Season Eight: Week 35


It’s a safe zone. Only one in prison.

Tuesday / May 7 / 2019
Written by Frannie

Last Friday, we found out that the woman who was playing Olivia would not be able to continue with SIP this season, and the group engaged in a lively, down-to-earth conversation about how to deal with it. At first it seemed like the best solution was for me to play the role, but then one of our “crew” members spoke up to say she would give it a try. This was very exciting—we’ve been gently nudging her to perform more all season—and, though she cautioned us that she wasn’t positive she could handle the workload, we lavished her with praise anyway. It’s always disappointing when someone leaves the group during crunch time… but it’s also always a thrill to see who steps up to save the day. And, we assured this brave ensemble member, even if she decided not to take the role, the fact that she was willing to try meant the world, in and of itself.

Well, that same woman was the first to check in tonight. She said she’d thought it over and decided to take on the challenge! “The only way I’ll know if I’m capable is to do it,” she said as we cheered and applauded.

We also recently lost the ensemble member who was playing Curio and the Priest. On Friday, our Fabian gamely took on the former, and the latter was assigned to me. Now I posed a very important question to the group: could I please, please, please take our (approved!) cardboard cutout of Fabio, cut off his arms and legs, attach shoulder straps to him, and wear him as a body mask/puppet? The answer came back as a resounding yes (whether because it’s actually a good idea or because they’re humoring me), and I had a quick one-person celebration before we moved on to scene work.

From here, our notes get much thinner, as they always do at this point in the season. There is just so much to do in supporting (and participating in) the work that not much gets written down. But here’s what I’ve got!

Our new Olivia was totally game, bursting through the curtain for her entrance in Act IV scene i and stumbling her way through the blocking with great humor and enthusiasm. It was catching, and the rest of the ensemble upped their game to match hers.

Matt debuted his interpretation of Feste, which was absolutely ridiculous and got a LOT of laughs—and admiration, as he went on without his script even as he struggled with lines. Most ensemble members are not off book at this point, and his willingness to go out on a limb made them much more comfortable about doing the same.

I debuted my interpretation of the Priest, which, as noted, is rooted in my wearing the upper half of a cardboard cutout of Fabio. Of course I didn’t have the “mask” on hand, but I put a sweater on backwards to mimic it and rolled with the punches... By which I mean that when Olivia asked me to “lead the way” on our exit, I “walked like an Egyptian” on out. Everyone thought this was so funny that we’re keeping it. And we’re adding the ubiquitous Bangles song as the transition to the next scene. And this will likely be the signature achievement of my artistic career.

We arrived at Act V scene i, the play’s grand finale. Nearly everyone is in the scene, and there’s a lot going on—and it became apparent almost immediately that, as no one had written down the blocking we came up with a few weeks ago, no one could remember it. After struggling with the first few beats, a longtime member called a hold. Gesturing to the clock, she said that she didn’t think trying to muddle through was the best use of our time. Instead, she suggested that they take me up on my offer to block the scene ahead of time and race them through it on Friday, and use the rest of tonight to catch our Olivia and Orsino up on blocking they had missed or hadn’t rehearsed much yet.

We collectively agreed to the plan, and, though we split into smaller groups for efficiency’s sake, the feeling of unity persisted. As we circled up with a few minutes to go, a few people briefly reflected on how good they felt about the day’s work. “Can we all whoosh each other?” asked one woman. Another person said she thought that would take too long, as we usually whoosh only one person at a time, and Matt suggested that we do a “whoosh wave” instead. It was a great idea—as the whoosh traveled around the circle, our smiles got bigger and bigger.

Although a lot of nerves are still present, there’s a palpable feeling of growing confidence. A sense that we’ve got this. Because we do.

Friday / May 10 / 2019
Written by Matt

Today was all business! We had a scene to block, and block it we did!

On Tuesday, the ensemble gave Frannie the task of coming up with a plan for staging Act V scene i, which is long and complicated and likely to turn into a muddled mess. She did--and it was long and complicated, and almost turned into a muddled mess!

To make things more complicated and muddled and messy, we were in a classroom today instead of the auditorium, which meant that we had to imagine the dimensions of the stage and the locations of exits… and we also had to keep the scene from getting smooshed in a smaller space. But we had a job to do.

Honestly, none of us took many notes, and a play-by-play of blocking a massive theatrical finale would bore even the most dedicated reader of this blog, so I’ll settle for a few highlights:

Our Orsino (who is also our Maria) got really into her role as the simultaneously bombastic and oblivious duke. She had some hilarious moments of stopping in surprise, her eyes wide as if to say, “WHHHAAAAAAAAAAAT?” Outstanding.

