We arrived today to find that the man who’d been our “anchor” Ariel had been transferred to another facility. We’ve always known that this could happen close to performances, but we hadn’t put a strategy in place to deal with it. So that’s where we started.
A number of people were concerned that we wouldn’t have enough actors to play all of the characters. Someone suggested bringing in a few new people from our waiting list, and that was met with mixed reactions. One man said that it wouldn’t be worth the uncertainty of knowing whether or not they’d be reliable, and others agreed, suggesting that we shuffle roles instead. One man tried to bridge that gap, saying that it would be too complicated to bring in anyone to play a major role, but perhaps they could be brought in on sort of a trial basis. “We had a lot of time to get comfortable with each other… This person coming in isn’t gonna have that. It’s gonna be straight business.” Another man agreed, saying, “We don’t know how he’s gonna react to the situation—on stage he might freeze up.” Another person said that eight rehearsals sound like a lot of time, but it’s not. “Whoever we bring in would need to be a real badass to pull this off.”
I shared some feedback based on my experience at the women’s prison; namely, that our ensemble has already gelled and achieved a level of intimacy that might be lost; that this play can be done with 10-12 people if necessary—and we have more than that, even excluding facilitators— and that bringing people in so late in the game could not only be overwhelming, but—if they weren’t the first names on the waiting list—could send a message that SIP is a clique, which we definitely are not.
The main sticking point seemed to be our concept of having three people play Ariel, which had clearly become too complicated. I shared that it’s important to be able to recognize when an idea—even a good one—is unworkable and to let it go. In the end, we decided to bring in three people as “crew,” to give them a taste of what SIP is like and hook them to come back in the summer for the full experience.
We began a stumble through of the play, but I was involved in so many constructive side conversations that I hardly caught any of it! Occasionally I would tune in to see really solid scene work or excellent, compassionate coaching happening. It was great. People were calm and focused.
I chatted with a member of “The Original 12” and asked him how he thought it was going. He had seemed pretty stressed earlier, but now he was more relaxed as he saw everyone pulling together and doing such good work. We agreed that, going into our first full season, we need to set some expectations for the group about things like attendance and commitment. He said that he thought that part of what has enabled this ensemble to take off so quickly, with so much success, is the strong foundation that the women’s ensemble built. I agreed wholeheartedly.
As I moved from conversation to conversation, I noted this really amazing ebb and flow to the way we were engaging with each other. As one man told me, half-joking, that he was intimidated by King Lear, we were interrupted when he was asked to remind several people where the boundaries of our “stage” were. We jumped right back into our conversation, and I assured him that, while Lear is definitely a beast of a play, the work is much more manageable over a longer-term program.
Then an ensemble member, who is a musician, popped by with our Stephano to let me know that he was going to teach him “a really cool tune” for his first song. Our Stephano realized it was time for his entrance, and I realized that the scene was going astonishingly well—it was the first run ever for the man playing Trinculo, who, as of about a half hour before, had taken on the role because of the other actor’s excessive absences. I had thought that this role would be pretty far outside of his comfort zone, but he was so game that I began to think that I was wrong about that. He and Stephano had a blast playing around with drunken physicality, and it was really fun to watch.
In fact, their work inspired a new idea from several ensemble members for Stephano to hit Trinculo not only with his hand, but with baby powder that he’d get from Caliban. I welcomed them to give it a go but asked them to stay open to the possibility that having script in hand and not having a ton of time to rehearse might make this overwhelming. They agreed that, if that were the case, they would let go of the shtick.
We didn’t make it all the way through the play, but we still felt good. We talked through the need to “get used to messing up and keeping going,” as well as projecting our voices and using our scripts as parts of our characters. We’re in good spirits and in good shape.
We had the first of our “bonus” rehearsals today and jumped right into III.iii, where we’d left off the day before, and which we hadn’t yet blocked. We decided to just improvise through it and see what happened. Our Ariel wasn’t present, but I’d been warned that I might be drafted to be his “wingman” and volunteered to stand in for him. I also am still off-book for this monologue from when I learned it 12 years ago!
