Season Eight: Week 11

Tuesday / November 13
Written by Frannie

As we walked in today, a longtime member waved a book at me and said, “[NAME] gave me her book.” This is usually code for “she’s quitting,” and I said, “Is she late or…?” “I don’t know,” replied the woman soberly, “But she gave me her book.” As I nodded my head, clearly disappointed, she said, “I’m just joking—she’ll be here in a few.” Throwing my pad of paper on the table, I said, “Ughhhh! You know you can’t do that to me!” She started laughing hysterically. A few others giggled, but most were confused. “She used to do this to me all the time!” I explained. “I’d walk in for a performance, and she’d be like, ‘I hate to tell you this, but so-and-so went to seg.’ And it was never true!” The woman continued cracking up. “Man, it’s been a long time!” I laughed. “That joke is like three years in the making!”

One of the newbies shared that she’s been reading just the “translation” side of the No Fear edition and that she really likes the story. “It’s a good way to keep up on the plot, isn’t it?” I said. A longtime member smiled and said, “You know, I love the Arden.” I asked if she would have felt that way when she joined the group four years ago. “Hell, no!” she laughed, thumbing through her book a bit. But things are different now. “This year, when we read [the play], it’s kinda cool because I understand what’s going on.”

As part of our quest to keep the energy level up and find more ways of bringing people into active participation, I introduced “Bombs and Shields,” one of my favorite Theatre of the Oppressed exercises. Everyone spreads out around the room and silently chooses one person to be their “bomb” and another to be their “shield.” The objective is to keep the shield between oneself and one’s bomb—and everyone is trying to do so simultaneously. After explaining the game and taking a moment, I launched it with a “Go!”

It was immediate chaos! We were in a small-ish classroom, rather than the auditorium, and it was tough for people to keep themselves “safe.” Just before I counted down from 10, ending the game, one woman picked up her shield, protecting herself at any cost!

I called “Freeze!” and everyone came to a halt, laughing and shouting over one another. I asked if we could try to speak one at a time—there clearly was a lot that folks wanted to say! One thing we noticed was that there was a whole mess of people whose bomb-shield relationships looked a heck of a lot like the “love polygon” in Twelfth Night. “This is just like the play—she’s falling for him, he’s falling for her!” said one woman. “She’s falling for shim!” laughed another. “Then I guess I was a lot like Malvolio,” said one woman. “My shield was like Sonic the Hedgehog!” said another.

After talking some more, determining that only one person had stuck to a strategy while the rest had been in pure survival mode (though a number chose the tallest people in the room as shields), we went for another round. It was even nuttier this time! We discovered afterward that part of what made that happen was that even more people chose the same two ensemble members as either bomb or shield, which both of those women noticed and found somewhat exasperating (but funny).

“I feel like it gives some insight into the play,” mused one woman. “These characters each have their own objectives, but they’re not telling anybody, so they’re all just sneaking around.” Another woman nodded and expanded the conversation to be about the ensemble itself. “We can’t be playing bombs and shields on stage,” she said. We all need to have the same bomb and the same shield.

We decided to see what would happen if we began walking through the play with 1.2, following it with 1.1, as is often done in production. There were many new people in the room, so I went through the basics: we’re walking through right now to get a handle on the plot and write down any ideas we have, and we’re not setting blocking or giving real acting notes. Constructive criticism, though, is important, and I explained what that means in our group. “No one ever does everything wrong. The second you’ve walked on stage, you’ve done something right. There’s always something to build on.”

“All right,” I continued, “Who’s gonna read Viola?” Before anyone else could speak, a brand new member said, “I’ll do it!” Then another newbie said, “I wanna read the Captain!” A couple others and Matt volunteered to be the sailors. The whole bunch rose and walked to the front of the room, preparing to enter the “stage.”

But Viola stayed in the middle of the space, a little lost. “Guys, this is way out of my comfort zone,” she said, and we cheered and applauded her for giving it a go anyway! “Have you read the scene before?” I asked. She hadn’t, and another woman cheerfully summed it up for her. Viola looked down at her book, then back at us. “Do I just wanna read it, or do I act it or… what?” she asked, turning to me. Before I could say anything, a longtime member said, “Frannie, can I take it?” Of course I said she could. “There’s no right or wrong way to do it,” she said. “Read it how you feel it, take your time, and make it natural.”