There was tango-walking… and some people yelling at each other in the aisles, Jerry-Springer-style.

There was some excellent foot-acting and walking into imaginary doorways by Sir Toby, who was all but incoherent as she was hauled out on stage.

Our Olivia has gone all in on her role! Her Olivia is flighty and bubbly, but also has a little edge of menace about her--a suggestion that if she doesn’t get what she wants, she might get truly mad. It works perfectly!

That’s all for today. Everyone worked hard, and hopefully we’ll see the results next week. Onward!

Season Eight: Week 34


“In the ensemble, you’re free.”

Tuesday / April 30 / 2019
Written by Frannie

Tonight’s session started out with a great check in! A longtime ensemble member excitedly shared that, “I picked up a copy of Julius Caesar, and I read the first act… And, you know, I understood it so well! I was in my bunk laughing, and my bunkie was like, ‘What you laughing at?’ I said, ‘You have no idea.’ A few years ago, this would have been like reading Spanish.” This is enormous—her first year with SIP, it wasn’t until the first performance that she finally understood the plot—and quite inspirational for many others in the group.

Last week, we talked about the need to do a brief warm up each day to better prep us for rehearsing our high-energy play. We touched base on this again tonight, and a few exercises were suggested. But there has been so much trepidation from a bunch of ensemble members about anything that isn’t scripted that, before we decided on anything, I asked if the group as a whole would participate—it can be kind of demoralizing when folks sit to the side. There was a brief silence, and then one of the women spoke up. “I hate improv,” she said. “It’s not that I mind doing it, it’s that I don’t know how to do it. Like, I can’t just do something; I just shut down.” She said she was afraid that that would happen onstage during a performance as well. Several of us assured her that all her feelings normal. I added that she would likely not freeze up during the show—she knows this play so well that she’s going to know exactly how to move things forward if things go haywire. I gave the example of an actor missing an entrance, and her response likely being to shout for them. That clicked, and she was clearly relieved. We decided, though, to table the warm up until next session (we had a lot to get done!) and opted for a quick shake-out instead.

The group began work on Act III, scene ii, most of which I missed because I was working on some logistics with a couple of people to the side. The actors found some really funny shtick, refining the work they did the last time this scene came up. The focus has largely become about Fabian trying desperately to get attention from Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. It’s really, really funny. These women have great instincts!

We continued with Act III, scene iii, which is all Antonio and Sebastian. It was immediately clear that the blocking hadn’t all stuck, and one of the women sitting in the house gently called a hold and took the actors aside for some very quiet coaching. As she did, another ensemble member called out, “Good job on the—line memorization though—” she paused, shaking her head as she failed to find the words she wanted. “Ugh,” she continued, “I lost the words ‘cause Frannie is stealing my thoughts over here.” This is a running joke this season—there are frequent accusations that certain people are “thought burglars”—and I responded with mock indignation, “I am not! I wasn’t thinking anything at all!” Which, of course, wasn’t completely true—I was also impressed by our Antonio’s confidence with the text—but I was not engaged in any thievery!

The scene began again, and this time it worked much better—our Antonio fully committed to staying in Sebastian’s face and keeping her from leaving. There were lots of chuckles, but the moment the scene ended, the actors and the same ensemble member as before began making adjustments. Before they could get too far, though, another woman broke in to tell them how well they’d done. “I liked that a lot,” she said, and a bunch of others voiced their agreement.

The ensemble member who was helping with adjustments then took us back to the top of the scene to find some more precise blocking. We have the actors entering through the house left aisle, ending up on the apron of the stage. When they got there, our Antonio stood with her back mostly turned toward the audience. “Stay open, [Antonio],” said a longtime ensemble member. When she didn’t move (either because she didn’t hear or because she didn’t remember what that means), the woman who made the suggestion got on stage, gently adjusted her, and sat back down.

The scene definitely improved again, but both actors were frustrated by the challenge of anticipating when the other person would move. Just as I was about to suggest that Sebastian come to a full stop during each of Antonio’s lines, the head coach of the evening said to Sebastian, “While [Antonio’s] saying her lines, don’t move.” To which, of course, I replied, “Thought burglar!”

Before we began the scene again, our resident director called out that she’d found something in the text that would help. These lines, as Antonio explains the danger of being exposed (he’s a bit of a pirate), are:

Do not then walk too open.

It doth not fit me. Hold, sir, here’s my purse.