This was a lot of fun. I just sort of chased everyone around the stage, projecting my voice as much as I could, while one of the others shouted out the “thunder” sound cues. Some of the actors were so bemused that they occasionally stopped running away and just stared at me, laughing, while I shouted, “YOU SHOULD BE MORE SCARED OF ME!” and continued to terrorize them. The scene ended, and, as I caught my breath, saying only that it was tough to refer to “three men” who were scattered around the stage, the men problem-solved to figure out not just how to address that issue, but how to find more movement and character details. We ran the scene again, and it began to work better, with most of them staying in a clump that moved away as I advanced. One of them ended up curled up in a ball on the floor, attempting to hide under his script. It was hilarious.
We kept going with the play, and even in the scenes that were rough, it was clear that we’ve got a lot of ownership of the material. There was a particularly great moment, toward the end of the play, when Prospero said, “Welcome, my friends—” paused, seeing his brother— “all.” And then he approached Antonio. I got chills, it was so good. And then, to top that off, after he informed his brother that he’d have to relinquish the dukedom and began to walk away, our Antonio lunged at him, held back only by Sebastian. SO good!
We wrapped the stumble through and gathered as I asked, “How did that go?” The consensus was that it had gone well, and that our work now lay in tightening things up and refining our technique. One man reminded us that we need to stay facing out and avoid upstaging each other. Another man brought it back to volume, saying, “Project your voice to the last row. Make sure that person can hear you.” He also encouraged everyone to dig deeper, to act “outside the lines—the fear, shock. Knowing who you’re talking to.”
“I liked a lot of the instincts people had about the characters that time,” said one man, referring first to some of the folks who are always cited among our best actors, but then pointedly naming two men who’ve been working through some pretty serious nerves and insecurities. “You are getting a lot better,” he said, and we all emphatically agreed. And he agreed with the man who’d spoken before, saying, “Because we’re in the mindset of this character, we can add to it,” referring to that “acting outside the lines.”
I shared that my biggest takeaway was that we know the play—and each other—so well that we can fake it till we make it if need be. They agreed, and one man encouraged everyone, saying, “Stop trying to retract when you feel like you messed up. Just keep going.”
We welcomed our three new members today and, as always, did a round of our Three Questions. Here’s some of what they shared:
- “I never knew I could take my creativity this far. I haven’t even done the play yet and don’t know how it’s gonna turn out, but people are giving me a feeling like I’m gonna do great at it… I don’t feel as nervous as I was before.”
- “I came to work on my antisocial psychopathies—so being here is a kick in the face in the first place.”
- “At first I was shy, but I’m not anymore.”
- “I have a daughter, and anything I can do to bring something back to her from here, I will do.”
- “That’s my life agenda—to do things I think I’d never do.”
- “What brought me was brotherhood and the chance to spit in the face of my fears… the fears of speaking, of being in front of other people, the fear of screwing up.”
- “I came to this to help me get over the anger at why I’m here… I had this chip on my shoulder… I’m trying to smack that chip off my shoulder.”
- “I feel like the people I’m around are capable of doing so much better than what we’re doing at the time.”
And one man said, “There’s no wrong way to do Shakespeare. Except not do it.”
We spent most of our time working through and setting blocking for the final scene, and it was honestly kind of frustrating because we just could not seem to stay focused as a group. Our new members dove in, sharing ideas and getting the lay of the land, but we really could have been more productive, and we talked about that as we circled up toward the end of the session.
Our Stephano also informed us that he really didn’t want to sing, but that he had another idea—but then enough people started (warmly) teasing and pressuring him that not only could he not get his idea out, but he gave up and said he would just sing. Most of the guys applauded, but then one man said, “Wait, wait, no. I want to hear your idea.” Our Stephano then shared that he wanted to rap instead, which we were all intrigued by. The ensemble asked him to “bring it to the table” when we meet on Thursday.
We spent most of our time today redoing the pantomime that happens as Prospero tells his story in the second scene. Due to character shuffling, we needed to plug others in, and we decided to go mostly with our new guys for that, along with a couple of people who don’t have many lines.
We were in a smaller room than usual, with acoustics that seemed to amplify our voices, and it got pretty loud and disorganized. The action sort of stalled. Loudly, I asked, “What are we doing, you guys?” One of them replied, “We’re talking too much.” Everyone quieted down, but it didn’t last.
