Season Nine: Week 4

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“This is very therapeutic for me. It gives me purpose.”

Tuesday / September 24 / 2019
Written by Maria

After Kyle and I answered the traditional three questions, we jumped back in where the group left off on Friday with Act 1 Scene 5. We read the scene once to remind ourselves what was happening, and then several ensemble members jumped into the center of the circle to act out the scene.

The Ghost of Hamlet’s father gives a very long-winded tale of his death and commands Hamlet to avenge him. As he disappears, Marcellus and Horatio come upon Hamlet, who swears them to secrecy about everything they’ve seen and heard. The woman who was playing the Ghost exited into the back of the house, so when Marcellus and Horatio came upon Hamlet by himself we could hear the Ghost’s “Swear!” permeating the space. Kyle asked her why she chose to go back there and she said, “I wanted to startle the audience.” It was very effective. “[Hamlet] gets kind of weird at the end,” one woman commented. Another woman reminded us about the power the Ghost has: that he is in control, and he’s trying to build up Hamlet with this long backstory.

The second time they performed the scene, Kyle challenged the woman playing the Ghost to use the whole space and, boy, did she take the note! She moved constantly, and she went through a rainbow of emotions: angry and demanding, betrayed and dependent on Hamlet for vengeance. One of our veterans said that both interpretations of the Ghost were totally different, but that both worked. “If I didn’t want the crap scared out of me, I’d roll with [the first ghost],” she said. She then went on to say that she thought that every time the Ghost appears, it should get really cold. The A/C was on full blast, so this wasn’t too hard to act out today!

“Does it sound like a Halloween play to anyone?” our Hamlet asked. “I think the ghost should be a person with a sheet, with eye holes and armor on,” another woman insisted, laughing.

We moved on to Act 2, Scene 1, in which Polonius instructs Reynaldo to check up on his son, followed by Ophelia bursting into the room, telling her father about Hamlet’s deranged state. We spent a lot of time discussing Polonius’ motivation to spy on his son and have his servant bad mouth Laertes to get more information. Some people thought that Polonius was just a father worried about his son and his son’s reputation. Others thought it might be his own reputation he’s worried about. One woman reminded us that it’s a strange time to leave, with the whole country on guard, and when Kyle asked if Polonius was a good father, one woman replied, “Depends how old Laertes is.” My favorite comment that really got us talking was when one woman suggested that maybe Shakespeare was trying to show a “normal” father/son relationship between Polonius and Laertes, in contrast to Hamlet.

Speaking of Hamlet, what was going on with him? “Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced/No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled/Ungartered, and down-gyvéd to his ankle/Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,” reminded one of the women of Malvolio’s entrance, yellow-stockinged and cross-gartered, in last season’s Twelfth Night. “Hamlet is freaking out, he can’t go to anybody, he’s trying to get himself together,” she said. After his interaction with the Ghost, Hamlet’s whole world has been rocked, and he is now in shock. “He just wants someone to talk to!”

“Does Polonius know anything?” one woman asked. Quite a few people thought that Polonius must know about the murder and that he’s reporting everything Hamlet is doing to Claudius. One woman said that she thought that Getrude must know something, too, and that maybe an affair with Claudius was the catalyst for the murder.

The woman who played Ophelia exclaimed, “I love Ophelia. She’s my favorite in this whole thing. Without her there’s no play. She’s the catalyst and pawn.”

Friday / September 27 / 2019
Written by Emma

Tonight’s rehearsal began with singing our own praises—how we are diving into this difficult text, getting some great ideas for staging, and are only in week four!—and we reflected on how different this season already is, compared to the last. I think one of the neatest things so far is the mature and intuitive nature of the ensemble. It truly feels like its own organism, and a lot of the finest facilitating comes from the members. It’s great to see them taking ownership like that.

We formed a circle in the center of the room and raised our ring. A reminder for folks who are new ‘round these parts: when we create the ring, we envision it as being made of whatever color or energy we need that evening. The whole group seemed eager to get to business and lowered the ring with a no-nonsense pace. Next, Lauren and I asked the group what they would like to do today. It had been quite some time since we’d played any games—so far, this season has been text, text, text. After brief consideration, the crew opted to move forward with reading on Act II Scene 2. The trend continues!

Before diving in, however, some ensemble members quickly caught everyone up on what had happened during Tuesday’s session. A few ensemble members are involved in other programs and courses that conflict with Tuesday night sessions, so it’s important that the group keeps itself updated like this regularly. “It’s the one where Ghost Daddy chats with Little Hamlet,” one woman dryly declared, describing Act I Scene 5. Who was it who said brevity is the soul of wit?

Now, Act II Scene 2 is an absolute doozy. Pages of winding dialogue, numerous entrances and exits, and plays within plays (oh my!). A few people groaned as we cracked open our books and saw what a long scene lay before us. Despite the marathon ahead, we had no problem filling roles. One notable moment during role assignment was when a returning member who has been reading Gertrude noticed that a new member had meekly raised a hand to signal that she also wanted to read for Gertrude. Without any ego, the returning member gave over the role, grinning as she said, “Oh no, I’ve tried it. You do it!” The new member smiled and thanked her.

