A hush fell over the ensemble, and many of them nodded. “It’s kinda like when someone’s spending their whole life in prison, and they don’t get to see the parole board—then they suddenly get to see the board after all.” She said that when an objective is that important, everything else fades into the background. You become totally focused on your goal, to the point where you miss things happening around you that would be obvious in any other circumstance. “Put yourself in them shoes.”

It’s a brilliant example of the “as if” acting tool—drawing on experiences from your own life to inform your acting choices. Sometimes the “as if” is universal (like the feeling of stubbing your toe), and other times it’s quite personal. This was the latter, without a doubt. For someone serving a life sentence—or a very lengthy one, as she is—the stakes literally could not be higher than when about to go before the parole board. I don’t have an “as if” for that. The feeling I got from the ensemble was that most of them don’t exactly, either, though one woman ventured, “I feel like that’s also an analogy for Viola right now. Like [Viola’s] the parolee and [Orsino] is the parole board, and he won’t even listen to you or look you in the eye.”

These “as ifs” worked. Both women were so effective—the scene was so affecting. We felt for both of them. Afterwards, the auditionee said, “I liked it. I felt like I put more in it. Like I was giving it my heart.” That came through, without a doubt.

And then it was time for the third candidate to audition. She has just returned to the group after a long (excused) absence, and, as our gaze shifted to her, she smiled and squirmed out of her seat into a standing position, saying, “Awwwwww shit.”

The scene began, and I will tell you what: this woman is LOUD. REALLY loud. Holy moly. The acoustics in the auditorium can be kind of rough, especially for folks who are (quite literally) finding their voices, but you could have heard this woman on the other side of the building if the doors hadn’t been closed. This was particularly surprising because she’s so petite; even more surprising (and hilarious) was when she allowed herself to get so frustrated with Cesario in the end that she threw her script on the ground and got right up in her face—well, as “up” as she could, given she’s at least a foot shorter than our Viola.

We burst into applause, and the woman who had auditioned second exclaimed, “Can I just say, I love your dramatic actions!” The woman on stage said, “Well, to me, Orsino’s a drama queen… I think he’s got a few screws loose.” Another member exclaimed, “Orsino is like the cheese and crackers without the cheese!” Another woman asked the auditionee not to turn her back to the audience so much, and she replied that she didn’t know how to work that in. “Oh, your interpretation makes this so fun!” I exclaimed, hopping up on stage with her. I demonstrated some ways she could justify “cheating out” quite a bit, going on what I guess is now a patented Frannie-riff, gesticulating dramatically to various points in the room and exclaiming, “Oh my GOD! The moon and the stars and the ocean and the desert and my heart and my soul!” Eye rolls commenced, and I know this will someday be used in an impression of me by certain parties in the room, but whatever. We accept each other in our totalities.

They ran the scene again, and I don’t know what happened, but Viola’s acting clicked. This time I was the one who got distracted by her performance—though Orsino got my attention back when she kneeled dramatically on the line, “women are like roses,” pretending to pick invisible flowers from the ground.

The woman who’d auditioned second was, again, the first to praise the current Orsino, saying, “I like how you moved through different emotions this time.” It’s not like this is unprecedented in SIP, but this woman just joined the group, really wanted this part, and was still this generous in praising the others (she had voiced encouragement for the first woman who auditioned as well). What great energy to have in the room!

Someone mentioned how amazing the kneeling had been (“It really sounded like you were explaining it to a child!”), and, as we laughed, one of the women said, “Speaking of that line… what a douchebag!”

“Yeah, that’s my big challenge with this play,” I said. “I just don’t get what Viola sees in Orsino.” I turned to our Viola. “But watching you that time was really interesting… It seemed like something clicked. Am I right about that?” She said it hadn’t exactly felt that way to her: “I just wanted to try something a little different each time to give them something to work with.” The current Orsino brightened, saying, “Yeah, and that really helped me, when you gave a little something different.”

“This is a really intense scene for both of them,” said one woman, gazing at her script. Our Viola replied, “Yeah, I really feel for Viola. Like… How hard must that be, to love someone you know you can’t have? Because they belong to somebody else? I’ve never had to deal with that—for all the shit I’ve been through, I’ve never been in that position. That must be so terrible.”

They ran the scene once more, and it went pretty well. The woman who was auditioning asked us which “version” we liked best, but we were hesitant to make a judgment call. One woman said it seemed like the auditionee had gotten more nervous each time. She replied that it wasn’t exactly that, but it had felt best the first time. The woman who’d made the comment corrected herself, saying that “nervous” wasn’t the right word—what she meant was that the actor had been overthinking. That turned out to be accurate.

