Season Nine: Week 3


“The only pressure is to do what you need to do to get what you need out of the group.”

Tuesday / September 17 / 2019
Written by Frannie

During tonight’s check in, a longtime member began, “This is a supportive group.” She said she’d had a conversation with a newbie earlier, and she’d asked if she could bring her concerns to the ensemble. This new member is concerned that her anxiety is preventing her from participating in the way she’s “supposed to.” This is very normal, and the returning member who brought it up asked the ensemble to share their insight. “It’s hard,” said the newbie, “because I really want to participate, but it’s like I don’t know how. How do you guys know to do that [performance stuff]? I don’t have that creative side yet.”

A couple of people jumped in to say that they’ve had that same feeling, and it’s something that you figure out as you go. “No one in this group came here knowing exactly what to do,” a returning member said. “Everybody has a shell coming in here… There’s no pressure on you to read, no pressure to get up. The only pressure on you is to do what you need to do to get what you need out of the group. That’s the only pressure that’s on you.” It doesn’t matter, she said, how you participate—the important thing is that you’re here. “We take our time with each other, and when you’re ready, we embrace that.”

A woman who joined last fall said that she still sometimes feels the way this newbie does. It took her a very long time to be able to put herself out there, but eventually she did. “It’ll come,” she said, “and when it does, it’ll be all right.” Another returning member talked about a time when she went so blank on her lines that she “completely screwed up” a scene and burst into tears when she got back stage. “And then two scenes later, I was back up again. I didn’t know I could do that, but I did it!” Give it time, she said, adding, “And you did good on Friday!”

The newbie said again that she wants to jump up and read on her feet, and to do the improv, but perhaps she’s too hard on herself—too self-critical. A returning member thanked her for telling us and encouraged her to continue to do that. “One thing that’s really important to the operation of this whole ensemble is to communicate your needs,” she said. “If you need encouragement, then tell us what, exactly, it is that you need. That’s the only way we’re gonna know how we can help you.” Another added, “If there’s ever anything that’s not working, let us know.”

The newbie, clearly relieved, told us that she’d like us to give her a push as soon as she’s ready. That time will come, several people said—and maybe she’ll be the one to give herself a push! A returning member shared that she hadn’t done any performing until she took on a lead role during crunch time (and rocked it, if I do say so myself!). But then, when we needed someone to play that part, “I felt it—I felt almost, like, an impulse, to do it. It was a good experience.”

Another, laughing, said, “And Frannie, we won’t even talk about the time I quit the group!” Grinning, I said, “When have I ever brought that up?” She turned to the newbie. “Can you believe I quit the group because I didn’t get the part I wanted?!” she exclaimed. “She sure did,” I said. Laughing, she added, “I quit on a Tuesday… but I was back that Friday!”

The group spent a good deal of time reading and discussing Act I scene ii on Friday, but they hadn’t gotten it on its feet. A few of us (myself included!) had been absent, and I asked if maybe we could explore it some more—it’s a really important scene. We figured out which of us would play each character, and then we launched into it.

A very bombastic Claudius led the charge, though we soon lost steam as she sat in a chair and the rest of us mostly just stood around her. I was reading Polonius, who hardly speaks in this scene, so I was able to do a little quiet coaching of the newbies reading Hamlet and Laertes. I encouraged them to relax, accept that they’d screw up the language because we all do, and move whenever they had the instinct to do so.

When the scene’s focus shifted to Hamlet, that woman first raced, then stumbled her way through the lines, hands tightly gripping her book. She got stuck on one word in particular and stopped. Eyes glued to the page, she turned to me and whispered, “I’m so anxious right now — I can’t do this.” I whispered back, “That’s totally okay. Do you want to switch? Polonius doesn’t have any more lines in this scene.” She nodded. “You did great, by the way,” I said, and then I switched gears into playing a very sulky Hamlet. From the corner of my eye, I saw her cross quickly to the wings, where she sat, head in her hands. A minute or so later, I saw her walking up the aisle toward the exit. But Matt met her along the way, and she didn’t end up leaving. More on that below!

