Season Seven: Week 13


We were a little unfocused to begin with tonight, but we got back on track pretty quickly after playing one of our favorite circle games. It got very silly, to the point where nearly everyone in the room was laughing. Then, feeling more relaxed and ready to work, we got back to exploring scenes from the play.

We began with Banquo’s murder. As the women moved through the scene on its feet, it became clear how complicated the scene is even though it’s so brief. More often than not, the facilitators take a somewhat passive role as the ensemble members work out staging challenges, but this scene presented so many challenges and so few obvious textual clues that I jumped up to help before anyone could get too frustrated. And honestly, at this point in the process I feel okay about doing that. There are some women in the ensemble who have an innate knack for staging, but most do not, and seeing examples of how it can be guided helps to spark ideas in them. That leads to confidence in taking over later.

That said, once I nudged them in a certain direction, they took it over and further developed the ideas. I stepped away and simply encouraged rather than continuing to put forth my own ideas.

We moved on to Act III Scene i. Before anyone could even ask who wanted to work, one of the women said, loud and clear, “I wanna be Banquo.” Another woman said, “You just read Banquo.” “No,” said the first woman firmly. “I mean I wanna be Banquo. For real.” It’s really exciting to see her becoming so invested in the play and so assertive about her role in the ensemble. She was in the ensemble last year, and it took awhile for her to come out of her shell. At no point, though, did she assert herself like she’s doing this year. The entire nine-month process is important, and this is why performing at the end is imperative: that’s when things crystallize for most of the women. She behaved very differently after our performances, even in our wrap up, and she came back this fall with fierce dedication, ownership, and enthusiasm.

We read through the scene before putting it on its feet. It went well, but I didn’t realize that the woman reading Banquo had wanted to read through it by herself beforehand because she has trouble processing the language while reading aloud. The others jumped in to encourage her and give her some tips. One woman reminded her to breathe on the punctuation – something we talk about a lot, but that is tough to remember in the moment. Another woman suggested that she also take a moment to breathe whenever things start moving too fast. “Take a breath, then keep going,” she said. A longtime ensemble member recommended working with the language on her own as well. “I like to walk around in the rhythm of the words,” she said.

The woman playing Macbeth absolutely nailed the “To be thus is nothing…” soliloquy. So far she is the only person who’s expressed interest in playing the part. I’m curious about whether people are staying away from it in deference to how much she wants it and how beautifully she performs it or because they truly don’t want to play Macbeth. She’s not domineering in the least – I have no doubt that if someone decides they are interested, it will be a friendly “competition” – but I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

I asked them how the scene had felt. The woman who’d read Lady Macbeth said of Macbeth, “It’s like he’s angry, but he’s also scared.” The woman who’d read Macbeth shook her head and said, “Less angry, more fearful. And yet he’s also king, and that makes him pompous.”

There was some more back and forth, and, while it wasn’t heated, there was clearly some frustration building. “Maybe we can marry what you two are seeing,” I said. “Could we maybe call it ‘intensity’ rather than ‘fear’ or ‘anger?’” They agreed that that word was accurate.

It was a great night. We took the time we needed to get on the same page and then worked collaboratively and effectively. While we are generally not overly “productive” during this season, that’s not the point. Until we get on the other side of the holidays, it’s really about easing tension and stress, and continuing to develop our bonds as an ensemble.


Tonight during check-in, one of our ensemble members read us a poem she had written. It absolutely floored us; several of us had vocal reactions throughout. We enthusiastically praised her when she had finished – the poem was raw and real; gritty and elegant. It was a wonderful moment of coming together for all of us, and, I hope, provided a deeper sense of comfort with the ensemble for the woman who’d read.

We continued our exploration with Act I, Scene iii, in which Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches and are then informed that the prophecy about Macbeth becoming the Thane of Cawdor has come true. The first three women to read the witches decided to begin sitting on the floor, which they envisioned as an open field, just kind of chilling and talking. That was interesting and gave us a very different perspective on the witches’ relationship.