It seemed to us that the sailors needed an activity, and the idea we went with was for them to come stumbling in from the shipwreck, exhausted. We’ve reserved a notebook just for recording our ideas so we don’t forget them, and here’s how one of the ensemble members wrote these down—it captures the moment’s flow pretty perfectly:

Sailors are def. acting shipwrecked and taking fish out of their hats & crabs & eels (unending eels like magic) out of their mouth
Squid stuck to their face. Puke up boat.
Picking seaweed off her & others
Fuck it, have Sponge Bob on there too lol
Sailors can hardly walk

After this magnificent brainstorm (and I’ll cop to the boat-puking idea; most of my Twelfth Night ideas thus far have to do with vomiting for some reason), the scene began. The sailors staggered on with the captain as Viola looked on, confused. “Hold on!” she said (as herself, not the character), “What is going on?!” Someone responded that this is how the scene starts, and she said, “Oh, god, okay. I’m so sorry—my bad.”

“Oh my god, no, that was so funny!” I laughed. “Oh! Maybe we could even start the play that way! If we’re going as silly as we’re talking about, maybe we make it really self-aware about being a play and, like, play with moments like this.” This new woman stared at me, confused. “This could be one of those really magnificent mistakes,” I said. “Like, this could be staged exactly like this. And maybe the actor playing Viola is a diva or something, says exactly what [NAME] just said, and makes them start the play over.” The idea was recorded in the book—we’ll see whether or not it sticks!

We started the scene again and made it all the way through this time. The stand out moment was when Viola said to the Captain, “For saying so, there’s gold,” and all three sailors (who were on their knees) rushed over, putting their hands out in hopes that they could have some gold, too. It was so smooth, it was as if they’d planned it ahead of time—but they hadn’t! One person followed an instinct, and the others followed her. Perfect.

Afterward, Viola stood there for a moment, looking a little dazed. “Was that the first time you’ve done something like that?” I asked. She said it was, and we all applauded her again (no such thing as too much applause!). “How did it feel?” I asked. “Intense,” she replied, “but it felt good… It took me somewhere else.” Matt asked if that had felt good. “Yeah, it felt great, actually,” she said, still a little stunned. “My mind was in a different place… It took me out of right now. I liked it a lot.” A woman who struggled with stage fright last season said, “I applaud you just for getting out of your comfort zone.”

We drifted into a conversation about what it might be like if Viola weren’t actually good at pretending to be a guy—or if there are moments when she could nearly expose herself (no pun intended!). In an all-woman cast, we need to take care that things are clear for our audience, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play with this idea. Perhaps the slip-ups are when she’s caught off-guard. “I feel like her most vulnerable moments are her conversations with Orsino,” said one woman. We all agreed—the stakes are very high during all of that double-talk.

“Do you think the audience will sympathize with Viola?” asked one woman. I asked her what she meant. “Well, I don’t know,” she continued. “Because she’s a little shady.” She went on to say that the impetus for the disguise is unclear, and the whole thing seems really “evil” to her: the continued lying, in particular, feels like “preying.” One woman shook her head ruefully and said, “Well, it ain’t nothing we’re not all used to.”

“I mean, she does have a moment when she realizes the harm that can come of disguises,” I said. But the first woman quickly replied, “She realizes it, but she doesn’t do anything to rectify the situation. She just leaves it to time. ‘Oh, time will work this all out.’ She just keeps doing what she’s doing. It’s shady. It is.” Another woman laughed, “It’s a sixteenth century Catfish!” We agreed to keep an eye on this—we made Iago and Richard III sympathetic, I reminded the group, so we can certainly do it with Viola.

I’d had an idea earlier in the conversation that I was sitting on till a good moment came, and now the women told me to spill it. Watching the three folks who’d played the sailors gave me this idea of having three people—a kind of Greek chorus, or a group of zannis—move throughout the scenes, executing a lot of gags and playing the “extras” (and, apparently, operating puppets; there was a request for seagull puppets to peck at people in this scene). “So they wouldn’t speak or anything?” asked one woman. “Nope!” I said. “That would be like me!” exclaimed a woman who told me when she joined just four days ago that she couldn’t possibly perform because of her fear of crowds.