We arrived at the end of the scene and sat down to discuss. Grinning, a woman who was absent on Friday said, “I didn’t even read this scene at all, and I totally got it.” She understood it so well, she said, that she was envisioning staging possibilities—and she wanted to test them out RIGHT NOW. We needed to discuss a bit first, though!

Claudius does a lot of talking in this scene. “He’s got too much to say to just sit down,” one woman said. We all agreed that he’s overcompensating in some way, though we didn’t all agree on what, exactly, that was. I asked if part of the reason for the “word vomit” could be his nervousness and/or guilt about his murder of the king. Well.. it turned out that a lot of ensemble members had no idea that that’s how the king had died—most hadn’t read ahead, and some hadn’t even read a summary. “It’s a huge part of what makes this scene makes sense,” I said, and I encouraged them to read ahead if they have time! This process is different from what most of us are used to from school. We need to know what’s coming in order to understand what’s happening.

That thing about the guilt… “That’s deep,” one woman said. Another added, “He reminds me of the person who hides something and then tries to help you find it!” Totally. A longtime member who is definitely coming into her own this season noted, “I wonder if, from the beginning of the play till the part when Marcellus comes in, there needs to be a break [for Hamlet].” She explained, “Whoever plays that is gonna need to keep in mind that Hamlet is, in a sense… a multi-character. He is gonna need to be so sad, then totally different.”

The woman who’d played Laertes said, “I felt awkward at that one bit, just standing there… I felt awkward.” A returning member said, “You’ll find it as you go. I used to really feel like that.” Laertes pushed, “Am I just standing there? What are we actually doing—something besides listening?” A few ideas were floated, and the woman who’d been having visions exclaimed that she really needed to “run the scene” as Claudius. And so we obliged!

As the about-to-be (sorry, can’t help it) Claudius reset the stage, the woman who’d almost left filled me in a little more about her experience. She’s afraid she’s can’t read well enough, she said, but she does want to participate. I encouraged her to stick with it, and maybe do more listening than speaking till she gets more comfortable: hearing people speak Shakespeare helps one understand how to do it. She agreed that that was a good plan, and then suddenly she was agreeing to play Horatio in this run of the scene. Awesome!

The scene got off to a good start, but then the energy started to lag. A longtime member came over to me and whispered, “I can’t figure it out, but for some reason I can’t understand what [ensemble member] is saying. Like, I understand the words, and I know she knows what they mean, but I can’t understand her, you know?” I nodded and said it was something about her cadence. “Let’s listen for a bit so we can give her something constructive to work with,” I said. “It won’t help her just to hear that we can’t understand her. Listen for the moments when you do understand, and let’s see if we can figure it out from there.” I followed her back to where she was sitting so we could quietly continue to troubleshoot.

Eventually, she, another ensemble member, and I figured out the issue: she was reading, eyes mostly locked on her book, not connecting with an objective or any person. That’s why it’s important to look up as much as possible, I said. “And to hold the book lower down, not in your face,” one of the women added. I agreed, though I said that that did not apply to the woman reading Horatio, who was pushing herself so hard. “Oh no, not her!” both women exclaimed. “She’s already doing so much better,” one of them said. “She’s already louder!” the other added.

Just as she said it, a returning member called a hold and gently addressed Horatio. “You’re doing great. Just slow it down. You’re rushing through it to get through it faster, but it’s not gonna help.” Horatio took the suggestion, and we rolled right through to the end of the scene.

“Holy crap, [Horatio]! Good for you!” one of the women said. “We were talking about how you will be on fire [in performances], with as much progress as you’ve already made in the last ten minutes.” Many voices echoed that sentiment, and I asked Horatio how she felt about it. “I don’t know. I feel... like I wanted to cry. I still feel like crying! I suck at reading,” she continued “and I talk fast, so that’s why I was stumbling over my words.” She tried to describe her experience in more detail, mentioning briefly that talking with Matt instead of leaving had helped, but then her words sputtered out and stopped. Saying nothing more, we gave her a round of snaps.

