Tuesday / February 19 / 2019
Written by Frannie
We spent the bulk of our time tonight working through Act IV, scene ii. In this scene, Maria’s plot against Malvolio comes to a head. Locked in a dark, windowless room, he tries in vain to get people on the outside to help—but they make fun of him instead.
I can’t imagine it comes as a surprise to this blog’s readers that this scene is a potential minefield for incarcerated people, particularly those who’ve spent time in solitary confinement, and those who’ve survived trauma similar Malvolio’s. We can’t ever assume we know what other people in the room are going through, or what they carry with them, so we have to take great care to be sensitive as we work through this scene.
As people settled in with their scripts, I called a “blue car” (our kindly code for “shut up and listen”). I reminded the ensemble that, while Twelfth Night is a comedy and this scene can be very funny, it is decidedly not funny for some of our members (whether they’ve voiced it or not). I asked everyone to keep that in mind, stay together and focused as an ensemble to make sure the space felt safe, and to know that if at any point anyone needed to take a breather, she should feel free to do so without explaining or apologizing, even if that meant leaving the session entirely for the night.
The first order of business was to figure out how to stage the scene, period. The text requires Malvolio to be in a “dark room,” but what does that look like on this stage, and in our show?
We decided to use the balcony that we first used in 2014 for Romeo and Juliet, and in 2016 for Othello. After experimenting with sightlines a bit, we found its ideal position and angle. Our Malvolio climbed under it, but we couldn’t see her at all. So she climbed onto the platform instead, sitting cross-legged and actively participating in the conversation.
We batted ideas back and forth about whether the audience needs to see Malvolio, or if hearing him is enough. One woman suggested we keep the curtain drawn for a time, but it’s difficult to hear anyone from back there. Someone suggested draping black fabric over the structure and using a book light to illuminate the actor’s face. One woman countered, “If we put any light in there, then Feste will be telling the truth… He’s a witty fool, not a foolish wit.” Another pointed at a page in her script and said, “The text says, ‘Horrendous dark.’”
“Do we have to see her face?” asked another member. The woman who’d just cited the text replied, “The audience will already know who Malvolio is. They don’t need to see her face.”
I asked the ensemble what the function of this scene is within the play. “To make fun of Malvolio!” said one woman. “Well, that’s what the other characters want,” I said. “What about the playwright? What does he want this scene to accomplish?” Another woman slowly responded, “To make the audience feel bad for Malvolio.”
But two women said you don’t need to see someone’s face to feel for them. “It’s real easy to feel bad for someone, just hearing their voice,” one of them said. “Think about segregation. You don’t see their faces, but you hear their voices, and it moves you.” Eventually, we settled (at least for now) on draping the set piece in very sheer black fabric to symbolize darkness while still leaving the actor visible to the audience.
“Ooooh!” one woman exclaimed. “Do you think we could use ‘do not cross, crime scene’ tape on the balcony?” A brief pause. “I… don’t even want to ask that question,” I replied.
We started working through the scene, but it didn’t go far before we had to pause and work through some pretty important issues. For instance: “I thought I couldn’t have a beard,” said our Feste. “You can’t?” I replied. “I mean, not actual hair but… Even if it’s a mop or something?” Dryly, she responded, “It better be a clean mop.”
Most of the group continued to troubleshoot with Feste—she couldn’t seem to get “Sir Toby” and “Sir Topas” straight (I don’t blame her!)—while I worked to the side with our Maria and a few others.
“Can Maria just leave after Toby enters, and then come back to say her line?” our Maria asked. “That’s her last line in the play anyway.” I nodded and said, “You could probably approach the scene that way. But I feel like you might be letting her off the hook if you do.” She asked what I meant, and—this is part of why this scene is so loaded—I asked her what Maria’s function is in this scene and why she disappears from the play after. “Because she sees that it’s gone too far,” she replied. “Yeah, that’s how we’ve interpreted it,” I said. “If that’s the case, Maria acts as the audience’s conscience. We’re probably still laughing out there—we still think it’s funny. Maria can show us that it’s not.”
We explored a few ways of accomplishing this, all of which involved Maria separating herself from the action and sitting or standing far downstage right. She could either watch the whole thing unfold, or she could avoid looking altogether. We found that, either way, she could have quite an impact not only on the people sitting just a couple of feet from her, but for people farther away who might even forget she’s there.
We ran the scene again, and it was still pretty rough. I checked in with Maria for a few minutes, and when I returned to the group, most were deep in conversation about Feste, while our Malvolio simply sat on the balcony. I caught her eye and walked over, saying, “Is Malvolio feeling a little neglected over here?” She smiled and said she just really wasn’t sure how to approach the scene—how to make her performance effective without upsetting anyone.
I asked if she could simplify: what is Malvolio’s objective? “Just to get out of this box,” she said. “Right,” I replied, “And what is the obstacle to that?” She gestured to the others, saying, “These people just won’t listen! They’re just idiots!” I nodded and said, “Yes! Yes, they are an obstacle! In terms of keeping your performance safe, though, you’ve got an even better one.” I knocked on the wood frame of the balcony.
“Ohhhhhh,” she said, eyes widening. “Yeah,” I said. “You’ve got a solid, physical prop to work with.” Seeing that she still wasn’t quite sure what to do, I climbed into the box myself. “Check this out,” I said, moving into different positions, pushing, punching, and kicking against the frame to see if it would work the way I’d been thinking. “Making it this physical will automatically build your frustration—you won’t have to think about it at all.” I gave the frame another good kick. “That is so cool,” she said, and I quickly climbed out so she could try it herself. “Oh, I’m getting so many ideas now,” she said, pounding on the frame. “This feels so much better already.”