We were in a classroom tonight, so we worked in the round. The woman reading Macbeth said that she had felt strange taking the asides while being so physically close to the others on stage, but another woman said it had worked well because Macbeth had turned her back to the others each time; it had made the separation very clear.

We talked then about how we could build upon what we had just done. One woman envisioned the witches circling Macbeth and taunting him. Her idea gave me the idea that the same effect could be accomplished by having them do the opposite – moving away and making him follow. Another woman said that that would be effective in actually leaving Banquo out. Either approach could tell that story visually.

That led to a further discussion about the witches’ delivery and pacing. Should their three “hails” be delivered slowly? quickly? overlapping? We decided to try it a few different ways.

Our witches began seated again, but they got tongue tied and stopped. I encouraged them to start over and really enjoy themselves. Another woman suggested that they jump up for the story about the sailor and his wife.

“It seemed more real,” one of the witches said afterward. “You guys were feeding off each other,” said another woman. The woman reading Macbeth had also gained some clarity. “He’s weighing the pros and cons,” she said.

We then switched up casting, and I ended up reading one of the witches with two longtime ensemble members. We’ve been working together for years and have a chemistry that definitely enhanced our exploration. And it was so fun to read with them. Two of us began by crawling out from under the tables, and we improvised together very effectively; for example, we all began circling Macbeth at the same time without planning it, and we laughed at many of the same lines.

But, as usual with these two, as soon as the scene was over they focused on the others who’d read. The woman reading Ross had, in a moment of totally unexpected inspiration, read his lines as if she were extremely bored. It had actually seemed painful for her to speak the words. “I loved how you did that, man,” said one of the women who’d read a witch. “It was so freaking dope.”

But the group steered us back toward talking about the witches. “Did I move too much?” asked one. Everyone emphatically said no. “I liked that you were having fun,” said Kyle. The first woman said that she’d fed off of the two of us, particularly my physical commitment. “Do you know how much I was holding back?” I asked her. “With more rehearsal, we could all go even further.” One of the women likened our interpretation to the sisters in Hocus Pocus. She had even decided which sister each of us was.

We then looked at Act I Scene ii, specifically the Captain’s speeches. The woman who first read that part had previously been very focused on Hecate and upset that the entire character might be cut. Kyle had been working with her to identify another role that would satisfy what she wants to accomplish, and this was one of them. She lolled in a chair and delivered her lines clearly and effectively. “It felt great!” she said when the scene was over.

One of the women then jokingly nagged another woman who has been hesitant to read very much thus far – she had quietly told me earlier in the evening that she’s been trying to make room for the others since they have been so excited. But she was convinced to try the Captain tonight. The woman who’d done the convincing turned to me and said, “See, Frannie? I got the skillz.”

And she was FABULOUS. She read that part like a trained actor. There were levels vocally; she relished the language; she painted pictures; she took her time. It got us really revved up.

Throughout the evening, I approached each ensemble member to get an idea of what roles they’re interested in playing. I was intrigued to find that there is no overlap so far in people’s first choices. It’s possible that that will come – there were a few people absent – but it’s equally possible that we could cast this the old-fashioned way: just sitting in a circle and talking it out. That would be so fabulous. We’ll wait and see, but I don’t think casting is far off.

Pilot Intensive at Parnall Correctional Facility. Part 2 of 2.

From July 10-21, 2017, Assistant Director Kyle Grant, with frequent support from Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates, facilitated SIP's first-ever program with incarcerated men at Parnall Correctonal Facility in Jackson, Michigan. These are Frannie's reflections on the experience. Kyle's are in the entry below this one.

Following Kyle’s beautiful recap about our first ever program with men, I wanted to share some thoughts as well! I was not able to be present for every meeting, but I was there quite a bit. I felt completely folded into the ensemble, honored to be a part of the work, and deeply moved by the whole experience.

