Season Seven: Week 34


We had a guest tonight, filming a piece that we’ll be able to share with you soon! We pretty much went about things as usual, with a few interviews sprinkled in. It was great to have him!

After checking in, I asked the ensemble what they wanted to work on with the camera there. They unanimously agreed on Act I scene i – the visuals they’ve come up with in that scene are really striking. Our First Witch began by bursting through the curtain, letting the fabric linger on her arms like wings, cackling an incredibly eerie cackle. “My heart’s beating from my chest!” exclaimed one woman after the scene was complete. “I was talking, and I was like –” she showed us how she’d frozen to watch. We worked on staying rooted in the earth and adjusted some blocking so that the witches could exit together at scene’s end, rather than splitting focus.

I saw our Porter sitting in the back of the house with another ensemble member, and she looked upset. I went over and asked what was going on. She said she was freaking out about memorizing her lines. She’s having a really hard time, especially with the monologue, and was practically in tears. I tried to calm her down, saying that she could do whatever she wanted with these lines – that the Porter doesn’t impact the story at all and could be cut entirely, so the lines can be altered in almost any way without screwing things up. All we need is the humor, to know she’s drunk ,and for her to take forever to answer the door. I shared the story about when, years ago, our Romeo and Benvolio were so freaked out about their lines that they stopped coming to our meetings. The rest of us decided that preserving the ensemble was more important than preserving the lines, so we cut every one of theirs that we possibly could. It meant that most of the play’s comedy was gone, but our ensemble members came back, the plot still moved forward, and we counted it as a win. That made her feel a lot better, and we strategized a bit about what to do with the monologue. I asked her to get creative and surprise us!

We said goodbye tonight to a longtime ensemble member who was being paroled prior to our next meeting. She told us that she was glad to leave prison, but very sad to leave Shakespeare. We echoed that: we were ecstatic for her to go, and we knew that we would really miss having her in the ensemble. I said that no one could ever say that she hadn’t been dedicated to SIP for even a second – that, in fact, she ranks as high as anyone on that scale, and higher than many. No one could ever have doubted her passion, either. Or her talent.

I’ve been working with this woman for more than three years, and she’s gone through an absolute sea change in that time. She’s done some very challenging work, and not just in terms of her acting. In the beginning, she had a lot of anger and frustration that she didn’t quite know what to do with, and it often expressed itself in her being caustic with other ensemble members – and very hard on herself. There were times when she’d be so shut down or in her own head that no one seemed able to reach her. Except me. I found that I could always get through, and that I could often help her navigate whatever challenge she was facing. I developed sort of a sixth sense for it; I could often see it coming and swoop in to help her stem the tide. We worked together on that. We even had a code word for a while.

At first, and for some time, she frequently said that she was selfish, self-centered, and that she didn’t care about other people; that she was a bad (even evil) person. We pointed out the many times when she proved herself wrong, and she began to recognize her own capacity for empathy – and to put it to work. This past season especially, I’ve been struck by her increasingly personal involvement with others who were going through hard times: her compassion, words of wisdom, holding of space, and checking in, even with those who were not close friends. She’s opened up a lot. I didn’t note even one occasion this season when she treated anyone with disrespect, even when she was upset with herself or anxious about something in her personal life.

I have a lot of respect for every person who walks through the door to work with us, and that admiration only grows for those who stick it out. This woman has always been so frank about her struggles (and her victories) that I’ve been able to do more detailed work with her than I’m usually able to do with others, so the bond goes pretty deep. It’s also worth noting that, with her departure, there is only one person in the ensemble (other than me) who was involved in SIP earlier than fall of 2015. So it feels like the end of an era; like the youngest member of the “old guard” has left the building.

With our newly-given approval to be in touch with, and even work with, alumni when they’ve left prison, I have a lot of hope that we’ll hear from this woman soon. I’m incredibly excited for her to return to the outside world, settle in, and make her mark. Because I believe she’s going to make a big, bold, very loud, incredibly funny, extremely witty mark. My fingers are crossed that I’ll get to be along for the ride.


Several people shared good news during tonight’s check in, but one person was feeling pretty down. In order not to break confidentiality, I won’t share details here, but she’s been dealing with a pretty negative situation in her unit. The group gave her a lot of support, even to the point of silliness, and she was laughing and relaxed by the time we were ready to lower our ring.

We had planned on continuing to work through the play chronologically, but facilitator Assata has stepped into the role of Doctor, and, with her about to be absent for two weeks, our Gentlewoman asked if we could work on the sleepwalking scene. That made perfect sense, so we did it! This woman has become very assertive and enthusiastic about wanting to work on her scenes, and we absolutely love it.

A while back, one of our ensemble members introduced the idea of using a hand mirror in this scene so that Lady Macbeth could talk to herself, but it hasn’t really come into play. She mentioned some places in the scene to use it, but those are lines where Lady is clearly talking to Macbeth, so we tried to find other places – we never want to fight the text. We found a few options and decided to let our Lady do it in the moment if she was inspired.

Immediately after that first run, which felt pretty disconnected, I asked Lady if she’d found a spot to use the mirror. “No mirror,” she said, but the ensemble member who’d had this idea began to strategize about ways in which the mirror could still be used. She suggested that perhaps it could be set on a table mid scene. I asked what other function the table would serve; we don’t usually want to use set pieces if they’re not necessary because they just complicate things. Lady made it very clear that she didn’t want to do that, either, and another ensemble member jumped in to suggest that if the table were set very far stage right, there could be a way to use it that would make sense.