Things have started to gel with this ensemble since we’ve all made an effort to come at the work with more energy, and tonight felt like things had really begun to fall into place. I’m personally feeling much better, and my impression is that the others are, too.

Friday / November 16
Written by Matt

At check-in today, our budding dramaturge had some more goodies for us. Reading a seemingly unrelated book about mythology, she found a reference to Twelfth Night! She talked about a Greek myth about a man who saw a goddess naked and, as punishment, was turned into a deer. His story didn’t end well--he was stalked and killed by his own hounds--but this tidbit explains some of the dialogue in the first scene. Everyone was impressed not only with this information, but with the woman’s keen eye and knack for explaining complicated references. What a treat!

The core of today’s session was the Mirror series, which comes from the same theatrical tradition as Tuesday’s game of Bombs and Shields. At its simplest, mirroring is done by two partners. One, the “subject,” makes slow, fluid motions of their body. The other, the “image,” follows those motions exactly. Ideally, the subject’s motions would be so clearly communicated and the image’s attention to detail would be such that an observer would not know which one was leading and which was following. The partners then switch roles.

The game progresses from there to more subtle and complex mirroring exercises, but even the most basic version is challenging. Being the image requires intense concentration and willingness to be led into positions that may feel uncomfortable in one way or another. Being the subject requires the ability to take care of the partner--keeping movements easy to follow and slow enough to keep up with, and safeguarding the physical and emotional safety of the image--and also, like all improv, being the subject carries the challenge of silencing or ignoring the part of one’s mind that worries about making the “wrong” move. For both, maintaining focus and eye contact is a challenge, as the game can go on for a long time.

From the simplest expression of the game, partners progress to combine the subject/image roles: each partner is both subject and image, as the two move together organically, passing leadership between them or allowing the “leader” role to dissolve completely. From there, the game changes to encourage distortions and responsive gestures; synchronization becomes less important than passing energy between partners. The next exercise takes that concept up a notch, as both partners express their own beauty (the “Narcissistic Mirror”) before finally, in the last iteration, coming naturally to a neutral stance together.

The whole progression took about a half hour, and we settled in to debrief after.

The first pair to check in spoke for many of us. One woman said she didn’t completely understand the point of the game. She added that she struggled to take it seriously enough; she was constantly fighting back self-consciousness and discomfort. Instantly, her partner jumped in: “But you regrouped yourself!” she said in support. “I feel like I was dependent on [my partner] for most of the exercises.” Her partner expressed surprise and said, “Well, I felt like I was depending on you!” The second woman explained that she felt comfortable with the simple movements, but she really relied on her partner for the emotional content of the exercise, which came later on. “Okay!” said the first woman with finality. “I think I understand the game now! We worked together.”

As we went around the room, we discovered that each pair had a story, and each story was different. Lauren shared that she had a tough time making the switch to call and response, rather than simply mirroring movements. “Yeah,” her partner added. “I didn’t know what to do there.” But, Lauren and her partner added, they felt that by the end of the first exercise (subject/image), they felt so in-synch that there was almost no transition at all to the next, leaderless exercise. Another woman said that she and her partner actually did really well at the call and response, passing energy fluidly between them.

My partner, who is brand new to the group, checked in for herself. “At first, I was really self-conscious,” she said, adding that she was preoccupied with the difference in our heights. Then she voiced two common feelings: “I was trying so hard to be ‘right,’” she said, and “For me, looking into someone’s eyeballs is an intimate thing.” A lot of people nodded along to both of these sentiments. “Me and my partner was just stuck,” chimed in a woman who, with her partner, had had trouble focusing on the game at all. “I couldn’t think of what to do.”

A veteran shared that she couldn’t get her partner to move as freely as she wanted to. She said that she kept trying different movements, testing her partner’s limitations, until--and this is a testament to this woman’s sharp intuition and role as a leader in the group--she decided to push the boundaries in another way. “I couldn’t really get her to move,” she said, “that’s how we ended up on the floor. I was, like, we going down!” Everyone laughed. Then she connected the exercise to our work on the plays. “It’s like working with a partner on the stage,” she said, “and you want to go bigger and do more, but the other person won’t do it. And it just puts you in your shell.”