“It seems like Sebastian should start to walk past Antonio at, ‘It doth not fit me,’” she said, “and then Antonio should stop her at, ‘Hold, sir,’ and offer her purse.” That was a little unclear to the actors, so she and another woman got up to demonstrate. Antonio and Sebastian tried it out, but it didn’t work; for whatever reason, even with the demo, the note hadn’t stuck. The “coaches” furrowed their brows as they watched, but not in frustration: I could practically see the wheels turning as they silently strategized about how they could better communicate notes that they thought were clear. After re-explaining the blocking, with another demo, the actors gave it another shot, and it worked!

“I felt like that was better,” said Antonio. I asked her why she felt that way, and she replied, “I was being more aggressive.”

“Totally!” I said. “Have you noticed that you connect more with the text, and we connect more with you, when you’re really, really assertive?” She nodded, and I suggested that she think about saying every single one of her lines that way, just as an experiment, to see what would happen. She seemed tickled by the idea, and then she revealed that there’s a scene a little later in the play that she has totally memorized! “I’m going to get this before the week is over,” she said. It’s been tough for her—this is a huge challenge, and there’s no one in her unit who can work with her—so another ensemble member offered to meet her on the yard now that the weather’s nicer to help out. Antonio said that would be great. She added that she had a lot of fun spouting off a bunch of lines to her mom on the phone, without warning her first. “What you saying?” her mom said, to which she replied, “Mom, it’s my Shakespeare!”

Some very loud thunder interrupted us at that point, and, as we only had a few minutes left and knew we’d be caught in the rain, a number of people loudly groaned. We circled up to lift the ring, and lift it we did—very, very slowly. “I think that was us, as an ensemble, really not wanting to go out there,” I joked, and we had a good chuckle before we headed out.

Friday / May 3 / 2019
Written by Matt

Tonight was a mess, but it was a good mess! After check-in, we moved on to Act III scene iv, which is one of the play’s most complicated scenes. Right away, it was clear that no one remembered the blocking very well. There were some good moments of individual acting, but we spent a lot of time trying to remember where actors were coming on from and where they were supposed to move. We haven’t done this scene since we got new scripts, so anyone who had been taking notes didn’t have those notes, and the scene’s layout was similar enough to other scenes that it was easy to get confused.

But, amazingly, everyone’s spirits were really high, and we worked cheerfully and constructively through the scene. It’s actually a little hard to describe in writing what the workflow was because it was so fluid and subtle. Every single ensemble member was focused, engaged, and working collaboratively to overcome the challenges of the scene. When we couldn’t recall something, work would stop and several people would compare their memories--but never the same people, and never in a competitive, “I’m-right-you’re-wrong” way--and we would try it until something seemed right, then we moved on.

Watching the process felt simultaneously frustrating and empowering. Frustrating because it was so painstaking; empowering because it was so effective. I’ve rarely seen any group of people in any setting or context work so beautifully together and avoid so many pitfalls: there was no ego, stubbornness, short temper, defensiveness, dismissiveness, or need for control. Instead, we just waded through the work without so much as commenting on its difficulty.

So when it was finally time to run the scene again (Frannie suggested we do it “as cartoon characters”), we were able to pull together something really funny and wonderful. It showed in the individual performances, some of which were the best ones yet. Our Andrew and Toby pulled out all the stops with their goofiness, and Fabian was always in the most hilarious place at the most hilarious time (with the most hilarious look on her face). Malvolio’s strutting was a kaleidoscopic cesspool of love in and of itself, and Viola’s reactions were priceless.

We only worked one scene today, but it felt worth it. It’s never gone that slowly and that smoothly at the same time!

Season Eight: Week 33

Screenshot 2018-06-18 10.40.11.png

“Who wants to think about life before Shakespeare?”

Tuesday / April 23/ 2019
Written by Frannie

After a longer-than-usual check in, we got rolling with Act III, scene i. It’s been a little while since we’ve worked on it, and we needed to flip some of the blocking to accommodate other changes we’ve made, but it mostly held up! This was Matt’s first time through the scene (he’s playing Feste now), and the zannis (newly empowered and energized from their recent breakthroughs!) guided him through, discovering new shtick along the way.

The actors had high energy and were committed to what they were doing, even when they butted heads a little on how to handle certain lines of dialogue. This is the time of year when people’s nerves start to fray a bit, and tensions can rise, but it didn’t seem like anything was about to boil over—or even close to it. Still, our collaborative staging process was more stilted than usual, and we had to power through unusual frustration.

