We began tonight with a fairly long check-in. This is a particularly difficult time of year for incarcerated people, and we tend to relax our structure to make room for everyone to share and get as much support as she needs.
We’ve been so focused on reading the play that we haven’t done as much improv as we’d like, so we spent some time playing “Freeze,” which is a fantastic game for getting used to thinking on our feet. It’s also really fun. Even though some of the scenes were duds (… many of those were mine. I was the weakest link tonight, without question.), we had a good time and gave each other a ton of support. During one scene in which two women were running a marathon in Africa while being chased by wild animals, several women who were watching started making animal noises to give the actors more to work with. In one quiet moment, one woman made some… interesting… “animal sounds.” The woman next to her slowly turned to look at her, barely containing her hilarity, and said, “Dude, what kind of animal was THAT?” The woman who’d made the sound shrugged her shoulders – she didn’t know, either – and we all laughed.
As we reflected on the game, a new ensemble member shared that she was worried about making a mistake on stage – improv experience or not. Those of us who’ve been through the mill on this reassured her in our usual way: we’ll all have your back; the audience generally won’t even know you’ve screwed up; we’ll all do it; some of our favorite moments are our biggest mistakes. And then, of course, we had to spend a little time reminiscing about those screw-ups – how funny they were, how we dealt with them, and how much we treasure those memories – even more so than the “perfect” moments.
The first scene we explored was the first scene of the play. It’s so brief that we were able to go through it a number of times. We experimented with the rhythm of the language and finding physical movement. One woman suggested that perhaps the witches operate “like the Fates in Hercules – they already know what each other is thinking.” Some of us were into that idea, and we tried it out. It worked pretty well, and we’ll definitely continue to experiment!
We then moved on to Act II Scene iv, in which the characters mull over the night’s strange events and what’s happening with Macbeth. The women jumped into it pretty quickly, and then one of them stopped so they could take some time to look over the language and start over. After clarifying some of the more challenging passages, they tried it again, and we understood what they were talking about much better.
I guess I was really enjoying the conversation after that and not taking notes, so I’m not sure where this came from, but one of the women joked, “Angus. You know his daddy was the steak guy.” There was a pause. Then Kyle said, “It’s true. Angus is the Thane of Steak.” We all burst out laughing. The silliness of the improv game clearly had not worn off.
We reflected a bit more on the scene. One woman felt that when Macduff enters, he should be tired and worn out. “Like he’s coming in and just sitting down at the bar,” she said. We all liked that idea. Another woman, who is older than many of the others, resisted the idea that the Old Man needs to be played as extremely elderly. She reminded us that “old” would have meant something a bit different in Shakespeare’s time. “Just because he’s ‘old’ doesn’t mean he’s decrepit,” she said. Then she darted a sardonic look at a younger woman who frequently needles her for being an “old lady.” That woman jumped, laughed, and said, “What?! I didn’t say anything! YOU’RE A LOT OLDER THAN ME! That’s all I’m saying!”
We gave the Captain’s speeches a go, with a longtime ensemble member playing the Captain. She said she wasn’t sure if she could do it. “You’ve done this before!” I said, reminding her of a particularly tricky monologue in The Taming of the Shrew that she absolutely nailed. “Paint the pictures just like you did then.”
And she did. A few others stayed in the playing space with her to listen and react. One of the women took that quite literally, gasping, jumping, even grabbing her arm each time she shared new information. This, in turn, led the Captain to become more and more animated, which, again, fired up the woman reacting. We were loving it. They kept playing off of each other, gaining steam. The listener even began to react with words, albeit words that I probably shouldn’t write in this blog… They all came from her heart, and it was hilarious, but out of context some of it might seem offensive. It wasn’t, though. It was great.
“Yeah!” said one woman after they’d finished (and we’d finished laughing). “I could feel it. Even without following along… And the audience was giving back to her, too.” The two women agreed that they’d felt extremely connected. The listener said, “Everything she was giving me, I just had to give it back.”
“That’s acting!” I said excitedly. “You connect with your scene partner, and each time she gives you something, you build off of it. And then she builds off of that. You feed each other. That’s what it’s all about!”
We gathered, then, to raise our ring of energy back up. We knelt together, slowly lifting the ring, and as we let it go and I thanked them for their work, the young woman said to the older woman, “Oh, man. That was a heavy one. I was worried about you for a sec. I didn’t know if you were gonna make it, old lady.”
Meeting the day after Thanksgiving is always a little iffy, but, given how challenging the holidays are for our ensemble members, we always make sure at least one facilitator can attend so that whomever needs it can take a break with us and have some fun. Tonight Matt and I were both there.
The beautiful CBS Detroit piece about our program aired Thanksgiving morning, and most of our ensemble members got to see it. So did most of the prison, apparently – an announcement over the PA system let everyone know that the piece would be on about twenty minutes before it aired.
Everyone loved it, although there were some jokes about how “the camera really does add ten pounds.” One woman said, “Even [name] and Frannie looked like that, and they’re tiny!” “Hey!” I said, “I thought I looked good!”
Several of them shared that friends at the prison weren’t the only ones who saw the piece – friends and family at home did, too. Some of them got phone calls from loved ones right away saying how proud they were. Those women were absolutely beaming. What a gift.
We spent a long time playing goofy circle and improv games. We just really needed to have a good time together. The improv game we chose was a bit challenging, but it provided some great opportunities to learn more about each other. It was one woman’s first time ever being on stage, and we gave her a huge round of applause. Another woman had difficulty getting through the scene, and the others began shouting suggestions and encouragement to her. Afterward, she said she felt bad about her performance, and the others jumped in to tell her all of the things she’d done well. Another pair did a hilarious scene in which they were students on a field trip sneaking around the White House. It ended in chaos as they tried to hide from a teacher. “I mean, everyone knows that if you go to the Oval Office, you’re gonna get tackled,” said one of the women.
One of the women has been wanting to explore the scene in which Lady Macduff and her son are killed. She played Lady Macduff, and she found herself becoming extremely angry during the first part of the scene and staying in that heightened state. When the scene ended, she shook her head. She said she had realized that if she’s going to get that angry, she’s also going to have to calm it down. “I’m angry at his father for leaving me,” she said, “But that ‘What wilt thou do for a father…’ That’s not angry. That’s, like, she’s upset, and her son’s being a smart alec.” We ran the scene again with her new approach, and it worked much better for her.
We asked the woman who’d played the son how the scene had felt to her. She said that the hardest part was the beginning – she hadn’t been sure of what she should have been doing. After that, she felt that some of what she had done worked.
This led to a debate about how old this kid is. Several women’s instincts were that he is a preteen, while some of us thought of him as being younger. We looked at the text for clues and found evidence for both interpretations. So how should we do it? “It all depends on how you want to tell the story,” I reminded them.
One woman wondered if maybe this is a situation where a little kid overhears his mother’s conversation and she doesn’t realize it till he calls her on it. There’s evidence in the text to support that. We tried it, and it worked well. A couple of us then tried playing the son at different ages and decided that we’re going to have to see how anyone interested in that role feels – playing a little boy is not natural for all of us!
We ended on a good note, and I was really glad that we were able to have such a fun night together. It’s never easy getting through this time of year, but that doesn’t mean we back off. We never back off!