Season Eight: Performances and Wrap Up

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“This program has given me faith in myself that I never had before.”

PERFORMANCES AND WRAP UP: June 4-14, 2019
Written by Frannie

June 4: Performance #1

Tonight when we arrived at the auditorium, we found the stage lights on, which gave the performance space an entirely different look. As ensemble members trickled in and donned their costumes, one woman smilingly commented, “I like that the lights make our clothes look good!”

The usual nerves were definitely present—as was the usual feeling of drive and determination. One woman had been delayed, and she came running in, deftly grabbing her costumes and calmly organizing and donning each piece one by one. Others helped each other draw  ridiculous facial hair, while others set out the props. A woman who’s been in the group for years quietly told Lauren that, even though she’s performed so many times, for some reason this felt like her very first.

Amid all this, Matt came over to me and whispered, “Look at that.” A longtime ensemble member was quietly guiding a newbie through a centering exercise that has worked well for her in the past. They were so focused, it was as if no one else was around, but when the vet was approached by another woman who wanted that same guidance, I broke in gently to ask if she’d like to lead us all through it. The answer was yes.

We gathered in our circle to check in. I had decided earlier in the day against doing my normal curtain speech—I wanted to warm up the crowd for our high-energy “kaleidoscopic cesspool”—and now I read this silly series of rhyming couplets to the group to get their approval:

Fourscore and seven years ago –
I’m not quite sure… But this I know:
We chose
Twelfth Night for Shakespeare in Prison
Our EIGHTH PLAY, and golly – it’s a vision.
This play might be a bit confusin’
But it’s also gonna be amusin’!
Keep voices down so you can hear.
There’s action in the aisles, so keep them clear.
We’ve worked on this for nine long months
So THANK YOU for coming to share it with… uhntz…
In September, we’ll be starting on
Hamlet
We’re so excited we just can’t stand it.
To be in this ensemble or not to be?
We’d love you to join us in SIP!
So kite Ms. Butler if that sounds good.
For now, though, please join me, if you could:

When I say TWELFTH, you say NIGHT!
(Etc...)

There was a lot of chuckling as I read, and now I asked them how they wanted to get me offstage. Our Viola said, “I think I really wanna yell at you from the back of the house.” I laughed and replied, “Thought burglar! That’s what I was thinking!” And so it was decided.

After assuring each other (again) that all these nerves were normal and simply indicative of how hard we’ve worked, and how much we care, we lowered the ring and regrouped for the exercise. We did one of our newly-patented Whoosh Waves and a round of Crazy Eights. Then we returned to our prepwork as our sound operator turned on the preshow music, and the audience began to arrive.

Soon it was time to begin! I gave the curtain speech, Viola yelled at me from the back of the house, and our sound operator played the first sound cue. No going back now!

The zannis came staggering down the aisles, followed by a Viola and a Captain who were more focused and solid on their lines than we’ve seen them yet. This was followed up by our Orsino (whom, you will recall, is also playing Maria) bursting through the curtains with a booming, “If music be the food of love, play on!” So far, so good!

As the zannis exited, one was laughing so hard that she had to sit down to catch her breath. Beaming, she exclaimed, “Frannie, this is fun! This is so much FUN!” I smiled back, saying, “Right?”—but I knew I couldn’t fully appreciate her joy. She is very shy, and she’s pushed herself incredibly hard to summon the courage and energy needed to fully inhabit her role. Struggling to contain her mirth, she joined the other zannis in reviewing logistics, ensuring that they’d be in place for their next scene before it began.

Sirs Toby and Andrew fully committed to their zaniness right off the bat, playing off each other like the total pros they have become. At their first scene’s end, Sir Andrew demonstrates his “prowess” as a dancer. In keeping with our over-the-top concept, our Sir Andrew danced wildly to “Stayin’ Alive”, and the audience roared with laughter, bursting into applause as she dropped into the splits.