But that led to some great discoveries. Viola suddenly stopped mid-scene and said, “This don’t feel right.” I asked her what she meant. “I feel like after my conversation with Orsino, I’m just jealous of [Olivia].” She and our new Orsino had stumbled on a new, more intimate way of approaching the scene that immediately precedes this (see Friday’s blog), and it necessarily altered Viola’s view of this one. “Roll with that,” I advised. “Don’t lock yourself into what you settled on before if your instincts are telling you to try something new.”

She took it back to Sir Toby’s entrance, which had really started to irk her (as her character… mostly... ). “I think I’ll go with the Maria tactic—put him in a box!” she said. Our Maria poked her head out from backstage and said, “Uh, that was Sir Toby’s tactic!” This is a very important element of our interpretation—Maria starts the ball rolling on the revenge plot but ultimately loses control of it—and it was good to be reminded of that!

We took it back to the top of the scene, and everyone made an even fuller commitment to what they were doing. When Viola gave Feste some money, Matt gleefully handed it off to one zanni, who tossed it to the next, who pocketed it. When he made a good joke, Matt high-fived each zanni in turn—except for Zanni #3, who pouted at having been left out. Then, as they exited in a receiving line of handshakes with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, they got caught up in shaking each other’s hands—and Zanni #3 refused to shake hands with Feste. But he started it!

Our Olivia stepped up her game in a big way today, relentlessly pursuing Viola/Cesario, refusing to allow for any personal space, and alternating between peppiness and pissiness. Her increased energy allowed us to do some detail work on the “chase” she gives Viola/Cesario, including finding a very poignant ending to the scene.

There is more work to be done, but we’re looking good.

Season Eight: Week 32


“I don’t know where I would be right now without this group.”

Tuesday / April 16 / 2019
Written by Frannie

As promised, I brought in some blocking I had written for Act II, scene iii, the scene that tripped us up quite a bit last week. As people trickled in, I handed my notepad to our resident “director” and said, “I just thought, as one director to another, you might like to see how I did this.” After spending a few minutes intently perusing the notes and “floor plans,” she looked up at me and said, “Isn’t it crazy that I know exactly what this means, even in your crazy shorthand?” I grinned and replied, “It’s not crazy at all. You’re a really good director, and we’ve been working together for a long time. Of course you get it.” She smiled and then returned to the notes.

It was revealed at check-in that our Orsino will no longer be able to participate in SIP. We’re just about at the point in the season when facilitators start picking up the slack if/when members drop, but Matt is already understudying (and possibly playing) Feste, and I’d like to hold myself in reserve in case someone needs to fill in when it’s really crunch time. So… what to do?

Our backstage crew and zannis did not want to take on the part, and I don’t blame them—they’re still getting comfortable and are making awesome contributions in their current roles (plus, one agreed to give Feste a go tonight). That said, one member asked another why she wasn’t Orsino. “Um…” the latter member said before the former teased, “Because you know you can’t fill [the previous Orsino’s] shoes!” The other member playfully snapped her fingers at her as the rest of us laughed. Everyone else is carrying major roles, though—Twelfth Night is a true ensemble piece—and we mulled over the logistics for a few minutes.

Suddenly, our Maria asked, “Do Maria and Orsino overlap at all? Are they ever on stage at the same time?” “... I don’t think so,” I replied, and another ensemble member slowly took an Arden edition, which includes a chart showing the characters in each scene, out of “the Shakespeare box.” After looking over the chart carefully, she confirmed that they do not. “Interesting…” said a veteran member. “That’s very interesting…” said another vet, barely containing a huge smile.

“Okay. I’ll do it,” said our Maria, and we burst into applause. “I’m really gonna try,” she continued, mildly panicked but more determined. “I’ll do my best. I don’t wanna let you guys down. If I suck horribly, let me know.” As the others fiercely shook their heads, I said, “You will not suck horribly. You’re taking on something that terrifies you for the good of the whole group. There’s no way you can let us down. There’s no way you can suck, even a little bit.” Blushing slightly, she said, “But you guys have to really help me, okay? I think I got a really good grasp on Maria’s stuff… I want everybody to be really on me about making these characters different. I want to approach these parts really differently.” Another woman, beaming, said, “You’re gonna do great.”

Maria voiced some trepidation about memorizing Orsino’s lines, and Matt pointed out that nearly all of them are in verse, and many are monologues—they’ll probably be quicker for her to memorize than Maria’s. Another woman said, “Speaking as someone who had, like, eight monologues last year, I can tell you: the monologues are MUCH easier to memorize than the dialogue.” Maria/Orsino nodded her head. She can do this.

