Session Four: Week 38

First and Second Performances: Reflections… Having been a part of four plays at the prison now, I was struck somewhat by the similarities between seasons, but more so by the differences. I asked several of our “vets” how they felt. One, who was physically ill from nerves last year, commented before our opening that she felt nervous, but not sick, and she was excited to perform. She said that during that performance, she discovered that if she pretended the audience wasn’t there (“I put a wall around them”), she felt much more confident. That’s a common actor’s trick that no one had to teach her. Another woman, who struggled last year with her own perfectionism and expectations for others, said that she felt that the session had gone much better this year, and she felt more relaxed. I agreed with her that we’ve worked out many of the “kinks” we wanted to, and she said, “Well, yeah, but what I mean is that I feel better. I feel like I’ve grown a lot.”

One woman, who joined in September and has had wavering confidence this entire time, remarked to Sarah that she wouldn’t be able to go to another call out, but that, “I won’t let down my ensemble. We’ve been together since September, and we’ve all worked too hard for me to let anyone down.” Another, who had severe stage fright in September (she’d actually been goaded into joining by her room mate), said joyfully, “I want to do Shakespeare forever! When I get out, I want to do Shakespeare all the time. I need to find somewhere to do that.”

We worked together as an incredibly cohesive team to whiz through our play, having a ton of fun and clearly entertaining our audience as we went the first night. Coming into the second night, the entire group seemed more relaxed and confident – they’d done it once successfully, received overwhelmingly positive feedback from their peers, and were revved up to do it again. The show totally gelled during its second performance, as we improvised through mistakes on the fly with great ease and humor; at one point in the penultimate scene, I don’t even remember what happened, but between line flubs and our general sense of hilarity, several of the women cut the scene off, and we left the stage laughing hysterically. Our audience was laughing, too.

This is the largest ensemble yet to complete the program and probably the most cohesive. They truly take care of each other, no matter what their differences – minor tiffs evaporate for the good of the team, and they have pulled off an energetic and inspiring play. Our final performance is on June 9, followed by a wrap up session. Then we’ll be “on break” for the summer – but those of us returning to the program all acknowledge that we’ll actually be spending a lot of time preparing for Othello – we’re all just so excited to do it again.

Reflections from co-facilitators…

Lauren: Leading up to the performances was so exciting to me. These women have come so far over the past nine months. All of the actors were on edge until the show started. Forgetting lines was probably the most common fear. Once the curtain opened, everyone was so energized and on top of it. When lines were dropped, the recovery was quick and efficient, which I think gave confidence to the women. I sat in the house for the second show, and was told a number of times by audience members how awesome the performance was. One woman told me she use to study British literature, and she really loved the performance. This has been a great experience, and I'm so proud of everyone who was involved.

Dominique: These women have a firm grasp on the physical comedy of the play - the choice the group made to welcome any improve-based, physical, and slapstick big actions serve the play so well. Often Shakespeare's comedies get lost in translation - jokes that were funny 450 years ago don't always play as well now. But the physicality they gave it - and the fact that they know what the comedy is - made them able to convey it to their audience with amazing deftness. They knew what they were saying and doing and it showed, even if the audience wasn't always able to key into the language. The strong physical choices made the meaning clear and brought clarity to the language as well. And they were funny. Just plain ol’ funny - performances blossomed out of women who were mortified to speak out loud last fall. Each performance was its own miracle for its own reason - and more what the program is about than interpretation of Shakespeare. But at the root of the variety of achievements met by this group of women is the conquering of Shakespearean text in a theatrical performance done for a live audience. There is some kind of magic in that, and it is truly amazing to watch happen.

Vanessa: Opening nights are my favorite kind of days. And this was no exception. As soon as we all met up in the theatre to set up, you could feel the energy and joy for what was about to happen. I was blown away throughout the performance. The women were prepared and excited to show their work, and it was so much fun to be in the wings with them as they came on and off stage. They treated this as if they had been acting for years and made me feel like I was the newbie! Cuz I am. And I am grateful I was a part of this group. I was so proud. I cried at curtain call. It was magical. And it wasn't just luck- because they made it all happen again for the second show. The audience response was just as amazing. I think we all had moments of transcending where we were and giving in to the communal healing power of theatre. Ah. This is why we do it.

