Session Six: Week 41


Our third performance was the smoothest yet! We flew through the play with very few hiccups and still managed to finish with plenty of time to get our supplies organized to take back out.

The ensemble worked together beautifully as a team, as usual. To be completely honest, though, I was in a bit of a fog, having just learned of the passing of one of our past co-facilitators, and I am having trouble remembering specific anecdotes to tell you. I do think it’s notable, though, that even as I’m having trouble remembering specific things that were positive, I don’t remember anything negative at all.


Our evening began by finishing out the case study with written surveys and a group discussion. I cannot wait till we can publish this study and share its results!

We continued with a free-form reflection about the season. There was no particular agenda other than to share thoughts in general, on what worked, and on what we can improve going forward. These wrap up sessions have always been invaluable, and this one did not disappoint!

I commented on how remarkable this ensemble has been – for instance, we had the least attrition ever, so little, in fact, that we didn’t have to add people midway through the season as we always have. An example of this just on this particular evening was that every ensemble member attended at least part of the wrap up. That has never happened before – someone has always been absent.

Building on that, the woman who’s been in the group the longest agreed that it had been different from previous years. It was tough when other long term members left – they had become family and integral parts of the ensemble. “But,” she said, “That may not have been a bad thing… I think this group stayed together because we’re not as close as other groups, and people didn’t take things personally.” She reminded us that, in the past, outside drama has seeped in, and Shakespeare drama has leaked out. That didn’t happen this year, at least not to the extent that it has in the past.

She’s got a good point. It’s incredibly interesting to me that this ensemble has bonded in a more “professional” way – they still call SIP a “family,” and they’re close in many ways. But the absence of the intensity that comes with extremely close friendships has resulted in a smoother, maybe safer process – people have felt supported throughout, without suspecting that ulterior motives were ever at play.

A newer member agreed, although that’s not how she had perceived things in the beginning. “At first I wanted to quit because I thought it was clique-ish,” she said, “But then I could see you guys are just close… That gave me encouragement and kept me here.” Other new members agreed, and then one woman interrupted all of us to effusively praise another new member for committing to a scene she had accidentally entered and wasn’t actually in. No one minded that interruption!

The wrap ups tend to turn into “lovefests,” and this one was no different. One woman said, “What I liked best… was both of you [Kyle and me]. You know… I came to Frannie and told her things that were going on with me. And Kyle checked in, pulled me out – we had really good conversations. I’ve never had conversations like that with anyone. If I was shitty when I got here, you guys made sure I wasn’t shitty when I left. I really appreciate that because you really need that in here. It really is a family. Gives me a lot of things to look forward to in the years I’m gonna be here.”

Another woman said, “You never make us feel like we’re not good enough… You really, really do make us feel like we can do it. Sometimes there were… When you start, you think… And when we messed up, you guys never made us feel like we messed up. It was all good, so we can keep on going because you never made us feel like it wasn’t good enough.” Another member agreed. “You made me feel like I’m not in prison. You’re very assertive, Frannie [we all laughed] AND you’re never judgmental!.”

A stalwart ensemble member got somewhat emotional as she described what the group has meant to her. She said that when she joined us last season, she had just come from segregation (solitary). Before that, her addiction had kept her away from her children for six years, and she was suicidal. She said, “Prison didn’t help my self-esteem, but it did get me clean. After this, I have self-esteem, self-worth, accomplishment – I believe in myself on a lot of different levels. Hearing people say I’m good at something… I feel like I can live a different life and be the person I want to be. It seemed like a dream before – the last time I felt like that was when I was a kid.” She said that knowing that other people were counting on her – that her presence in the group was important – had given her a huge boost. “You guys are the rock,” she said. “Cast members may change, but the group isn’t gonna disappear. People let you down, but Shakespeare don’t.”

