We began the evening with Michael Chekhov’s Imaginary Bodies exercise. We did an abbreviated version, and some people got more out of it than others, but we were glad to have done it. Some scenes have been worked more than others, and we decided to focus on those that have gotten less attention. One of these was Act II scene i, in which Banquo encounters Macbeth in a bit of foreshadowing, and Macbeth has his “Is this a dagger…” soliloquy.
Our Banquo had a lot of fun with the Imaginary Bodies exercise and did a great job letting her discoveries carry over to this rehearsal. I encouraged her to relax a bit – to let her interpretation be informed by her imaginary body, but not to be dominated by it. We also messed with the entrances to the scene a bit until we were satisfied that they worked well for us.
Our Macbeth then explored the dagger speech. She is mostly off book for it, which is great! As we talked about it – and talked about it – and talked about it – I jumped in to suggest that the time for deep analysis is over, as much as we love it (this is a group of thinkers, to be sure). We now need to focus on going from our collective gut – trusting that the work we’ve done analyzing the play is in us and will take care of itself. We need to stop thinking!
Our Macbeth’s performance became more spontaneous after that, which is exactly as it should be! “God, she is so good,” said one woman.
We gathered on the stage to work through the scene in which an old man and Ross talk about how strange things have been and then encounter Macduff, who is suspicious and will not join the others at Macbeth’s coronation. We decided a while ago to eliminate the character of the old man and adjust the scene to accommodate that. We realized, as we went over the scene together, that we wanted to keep the old man’s descriptions of recent events, and we pondered how we could do that between Ross and Macduff.
One woman said, “Macduff is a no-nonsense guy, though. He doesn’t talk like that.” We all agreed, and then this woman and our Ross hit on a solution: we would turn the dialogue into a monologue that Ross could deliver to the audience. It’s a very cool idea, and, when it was read aloud, it was immediately apparent that it works beautifully. Really awesome team work, and a great solution!
Kyle, Matt, and I spent the past few days at the Shakespeare in Prisons Conference, and we took some time during check-in to share about our experience there. It was an amazing conference and a very moving experience, and it was great to share as much of it with the group as we could while not taking up all of our time!
When I asked what we were going to be working on, our Porter immediately said, “My monologue!” She later told us that it hadn’t totally been her idea to work this tonight; turning to another ensemble member, she said, “I’m glad you told me to do it. You called me out yesterday, so I thought I’d beat you to it… I’m really grateful to you.” Apparently this other woman had said that if she didn’t get up and work today, she was going to do something to embarrass her. It worked!
Making her way slowly to the door at the end of the monologue, our Porter dragged her feet, moving incredibly slowly, saying, “I’m coming! I’m coming!” to all of our delight. That sparked a bunch of ideas in the rest of us; I asked if it would be funny for her to open the door and then collapse on the stairs. It was, and that led to more: one woman jumped up and said, “Oh! Can I make a suggestion?” She’s an incredible actress but has been hesitant to contribute much as a “director;” she has fabulous instincts, though, and I’ve been pushing her on it. But she didn’t need any pushing tonight. She demonstrated some hilarious ways of clowning, rolling around on the stairs.
She started to return to her seat in the house, just as our Macduff said, “Does anyone have any ideas for what I should do in this scene? Because I’m feeling really awkward.” The first woman spun around without missing a beat and said, “Well – yes!” We all laughed; there are some extremely talented actresses in the ensemble, but no one has a knack for comedy like hers, and all of her ideas were more than welcome. Another woman said, “Macduff’s a no-nonsense kinda guy. He’s not gonna think this is funny.” We all agreed and collaborated on a few notes for her.
We ran the scene again, and both actors incorporated the new ideas extremely well – particularly our Porter, to her coach’s delight. Another woman, who has excellent directing instincts, bounded up, saying, “I have a suggestion, but feel free to reject it –” she turned to me with a smile and said, “See, Frannie?” We laughed – that’s something I say all the time – and she kept going. I had talked with her at the beginning of the session about some directing strategies, since she’s so good at it – how to pick and choose from the notes you want to give in order not to overwhelm actors.