The conversations we had about the play were deep, enlightening, and, according to a number of the men, the first of that kind that they’d ever had in prison; for some, it was their first experience of such discussions in their lives. And they were totally on board with exploring scenes on their feet. It was not even slightly challenging to get people to read Lady Macbeth, which can sometimes be an issue in other men’s programs. They were all about it. All of it.

In week two, they worked with Kyle to put together a workshop performance of the play, using both original and adapted language to stage their favorite scenes, connected by narration. Every bit of work they did was heartfelt, committed, and creative, but we unanimously agreed that their “Double, double” scene was the best: they turned the incantation into a rap, with a bunch of guys (including Kyle) dancing around a trash can that stood in for a cauldron, another guy playing a drum, and three others (which eventually included me) reading/rapping the witches’ lines (complete with silly voices). Kyle describes the creative process in more detail below. It was so freaking cool, and so effective. And so fun!

I got to join them again on the last day of the intensive for final rehearsals and performance. The rehearsals were collaborative, supportive, good-humored, and fun.

The performance was incredible, and incredibly well-received. The audience of about 150 inmates was silent other than laughing at the funny parts and applauding between scenes. Most of them were riveted. During the bow, about 10 of them stood for an ovation. In the talk back, multiple people asked when we were doing it again and how they could join. Apparently a bunch of them went out on yard and told people who’d left before we started that they had missed something incredible.

Perhaps my favorite part of the talk back was when one man said (good naturedly) to our Lady Macbeth (who is extremely tall), “Hey, 6’8, you get ready by looking in the mirror at how pretty you are?” Amid laughter, our LM said, “Hey, I’m the only guy here who’s man enough to play a woman.” The whole crowd laughed, cheered, and applauded.

We went back to a classroom to debrief, and a few younger members of the audience just kind of followed us in and sat in on the conversation. One wrote down his thoughts for us before he left - he was so excited. Here are some select quotes from the time we took to reflect - tough to choose, given these 12 guys, in 20 minutes, hit every single one of our objectives without us even having told them what they were.

“I was shocked that this would happen at a men’s prison… They [the audience] were quiet, attentive… They were great. We changed their minds at the end - they were like, ‘Aw, man, Shakespeare weak.’ Now they all want to do it.”

“It really does bring you into another place… When you’re out there acting, you can’t think of prison… I started to feel like myself again.”

“It gives everyone a different vision of you. Gives them a new idea of who you are.”

“There’s something to be said about performing arts. When people lose the small-minded thinking and form a real group… It’s a very escaping form of art in that it allows you to get out of your head and where you are… The most fun part of the experience is not what I did on my own, but what we all did together.”

“Overall, this is something you shouldn’t take lightly. Kyle and Frannie grew up with this. But the diversity of this group - there’s no other way this group would’ve come together in here. I thought it would be horrible… But each of us clicked, and something sparked. The crowd saw the group’s diversity on the stage - they saw gangsters, drug dealers, Muslims, Christians, blacks, whites… They saw what we could do together. The crowd was with us ‘cause we was in it… It’s gonna transcend beyond this program… It’s a door opener that all inmates need to engage in. I got friends, and I definitely got comrades for life in Shakespeare Unchained.” (that’s what they named their ensemble)

“I been locked up for 13 months. This is the best part of my bit. I thought two people would have been timid to come into prison… That first day, playing silly games, we got out of our comfort zone… Watching people express themselves in a creative way, I want to express myself in a creative way. It was inspiring as hell.”

“I was on the way to a visit when [friend's name] stopped me and made me sign up… Doing the play - if we look deeper than the play, there’s a message. Challenges can be conquered. [Regarding prison:] We can conquer this.”

“This is larger than life to me. Look beyond. This is something I’m trying to stay involved in, not just here. It kept us focused on yard… This is something I want to teach my kids. I love it.”

