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.”