We were still mid-check in, and one woman shared about some really exciting opportunities and recognition that are coming her way. She’s overwhelmed—it’s a lot at once, and nothing like this has ever happened to her before. Another member said, “That is awesome, [NAME]!” And another: “You can do it!” And another: “My daughter will be so J.” A woman who is serving a very long sentence said, “I’m about to cry… You are a big deal… It takes a lot to sit in this prison, and to stay focused and work so hard on something you love, and to see things pay off—because you deserve it!… Look at what you accomplished! Girrrrllll!”

The members who are in the scene gathered on and off stage to begin walking through the blocking I’d come up with, and the others gathered in the house, where they stayed actively involved the entire session. This is a different approach for us—blocking is usually collaborative, and I rarely come in with anything fully prepared to stage—but it was enormously helpful in this case. My blocking took things they’d already been doing and relationships we’d established in our heads, but not on our feet, and simply made them more precise. It had been too difficult for me to articulate what was needed for the audience, and how to do this, but as soon as we launched into the work, things really started to gel.

The first bit of blocking—curtain opens on Toby sitting at a table, Andrew stumbles in and falls (her leitmotif), and THEN Toby says, “Approach, Sir Andrew!”—elicited chuckles and heightened energy right away. Our potential new Feste struggled a bit due to shyness and hesitation with the language, and the group rallied around her. “You’re doing so good!” and “This is your first scene, and you’re doing great,” said a couple of longtime members, and the newer members emphatically backed them up. “I feel like you are gonna do so well in this role,” said one. “It’s just like what you were doing as a zanni,” another woman helpfully said, “You’re just, like, the boss zanni now.” That clicked!

As we continued to roll through the scene, folks added their own touches to the actions I gave them. I asked Toby to do an awkward dance over to Maria while singing, suggesting that it should be “semi-seductive, but actually not seductive at all.” “Oh, I can do that,” she grinned—and she did. Our Maria said, “Oh my god, how am I gonna keep it together?” A longtime member replied, very dramatically, “It is the hardest thing in life to not laugh when someone is in your face.”

At another point, I had Toby do the same dance over to Malvolio, getting in her face—Malvolio then launches into a cartoon version of the Johnson Treatment, with Toby bending backward till she’s in a crab walk position, scooting backward as Malvolio continues to advance till they are nose-to-nose. It worked great, especially when Toby (who has amazing comedic instincts) shuffled her feet along the floor as if it were slippery. As we laughed, a longtime member said, “I love this rendition of The Matrix,” and another veteran said, “It’s like the black and white movies!” I laughed and said, “Yet again, you see inside my mind! Also,” I said, turning to Toby, “Your foot-acting is great.”

We got to the end and ran the entire scene—and it was so funny. Toby’s and Andrew’s exchange at the end had several of us almost literally rolling in the aisles, it was so natural and spot-on. “This is so good,” said one woman. “We’re gonna do this whole play, and this is the scene that’s gonna stick out to people.”

“Well, but we don’t want it to stick out that much,” I replied. “We need to use all this as a jumping-off point for the rest of the show so we’re consistent. So: what makes it work so well?”

“It makes the relationships clear,” said one woman, and we dug into that just a little bit more: it was the specificity of the movements and each person’s posture that contributed to that. “I’m really reserved at letting my full weirdness out,” said another woman, “but I feel like I’ve been in this ensemble with these people for long enough that I can just–” she paused, putting on the most eccentric expression and position she could “–let my FREAK FRAG FRY.” As giggles rippled through the group, I responded, “Let it FRY!”

A longtime member checked in with the woman who’d been “trying on” Feste. “I know I can do it,” the woman replied. “I just don’t feel like I’m ready to do it.” She explained that she really likes playing a zanni without the pressure of speaking lines, but she’s sure she’ll want to do more next season. She’ll work on it a little more this week, though, and let us know her decision on Friday.

One of the zannis, who’s been kind of frustrated, said she felt much better—that she could focus more on what she “should be doing.” (Which, for the record, was all about what she specifically did with my general “the zannis can definitely be super-judgy of everyone,” rather than the blocking itself.) A woman who’d participated from the audience volunteered that the pacing and space given for laugh lines worked “to give us time to enjoy it.” Another woman, who often has great “broad strokes” staging ideas, said, “This was a good way to show how to [demonstrate] what’s going on to the audience.”

Now that everyone understood what I meant about visually establishing relationships and plot, I encouraged them to do their own blocking ahead of time if they had ideas—it’ll make the rest of our work go much more quickly and support line memorization. “I’m happy to take on the more complicated scenes if you want me to,” I said, “but there’s no reason why I should be the one blocking the entire play. There are definitely people in here who can do this just as well as I can.”

