Jill Westerby – Recipient of 2014 Fulton Fellowship
I have been struggling with how to put together an appropriate summary of what my experience at the Shakespeare & Co. Month Long Intensive meant to me. It has changed me in such profound ways that I am still finding it difficult to be articulate about it. So, here goes!
Each morning starts with breakfast from 7:00-8:00 Ok, that’s a lie. Each morning starts with deciding between food, sleep, showering, or completing homework. It is literally impossible to do all of these things every day. (Not enough time!!) So, let’s just say that on *this* day, I was hungry enough that I chose breakfast. (Other days it might be a 5:00 wake up in order to be able to get into one of the two showers 9 of us share.) We stay in a dorm-type building. I have a roommate who I like very much. Here’s what our room looks like (before we messed it all up!):
So, breakfast. And then one may think that there would be a schedule…which, there is…5 minutes before you have to leave for class. This ensures that we are ALWAYS ON OUR TOES and prepared for anything. You can bet your sweet bippy that if you “left something out” the night before in favor of going to bed before 1am, THAT’S THE THING YOU WILL BE ASKED TO DO.
These instructors have eyes and ears everywhere!! The scheduling is due to the following: we were told on day one that we would have specific instructors who tracked our experience from minute to minute. The instructors meet while we (the students) are eating lunch and dinner and discuss us individually, then plan our schedules for the next section of time, accordingly. The instructors are robots, I swear. They exist on little food and no sleep, yet have the uncanny gift of saying brilliant things. All the time. And each of the students get an individually tailored experience (!) After initially being completely irritated by the lack of personal control this model forces, it begins to register that they have done this before (30-some years) and then, like the rest of the experience, it makes TOTAL SENSE.
After breakfast, the days look something like this (this is wildly oversimplified):
8:15 – 8:45 Physical Awareness: Different instructor each day, sometimes more geared toward warming up the physical body, sometimes more geared toward the vocal body. We moved through stretches, the Linklater warmup, scales, improv exercises, lots of walking, and one delightful day they just put on a half hour of dance-your-ass-off songs, and that’s what we did. (Awareness, achieved.)
9-10:30 – Voice/Movement – the vocal work starts with the most basic re-patterning of breathing. Which, to me, (and in very basic terms) was learning to sigh with relief. Not forcing the inhale. In essence, allowing the world to breathe ME, instead of ME forcing the breath. This is deceptively challenging. Once I start dismantling my breath, I realize how HARD I have been working. Holding my jaw, my abdomen, my throat, my thoughts, my emotions (you see where this is going…). Throughout the month, we learn the entire “Linklater Progression”. This is work that I have been invested in since I was 18 years old, yet every day here I learn something new about it. The possibilities of voice and breath connectedness seem limitless…because they are. My voice begins to open in a way I have never experienced. There are spaces, and bones, and nooks and crannies I never knew I had access to. It’s amazing. And I get to do it every. day. for. a. month. *insert vocal siren*
15 minute break. So leisurely.
10:45 – 12:15/30 – The schedule flips. If you had voice in part one, now you have movement. The movement stuff blows my mind. We work through bits of Somatic Movement, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Elizabethan Dance, pure improv movement exercises. We learn fully choreographed routines from past shows: a Pavan. A Country Dance. A Courtly Dance. Every movement of the hand, of the eyes, every amount of space that is left or filled between bodies is there for a reason. Moving the ‘right way’ becomes a thing of the past (eventually…!) and moving for a reason becomes much more vital and important. And again, I delight in allowing old patterns begin to soften and some days, even drift away. It’s like losing energetic weight.
(*side note – we are all also losing very REAL weight. This work is physical, and exhausting and relentless. There are days I just want to cry, I want a nap so badly. The fact that my body is starting to resemble a 60 inch tall supermodel’s keeps me on board.)
Each and every exercise is followed by what is called a “Check In”. There is so much information and so much change, and so much….just so much…that we circle up and have open conversation about what we experience. Some days I talk, sometimes I don’t. I try to hold space for the experiences of everyone. It’s illuminating and amazing to hear how much we are all alike. It is infuriating to realize when someone is just not “getting it”. It is so lovely to have thought and attention paid to me each and every second! It is SO ANNOYING to have thought and attention paid to me EACH AND EVERY SECOND.