Sarah: When our ensemble arrived at the auditorium, we immediately came together to work. We set up the set, the actors dove into their costumes and make-up, we all circled up for a brief vocal warm up and in less that 20 minutes the women were ready to perform! They were more professional than most professionals. Many of the women shared that they were terrified to perform in front of their first audience and all offered each other support and encouragement. They were a wonder on stage - funny and brave and taking care of each other through every moment! I have come to expect this cast to be patient with each other and to respect each other and to share themselves with each other but to see them share their courage, humor, and patience in front of their audience too was moving betting belief! I could not be more honored that this group of women welcomes me into their midst!

Kyle: I feel like a bit of a broken record, but my reflections are right in line with what always comes to me when working in the prison: it sometimes doesn’t feel like I’m in a prison, it just feels like I am doing a show. It’s hard to describe really, but there were the same buzz and butterflies that come with the opening night of any show. The women come off the stage and ask how they think the show is going so far, how they think they did in that last scene, put hands to heads at a flubbed line or prop malfunction. Not all that dissimilar from any other show in which I have been. Having the costumes was a game changer. It is something special when someone thinks about what clothing would work just for you, or that would fit just right for your character; I really underestimated the impact of that exchange, and wouldn’t have thought it would go as far as it did to make it feel like a “real show.” I think the most important lesson for the women was to keep having fun no matter what - if the actors are having fun, then the audience is going to have fun, too. Sure, things went wrong; sure, lines were forgotten - that’s life, and that’s theatre. It contains a powerful lesson, though: no matter what goes wrong, you keep going and you keep smiling. As I said above, that goes for life and theatre. When we left, there was still light outside, and sun was setting, which was strange because most of the year we would leave in darkness. It seemed a fitting way to finish the process. I was beaming with pride for the women’s achievement and feel so grateful to have been a part of the program.

Session Four: Weeks 23 and 24

Week 23: Tuesday  

We spent this entire session working on Act V Scene I, in which all of Lucentio’s and Tranio’s plotting is revealed. The going was on the slower side, with starts and stops as people needed to leave early for other programs and appointments. The ensemble stuck with it, though, bringing newer members into the mix and catching them up with a great deal of compassion for the challenge each of them was taking on. In the end, we managed to muddle through this very long and complicated scene, to take stock and realize that with so many of the players gone by the end, it would mostly need to be “redone” in the future.

Rather than getting bogged down in this, though, we focused on how well the women worked together to get through the scene. We applauded our “newbies” on diving in when they still don’t know the material very well and being willing to just go with it. The group as a whole worked well as a team, too, figuring out the placement of set pieces and some of the blocking that we need in order to make the scene make sense. These are all wonderful takeaways, even if the “work” will need to be done over.

One of the women brought up how uncomfortable it is to get a general framework for a scene and then leave it. We talked about how this is usually part of the process of rehearsing a play – we get an idea of the gist of it and how we want it to work on its feet, an then we revisit the scene to find more nuance. It’s a long-term process that requires participants to be comfortable making “mistakes” as we explore, and that is a huge challenge to many people, incarcerated or not.

Week 24: Tuesday

Written by Dominique

As the group began to collect, people began to tell me about last Thursday's challenges. As sometimes happens, the facilitators were delayed getting through the gate, so the women discussed what to do and decided to move forward with the reading of the entire script. There was a lot of pride in their problem solving and their ability to take control of the situation quickly. They jumped in when parts needed to be read that weren't there and watched out for their own parts overlapping something else they were reading (getting someone else to take over so they could focus on the part they were cast in). They read quite a bit before they dispersed. They were working together and working together well, there was pride in this, and there was a strong sense of camaraderie developed for most of the group.