So that’s the plan! To be continued...

Friday / April 19 / 2019
Written by Matt

Our new Orsino had a problem.

Avid blog-readers will remember that our Maria took over as Orsino--the first time we’ve cast one actor in two major roles!--which was A) really gutsy, and B) a totally epic, Ghostbusters-style, Superbowl-winning-interception-level, Game-of-Thrones-spoiler-that-has-to-do-with-Arya-Stark-type of saving the day. If there is anyone the entire group can trust to pull off the Maria/Orsino feat, it is this woman. But when she came in today, she had a list of potential issues:

First, she looked over all of Orsino’s lines and didn’t find any cuts, so she’ll have to memorize all of them. Second, while she was looking over Orsino’s lines, she happened to get off-book for Act I (did I mention we can trust her?). Third, she told us that she really wanted her Orsino and Maria characters to be different from each other, and that she’d be relying on the ensemble to keep her honest about that. Finally, she realized that, although Orsino and Maria are never in the same scene together, one of them is often entering while the other is exiting. She made a list of all of the scenes, but didn’t bother reading it. “It’s literally all of Acts One and Two,” she said. “And some of Act Four.”

We brainstormed ideas for a minute or two (Could we arrange for a quick-change costume? Could the zannis vamp for a minute while she changes?), but ultimately we decided that we’d find a way around it, which seemed to put her at ease.

As soon as she expressed her relief and we were ready to move on, though, a veteran turned to her and said, “I just think it’s amazing that you stepped up. That you think these things up and come up with with a way to make it work. You just find ways to get it done. It’s amazing.” Another chimed in: “It’s just so cool that someone so new is stepping up--has this level of dedication.”

Our Maria/Orsino replied with words that had clearly been building up in her for some time. She spoke so eloquently, directly...and quickly (!) that neither Emma nor I got the whole quote. Here’s the best Frankenquote I could pull together:

I mean, thank you. I really can’t put into words what this does for me. This group is just-- I have no idea what it has done for me or why. I don’t know where I would be right now without this group. I’m a really shy person. [After I said I’d play Orsino], I went back to my room and was, like, “Why did I just volunteer to do that?” And, honestly, I don’t know, but this group has given me-- a lot.

Well, that made a bunch of us feel things, but there was no time for that! We had a small group tonight (lots of people were sick), but we had good focus, so we did a quick warm-up and forged ahead!

As luck (or Fate!!) would have it, the next scene we had to work was Act II scene iv, starring… our new Orsino! The first order of business, she decided, was to have Viola bring her up to speed on the scene. As those two disappeared backstage for a few minutes to talk out the scene, the rest of us reflected on the fact that this was our third Orsino. This is the sort of chaos that always finds its way into a season of SIP, but everyone agreed that we had no concerns about this current iteration!

The moment Orsino strode out on stage, it was clear how much work she had done. Her Orsino was big and bold--totally different from her Maria. She spoke more slowly and clearly, and brought a big stage presence (a little bombastic, a little preacherly) that was both distinct and hilarious.

When I asked her how it went, she turned to Viola and asked her what she thought. “I felt like we had a conversation,” said our Viola encouragingly. A few of the women gave a few pointers and walked through some basic blocking.

We’ve wanted to find moments in this comedy to connect with the audience’s emotions, and this is one of those scenes. Viola and Orsino have a conversation that is funny but also vulnerable and poignant, and we’ve always wanted to make sure that it lands properly. We ran their dialogue a few times, stopping to adjust and tweak periodically. What we ended up with was a magical bit of connection onstage.

Viola, as she is trying to tell Orsino that women love as deeply and strongly as men do, speaks the truth by using clever words and double meanings. Our Viola instinctively crossed away from Orsino as she gave this speech, unable to look directly at him as she tried to find a way to say what she felt without giving her disguise away. At an ensemble member’s suggestion, Orsino followed Viola on that cross. When Viola turned back to connect with Orsino, on her line, “Was not this love, indeed?” she caught both of them by surprise.

Before, Orsino had been stuck twenty feet away at center stage, and the space between them had made Viola’s gaze feel like a futile attempt at connection. This time, the look they shared was intimate--and uncomfortable. Viola stalled in the middle of the line, caught out by the intensity of the connection between them. Orsino froze, then used the next line to break eye contact and cross away to a safer distance. It was a beautiful moment of human connection between those characters, built up by the hard work of the women onstage--and the ones watching and helping out.

We ran the scene again from the beginning, building to that moment again. And… it worked! Sometimes those moments of connection in rehearsal are fleeting and fragile and impossible to repeat, but this one was just as good, and maybe even better. At the end, everyone jumped to their feet to give a standing ovation. “Yeah! Just like that!” shouted one of the women. “That’s how you do it!”