The group read through the first few pages before stopping to analyze. What is going on at the beginning of this scene? Claudius is talking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Little Hamlet’s buddies) into prying to find out what’s wrong with Hamlet. “Hey, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” one woman summed up, “Go hang out with my nephew-son and see what’s up. It can’t be that his dad just died. It’s been, like, a month.” During our discussion, one of the newer members walked into the room. A returning member who has been growing in to more of a leadership role this season noticed and quickly caught her up. Another example of great facilitation coming from ensemble members.

We soldiered on with the scene. In 2.2, it feels as though everyone (and their uncle-dad!) has a wordy monologue. All those reading did a fantastic job working through the text, with one woman, who usually shies away from major speaking roles, picking up on some nuanced tonal shifts between normal dialogue and asides to the audience.

“Hamlet sure does have death on his mind!” one woman commented as we came to another stopping point. “Does Hamlet really not know who [Polonius] is?” another woman asked the group. We thought about this for a while—if Hamlet is really clueless and doesn’t recognize Polonious, or if he is simply being cheeky by calling this high-ranking man a “fishmonger”. “Everything in the book [HHamlet] is reading is relevant,” a new member piped up. “I like Hamlet,” she continued. “He’s a smart guy.”

We picked back up with reading. A woman who previously expressed anxiety with reading long passages offered to read the role of First Player—an unnamed and seemingly minor character who actually has quite a lot of dialogue. As she flipped through the pages and saw what lay ahead, she nervously sighed. Without skipping a beat, another member encouraged her. “You got this!” this other woman said with a calm supportiveness. The First Player, feeling supported by her peers, went on to do an excellent read of a difficult passage. “That wasn’t too bad!” she said, surprised, as her part came to a finish.

Once we finally finished reading 2.2, we decided to put it on its feet. Many folks read the same parts, but there were a few switch ups based on what characters people wanted to try out. When we got started, the actors were clustered together, barely moving. Everyone was laser focused on the books in their hands and not paying much attention to the movements of their characters in space. When we came to a stopping point, a returning member said, “I feel like we are sitting around reading, but when we put it on its feet, we need to try to generate the movement”.

Almost immediately, there was a difference in the feel of the scene. In particular, the Hamlet/Polonius interaction felt snippy and sassy, completely charged with angsty energy. As we began to run out of time, something interesting happened. The women playing Hamlet and Polonius actually switched characters mid-scene, without taking a break. Whether it was intentional or the result of confusion, it was really cool. What other surprises are in store this season?

We raised our ring back up and said our goodbyes, satisfied with having tackled such a daunting scene.

Season Nine: Week 3

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“The only pressure is to do what you need to do to get what you need out of the group.”

Tuesday / September 17 / 2019
Written by Frannie

During tonight’s check in, a longtime member began, “This is a supportive group.” She said she’d had a conversation with a newbie earlier, and she’d asked if she could bring her concerns to the ensemble. This new member is concerned that her anxiety is preventing her from participating in the way she’s “supposed to.” This is very normal, and the returning member who brought it up asked the ensemble to share their insight. “It’s hard,” said the newbie, “because I really want to participate, but it’s like I don’t know how. How do you guys know to do that [performance stuff]? I don’t have that creative side yet.”

A couple of people jumped in to say that they’ve had that same feeling, and it’s something that you figure out as you go. “No one in this group came here knowing exactly what to do,” a returning member said. “Everybody has a shell coming in here… There’s no pressure on you to read, no pressure to get up. The only pressure on you is to do what you need to do to get what you need out of the group. That’s the only pressure that’s on you.” It doesn’t matter, she said, how you participate—the important thing is that you’re here. “We take our time with each other, and when you’re ready, we embrace that.”

A woman who joined last fall said that she still sometimes feels the way this newbie does. It took her a very long time to be able to put herself out there, but eventually she did. “It’ll come,” she said, “and when it does, it’ll be all right.” Another returning member talked about a time when she went so blank on her lines that she “completely screwed up” a scene and burst into tears when she got back stage. “And then two scenes later, I was back up again. I didn’t know I could do that, but I did it!” Give it time, she said, adding, “And you did good on Friday!”

The newbie said again that she wants to jump up and read on her feet, and to do the improv, but perhaps she’s too hard on herself—too self-critical. A returning member thanked her for telling us and encouraged her to continue to do that. “One thing that’s really important to the operation of this whole ensemble is to communicate your needs,” she said. “If you need encouragement, then tell us what, exactly, it is that you need. That’s the only way we’re gonna know how we can help you.” Another added, “If there’s ever anything that’s not working, let us know.”

The newbie, clearly relieved, told us that she’d like us to give her a push as soon as she’s ready. That time will come, several people said—and maybe she’ll be the one to give herself a push! A returning member shared that she hadn’t done any performing until she took on a lead role during crunch time (and rocked it, if I do say so myself!). But then, when we needed someone to play that part, “I felt it—I felt almost, like, an impulse, to do it. It was a good experience.”