“I have been smiling for ten minutes straight,” facilitator Emma wrote in her notes as she sat in the audience, and the same was true for most of us backstage. Notably, this included the ensemble member who has struggled the most with just about every aspect of performance. I’ve often wondered (in awe) at her perseverance—most would have quit the group at some point—but now I thought I understood. She’s been doing this for herself, and no one else. She has only ever put pressure on herself to do her personal best. And she is doing her best. And she knows it.

The nerves seemed to melt away as we relaxed into performance mode, and everyone gave their strongest performance yet.  “How will this fadge?” our Viola asked during her famous monologue, and then she paused and asked the audience, “Y’all don’t know, do ya?” When Matt complimented Malvolio on how well she was connecting with the audience, she told him she was imagining herself speaking to a featureless brick wall, and that the audience members were piles of bricks.

There was a brilliant save in the play’s final moments, when Olivia skipped right over the crucial lines that bring Malvolio onstage to read the infamous letter—our Fabian simply handed it to her. We danced through our bows, closed the curtain, and whooped in celebration. Packing up in record time, we gathered briefly in a circle, all smiles and laughter—except for one ensemble member who seemed pretty shaken. She is often pushing through crushing anxiety, but she usually doesn’t like to be given special attention when she’s struggling. Though I wondered what was troubling her, and whether I could help, I let it go. I watched her leave the auditorium with her shoulders firmly squared, and I knew that she would be fine.

June 7: Performance #2

We got ready more quickly today—there was even time for a few people to toss around a beach ball—and then we circled up. Our nerves seemed to be completely gone, and we laughed and shared the feedback we’d gotten on our first performance. “Everyone I talked to really enjoyed it,” said one woman. “We’ve just gotta be LOUDER!” That should not be a problem for this group!

The woman who’d been so tense after the last performance spoke up. “I do not want to do this,” she said. “That’s okay,” I said. “Do you know why?” She shook her head and said, “It’s not that I’m nervous. I’m angry that I have to do this.” She looked around the circle and reassured us, “Don’t worry, I’m doing it. I’m just hoping I can channel anger, because that’s all I’ve got right now.” Later, she told Matt, “I really love everything about the process, but I guess I hate performing.” But you’d never have known it from her work that night.

The show began, and it was apparent right away that something very special was happening in that auditorium—something I’ve never experienced there, to which I can’t do justice in this blog. But I’ll try.

Throughout the season, the women in this ensemble have collaborated beautifully and with a great deal of compassion for one another, going above and beyond to make sure everyone was included and as comfortable as possible. But our energy has often felt scattered, as if it were moving in a different direction for each person, and that’s made some of our work very challenging. Tonight, though, that feeling dissipated completely as the group finally, truly gelled, all working toward the same goal, their support of one another seemingly effortless. Our Captain spoke her lines with the most skill and confidence we’ve heard during her time in SIP. Olivia’s vocal work, too, was spot-on—particularly impressive because of how recently she took on the role . The zannis were on fire, the audience could not stop laughing at Sirs Andrew and Toby, and Malvolio was so at ease that she stared our guest Niels right in the face during her shtick with the letter. The atmosphere was airy and light, and the audience felt it, too.

“There is so much love backstage,” I noted in my (barely legible) notes. As they passed each other at the prop table, one woman said to another, “You’re doing such a good job!” Without missing a beat, the other emphatically replied, “You’re doing really good, too.” The women who’d drawn on facial hair giggled as they modified their makeup over and over throughout the show—at one point, Sir Andrew took a hand mirror, wiped off half her twirly mustache in one stroke of the hand, and looked over at me. We both totally cracked up.

As always in SIP, our mistakes in performance led to the “saves” that will become legend in years to come. But even these took on a different quality than they have in the past. Our Viola, going up completely on some of her lines, paused for just one beat before improvising what turned out to be a rhyming couplet in perfect iambic pentameter. My focus had been elsewhere, but when I heard that, I stopped what I was doing and looked up at the longtime member who had become our propmaster. “Did she just improvise a rhyming couplet?” I asked. The propmaster cocked her head and said, “Did she?!” I put down the prop I was holding. “She totally did. And I think it was in perfect iambic pentameter.” A grin spreading across her face, the propmaster replied, “I think you’re right.”