“The eye contact was really personal,” shared a brand-new member, circling back to what my partner had shared earlier. But she said she really liked the feeling eventually. “You trust that person, and some of that trust bounces back onto you,” she explained. “I feel like the purpose was to become one,” said the senior member who had spoken a moment before.

One woman, who is usually very quiet and rarely participates in games, jumped in to say that it went really well for her. Actually, she said, eye contact was toughest for her when she wasn’t moving. Another woman said that she had a strange sensation during the exercise of observing herself gazing at her partner. Outside of prison, she said, “I dress loud. I’ve had lots of experiences of being stared at,” but that she felt like she was “giving the creep stare.” The first woman commented on that. “Naturally, to look into someone’s eyes is an intimate experience,” she said, adding that it must be really common to feel uncomfortable. Someone else said, “It’s like you’re looking into their soul.”

Frannie mentioned that, for many people, it’s not so much staring into someone else’s eyes that is uncomfortable and vulnerable, it’s having someone else stare into our eyes. Being seen. What do they see there? “Oh my god, you’re so right,” said one woman. This clearly resonated with a lot of the women—a few actually started crying—and Frannie quickly pointed out that you can always take yourself out of the game if you need to.

This section written by Frannie

The conversation continued. One woman said the hardest thing for her had been the “narcissistic” part of the exercise: “I didn’t know, like, how your body could look happy or whatever… I feel like you can only really express that with your face.” Another woman agreed, saying, “Yeah, we should do more stuff to work on our faces.”

“See,” I said, revving a bit, “This is what society does to women. This is what it does to us.” (There is nothing like working with incarcerated women to feed and shape your own brand of feminism.) “I shouldn’t need to see your face to know you’re happy. You should be able to express joy with your whole body. But we’re so shut down physically, we don’t know how to do it.” I paused, looking around the circle of women, all of whom were fully locked in to what I was saying. “Damn, Frannie,” said one.

“Joy is big! It’s huge!” I continued. “It’s a giant, crazy emotion! But look at us! Look how we’re all sitting!” Lots of crossed arms, crossed legs, hunching over—and it was not cold in that room. “We take up as little space as possible when we should be free to be BIG. If I can’t just express joy with my face. I need my whole body. I need to do something like this!” I demonstrated a few expansive gestures and a happy dance.

“But we don’t feel like we’re allowed to do that,” I said. I hearkened back to the pair who’d ended up on the floor because the “image” wouldn’t follow the “subject” into large gestures. “It’s hard to go that big, isn’t it? Especially if you’ve experienced trauma. Because it makes us vulnerable—just as much as eye contact does. So I don’t blame you for a second. You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said to the image, who had begun to chastise herself. “It’s not that you can’t go there. It’s that you’re not there yet.” I turned to the subject. “You are there, and that’s great. But look how you took care of your partner. You didn’t try to force her to do what she was clearly uncomfortable with. You adapted so she could stay with you. That’s what we have to do as an ensemble.”

Back to Matt!

We transitioned into a less emotional conversation. A woman who has been slowly dipping her toe into games and reading on stage said that she has really enjoyed the last two days of games. “It’s a good introduction to improv,” she said, saying she felt intimidated by a lot of the other games we play, which are based in improv comedy and require a lot of quick thinking on your feet and which put a lot of pressure on individuals to be funny. In particular, she said, these games were easier because they required no speaking--in fact, they forbade it--and everybody was doing the game at the same time, so there was no “audience.”

The activities this week have made clear that we need to work a lot on moving and working together as an ensemble. Bombs & Shields and Mirrors have been so successful, and what we learn from them seems so directly related to our work on Twelfth Night, that a path forward seems increasingly obvious. This season has been different from the others--at least in recent years--but it’s good to feel like we’ve found fertile ground. We always say that each season of Shakespeare in Prison is different, and that our path is always dictated by the needs of the ensemble. It feels like this season has been putting that philosophy to the test. As frustrating as the past few months have been sometimes, and as lost as we have sometimes felt, it feels good to know that we are sticking to our word, trying all sorts of strategies to see what works. We’ve learned a lot. Taking a long view, it’s really exciting! Stay tuned!