Another, laughing, said, “And Frannie, we won’t even talk about the time I quit the group!” Grinning, I said, “When have I ever brought that up?” She turned to the newbie. “Can you believe I quit the group because I didn’t get the part I wanted?!” she exclaimed. “She sure did,” I said. Laughing, she added, “I quit on a Tuesday… but I was back that Friday!”

The group spent a good deal of time reading and discussing Act I scene ii on Friday, but they hadn’t gotten it on its feet. A few of us (myself included!) had been absent, and I asked if maybe we could explore it some more—it’s a really important scene. We figured out which of us would play each character, and then we launched into it.

A very bombastic Claudius led the charge, though we soon lost steam as she sat in a chair and the rest of us mostly just stood around her. I was reading Polonius, who hardly speaks in this scene, so I was able to do a little quiet coaching of the newbies reading Hamlet and Laertes. I encouraged them to relax, accept that they’d screw up the language because we all do, and move whenever they had the instinct to do so.

When the scene’s focus shifted to Hamlet, that woman first raced, then stumbled her way through the lines, hands tightly gripping her book. She got stuck on one word in particular and stopped. Eyes glued to the page, she turned to me and whispered, “I’m so anxious right now — I can’t do this.” I whispered back, “That’s totally okay. Do you want to switch? Polonius doesn’t have any more lines in this scene.” She nodded. “You did great, by the way,” I said, and then I switched gears into playing a very sulky Hamlet. From the corner of my eye, I saw her cross quickly to the wings, where she sat, head in her hands. A minute or so later, I saw her walking up the aisle toward the exit. But Matt met her along the way, and she didn’t end up leaving. More on that below!

We arrived at the end of the scene and sat down to discuss. Grinning, a woman who was absent on Friday said, “I didn’t even read this scene at all, and I totally got it.” She understood it so well, she said, that she was envisioning staging possibilities—and she wanted to test them out RIGHT NOW. We needed to discuss a bit first, though!

Claudius does a lot of talking in this scene. “He’s got too much to say to just sit down,” one woman said. We all agreed that he’s overcompensating in some way, though we didn’t all agree on what, exactly, that was. I asked if part of the reason for the “word vomit” could be his nervousness and/or guilt about his murder of the king. Well.. it turned out that a lot of ensemble members had no idea that that’s how the king had died—most hadn’t read ahead, and some hadn’t even read a summary. “It’s a huge part of what makes this scene makes sense,” I said, and I encouraged them to read ahead if they have time! This process is different from what most of us are used to from school. We need to know what’s coming in order to understand what’s happening.

That thing about the guilt… “That’s deep,” one woman said. Another added, “He reminds me of the person who hides something and then tries to help you find it!” Totally. A longtime member who is definitely coming into her own this season noted, “I wonder if, from the beginning of the play till the part when Marcellus comes in, there needs to be a break [for Hamlet].” She explained, “Whoever plays that is gonna need to keep in mind that Hamlet is, in a sense… a multi-character. He is gonna need to be so sad, then totally different.”

The woman who’d played Laertes said, “I felt awkward at that one bit, just standing there… I felt awkward.” A returning member said, “You’ll find it as you go. I used to really feel like that.” Laertes pushed, “Am I just standing there? What are we actually doing—something besides listening?” A few ideas were floated, and the woman who’d been having visions exclaimed that she really needed to “run the scene” as Claudius. And so we obliged!

As the about-to-be (sorry, can’t help it) Claudius reset the stage, the woman who’d almost left filled me in a little more about her experience. She’s afraid she’s can’t read well enough, she said, but she does want to participate. I encouraged her to stick with it, and maybe do more listening than speaking till she gets more comfortable: hearing people speak Shakespeare helps one understand how to do it. She agreed that that was a good plan, and then suddenly she was agreeing to play Horatio in this run of the scene. Awesome!

The scene got off to a good start, but then the energy started to lag. A longtime member came over to me and whispered, “I can’t figure it out, but for some reason I can’t understand what [ensemble member] is saying. Like, I understand the words, and I know she knows what they mean, but I can’t understand her, you know?” I nodded and said it was something about her cadence. “Let’s listen for a bit so we can give her something constructive to work with,” I said. “It won’t help her just to hear that we can’t understand her. Listen for the moments when you do understand, and let’s see if we can figure it out from there.” I followed her back to where she was sitting so we could quietly continue to troubleshoot.

Eventually, she, another ensemble member, and I figured out the issue: she was reading, eyes mostly locked on her book, not connecting with an objective or any person. That’s why it’s important to look up as much as possible, I said. “And to hold the book lower down, not in your face,” one of the women added. I agreed, though I said that that did not apply to the woman reading Horatio, who was pushing herself so hard. “Oh no, not her!” both women exclaimed. “She’s already doing so much better,” one of them said. “She’s already louder!” the other added.

Just as she said it, a returning member called a hold and gently addressed Horatio. “You’re doing great. Just slow it down. You’re rushing through it to get through it faster, but it’s not gonna help.” Horatio took the suggestion, and we rolled right through to the end of the scene.