The next scene (also starring Orsino/Maria, but this time in her lady-in-waiting/barmaid/schemer mode) is mostly just silly. Act II scene v consists mostly of Malvolio fantasizing about all the things he’d do to Sir Toby if he had power, finding the forged letter Maria left for him, and reading that letter. We’ve worked this scene before, though not for a while, so it took a few minutes to warm up.

It’s a loooooong scene, and it mostly rides on Malvolio’s energy. Fortunately, our Malvolio came out of the gate full of energy and imagination, which gave the others plenty to work with. She acted out her hoped-for abuses of Toby, she enlisted the audience’s help understanding the mysterious letter, and she strutted her stuff at the conclusion, as she fell for the plot. Meanwhile, Fabian and Sirs Toby and Andrew giggled and snooped and got enraged. They nearly got caught as they were hiding behind trees--at one point, Fabian tickled Malvolio with a branch!

In the end, we decided that someone needed to go ahead and block the scene to help tell the story. A couple of the women volunteered. We put up the ring after a wonderful day with a lot of big victories!

Season Eight: Week 31


“Shakespeare is a catalyst.”

Tuesday / April 9, 2019
Written by Emma

Facilitators were running on fumes as we circled up for check-in. The men’s ensemble had just completed four days of back-to-back performances, and earlier in the day the men had wrapped their season with an emotional final session. There was a good deal to share. Matt began, “Obviously, there are things that this (women’s) ensemble has taught me that the men’s ensemble couldn’t, but– ” He was interrupted by a returning member: “Be careful about what you’re gonna say, Matt!” With jokes out of the way, Matt went on to share some important takeaway lessons from the men’s season. The group listened intently, nodding along.

Together we raised the ring. After some much needed whooshing, the ensemble took their places to begin working. With rough blocking behind us, we had a loose game plan for the day: start from the top and see where things go.

Once situated, we were off! Shipwrecked zanni sailors stumbled down the aisles from the rear of the auditorium, picking imaginary kelp and small sea creatures out of one another’s hair. They were followed by a flustered Viola, delivering her lines without a script in her hands! She is an incredibly dedicated member, and the amount of time and effort she has been putting into learning her part was clear. This was among the first times this season that we’ve seen an actor completely off book—no small feat, with two months to go before performances. She and the Captain made their way to the front of the auditorium to finish the scene.

As soon as Viola and the Captain exited, Orsino unexpectedly burst through the curtain. She delivered her opening line with gusto—“If music be the food of love, play on!’—and launched us directly into the next scene. As she strutted across the stage, surrounded by the zanni posse (now acting as musicians), I realized something: she wasn’t reading from her script! Our Orsino had mentioned during check-in that she had been working on memorization (she described a “talent show” she put on in her unit that involved her reading lines), but this blew me out of the water! Her energy was infectious. The zannis, who in the previous scene were chuckling and not altogether in character, were now pulled in.

Without direction to do so, the ensemble moved on. Actors hopped out of the auditorium seats and made their way onstage, powering through their dialogue and blocking. Things were (of course) rough, but it was the first time this season when this many scenes were run back-to-back. And for every rough patch, there was a shining moment. Highlights included Malvolio maneuvering across the stage with a military stiffness that perfectly epitomized his uppity disposition, Maria deftly delivering her dialogue (yep, she’s off book, too!), and Sir Toby skillfully stumbling from point A to point B with a mug held high overhead.

We made it through almost the entire first act of the play before coming to a stop after some jumbled entrances and exits. “Did we plan to run nonstop like that?” Frannie asked the group. We, in fact, had not—it seemed the ensemble as a whole had known what it needed.

After the dust settled, we regrouped in the center section of the auditorium. We spent some time reflecting on some of the technical aspects of what happened—hammering out entrances and exits, discussing things that we did and didn’t like. “I feel like we need more of a connection—like, we could be more back and forth,” our Maria said to Sir Toby. The relationship between these two characters is simple on the surface—Maria as the quick-witted woman who keeps the goofy Sir Toby on his toes—but in practice, establishing this is more complicated. The actors discussed ways they can expand their relationship and communicate the subdued romance that lives there. It will be exciting to see where this is come June!