After "ringing up" we discussed how to approach the evening - whether to continue reading the script as they had begun. It was mentioned that we still don't have new people cast with any finality. After some debate it was decided we would read scenes with Grumio, Tranio, and Biondello (the uncast parts) and give new members a chance to really try them on. We chose Act 1 scene 2 since it gave the most opportunity for these characters to work.

The reading was lackluster and didn't show much. Both new women began to ask questions about their characters. One woman, who joined the group in November, really took charge then. She explained their questions, and suggested they put the scene "on its feet." She gave them basic blocking that had been worked out and explained motivation as well as physical comedy that had already been worked. As the scene begins with Grumio, this woman started explaining her part in the scene, her entrance, action, the scenario etc… It was FABULOUS to see her work, and both newbies felt plugged in and comfortable with their new roles. All the actors contributed as they worked, gently reminding each other to turn out to the audience, not block each other, watch their spacing. Such wonderful ensemble spirit.

As people needed to leave early, the women asked that we play games for the remainder of the evening. As it turned out it was a good way to give the newbies a chance to feel comfortable. We played the place scenario, giving everyone a chance to work, and then Party Quirks, which was great fun.

I thought about how wonderful the camaraderie is among these core people. They really enjoy the work and working with each other. There was real joy there. Someone had mentioned at the beginning of the evening that it's important we remember to keep the drama on the stage. I told her there were professional actors that needed to be told that occasionally but she was absolutely right. It steals focus from the wonderful work at hand.

Week 24: Thursday

After a circle discussion to resolve some dynamic issues within the group, which seemed to have a good outcome, we decided to work Act III Scene ii, as we haven’t yet put the whole thing on its feet. Many of the players were absent, but luckily those who were present were game to fill in, so we were able to make some great discoveries.

The most important of these was what we determined is going on with Baptista in this scene. The woman playing him said she was torn about how he must feel. After some discussion and our active exploration of the scene, she settled on him being at first pretty miffed about Petruchio’s behavior, but understanding his strategy (giving Kate a taste of her own medicine) by the end and being okay with it.

Petruchio has a very interesting monologue in this scene, too, regarding his “ownership” of Kate. Without the woman who plays Petruchio there, of course we didn’t settle on an interpretation, but we talked about the variety of ways in which it could be played. This is something that we have all come to appreciate about The Taming of the Shrew – we always seem to have several reasonable ways of interpreting whatever it is we’re discussing, but we also always seem to be able to land on something that makes everyone happy.

We’re already in discussions about next year’s play. The group is definitely interested in a tragedy or a history, so we’ll be looking at some of those over the next couple of months as we continue our work on Shrew. The general consensus is that we would like to alter our process so that the play for next year is chosen prior to this year’s performance, and those who are staying in the group will be able to study it over the summer. Our thought is that, in this way, we can better accomplish the mentor/mentee relationship we desire between returning and new members of the group right from the get-go. This may not work, but we’ve learned that even if we try something new and it “fails,” we learn something valuable moving forward. And that’s really what it’s about.

Session Four: Week 19


Written by Dominique

We had a pretty good turnout this evening - only a couple people missing. Yet somehow it was still difficult to find a scene to work on that involved only characters of available actors. We carried on, with people volunteering to fill needed spaces.

After initial frustration at not being able to just "go in order" as originally planned due to absence we forged onward - begin with Act IV Scene iii. A first run/read-thru on its feet was made. We stopped to sort out exactly what was going on in the scene - not an easy thing to do! We laughed at how complicated the comedies can be with mistaken identities and characters running on and offstage. Who exactly was being who at this point and who believed them?? We looked to the text for clues and backed it up with Spark Notes (no shame in that at all!!). Once we figured out where the deception was, the lines in the scene began to bloom, particularly for Tranio, being read by the woman who is cast as the Widow but frequently fills in for others. Once again she gave a good solid reading and really dug to figure out where the character she was reading was coming from. And once again she, with good humor, insisted that she was the Widow and the Widow only. It's becoming a kind of running gag. Other cast members remarked on the strength of her reading, but we pointed out that the whole play was leading to the entrance of the Widow at this point, so she was wise to stick with that.

