Season Eight: Week 34


“In the ensemble, you’re free.”

Tuesday / April 30 / 2019
Written by Frannie

Tonight’s session started out with a great check in! A longtime ensemble member excitedly shared that, “I picked up a copy of Julius Caesar, and I read the first act… And, you know, I understood it so well! I was in my bunk laughing, and my bunkie was like, ‘What you laughing at?’ I said, ‘You have no idea.’ A few years ago, this would have been like reading Spanish.” This is enormous—her first year with SIP, it wasn’t until the first performance that she finally understood the plot—and quite inspirational for many others in the group.

Last week, we talked about the need to do a brief warm up each day to better prep us for rehearsing our high-energy play. We touched base on this again tonight, and a few exercises were suggested. But there has been so much trepidation from a bunch of ensemble members about anything that isn’t scripted that, before we decided on anything, I asked if the group as a whole would participate—it can be kind of demoralizing when folks sit to the side. There was a brief silence, and then one of the women spoke up. “I hate improv,” she said. “It’s not that I mind doing it, it’s that I don’t know how to do it. Like, I can’t just do something; I just shut down.” She said she was afraid that that would happen onstage during a performance as well. Several of us assured her that all her feelings normal. I added that she would likely not freeze up during the show—she knows this play so well that she’s going to know exactly how to move things forward if things go haywire. I gave the example of an actor missing an entrance, and her response likely being to shout for them. That clicked, and she was clearly relieved. We decided, though, to table the warm up until next session (we had a lot to get done!) and opted for a quick shake-out instead.

The group began work on Act III, scene ii, most of which I missed because I was working on some logistics with a couple of people to the side. The actors found some really funny shtick, refining the work they did the last time this scene came up. The focus has largely become about Fabian trying desperately to get attention from Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. It’s really, really funny. These women have great instincts!

We continued with Act III, scene iii, which is all Antonio and Sebastian. It was immediately clear that the blocking hadn’t all stuck, and one of the women sitting in the house gently called a hold and took the actors aside for some very quiet coaching. As she did, another ensemble member called out, “Good job on the—line memorization though—” she paused, shaking her head as she failed to find the words she wanted. “Ugh,” she continued, “I lost the words ‘cause Frannie is stealing my thoughts over here.” This is a running joke this season—there are frequent accusations that certain people are “thought burglars”—and I responded with mock indignation, “I am not! I wasn’t thinking anything at all!” Which, of course, wasn’t completely true—I was also impressed by our Antonio’s confidence with the text—but I was not engaged in any thievery!

The scene began again, and this time it worked much better—our Antonio fully committed to staying in Sebastian’s face and keeping her from leaving. There were lots of chuckles, but the moment the scene ended, the actors and the same ensemble member as before began making adjustments. Before they could get too far, though, another woman broke in to tell them how well they’d done. “I liked that a lot,” she said, and a bunch of others voiced their agreement.

The ensemble member who was helping with adjustments then took us back to the top of the scene to find some more precise blocking. We have the actors entering through the house left aisle, ending up on the apron of the stage. When they got there, our Antonio stood with her back mostly turned toward the audience. “Stay open, [Antonio],” said a longtime ensemble member. When she didn’t move (either because she didn’t hear or because she didn’t remember what that means), the woman who made the suggestion got on stage, gently adjusted her, and sat back down.

The scene definitely improved again, but both actors were frustrated by the challenge of anticipating when the other person would move. Just as I was about to suggest that Sebastian come to a full stop during each of Antonio’s lines, the head coach of the evening said to Sebastian, “While [Antonio’s] saying her lines, don’t move.” To which, of course, I replied, “Thought burglar!”

Before we began the scene again, our resident director called out that she’d found something in the text that would help. These lines, as Antonio explains the danger of being exposed (he’s a bit of a pirate), are:

Do not then walk too open.

It doth not fit me. Hold, sir, here’s my purse.

“It seems like Sebastian should start to walk past Antonio at, ‘It doth not fit me,’” she said, “and then Antonio should stop her at, ‘Hold, sir,’ and offer her purse.” That was a little unclear to the actors, so she and another woman got up to demonstrate. Antonio and Sebastian tried it out, but it didn’t work; for whatever reason, even with the demo, the note hadn’t stuck. The “coaches” furrowed their brows as they watched, but not in frustration: I could practically see the wheels turning as they silently strategized about how they could better communicate notes that they thought were clear. After re-explaining the blocking, with another demo, the actors gave it another shot, and it worked!

“I felt like that was better,” said Antonio. I asked her why she felt that way, and she replied, “I was being more aggressive.”

“Totally!” I said. “Have you noticed that you connect more with the text, and we connect more with you, when you’re really, really assertive?” She nodded, and I suggested that she think about saying every single one of her lines that way, just as an experiment, to see what would happen. She seemed tickled by the idea, and then she revealed that there’s a scene a little later in the play that she has totally memorized! “I’m going to get this before the week is over,” she said. It’s been tough for her—this is a huge challenge, and there’s no one in her unit who can work with her—so another ensemble member offered to meet her on the yard now that the weather’s nicer to help out. Antonio said that would be great. She added that she had a lot of fun spouting off a bunch of lines to her mom on the phone, without warning her first. “What you saying?” her mom said, to which she replied, “Mom, it’s my Shakespeare!”

Some very loud thunder interrupted us at that point, and, as we only had a few minutes left and knew we’d be caught in the rain, a number of people loudly groaned. We circled up to lift the ring, and lift it we did—very, very slowly. “I think that was us, as an ensemble, really not wanting to go out there,” I joked, and we had a good chuckle before we headed out.

Friday / May 3 / 2019
Written by Matt

Tonight was a mess, but it was a good mess! After check-in, we moved on to Act III scene iv, which is one of the play’s most complicated scenes. Right away, it was clear that no one remembered the blocking very well. There were some good moments of individual acting, but we spent a lot of time trying to remember where actors were coming on from and where they were supposed to move. We haven’t done this scene since we got new scripts, so anyone who had been taking notes didn’t have those notes, and the scene’s layout was similar enough to other scenes that it was easy to get confused.

But, amazingly, everyone’s spirits were really high, and we worked cheerfully and constructively through the scene. It’s actually a little hard to describe in writing what the workflow was because it was so fluid and subtle. Every single ensemble member was focused, engaged, and working collaboratively to overcome the challenges of the scene. When we couldn’t recall something, work would stop and several people would compare their memories--but never the same people, and never in a competitive, “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” way--and we would try it until something seemed right, then we moved on.

Watching the process felt simultaneously frustrating and empowering. Frustrating because it was so painstaking; empowering because it was so effective. I’ve rarely seen any group of people in any setting or context work so beautifully together and avoid so many pitfalls: there was no ego, stubbornness, short temper, defensiveness, dismissiveness, or need for control. Instead, we just waded through the work without so much as commenting on its difficulty.

So when it was finally time to run the scene again (Frannie suggested we do it “as cartoon characters”), we were able to pull together something really funny and wonderful. It showed in the individual performances, some of which were the best ones yet. Our Andrew and Toby pulled out all the stops with their goofiness, and Fabian was always in the most hilarious place at the most hilarious time (with the most hilarious look on her face). Malvolio’s strutting was a kaleidoscopic cesspool of love in and of itself, and Viola’s reactions were priceless.

We only worked one scene today, but it felt worth it. It’s never gone that slowly and that smoothly at the same time!