“… What this program has done for everyone: It’s cultivated courage and nurtured it."

This was all after just two weeks of working with Shakespeare.

We learned a lot during this pilot, and most of the guys are writing reflections so we can learn even more - what worked, what needs to be adjusted, what their thoughts and feelings are. I told them that they have set the bar extremely high. They were an absolute dream to work with. I can’t tell you how floored I am.

We are eager to get back to Parnall and continue the work these men have begun, bringing more inmates into the program amid this initial buzz and excitement. We will keep you updated on our progress!

Pilot intensive at Parnall Correctional Facility. Part 1 of 2.

From July 10-21, 2017, Assistant Director Kyle Grant, with frequent support from Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates, facilitated SIP's first-ever program with incarcerated men at Parnall Correctonal Facility in Jackson, Michigan. These are Kyle's reflections on the experience.


It’s difficult to sum up the entirety of the experience over these past two weeks. I can only start by reiterating the same sentiment I and the other facilitators have rehashed a hundred times over the past couple years: I am completely humbled by the privilege of working with Shakespeare in Prison.

For the past two weeks, Frannie and I have gone to Parnall Correctional Facility for a SIP intensive; there were two sessions each day from eight in the morning until ten thirty, and again from twelve thirty to three fifteen. There were twelve ensemble members in addition to Frannie and me, although I think that all fourteen of us were not actually in the same room at the same time until the last day. We were contacted several months ago by Ms. Jamie Griffith, one of the instructors at the school who had read about us in the Detroit Free Press. Having no precedent at that facility, many of the men were a little unsure as to what to expect, and it was really her doing that piqued interest (and, in some cases, provided some friendly “arm-twisting”) to get our group together. We can’t thank her enough for the facilitation of the program, and the men at Parnall are truly lucky to be in her class. The intensive was, same as the nine month program, divided into two parts: 1) the reading and study of the play and 2) the creation of the performance.

When we arrived at the chapel (where we met most days) the mood was pleasant, but there was definitely an air of uncertainty. I tried not to let it show, but I was feeling a little uncertain myself - would it be different from working with the women? Would I find my place in the group? Would I dry out of material? Could I facilitate here, too? All these insecurities swirled around my brain as I shook hands with the men in the ensemble. I was really glad that Frannie was there, because she didn’t seem shaken at all - just her usual energetic self. We sat in a circle and went through the initial three questions we ask each ensemble: 1) What brings you to Shakespeare? 2) What do you hope to get out of Shakespeare? And 3) What is your your gift to the ensemble? Although not the unanimous response, the overwhelming response to what brought each person here today was some version of, “I’m not sure yet,” or, “I’m trying something new.” Despite the uncertainty (from both parties, apparently!), they seemed as a group to jump into the work. That first set of messenger speeches, as mundane as they are, jumped right off the page; they quickly took turns performing the, “Unseamed him from the knave to the chops,” section as dramatically as they could. It seemed as though they were hooked. By the end of the morning session, the men had recruited eleven more members - so many that we had to form a waiting list for next time. By the end of the afternoon session, we had several nods of agreement when one member said that for those few hours, he had forgotten that he was in prison.

The days went on like that with conversations that were rich, intimate, lively, and insightful - it frequently seemed too good to be true. Frannie and I couldn’t quite get over just how quickly the men in the ensemble had bought into the process. Part of me thinks that we, as facilitators, may be getting better at this, and part of me thinks that there was something very special about this cohort of men. One of the big responses we got from the post-workshop wrap was that it was the games that broke those barriers down quicker than anything. They didn’t seem to worry about the silliness quite like I thought they might; in fact, there was a certain amount of bravado that I hadn’t really expected. It seems kind of naive now that I didn’t expect it, but there was an unapologetic quality and a certainty to their silliness that was impossible to miss. They seemed to play off of each other’s strengths just right and make up for each other’s shortcomings in the same breath. It was exciting to be a part of, and humbling to facilitate. The major challenges that we faced most days were that the ensemble did not quite know what to expect, so they hadn’t really budgeted how much time or energy an intensive workshop like this would take. They frequently were exhausted at the end of the day or had to come and go for other call-outs with various groups in the facility. The other major challenge for the group was the heat. Many of the sessions got broken up because we were moving to a space with air conditioning, or had already moved and found out that another group had booked the space. As the weather heated up, there was a constant question as to where we were going to meet, or if we were going to stay. The ensemble members also said that many of them find it difficult to sleep in those conditions, so with our 8am start time, many of them were coming in with only a few hours of sleep.