When Viola came backstage, I pounced. “Do you know what you just did?!” I asked, and she shook her head. When I told her, she burst out laughing, and so did I. “I don’t know if I could do that!” I exclaimed. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do that!” Still laughing, she started to cry, too—if we needed any proof that she knows her stuff where Shakespeare is concerned, here it was. “How did you do that?” I asked. Wiping away the tears (she had a scene to prepare for), she chuckled, “I don’t know, Frannie.” Her eyes lit up. “It was the Shakespeare Holy Ghost!”

As Sir Toby worked to bring Sir Andrew and Viola/Cesario together in a duel, the lines got a little more than muddled. Shaking her head at Viola/Cesario, Sir Toby improvised, “I don’t know what you have, but get ready!” A few minutes later, our Antonio got her cue cards a little mixed up and couldn’t figure out what her next lines were (she knows them, but having the cards makes her feel better). Always patient and respectful of Antonio’s work, Viola said, “I don’t know you!” Now Antonio knew where she was, and the scene continued as if nothing had been amiss at all.

The jokes landed. The physical comedy was the best it’s been. The energy built and built and built, and the applause started even before the curtain had closed at the play’s end. Cheering nearly drowned out our curtain call music (naturally, “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones). As the audience filed out, many of them beamed, thanking Maria and Emma for the experience and saying it was SIP’s best performance yet. Some have come back year after year, and their reactions have never been quite like this. They recognized what had just happened.

And, though none of us could put it into words, it seemed like every member of the ensemble did, too.

June 7: Performance #3

This is prison, folks, and we often find ourselves improvising in ways that have nothing to do with acting! Tonight’s challenge, as usual, turned out to be an opportunity for some spectacular teamwork.

Our audience is scheduled to arrive at 6:30pm and must leave by 8:20pm, so we always plan to begin our 90ish-minute shows no later than 6:40pm. That wasn’t in the cards tonight! The guests (and photographer—pictures soon!) attending the performance were delayed in getting to the auditorium, and we weren’t sure when we should expect them. 6:30pm came and went, and a few people began to look concerned. I’m sure I did, too. At 6:35pm, I checked in with the officer just outside the auditorium; at 6:40pm, with the guests still somewhere en route, I went back to the ensemble to let them know what was going on.

“How long do we want to wait?” I asked, and the answer came back: if we start at 6:50pm, we can still get to the end. We’ll just really have to pick up our pace! Back to the officer’s desk I went, so I’d know the moment there was an update.

At 6:50pm, it sounded like the guests were only minutes from arriving, and Emma checked in with the ensemble to see how much longer they were comfortable waiting. Another five minutes, they calmly said: we can do this play 20 minutes faster than we ever have—even with at least six sick ensemble members (including two sick facilitators).

The guests arrived, quickly took their seats in the front row, and I let the ensemble know that we were ready. There didn’t seem to be a ruffled feather in the bunch. Off we went.

Though we moved quickly, we lost none of the connection that had manifested so clearly on Friday. Even though we made mistakes—many of which were far “bigger” than in our previous shows—and even though we didn’t “cover” nearly as well, our trust in each other never flagged. And that’s what this is all about.

At one point, we got completely lost, and no one was onstage except Viola. “Where is everybody?” she shouted (in character), but no one entered. So, naturally, she exited in search of… whomever. Sir Toby, who was standing backstage-right, finally noticed that a bunch of people backstage-left were beckoning her to enter, but she had no idea what was going on. She entered anyway, followed closely by Fabian, who was also bewildered. As they haltingly crossed the stage, no lines forthcoming, I put on my clown nose and barreled toward them, stealing Sir Toby’s mug and exiting stage-right. Sir Toby and Fabian, still lost, then exited stage left.

Finally, some assemblage of actors (it’s honestly a blur to me) took the stage together and started feeling their way back into the scene. “Oh my god, oh my god,” murmured the woman standing beside me, eyes fixed on what was happening onstage. “No, this is great,” I replied. She gave me a very quick and very doubtful look before refocusing on the action, which was beginning to return to what we’d rehearsed. “See how well they managed that? This is why we love mistakes. We’ll always remember how they saved the day just now.” She shuddered a little, saying, “Yeah... If it was me out there, I wouldn’t know what to do.” I grinned and said, “You know the play as well as anyone. You’d figure it out.” With a tiny smile, she said, “Yeah, okay,” and started prepping for her next scene.