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.

Session Five: Week 18

We decided to stick to our plan of playing games through the new year. I introduced a new game, with the caveat that it might lead to potential triggers, and I asked if that was okay with the group. First off, we decided that if something came up, we’d let each other know. Then one ensemble member said she was okay with triggers because she feels safe in the group again. Many ensemble members vocally agreed with her.


The first game we played was very silly and allowed everyone to have a good laugh during a very tough time of year. Then a few ensemble members said they’d like to try a game that wasn’t necessarily funny. I then led “Real to Ideal,” a Theatre of the Oppressed exercise in which we look at a real situation, then what it would ideally be, and the possible transitions between the two. Our first situation was a hostile workplace in which a tyrannical boss was lording it over co-workers. An ideal version of this showed the co-workers pointing out their good work to the boss, and the boss smiling and encouraging them. We determined that, in order for the situation to change, the workers needed to stand up for themselves and have empathy for the boss, who wants productivity above all. The boss needs to also have empathy for the workers.


We then decided to try this in relation to Othello (since some ensemble members were itching to get back to Shakespeare). They chose Iago’s “put money in thy purse” monologue, in which Roderigo is won over and thoroughly cowed. What would it take to change this dynamic?


“It would take a change in conscious thought,” said one woman. “This guy is just full of crap, and I’m gonna do what I think is right.” This, she reasoned, would decrease Iago’s confidence.


In the play, we wondered, why can’t Roderigo advocate for himself? Some think it’s because he’s naturally a follower, although others lay the blame on his naiveté. By and large, we don’t think he’s stupid. “He wants something, and Iago can get him what he wants,” said one woman. Some called this a “deal with the devil,” and we drew parallels between this and Emilia’s thought that she would cuckold her husband for the world. The play seems to be full of such bargains.


Then the conversation expanded. “Don’t you think that this setting, with NA and AA, makes you more empathetic to these characters?” said one woman. “The prison journey helps you understand people better – you become self aware.”


There was general agreement. “I’ve been the manipulator and the manipulated. When I was the manipulator, I never thought people were stupid – I just thought I was really good,” said one ensemble member. “This is why I wanted to do Othello,” said a member who was in the group last year, “So people can learn from its messages.”


“Do you guys ever feel bad when you admit you were the bad points of these characters?” said another woman.


“Absolutely,” replied a longtime ensemble member. “I feel so close to Roderigo because he’s ruled by his heart. I’ve been that person, and it’s sad.”


“It makes me aware of how I used to behave, how I behave now, and how I’m gonna be in the future,” said the woman who had posed the question.


“Iago is a sick person,” said another woman. “Maybe he’ll go on a journey of self discovery in prison.”


Another woman had doubts. “This kind of sickness is like TB – you can go get better, but it can hide out and come back, like addiction.”


This led us to wonder about what happens after the play’s end. “You could do a whole play on Iago in prison,” said one woman excitedly. “If Iago went to prison, he’d never change because he’d be like everyone there,” said another.


Our plan for next week is to make the first round of cuts to the play. Some people are eager to do this, and others are nervous. This usually starts out awkwardly and quickly becomes a lot of fun, so I’m looking forward to it. It will be good to get back to work on the play!

Session Five: Week 14



Today before we began, the woman who was so upset that she left last week came in to talk with me one on one. I told her that if she chose to quit, that was her right, but I wanted her to have context for what she was told last week. When she had heard the full story, her concern changed to what the rest of the group must think of her now – how they reacted to her leaving. I reassured her that we all understood why she got so upset, and that everyone’s desire is for her to stay in the group. Although she had to leave early this particular night, she decided to stick with Shakespeare longterm.

We checked in, and the group expressed a need to play some ensemble-strengthening games. I chose three Theatre of the Oppressed exercises, which not only gave us a chance to loosen up and laugh, but were relatable in the context of our group, Othello, and our lives in general.

We sat down in a circle to play Freeze with a scene. Before doing this, one ensemble member asked if everyone could share the roles in which they are interested. This led us to talk about casting, which we decided to delay one week since we got derailed for several sessions. It’s possible that we will be able to return to our group discussion model of casting (with an anonymous written vote) rather than the more formal process we had discussed. It will depend on how well we can re-establish our safe space this week and next.