12:30-1:30 LUNCH (If we’re lucky, a full hour. Many times 45 min) – the food here is INCREDIBLE. Because there are so many veg/vegan/gluten free folks here it’s like eating at a resort. We all pig down every meal, because we’re burning about 10,000 calories a day. It is fuel, quite simply- but it’s delicious fuel.
Back at the ranch…
2-5 : Play (Clown)/ Sound and Movement (different than Voice..or Movement…or Voice and Movement)/Sonnet/Text/Basics/Stage Violence
OK, so the first week we have this class called Basics. It should be renamed “How to Get Your Guts Ripped Out and Use That Emotional Availability in a Monologue” or, “Beginning a Love Affair with 8 others in the Intensive.” It. Is. INTENSE. Secrets are spilled. Tears are spilled. People CHANGE right before our eyes. The facilitator of my group is Dennis Krausnick. He is one of the most gentle, wise, direct and loving people I have ever met. He’s like a Shakespeare Yoda. Really, he’s just more like Yoda, because what he says on every level of being just makes sense. Basics ends at the end of the first week, and it is a very real feeling of loss. I have 8 new family members.
Play (Also known as Clown) – Yes, yes. Insert Portland clown joke here. I have never done any clowning, until this experience. And guess what? I LOVE CLOWNING. I fit into this world like one of ‘dem round pegs. At its essence (and after hours and hours of games, running around in “motley”, and basically just getting our physical asses KICKED), it morphs into telling the truth utterly and completely and allowing the audience to see you do so with the least amount of frill or fanfare. Recognizing and accepting that our foibles and soft spots and irritants and faults are exactly what makes a hilarious, or touching clown. It’s so honest and so simple it’s almost painful. I find it extremely peaceful. Other people hate it with a passion…which is, of course also hilarious. Our teacher, Michael Toomey, is like a scary, magnificent, military care-taker-and-facilitator-of-all-things-honest DELIGHT.
Sound and Movement – Yuck. I was not a round peg in this class. It consists of making sounds…like vowels, or consonants or sometimes just nonsensical noise…and pairing them with movements in order to affect one another, and to improve our listening/acting/reacting skill set in a more abstract way than through text. I suck at this. I begin to realize it’s because I don’t listen very well, and that I already have my reaction planned (which sort of takes it out of the realm of “reaction”. Duh.) I am frustrated at myself when I realize these things. I am glad I begin to realize them. I continue to generally suck at sound and movement, but at least I’m asking the questions.
Stage Violence: Exactly what it sounds like. We learn punches and slaps and kicks and beating someone’s forehead into a chair, or a book. It’s physically tiring, but pretty standard. Until we get to Strangulation. Ah, Strangulation…you old chestnut.
We are paired with our scene partner (more on that later) for this exercise. We learn and practice the logistics of strangling someone to death for an hour or so, then we are told we’re all going to perform our “scenes” for one another, in front of the class, each partner taking a turn. This begins as ok..until it’s NOT OK. Watching 20 people choke the life out of each other with their bare hands begins to be traumatic. Watching the attacker register the “cost” of their actions begins to be traumatic. You can hear a pin drop at the end of the 90 minute-plus exercise. We have been choking each other for 3 full hours. We file out silently. The effects of this exercise last the rest of the day. We look like zombies walking around. I am emotionally and physically exhausted. I have two and a half full weeks left. This is the first day I cry on my own, not because of an exercise.
(Below is a picture of one of the beautiful churches right by the campus. So still.)
5:00-6:00 – Dinner
7-10:30 – Lecture/Basics/Sonnet
Tina Packer gives the evening lectures, and she is INCREDIBLE. Talks for 3 hours, never misses a beat. The lectures are about various theatre-related topics: The History of Theatre (during which we recreate a tribal Woolly Mammoth Hunt scene; I play the Woolly Mammoth. Ha!) How Theatre Affects Social Change. The History of Shakespeare & Co and their paradigm. Ways to Rehearse. All of them engaging, interesting, challenging.