I looked over to see one of the women lying on the stairs, demonstrating another idea. There is no way this woman would have done that last season! She’s really loosened up. As we geared up to try the scene one more time, one of the women said, “Hang on,” and then, pointing at our Porter, she said, “I just wanna say – I saw your nose-painting. I saw what you did!” She demonstrated how the Porter had rubbed her nose on her arm in the way that someone who’d just done cocaine would do, and that gave us a good laugh. We’d all caught it, but no one had called it out – and I’m glad she did, because knowing that that instinct was effective has to have been a boost for the Porter.
We ran the monologue once more. Our Macduff, standing near me as we watched, said, “She’s blossoming.” I began to ask her if she’d shared that with our Porter but was interrupted when the woman who’d provided all the comic coaching came bounding over, complimenting our Macduff on being able to squat in the scene for so long. Clearly I couldn’t interrupt THAT. As their conversation ebbed, I asked Macduff the question I’d begun. She said she hadn’t, and I suggested that she do so.
As our Porter left, our Macduff said, “Hang on a second.” She took her by the arm and said, “You’re blossoming. From where you started to where you are now, you’ve come so far. You know what you’re saying, and you’re finding your character. I’m really proud of you.” Our Porter positively beamed and hugged her.
I rejoined the group to find our Ross in the midst of her new soliloquy, pieced together from the Old Man’s lines. She was animated and fully committed to getting it right. She was a dedicated and serious ensemble member last season, but this year she’s positively driven. And it’s infectious.
She felt like she was having trouble landing all of her descriptions, so we used the “you know” exercise; after each key phrase, the actor pauses and says, “You know?” or something similar to the audience. After the exercise, the actor does her speech again, without those additions. It almost always does wonders, and this time was no different. “I got your attention,” she said. “It got across the when, where, and how… I felt better because I slowed it down, and I got attention paid to the details.” But I wasn’t the only one who’d given helpful suggestions. “Everybody gave me a little bit, and I took it and put it all together,” she said.
We began tonight by continuing our work on The Sonnet Project, which we’re planning on filming soon. We needed to finish writing it first, though! We’re working with #35. As a reminder, it’s this one:
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 accessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
We read it aloud, and I asked what our thoughts were – we had low attendance when we worked this last, and it was new for some people. One of those immediately said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.” We asked her why. “Because, to me, I think the poem was written at a point when this person said, ‘No more’… Everybody makes mistakes, but it doesn’t define you.” She got extremely emotional at that point and stopped because she didn’t want to lose control crying.
“Every person has different sides,” said another woman. “Sometimes people see your good side, but people have issues, you know? Like, the thief is like a drug – you know you shouldn’t, but you do it anyway.” The first woman agreed, “It’s a battle with yourself.” Another said, “It means to forget what you have done.” The first woman nodded, “This is a reason to let go.”
“The first line is what caught my attention,” another woman agreed. The first woman added, “This is who we are and what we’re aiming for.” She then shared the ideas that the poem sparked for her, which were right in line with what we’d talked about before: scenes of forgiveness, ending with the ensemble together in the ring.
One woman said that the image of a rose popped out at her. She saw an upturned hand crushing a flower. “The thorn pricks you when you crush the flower, and then, when you release your hand, the flower re-blooms – like forgiveness.”
“Don’t regret the things from your past,” mused another woman. “You can’t have beauty without ugliness… Everyone’s past is muddled in regrets and ugliness. And if you don’t have the ugliness, you can’t appreciate the beautiful things you have.” She looked again at the poem. “Somebody is lamenting something they’ve done.”
We talked more about the scenes of pain followed by uplifting, and one woman gasped, “Oh!” The conversation stopped as we waited for her idea. “What if we did it as a chain reaction?” she asked, explaining that, as one person is uplifted, she could move to the next person and uplift her, and on and on, “like they’re carrying a message.” We all LOVED that idea.