Several woman asked the first woman who auditioned if she’d like to try again—sometimes, said one, “it’s kinda like you get robbed when you go first” because, another continued, “you don’t get to build off others’ ideas.” She demurred, though, and we sent the three out of the room and huddled to talk it over.

We were in agreement that the second and third women had amazing energy. “I really love [the third woman’s] energy, but she got so many words wrong,” said one person. “But that was just nerves, though,” said another, and a third said, “Yeah, it was just the words for me.” And that would get better in time, we all agreed.

A longtime member broke in to advocate for the first woman. “She just—she was just trying so hard, and she kept asking me all these questions... She reminds me of myself when I first joined.” She paused. “I don’t know. I just always root for the underdog. But this is an ensemble thing, and I appreciated every last one of them.” Another woman added, “And [the first woman] showed the most growth of the three of them.” A third woman added, “Yeah, totally.” A fourth member shook her head, “Man, all three of them had something going for them.”

Responding to that, another veteran said, “Well… What other roles could they fill?” There are a few that are still up for grabs: Curio and Valentine were the first that came to mind. One woman said she thought that one of our longtime members was playing Curio, and we all turned to her. “Uh, no, I was just filling in,” she grinned. “You should give that role to one of them.” I proposed that she take on my “anchor zanni” role, and she smiled again but said she wasn’t sure—she knows her instincts are great (she’s hilarious), but she’d been thinking of taking on more of a “coaching” role this season.

She is an amazing performer, though, and other members began demanding that she audition for Orsino. “Come on, you’d be a PERFECT Orsino!” exclaimed one person. The longtime member replied that she appreciated it, and she probably would do a good job, but she has a lot going on and is concerned about the number of lines. “I mean, we can always cut down on the lines, if that’s what’s holding you back,” I said. “What do you think?” She looked at each of us in turn, eyes narrowed, and finally said, “Okay. What the hell!” One woman said, “A SHOCKING TWIST! Get the others back in here!” And the final audition of the evening began.

She. Is. So. Good. This is her fourth season, and it’s obvious that she knows what she’s doing with the language—and performance. But, as the second woman to audition (again!!!) said, “Initially, I was like, ‘[Name’s] got this part–’ but then you dropped it.” The other woman nodded, saying she just wasn’t that familiar with the scene and got kind of tripped up. We asked her to give it another try. She did, and it went a bit better, but she was still frustrated. One of our vets said, “You’re always so great with the way you move around the stage, but you’re not really doing it right now. You should move around more.”

As Viola took the current Orsino backstage to confer about how to approach the final round, one of the newbies said “This is a good scene. I actually was really into it.” Another newbie replied, “That’s why I’m so happy that I get to work with [all these veterans]. They’re so experienced, and I just learn so much. I’m really honored.” Then she turned to the woman who’d anticipated so much of my input and said, “And [Name] seems really knowledgeable about Shakespeare. I learn a lot from her.”

The final run of the scene was different, as the auditionee played Orsino “totally clueless.” It worked pretty well! “I could see you two connected,” said a new member. Another woman agreed that it “seemed natural.”

We had only a few minutes left, so the four hurried out into the hallway. The group was torn—the veteran had (predictably) blown the others out of the water simply because, as one woman said, “She’s seasoned. I think we’ll learn a lot from her. If she’ll take the time to learn the lines.” A veteran said, “That’s my fear. Not that she won’t want to, but that she won’t have time.” A good friend of the member in question rose, saying, “I’ll go ask her to tell us for real, right now, if she doesn’t think she can handle it.” Less than a minute later, she returned to tell us that it would be better if we didn’t put that pressure on her. No problem.

Quickly, we took a vote by a show of hands, deciding on who would play Orsino and then, in quick succession, Valentine and Curio. We called everyone back to the room and circled up. There was an awkward silence.

“So…” I said, “Does anyone want to share the news?” The second woman who auditioned cheerfully said, “We already know!” She made the sound of a drum roll and pointed at the veteran who auditioned. In unison, nearly everyone shouted, “NO!”—made the same drum roll sound, and pointed at her! Amid laughter, we told the others where they’d been cast, which they were glad to hear, and we called it a night.