After we had finished the play, chock full of the all rich points and counterpoints about Lady Macbeth, predetermination, moral ambiguity, etc., that Macbeth demands, we began working on the performance. The original idea was that the ensemble would write a sequel to Macbeth about how Fleance comes back to kill Donalbain and Malcolm; however, we abandoned the idea because we thought that writing a whole new text would take the entire week and give us a 5-10 minute final performance. So we as a group started to generate a list of what we thought the audience would need to know about Macbeth to get a basic understanding of the play. We narrowed it down to eight scenes and divided them up from there, the main caveat being that if anyone decided they wanted to work a specific section, that would trump whatever distillation of the play we had rendered. One member immediately said he only wanted to be the narrator, our most enthusiastic member said he wanted to do the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow…” monologue, and another said he wanted to do the “Porter” scene. We took out a few sections and ran with our program. Some updated the language in their pieces, some memorized, some read from a script, some engaged in heated debates over the editing of a scene, some took leading roles, and some took supporting roles; all in all, the performance ran the gamut and managed to capture the oddly cohesive spirit of our group.

Now, I’m not exactly sure how the following happened or when, but it’s one of my favorite experiences with the theatrical process. Anyone who has ever been in a play knows the scenario well: someone does something funny, goofs a line, breaks a prop, makes fun of the script, loses their mind for a moment...  Whatever the case may be, someone else watches and utters those immortal words we all know: “We should do that in the show.” And that is how the ensemble at Parnall Correctional Facility came to perform an interpretive dance to the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble...” scene. As I said, I’m not sure who had the idea or quite how it came about - it just sort of happened. I think someone started reading it, and someone else decided they weren’t reading it with enough chutzpah, someone demonstrated by reading to the beat, so someone else provided the beat, then someone started dancing to the beat, then everyone was dancing, then we all laughed till our faces hurt, then someone said, “So that’s how we’re doing it, right?” and I said “Oh, hell yeah.” That’s the story and, indeed, how it was done in the performance. They turned the scene into a song, with a dance in which everyone dabbed, and there were no fewer than six dance solos, (including mine) in which we popped-and-locked to, “Eye of newt and toe of frog…” It was a thing of beauty - true artistry, and some of the most organic collaboration in which I have ever participated. Another such moment came with naming of the ensemble. Frannie suggested that we name our ensemble, so we set out to find a name that suited us. Some of the ideas were, “The Shakespeare Thugs,” “The Pilots,”  and “The O.G. Shakespeareans,” but there was never a real consensus. The day came when the program needed to be printed, and suddenly we had five minutes to decide. Then someone just said it: “Shakespeare Unchained.”  Everyone stopped discussing and started nodding their heads, and we knew that we didn’t need to discuss it further. As organically as the “Double Double…” dance had come about, so came our name, and it stuck.  