“Holy crap, [Horatio]! Good for you!” one of the women said. “We were talking about how you will be on fire [in performances], with as much progress as you’ve already made in the last ten minutes.” Many voices echoed that sentiment, and I asked Horatio how she felt about it. “I don’t know. I feel... like I wanted to cry. I still feel like crying! I suck at reading,” she continued “and I talk fast, so that’s why I was stumbling over my words.” She tried to describe her experience in more detail, mentioning briefly that talking with Matt instead of leaving had helped, but then her words sputtered out and stopped. Saying nothing more, we gave her a round of snaps.

The conversation started to move on, but Horatio suddenly interjected and looped back to her own work, saying how much it helped to slow down her speech. I encouraged her to keep doing that—that the more she slows down, the more comfortable she’ll get, and the more she’ll enjoy speaking the words. “It’s fun, right?” I asked the veterans, all of whom vigorously nodded. “Not only that,” one of them said, “It’s empowering. Like, ‘Yes! I’ve finally got it!’”

Back to the scene. “I like reading the king,” that woman said slyly. “Yeah, I liked Gertrude, too,” said the woman who’d read that role. Grinning, she added, “I think we got our parts!” Another woman praised this Gertrude’s “aloof regalness.” The woman who’d read Laertes said she still felt awkward with nothing to do! A woman who played a quiet-ish character last season joked, “How do you think I felt with only one line?!”

One of the women noted, though, that she wished Claudius and Hamlet could have explored their dynamic more. Gesturing toward Claudius, she said, “You shoulda pulled some Mortal Kombat stuff.” The woman who’d played Hamlet agreed, “Hamlet is the teenaged kid, and [Claudius] is the stepdad… [Hamlet is] like, ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!’ but [Claudius is] like, ‘No, I’m your dad now. You will pay attention right now.”

We decided to give just the Claudius/Hamlet part of the scene another go, and I coached the ensemble through a few changes in the stage’s set up that would help convey their interpretation to an audience. This is something we left till very late in the season last time around, and our hope is that, by addressing it now, our rehearsal process will go that much smoother. The women playing Hamlet and Claudius did find more of a connection this time, with more eye contact and clearer objectives. It was an invigorating thing with which to end the evening, and we circled up to raise our ring, encouraged and excited for what lies ahead.

Friday / September 20 / 2019
Written by Lauren

Our new facilitator Kyle started today! So naturally, the group asked him the traditional three questions, and, naturally, he passed!

We jumped into reading Act 1, Scene 3. We briefly discussed Ophelia’s father and brother warning her about Hamlet, and expressing their concern regarding his budding relationship with Ophelia. We then moved on to Act 1, Scene 4, where the ghost of Hamlet’s father reveals himself to Hamlet. The group discussed why the ghost would have revealed itself to Horatio and Marcellus before Hamlet. One woman suggested that this would have been the safest way to get to Hamlet. Another added that if Hamlet’s friends had told him about the ghost before he saw it, then Hamlet would know he was actually seeing a ghost and wasn’t losing his mind.

We wrapped up our reading with Act 1, Scene 5. A group of ensemble members began discussing Gertrude and her role. They suggested that if Gertrude were as pure as she claims, then she wouldn’t have given in to her lust for her dead husband’s brother. One woman chimed in that Gertrude may have been in a relationship with her brother-in-law before her husband died. Another member asked why Hamlet would be so secretive about what the ghost had told him. Someone responded that Hamlet probably doesn’t want people to think he is losing touch with reality, so he can uncover his uncle’s crime. It was pointed out by another ensemble member that the ghost doesn’t actually ask Hamlet to avenge him, but to remember him. Hamlet appears to be spearheading the idea of justice and/or vengeance.

We then got Scenes 3 and 4 on their feet, and ran both twice. The second time we ran Scene 3, we added a chair for the woman playing Ophelia. She stayed seated for the whole scene, and later commented that she felt “trapped” in the chair. Another woman in the scene wanted to pull up a chair next to Ophelia, but opted to kneel instead. This sparked a discussion about the visual power of levels and the different interpretations people had of the scene. Some people saw the male characters taking over, while others could feel Ophelia’s urge to get up, though choosing to stay seated.

In Scene 4, the member reading for Hamlet admitted that she did not “feel” the character until close to the end of the scene. Given this revelation, we ran the scene again to maintain the momentum! The woman playing the ghost took this second opportunity to interact more with the others onstage, sliding chairs and keeping Hamlet separate. She appeared to glide across the room, and everyone watching could feel her presence. The other two women in the scene are new to the group, but really held their own in terms of using the space and making the characters their own. It was a really enjoyable scene!

Season Nine: Week 2

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“Today my silver lining is being here.”

Tuesday / September 9 / 2019
Written by Emma

Today’s episode title: The Return of the Tuesday Night Sessions!

Check-ins began quietly. Our circle was composed of many returning members and a handful of new faces. After a few veteran members spoke about how their days were going, one new member chimed in: “Today, my silver lining is being here and having my escape from reality for a minute.” Around the circle, heads bobbed silently in agreement. We then stood up to lower our first Tuesday night ring of the season.