The conversation started to move on, but Horatio suddenly interjected and looped back to her own work, saying how much it helped to slow down her speech. I encouraged her to keep doing that—that the more she slows down, the more comfortable she’ll get, and the more she’ll enjoy speaking the words. “It’s fun, right?” I asked the veterans, all of whom vigorously nodded. “Not only that,” one of them said, “It’s empowering. Like, ‘Yes! I’ve finally got it!’”

Back to the scene. “I like reading the king,” that woman said slyly. “Yeah, I liked Gertrude, too,” said the woman who’d read that role. Grinning, she added, “I think we got our parts!” Another woman praised this Gertrude’s “aloof regalness.” The woman who’d read Laertes said she still felt awkward with nothing to do! A woman who played a quiet-ish character last season joked, “How do you think I felt with only one line?!”

One of the women noted, though, that she wished Claudius and Hamlet could have explored their dynamic more. Gesturing toward Claudius, she said, “You shoulda pulled some Mortal Kombat stuff.” The woman who’d played Hamlet agreed, “Hamlet is the teenaged kid, and [Claudius] is the stepdad… [Hamlet is] like, ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!’ but [Claudius is] like, ‘No, I’m your dad now. You will pay attention right now.”

We decided to give just the Claudius/Hamlet part of the scene another go, and I coached the ensemble through a few changes in the stage’s set up that would help convey their interpretation to an audience. This is something we left till very late in the season last time around, and our hope is that, by addressing it now, our rehearsal process will go that much smoother. The women playing Hamlet and Claudius did find more of a connection this time, with more eye contact and clearer objectives. It was an invigorating thing with which to end the evening, and we circled up to raise our ring, encouraged and excited for what lies ahead.

Friday / September 20 / 2019
Written by Lauren

Our new facilitator Kyle started today! So naturally, the group asked him the traditional three questions, and, naturally, he passed!

We jumped into reading Act 1, Scene 3. We briefly discussed Ophelia’s father and brother warning her about Hamlet, and expressing their concern regarding his budding relationship with Ophelia. We then moved on to Act 1, Scene 4, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father reveals himself to Hamlet. The group discussed why the ghost would have revealed itself to Horatio and Marcellus before Hamlet. One woman suggested that this would have been the safest way to get to Hamlet. Another added that if Hamlet’s friends had told him about the ghost before he saw it, then Hamlet would know he was actually seeing a ghost and wasn’t losing his mind.

We wrapped up our reading with Act 1, Scene 5. A group of ensemble members began discussing Gertrude and her role. They suggested that if Gertrude were as pure as she claims, then she wouldn’t have given in to her lust for her dead husband’s brother. One woman chimed in that Gertrude may have been in a relationship with her brother-in-law before her husband died. Another member asked why Hamlet would be so secretive about what the ghost had told him. Someone responded that Hamlet probably doesn’t want people to think he is losing touch with reality, so he can uncover his uncle’s crime. It was pointed out by another ensemble member that the ghost doesn’t actually ask Hamlet to avenge him, but to remember him. Hamlet appears to be spearheading the idea of justice and/or vengeance.

We then got Scenes 3 and 4 on their feet, and ran both twice. The second time we ran Scene 3, we added a chair for the woman playing Ophelia. She stayed seated for the whole scene, and later commented that she felt “trapped” in the chair. Another woman in the scene wanted to pull up a chair next to Ophelia, but opted to kneel instead. This sparked a discussion about the visual power of levels and the different interpretations people had of the scene. Some people saw the male characters taking over, while others could feel Ophelia’s urge to get up, though choosing to stay seated.

In Scene 4, the member reading for Hamlet admitted that she did not “feel” the character until close to the end of the scene. Given this revelation, we ran the scene again to maintain the momentum! The woman playing the ghost took this second opportunity to interact more with the others onstage, sliding chairs and keeping Hamlet separate. She appeared to glide across the room, and everyone watching could feel her presence. The other two women in the scene are new to the group, but really held their own in terms of using the space and making the characters their own. It was a really enjoyable scene!