At this point, everyone (on either side of the debate) was pretty frustrated, and Lady asked if she could watch someone do the scene so she could get an idea of how it could work (or not). The ensemble member whose idea this was complied, and she went with the option of placing the table far right.

The woman actually playing the role now said she was ready, but, after beginning the scene, she became increasingly frustrated and stopped. I reminded her that she feels better about her work when she centers herself before going on stage; it’s tough to pull off a role like this going in cold. She asked if the woman playing Macbeth could walk behind her with her script, drop in the lines, and be there for her to talk to directly before her exit.

As the Doctor and Gentlewoman restarted the scene, she planted her feet on the ground, placed her hands on chest and back (warming the ideal center), closed her eyes, and then raised her hand to mime holding the taper. She entered the scene completely focused, with a totally different energy than she’d had two minutes before, and really seemed to be sleepwalking through the space. She was so sad – not unhinged, but sad and guilty. She sank to her knees, putting the candle down on the ground and rubbing her hands not only together, but on her thighs, her shirt, her face, the floor, increasingly desperate, but, again, not crazy. She did this just inches from me, and it gave me chills. It was absolutely beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it from her, and she’s been in the group for a long time. It was one of those performances when you start to wonder where the person ends and the acting begins, and, honestly, if I didn’t know for sure that she was using techniques to keep herself emotionally safe, I would have been worried about her. My notes from those moments say, “I buy this 100%.” She got up, drifted across the stage, then turned sharply to Macbeth and spoke directly to him. And then she drifted off.

It was amazing. We were all floored. “What happened?” I asked. “I blanked out,” she said. I asked her what that meant. She paused and then said, “I can’t tell you nothin’.” She shrugged her shoulders, mystified but very pleased. I said that that’s what happens when you’re truly in the moment: it can be difficult or impossible to analyze what you’ve just done. As we lauded Lady Macbeth with praise, our spunky Gentlewoman jokingly piped up, “Was anyone looking at me?!” We all laughed and told her that she’d been great, too.

The energy shifted, though, when we went back to Act I scene v. I wanted to recommend that we hold off on that scene for another night – it’s exhausting to do what Lady Macbeth had just done, and I thought it would be a better idea for her to rest – but I deferred to the group and didn’t say anything. We began joking about how Lady Macbeth always seems to enter from stage left, with one woman saying, “That’s ‘cause it’s your best side. You know.” She turned her head back and forth as if she were posing for pictures.

We rolled through the scene, but Lady Macbeth didn’t seem able to focus, and she didn’t do the kind of work she’d wanted to. She sat down as the group gave her feedback – and it was a lot of feedback. Too much. I could see that she was becoming overwhelmed, and I tried to subtly get everyone to move on, but that was a challenge. They finally did, and I beckoned to Lady to join me off to the side.

I asked her how she was feeling, and she said she was overwhelmed – that she had wanted to scream and run out of the room. It had been too much feedback, and she was spent after the previous scene’s work. I encouraged her to let everyone know that next time. “You have no problem telling me to shut up,” I smiled (she does this by saying, “I got this. Frannie, I got this.”). “You can tell everyone else to shut up, too!” She said that she wanted to defer to the group, not to be selfish. I replied that actors need to be selfish to a certain extent; we need to do whatever it is we need to do to give our best performance, and our team mates will support us in that. I encouraged her not to be afraid to tell us what she needs – we can only give it to her if we know what it is.

She really was exhausted, but she said she felt a bit better after that conversation. I touched base with the other facilitators afterward to give them a heads up, and we’re all going to make sure that we pay close attention so that she doesn’t get that overwhelmed again.

Season Seven: Week 25


The ensemble member who was cast as Young Siward let me know before we began that she needed to leave the group. Another ensemble member had been interested in playing that role, but deferred, accepting the roles of understudy for that character and playing Fleance as well. When she saw the other woman turning in her books, she approached me quietly. “Is she leaving the group?” she asked. I told her that she was. “So… Can I play Young Siward? I mean, since I was already understudying, can I just play the part? Is that okay?” I said it wasn’t up to me and encouraged her to ask the group. She is much more buoyant and confident this season, but this still intimidated her a bit. So, with her standing right next to me, I turned to the group and said, “I have a question to ask on behalf of [her name].” She started giggling and blushing, but she didn’t leave the stage. I told the ensemble that the woman who’d been cast as Young Siward had left and asked, “Are we all okay with [name] playing Young Siward, since she was already the understudy?” No one objected. She was so excited. It is such a thrill to see her this way. I have loved every moment of working with her, even the difficult ones—and those hard times have made these moments that much more pleasurable. I can’t help but smile every time she smiles. And she smiles a lot now.

One of our ensemble members asked me to come to the back of the auditorium with her to work on cutting some lines. As I got up to go with her, our Lady Macbeth said, “No! Uh uh, Frannie. We’re about to do the sleepwalking scene!” I asked the other ensemble member if she needed to leave early or if the cuts could wait for a few minutes, since it was important to Lady M that I be able to give feedback on that scene. She said that was totally fine, even though she was clearly anxious. She struggles a bit with impatience, so, even though this was a little thing, it was a big deal.

Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene is a challenge for any actor, but it presents a different sort of challenge for people who’ve committed crimes. I knew when we chose Macbeth that this scene might be a little loaded, and I’ve been prepared since then to work through it with whomever played the role. Our Lady Macbeth is a longtime ensemble member with whom I have a very strong bond, and I’ve talked through the scene with her on several occasions, knowing (as much as I can) where she’s coming from as she approaches it.

