Tonight we read and discussed Act III Scene IV, in which Desdemona and Emilia first witness the change in Othello, Cassio pleads with Desdemona, and Cassio gives the handkerchief he found to Bianca to copy.
As spectators, we cannot help but cringe as Desdemona unwittingly confirms the suspicions that Iago has planted in Othello’s mind. Why does she respond the way she does, by lying about having misplaced the handkerchief and continuing her quest to get Cassio’s job back? “If you haven’t done anything, you’re not even thinking about it,” said one woman. Why would she be anything but innocent at this point? She has no idea how loaded this handkerchief and the Cassio issue have become.
“She’s committed,” said another ensemble member. “She’s gone against her father, she’s gone with [Othello] to war… Once you’re so far in, you’re like, ‘I’ve put so much into it, I have to keep going.’”
There were audible reactions when we read Emilia’s comment after Othello’s exit:
‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us.
It’s a feeling with which many of us are familiar. “They use you, abuse you, and then lose you,” said one person.
We talked at length about Emilia’s culpability in what happens, abused wife or not. How much does she suspect about Iago’s plot? Many ensemble members concluded that it doesn’t matter how much she knows – she clearly feels remorse for stealing the handkerchief, and she witnesses that theft’s impact on Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship, even if she knows nothing else. “This is exactly like Romeo and Juliet,” said a longtime ensemble member. “All of those people – she can make things right at any moment and doesn’t.”
Since the next scene is quite lengthy, we spent the remainder of our time on an improv game. Although we’ve talked about the idea that improv doesn’t have to be funny, and often can be very serious, we do tend toward being silly in our games – working with such heavy material as Othello, we need some lightness. The game was going well – we were having a lot of fun – when some subject matter came up that seemed innocuous to most but deeply upset one of the women who was on stage. “No,” she said, knowing well the rule of saying yes in improv, “I have to say no to this.” We stopped that part of the game, and as she staying on stage, I watched her closely to see if I needed to stop the exercise. She finished, and then began gathering her things. “Are you okay?” I asked quietly. “Yes,” she said, “But I have to leave now.” Two of her friends who are in the group gave me reassuring looks and escorted her out, leaving the rest of the group puzzled and concerned.
“What just happened?” asked one woman. “Something came up in the exercise that upset her,” said another.
“Yes,” I said, “And I think we can take a couple of things out of this. One is that, if one of us says ‘no’ on stage or stops an exercise, we stop it right there, no questions asked. The other is that we all agreed weeks ago that if someone is upset and needs to leave the room, that’s okay, and we will respect her by allowing her to talk about it if she wants to and not asking questions if she doesn’t.”
The group still seemed uneasy. This is the first time this has happened this session, so it’s new territory for most of us. “Are we okay?” I asked. They responded that, yes, they were okay, just confused. We were out of time at that point, so we lifted our ring together and left for the day.
It was not an ideal way to end a meeting, but this is likely the first, not the only, time that someone needs a breather from whatever it is we’re doing. I think the shock of what happened is due to its occurring during a very silly game when we weren’t expecting any triggers, while we are all expecting to be upset (but safe and taking care of each other) while working on our play. It’s an important lesson that just about anything can be a trigger – we don’t know all of the circumstances of each others’ lives – and we need to take care of each other as an ensemble at all times.
When the ensemble member who left early on Tuesday arrived, I asked if I could speak with her privately. She smiled and said yes. I asked her first how she was doing, and she said that she was okay, it’s just a sensitive time for her, and it took her by surprise that the game took such a turn. I asked her if there was anything that I or the group could have done to handle the situation better, and she said no, she didn’t feel uncomfortable with what happened at all. I reiterated what I had said to the group after she left so she would know that she was returning to a safe space. She seemed at ease with things.
After our warm up, another ensemble member asked if we should consider making some topics “off limits” in improv to spare people’s feelings. She mentioned the specific topic that upset the woman who left early on Tuesday. The group seemed not to know how to respond, so I first thanked her for the concern and sensitivity that led her to make the suggestion, and then said that my opinion is that we should not censor what we’re doing beyond complying with prison policy – that we are working with a play that brings up all sorts of things that may upset us, and that we need to feel secure in taking care of one another and maintaining a safe space. “I’m just worried that people will get so upset they won’t want to come back,” she said. “I appreciate that,” I replied, “But I think we handled things well last time, and I believe we’ll continue to handle them well going forward.” I asked the group whether they agreed or wanted to discuss further, and they were in agreement with me, so we moved on.
We took some time to play a goofy game – we needed to lighten up! This proved to be a significant relief, and we were all refreshed when we circled up to read through Act IV Scene I - a very ugly scene in which Iago further manipulates Othello to the point that he beats Desdemona in front of others. It’s upsetting material no matter what your life experiences have been, and many in our ensemble have experienced similar situations firsthand.
One ensemble member, her voice trembling, said, “I really dislike the way Shakespeare has taken this put-together, articulate, respected man – and then he’s so easily taken in.” We revisited this idea that we all have at least one major weakness, and this play upsets us because we know how fragile we all are – we all have the potential to become Othello.
Another woman cannot get over how easily things go for Iago at this point in the play. “Iago does have this planned out very well, but he doesn’t have to work for it – it all just falls into place.” We talked about the things that Iago plans, and the things that happen by chance, providing him opportunities to take advantage. This is maddening to us as well.
Why, when Othello says that he will poison Desdemona, does Iago push him to strangle her instead? “It’s more personal,” said one woman. You can disconnect from poisoning, she said, “But when you’re strangling someone, you have to look them in the eye.” Another woman said that this is Iago’s way of driving Othello completely over the edge – he doesn’t just want him to suffer, he wants to destroy him.
“What does he have against Desdemona?” asked one woman. Several of our ensemble members have a theory that Iago is gay – that he may not even be conscious of being gay, but that his attachment to Othello results in overpowering jealousy of Desdemona. Others agree that he is jealous of Desdemona, but think it’s more of a “power thing” – he says, “The general’s wife is now the general,” and some of us think that he can’t stand the idea that anyone has more sway over Othello than him – so Cassio and Desdemona have to go, too.
“Once you hit a certain level of rage, it’s uncontrollable. You want everyone to feel the hurt you feel,” said one ensemble member, talking about both Iago and Othello.
After we read the part of the scene when Othello beats Desdemona, a few women expressed surprise that none of the other men on stage intervene to protect her. We discussed how sometimes when people are shocked, they freeze; I also mentioned that there have been studies showing that people are less likely to take action if there are a number of people witnessing the same crime. We also discussed the fact that there’s not much stage direction from Shakespeare here – it’s possible that we could stage this so that people do intervene.
Once we had read the whole scene, our discussion took an even more personal tone, as we brought our experiences to bear on our interpretation of this story. We find the play so terribly tragic because it rings so true.
“This play makes me not want to trust anyone,” said one person. “It makes me want to be celibate,” said another. “No,” said another woman, “Every relationship needs good communication. Othello never talks to Desdemona or Cassio about any of this.”
Does Othello have PTSD, we wondered? Is this the trauma that breaks him? “Every other area of your life can be going smoothly, and one little thing drives you crazy,” said one woman.
This, said another ensemble member, is how men are. “They hold themselves together so well when they think they’re in control, but when they lose control they’re a mess.” The ensemble responded strongly that this is not specific to men – “it’s a people thing.”
We all have the potential to be any of these characters, and as we progress further into the story, that is hitting home more and more. Our discussions get deeper and deeper. “I get why they [prison staff] want us to take this class,” remarked one woman, “I keep seeing myself in this play. I’m learning so much.”