After tossing around some suggestions for what to do next (Reading? Improv game? Monologues?), we decided to begin reading. We cracked open our copies of Hamlet and flipped to the top of the play. Act I Scene 1 introduces us to the grim, chilled ambiance of the play. It outlines an evening of watch duty being conducted by a handful of guards, who’ve summoned Horatio, Hamlet’s college BFF. But this is no ordinary night watch duty! This particular evening there is a ghost sighting--and not just any ghost, but that of Hamlet’s father (the creatively named King Hamlet). The scene entails the guards’ discussions about the dead king, the state of the country, and some superstitions regarding roosters crowing.

To my delight, our very first volunteer to read was a returning member who had stated on her first day last year that she did not want anything to do with a speaking role. She was joined by two other returning members and one new member. I was excited twofold when I realized that all of the women currently reading either had minor or non-speaking roles last season, or were brand new! What a great way to start the season’s reading!

We took a break after a few pages to unpack the text a bit. “It’s bitter, a dreary place, and cold!” said one ensemble member, describing the scene’s environment. We tossed some ideas back and forth about what the guards were feeling. Were they scared of the ghost? Were they anxious about the increased military activity and its possible implications? Or just cold? “I think they’re setting the scene for the ghost,,” said one member. “[The guards] want to come see the ghost too, so that they don’t feel crazy,” one member said. Agreeing, another added, “Horatio is saying, ‘Now that I’ve seen the ghost, I believe you. But what’s going on with all of this—’” she gestured to the circle— “‘stuff?’”. “Don’t they also wanna know why they’re on guard? Like, is there an increase in security around here?” another chimed in, demonstrating an incredibly nuanced understanding of the text.

One woman said she thought the three men were trying to talk themselves into something. “Is that what’s being said?” another member pondered, “Or are they trying to talking something down?” The first woman said, “It feels like what’s going on in my unit lately [with rumors going around]... People are talking themselves into believing it.” The other woman shook her head. “They’re hoping that something might happen,” she said. “They might just be afraid of what could be next.”

The topic of Julius Caesar came up as we noted a reference made to the famous figure. This, in turn, sparked a discussion about omens. Before Caesar’s assasination, a lot of “crazy stuff” happened, similar to what is happening now with the ghost of the dead king strolling around. The ensemble talked about what this could mean to the guards, who aren’t privy to the questionable situation surrounding the king’s death but are intuiting that something is afoot. One member smiled as she began to speak. “I found this ironic, that they were talking about Julius Caesar,” she chuckled. “I feel like such a nerd right now, but I’m reading a book--Percy Jackson--and they’re talking about the assasination of Julius Caesar. Like, wow.” Other members of the group assured her that, if a nerd she be, then she was in good company. “I’ve read them twice!” a woman across the circle assured her.

Frannie asked the ensemble why the play begins this way. “It sets up the past,” one woman said. “It sets up the mood so, as you go along, you can see what the characters are doing,” said another. Another woman said, “It instantly draws you in,” and another agreed, “It’s just enough background to get you curious and want more.”

After we made it through the whole scene, which includes a lengthy and complex monologue by Horatio, it was time to try it on its feet. Some folks switched out so different people got to hop in and give it a shot. The first run was slow-going, a good part of which was due to the aforementioned monologue. It is worth noting that our brave Horatio was battling a cold and still powered straight through the scene! The woman playing the ghost took her cues from Casper, waving her arms and moaning, “wooooooo!” as she weaved between the other (somewhat confused) actors.

Afterwards, there was some discussion about what we felt like the ghost should be doing in this scene. “The ghost should be quiet, yeah?” said one woman. “They’re trying to get it to speak.” The woman who’d just read the ghost giggled, “Oops—sorry! That’s just what I thought ghosts do.” The first woman raised her eyebrows and teased, “Really? Have you ever heard a ghost do that?” Some felt that the ghost would be completely oblivious to the guards, even as they try to provoke it. Others thought that perhaps the ghost would walk around them, more engaged. We also considered the other characters’ reactions to the ghost. Perhaps Horatio’s monologue was actually him trying (and failing) to logic away his fear? Lots of great ideas were shared, and it seems like we are going to have no problem with text analysis this season.

Time flew by, and we found ourselves with just a few minutes left. We wanted to try running the scene one last time in front of the curtain, where the lighting is darker and we could explore the feeling of nighttime some more. Our previous Horatio tapped out, and a longtime member stepped in to fill the role. From where I sat in the audience, the scene looked spectacular--it was hard to believe that this was only our first day reading. The ghost was silent this time around, walking in from the back of the house and circling the other actors onstage. Horatio pushed her way through the bulky text, clearly frustrated but determined to see the thing to the end. Everyone offstage was just as engaged as those onstage as our final run of Act I scene 1 came to a close.

“That was miserable!” the woman reading Horatio said afterwards about the monologue. It’s written in that halting way for a reason, though. Why? Is there a clue in the dialogue that follows? “I feel like he’s trying to play tough,” that same woman said, “He’s portraying he has all the answers.” Another said, “He’s learning it as he goes.” The other woman added, “They’re really dependent on him to explain everything. So, in every failed attempt, he worries that he won’t get it right.” Another chimed in that maybe Marcellus is just really stupid, so Horatio has to go back and forth between the two guards in that effort to get them both to understand. Someone asked the woman who’d read Horatio what Shakespeare would say about the monologue. “I don’t know,” she said with mock indignation, “but I wish he was here, because I have some questions!”