When she and I spoke about it on Friday, we agreed to try the scene as if she were underwater, moving slowly, weighed down, and seeing things around her distorted. We decided that there also should be (in Michael Chekhov terms) some sort of shivering or vibrating object in her ideal center (chest) to help her experience the character’s anxiety without having to call up her own emotions or experiences. She also told me during that conversation that she knows she’s not a good actor, which is absolutely not true, and I told her that. I said that she has always been a solid actor, but the program hasn’t always been in a place that allowed her to explore that. But people started taking things more seriously during Othello. That discipline grew during Richard III. And now we have an ensemble made up of people who are extremely committed to doing their best work—individually and as an ensemble. They conduct themselves just as seriously as any professional ensemble. They do it with less theatrical experience, but they also do it in a setting where it is much, much more challenging. I admire them so deeply for that.

But back to our Lady Macbeth, and our conversation last week. She smiled and accepted what I said about her acting, and I encouraged her to dive in as much as she was comfortable. She was ready to go on Friday night, but we ran out of time. Now, though, it was her turn.

Two women stood in for our absent Gentlewoman and Doctor. Lady Macbeth entered slowly, carrying her script in one hand and a drumstick (as candle) in the other. This woman, who can be so powerful physically and vocally, was purposefully quiet and sad. The character was clearly disturbed, but not crazy. At one point she dropped the drumstick, and we all jumped as it clattered—she’d sort of put us in a trance!

When the scene ended, we talked about how well so much of it had worked. She said she had felt good, but was annoyed by how physically close the Gentlewoman and the Doctor had been to her. The woman standing in as the Gentlewoman agreed that they needed more space, but they struggled to find a solution. A woman who has a co-director role said that many of us have a tendency to hover. She got on stage to demonstrate some ideas of when the two of them could get close to Lady M and then jump away. Another woman gave suggestions of where to begin and end the scene.

A third woman pointed out that Lady M hadn’t been washing her hands, which is an important aspect of the scene. Lady M said that she couldn’t when she was holding her script, which is, of course, a great point. I asked if she’d like to run the scene with me “dropping in”—standing just beside or behind her, feeding her lines one by one so she wouldn’t have to read her script. She said she would. Our co-director gave her some specific ideas to try out, including talking to herself as if into a mirror at one point.

We began the scene a second time, but just as Lady M entered, she stopped and said, “Oh, no, hold on! I’ve got a better idea! Hold on!” She grabbed her coat and put it over her shoulders. “Okay, now you can go,” she said, and re-centered herself as the scene began again. I couldn’t watch her performance—I had to keep my eyes glued to the script—but I could feel how powerful her energy was. At one point she sank to the ground, washing her hands, then tore the coat off her shoulders and used that to wash her hands as well.

The group was enthusiastic about how it had gone. The Gentlewoman and Doctor said it had felt good to keep more of a distance and be more intentional with their movements. Lady M said the scene had felt more or less the same for her—but it had been good both times!

We started to move on, but then Kyle jumped in. Again, this woman has been in the ensemble for a very long time—longer than Kyle—and he wanted to make sure she knew how impressed he was with her work. He told her how good it was to see her challenging herself, owning her power, and developing as an actor. He said (truthfully) that she’s set a high water mark for the whole ensemble—that it’s really just technique for her now—and as I looked around I saw all the others nodding, taking no offense, honoring the place she’s earned in the group due not just to her longevity, but to her commitment (redoubled this year after a brief absence). I told her that I agreed—emphatically—and that her ability to give so much of herself was (as she and I discussed last week) also a testament to the seriousness and supportiveness of this ensemble. There is much for everyone to be proud of in her continued growth and success.

I then joined our Macduff in the back of the auditorium to work on those cuts, per her request. Our Malcolm was absent, but they’d been looking at this together outside of SIP, so we were able to work without her. Last week, they asked me to go through and look for cuts as well, so we were really just comparing notes. They were nearly all the same.

She had an idea about Malcolm that I don’t think she’s shared with her scene partner, and I’m interested to see if this is going to play out at all. “I think Malcolm’s feeling some kinda way because he’s a virgin,” she said. “I mean, come on,” she continued, “He’s got his crown stolen. He’s banished to a country of refuge… And he’s a VIRGIN. He’s gotta be feeling some kinda way about that.”

When we arrived at the part of the scene when Macduff finds out about his family’s slaughter, she said, “I don’t really know what we can cut. I feel so bad for him here. Like, he’s so disoriented and emotional.” I told her that she was right—that’s exactly how he feels, and we probably don’t need to cut anything. She did suggest that we cut his lines about “all my pretty chickens and their dam,” and before I could stop myself, I said, “Oh, no, no, no! You need that!” I then smiled at her, took a breath, and told her that of course she can cut those lines if she wants, but I think they’ll help her give the performance I know she wants. I said again that she was right about Macduff’s state and showed her exactly how the language backs that up. I walked her through the emotional breakdown, evident in those lines about the chickens—and their parallel to Lady Macduff’s comparing her family to defenseless birds. I guided her through the way the language toward the end of the scene, when it clearly shows him moving from outright grief to anger and tension. As we talked, she lit up, excited to learn how right she’d been without even knowing how to analyze the language this way.

