Session Four: Weeks 39 and 40

The ensemble arrived for the final performance relaxed and completely ready to bring the process to a close. They were confident and steady, even when we became crunched for time; no one panicked because they have proved how well they work as a team to overcome such challenges. We also worked efficiently as a team to pack up all of our materials at the end and agreed to reflect in depth on the process at our wrap up meeting the next week. When Kyle and I walked into the auditorium, several women were seated around a table, ready to begin discussion. One was standing on the stage, and when she saw us, she exclaimed, “I’m sad!” She is not looking forward to taking a break this summer, but those of us who’ve been doing this for awhile assured her that taking time to rest and let our energy build back up works better than not.

While everyone said again how much they enjoyed the performances and what great feedback they’ve gotten around the prison, they were much more eager to have a constructive discussion about the program in general: what’s working well, and where we need to improve. This was a lengthy conversation, and here are a couple of highlights that particularly illustrate the dedication to and ownership of the program that this ensemble has developed:

  • Although the group is still reluctant to have a formal audition at the beginning of the session, the three-day “trial period” we introduced this fall proved problematic for several reasons. The group decided not only to prolong this phase of the program, but to put themselves “on probation” (although we are not going to call it that!) to ensure that there’s no double standard and that everyone’s in it together. We are also going to develop community expectations as a group during our first meeting so that every single person knows how she is being assessed during the trial period. With these changes, we hope that we can avoid some of the “drama” that we dealt with in the fall.
  • We all agreed that we must at least read through the entire play, even if we don’t put every scene on its feet, before we cast it – we rushed this part of the process this year because some of us were impatient to move faster, and it hurt us. We decided to cast our play in a new way – instead of a group discussion with a “blind” vote by raised hand (which has worked in the past, but not this year), we are going to figure out who will audition for each role with “sides” (like professional callbacks), and then everyone will submit a cast list by anonymous ballot, which I will tally up.

All in all, the ensemble is satisfied with the work we’ve done this season. Most of them plan on returning in the fall, and they are going to try to work on Othello in pairs and small groups as much as possible over the summer to prepare. Those who have been in the group for two or three years feel that it is growing in a positive direction, and we are all optimistic that, while we will always face challenges together, the changes we’re making going into next year will strengthen us and allow the process to go more smoothly.

Normally, this would be the final post for the season, but stay tuned for a special post tomorrow and an exciting announcement about the program very soon.

Thank you for all of your support of Shakespeare in Prison this season!

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: Week 37


Tonight we had a dress rehearsal that was intended to be a full run of the show. While we did not get to the end of the play, we made some good discoveries along the way.

For one, there was a camera crew there (I’ll post their finished product as soon as it’s online!), which made some of the women rather nervous. Even though several members of the group (including me) reassured those affected that only brief clips would be pulled, and there was no way our “mistakes” would make it into the short film, we discussed later that simply having “outsiders” (and men in particular) at this particular rehearsal complicated things. We are very grateful that they were there to document our work; however, this is something that we may try to avoid in the future now that we know how much it can throw our focus and confidence.

I will say, though, that when the crew departed, it was with great enthusiasm for the growth they witnessed first-hand in the ensemble, having filmed our group about a month ago. This is a good lesson for us: that even when we feel we are not at our best, from an “outsider’s” perspective, our work is still exciting and inspiring. Our mistakes seem bigger to us than they do to our audience.

When we circled up at the end of the session, I asked how everyone felt. Several newer members of the group said that they did not feel good about their work and the rehearsal in general. Before I could say anything, a seasoned member of the group reassured them that a rehearsal like this is normal, and that our main issue right now is that we’re taking things too seriously and not having enough fun. Several women’s eyes lit up. I took that opportunity to remind the group that “it’s called a PLAY for a reason!” We do need to loosen up – we’re sharing a comedy, and if we don’t have fun, our audience won’t either. Our pacing is very slow – that’s why we didn’t make it to the end – and this will likely fix itself if we just relax and roll with the punches more instead of freezing when we hit a (usually line-related) wall.