We then played around with Act III Scene III, in which Iago and Roderigo cause Cassio to fight while drunk and lose his job. While we find some humor in it, it definitely takes a darker turn than some of the ensemble members initially thought – and this is why it’s important for us to put scenes on their feet rather than simply reading them.

“This is where everything begins – where it all begins to form,” said one woman. “You really get to see Iago in action – how he tricks people, how easy they are to fool. And you see Othello before his breakdown.”

Kyle said, “It makes me realize how little actually happens except for this scene and the last – it’s mostly just ‘what ifs.’”

We had mostly been talking about Iago when I asked what everyone thinks about Cassio in this scene. “Ruined,” one woman stated immediately. “For the rest of the play, too. He never really comes back from this.”

“He goes against his better judgment… And I wonder how much he thinks about that,” said another.

“He has dignity in his falling – he handles it well throughout the rest of the play. He takes responsibility for his actions,” said another. We briefly talked about how this is all well and good, but it doesn’t accomplish anything until Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, Iago, and Roderigo are all dead, leaving a vacuum into which Cassio is thrust as the new person in charge.

We then disbanded for the evening, and I pulled aside the woman who had made the comment last week that caused so much upset. We talked for several minutes and determined that this group is not the right fit for her right now, so she won’t be coming back this session. She knows that the door is open to her in the future if she changes her mind. At the end of the day, this program isn’t for everyone, and, while I’m sad to see her go, we have to keep the ensemble at the forefront. Maybe we’ll see her again next year.




Tonight after checking in, one of the ensemble members taught and led a circle game that she learned in another group. It was a lot of fun, and it was great to see her take charge and lead like that. This is someone who came into the group with a feeling that she should keep her mouth shut and stay in the back, not volunteering to do much. There has been a shift for her – while she has her quiet days, she is often outspoken, encouraging of others, and takes the lead now and then.

We then sat in a circle and decided to work Act IV Scene III without “freezing it” – it’s a fairly short and emotional scene, and we wanted people to have a chance to move all the way through it.

The first woman to read Desdemona felt uncomfortable using her own voice, but we encouraged her to do so anyway. The scene worked pretty well for us, but the women reading felt like they didn’t go far enough with it.

The second pair to read had a very quiet interpretation. The woman reading Emilia said she felt “bad” – like she wasn’t focusing on the right things. We reassured her that this is a completely normal “actor feeling,” and we encouraged her to read more in the future. She also said that she fed off the woman playing Desdemona – “I was in tune with her,” she said.

We talked a bit about Emilia. “Maybe she gets that strong personality from being beaten down by Iago,” said one woman. “Maybe she’s learned from experience.” Another said, “She isn’t nice. She’s outspoken and strong.”

Another woman asked if we could do the scene “with more emotion.” The rest of the group playfully challenged her to show us what she meant, and she obliged. She and her scene partner played nearly the entire show at a heightened level, which worked in some ways and not in others. Interestingly, the woman playing Emilia said she felt heartless, and that’s not what we got from her.

Then another pair read, in a very different way. This Desdemona went on a roller coaster of emotion, and she also sang the song (everyone else had spoken the words but hadn’t sung). “It felt intense,” she said, “I’ve been going through a lot, so I just kind of put my emotions in there.” We remarked on her beautiful singing voice – and the fact that she sang in character. “It helped me to, like… act,” said the woman who read Emilia. “The way you acted – you were so into what you were doing… You really sang and you were really sad… You made me angry at men. Your energy helped my energy.”

The ensemble then asked Kyle and me to read, and we obliged. I played Desdemona in college, and it was really interesting to step back into this scene. The group loved what we did with it, remarking on our commitment to the scene, the way we moved in it, how we connected to each other, and how they didn’t find it odd at all that Kyle read in his own voice – hearkening back to the conversation we had earlier about reading in our own voices. The group is at a point where they can take what they need from our interpretations and not think of them as definitive, so I’m comfortable reading when they ask us to or it seems appropriate.