The staging ideas kept on flowing, as members saw the ghost literally walking through walls—how could we do that? “I feel like every time people come to a show, they see the same auditorium—we use it the same way,” a longtime member said contemplatively. “This time, I wanna do something completely different. I want them to walk in and be like, ‘Am I even in the auditorium right now?’” Others agreed, and we had a quick brainstorm about some potential options. These would all need to be approved by administration, of course, but that same longtime member reminded us of what a great track record we have, and how supportive staff are. We should keep the brainstorm going and see where it goes from there.

“We make magic in this place,” she said.

Friday / September 13 / 2019
Written by Matt

We jumped straight into reading the play today--no time to waste! After our experimentation with the first scene on Tuesday, everyone seemed excited to get down to business.

Act 1 scene 2 is tough--it includes most of the play’s major characters, a couple of big speeches, one of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies, and a whole bunch of back-and-forth related to the first scene’s action. It opens on Claudius giving a speech at some sort of official event, and his speech can be a challenge; he uses a lot of formal language and speaks in long, loopy statements that pile images and examples on top of each other. But the woman who read for Claudius soldiered through it, and we were all immediately glad that she was reading! Her confidence made the whole thing easier to understand.

At the end of Claudius’s first speech, we paused for a moment to discuss. A couple of the women broke down the plot: Claudius says that his brother died recently, he married his brother’s wife even more recently, and there’s a whole international incident involving Norway and a mirror-image subplot, so he’s sending ambassadors to his doppelgänger! Whew!

Immediately, one of the women noticed that Claudius gives two reasons for marrying Gertrude, his brother’s wife. “He’s a little bit marrying her because he loves her, but a little bit because he’s looking out for Number One,” she noted. Another put a finer point on it, wondering if the marriage was mostly about projecting confidence. “He knows that [Fortinbras] is coming,” she said, “so he doesn’t want to show a sign of weakness.” A third woman asked, “Is it safe to assume that people advised him to marry Gertrude?,” pointing to a few lines in the text that suggested that it had been other people’s idea. Perhaps, she wondered, this was just what the kingdom wanted him to do. In reply, an ensemble member said she doubted it--she thought Claudius was making that up. “Kings had more power back then,” she said. Another woman nodded, adding, “It feels like he had this plan in place. This seems premeditated.”

We read ahead, introducing Laertes and Polonius and… Hamlet!

“I can see why Hamlet would be upset with his uncle,” said one of the women. “‘Why be sad about your dead dad when you have a new dad right here?!’” she added, sarcastically. “Actually,” she said, “I know this is a tragedy, but I find this all really funny.” Another woman said Gertrude and Claudius seemed really pushy. “I feel like the king and queen just want him to get over it like they have.”

One of our new members brought up Gertrude’s relative silence. Why is she so quiet? “She’s a little lackadaisical,” mused another member. “Something’s not right,” said a returning member. “She’s afraid or something else is amiss,” she added, saying that something about Gertrude’s submissiveness felt off to her: “Is she afraid to speak out?” A couple of the women latched on to this, speculating that perhaps Claudius was intimidating Gertrude or threatening her son. Some people thought on the contrary that Gertrude was quiet out of deference to her new husband. A few wondered whether Getrude and Claudius had been carrying on an affair.

When it came to Hamlet, folks were split again. A new member asked for clarification on Hamlet’s first couple of lines. One woman said she saw the lines as sarcastic, while another saw them as dejected. A returning ensemble member explained how Hamlet’s “too much i’th’sun” line ties to Getrude’s image of the “clouds still hang[ing],” and I followed up by explaining the somewhat famous pun (Hamlet is too much “the son” of Claudius). Even after all of that discussion, however, the ensemble was still divided on Hamlet’s tone. Several members saw him as relying on dark humor to soothe himself, some saw him as more biting and sarcastic, and a few thought that he was too depressed to see his own humor, too dejected to do anything more than a half-hearted attempt at sarcasm. All this from just a couple of lines of dialogue!

When it came to Hamlet’s “Seems, nay it is” mini-speech, though, people were united in their interpretation: Hamlet is sticking up for himself in the face of people who are trying to tell him how to feel. One woman took it a step further: “Do you think he’s saying this for his mother? Like, ‘Sometimes things aren’t what they seem--LIKE YOU! … ‘These are actions that a man might play’ is, like, ‘What are you playing at?’”

Our Claudius soldiered through another long speech, this one directed to Hamlet. This one everybody understood instantly. No need to recap.