The eldest member of our group was beaming throughout the evening. She said she was amazed by how much good feedback she was getting from people who’d been in the audience. She was impressed that they were expressing themselves on the walk ways and in the dining areas. She said people she doesn’t even know were good-naturedly shouting questions at her about the play. “I’m proud that we had the guts to do that,” she said, and then, “I prejudged. I didn’t think they would comprehend what we were doing and how hard we worked. But that lady at lunch was naming characters. I was floored.” She continued, “And officers stopped me and said they’d caught a few minutes and thought it was fantastic. There’s an officer that never spoke to me before – she seems frightened of us in the unit. But she came up to me, she got close to me and said, ‘That was great.’”

And THAT is how you change the culture, one person at a time!

One woman said that pulling through the performances changed her perspective on the entire season – that she came to understand what all of that work was leading up to and how such a thing could be accomplished. “I wish we’d run the play sooner,” lamented another person. The first woman said that a longtime ensemble member had told her not to stress, and now she gets it, although it was frustrating throughout the process when people were absent (a constant battle for us).

The woman quoted above about the stability the group has brought her said, “There are things you can’t control.” She said that, as an addict, SIP has taught her how to work in a group in a positive manner. “It’s teaching me skills that I need to go home that I may not have been able to get anywhere else.”

We then discussed some facets of the program that need some work. We are looking for ways of keeping people more accountable while retaining the empathy and flexibility that make our group unique. We are also looking at new methods of bringing new members into the ensemble more quickly and effectively. I cannot wait to put these things into practice.

As we left, many thank yous were said, as well as laments about taking our summer break and excitement to get back to work in September. One woman, about whom I’ve written many times, stopped and impressed upon us how much good the program has done for her. I thanked her for saying that and told her (again!) how inspiring her work has been. “I want you to know that I hardly ever talk about this program without mentioning you and what you’ve done this year,” I said. She smiled brightly. “I’ll be back,” she said. “I’ll see you in September.”

Session Six: Week 40


Everyone arrived tonight nervous but eager to perform. We got things organized, got into costume, and circled up to remind each other to have fun and focus on just getting from the beginning of the play to the end. We got started on time and launched enthusiastically into the performance in front of a smiling and upbeat audience.

Many things went more or less as planned, and the audience stayed with us the whole time. Many things also went haywire, which we fully expected, and the ensemble handled things beautifully, cuing people when they were late on entrances or advising them to just stay off stage if the people on stage had moved on, rolling with the punches when people entered one scene thinking it was a different one, and improvising to skip certain things altogether when necessary.

One woman missed one of her scenes. The other covered for her, but she was upset. Another ensemble member who was in the group last year calmed her down, saying, “Don’t worry! The first show is always a mess, the second is the best, and by the third we’re just ready to be done.” She turned to me, smiling. “Am I right?” I agreed. Last year she was one of our most nervous ensemble members – so nervous she frequently skipped out on rehearsals in the home stretch – but this year she’s been an incredibly steady and calming presence, especially for new members. We’re all so happy that she’s stuck with us.

There were some very funny improvised moments, including one in which our Richard and I simultaneously went up on our lines, and she said, “Well… You take that dead body walking and get out of here.” I started cracking up and said, “Okay, I’ll do that. Farewell.” We then high fived – totally inappropriate for the scene, and I don’t know what possessed us to do it – and the audience laughed right along with us.

In addition to my line flub, Kyle missed an entrance and left a few of us totally hanging on stage. He wasn’t pleased with himself, but I reminded him that it’s not a negative when the facilitators make mistakes like that – it proves our point, that these things happen to everyone, and that it’s nothing to beat ourselves up over.

We made it through to the end of the play – which was our main goal! – and our audience enthusiastically applauded. Some of our Richard’s friends threw candy on stage during curtain call. DPT Producing Artistic Director Courtney Burkett, who was one of our guests, noted that some people toward the back of the auditorium had signs saying, “We love [Richard].”