Week two brings a new element to the program – we are assigned our scene partner, who we will work with for the remainder of the intensive. We will perform these scenes on the last day of the Intensive, and we can invite friends and family to watch. I am assigned “C” as my partner .We are assigned a Celia/Rosalind scene from As You Like It. Yay! I’m playing Celia. Now, mind you…the instructors have been watching us for a full week. These partner selections are not random, nor are the scene selections, but I have no freaking clue what the reasons are. Doesn’t matter…we’re in it now, folks!
At this point it’s occurring to me that I can’t believe I’ve only known these people for a week. I feel closer to many of them than to people I have known for years. Our exhaustion and honesty has made us utterly defenseless to this experience. I am so grateful. I am so lucky to get to have this even once in my life, much less for an entire month.
(Below is a picture of a few of my comrades. This is the only night we ate off campus!)
My partner “C” is not one of the people with whom I’ve bonded. I like her fine; we just haven’t made a connection. I see this as a happy challenge: Find a connection! Bond! Make it work!
I try, but…never have I felt more “other than” a person in my life. It seems that no matter which “way in” I try, we just can’t get on the same page. We run lines. We try the exercises. We work with a zillion different instructors, at least two every day. We meet in off times. WE DO THIS FOR THREE WEEKS. Every day I wonder what the hell is wrong with me. I look at my partner and I simply CANNOT tell if anything I’m saying or doing is registering. I get nervous. Then angry. Then sad. Then distant. I doubt myself and every choice I make. And then back through all of them, over and over.
First world problems here, to be sure. But when you’re doing it 15 hours a day, 6 days a week for a month, magnification happens.
Ah, Flu Season.
Since we arrived at the Intensive, the flu has been rampant. I think every single person (40 plus students, about 15 staff) have been at least a little sick. Some people have had to go to the hospital with a horrendously high fever. Because we are all touching each other, living with each other, lying on the same floors, breathing the same air 24/7, there is no hope of not at least catching a “bug”. I soldier on, washing my hands 100 times a day, sanitizing everything, covering my face with a scarf, the whole nine. I stay relatively healthy…until the last week. I feel it come on suddenly, and the fever is awful. I alternate between sweating and freezing. I develop a terrible cough. Everything is buzzing all the time. I don’t miss a class, not one session…I didn’t spend the last 20 years wanting to come here and then not experience all of it. But I am SICK.
Tina Packer is one of the founding members of Shakes & Co, along with a magnificent group of others. One of those others was Kristin Linklater. She and Tina teamed up to develop the vocal work that has become so important in my journey as an actor. Kristin split off from Shakes & Co several years ago and founded the Linklater Institute. Tina has continued on as an educator and director both nationally and internationally. She is a terrifyingly brilliant, witty, droll woman. She has the gift of cutting through all your bullshit in about a second and half, and it is SCARY. I cannot WAIT to work with her on my scene.
And then…I lose my voice. I LOSE MY VOICE IN THE PLACE I HAVE WAITED MY ENTIRE ADULT LIFE TO STUDY VOICE.
I recognize the irony in this situation. And, to add insult to injury, the day after I lose it is the day (of course) I’m scheduled to work with Tina.
I try to rest. I try to warm up, but there is just no sound. We are to present our scene in two days.
My partner and I get our time to rehearse with Tina, for an hour. It is at 9:30 PM. We get to the rehearsal hall at 9:15. We wait. At 9:45 her assistant comes out and tells us she’s running over with the previous group. I sweat. I freeze. I devour Ricola. I Tylenol and Mucinex. At 10:15 PM we finally get into the rehearsal room with Tina.
She asks us to run the scene, and it’s horrible. I squeak and sweat my way through it. My partner and I may as well be performing two different scenes. BUT I’M HERE! WITH TINA PACKER! She narrows her eyes at me, and I can tell she knows that I am dying up here. After having me run around a little bit and try some things with the pace of the opening monologue she says, “Darling, I’m very worried about your voice. I’m afraid you’re really going to damage it. And you’re sick as a dog to boot, right?” I shrug and try to look healthy. Yeah, she’s not buying it.
