New Faces, Imaginary Characters

One of the women in our group “pulled chain”, which means she was sent on to another facility – in this case, the state jail, although I don’t know which one.  I have not heard good things about the state jails, so I’m sorry she has left our class to go there. We will lose a few more before this class is over but in at least one case, the woman is being released and can go home to her family. She has offered to volunteer for us in the future. I’m hoping to build a community around this theatre, and to maintain connections with women once they have moved on. I want to start a theatre group on the outside as well, because this work can be just as effective and helpful to people once they are facing everyday challenges again.

With the loss of several women came the gain of new faces. When new women come into the class, I like to leave most of the explaining up to those who have been with us for a while. This gives the women ownership of the activities and of their own class. They can say, “Here’s how you play this game – we all know it and we’ll teach it to you.” Or shoot each other knowing looks when Meg starts her hip circles and say, “We told you this was crazy!” By participating and enjoying the class, they also give the new women implicit permission to open up and do the same. Most of the women today integrated easily into the class and appeared enthusiastic about today’s activity.

Last week, Meg suggested that we bring in scenes for the women to work from. I was a little hesitant over the idea, as scene work is not one of my strongest areas. Picking monologues and scenes has always been difficult for me, and as an actor I always seem to end up performing wildly inappropriate pieces at auditions while others cringe. Nonetheless, I went through my plays and scoured the internet to find what has turned out to be fantastic scenes. Because of our limited time, we decided that we would focus mainly on creating characters, rather than breaking down a detailed analysis of the scene itself. I described the scenes and characters, and the women picked which ones they wanted to work on. This process was surprisingly simple, and everyone seemed to be happy with their choice. The groups each read through their scenes and wrote down answers to questions about their characters. “Who are you? How old are you? What do you like/hate? How do you feel about the other people in this scene – what’s your relationship to them? What’s your strongest memory? What do you want?” I’m a big believer in Mamet-style objectives. As an actor, you must decide what your character wants and go for it.

Several pairs and groups are doing the same scene, as I brought in enough copies for duplication. I loved hearing different women’s interpretations of the same characters, especially when it came to what each wanted. I encouraged everyone to make specific choices (“Don’t tell me you’re 30 to 35, tell me exactly how old you are”) and to think of strong objectives. Once they had answered these questions, we divided the class in half and had each group hot seat each other. In hotseating, the actor takes on the persona of the character and answers questions from her point of view. This induced quite a bit of hilarity but I heard some probing questions as well. All of this talking and analyzing works well for some people, but to portray a different person, I always need to put it in my body. We all walked around the space as I instructed the women to first notice their own walk. “How do you walk? Do you shuffle? Are your shoulders hunched? Where do you look?”

I then asked them to consider how their characters walked. “Does she hold her head up high? Does she swing her hips? Does she lead with her head? Her chest? Her pelvis?” Some women responded well to this, others giggled and got confused or annoyed. I enjoy seeing how different women respond to different kinds of exercises. As an actor, I hate all of the backstory and character analysis stuff – what always works for me is physical action. Certain positions of the body can activate emotions, thoughts and characterizations – both for me and for others with whom I’ve worked. Bringing both kinds of character work in lets the women find their own way in to the characters.

After the walking, everyone made images (I called it ‘striking poses’) of their characters at the beginning, middle and end of the scenes. Many of these were quite powerful and I could see what emotions the women wanted their characters to portray. I then asked them to go back to their scripts, take what we had done physically, and incorporate it into the scene. They got on their feet and blocked out the scenes, adding physical action and characterization. I am so excited to see them. From my eavesdropping, I could tell that many of them are going to be dynamite.

Several of the scenes gave the women a way to explore the issues in their own lives without sharing too much or being too personal. One woman, whose personal story involves a boyfriend cheating on her, picked the scene where a married woman confronts her husband’s lover. As she rehearsed, she called out a few times, “This is just like me! This is just like my life!” She was excited about putting her own emotions into the lines. One really silly scene with a lot of mime and playacting, attracted three women who asked me, “How did you know to bring this in? It’s just like us.” A scene involving a compassionate but frustrated teacher and a rebellious student drew serious interest from women who felt they could really understand that particular situation. Meg was right – it’s been easier to get the women to imagine and act when it’s not their own words or their own lives they’re presenting. In the future, I want a more extensive collection of scenes that I can tailor to the particular women in each group.

Sadly, next week is a week off. There will be no programming at the jail for the entire week of Thanksgiving. I’m grateful for the time off, but disappointed as well. I look forward to my Tuesday and Friday mornings with these women. Working with them lifts me up and reminds me why I want to make theatre in the first place. After Thanksgiving week, we have another week and a half before the workshop ends. The performance in the jail will happen on Friday, December 4th. We’ll then have an evaluation and wrap up day the following Tuesday. If I had the freedom and the money, I would make these projects much longer than five weeks. I want to establish a continual presence at TCCC, and to make our workshops a regular occurrence. If there are any grant writers out there who want to throw their skills my way, please contact me at It can’t hurt to ask!

-Katherine Craft




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