The woman who was so upset with herself for forgetting lines last week got through the play, mostly laughing off the mistakes that she made. While we were cleaning up after the performance, I asked her how she felt. “Like I want to throw up,” she said, “But I feel like I really accomplished something.” “You absolutely did,” I said. “You did a fantastic job.”

On the way out, I asked a woman who was in the group last year how she felt about the performance. “It was a mess!” she said. “Totally,” I responded, “But Othello was way messier.” “Was it?” she said. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “Don’t you remember someone saying that if we were Broadway actors we’d all be fired, and that it had been a disaster, but it was our disaster and she refused to feel badly about it?” The woman smiled and said, “Oh, yeah. I remember that now.”


When we circled up prior to our second performance, we talked about how little it seemed to matter to the audience when we skipped over lines and even scenes during the first one. We decided to all keep an eye on the time for this performance, and to judiciously cut things if things were getting tight. Our Richard was concerned about this – she felt like people might do it without too much thought – but I reassured her that it would only happen with the goal of finishing the play; that we would all feel much worse having to cut it off than having to cut monologues and things like that. Another woman told me that she really wanted to be able to say all of her lines. I said that we all appreciated how dedicated she is and how hard she’s worked, but that, ultimately, performances are about the team and not the individual. I said that maybe she wouldn’t have to cut anything herself, but to be prepared just in case.

Friday’s audience was more rowdy than Tuesday’s, but they still seemed engaged for the most part. We repeated some of our mistakes, fixed others, and, of course, found new ones. There was still some skipping around – one scene actually repeated itself for reasons I couldn’t quite figure out – but we rolled with the punches and finished the play again.

One woman went somewhat blank when the curtain opened on a scene in which she has a lot of lines. She fought her way through it, but she was pretty upset afterward. She holds herself to a very high standard, so it was difficult to get through to her what a victory it was that she was able to remember enough to get out all of her main points. I hope that will sink in at some point, because it really was impressive.

There are starting to be some personality clashes based on some decisions being made in performance – either to “save” a scene by improvising or by jumping over large numbers of lines. We’ve dealt with much worse than this grumbling in the past, though – there has sometimes been outright fighting, resulting in people ceasing to speak to each other except on stage. It’s not that bad this year.

It was a good first week of performances, and, as the ensemble member quoted at the beginning of this entry noted, by the third performance we tend to be more relaxed and ready to close out the season. I think that will be the case this year as well.

Session Six: Week 39

This final week of dress rehearsal saw some of the calmest and most empathic collaboration that I have witnessed in the past five years of being in this ensemble.

We had a couple of unexpected absences and early departures on Tuesday, and both the ensemble members and the facilitators threw ourselves into quick thinking to fill the gaps so the play could keep moving. We are getting more solid on the logistics of costumes, props, and scene transitions, so we were able to cut time off of our run again, although we didn’t quite finish the play. I encouraged the group not to stress out – that continuing to cut time is a very good thing, and that, now that our transitions have sped up, we can focus on picking up the pace in our line delivery and responses to one another. I continued to push the idea that as long as we can make it from beginning to end, we will have done our jobs. I asked if everyone would be in favor of doing a “speed through” on Friday, and we all agreed that that was a good idea.

On Thursday, I got word from our staff partner at the prison that our Anne had begun her suspension of activities due to the infraction she committed last week, so I buckled down to make sure I knew her lines and was ready to fill in for her.

We began Friday’s meeting setting up quickly, determined that we would get through to the end of the play. People ran lines and helped each other with costumes as we got going. Our Margaret is also the “curtain queen,” and, as she organized her script and the curtain plot, seemed stressed. I asked her if she was okay, and she said that she’d had an emotional few days and couldn’t seem to shake it. I encouraged her to do what we all do – to give herself over to rehearsal’s tendency to require total presence and commitment, which provides a welcome distraction from anything else going on in our lives. “You might not have as much fun as usual, but at least your focus will be here and not there,” I said. “That’s what I’m hoping for,” she replied.