We left the rest of the cuts for when our Malcolm is present. As our Macduff rose from the table, she paused, looked down at me, and said, “It’s good to know that we see eye to eye on this stuff.” I’m seeing a change in this woman as she learns to trust all of us more. She’s very energetic; sometimes a little loud and brash. I think she’s used to rubbing people the wrong way and expects it. But any time I’ve noted it, I’ve also seen the people who’ve been irritated doing their best not to let her see it: taking deep breaths (subtly) or finding something else to do so they wouldn’t engage and hurt her feelings. And it seems like, because she hasn’t gotten the negative reactions she’s used to, she’s dropped some of the defenses that contribute to that brashness. Because she’s done that, the others have become more open to her. And now she’s becoming more open, calmer, and better able to realize when she needs to take a step away or speak with someone in private. Or even just to speak gently, like she did with me. This progress hasn’t been totally linear, and it probably won’t be going forward, but I’ve noticed it. I’m watching it.


Attendance tonight was low due to some special events and illnesses. We just received permission to make a short film for The Sonnet Project: US, so we decided to spend tonight brainstorming. Running through the final scenes of the play would be difficult with so few people present.

I handed out copies of a few sonnets that reminded me of things we’ve talked about in our group. The idea of these films is that they be location-specific, and, since our location is a prison, the options I chose had specifically to do with themes that come up in conversations with a group of incarcerated women. I asked how we should approach this, and one woman said we should read all of them out loud. “You have to have someone else read it to understand it,” she said.

We read #109 first. Two of the women liked it right off the bat. One of them said, “Especially being in prison—it plays to the part, like, our heart’s in absence right now. Another woman added, “It makes you think about your family and loved ones.”

#29 was next. One woman said, “It’s speaking from the heart.” Another said she liked how it flowed. A third, who was kind of on edge, said, “It’s about isolation. You’re isolating yourself—talking about your friends and stuff, but you’re cursed. Your fate is not what theirs is. You’re putting yourself in a category by yourself.”

All but one ensemble member disliked #19. The one who enjoyed it said she’d liked it enough to read it to herself twice, but admitted that it had jumped out at her because it mentions a tiger, and she loves cats.

#35 hit everyone very hard. As the reader finished, one woman said, “That’s SO deep,” and another exclaimed, “I LIKE THAT ONE!” They identified with the conflict in the poem, even without breaking it down for its specific meaning. “It’s like going between my old life and my new life: before prison and after prison,” said one woman. “All men have faults,” said another woman. “We all fall short.” Another added, “This is prison. We don’t know whether we’re coming or going. We’re back and forth between the dark and the light.” Another said, “That describes everything… Addiction… Everything…”

We read a couple others, but it was very clear that #35 was the one. Give how unanimous the women in the room were, we were confident that the others will feel the same.

The poem is this:

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense--
Thy adverse party is thy advocate--
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate
    That I an accessory needs must be
    To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

We went through the sonnet in depth. In it, they saw others—and themselves—trying to forgive them. At the core of this poem, we found the idea that we all make mistakes, and we are all deserving of forgiveness. They are struggling to believe that. They are living it. “This poem could be the poster child for codependency,” said one woman.

“I think that’s why this hits home for everybody,” said another woman. “A lot of us are in for drugs and stuff, and we’ve been forgiven more times than maybe we deserved.” Another agreed. “That’s our problem. We love others more than ourselves.” Another, responding directly to language in the sonnet, said, “A lot of us have seen that we may be roses, but… with the drugs and stuff… we can grow some thorns.”

We began to brainstorm ideas of how to translate this to film, and we started to stray pretty far afield from our initial reactions. I put it out there that all of these ideas were interesting, but that our first impulse was that this poem was about us.

One woman said, “I see more than one or two people playing into this. With the actions here, I see three or four people here. I see a group collectively consoling each other here.” She said that there could be a few specific stories, “but in the end, it all comes together.” Another woman interjected, “Why don’t we end with The Ring? The Ensemble Ring?” We all responded strongly to that.

“We’re all together. Everyone can play a part,” said one woman, just as the first woman said, “We all come together.” She added, “Each of us—we’ve hurt somebody. We’ve hurt somebody sometime.” We then agreed that we should enter from various directions to become the Ring, with the poem read as a voiceover.

We got a little hung up on literal images of conflict that would need to be forgiven, and it got a little frustrating, but not to the point where anyone was irritated or wanted to give up. We simply knew we needed input from the rest of our ensemble.

We lifted our Ring back up, and people started to leave. Our Malcolm reminded me that we had cuts to look at, and we did. We’re definitely on the same page. She paused before she left. She’d shared with us earlier that her TV had broken, and she was pretty upset about it. “But I’ve got a lot to do,” she said, tapping her script on the table. “I feel like maybe my TV broke for a reason. So I can focus more on this. I really want to do a good job with my acting this year.”

Season Seven: Week 22


We finished our reading of the play tonight! Everyone present chose a role to explore – including one of our ensemble members who had been conflicted about whether she should stick with Shakespeare or rejoin another program that she loves. We are all incredibly excited that she’s made this choice, and she’s taken on a great role to boot. The other woman who was thinking of leaving decided to stick with an off-stage role, saying she wanted to help our resident “director.” She explained, “I am really good at being bossy. I’ll give good off-stage critiques!”

We started musing about our concept again, and we realized that we’ve got a fast-approaching deadline if we want to get everything approved by the facility in time. One ensemble member suggested that we stumble through the entire play, beginning to end, not worrying about blocking; focusing just on establishing the plot the story we want to tell.