“How are the zannis doing?” a returning member then asked our posse. During the final scene we ran, the zannis were more or less wandering around the stage, not sure where they should go or how they should get there. One of them responded, “I still am not sure what’s going on, honestly.” A look of frustration crossed her face. Without missing a beat, another returning member replied, “What is it we can do as an ensemble to help you do better? Because we need you.” The zanni shared that the plot (which, for the record, is quite complicated) was confusing her. The group heard her concern and worked together to think of solutions. At no point was anyone made to feel “bad” for not understanding. To the contrary, other ensemble members offered words of encouragement. We agreed that we will spend some time clarifying the plot of the scenes, and that everyone should feel comfortable speaking up whenever they don’t understand something. By the end of our discussion, the zanni’s look of frustration had melted.

As we raised the ring, I reflected yet again on the supportive nature of this group. How we take care of one another; how we not only hear, but listen. I think this sentiment was best summed up by our Orsino: “It’s called Shakespeare, try some!”

Friday / April 12 / 2019
Written by Matt

We started today with Act II! After a (mostly) triumphant run of the first act, everybody felt that it was important to forge ahead. Today’s session was back in the classroom, which is fine, but makes it hard to fully “stage” some of the scenes. As luck would have it, Act II scene i is especially tough to do in the classroom because most of the action happens in the house aisles, not onstage.

This scene introduces Antonio and Sebastian, and we have had to approach it gently from the beginning, since both actors are shy--Antonio is especially shy and self-conscious. We decided to try having them walk in circles, since there was no aisle to walk down, and the first run was very rough as we all dusted off the cobwebs. One of the women said that the scene really needed “more urgency,” and we tried to figure out what the crucial moments were.

“I think Antonio gay or something,” said our Antonio. “He just following this guy around.”

“Does that give you any other ideas?” asked Frannie, after affirming that sometimes Antonio is played that way. Our Antonio shook her head. “But it changes your objective,” Frannie offered. “You need to be chasing her and trying to stop her and, ‘Won’t you pleeeeeaaase stay with me!’” said an ensemble member.

As for Sebastian, one of the women had a suggestion for her, as she is pursued by Antonio: “You’re ready to go to the bar, man! ‘I need to get a drink and get away from these problems!”

The second run was much better, and the beginnings of a scene were already apparent. “I was more aggressive,” said Antonio. Frannie suggested that Antonio “be a puppy,” and one of the women nodded vigorously, saying, “they cry and whine if you get too far away!”

The third run was good, but the two actors’ inhibitions still got the best of them. What happened next was a great example of SIP in action: the entire ensemble rushed in to help--not to tell them what to do, but to figure out what the ensemble needed to do to allow the actors to do what they need to do. “Does it confuse you guys when we give you directions?” asked a woman who had been active in giving notes. “I don’t know!” said Sebastian, “I don’t know how to cue [Antonio] to follow me.” Antonio chimed in: “I’m nervous.” The first woman asked if it would help for everyone to turn the other way so there weren’t so many eyes on her.

Was it the audience that was the problem? “Yes,” said Antonio. “I’m really shy. I’ve always been that way, since I was a little girl.” Another woman, who usually keeps pretty quiet offered, “I also notice that you hide behind your script,” but somehow said that without sounding remotely judgmental or critical. “Maybe you could lower it.” She suggested forgetting about saying all of the words in every line, maybe focusing more on the first couple of words and making eye contact with intent.

At that, a veteran member leapt up with an idea: “I’ll do you one better,” she said, and suggested that we play Yes/No. Everyone jumped to their feet to play the game, including facilitators--it was freeing for everyone, and Antonio found herself loosening up as we played, eventually running around the room and giving a full-body laugh that seemed to help her shed some of the self-consciousness that was binding her up. “That’s what I’m talking about!” exclaimed one of the women afterwards.

As we prepared to run the scene one last time, an ensemble member suggested, “If you screw up the lines, just start saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” The result was… perfect! Antonio seemed connected to Sebastian with a bungee cord, as she bounced in and out of Sebastian’s way. The lines moved faster and with more intention. As Sebastian tried to leave the space on her exit, Antonio chased her into a corner, unwilling to stay behind (not a solution for staging the scene, but a beautiful example of following her objective all the way through).

For the rest of the session, we tried to run the Act II scene iii. The result was less than satisfying. It’s a complicated scene, with a lot of visual storytelling and a couple of crucial plot points. Its jokes simply aren’t funny if you can’t follow it. Frannie admitted to being completely lost when we finished stumbling through. All sorts of people had all sorts of ideas, but Frannie suggested that it might help if she brought in rough blocking for the scene on Tuesday, which might help give form to the ideas we have about the scene—she was having trouble articulating what she meant about using blocking to make the relatinoships clear. Everyone seemed happy with that, so we put up the ring and went our ways.