We dove into our run, and we were excited by the fact that, from the first moments, our Richard greatly sped up her delivery, setting the tone for the rest of us to match her energy. We gently reminded each other as we went to “pick up the pace” and “go faster – faster!” with many ensemble members who don’t normally side-coach joining in with a smile.

Our Clarence, who up until just a few months ago was too afraid to get up on stage, surprised all of us by going on for her second scene without a script. As the scene progressed, she started to go up on her lines. She couldn’t her our “curtain queen” cuing her, so I knelt just off stage and fed her her lines. She skipped ahead a few times, but the others on stage rolled with it, clearly not frustrated and just adapting as they went. When she came off stage, she was completely red in the face, collapsed in a chair and burst into tears.

A couple of ensemble members and I went to her immediately. “Tell me what’s going on,” I said. “That sucked. I forgot all my lines. I suck,” she said. “That did not suck. You do not suck,” I said gently but firmly. “It didn’t go the way you wanted, and it wasn’t perfect. It’s completely okay to be upset about it, but I don’t want you to think for a second that that sucked.” One of the ensemble members said, “Really, you did great.” “For real,” I said, “That was amazing. You were so scared to get on stage until just recently, and tonight you went on stage without a script – which is scary – and you did what all actors, even professionals, do when they go off book for the first time – you forgot a bunch of your lines. We all do it.” “I just feel like I failed everyone,” she said. “Absolutely not,” I said. “Have you noticed that every single one of us is forgetting lines? And we’ll all do it in performance, too. Not a single person is going to be perfect. And none of us are expecting you to be perfect, either. Plus, when you skip lines, you cut time off the play, so you’ve done us all a favor!” She started to calm down. “What you just did was not a failure. You got from the beginning to the end of the scene. When it started to go off the rails, you didn’t give up or have a meltdown on stage. You kept going, and you got all the major plot points out. That’s all you need to do. You entered, you kept the play going, and you exited. That’s not a failure. That’s a victory.” By then she was much calmer – no tears, and most of the redness gone from her face. “I know that wasn’t what you wanted,” I said, “But do you feel a little better now?” She said that she did. She then launched into the rest of the play, in which she plays a couple of other characters, with great gusto and a new level of energy. It was thrilling.

We moved through the play at about the pace we want, but as we got close to the end, it was apparent that we hadn’t gone quite fast enough. When our Richmond got to her “oratory to the soldiers,” she took a breath, raised her fist in the air, and simply yelled, “Let’s go to war!” She exited, looked at me, shrugged, smiled, and said, “We don’t have time for that shit.” I laughed, saying, “We don’t. That was amazing. Great decision.”

As our Richard raced through her lines, people started to pack up, including our Richmond. “No!” I said, “Do the fight! End the play!” “There’s no time!” she said. “There is!” I said, “Just fight fast!”

We did get to the end, when she made another great decision. Instead of giving her final lines and speech, she simply raised her sword in the air and shouted, “The bloody dog is dead!”

We cheered as we packed our things, agreeing to continue to run our lines (for a couple of scenes in particular), and getting excited to begin performances on Tuesday.

Session Six: Week 38


We brought costumes and props in tonight, which is always exciting even if a little chaotic. As we began to unload and set up, one of the ensemble members approached me and let me know that our Anne got in some trouble and might not be able to perform with us. When Anne arrived, she confirmed this; the exact timeline going forward is unclear, but she will almost definitely not be present for all three performances.

She’s upset, but she’s taking responsibility for the actions she took that resulted in this situation. I reassured her that there is no judgment on my part, that I’ve reserved myself as an understudy for situations like this and can take on her role if necessary, and that now we needed to strategize together to figure out a plan. She was able to calm down and think things through with me.

This kind of thing happens sometimes, unfortunately. It’s why last year was the first time that no facilitators played major roles in the performances. Progress isn’t always linear, and we accept that as one of our challenges, trying not to let it frustrate us too much.