Someone asked, “Can we do that?” I said, “We’ve never done that before! But let’s do it! Screw the past six years!” This is something I treasure about Shakespeare in Prison: we’ve established a structure that works well, but we never hesitate to deviate from it when we realize something else might work better. We know that things can change from year to year, and we stay open to that. We’ve all learned a TON of flexibility this way.

As we began our stumble through, a few members of the ensemble took charge in a big way, reminding everyone to pay attention to cues in the text (i.e., Macbeth says the witches put their fingers over their lips) and to try to stay open to the audience. I spent most of the remaining time one-on-one with an ensemble member, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see how well everything was being handled, and how much of it was being handled by people other than facilitators. That’s a really positive thing to be happening in February, particularly as we were trying something new!



After a long (much-needed) check in, we decided to get right back to our stumble through. One of our new members approached me, saying that she didn’t yet have a role but wanted to take on something pretty small. She said she was afraid she would “garble the dialogue.” I told her she probably would – that we all do! – and that by the time we get to performances, she’ll be totally comfortable. She smiled and said, “I’m known for having can’t-do-it syndrome.” I suggested that she think of this as a challenge rather than as something “hard.” She said she liked that, and that she’d try.

Meanwhile, no one was on stage! People were sitting in small groups, either talking or looking over their scripts. “Who’s gonna get the ball rolling?” I asked. At this point in the season, facilitators take a back seat as much as possible, so we sat around some more waiting for someone to get us started. Finally, a returning ensemble member stood up and tried to get people’s attention and focus, but the stage remained empty. She looked over at me. “Get up there – they’ll follow you!” I said. “But I’m not in this scene!” she replied. I smiled and said, with more emphasis, “Get UP there! They’ll follow you!!!” She did, and they finally did, too.

When we got to Act I Scene v, our Lady Macbeth got tongue tied during her monologue. We asked her to slow it down and remember that these are all new thoughts. She did, and she and our Macbeth got through the scene, but she wasn’t happy with it. “I didn’t feel prepared. There wasn’t all the emotion,” she said. “What do you suggest, Frannie? What do you propose, ensemble?”

“Do it again, with the holy ghost!” said one ensemble member, hearkening back to when our Lady Macbeth had risen to her feet and engaged with such power in another scene recently. “This is not the holy ghost scene!” said Lady Macbeth. “EVERY scene is the holy ghost scene!” I said.

“Be you! Give it to us!” said that same ensemble member, and Lady Macbeth took on the challenge. She looked at her script, smirked, and said, “I’m gonna prep it this time. There’s this thing Frannie taught me...” She put her hands on either side of what Michael Chekhov called the ideal center (between breast bone and spine), and it was clear that she was only semi-joking. “If you’re gonna do it, let’s do it!” I said, running on stage to be with her. We turned our backs to the audience, and I coached her through some centering visualizations and breathing. I encouraged her to take her time and stay grounded, and then I went back to the rest of the group, asking that we all give focus even before she began.

She turned to face down stage, looked at her script, and took a deep breath. Quietly but insistently, our Macbeth said, “You got this.” Our Lady Macbeth then gave a powerful performance, much more connected to the text, and much more believable. When the scene ended, the woman who’d told her to get the holy ghost shouted, “THERE we go, [name]! That was IT!” Lady Macbeth clearly felt much better, and we got into some detail about how her performance can grow from there. We revisited the need to breathe on punctuation and went through some examples. This woman, our longest-serving ensemble member, lit up and said, “This remind me of Romeo and Juliet – the Nurse monologue… Even or odd, of all the days of the year, come Lammas eve at night…” I jumped in, “Shall she be fourteen!” She laughed and said, “Yeah, Frannie!”

We moved on, and when we got to Act I Scene vii, I asked our Macbeth (who is off book for this scene) if she was going to do her pre-beat (described earlier in this blog). She nodded and ducked into the stage left stairwell, which has a door leading downstage of the actual stage. I asked the group again to give focus so that when she came out, she wouldn’t be distracted. She came storming in, paused, shook her head (in character; definitely in character) and walked back out. We stayed silent. She burst back in, strode to center, and then paused, taking us all in.

“If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…” This piece has come a long way from the last time we saw her do it. She was confident and played Macbeth’s warring emotions to great effect. It seemed she’d gotten the “holy ghost,” too. We were rapt. She sank to the steps, and then Lady Macbeth entered, towering over her. The scene moved; they connected deeply and spontaneously with each other; the energy was electric. It crackled. We all whooped and clapped when the scene ended. “I’m dropping an F-bomb in my notes!” I shouted. One ensemble member shook her head and smiled, saying, “[Macbeth], you moved me.” I asked her to elaborate. “She just… killed it. She murdered it,” she said. “You were doing the speech, and debating it, and trying to give excuses, and she was like, ‘What?!’” Another woman said, “She was back and forth on the decision… The conflict. You felt it all through the scene.”

I told them that this is exactly what Shakespeare should be: authentic, connected, in the moment, letting the text do the work and just rolling with it. We started citing specific moments that had most affected us. Our facilitator Lauren noted how effective it was when Lady Macbeth got in her husband’s face on, “We fail?” and then backed off as she went into the plan. Lady Macbeth said she wasn’t sure what to do with those two words. “I’m just disgusted by failure, in real life,” she said. “We… FAIL?” she continued, wrinkling her nose, drawing out the word. “Do it that way!” I said, noting that that short phrase gets an entire line of verse, so she has plenty of leeway to linger for as long as she wants.