We talked about a few ways in which we can “cover” our mistakes, most of which involve acknowledging that we’re off in a way that fits with the broad style of comedy we’ve chosen. The plan for Thursday is to work lines, and the plan for Friday is to do a “speed-through/fun-through” of our play – barrel through as fast as we can, relax, and have a good time.

This conversation lasted only a few minutes, but it seemed to reassure and refresh those who were feeling badly.


Two members of our group were particularly down today, for reasons that had nothing to do with Shakespeare. They showed up anyway, willing to work but visibly upset about things going on outside of our little bubble. It should go without saying that life while incarcerated is very, very hard, and I am always grateful when members of our group attend even though they, like most of us on such days, would rather be alone and curled up in bed. Our group can often serve as a distraction on these days, which is why I encourage them to drag themselves to the auditorium, and today seemed to serve that purpose for these two.

Though our intent today was simply to work on lines, we decided to circle up, take some time to just breathe together with our eyes closed, and then transition into bringing down our ring of light. We breathed together for several minutes, and when I opened my eyes I saw a few others had also opened theirs and were sending energy up into the ring. I joined them, and so did the rest one by one. As we raised our arms to hold our ring, we saw that our co-facilitator Sarah’s eyes were still closed. Patiently, we waited for her to join us. I have no idea how long this would have lasted, except that one of the women who was so down when she came in couldn’t hold in a giggle. Sarah then opened her eyes, saw that the rest of us were waiting for her, and sheepishly raised her hands to join us. “I’m so sorry!” she said. “No,” said the woman who giggled, “That was perfect, actually.” We lowered the ring together and spread it out over the room, laughing together as we did so.

We sat around a table together, working through the second half of the play. One of the women who’s been nervous about her lines turns out to be very skillful at improvising her way through when she’s not word-perfect – we were all pretty impressed, and made sure she knew that this strategy will work if she needs to rely on it – even an audience used to seeing Shakespeare would likely not notice much “wrong” in her delivery.

We circled up prior to parting, and Sarah was gathering up materials as the rest of us moved into place. “Are you still breathing, Sarah?” joked one woman, and we all laughed. “I am never going to live that down,” said Sarah, “I am so embarrassed!”

“Don’t be,” said the same woman who giggled during Sarah’s initial moment, “I meant it when I said that was perfect. That laugh changed the day for me completely.”


The ensemble touched base during our circle and brief warm up: barrel through the play and have fun while doing it! Lean on each other! Support each other!

And barrel through, we did – right through to the end of the play. Was it a perfect run? No, but our goal is not to be perfect. We accomplished what we set out to do today: We got through the entire play, we kept our pace quick for the most part, we covered for each other on missed lines, and we had a LOT more fun together.

We didn’t have time at the end to debrief in detail, but the feeling I got from the ensemble is that, while they are still nervous, they are ready to dive into sharing our work with an audience. It will be all hands on deck Tuesday with our facilitators, so there will be lots of facilitator support with the inevitable nerves that even the most seasoned professionals sometimes get the first time an audience is present.

I look forward to updating you with details about our performances! Stay tuned!

Session Four: Week 36


Today was an exciting session, as we were able to work with props and costumes for the first time. Things seem to work for the most part, and we had a lot of fun trying items on, exchanging things that didn’t fit, and problem solving around items that had been forgotten (and we have a solution for that going forward!).

Several of the women shared new cuts that they had made, and then we began working through the play from the beginning. We made it nearly halfway through with very few lengthy pauses. Some of us are working without scripts, while some are still shaky and holding onto their “blankies,” as one woman put it. That said, success in this program is very individual, and no one feels pressure from anyone but herself to be completely off book when we perform.

Some parts of our play are working extremely well, while others are further from what we envision. All in all, though, we left feeling extremely good about our work, energized by the new materials, and pumped up to power through the end phase of our process.