“They trivialize the death of [Hamlet’s] father!” exclaimed one woman instantly. (“Thought-burglar!” said another, who had wanted to say the same thing.) “They’re trying to convince him he’s overreacting,” said a third, though she added that it doesn’t seem to be working. Noting that Claudius was preventing Hamlet from returning to college, a skeptical member furrowed her brow and said, “It feels like they have an ulterior motive for keeping him there.” A few people had ideas about that! One woman said, “They don’t want him to go back to school because they don’t want his grieving antics to reflect back on them.” But another disagreed and said they were trying to “put Hamlet in his place.” A third suggested that they might “see his grief as defiance,” and added that a defiant prince could be “seen as a sign of weakness for the kingdom”--she also added that, more than anything else in the scene, Claudius keeping Hamlet from going to Wittenberg suggests foul play. Another woman took it a step further, suggesting that Gertrude and Claudius are plotting against Hamlet. The woman who had started the whole discussion offered a more charitable idea: Claudius wants to keep Hamlet close in case something happens to him, to make sure the line of succession is clear and the prince is ready to be crowned immediately. The discussion continued until one woman offered two explanations: “I think they want to keep an eye on him,” she said firmly, then added “Or maybe they want the cooperation of the people, and maybe the people will support the marriage more if Hamlet does.”

Phew! That just about covers it! As a facilitator, it’s always fun to watch the ensemble getting into a genuine discussion about the text (I didn’t say a word during the whole conversation about Claudius’s motivations except, I think, to note that “people named ‘Hamlet’ seem to be dying at Elsinore,” which didn’t actually add anything to the mix), but it’s especially amazing to watch this group really go at it after an entire season (Twelfth Night, last season) of having nothing to actually talk about in the text. There are so many smart, insightful, and articulate women in this ensemble… it was so great to watch them really dig in!

And that was all before Hamlet’s soliloquy. Actually, the ensemble had very little to say about the soliloquy, compared to the other parts of the scene. I’ve always thought of the soliloquies as the richest, densest parts of this rich, dense text--but I realized after we talked about it that the first soliloquy is quite simple. A brand-new member summed it up perfectly (without, it should be added, any “help” understanding the text): “He’s got two things going on: he’s trying to process his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage. … But he can’t voice his feelings; they’re not validated.” I think that about covers it.

Well, they weren’t quite done unpacking the speech. “He’s madder at [Gertrude] than at his uncle,” noted a new member. “He feels betrayed by her.” Another member added that “He can’t talk to anybody about it… He feels disgusted and alone. When I feel that way, I feel everything he’s saying.” The woman who so perfectly summed up the soliloquy added, “He don’t have nobody to talk to. If he told his mom all this, she’d be, like, ‘This is all about you now, isn’t it?’”

One woman was particularly unsettled by the speech. “There’s a hint of danger here, too,” she said, noting that Hamlet specifically says that he can’t tell anyone his feelings. When I asked about the opening lines, a new member sighed and said, simply, “He just doesn’t want to feel.”

The final pages of the scene bring us back to the first scene: Horatio et al. tell Hamlet about their ghost-encounter. Pretty much everyone proclaimed the scene a pretty good cliffhanger… and also found the scene comical! One longtime member found Hamlet’s quip about the “funeral-baked meats” being repurposed as cold dishes at the “marriage table” so funny that she got an attack of the giggles. “Wow!” she said, trying to catch her breath. “It’s like: Here’s a casket--Bless the departed--Does anyone have objections?--You may kiss the bride!” A woman sitting beside her was similarly tickled by another line: “‘A countenance more in sorrow than in anger’ is the quintessential dad move!”

Lastly, we decided to try the soliloquy on its feet. Two women read it aloud, each bringing something different to her performance.

“I felt like, he’s just all over the place,” said the first, “and he’s just so disgusted with his mother’s actions…. He’s thinking how he wants to die, then, right away, he’s like, ‘That woman!’ … Almost the whole thing is about his mom.” A new member said, “We can relate to this--how we all go back and forth.”

The second woman to read the soliloquy was a longtime SIP member. Her performance was different--more distracted, less angry, less focused. Her Hamlet kept trying to move on and change his thinking, but he was constantly drawn back to the same thought over and over. A returning member pointed this out: “When [she] did it, I realized that he keeps coming back to this one thing: his mom.” The woman who had performed agreed and said that she had been going for that effect.

We had run out of time, so we put up the ring, but it was so nice to spend a whole day talking about this one scene. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season with this brainy bunch--there’s so much to discuss!

Season Nine: Week 1

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“We make magic in this place.”

Tuesday / September 6 / 2019
Written by Frannie

After a great orientation for new ensemble members last week, it was time to officially kick off SEASON NINE! Wowza. We always begin with our traditional Three Questions (more on that below!). But first, we decided to get up on our feet loosen up a bit.

After lowering our ring of positive energy, a longtime member demanded that we do Six Directions, which is an energy/focus/physical engagement exercise (from Michael Chekhov’s acting technique). Though some returning members rolled their eyes (this isn’t EVERYONE’S favorite, even though it’s hers), the ensemble gamely went through the exercise and emerged on the other end feeling… physically warmer, at the very least!

But not quite warm enough—thank goodness for air conditioning, but it was pretty chilly in the auditorium. I proposed Demand a Dance, a circle game in which one member tells another to do a dance that doesn’t actually exist (i.e., the Awkward Moment, the Unhappy Penguin, etc.). That person then makes up some kind of dance, and the rest of the group joins in until another person is called out. It’s fun and QUITE goofy, so it requires a bit of vulnerability right off the bat. Though a few people sat out and watched, most dove right in. It was great.