The other aspect of the scene to be broached was the "love making" of Bianca and Lucentio. We talked about how to approach it, what would be appropriate for play and audience, what kinds of things could be broad enough to read for audience. We talked about while in this play many of the jokes are accessible it is the physical comedy that really brings the humor to light for a modern audience so we continue looking for those moments wherever possible. Even to the point of suggesting that although Gremio doesn't join the scene's dialogue until much much later her presence on stage could leave open some opportunities for fun…

Kate and Petruchio also gave us a taste of work they had done on Act II sc 1.  They are both such good actors it was fun to see them dig in to the verbal jousting. We talked about ways to break up the "jests", different approaches Petruchio might take, who really has the power in the scene and when. They were also encouraged to use the entire stage, to really physicalize the language to help bring the jokes to life for the audience. There should be no problem in that! The show is already off to a rollicking start.


Written by Lauren

Today was pretty low-key. We started with the ring and some stretches and vocal warm-ups. One woman taught us a warm up (more of a game). We used it instead of tongue twisters and everyone seemed to like it! You start with the letter A and tell everyone your name, your husband's name, where you live and where you work and all starting with that letter (ex: my name is Alice, my husband's name is Albert, we live in Alberta and we sell artichokes). You go around the circle with a different letter each time.

After that we worked Act 4 Scene 1, which has already been blocked, but given the women we had available, that seemed like the best scene to do. It ended up being fine since they said needed a refresher of the scene. Our Grumio was feeling pretty down today but didn't really get into it. She still worked through the scene twice, but was definitely done after that. The ladies wanted to play some improv games after that. One woman was pretty outspoken about how she didn't understand the point of the games. I explained how they could be helpful, and then she got really into it. We played a couple rounds of Party Quirks, which they were all really into. I had a hard time getting the ladies to be physical when we ran the scene, so I thought that game would help them act silly and over the top, and it worked.

The same woman who was initially against playing games also mentioned that she would like to challenge herself and take on the role of Biondello since it's available. I took both of these things as good signs and was glad that she's willing to challenge herself and try new things.

Session Four: Week 13


Written by Dominique

Definitive progress made tonight, but it is a messy business, theatre, and we are learning to move forward with some growing pains. The group has gotten much larger - a very good thing but a very different thing and different ways of working are being discovered. Learning curve.

We began with a somewhat scattered physical warm up. Most of the 20 or so women were on time. All but 3 or 4 women circled up, and, midway through, a few in the group asked that these women join us. Most did, but a straggler or two refused.

To continue expanding the depth of the ensemble/acting work we do, an exercise a Viola Spolin improv known as "Building and Using the Where" was tried. First a "where" was built - suggested by the group. A location where the improv would take place. Then 4 or 5 objects were placed in the space spontaneously by group members to define it, to help visually "see" the space. Then 2 volunteer actors were given a "who" and a "what" or "why" - who they were and why they were in the space, what they were doing there.

Some interesting things came up. For instance, in a New York scenario, one of the actors onstage, playing Prince William, suggested that a "dog" walking by (one actor walking another as a dog character) be shot. However, the dog didn't respond, and the improv carried on. When we insisted that the dog be shot as the character suggested, the improv evolved in a much more interesting way! It became clear how important it was to honor the truth of your fellow actors onstage rather than ignore it - an improv technique known as "Yes And…" The idea is you never say no to what another character is saying, you always agree with it and hopefully take it one step further.

We also noticed that it was simpler to make the location more specific - rather than "New York" a "bank" was easier to visualize and populate. Also we learned that in dressing the space it was generally better to stick to objects rather than people - people naturally complicated the exercise. It would be an interesting way to evolve it, however, and this was noted.