After we were more or less organized, we began at the top of the show. At first our Richard got very upset that she was forgetting many of her lines, at which point our facilitator Sarah stepped onto the stage to reassure the entire group that it’s normal to “lose lines” during a first dress rehearsal, even for professional actors. This reassured everyone, and we were able to get back to work.

There was a lot of compassionate adjustment on stage and off throughout the evening, with people reminding others of entrances, exits, and blocking that were miffed, and no one becoming angry or short-tempered.

Our Elizabeth joked with us that we had let her down by only bringing one throne, when we’ve blocked that scene with her seated beside Edward since the beginning. I mentioned that standing beside the throne could provide her with an interesting opportunity. “It’s up to you,” I said. “He’s sick and dying… Maybe you stand there protectively.” She shook her head. “I don’t really like him,” she said. “I mean, come on – ‘if he were dead, what would betide on me?’ He just died, and she’s thinking of herself.”

We got to the halfway mark in terms of pages, although we know that the latter part of the play moves much faster than the first. We’re in a good place and ready to move forward!


I had exciting news to share with the ensemble tonight. As soon as we were in costume and organized, we gathered in a circle, and I announced that we’d won a $36,000 WeWork Creator Award. The group erupted into cheers and applause. “Wait, how many noodles is that?” asked one woman. Kyle did the math: more than 12,000. “We’re rich!” she cheered.

I tried to impress upon them that this recognition is a result of their work more than anything else, and that they should feel proud and take credit for that. “I’m just the pitchwoman for the work that happens in this room,” I said.

We picked up where we had left off in our dress work through, plowing forward and, again, making compassionate adjustments as we went.

One longtime ensemble member arrived late, missing the announcement about the award. I caught her back stage when neither of us had anything to do for a few minutes and told her. She burst into tears, saying, “This is literally the best news ever.” She has an enormous amount of ownership of the program, being my most frequent (constructive!) critic and taking a lot of responsibility upon herself for our success. She also wants to continue to do this kind of work when she goes home, so something like this has enormous meaning for her. It was a thrill to see her so happy and excited – she has worked extremely hard in Shakespeare for years, and I didn’t need to say out loud that she should take a lot of credit for where we are now as a program.

We got to the end of the play far more quickly than anyone had anticipated, which was a very pleasant surprise. Even with adding costumes and props, we’ve shaved a half hour off of the time it took us to work through the play last time.

We gathered again in a circle, and I gave a bit of a pep talk. I encouraged everyone to keep hammering lines, but asked if our goal next week could be simply to get from the play’s beginning to its end, no matter how we do it. Based on my last five years with this program, I said that I thought that would be more valuable than trying to do things perfectly – our performances are always full of hiccups, and we’ll have more confidence having gotten through the entire thing while compensating for mistakes than if we try to get every line right and have no idea if we can get through the play in our allotted time. I reminded everyone that we’ve been working on the play for nine months and could improvise virtually any part of it if needed.

The team seemed confident going into our last week of rehearsal. Every year, this part of the process has been unique; I’m very interested to see how the next few weeks go.

Session Six: Week 37


We were thrilled tonight to welcome some folks from a local news station as we began a work-through of the play. Although some of us were nervous to begin with, we found it relatively easy to get past that and have a great rehearsal.

I was running around quite a bit and didn’t take many notes, but the theme of the night was patience and team work. We’ve been away from some of these scenes for a while, and people took good care of each other as we refreshed and refined. Some ensemble members are also becoming more and more aware of how scenes are functioning artistically. “We’re getting all bunched up,” one woman said at one point, encouraging the others on stage with her to spread out in a way that would be more visually pleasing.

We got through about half of the play, which is great considering it was our first attempt. The main thing slowing us down was uncertainty about entrances and exits, and the speed at which those were happening. We’re all aware of this and working on it. We are still confident that we’ll be able to perform our play in the allotted time!