We talked about how to divide up the lines of the poem – I won’t have a great microphone on the camera, so we’ll have to do this as a voiceover. We liked the idea of sharing lines, although one woman cautioned us that we’ll need to make sure we preserve the build of the poem. “I don’t want to see this choppy or cut off,” she said. There is a woman in the ensemble who is extremely gifted at performing poetry, and we decided that, however we do this, she will coach everyone to ensure that the build is there.
One woman then exclaimed that she had another idea – to use auras of color to show the words and energy flowing between us. We joked about whether or not CGI was in our budget, and I said that I could try to figure out how to do that, but I’m an amateur editor and couldn’t guarantee it.
One woman said, “I love ‘excusing thy sins more than thy sins are.’ That’s… that’s… really something.” We talked more about what the piece will sound like. We may add soft sounds like crying and sighs, and we may intersperse the poem with whispers of the first line. Someone suggested that we say the first line again after the sonnet is finished, and then I asked if perhaps it would be effective to start the entire poem over, since that instinct came from the idea of forgiveness being an ongoing process.
One woman said, “Aren’t we trying to show that hope that we saw in this poem? Hopefully to somebody with some more money?” We all laughed – we joke a lot about the process of funding SIP. I responded that we really do need to consider the visuals, then; we need to show our audience the hope rather than simply telling them about it. Another woman mused, “Yeah… I wasn’t taking the line about the rose so literally. I was thinking that one of us – a woman – represents the rose, and then she turns, and there’s a scar on her face.” We loved that!
We decided to take a break until the folks who’d needed to leave briefly returned. It turned out that our Macbeth had challenged Lady Macbeth to memorize the scene that occurs just after Duncan’s murder, and they wanted to show us the result. They ran the scene, and it was clear that they understood what needed to happen, but our Lady Macbeth kept laughing, getting more and more frustrated (but not angry). Our Macbeth stuck with it, but it definitely wasn’t what they wanted.
I asked our Lady Macbeth how her character felt in the scene. She said that she was nervous, agitated, and wanting to make sure that everything went off without a hitch. I suggested that she get out of her head and work with the image/feeling of having electricity coursing through her body – providing the physical tension and heightened alertness that she wanted. She liked that idea, but then she paused. “Sometimes I feel like I just don’t have it. Like, I understand what you say, I know what I want to do, but sometimes it doesn’t… doesn’t… I just can’t do it. I feel like I’m more creative.”
We assured her that she could. “All actors have to deal with this,” I said. “You’re not the only one. You’ve gotta find a way to put that aside – fire that critic! If you’re constantly judging yourself, you’ll stifle your creativity. Let go and do what you need to do.”
“All right,” she said. “I’ve got it now. I’m ready.” They launched into the scene again, and, immediately, it was exactly where it needed to be. Lady Macbeth paced, but this time with urgency. She didn’t get bogged down in the lines, and her anxiety was palpable. When our Macbeth entered, she jumped and moved to her immediately. They fed off of each other, heightening the tension more and more. We were entranced. When Lady Macbeth said, “Go get some water, and wash this filthy witness from your hand,” it was as powerful as I’ve heard seen that line delivered. I literally gasped, and I wasn’t the only one.
Man, was it ever good. One woman said she’d listened to it with her eyes closed, as if she were hearing it for the first time. “I really could follow it. I understood it perfectly,” she said. That’s high praise – to be able to understand Shakespeare without a visual is no small thing, and it speaks to the clarity with which the scene was performed. I asked the actors how they felt. “It flowed better that time,” said Macbeth. “What made it flow better?” I asked. They looked at each other, smiled, and Lady Macbeth said, “The electricity.” I encouraged her to keep working with it.
This entire ensemble deals with the same thing that has always limited me as an actor – we just think too damn much! Luckily, because I’ve struggled with this so much, I can tell when it’s happening, and I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve for how to help others let go and stay in the moment. And watching them do it helps me better understand how I can do it for myself. I am always learning in this program!