We dedicated most of today’s session to working with our Gremio, who was not satisfied with her work on her “wedding story.” This was a lot of fun, as she has gone from someone with severe stage fright to a performer who seems to have no fear about pushing herself out of her comfort zone, playing her character truthfully while going for as many laughs as possible. Working together, we brought her monologue out into the house, with Tranio and Lucentio following her closely. Our Lucentio made the enormous contribution of giving her physical checkpoints to help her remember her lines, i.e., “You’re here when he gives a cuff, then you move here and the priest falls down.” We had a blast working through it, and our Gremio now feels much more confident.

We spent the remainder of our time working lines in the final scene. Another productive day for everyone present, with great team work all around.


We finished our first dress run of the play tonight. There were a few more hiccups than we would have liked, but we made it through and are confident that we can get through the whole thing at our next meeting.

Unfortunately, due to our interrupted run, there was a misunderstanding between two of the women about a costume piece that they need to exchange. As I mediated the conflict, it became clear that it was not a personal one, but the type of conflict many seasoned actors might recognize as familiar from past productions – unfortunately our time with props and costumes is limited, it’s a stressful part of the process, and so the miscommunication boiled over more than it probably had to. We figured out what needed to be figured out, though, both women agreed to move past it and find a way to continue to work together, and I think we’ll be okay.

One of the positive outcomes when we have such a conflict is the opportunity to reflect on better ways in which it could have been handled – not sweeping it under the rug or ignoring the issue, but, in this case at least, allowing the other person to finish what she was saying before responding. Part of the reason things got heated is that they weren’t truly listening to one another. Being able to talk that out afterward and offer other options for the future (because none of us can avoid conflict 100% of the time) is what we hope our takeaway can be, and it was this time.

Session Four: Week 35


Tonight was spent continuing to work through underworked and shaky scenes, building confidence in ourselves and our ensemble. The group has full ownership of the material at this point, continuing to make cuts as they solidify what they need and what they don’t, giving each other much-needed boosts of encouragement as we enter the home stretch.


We broke into small groups of two and three today to work on lines. This proved to be a very effective way of working, and as more women arrived toward the end, they followed suit.

I worked with the woman playing Gremio, who has expressed many doubts about whether or not she could memorize her lines. This is the same woman who recently cried with excitement during group work on her lines, but she has been having a hard time working on her own. I worked through a scene with her exactly as I would for myself: building it one or two lines at a time, going back to the beginning, pushing forward when ready. The scene includes a monologue about which she was very nervous, but I continued to gently push and encourage her, and she joyfully memorized the whole thing. Now, having worked in this way, she feels she has the tools to memorize the rest on her own, and she is excited to do so!


Today was an important day for us, as we had an open discussion and anonymous vote to choose the play we’ll explore next. The group’s primary concerns were a) a play that will really engage their audience, b) a great story and c) themes they want to talk about for nine months.

The pros and cons of each play in consideration were discussed, and when the votes were tallied, Othello had been chosen. The themes of rumors, jealousy, trust/mistrust, and poor (or mis-)communication are ones that the group is eager to explore and put before an audience. One woman has major qualms with the possible interpretation that “black men are easily manipulated and violent, and white women are victims.” I assured her that, while the play could be interpreted that way, it’s not my feeling that that’s a correct interpretation, and certainly not a story that we want to tell. The group agreed, although most haven’t read the play, even suggesting that we look at cutting all references to race to be sure that everyone is comfortable with the story we’re telling. Just as we knew that there were elements of misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew that we did not want to embrace or support, we know that the elements of racism in Othello are not where we want our focus to be.

We worked a couple of scenes tonight as well, noting that the more over-the-top we go with our performances, the more engaging they are within the context of this play. We are going to keep pushing beyond our comfort zones as we move into the final phase of the program. Costumes and props come in next week, and we’ll have time (we hope) to run our play three times before we have an audience. It’s a high-stress but invigorating time.