“This scene feels like a transition,” she said, and we all realized how valuable this stumble through is at this point in the process. This is why I feel – and know – that I’m always on a learning curve in this program. I forget how hard it is to “get” the arc and breadth of any of these plays without seeing or walking the entire thing. Up until last year, there was always at least one ensemble member who wasn’t able to put all the pieces together until our first performance. But this year, we’re seeing the scenes in order in February. It makes me really intrigued about how this will impact the rest of our process. I’m so glad we decided to change things up this way!

Season Seven: Week 21


“I’m so glad to be here tonight,” one woman as she checked in with the group. “Everyone on my unit is on ten!” After check-in and warm up, we got right down to reading. We’re very eager to finish this up and get the play fully cast!

We began with Act III Scene i, in which Macbeth plots the murders of Banquo and Fleance. Our Macbeth and I had made some cuts that we apparently forgot to share with the others, including Macbeth’s long “Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men…” monologue. “What, you didn’t want to list all those dogs?” Kyle joked. “I HATE that speech!” she laughed.

“Lady Macbeth didn’t have to push him at all to kill the king,” said our Lady Macbeth. “This shows his true colors… He just wanted her support. All along he just wanted to make sure she was on board.” Our Macbeth gazed intently at her as she said this. “How do you feel about that, Macbeth?” I asked. “I like it,” she said. She went on to say that she felt that Macbeth is feeling very powerful in this scene, and that she agreed that that was in him all along. “They’re both working hard to pull the spike from the train they’ve derailed,” said another woman.

Our Lady Macbeth disagreed. “It’s solely based on what the witches said—not Lady Macbeth.” She continued, “He’s not listening to me. I’ve lost my mind!” Whether or not that’s true, we decided that the witches are important because Macbeth relies on their prophecies. I suggested that we try running the couple’s scenes with a few different interpretations to see what would work best for those two actors. “It’s awful funny he doesn’t include Lady Macbeth. She’s been his ride-or-die all along, and now he’s doing this on his own,” said one woman.

As we continued, it became apparent that the ensemble is taking more and more ownership of the play, and that they feel truly passionate about it. One woman quietly read aloud with our Macbeth—not loud enough to disturb anyone, but enough that she could feel that language and understand it better.

Another woman asked if she could share an idea that “might be controversial.” Her thought was that it would be interesting and potentially powerful if the witches were never seen at all—if we merely heard their voices. She felt that this would give a feeling that they’re spirits or as if Macbeth is hearing voices. Another woman questioned how the audience would know that they’re witches. We agreed to keep this idea in mind as we continue to develop our concept. We think we can combine it with others.

We then returned to our ongoing discussion about whether or not we should cut Hecate. Having now read the entire play and worked it a bit, most of us are in agreement that those scenes should go. It’s very clear to us that they weren’t written by Shakespeare and don’t further the plot, and, since we need to perform our play in 90 minutes or less, we need to cut all the low-hanging fruit we can.

One woman did not agree and spent several minutes outlining reasons why Hecate does enhance the play. “Question: if the playwright did not write that—“ I said, and she cut me off, leaning back in her chair and throwing her hands up. “Aw, [expletive-too-colorful-for-this-blog deleted]. I take it back. Damn it all to hell.” We laughed with her. “Keep reading—it solves the riddle. Don’t add shit to Shakespeare!” she said, and then, “Put that in the blog! Don’t. Add. Shit. To. Shakespeare.”

We moved on to a brief discussion about the visual concept of our play. Our Lady Macbeth began by saying that she envisioned her character in a white dress that was extremely dingy. “Ooooh,” I said, “You just gave me the idea of every costume being dingy. But that’s probably not it. Anyone want to build on that?” Our Macbeth suggested that she and Lady Macbeth begin the play essentially put together, but that their costumes grow more ragged as the play progresses. Another woman then suggested that the color palate for the entire show could be dark colors—at first, we were all thinking of gray and black, but then we remembered that those colors are restricted. “What about dark earth tones?” asked one woman. “Oh, yeah!” said another. “We could go with a whole Druid thing. Those are Druid colors!”

We’re going to keep brainstorming, but this was a great start. We have quite a few costume pieces in stock that could be used for this, which makes gathering anything we don’t have much easier! Of course, we are always happy to receive in-kind donations of costumes and materials. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.


We welcomed back a longtime ensemble member tonight. She left the ensemble before performing last season but is clearly thrilled to be back and firm in her commitment to follow through this time. It’s wonderful to have her in the room with us again.

We dove right back into our reading. When we arrived at the scene in which Macbeth’s mercenaries massacre Macduff’s family, we paused to discuss. This is a highly sensitive scene for some in the ensemble, and I don’t ever want to treat it casually. So I asked the group why they thought the scene was in the play. We all agreed that its function is to show Macbeth’s progression as a killer. “We see how far gone he is: he’s willing to kill women and children,” said one woman.

Kyle then pointed out that Duncan is killed off stage, but everyone else is killed in view of the audience. Why is that? “Duncan was his friend—someone he valued,” said one woman. “Off stage, to me, was him not wanting to do it… ‘I’m gonna do this and try to hide it because I really care about this person… After that first taste of blood, he gets into a blood rage. He just can’t stop. But now he puts it out in the open.” She clarified that the violence grows more explicit as Macbeth grows bolder.

The conversation made me realize something I’d never thought of before – the only murders that Macbeth commits with his own hands are those of Duncan and the guards—which happen off stage—and Young Siward; someone he doesn’t know in the course of a battle. Interesting! “It makes me wonder whether he’s really the great warrior they say he is,” said one woman. “He seems afraid of actually doing the deed.” Another woman disagreed, saying, “Killing in war is less intimate. It’s his job.” A third woman built on that: “Maybe it’s what invited his killing spree.”