We always reflect after playing a game, and I asked the group what they thought had made it work well. “We all got to look stupid together?” giggled one woman. “The different interpretations,” said another. And when did it work best? When people really went for the silliness and participated with high energy, we agreed, and the prompts were all awesome. I let the group know how impressive and exciting this particular first round was: whatever ridiculous dance was demanded, they rolled with it, and nobody disengaged for a second—which is really unusual. “You can feel really good about that!” I said, and another woman added, “It speaks well for this whole ensemble.”

A newbie said, “I sometimes feel awkward when I do stuff in front of other people, so it was really helpful that everybody was into it. That’s a big part of why I signed up, was to be less shy when I do stuff in front of other people.” This is a good place to do that, we told her, and we encouraged her to keep putting herself out there.

And then it was time for those questions. This is a tradition that the ensemble borrowed from Shakespeare Behind Bars years ago, modifying it slightly to make it their own. This would be an incredibly long blog if I shared all of the answers, but here are some highlights:

What brings you to Shakespeare?

  • “Sounded like something that would remind me of home.”

  • “I wanna break my shyness. Try something different.”

  • “This is very therapeutic for me, and it helps in my day-to-day existence in this place. It gives me purpose.”

  • “I thought it would be an opportunity to explore some areas that before I never would have.”

  • “To experience the ways I better myself by being in this program… continue moving forward, and pay it forward.”

What do you hope to gain from the experience?

  • “Every year is like something different. In the beginning, I was hoping to just learn people skills and better communication… to be effective with things I wanted to do… It’s really a thing that I can’t speak of till the end of the year… You never really know.”

  • “I hope to be able to take the skills I learned here and transfer them to something that could be useful, helpful, and fun when I get out.”

  • “For myself, personally, that I can grow in a way I haven’t been able to yet. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but we’ll see.”

  • “Through some of the characters, you’re able to explore different aspects of your past, and things that shaped who you are… Being able to express parts of yourself through the characters and having it not be your actual self, makes it easier to work through some of your problems.”

  • “I always end up closing myself off to people, and I don’t want to do that anymore. I keep pushing you people away, but you are like a family here. I want to keep you closer. I want to find a way of not allowing myself to push you all away.”

What is the gift you bring?

  • “In a nutshell, I bring my authentic self.”

  • “I work well under pressure, and I’m super pessimistic, so I always see things that need to be fixed.”

  • “Regardless if I’m in the stands or on the stage… [I encourage everyone] and tell them they can do it, even if they don’t think they can.”

That done, it was time to start making an effort to learn each other’s names—and, as usual, we settled on playing the “picnic game” to do it. This is among my least favorite games, but, hey, it works, so I go along with it every time. It’s the one where the group sits in a circle, and each person says their name and the item they’re bringing to an imaginary picnic. Names and items get added until the final person has to name every person and what they’re bringing.

Okay, fine: this game can be a lot of fun. It’s good not just for learning names, but for getting to know each other a little. Personalities tend to peep—or burst!—out as people name their items… which are not always food: one woman brought a family member with her “for back up.” And when a returning member said her name and item, another exclaimed, “You brought that the last time we had one of these picnics!”

Not content to leave it at that, a returning member asked if she could lead “part two of the name game.” She divided us into two groups, sending me into the wings to operate the curtain. She instructed me to close the curtain, and for one member of each group to stand on either side of it. My job was then to open the curtain, and for them to see who could say the other’s name first, then to close it again.

Had it been only that, it would have been fun—but, as so often happens in SIP, the ensemble took the basic idea and ran with it. And I had the best vantage point, because I could see what was happening on both sides of the curtain! At first people played mild “pranks” on each other: one woman kneeled, giving her the split second she needed to shout the other woman’s name; another hopped along just behind the curtain as it opened to give herself a similar advantage.

Then each team started strategizing, sending pairs or trios of people in, making faces or striking silly poses to throw the other team off. One person burst through the curtain before I could even open it. Finally, every person in each group joined in a pose on their side, and if anyone said any names as the curtain opened, I couldn’t hear it amid all the laughter.

It was a great way to kick off the season: two solid hours of ensemble building and having fun together, much of which was led by returning ensemble members. We left feeling good about the energy in the room—and what it portends for the rest of the year.

Coming soon... Updates on Performances and Wrap Up!

I know some of our readers (maybe you!) are anxiously awaiting updates about the women’s performances, the last of which was last night. Those updates are coming soon! We got such great feedback on the way we wrote about the end of the men’s ensemble’s season that I’m going to do the same for this ensemble.

In the meantime, we’ve just added two new pages that might interest you!

The first is our public announcement of our next big project: the first book in what we hope will be a series of critical editions of Shakespeare’s plays, edited and annotated by SIP members old and new. Click this link for more info and a VERY fun, short video!

The second is that the write-up of our 2016-17 case study is now available for you to download and read at your leisure! We wanted to figure out exactly how Shakespeare in Prison “empowers” people to use Shakespeare as a catalyst to radically alter their lives—and their very identities. We’re very excited by what we found. Click here to check it out!

More soon!

- Frannie