One of my favorite moments in the two weeks happened right before the show, when I asked two of the members if they were scared to perform. One immediately said no. The other struggled to say what he was feeling since he wasn’t feeling scared but was feeling something like being scared. I said that it’s okay to be nervous, and there is a difference between being afraid and being nervous. Being afraid is when you might bail on the task at hand; being nervous is when you know you’re not going to quit no matter what, but you don’t know how it’s going to go, and you want it to go well. It’s just nerves. They both immediately said that they nervous as hell - they weren’t quitting, but they were both very nervous. It was a rare moment of vulnerability from them, and for me it was emblematic of the week. One of those men later told me that he struggles with depression, and that he writes in his journal every night to help him deal with the complicated feelings with which he struggles. He told me that during the two weeks, he hadn’t written in his journal once. There were plenty of such stories. One of the members told me that he had lost his son a few days before starting the program; his friend knew of his loss and convinced him to join the group. He didn’t tell me, or anyone in the ensemble, till the one-on-one interviews after the wrap. He said he had just wanted to focus on something positive. He said that prison life was difficult, and that he was touched that we believed in him (and the group) the way we did. “It’s like you saw the potential in us before we did…” and that gives him hope to bring back to his family when he gets out.

It’s taken me almost a month to get my thoughts together from this experience. There were so many more discoveries and powerful moments that I could have talked at length about. The days were exhausting for me; they were full of discoveries, walls of prejudice breaking down, and nuanced moments in which I saw the best of these men over and over again. The answer that I give for the “What brings me to Shakespeare?” question is always the same: Shakespeare in Prison brings out the best me. It takes all best parts of me to do it right; I have to be my most patient, collaborative, giving, creative, flexible, and humble self. I like myself best while I’m doing Shakespeare in Prison - it’s my favorite version of myself that I see all week. Sometimes I feel like I spend the rest of my week trying to be the guy who shows up to SIP - because when I’m there, it just seems come out of me effortlessly. I can’t help but feel like the guys from Shakespeare Unchained would share that same sentiment.

Session Six: Week 35


Written by Matt

Facilitators were held up for a while at security today, which usually promises a delayed start for the group. With so much to do before performance, there wasn’t time to waste, so facilitators hustled over to the programs building, anxious to make up the time.

Inside the auditorium, the curtains were drawn and a scene was being rehearsed: a conversation between Hastings and Catesby that sets up Hastings’s demise. The two women were speaking with confidence and poise, but then a voice cut in at a key moment:

“Wait. Who are you saying that to?”

It was our Richard, sitting in the audience. The scene stopped, and the women paused for a moment and rustled through their scripts.

“Well, isn’t she talking to Stanley?” offered one woman who follows the script closely.

“Let’s think about this,” said a longtime member, while several other women. After a minute or two of discussion, they came to an understanding of the line (a statement by Hastings), and moved on to figuring out how to block the end of the scene.

“That’s real good,” Richard chimed in. “That’s dope. You guys are awesome.”

Our Anne, who has so far mostly avoided weighing in on others’ performances, suggested a change, leaping to her feet and striding to the stage, where she demonstrated her idea.

Playing the scene again from the top, the performances by Hastings, Catesby, and Stanley were tight and considered. “Open up!” shouted Richmond from the audience whenever an actor turned her back to the audience. At the end of the scene, a chorus arose of “that looked great.” One woman took the temperature of the group: “Are we ready to move on? Let’s move on.”

A new member piped up: “Okay! Act Three! Scene Three!”

Richard jumped to her feet. “Ok, we need Ratcliffe, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan!”

All without a word from facilitators—some of the women were surprised, after 45 minutes, to see the facilitators sitting there in the audience.

The feeling of purpose in the room was contagious. Even women who ordinarily take a back seat during scene work were engaged and focused. And that energy from the group enhanced and redoubled the effort onstage. For two and a half hours, the group worked totally undirected and uncoached, sorting out among themselves how to run the rehearsal. And run it they did. We blazed through all seven scenes of Act Three, including several with complicated entrances and exits, first stumbling through each scene, then working it two or three (or more) times to refine blocking and intention.

A highlight came in III.iii, a scene in which Ratcliffe leads Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan to their deaths. Two women were recruited to be halberds, which crowded the narrow playing space before the curtain. “Wait,” said Ratcliffe, halfway through, “I don’t get this scene.” Several women offered suggestions about making the performances more specific and intentional.