Another woman pondered whether Macbeth employing people to kill on his behalf parallels the work he used to do as a subject of Duncan. “Was he a mercenary, though?” I asked. “I totally see Macbeth as a mercenary,” said another woman.

We got to Act IV Scene iii, which is a very long scene mostly between Malcolm and Macduff. “All right,” said our Malcolm wryly, “Kyle is fired for making me take this part.” I told her not to worry, that we’d cut the scene down. Our Macduff objected, and I told her that we have to make cuts wherever we can. “We HAVE to pay taxes,” she said, “We don’t HAVE to cut the scene!” But when we’d finished it, she said, “That was the longest scene ever!” I laughed and said, “Yeah! That’s why we have to cut it!” Several others jumped in, “But not the end!” referring to Macduff’s reaction to the massacre of his family. “The end is beautiful. There’s so much emotion,” one person said.

We then arrived at the famous sleepwalking scene. We can’t touch this scene without talking! One woman felt that Lady Macbeth knows that her husband had Banquo and Lady Macduff killed. “She’s saying, stop!” said another woman. “No,” said our Lady Macbeth, “She wants him to stop being so obvious. I don’t think she’s against the murders—it’s she’s worried about being caught.” She said she thought that Macbeth fills his wife in on what he’s been doing between scenes—we as the audience just don’t see it happen. Our Macbeth countered that she didn’t think Macbeth explicitly tells Lady Macbeth that he ordered the murders. She thought that he is vague about it, and Lady Macbeth puts two and two together.

We noted more of Macbeth’s evolution as we read through Act V Scene iii. Our Macbeth pointed out that when the character talks to the doctor about Lady Macbeth, he never calls her “my wife.” Another woman said that he’s completely shut down at this point. “He don’t see her that way anymore,” she said. “He’s done so much horrible stuff; he’s trying to suppress what he’s feeling.”

One ensemble member then said, “Frannie, my body is falling asleep.” She asked if she could teach us an improv game she’d seen on TV, and it turned out to be extremely fun. One woman in particular wowed us with her sharp instincts and timing.

We’re almost at the end of the play! Our plan for Tuesday is to finish reading, cast the remaining roles, and move forward with staging. We should be able to stick to it!

Season Seven: Week 20



When we finished checking in, I asked if anyone would like to lead The Ring, since our newbies hadn’t experienced it yet. A woman who joined the group in September and was having a very bad day unexpectedly volunteered. She led it beautifully. She has been an incredible force in the ensemble almost since her first day, encouraging honesty, compassion, and good humor even when she’s down. She lets us know what’s going on, and then she rallies and carries the rest of us with her. I don’t know if she realizes what a crucial leader she is in the ensemble. I’m very grateful she’s there.

We decided to play Energy Around with names to get to know each other better and loosen up a bit. I explained the game for our new members and asked who would like to start. I was surprised and delighted when a woman who’s now been with us for more than a year (volunteered. She has been open in the past about how vulnerable she feels during some theatre games, and she sometimes sits to the side rather than participate. I’m not sure she’s ever volunteered to lead or begin a game before, and definitely has not when meeting a bunch of new people. She quietly exhibits more and more confidence the longer she works with us.

It was cold in the auditorium, so we did Michael Chekhov’s Six Directions exercise to warm up, and then we settled in to read the play; we want to get our newbies familiar with the material, finish casting, and then go back to working through scenes. We were excited when one of our new members immediately volunteered to read a character. Another soon followed suit. We buzzed through the first few scenes without much discussion, just summing up the crucial information in case anyone had gotten lost in the language. That changed after we read the first scene with Lady Macbeth and her husband, though.

One woman said that she’s gotten more frustrated with this scene – and this relationship – the more time we’ve spent with it. “I don’t get it,” she fumed. “They already have everything they need without the responsibility of being king. Why can’t that just be enough?”

We talked about that briefly, but there was something else bothering her. She said that she strongly felt that Lady Macbeth is evil and/or not thinking, and that Macbeth should take a more traditional role in reining her in. The woman playing Lady, though, countered that she thinks the character is “totally normal.” A new member jumped in, saying, “She’s just thinking like any woman. Any of us would be trying to get what they want.”

The first woman was still frustrated. “They’re thinking about the gain, but nobody’s thinking about the consequences,” she said. “That’s like everyone in Shakespeare,” laughed a woman who’s now in her sixth season. “Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew… Nobody ever thinks!”

Our Lady Macbeth then said again that she felt like someone went through this play and cut scenes before it was printed. She said she wished there was a scene prior to this one that would clarify the couple’s relationship. She felt like people were prejudging her character. The woman who began the conversation said she would love to see a scene like that. She didn’t understand why Macbeth wouldn’t “wear the pants, drive the car.” Kyle said, “That’s what Lady Macbeth is saying!” She shook her head. “Everything ended up bad because it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.”

Another woman said that Lady Macbeth has a power issue; she wants to be king, but she can’t, so she decides to live it through Macbeth. “Oh!” exclaimed a new member. “She’s Hilary Clinton!” We all laughed and reminded each other that we need to try to stay away from politics.

Matt built on that, though, by asking us how much we thought Macbeth’s public persona plays into Lady Macbeth’s attraction to him, as well as her actions in the play. One woman suggested that perhaps Lady had known that it was a mask or façade and saw someone she could dominate. Another woman agreed and said that Lady Macbeth had probably realized she could gain power for herself through him.