We then realized that we were covered in dust from rolling around on the platform… We’ll make sure to wipe it off next time!
Friday / February 22 / 2019
Written by Matt
“Hey!” announced one of our new members as she entered the room today, “The officer stopped me and asked me what I was here for, and I said, ‘I’m an actor!’”
All of us actors---and techies and directors and everything in between--gathered up today with one major mission: to come up with the concept for our Twelfth Night design.
One of our veterans, who has having an emotional week, said that she wrote a bunch of ideas down to distract herself from everything that was going on. (“Art is good for that,” Frannie chimed in). But our new members seemed a little bit confused--this group of women is so tight that it’s easy to forget sometimes that most of them are new this year and don’t have a sense of the SIP process, let alone the ins and outs of set elements and props!
The facilitators and more experienced women explained how we usually do our sets, and we looked at our rotating set piece from Taming of the Shrew. After talking through logistics for a few minutes, one of our newbies asked the crucial first question: is our set going to be reflective of the play’s themes, or will it represent the different locations of scenes? One of our veterans put in that she prefers thematic sets, going on to describe our flats for Macbeth. I put in that thematic sets are great for communicating big ideas and atmospheres, where literal sets are good for plays that need very clear, specific settings to work. When others began to worry about the number of locations in Twelfth Night, the woman who asked the question in the first place suggested, brilliantly, that we use sound design to set our literal scenes, freeing us to go thematic, even abstract.
What ensued was a signature SIP discussion: generally circuitous, often hilarious, frequently frustrating, but ultimately successful. No one’s notes make very much sense, and it’s hard to pull a narrative out of them (Frannie took none at all--thanks, Fearless Leader). So instead of trying to reconstruct what happened, I’ll give you a highlight reel from our notes. That is, from the notes Lauren and I took. Frannie took no notes.
Without further ado:
OUR SUPER EFFICIENT DESIGN DISCUSSION
-SIGNS -- Beachfront on cloth? Roll it up after scene?
[zannis carrying signs]: “Laughter” and “Applause”
-Feste strumming uke?
-“There are so many entrances and exits in this play! It was a lot for Macbeth, but this will be way more!”
-Frannie: “Who is familiar with vaudeville?”
Woman: [beat] “Did you say, ‘Who is familiar with vodka’?”
-Idea: use a blatant scene-indicator.
-”What if Orsino has a man-cave with Corvette posters, and Olivia has a she-shed with flowers and teacups?”
-Big rolls of paper
-Puppet masters / puppet strings
-“Everyone in this play is just so… EXTRA!” What about a 1920s Twelfth Night?
Frannie: “We don’t have the money for that.”
-This play is like a cesspool of love.
-NOTHING IS AS IT SEEMS
-We’re on a journey.
-”This play reminds me of those 80s teenage movies.”
One of our veterans turned to Frannie and requested that she synthesize. From that collection of...whatever it is, Frannie distilled the following thoughts:
JOURNEY -- NOTHING IS AS IT SEEMS - CESSPOOL OF LOVE -- EXTRA
As Frannie did a pretty good pantomime of thinking (while continuing not to write anything down), one of the witches from last year in Macbeth, dramatically stirred the bubbling hell-broth on request.
“Journeys,” murmured Frannie, as our resident witch stirred the pot. “Excess. Everything is not what it seems. Cesspool….”
“I’ve got it!” she announced. “Is this a cesspool of all of our themes? Like, a tie-dye?”
“Or a maze,” added one woman. “A kaleidoscopic maze?” asked Frannie. “Kinda like a maze from a funhouse,” another woman chimed in. “Like you sort of understand what you’re looking at, but not really, and it’s almost overwhelming?” added another. “It’s like a toy box!” said someone. “But it’s a kaleidoscope!” Nailed it!
One of our veterans had one somber request: “Can we just have… no glitter?”
“That’s a lot to ask,” warned another. But we’d try.
Next on the docket was picking a play for next season. We had narrowed it down to five: As You Like It (the lone comedy), Romeo & Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and King Lear.
To catch people up, the facilitators covered the plays quickly (sort of), mentioning the plot, themes, and challenges of each one. To be fair, we got better with each one at keeping the summary short. As You Like It resists quick summary, and Frannie simply recited the Prologue to Romeo & Juliet. Lauren covered Hamlet in a few sentences, and Frannie summed Lear up in even fewer.
The first question was about Romeo & Juliet. We have a member (but only one) who was in Romeo & Juliet when we did it five years ago. Still, no one wanted to consider it if she didn’t want to revisit the play. The woman in question graciously thanked everyone for their concern, but assured us that we didn’t need to work around her “just since I been here since Skippy was a peanut.”
Frannie and I noted briefly that, while we’d be happy with any of the plays, we would be really excited to tackle the intellectual and theatrical challenges of Hamlet and Lear with this particular group of people--“the brains in this room.” Our feeling seemed to echo the group’s sentiment, and it mostly took a few glances around the room for the decision to be clear: Hamlet it is!
The past few weeks have been a lot of sitting around and talking, which is important, but everyone was ready to get up and do something active. One the women suggested playing a classic improv game, so we set up Bus Stop. In Bus Stop, one actor is waiting for the bus, and a second enters the scene, embodying a specific quirk that eventually drives the other one away.
There were all kinds of brilliant quirks on display, including a cat lady and Darth Vader. The game was a fun way to unwind and bond the group, but it was actually more than that in the end: two women who rarely if ever participate in any sort of improv games jumped in for the first time, both of them coming in with really big personalities and voices. Bus Stop is great, but playing it leaves the actor very exposed onstage, with only one other person and a pretty thin “plot.” That they were able to jump in is a huge step for each of them--and for the ensemble!