We were thrilled tonight to welcome actress Dani Cochrane as a visitor to our group. Some time ago, I asked the ensemble if they’d be interested in bringing in visitors who have worked on Othello in the past to get a different perspective, and we were very happy that Dani, who recently played Emilia at the Hilberry Theatre, was available to join us.
We welcomed her, bringing her into the circle and asking her some questions right off the bat about the character. Many of us were interested in hearing Dani’s interpretation of how much Emilia knows and when she knows it. She believes that, while Emilia may not be totally innocent, given her theft of the handkerchief and silent observance of its aftermath, she doesn’t realize what’s truly happened until she sees Desdemona dead. Most of the ensemble members seem to be coming to this same conclusion, although we’re definitely still in the exploratory stage.
We then worked on Act III Scene IV – we’ve decided that, having read the entire play in order, we don’t need to explore the scenes that way. After we went through the scene once, the woman who read Othello apologized to the woman reading Desdemona, thinking she’d scared her.
But that’s appropriate for the scene, the group countered. The woman playing Desdemona remarked that the first time her husband yelled at her, she got scared and jumped the same way she did on stage, and since it fit the scene well, she didn’t see any need for her scene partner to apologize. We talked about this particular challenge – that in order to tell our story truthfully, we will have to treat each other on stage in ways we never would in “real life” – we need to continue to maintain our safe space, knowing that what happens on stage stays there, and that we can explore those darker emotions knowing that we will come back to our caring ensemble.
The woman who read Emilia had done a very interesting thing – she made a decision to sweep with a mimed broom through most of the scene because she had so few lines. We applauded this decision to find an activity, but noted that it kept her from listening as much as she could have, and it had potential to be distracting. We encouraged her to find a subtler activity that would enable her to participate more in the scene between Desdemona and Othello through listening. We wanted to see what that would do to Emilia.
We found that the next time through gained depth, as everyone listened to each other a little more and found their feet more firmly in the scene. Then we switched it up so more people could have a chance to explore.
Our second Othello committed even more to Othello’s anger – she actually stopped for a moment to apologize, and we all excitedly encouraged her NOT to apologize – to keep going with it! Afterward, the second Desdemona said that this Othello’s increased intensity made her think more about what she should be doing. She felt that she didn’t need to move, and maybe she shouldn’t. We also noticed that the second Emilia had somehow managed to move from one part of the stage to another without any of us noticing – something Dani called “floating” and said was a very important aspect of playing Emilia when she did it.
We tried the scene again, with more movement from Othello (and no apologies this time!), and new things tried by the rest of us (I was reading Cassio). When we finished and checked in with each other, the woman reading Desdemona said, “There were moments when I tingled… I just want to know the lines so I can really do it.”
We asked Dani a few more questions before we disbanded for the evening, and getting her take on some other aspects of the play – audience involvement, Desdemona’s foreshadowing – was really great. The group seemed to really enjoy and value her input, and Dani shared with me that it was a wonderful evening for her, too.
We began the evening with a lengthy but productive circle discussion about how we want to handle guest visits and adding co-facilitators in the future. We haven’t arrived at any conclusions yet, but given we are not unanimous, it was an important conversation to have and to continue. We’re going to give ourselves some time to ruminate and continue to discuss before making any decisions.
And then we decided to try something completely new. We took Act IV Scene I, and we played “Freeze” with it. “Freeze” is an improv game in which, during a scene, one of the ensemble members shouts, “freeze,” tags one actor out, and takes her place, creating a completely new scene from the same physical position. In this case, though, we altered it so that we would simply take over the scene from each other whenever we felt moved to do so. As we were in a classroom and already seated in a circle, we decided to work in the round and not worry so much about our presentation of the scene – to just feel our way through it.
This turned out to be a great exercise, and one we’re likely to revisit regularly. We found that approaching the scene for the first time on its feet in this way took pressure off of us and allowed us to work together more as a group – to sense when someone wanted to be taken out of the scene and jump in, or to know that you wouldn’t be “taking opportunity away” from someone else if you jumped in because no one was going to stay in for the whole scene. Working in the round gave us a different perspective, too – it made us feel at once more confined and safer when we were on our feet (interesting when working on a play like this), and it helped us focus on each other and not a potential audience (process over product!).
The woman who first was on her feet for Othello’s “trance” or “fit” chose not to have a seizure, but to sink into a chair, totally shut down. At that point, I was on my feet as Iago, and it made me feel that much colder and more spiteful that I could wave my hand in front of her face while taunting her, knowing she wasn’t truly there. Many people in the group liked her interpretation. “Well, I’ve been there,” she said wryly.
Several people read both Othello and Desdemona in this scene, and it gave them insight. “I went from angry to vulnerable,” said one. “It was like two sides of the same coin,” said another. “There’s a thin line between love and hate.” We also all loved an ensemble member’s take on Bianca – it was so truthful that we all felt like we know that woman – we’ve seen that before!
We decided to do it again, tagging each other out more frequently but also trying to commit more to sustaining the energy of the scene as we switched on and off. We were able to do this to a certain extent, although we weren’t totally successful – and that’s okay. We work to preserve an atmosphere where we don’t need to succeed all the time, and we all dug into talking more about the exercise after the scene concluded.
There are pros and cons to this approach, we decided. When we swap, it throws us off a bit – we can’t dig as deeply into the emotional parts of the scene because the material really is written for one person to sustain, beginning to end. That said, we like it for exploration and gaining perspective. One person noted that it required her to focus more and “put more effort and intensity in” because she didn’t know how long she’d have in the scene – it raised the stakes. It let us work through the scene more quickly, which is a bonus in a group that has a large contingent of people who like working that way. And, when we made sure to check in with everyone, we found that even ensemble members who only watched gained a better understanding of the scene – so it seems we have a consensus that we want to keep this in our arsenal of approaches to the material. We also all agreed that we need to combine with this with a more traditional approach – the same people doing the scene all the way through.
Most people in the group would like to begin casting the play in the second week of December, and it seems like, especially with this new way of working, we will have the understanding of the play and the comfort with each other to do that work “on schedule.” It’s a good feeling for all of us.