Our Lady Macbeth then broke in good-naturedly and asked us if it were possible that at this point Lady Macbeth is simply thinking about her husband’s happiness; she got his letter and thought about how happy being king would make him. She said again that she wished there were a scene between the two of them prior to this, and the woman who was so frustrated agreed again. “All right!” I said, looking back and forth between them, “You write it!” One of the women laughed and shook her head, but our Lady Macbeth, who is a prolific writer, said she would!

We then moved forward in the play, finishing up Act One. We put our ring back up and left for the night, feeling enthusiastic about the dynamic we’re already developing with our new members.



We began tonight with an honest-to-goodness acting warm up, and then, per one ensemble member’s request, we did Augusto Boal’s “Blind Cars” exercise.

In this exercise, people pair up, with one being the “car” and the other being the “driver.” The driver tells the car, who has her eyes closed, where and how to move by touching her with two fingers between the shoulders for “go,” on the right shoulder for “right,” and on the left shoulder for “left.” The amount of pressure indicates speed. The whole thing is done without speaking.

We did the exercise twice, switching roles midway through. When we reflected afterward, people gave all sorts of feedback about their challenges being the car – not so much when they were the driver. A couple of people shared with us that being the car brought on intense anxiety – their hearts were still racing. I thanked them for sharing and made sure everyone knew that, while it can be a positive thing to push through mild anxiety, any time it starts to feel overwhelming or dangerous it’s perfectly fine – and probably a good idea – to take a break from the exercise. Both women said that, while it really hadn’t felt good, they didn’t want to back off.

Then one longtime member pointed out that everyone had paired off with someone else with whom they were already comfortable. She wondered how thing would go if we mixed it up a bit – so we did! Unsurprisingly, the exercise proved to be more challenging this way, but it also proved to be a good ice breaker. And the women who were feeling anxious got through it just fine!

As we reflected on that second round, I asked the group what they thought the value of the exercise was – in general, in theatre, and in our ensemble. Establishing trust is always what we go to immediately, and someone pointed out that this is especially valuable in a prison setting. We also talked about the relevance of the exercise to our rehearsal and performance process – the freedom of knowing that we don’t always need to be in control because we have the ensemble’s support. “This exercise is kind of symbolic of SIP,” I said. “This needs to be a place where we can relax and trust others. We all need to be able to be the car here.”

We then returned to our read-through of the play. It was a run-of-the-mill reading at first, but when we got to Act II Scene ii, things took a turn for the dramatic!

Our Lady Macbeth began her reading intelligently, as always, but without much passion. Our Macbeth’s energy was a bit higher, although she was not emotionally engaged. But when they arrived at, “These deeds must not be thought after these ways…” Lady Macbeth moved quickly from her seat into the chair next to Macbeth. This sudden proximity caused Macbeth to bump it up a notch. Their reading intensified, and suddenly Lady Macbeth rose to her feet, clearly feeling her character’s anxiety and frustration. Macbeth then rose to her feet, matching that energy and raising the bar. They continued to feed off of each other, and the scene exploded with a fullness of energy and language that we haven’t seen yet from anyone this season. It was incredible – even those who were new to the program put down their books to watch.

When the scene ended, we burst into applause. “That was amazing!” several people said. “What happened?” one woman asked Lady Macbeth. “I got the Shakespeare Holy Ghost!” she laughed, and we all laughed with her. “Then I was like, all right! Let’s go!” More laughter. “But seriously,” she continued, “It took over!” Our Macbeth agreed – she’d been carried away as well.

The woman who’d suggested the exercise we began with tonight said, “Isn’t that just like the car game? Depending on each other?” Yes, it is!

“I honestly, for the first time, think I read it really good,” said Lady Macbeth. “Not only that…Normally I try and sound cool, but this time I felt like I played the scene exactly how I wanted it to go.” Macbeth said that when Lady “went for it,” she had been able to roll with it effortlessly. “Her chair moved,” said one woman. “I wanted some popcorn!” It was the best either of them had ever felt.

“That’s how this works!” I said. “You had an instinct, and [Macbeth] backed you up, which gave you permission to keep going with it. Shakespeare does all the work for you if you roll with it and trust your scene partner. Were you thinking at all?” I asked Lady Macbeth. She shook her head and said she hadn’t been able to think – she’d just felt it. “Right,” I said. “This language is pure emotion. If you let it drive you – if you can be the car – you don’t need to think at all about times in your life when you’ve experienced similar feelings; you don’t need to go anywhere near past trauma. Trauma is dangerous, but feelings aren’t. This language will call up all the emotion you need if you let it.”

Our Lady Macbeth then said that she had really loved our vocal reactions to what she had been doing; several of us just hadn’t been able to keep from giving her feedback in real time, we were so taken with her performance. “That’s not distracting?” asked a new member. “No, it really fed me!” she said. “Vocal feedback is good!” I said. “That’s when we truly know the audience is with us.” One woman joked that it had felt like witnessing. “Yes! For real!” I said. “Rehearsal can be like church!”

We read through the next scene with the remaining time. One new member is already pretty set on playing Lennox, although we agreed not to cast anything till we’ve read the whole play; she might change her mind!

 We wrapped up, laughing together and feeling extremely positive. I pulled Lady Macbeth aside before we left to tell her how much I appreciated her diving in and showing our new members what it looks like to fully commit to a scene. “That’s what I do!” she said. “And you’ve done it since Day One,” I replied.