Between that and another long incident along those lines, we found ourselves needing to pick up the pace even more. “Fast forward, you guys,” I said quietly to each person as I found them backstage. A few strategized quickly on cuts they could make on their feet, and we all took it into overdrive.

“5.1 already! Wow! Way to put the pedal to the metal,” Emma wrote from the audience. And, though we somehow barreled through all of Act 5 in less than 15 minutes, the performance lost none of its humor, detailed characterization, and excellent textwork. The audience applauded when Viola revealed her true identity and rose in a standing ovation during curtain call. “That was beautiful,” a former ensemble member said to Maria as she left the auditorium. She was in tears.

We packed up quickly and fairly quietly, gathering in a circle to briefly reflect on the experience. But there wasn’t much to say—there was far too much emotion in the room to express in just a few moments—except, “See you Friday.”

As we left, the facilitators mused about how our wrap up might go. None of us were quite sure. It’s been such an unusual season. Chances were that it would be an unusual wrap up, too.

June 14: Wrap Up

We arrived at the programs building at the same time as many ensemble members. Most were beaming as they said hello, moseyed over to the circle we’d begun to arrange, and took their seats, already joking and sharing the effusive feedback they’d received from audience members.

One longtime ensemble member, though, was not smiling. “I’ve been dreading this day all year,” she said, tears welling up. “I hate this break,” and looked me straight in the eye. “So do I,” I said, “but you know we need it, even if we don’t want it.” Shrugging that off, she said, “Are we meeting Tuesday?” Down came the tears. “I’m about to have a mental breakdown. For real.” The others gazed at her sympathetically. Jumping to her feet, she said, “Let’s do our stupid ring and get it over with.”

These wrap ups often cover operational concerns (what’s working, what’s not working, and what we need to plan for next season), but they’ve always been much heavier on personal reflection and showering praise on one another. That’s what this one turned out to be, but, true to form, it started off in a way that is rare in SIP.

One woman had joined with her partner, who ended up leaving the group before performances. Assertively, but calmly, she said, “I’m proud of myself. I got the vibes that everyone was waiting for me to leave after [her partner] went. That was really shitty. But that’s not who I am—I am not my relationship. And it makes me feel good to know I proved it.” No one responded, but no one was defensive. They heard what she said, and they appreciated it. “I just want you to know that if you got that feeling from me, that’s not what it was,” I said. “I didn’t get that from you,” she said, but I went on, “It’s not that I was waiting for you to leave. Usually when someone’s partner quits, they’re soon to follow. I was hoping you would stay. So much. And I’m so glad you did.”

“For me—” another woman began, pausing briefly. “I’ve always been—when people find out where I’m from, they ask, ‘Do you know this person?’ If it’s a girl, I’m like, ‘Ho!’ I don’t get along with females for the most part. Bitches and me famously don’t get along.” She chuckled. “But I have so many friends who are female now. And it’s interesting and kinda fun. It’s different. I kinda like it.” “And we kinda like you!” said another woman.

“I came into this group because of [ensemble member],” said a newer member. “I would have left after the first rehearsal if the facilitators hadn’t treated me as an individual and encouraged me to stay, even though I didn’t want to be onstage.” Smiling broadly, she said, “Now I feel like I could do a speaking role. Maybe next year!”

“Yes!” exclaimed another woman. “I was so shy, but now I’m not! I feel like it brought me out. I can’t wait till the play next year.” Another emphatically agreed, “Playing that role—which I didn’t want to do—it turned out okay. When we were onstage at first, I had so much fear, but… I don’t know how to say this, but I got confidence. I didn’t have stage fright.” “Yes—yes, confidence! It was fun!” replied the first woman.