Session Four: Week 5

Tuesday We were thrilled to welcome several new members to the group today. We spent some time on “orientation” and introductions, including our “interviews” which turned into sort of an improv game. We found that we were somewhat focused on the “safe environment” part of our guidelines, so we segued from there into some exercises from Theatre of the Oppressed.

The first couple of exercises were brief, and the group was able to get what they needed out of them quickly. These had to do with feeding off of each other’s energy and staying focused on a goal. They also served to be great ice breakers, as they were high energy exercises that resulted in a lot of smiles and laughter.

We then moved into the Blind Cars exercise, which is a perennial favorite in this program. In this exercise, one person is the “blind car,” who keeps her eyes closed as she is “driven” by her partner with only the touch of a hand. As generally happens when we do this exercise, some people were more respectful of the rules than others; some took better care of their partners than others (which led to some “traffic jams” and “fender benders”). The exercise has so much to do with trust and vulnerability, and those are things that can be hard to come by in a prison setting (and perhaps in many of the women’s lives prior to incarceration). We found parallels in our work. “I don’t trust anyone here with my life,” said one woman emphatically, and we talked about how we don’t necessarily need to have that level of trust in one another, but we do need to be able to trust each other enough to be vulnerable creatively and to take risks in our program. Another woman, who was being “driven” through the aisles in the house, said she simply couldn’t keep her eyes closed and her hands down the whole time because she couldn’t stop thinking about all of the chairs she might crash into. I asked her if it was mistrust of her partner that led to this fear. “No, it’s not her,” she said, “It’s just that those chairs are there, and I can’t get them out of my mind.”

The parallel here, of course, is that the chairs will always be there, whatever they are to each individual – stage fright, fear of expressing opinions, fear of taking risks and being judged, fear of reading aloud – but if we can trust “the driver” – in this case, the rest of the ensemble – we can relax enough to be confident that no one is going to let us collide with those obstacles. No one in our group will “fail,” because we will not let that happen. We will support each other through our fears and come out stronger. This seemed to resonate with the women in the group. We will likely revisit this exercise a little down the road and see how it goes then.

With the time we had left, the women who have been with the group since last month decided to put the first scene of the play on its feet and see what the “newbies” got out of it. Despite the fact that we had not discussed the staging, our staged reading was strong enough that the new members got the gist of the scene, including some details about the relationships in it. This was really encouraging for all of us because it means we’ve already got this scene to a place where it’s accessible, and we know we can communicate the basics of what’s going on just by improvising with scripts in our hands.


When we were checking in today, one of the women mentioned a personal issue she’s been having. Since our policy now is that any issues that are brought into the group will be discussed/supported by the entire group, I asked her if she wanted to discuss it further or leave it at the door. She wanted to share and get input from the others so we spent some time talking. It was a very constructive and supportive conversation; we listened to everything she had to say, and many of the women offered advice based on their own experiences. We didn’t stop talking until she felt like she was in a better place, and we all assured her that she has our support.

We did our warm up, and then the group decided to spend the entire time today on Shakespeare. We read through Act I Scene I again, and then I asked, “How do you see this scene happening on stage? If you were directing it, what would you do?”

The first interpretation was offered by one of our “veterans”, who said, “I think Tranio might be gay. I don’t know why I see him that way, it’s just a feeling I have. I think he’s in love with Lucentio.” We discussed how this might not be off the mark, and that it would add complexity to a character whose objective throughout the play is to hook Lucentio up with Bianca. Another member was adamant that Tranio is NOT gay; that the two are “blood brothers” and “homies.” Another woman said she saw Tranio as “part wing man, part let’s-go-do-this.” This led to a discussion about the many ways we can interpret the text, and how we need to resist the urge to make permanent judgments about characters at this point in the process – we want to explore any idea that is brought to the table, so long as it’s rooted in the text.

We decided to see how it would work on its feet with some set staging. The same veteran referred to earlier clearly had a vision of how the scene would look, so we invited her to direct it. We then worked through it, establishing to whom each person is talking, how we establish relationships straight away with our staging, and what our physicality says about us. The women who read already have a very strong handle on all of this, and we were cracking up at some of the readings, especially from Gremio and Hortensio.

We’ve spent a lot of time on this scene now, so I think we’ll be ready to move forward next week.