The last week was kind of a blur. The ensemble really kicked out the jams and worked together to pull off three truly amazing performances. Facilitators didn’t end up taking a ton of notes; one of us (me!) ended up in the show, and the others (Matt and Patrick) were running around a lot, supporting everyone’s work. But here’s what I’ve got.
We brought in costumes and props for the first time on April 17. This was a lot of fun, as always, as people tried on different pieces and decided who should wear what. This can be kind of chaotic, but this time it wasn’t; these guys take their work very seriously. Despite absences during our first full work through, we got through the whole play, and it went well overall. There was occasionally a lack of focus, but we were always able to reel it back in and solve problems in the moment. One issue we had was that, during the first “storm” scene, the guys sometimes couldn’t hear each other’s cues, and there would be lags between lines that detracted from the chaos we wanted. The solution ended up being that, at any point when that happened, the mariners would start yelling, “All lost! All lost!” and the others would know that it was time to end the scene.
When I arrived on April 19, I was informed that two ensemble members had gotten misconduct tickets that morning and would not be able to participate for the rest of the workshop and performances. That was definitely a blow, but we calmly circled up and solved the problem: the ensemble member who’d begun understudying Stephano would go ahead and step in, I would move from my role as supporting Ariel to that of Miranda, and an ensemble member who’d kept himself in reserve for this kind of situation stepped into that back up Ariel role.
I wasn’t too thrilled about playing Miranda. For one thing, I was really hoping one of the guys would step up, buck stereotypes, and unapologetically play a woman as some have in the past. But no one wanted this role; part of that, I think, was because they felt what I did: that Miranda is kind of a dud. I told them that they would need to really think about this when we begin work on King Lear because I can’t play all three women in that show!
On my feet, though, I had a really cool experience with this character. We had found a funny way to stage the first time Ferdinand sees Miranda – a Maxwell song started playing as he turned to her – and, in that moment, I found myself reacting in an incredibly nerdy way, giggling, stumbling around, bumping into a set piece… The scene was so much fun, and it was because my excellent scene partner was so committed, adapted quickly to my weird interpretation, and gave me a lot to work with. He was sparked to change it up by what I was doing, too. I hadn’t been on stage with him before, and, in the moment, in my actor brain, I realized what a talented performer he is and how lucky I was to have the chance to play with him in this show.
Miranda just got nerdier and nerdier, as I put my glasses back on and put my hair in a side ponytail, working toward a lot of silliness and snorting while laughing. I think that my approaching this with total abandon, not to mention the full commitment of the guys who’d just stepped into new roles, helped bump it up a notch for the entire group. Things went incredibly smoothly. We had known after the previous rehearsal that we needed to shave about 20 minutes off of the run time, and we took about five of those off during this run.
When we arrived on April 20, before we were able to move over to the gym, we met in one of the classrooms. The day before, I had handed out copies of Sonnet #35, which we’ve been working with at WHV, and which has been extremely meaningful to that ensemble. As soon as we walked in, one of the guys turned to me and said, “Frannie, that fucking poem.” I replied, “Good stuff, yeah?” He shook his head and said, “You have no idea.”
The poem is this:
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authórizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are:
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—
Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence.
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an áccessory needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
We talked about it as a group for a bit. We didn’t have a ton of time, and most of the guys seemed kind of reticent, but there was a lot of nodding as those who chose to talk about the sonnet shared quite a bit. The man who’d spoken to me immediately said he’d never read anything like it; that, even from the first line, it struck a deep chord in him and made him realize things about himself he’d never thought about before. “When I look back at my life, all I see is regret,” he said. He continued to say that he encourages his children not to live that way, but also not to be too harsh with themselves when they make mistakes – to forgive themselves. “I’m telling my kids that, and I’m not even doing it myself,” he said. He said quite a bit, actually, and it was all incredibly insightful, not only into himself, but into the text; it was so emotional, though, that I didn’t write much down. I wanted to maintain our eye contact. “This was written – how many years ago?” he asked. “400,” I replied. He shook his head and said, “Damn. That is deep. That’s incredible. It don’t matter how long ago these words were written – it’s all still true.” Another man agreed and said he was particularly touched by the duality in the poem; the idea that you can’t have beauty without ugliness, and that we all hold both extremes within us.
As soon as we had access to the gym, we hustled everything into place and raced through our second-to-last dress rehearsal. We wanted to cut more time off the performance, but we also wanted to keep our audience engaged; in this play, that meant keeping the energy up, the pacing quick, and allowing pretty much no space between cues. Everyone stepped up in a big way and made it happen. Now the show ran only seven minutes over our 90 minute goal.
We had our final dress rehearsal the afternoon prior to our evening performance on April 21. Everything began to come together, with people adding character details, changing up their delivery in the moment for greater effect, and clipping along, finally achieving our desired run time.
Our set consisted of two hockey nets with three backdrops hung between, one over another, that were flipped as locations changed. A blanket was clipped to each net to create a larger back stage area, and the whole playing space was defined by low dividers. In keeping, I guess, with my deep dive into Miranda’s awkwardness, I began Act III scene i by peeking at Ferdinand through one of the nets.. and then, as I entered, tripping (completely accidentally) over one of the dividers and almost wiping out. I played it off as if I’d meant to do it, and my commitment to making a mistake and rolling with it seemed to free the ensemble up even more. I’m very glad I was able to do this without injury!