So “all” we did was audition four people for one role in what was, perhaps, the least efficient way we could. But that’s so not the point. The core of SIP—the reason we don’t care about product, or about being productive all the time—is what happens within that lack of efficiency. The length of this blog should be clear evidence of that. And trust me—there’s even more in our notes.

Friday / February 15 / 2019
Written by Matt

The theme of this week seems to be “sessions that are inefficient and technically unproductive--but also totally representative of the whole SIP endeavor.”

Frannie wasn’t able to be at today’s session, but we had plenty to do. Most importantly, we had to make sure the play’s logistics were in order! It’s easy to lose track of these sorts of things as we work through the “fun stuff” (scene work, games, monologues, and all that). At some point each season, we need to make sure that everybody has a job, and that every scene is fully cast. That point is now.

For Twelfth Night, the logistics are even more complicated because we’ve added actors to the show who aren’t in the script: the zannis, visiting from the planet Commedia. But which scenes have zannis, how many zannis, and who plays those zannis was not something we had thought through in a systematic way yet. Add to that the fact that we nearly doubled the size of our ensemble less than six weeks ago--and that only one of those people has taken on a role… this was about to be SIP’s most complicated scene breakdown yet!

But before we could even do that, we had to briefly discuss plays for next season. To be honest, that conversation was a bit of a mess. Many of the current ensemble members have little or no familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays, which is normal and fine, but it means that some facilitators and ensemble members had to run through extemporaneous summaries of each play, so others could evaluate it. We kept those summaries very short (Much Ado About Nothing turned into “a three-hour game of ‘Telephone’”), but the shorter they are, the less helpful they are to folks. It’s also a big group, and just about everyone was present, which is great in principle, but makes a sit-down conversation even more challenging than it usually is.

We listed six or seven plays to consider before it was definitely time to move on. We’ll make decisions in the next few weeks. On to The Logistics Olympics! (as one facilitator’s notes had it).

Instantly, it was clear that the process would be chaotic and confusing. Many of the women were acutely engaged with the process, some were enthusiastic but sometimes confused, others were content to hang back and problem-solve when required, and some others just seemed checked-out. And our first big challenge came with the first scene.

We were confronted first by our lack of zannis! The people who have tended to jump in as zannis now have other roles to attend to, and we have a pack of newbies without jobs. But as soon as I asked who wanted to be a zanni in that scene, I realized that almost half of the group might not entirely understand who a zanni even is yet, let alone know whether she wants to play one! A few of the veterans explained what zannis are and what they do. The zannis have no lines, but they run around on stage working with other characters and against them, supporting and undermining them, and generally causing hilarity. As I was listening, I was thinking, “Who in their right mind would put their hand up for this? It sounds totally intimidating.” Still, I asked whether anyone wanted to be a zanni--actually, I asked whether anyone wanted to try to be a leader among the zannis, the zanni captain. There was a pause as everyone stared at me. “Okay,” I thought, “pulling teeth it is!”

Then a new member whose stage debut was just a week ago put her hand up slowly. “You want to be the zanni captain?” I asked. “The perma-zanni?” She nodded. Okay! Seconds later, two other new members who have no stage experience had raised their hands to be zannis in the first scene. It’s worth noting that these three women have been among the quietest of the newbies--not the people I would have expected to put themselves out there for something big like this. It was awesome… and a little terrifying, I think, for those of us who know how much of the performance rests on the zannis’ energy. And that’s just coming from an observer; I can’t imagine what the rest of the ensemble felt like.

The first scene was done! Big Problem #2 arose when we got to the second one: we realized that we had only one role cast! We picked our Orsino on Tuesday, but every other role, including zannis, was up in the air. Given how many times we’ve run that scene (it’s the “If music be the food of love…” one, which we’ve put second but is technically Act I, scene i; yeah, it’s confusing: about as confusing of the grammar of this parenthetical statement--wanna fight about it?), it was a little bit disconcerting to see how many roles were unfilled.

Immediately, the same three women who had jumped in as zannis for the first scene raised their hands again and took most of the pressure off. Their eagerness--these are the quietest folks in the room, mind you--gave us the momentum we needed. By about Act II, it was clear that they would be the only zannis for most of the play. I stopped them to ask if they just all wanted to be the permanent zannis for the whole play, and we might throw in a plus-one in a few scenes. I was quite honestly expecting them to reject that suggestion, but they exchanged a “what the hell do I have to lose?” look and simultaneously nodded. We were off to the races!