One ensemble member looked right at another, who will soon leave the prison, and said her name. “Uh oh,” this woman said, though she grinned about being in the hot seat. “Last year, you was my husband,” the first woman said. “This year, you was my no-competition.” The tears began. “I just feel like you were a really good addition to this program—” As she began to be overcome, she joked, “All right. I’m a thug,” and made a gesture to let us know she needed to stop there.

“I appreciate that,” said the other woman. “I don’t even know what I would have done without this program. It helped me get through the time. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it without this ensemble—to know there was somewhere I could go to vent, that was safe, and have fun and bond with people. ” She paused, tearing up. “When I came here, I thought I’d want to leave all this and everyone behind, but I’ve got friends now. Let’s be real,” she said to the other woman, “I don’t know if our paths would have ever crossed. I probably wouldn’t have ever spoken to you if I hadn’t had this program. I don’t know if I would have been able to heal. I don’t know if I picked those characters because of what I was going through, or if it was the other way around. But I needed to be in those roles at those times. That’s what Shakespeare is all about—you can explore your emotions through your characters.”

“Where I’ve been… Where I’m going, now I know there’s things that I can be connected to when I get out,” said another woman. “It’s great to know there’s something out there I can do with my free time. I’m kind of a busybody. I always need to be doing something—usually not good. There was a part of me that said [healthy activities] are never gonna happen. But this is something healthy I can do. Because of this program, I have a chance to stay out of trouble and have fun, and know I can be successful in life.” She paused. “In a weird way, this program has given me faith in myself that I never had before.” Nodding, another woman said, “I’m over here, like, ‘I know what you mean.’ Yeah.”

“This season, out of all seasons, was my favorite,” said a woman who’s been with SIP almost as long as I have. “I learned more. I gave more. I was able to really appreciate other people and their work. Like, I kinda fell in love with [Maria/Orsino]. Like, who comes in and takes over half the play?!” We laughed. “I embraced everyone’s individuality. That’s why I’m so emotional.” She reminded us that a lot of ensemble members will likely be paroled in the coming year. “I learned and gained so much this year compared to others. I realized just how much I needed this group. And the people I needed, too.”

One of our vets asked the newbies if there was anything we could have done to make them feel more welcome when they joined. Surprised by the question, they shook their heads. “I felt a big hug from the group, right away,” one of them said. Another agreed, “This is the only group I’ve been in where I feel like I’m not in prison.” She turned to the facilitators. “Because you treat us like human beings.” Another said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do on Tuesdays and Fridays,” to which a longtime member quickly replied, “We’re not gonna talk about that right now!”

I then told a woman who joined last year how much I’ve been by work she’s done this season—from improvising for the very first time, to staying active even when she was feeling bad, to owning her role in the show, even though casting was kind of decided for her. And for instinctively coming up with a truly empowering gesture that most of us now use all the time. “The gesture speaks for itself,” she laughed. Then, regarding casting, “I was really pissed about it. But I’m glad I did it. I was in a bad spot last season and went into it with a terrible attitude. But over the summer, I decided that this year, I didn’t wanna be that person who held back and was hindered by my anxieties. I surprised myself [when I did improv]! It felt great to push myself and know that it would be okay. I pushed through a lot of barriers. It has really helped me to trust other people.”

We had kind of entered Wheel of Fortune mode, and I spun it over to another longtime member, who immediately averted her eyes. “You,” I said, and then I needed a moment. “I know this is difficult for you to hear, but I’m gonna say it.” She looked up at me. “I don’t think we would have made it through this season without you.” Eyes down. “Any time I had doubts—in the fall, when we were in crisis as an ensemble, you were the one who said, ‘No. This is not what’s happening. We are going to fix this.’ You kept us together. You are the rudder of this ship.” Now the tears came. “I want you to own that. You did this.” I gestured around the entire circle, which was full of nodding heads and more tears. “This is yours.”

“This season was different for me,” she said. “I always knew I needed to do something with my life, but I didn’t know what that was. I feel like now I know.” Shaking that off a little, she continued, “I remembered all of my lines this year. That has never happened before. When [ensemble member] took on Orsino like that, and memorized her lines, I thought, ‘Well, if she can do it, why the fuck can’t I?’” We laughed. “I feel like the ensemble makes us all better people, out there and in here. No matter what, who, when, where—that’s why I try to talk to people now. I never did that before. Like, if I didn’t know [ensemble member] from in here, I wouldn’t speak to her in the unit, because she’s quiet. She reminds me of me. It makes you grow, this program. I love it.”