When I entered the auditorium, I noticed our Richard standing at the back of the room, leaning on a table on which she’d laid her script, pinching the skin between her eyebrows with her eyes closed. I went to her immediately and asked if she was okay. She ruefully smiled and said, “Not really.” I asked her if she wanted to talk about it, and she said she did.

She is feeling extreme pressure to be perfect, just as she has the past two years. She feels that if she doesn’t know her lines exactly right, she will let everyone down. I listened intently and let her know that I understood – I’m a perfectionist, too – and then I asked her if she was feeling pressure from anyone in the group. She said she wasn’t. I reiterated that no one expects her to be perfect – that none of us will be perfect – and that not even our audience expects perfection. “The only pressure is coming from you,” I said. “You’ve gotta find a way to let yourself off the hook a little.” She responded that she wants to act professionally, and that she needs to live up to that expectation. I reminded her that even very successful actors make mistakes – that’s what blooper reels are! – and that she is not a professional yet. “Think of this as training,” I said. “You’re learning. Mistakes are a valuable part of the process.” I told her that the worst thing in the world is an actor whom you can tell is terrified of messing up. And she’s incredible when she relaxes. “You’re so much fun to watch when you’re having fun,” I said. “I’d much rather watch you enjoy yourself and mess up the lines than for you to get every word right and be stressed out the whole time.”

By the end of the pep talk, she was smiling and relaxed. I know that this is something we’re going to have to keep revisiting – it’s a very deeply-rooted issue for her – but she seems to recover a little more quickly every time we have one of these chats.

I hopped back stage to man the curtain as we continued working through the play. A few ensemble members sat at a table in the wings, going over their lines. One of them put down her script and said, “Frannie, I suck at memorizing lines! I have nothing memorized!” Before I could even respond, another ensemble member said, “Sit back, sweetie. I’m gonna teach you what Kyle taught me last year.” She scooted her chair closer and smiled, sharing some strategies that work for her. Another ensemble member chimed in, and so did I. “You’ve gotta find your own way to do this,” said that first ensemble member. “Me, when I’m doing my lines, people ask me who I’m talking to alone in my bunk, and I say, ‘I’m just doing Shakespeare.’” She shrugged, smiling. She has clearly joined the vast community of actors who don’t care if people think they’re crazy – they just want to get those lines down.

An ensemble member who has been gone for a while was back tonight. Toward the end of the night, I found myself sitting in the front row with her, watching a scene unfold. Suddenly she shook her head and said, “This just makes me sick.” I asked her why. She said that seeing what everyone had accomplished in the time she was gone – seeing how much she’d missed and knowing that it will be hard for her to catch up – is gut-wrenching for her.  We went to the back of the room so we could keep talking without being disruptive. She talked at length about the situation that had led to her long absence and said one of the hardest things was being away from Shakespeare. She reminded me that she’d acted in high school. “When I played Juliet, that was a big part of who I was,” she said. “And now, doing Shakespeare here… This helps take the burden off your shoulders. I can’t explain it…” She paused, thinking. “This helps you dig down inside yourself – and everybody says that. It’s not just me. Everyone in the group says that.” She then told me that the first person she saw after her absence was another ensemble member. When this person saw her, the first thing she said was, “Where have you been? Are you coming back to Shakespeare? You’d better be coming back. I’ll see you tonight.” The ensemble member to whom I was listening tried to impress upon me how incredible that was - to be welcomed back immediately when she’d been gone for so long. “You just don’t get that anywhere else,” she said.

We got through to the end of the play with lots of starts and stops – we haven’t worked very much on the last few scenes. We’re in a good place, though. Costumes and props arrive on Tuesday, and we’re ready to start using them. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but no one is freaking out. We are all determined, even those of us who are nervous. This group is very tight and motivated. The next few weeks will be intense, but I know that people are really going to shine. The end of the process is always awe-inspiring.