“Wait, why are [the prisoners] talking?” asked Ratcliffe.

“The same reason we talk when police are escorting us,” said Richard, who was kneeling to demonstrate to Rivers a potential physical expression of terror, and then leaping up to show “what comfort looks like” to Grey.

“It’s like you in seg on [security level] four and they’re taking you on that walk and it’s like a mile long,” Richard offered to the three prisoners as a final note.

When one of the guards—played by our Anne—broke up the three prisoners, who were huddled together for comfort, the woman playing Grey said, shaking her head, “No touching. Breaking us up. That’s prison.”

Already, as III.iii finished up, women were pulling together the furniture for the next scene.
As we worked through the rest of the act, so many of the women joined in to help, from the usual leaders to those who ordinarily sit back a bit.

When we ended, the group was elated, almost giddy with excitement. “That was dope as hell,” Richard said, and the others murmured assent. The woman who plays Richard’s mother said that, although she had remained quiet throughout most of the rehearsal, she had been riveted by the performances. A new member mentioned as we closed for the day that this was her favorite meeting so far. She said she felt that we had “really done the work,” and commented on how good that made her feel.


Written by Kyle

Tonight was a great night. I really see the ensemble coming into itself, and I feel less like a teacher or leader and more like a facilitator.  It’s really satisfying that when we get into the space, everyone has already taken it upon themselves to start the workshop.  When Lauren and I got there this evening, the ensemble had already checked in and completed the ring exercise.  They were eager to start rehearsing, and, without much discussion, we launched into rehearsal.  One ensemble member in particular seems to be very good at taking charge.  Up until now she has always been a solid member of the cast, and all of us have been waiting for her to step into this role.  We as a group of facilitators have felt that it was an inevitability that she would emerge as a leader; we just didn’t know when, or what was holding her back.  It feels vindicating that she, without our prompting, has taken such an active role in the group’s productivity.  She was giving notes, organizing the rehearsal, and holding the others accountable in a very humble but clear manner. She seemed to hit that balance perfectly.  Between her and one of the other newer members, they seemed to know the blocking for the whole cast - their energy was contagious.  For the most part, Lauren and I sat back and let the ensemble be the ensemble.

Despite the productivity, there was a fair number of people missing; we didn’t skip a beat, though, and the rest of the ensemble jumped in as needed.  All in all, we finished the entirety of the fourth act, which is a relatively large chunk of text for this group.  I also noticed that there seemed to be a fair number of personal struggles happening in the group with individuals; it was nothing anyone wanted to talk about, nor was there in-fighting within the ensemble - just two or three different women, who were clearly upset, speaking low to each other for support.  With the relatively small turnout for the evening, having two or three in a dark place came out to a high percentage.  It didn’t seem to bother anyone, though. Everyone was pretty content to just get up no matter how they felt and get the job done.

On the way out, I talked with one of the newer members whom I know has been having a hard time lately. This time of year has a lot of family time that she is missing and takes its toll on her.  I asked her if she was okay. She said that she was “only kind [terrible] today,” but that this coming Tuesday she was expecting to be “really terrible.”  I asked if she was still going to come, and she said “probably not.”  I told her to come, tell everyone at check in that she didn’t want to talk, is having a hard time, and to give her some space.  She smiled large and said “We’ll see…”

Session Six: Week 30



I was out of town during our last meeting, and I used some of my time to put together a list of potential cuts to the script. I have sensed the group wanting to move forward more quickly with staging, and growing frustration with the cutting process. They verified this when I asked them if my instinct was correct. I made sure to note to everyone that this was a list of suggestions, and that any/all of them could be rejected.

We ended up sitting in a circle on the floor going through the cuts, which gave us a feeling of camaraderie and the impetus for a lot of jokes – even more so than usual. I hadn’t really wanted to spend an entire evening making cuts, but it turned out to be pretty fun.