The rest of the conversation went much more smoothly. Encouraged by their example, other new members started throwing themselves into roles, and we were able to move reasonably quickly through the end of the play. Still, there were three women who had not been cast in any role. After making them pinkie-swear (not actually, but metaphorically) that they really, truly, honestly DID NOT want any stage time, I asked them if they’d be willing to help out backstage. One reminded me that she had already taken a “job” as curtain queen (a lofty position, indeed!), and that, despite everything she had said before, she would be happy to be a body onstage in any scene where we needed a crowd.

Several of the veterans and I then looked over at the two remaining women. They slowly and emphatically shook their heads.

“Well,” I ventured, “there are two of you, and there are two wings.” I gestured to the backstage spaces to right and left. “Would you have any interest in being queens of the right and left wings, respectively? Helping with scene changes and connecting people with their props and reminding people to enter and whatever else they need?”

They looked at each other. A veteran said, “Oh my god, that would be SO helpful!” Another told them they would be lifesavers, that we’ve never had anyone whose only job is to keep things running in one wing.

Both women broke out in big smiles and nodded. And that was that!

We had about 40 minutes left at the end of that conversation, and people were itching to put something on its feet. Someone suggested that we run something with our new Orsino, since she was the new member with the biggest role. Plus, since the zannis seem to buzz around Orsino, it would give our new zanni crew a chance to try out their chosen roles. Act I, scene i (again, our second scene; it’s not gotten any less complicated since the last time I mentioned it) was a perfect way for everyone to experiment. Actually, every actor in that scene was not only new to the scene but new to SIP in the last six weeks! We got the well-worn scene up on its feet again, but by that time our Curio and Valentine had left for the evening. One of the women stood in for Curio, and I jumped in as Valentine (I already had an over-the-top entrance established for him).

And… it was a mess! Actually, even before it was a mess, there was a quick huddle of the new zannis as they panicked about going out onstage. A couple of people reassured them that they’d have time to find their way into the role, I told them that the only thing that was set in stone was entering through the center curtain part, and we were off. Orsino battled her way awkwardly through the curtain, followed by the zannis. Then it was a mess, but a good mess. Everyone clapped and cheered at the end. Emma commented that seeing the new zannis arrive en masse at last made her feel… some kind of way. At once, several of the women leapt in to offer encouragement and suggestions.

Maria asked whether Orsino wanted to fight her way through the curtain, which was funny, or whether she wanted someone to pull it up for her, and she mimed paging a curtain. The zannis responded that they’d much rather have the curtain paged for them. As luck would have it, we have two new backstage queens, who were happy to give the curtain a dramatic lift! Finally, Lauren suggested that our Orsino step off the foreshortened stage--the curtain is drawn throughout the scene--and Orsino immediately said, “I wanted to do that SO BAD!” Two of the other women encouraged her to go with her instincts: “Oh my god, if you want to do something, let’s DO IT!”

The next two runs are, quite honestly, a blur for me. Our Orsino really got into her groove when the zannis dragged out a “throne” for her and gave her some space to move. The energy was so big that, by my entrance as Valentine, I wound up running up to Orsino and then continuing under the curtain before realizing what I had done and reemerging. Someone had the brilliant (and potentially impracticable) idea of using a giant blow-up pool chair for Orsino’s “throne.” The zannis could struggle to get it out the door and end up having to deflate it. I assume everyone else was laughing at that, but I don’t actually know because I couldn’t hear much over my own hysterics. It was a day.

We rushed to get everything back in order and put up the ring, still giggling from everything that happened onstage. It was a great reward for getting through a challenging conversation.

I think it’s worth taking a step back to register how, just like Tuesday’s session, today’s meeting was all about process--a messy, frustrating process. It’s hard to imagine a less efficient way to go through the logistics of a play than to have a free-wheeling conversation with 22 people. If we were concerned with getting things done rather than with giving people ownership of the process, however roundabout and maddening, we would have just come in with a spreadsheet with assignments for our ensemble members. It could have been over in two minutes. They would have done their jobs, I think--most of them, anyway. It would have been fine. Instead, we beat our heads against our books, each other, and everything else for an hour and a half.

But we arrived at the right decisions--decisions that the facilitators would never have come to on our own. And, more importantly, those decisions were theirs. Because the program is theirs. And to bind it to our bias for efficiency and smoothness would be to miss the point. I’ll stop there because there’s plenty more on this topic in Frannie’s Tuesday entry… but it really was a week of pure SIP: pure frustration, and pure joy.