She turned to the facilitators. “The level of dedication you guys have has shown me how to live. People are scared of prisoners, and you just show up. Don’t ever stop coming.” Another woman said, “That’s what I tell myself whenever I don’t want to go. Those guys are driving all the way here, even in bad weather, even when they’re tired and sick. I have to try to match that.” I replied, “It works both ways, too. There are definitely times when I’m exhausted or just really don’t feel like driving or leaving my house. But I think about what you all are pushing through to be here—your challenges are far greater than mine. So I have to keep showing up, too.”

But enough about the facilitators! Turning to another woman, I said, “You have such good ideas! You are so good at this!” It’s been tough to get her to hear this, but now she said, “Yeah. I really came out of my comfort zone. This just felt right to me.” Others also gushed about her many, incredibly creative, contributions.

At this point, an ensemble member who was helping facilitators take notes wrote, “EVERYONE IS CRYING… This is an awesome group and I’ll never stop coming!”

The woman who said she’d “fallen in love” with Maria/Orsino now turned to her and said, “You—” she looked at another woman, “—sorry, you were the best ensemble member ever, but—” That woman, feigning shock, said to Maria/Orsino, “I can’t hide my jealousy over here, but you deserve it. I did not realize how much dedication and talent you have. You have so many awesome ideas, and you are so talented.” The first woman added, “So many bars was raised in this one year. This is the bar setting year, and you set that bar.”

Another woman added, “What I got from you was, any time I had doubts, just seeing what you were doing—when you took on Orsino, I thought, ‘This play is going to go on.’” “She gave me goosebumps,” said another. “To watch you go out there and kill it every single time—it gave me goosebumps.”

Maria/Orsino attributed much of that to Emma. “You were the calm in the storm,” she said. “I was always so grateful to see you… The peace you have given me in here—I can’t even describe.” The others backed her up on that. And it’s true.

One woman then said, “I hear you all talk about everyone who’s left you. But it’s not that I’ve been left—everything in my life that I love and cherish has been ripped away. I hear you say it, but I don’t believe this is something that is going to be around. But I hope it is. When I first came here, I thought, I’m okay with being here, because I don’t have to love anything, but to not have this be around… That doesn’t sit well with me. This program got me through this year. For real.”

“I completely gave up when I started doing time,” said a longtime member. “I was ready for Russian Roulette. Seriously. Somebody give me a gun, and I’ll keep pulling the trigger till I get a bullet. A lot of times in this place, we don’t talk about the issues here. The real issues. You know what I mean.” She described her first experience in SIP, when we were working on a monologue that hit very close to home for her. When she performed it, she said, “I felt like for the first time, I spoke about what I felt, and people heard me. I thought, ‘I can use this as a way to work through that.’ People gave up on me. Everyone gave up on me. But there’s one person—” she turned to me. “One person who didn’t. Shakespeare has been the true source of my healing. I knew I was healed when I let all of the negative stuff go. You are an example of what I needed in my life.”

“And you,” she said, turning to Matt. “You have shown so much dedication to coming here and working with us. We feel like we are outcasts and society has turned their backs on us. And you have been so consistent.” Another woman said, “You and [on-a-break facilitator] Kyle are the only men in my life who I know I can trust.” And another added, “Me too. You’re the only man I’ve ever been able to trust. I can be near you, and I don’t freak out. I feel safe. I’ve never had that. I’ve never, ever had that before. You’re what a man should be.” Nearly every head in the circle was nodding, and, again, many were crying.

We were nearly out of time, so (after a brief reflection from me) we reluctantly put the chairs away and raised the ring back up. I assured everyone that we’d be back soon. I promised them we’d be back soon.

As our resident notetaker wrote at the bottom of the page, “9 months doesn’t seem like enough, but I am so very much looking forward to next season! See you soon!”