Finally, I said, “It’s gettin’ real Lord of the Flies in here, you guys.” I got up, went over to where my tote bag was, took out one of the juggling bean bags I bring in for acting exercises, and continued, “If we’re gonna go Lord of the Flies, let’s really go Lord of the Flies.” I held up the bean bag. “This is our conch shell. From now on, the only person speaking should be holding this bean bag. That includes me.” I tossed the bean bag to the man who’d been trying to get everyone’s attention, and we proceeded to problem-solve, this time speaking one at a time.
The pantomime ended up in pretty good shape, with cues for movement well-established and written down so we’d remember.
We began to talk about the need to have understudies for Trinculo, Caliban, and Stephano, particularly because our Stephano will need to be absent for our final performance. Then the man who’d been absent so often that we’d given his part of Trinculo to someone else asked if we thought, because the scenes are so complicated, that maybe he should just go back to playing that role. There was a pause, and then one man asked, kindly but firmly, “Are you gonna be here every time?” The man said he would. Another man said, also kindly but firmly, that we needed his full commitment. Could he guarantee us that? “Absolutely,” said the man, without hesitation. We passed the bean bag around, each of us sharing our thoughts. When it came to me, I asked the question that is our current mantra: What is the simplest, most efficient solution? We concluded that this man should be given one more chance to play this role. I really hope he follows through; I think it would do wonders for him.
During check in, one man said there was a conversation we needed to have, and he hoped no one would be offended. He said that he, among others, has been frustrated because it often seems as though we have “too many chiefs, and not enough Indians.” Immediately, I could feel tension in the room, but it was also clear that everyone was invested in dealing with this issue. One man asked him to be more specific, saying that we’re a family, we need to make sure we’re taking care of each other, and that in order to do that, we need to know exactly what we’re doing that’s upsetting others. Another man, who seemed like he’d been part of the earlier conversation, said that people seem to be butting in and taking over when someone else is guiding a scene, and that this can be frustrating and overwhelming. Another man reminded everyone that we’re an ensemble, that “it can’t be no chiefs. It’s all Indians.”
Another man agreed, saying, “In order to lead, you gotta know how to follow.” He thanked the first man for sharing and encouraged everyone else to do the same. “I wanna know how you feel because I wanna know why you feel that way… We gotta have an understanding.” He spoke of the past two shows, both of which he’d thought would be “horrible”, but that they’d pulled together and had a blast. “At the end of the day, everybody’s a leader; at the end of the day, everybody’s a follower… We gonna drop the ball somewhere, but at the end of the day, we’re a team.”
The first man further explained that he knew that everyone has the best intentions, and it’s not that the ideas haven’t been good, but that it’s just been too many ideas all at once. He said he felt like he’d been “bum-rushed” the other day. “We a family,” said another man. “Speak on that.”
“I am not a fan of being crowded,” the first man replied. “People don’t like to be backed into a corner, physically and metaphorically. That’s all.” He talked about needing to keep the tape ball experience in mind: that things work best when we all pitch in and take care of each other. Another man volunteered that we just need to be respectful when sharing ideas.
We began another stumble through of the play, and I worked with our anchor Ariel to figure out ways of working together in each scene. In the midst of this, one of the men came over and quietly told me that another ensemble member had just arrived, telling him that his grandmother had died, and that he needed to talk to me. I went to him immediately.
“I’m sad, Frannie,” he said, staring straight ahead, his face stoic, but his eyes speaking volumes. He said he’d been very close to his grandmother, and that he didn’t know what to do. Being in prison, there isn’t much he can do. He said that he’d wandered over here because he couldn’t be in his unit, but that he didn’t feel up to working, and I assured him that that was fine. He said again that he was extremely said, but also that he couldn’t show his emotion. He couldn’t cry. Two other men, who were sitting with us, assured him that it would be okay to cry and that he should do it. He shook his head, saying that he’d been so good for so long about hiding his feelings that he’s pretty much forgotten how to cry. It’s been years. He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll be a’ight, though,” he said.
We talked more. It was tough for me to pull myself away, but there were some issues with sound that needed to be addressed. Overall, it was a good rehearsal, and I’m glad that that man came over so we could give him some comfort. It isn’t all about Shakespeare. As was repeatedly stated today, we are a family. And we take care of each other.