As we got to the scene in which the Murderers banter and then kill Clarence, the question arose of who would play the First Murderer now that the previously cast woman has had to leave the group. To our complete surprise, the woman who had told us in the fall that her extreme anxiety would likely prevent her from performing at all, and who about a month ago volunteered to play only a small non-speaking role, casually said, “I’ll play the First Murderer.” There was silence for a moment. “You will?” someone said. “Yeah,” she said, smiling a little. The group burst into applause and cheers. She looked down, still smiling, saying, “Don’t make a big deal about it, you guys.” We tried to contain our excitement, but this is absolutely huge. Not only is she going to get up on stage, and not only will she speak, but she has a good number of lines! I am so excited to see what this experience does for her.




As we checked in tonight, one of the women said she had something to share. She paused. “You know, I forgot it’s not safe outside of Shakespeare,” she said, telling us about something she said in confidence in her unit that was told to others and blown out of proportion. She is now living in an intensely uncomfortable situation, not knowing exactly how this got out, and not knowing exactly how to deal with it. She’s decided to try to hunker down until it blows over. “I’m just so glad I can come and talk here, and it doesn’t get out,” she said. “This is the one safe place I have here.”

As noted many times throughout this blog, one of the most valuable aspects of our program is that it creates a safe space in a place that otherwise feels unsafe – emotionally, physically, or both. It’s essential to our work that people be able to express themselves freely and feel supported in being their authentic selves. That’s the culture we’ve built over the years, and it’s overwhelmingly respected by participants.

We continued making cuts to our script now that our Duchess was present – our policy is not to make cuts that affect people who are absent, and she wasn’t there on Tuesday. We got through most of what we had left and then decided to work the Clarence/Brakenbury scene since we have new people in both of those roles.

I huddled with those women before we began the scene to make sure we were all on the same page with content and cuts. The woman playing Clarence nervously said that this would be her first time on stage. I encouraged her, for this first time, not to rush, but to avoid stopping to apologize for any mistakes and just plow through to the end. “Then the first time will be over, and you’ll never have to do it for the first time again,” I said. She smiled. The other woman agreed not to stop the scene. I then approached the group and let them know what the plan was, and they also agreed not to interrupt.

Although visibly nervous, the women got through the scene. Afterward, I let the group know that it had been our Clarence’s first time ever on stage, and we gave her a huge round of applause and lots of encouragement. I asked her how she felt. “I felt like I stumbled a lot,” she said. Others in the ensemble reminded her that everyone stumbles at first with Shakespeare. “You’re gonna be your own worst critic,” said one seasoned ensemble member.

Our Clarence, true to her emerging role as one of the group’s natural directors, then expressed dissatisfaction with the way they’d physically staged the scene and suggested some changes. We talked about the relationship between the two men – does Brakenbury know why Clarence is in prison? Does he have empathy for him, and, if so, how much does he express it?

They tried the scene a second time. “It got better,” one woman said enthusiastically. “It did. This time I felt more emotion from you.” Our Clarence said, “I sort of felt like I should kneel for the prayer.” Our Brakenbury then asked how she should respond to that. I encouraged them to follow their instincts in the moment – not to prejudge anything, but to spontaneously respond to each other, within the play’s parameters, and see where it led them. I pointed out that our Clarence had, at one point, reached out and touched our Brakenbury’s arm for emphasis on her line, “Ah, keeper, keeper…” She had instinctively responded to one of Shakespeare’s open vowels, which indicate emotion, and the repetition of a word.  No one needed to tell her to do that.

The third time through, they adjusted so that our Clarence didn’t sit on the bench, and then she knelt for her prayer. She said she felt better this third time, although she still wants to make adjustments. The growth in her confidence over just three attempts at the scene was remarkable. It is truly inspiring to see someone taking risks like that, and then to see those risks paying off.