“Darling”, she says to me. “Your job tonight is to sit in the middle of the floor and not move or speak. You just listen to your partner.” Then she turns to C and says, “And you… your partner is about to fall over with this plague. Your job is to have the energy for both of you, because frankly that’s what you need to be doing anyway.”
I want to cry. I want to applaud. Instead, I sit down and listen. And damned if I didn’t learn more that night that any of the other text sessions where I could speak. I can’t divulge the nature of what happened that night…it was very personal work with my partner. But I can say that I saw actual transformation in that room. It was extraordinary. After about an hour Tina tells me to go to bed, and she keeps working with C. I hear the next day that they didn’t finish until for another hour.
Two days later I’m still crippled with flu, but excited to see and share our scenes. We have been working in groups of two scenes at a time, so some I have seen, and some I have not. People are bringing their friends and family, and it’s cool to see my fellow students with their “normal” people. I can also tell that it’s a little scary for them to have their families and loved ones there. This is such a snow globe of an experience, and we have been so insulated from the “outside” world. It becomes clear that re-entry back into everyday life is going to be a challenge.
We are presenting in the Tina Packer Playhouse, which reminds me of a slightly smaller but much more acoustically delightful Winningstad. It’s gorgeous.
Here is a picture from the stage:
The scenes are being presented in 4 groups. We start at 10 am and are estimated to be done at about 6:00 pm with time for a lunch which is catered at the theatre. Around the middle of the second group I begin to feel REALLY UNWELL. My fever hits with a sudden vengeance and I am so dizzy and disoriented I feel like I’m going to faint. At lunch, I have absolutely no appetite. I bolt out the door and to my room where I slam some more Tylenol and sit over our vaporizer on full blast with a towel over my head and about 3 layers of clothing on. I stay there for the next 60 minutes until I break my fever and my head clears a little. Then I suit up and head over for our scene.
And I’m nervous. Realllly nervous. I tell myself this is ridiculous; these people are my very, very close friends now. They are all so supportive, and we are all in the same boat. But I can’t help think…my mentors are here. I have waited to study with some of these people since I was 18 years old. What if I’m just a mess, mess, mess?? What if no sound comes out when I open my mouth (a very distinct possibility)? What if my partner and I just can’t find that connection again?
C and I take the stage and we see the audience. We see each other. I exit and she takes her place on stage and gives her line. I enter. I breathe. I see my partner. I REALLY see her. I see the audience again. I REALLY see them. I allow myself to connect the dots of why I’m about to speak, and allow them to watch that process…and then they start to laugh. And laugh. And laugh. I think about saying my line, but I just don’t want to ruin their enjoyment of this utterly real, utterly unscripted and honest moment. Because when do we get to laugh like that?
And in the end, of course, it goes wonderfully well. I don’t remember much of the rest of it, honestly. It just flew by, like things do when they are working the way they are supposed to work.
That night there is a beautiful, fancy dinner in the theatre. Some of us try to get dressed up, but most of us just start drinking wine. (Come on…at the end of the day, we ARE actors.) There is so much joy and love in this group of people that I can barely contain myself. We dance and dance and talk and eat and drink, and it is MORE than I ever could have expected or wished. But… I have been away for almost 5 weeks. I have been sharing a room with a roommate and sharing two toilets and two showers with 9 other women. I am ready to go home.
Most of us meet downstairs for breakfast the next morning. Some of us have already departed. It’s sad…and happy. And I can tell you, I’ve been back for almost 2 months, and there is not a SINGLE day that has gone by in which I have not spoken to at least one person, if not more, from my Intensive. It is such a serious tribe of support, it’s unbelievable.
So, what did I learn? A ton about text. A ton more about Shakespeare. A more in-depth respect of the Elizabethans. Rhetoric. Ways to rehearse. Anatomy. Dance. Voice, Voice, Voice. All of these things are amazing and important.
What did I learn that is even more important to me? Breathe. See my partner. See my audience. Swing my leg. Keep it simple. Tell my truth, on stage and in life, and I WILL affect change. Can’t be helped.
Thank you, Portland Civic Theatre Guild, from the bottom of my heart for this experience. You can’t imagine how it’s changed me. Or maybe…maybe you can, a little, after reading this. I hope.
With gratitude and love,