Our first performance was likewise full of silliness, and the more we dug in, the quicker the show went. We had a small audience, but you’d never have known it from the ensemble’s performances. We all committed even further, pushing each other to do our best work, becoming more playful as we shook off the initial nerves of having our first audience. There weren’t many of them, but they were very enthusiastic.
Our second performance got even better as we got more comfortable. There began to be a lot of really funny ad libbing (“Man, your monster’s trippin’, bro!”), although, because a lot of it also got kind of swear-y, we decided as an ensemble that we needed to cool our jets and mostly stick to the text. One of the swords broke midscene, and the actor holding it played it off really well in the moment. Our audience was larger this time, but a number of them left early. That may have been because it was such a beautiful day. I didn’t hear anything afterward about anyone not liking the show.
Our final performance was on a Monday, just as we’d wanted, and a number of people from the facility’s staff and administration came and sat in the front row. Although this made the guys a little nervous, they’d requested this performance time specifically to show the administration what this program is like, and their focus and trust in each other provided a great impression for all. We had a talk back afterward, answering questions from the guys in the audience and sharing our experiences. Quite a few of them signed up to be on our waiting list afterward.
We took photos that day, which I’ll be posting soon, and the guys had a little celebration before we had to leave. Though there was a bit of sadness at leaving behind the play we’d all enjoyed so much, there was also relief that we’d gotten through the whole thing, that we’d done so well – and that we’d accomplished something that had been so daunting.
I came back the next day for a wrap up meeting. We had planned on taking some time for an open-ended discussion, and some to talk over the operational aspect of the program, but that freeform reflection was so beautiful and clearly needed that it took up nearly all of our time. Here are some highlights:
“I always lived in this little box and controlled everything in that control room… People need space to grow. Coming here took me out that little box because it opened things up to me.”
“It makes me wanna keep doing it -- keep signing up for weird stuff. You don’t know the unknown… It’s awesome. I’m glad I did it. Anything weird, I want to sign up for.”
“I find reasons to quit. I don’t wanna get close to you guys because you’re all gonna leave. You know, Frannie’ll probably leave at some point, too.” (I interjected: “Nope, sorry. You’re stuck with me.”) He concluded that he was glad he’d learned to trust everyone in a way he never has, and it’s made him a better person.
“It felt good to say to my people, I’m proud of myself, because I’ve never been one to commit... This here is showing me that I just completed something. Completing the play allowed me to follow through... I gave it everything I had, and I came out stronger. Better. ”
“In a group with guys like this, you don’t have to be afraid of being judged or ridiculed… I realized self-worth in this group... I have more friends in prison than I did in the world, and most of them are in this room… The bonds I’ve made here in this program provide me that shoulder to cry on if I need it… I have someone I can lean on… And now I’m not afraid of asking for that… It’s almost like the weight of the world is off your shoulders.”
“You can let this place define you. Or you can let it refine you. From that regret came somebody I’m pretty proud of, and I can’t wait to get out of here and show everyone.”
“This program gave me a reason and a key to unlock that door to get out of my box.”
“I have been encouraged to test the boundaries of my courage.”
“It’s nice to see the side that other people don’t… I wouldn’t change my relationship with none of y’all for nothing… To be here and let your guard down… I mean, like [name] -- that’s my brother for life… To see him open up -- him and [name]. I’ve seen the growth in those two.” To everyone: “For the rest of my life, you will affect the people I meet, because the interaction with others makes us who we are… One interaction with y’all changes me.”
“It’s awesome to be around a group of guys who buck the stereotype… Who fly in the face of who we’re supposed to be and what the stereotype is.”
“Our social circle in the world is so small… So when we come into prison, we already in a box. You hang with the people who look like you and believe like you… It’s great that none of that matters when we step in here… I can’t judge you for what you’ve done, because society’s gonna judge us. But when we’re on stage, that’s all society sees.”
“You two didn’t get up there and play Ferdinand and Caliban -- you were you. And that’s confidence.”
“We fear rejection not because of who we’re not, but because of who we are.”
“I just want to thank everybody for the light and how you hold me up… One of the reasons why I hold myself up is because of the way you see me.”
“I said I was gonna bring courage. I didn’t bring courage. Y’all gave me courage. And I thank y’all for that.”
“I’m gonna give you some catch phrases for your fundraising letters, all right, Frannie? GROUP TEAM BUILDING EXERCISES. People out there spend thousands of dollars in trainings, and go to retreats and stuff, to get CEOs to try to work together -- we’ve been able to come together and do that naturally… CULTURAL DIVERSITY APPRECIATION. We learned that we have different values, beliefs, but we’re all the same. We just have different experiences. But we were able to take those experiences and turn them into something fantastic… SELF ACTUALIZATION AND ACHIEVEMENT, because we’ve all learned to have the confidence to achieve and be all that we can be.”
We very briefly touched base on some things we need to figure out when we come back together in June (attendance policy, etc.), and then we shook hands all around as we said goodbye for a couple of months. We determined a long time ago at WHV that we need to take breaks so we don’t burn out, but it was hard to leave. It’ll be really exciting to get back there and start up our first full season with King Lear.