The importance of specifics became very clear in choosing the "who" and "what or why". Instead of "bank robbers" the scene evolved much more naturally when we chose "valley girls" robbing a bank. The comedy didn't have to be forced, no one onstage had to be a playwright on the fly to make the scene work. It evolved naturally through the who doing the what in the space we clearly defined.

Afterwards people commented that it was nice to see the space they were in; so much of the work we do with Shakespeare is focused on the text it is sometimes difficult to see beyond your own nose. Especially with the broad type of comedy that this group seems to be growing out of this text interacting with the space and the specifics can be useful ideas.

Unfortunately, though there was time left, at this point many of the group started to leave - various call outs, med lines, etc. Those that were left voted that we should do a circle read through of the text before putting it on its feet, though there was a significant call for just getting going. As we circled up to read and a few more people left, it became really obvious that we need to start with working the Shakespeare and end with ensemble games and work. There was discussion as to whether we work the text in chronological order or jump around depending on who is available. Although it seems we had already made the decision to work chronologically, we revisited this based on the lack of actors cast for the parts we were going to read. Frannie made the point that working chronologically also allows us to make a rehearsal schedule, which is an idea a lot of people seemed on board with. Group members also asked that deadlines be set for line memorization.

It was also brought up that unfortunately there is some unwanted tension in the group. It was decided that the people involved could not be discussed without being part of the discussion, so it was noted but tabled. A couple other concerns were also raised - notably that people should not be allowed to sit in the audience during circle and warm up, that this contributes to the lack of group cohesion.

We read through the scene, had a brief chat about what was going on, set the scene, and got it on its feet. Part of it, anyway. Time ran out on us, and we weren't able to finish. However some good work was done with the comedy of Hortensio's entrance and the beating of Grumio by his master. It always is a huge difference to put Shakespeare on its feet - things happen that never ever do when reading it in a chair.

There is a general itchiness among the group to get the thing up and moving, coupled with the concern over negativity from some of the members. Of course it is going to be more difficult to engender closeness among a larger group. But as we go through these trials, trudge through the trenches of theatre work together, that cohesion will begin to fall into place naturally. The more work we do on the actual text the more the play can become the focus rather than the players.


Written by Frannie

After today’s warm up and an update about our new “schedule” (Shakespeare first, exercises second), we engaged in the group discussion that the women requested on Tuesday to address the tension in the group. Although we are fatigued by several such recent discussions, we agreed to resolve it all today and know that this would be the last one (at least for awhile; things do come up for discussion, but usually not so often). Every woman in the group had an opportunity to express how she was feeling, and it was a very constructive conversation. We identified several ways to improve how things are working (i.e., from now on participation in warm ups is not optional), achieved a new level of honesty, and we feel we can move forward from here.

I would like to note here, since I’m often asked what participants in this group get out of it, that several longtime members actively used the conflict resolution skills they’ve learned in Shakespeare throughout the discussion in ways they were not able to when I met them two years ago. One in particular responded to a woman who had been directing some negative criticism toward her by first thanking her for being honest, putting what she had said in her own words to show she understood while responding to it, giving details of what has made her feel the way she does, and then asking the other woman to meet her halfway. Having been part of a number of tense conversations with this woman in our group, it was really exciting and inspiring to me to observe how calm, respectful, and constructive she was with no coaching at all. This is a skill that is going to benefit her for the rest of her life, and I’m so happy for her that she seems to have mastered it.

We returned to Act I Scene I after this, focusing on catching up a few people who were absent when we worked it previously. We found that our main concern in this first scene is to set up the characters’ relationships, and we made some great discoveries to that end, including a moment when Bianca sat down next to Kate, they looked at each other, and then instinctively scooted apart. The women are beginning to connect to their characters and the text. There was a great moment at the end of the scene when Tranio, who had been sluggishly carrying heavy bags at the top, energetically handed the luggage to Lucentio (since they’ve “changed places”) and bounced off the stage. Lucentio then shuffled off slowly under the weight of the bags, referencing them with her line ending in “good and weighty.” The whole group exploded with laughter and applause at that moment. I look forward to many more of them as we get deeper and deeper into the play.