Written by Kyle
Today we opened the session with a somewhat longer than usual check-in from the ensemble members. In some ways it was a pretty typical check-in in that it ranged from the profoundly intimate to the mundane pretty seamlessly; every so often it happens that the ensemble is especially free with their thoughts from the week, and are unusually eager to let the group in. To be perfectly honest, I forget how the story came up, but someone commented that attending drama school was like being committed to a mental institution. The three of us facilitators, although we really wanted to disagree, knew in our heart-of-hearts that we couldn’t quite contradict the comparison.
The past couple weeks we have alternated the structure of the Tuesday and Friday night sessions. Tuesdays we start with improv/theatre games and finish with Shakespeare, and Fridays are the reverse. So after warmup we continued on with some of the improv games that we had been exploring previously. Tonight we learned a new game, “Freeze Frame” as I had learned it in college, although I think we called it something different in the prison. In the game two ensemble members create a scene based on a dynamic stance that one of the performers is in, someone in the house calls ‘Freeze!’ and then assumes one of the roles of the ‘frozen’ performers and starts a completely new and unrelated scene from the same dynamic pose. It’s harder than it sounds, although some of the ensemble members make it look easy. We did have to have a discussion about the very understandable temptation from the performers to try and make their scene funny. They begin to hesitate calling ‘Freeze!’ when they feel like they are not going to be funny, or they begin playing for laughs instead of sticking to the rules-of-thumb that make for good improv. It’s a difficult temptation, and certainly one that more advanced improvisers have fallen victim to themselves. It is something that we have all committed to working on, and I’m excited to see how we all do in the future. Of course now that I say that, my favorite part was when a company member created a scene about committing a loved one to a mental hospital by telling them they were going to drama school!
As far as working on the text, we spent the remainder of the session on the last third of Act 1 Scene 3 (the Roderigo/Iago two-hander for all the aficionados out there!). This group seems to be very interested in the staging of the show. It seems that there is a constant conversation about how the nuances of the text are going to read best in the movement and positioning of the major contributors of the scene. It can be difficult for us to remind ourselves that we are not staging the play yet - that we haven’t even had auditions! What we are doing is exploring possibilities, not writing anything in stone, but it gets tempting to slip into a pretty nuanced discussion about staging because it just seems to be where their heads are. The director in me can talk about those aspects all day and all night, and it is tempting to not let the conversation go on and on; but I have to remember to continue to encourage discussion that explores the characters’ relationships - there will be plenty of time for staging when the time comes! There was a lot to discuss, though. Many like the intimacy that comes out of the scene when the two men are sitting next to each other; others thought that Roderigo’s talk of suicide is a more literal cry for help, so Iago needs to span the stage, inspiring him to live on and ultimately do Iago’s bidding. Either way, it was pretty unanimously agreed on that Iago was ‘in-charge’ of the scene - that the scene moved when he moved it. A poignant comment was made by a member who said, “It’s like a cat and mouse game, except that the cat doesn’t just eat the mouse- he plays with it a bit!” There was a lot to talk about, and three different couplings of women played the scene with criticism/comments in between. In the end, there was discussion and revisiting from one of the ensemble members about how to give constructive criticism rather than being insensitive. It was a fair point, and I hope it is something that sticks with the ensemble.
It was a very cold and rainy kind of day, and it was very clear how cold everyone was. There was another group using the auditorium, so we were in a different group room. The cold seemed to affect everyone. The warmups were slow, and the check-in was a little sparse. We had yet to see the entirety of Act 1 Scene 3 on its feet from start to finish; there was a tentative plan to start with a full run of the scene, but we had been working on it for three straight weeks and there was a unanimous decision to move on to Act 2. The ensemble was in the mood for table work, it seems, as we didn’t end up exploring the scene on its feet at all. They just wanted to keep reading and move along with the discussion of the text.
The ensemble seems to have really embraced the careful study of the text for which the process calls. It’s nice to not have to prompt them for questions of comprehension very often; they will just stop and ask, “Is Roderigo stupid?” We debated that very question for almost ten minutes, followed by a completely separate conversation about what a person is willing to do for love, and at what point romanticism becomes obsession. We were all, myself included, encouraged by one of the senior members not to make judgements about the characters and to keep reading and see what happens. It begged the question though: what would need to happen in me that Roderigo’s behavior would make sense?
In the following scene with Iago and Cassio, the ensemble were really dissecting the scene - almost too much! There is an attention to every single detail that is really inspiring. In the scene, we talked about whether Cassio was shutting down Iago’s provocative comments about Desdemona, or whether Cassio was so much of a boy scout that he didn’t understand Iago’s provocation. The group seemed pretty split on the matter in a really wonderful way; each faction citing their own experience and the text to make their case. It became a very good theatre teaching moment; I was able to point out that it was a decision that was up to the actor playing Cassio to decide for themselves how they think the scene should go.
Following the discussion, we continued with Act 2 Scene 3 - Cassio’s famous drunk scene. The room was alive with chatter, and several times I had to remind them to listen to each other and wait for people to finish before they offered their opinions. By this point everyone was pretty cold, and despite the amount of text we covered, we still managed to finish up early.
My favorite part of the evening, though, had nothing to do with Othello; there was a moment when we were reading, and we all stopped to admire the sunset. Usually we are in the windowless auditorium and don’t see the sunset. It was a magnificent magenta that seemed to soften into lavender, and the later it got, the more the sky turned to gold. One by one we put our books down and looked; until someone abruptly stood up and opened the blinds to see. We all stopped reading, and many stood up and went to the window to look. A few jokes were made about what went for entertainment in prison, and then everyone sat down again and we picked up right where we left off. It seemed to just come and go and didn’t seem all that noteworthy at the time, and didn’t have anything to do with Shakespeare, but is definitely my favorite memory of the night.