We continued on with our “Freeze” style of scene exploration tonight, beginning with Act IV Scene II. After our first time through, I asked what we had learned. “We’re getting better at it,” said one woman. “We’re giving each other more time to play, but we’re also taking the time to feel out each other’s energy. We’re slowly getting better.”
“I’m trying to read all the parts,” said another woman, “But I also want other people in there.” Sarah responded that that sentiment is both generous and brave – to know that, however much we as individuals want to get up every single time, it’s best for the ensemble if we encourage others to do so as well.
Kyle had gone in as Desdemona for part of the scene, and we asked him how that felt. We had all agreed that, since we all take each other seriously playing men, we shouldn’t have an issue taking Kyle seriously if he read a female character. “I felt vulnerable playing Desdemona,” he said. “I felt… embarrassed in front of you guys, which surprised me.” Everyone reassured him that he had no reason to be embarrassed – that we enjoyed his interpretation of Desdemona and welcomed him to continue to read the women in the play if he wants to.
“I know what you mean, though, about feeling embarrassed,” said one woman. “I haven’t read any female characters, and I don’t think I’m going to. I know I’m a woman and everything, but I feel more like a guy, and I know how you feel, Kyle. It’s hard to explain, but it’s hard for me, and I feel really vulnerable and embarrassed, too, when I play a woman. I know I can do anything I put my mind to, but…” The ensemble made sure she knew that we will never “make” her doing anything she’s uncomfortable with – if she only wants to read the male characters, no one has a problem with that.
We continued to talk about how Kyle being male changes the dynamic for us at times. “It changed things when I played the Bianca scene and was yelling at Kyle as Cassio,” said one woman. “When it’s all women, no matter what, I always know it’s all women. You can’t get much closer to a man than Kyle,” she joked, and we all laughed. “But it brought up different feelings from when I play scenes with other women.” Kyle mentioned that he’s been hesitant to read Othello in the abusive scenes, and, while many members of the group hadn’t thought about how it might change things for a man to read those lines in our group setting, they said that they appreciated his concern and agreed that it’s best that he continue not to (potentially) rock the boat in that way.
We talked a bit about the end of this scene, in which Iago convinces Roderigo (with ease) to kill Cassio. We’re interested in how this relationship evolves, and how Roderigo gets to this point. “If someone you know is going further than you normally would, you’re likely to go further, too. What seemed outrageous now isn’t,” said one woman. “Roderigo has now invested so much that he can’t walk away from this plot,” said another woman. “He’s in too deep.”
We did the scene this way again, this time challenging ourselves to stay in a “ready” posture while seated, trying to breath with each other and sustain the emotional energy of the scene. We were very successful at this, and it was invigorating. “It’s so entertaining,” said one woman, “I love how everyone has a different perspective on these characters, but it still flows.” We talked specifically about the different takes on Desdemona we saw – one woman focusing on her sweetness, her innocence, and another taking a more earthy, aggressive approach. “I see Desdemona as a strong woman,” that ensemble member said. “She’s loving, but she has a voice.”
We moved on to Act IV Scene III, most of which is an intimate scene between Desdemona and Emilia. It took quite awhile for anyone to tag out the two women who were up first – we were quite taken with what they were doing, and no one wanted to interrupt. I asked, afterward, how they felt. “I felt helpless,” said the woman who read Emilia. “I would be really uncomfortable if this was real. I’m just not that nurturing, I guess. I’d want to make her leave – I’d want tie her up and drag her away, but I can’t… I couldn’t do enough. I wasn’t doing enough.” Interestingly, though she felt so intensely uncomfortable, the way she played the scene was totally believable to all of us – we loved her take on it and thought that perhaps Emilia is extremely uncomfortable in the scene.
The woman who read Desdemona said that she felt helpless in the scene – that all she wanted was for Othello to believe her, and she couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t. “I’m in my own little world,” she said, “They’re in the scene together… but they’re not in the scene together.”
“It’s really uncomfortable as an audience member,” said one woman. “You just want to make it stop.”
We talked more about the two women, alone in this scene. Is Emilia venting; projecting her own experiences onto Desdemona? And what about Desdemona? Is she capitulating here? Is she weak? Or is it more complicated than that?
“She’s preparing to finish this out with her husband,” one woman said adamantly. “She knows that in the end there will only be truth… And that her dying is how that truth will come out. She’s preparing herself for death. If you know you’re about to die and you prepare yourself in an honorable way, that’s strong. In her ‘weakness,’ she is strong.”
Others feel Desdemona is dying for love, or sacrificing herself to free Othello from his jealous “madness.” Still others feel that she’s just completely broken at this point and can’t fight anymore. As with so many meetings of our group, we ended acknowledging that all of these differing interpretations hold truth, and no matter where we land, we are not likely to be unanimous in our interpretation. But that’s something we all value about what we do, and, of course, about these plays.
At the beginning of tonight’s session, an ensemble member shared with me that she and a few others were having some challenges in the group – things they perceived to be going on that undermined our feeling of ensemble. I asked her to consider an open circle conversation rather than continuing to let any ill feeling fester – these are always challenging conversations to have, but we do better when we “air grievances” in a constructive way than when we try to ignore them.
This led to a very long conversation, which was constructive at some times and not so much at others. There are some members of the group who have more experience with peaceful conflict resolution than others, and we kept coming back to our core values: listening, respect, and open communication. Things that had been done or said by some were revealed to have had different intentions than what came through, and we agreed as a group that we need to work toward taking people at their word when they tell us that we misinterpreted their words or actions. We also agreed to continue to work on the words we choose to use with one another in moments of heightened emotion, to try very hard not to interrupt, to be conscious of ways in which our behavior (down to posture and facial expressions) might be misinterpreted, and to be open to constructive criticism from the ensemble.
As the conversation appeared to run out of steam, and we began trying to figure out how to transition, one woman nudged another and said, “Do it.” The second woman said, “Oh, no, I don’t know.” Well, that intrigued all of us – what was going on here? “She memorized Emilia’s monologue,” the first woman said. “I want her to do it for the group.” We all cheered this on, but the second woman blushed and said she was too nervous. “I’ll do it if you will!” I volunteered. This helped motivate her to get up and do the monologue. As she did, the energy in the room shifted. We were all with her, 100%, as she struggled to find lines and land intentions. When she finished, we burst into applause. “I messed up so much!” she said. “It doesn’t matter!” we replied. We loved what she had done – learning the piece just for the sake of doing it, and then sharing it with us at a moment when we really needed a jolt of positive energy.
“Your turn,” she said, turning to me. I then did an Iago piece that I had learned for my visit several weeks ago to Shakespeare Behind Bars in western Michigan. The group gave me a lot of support for it, even though I rushed it a bit and skipped over some lines.
And this led us into what I guess I’d call a “jam,” as ensemble members encouraged each other to pop up and share whatever they wanted. One ensemble member has begun learning an Othello monologue, which she shared with us, and we loved. Kyle shared his “go-to” Shakespeare soliloquy, while others shared pieces they’ve done in the past, and one woman shared a poem that inspires her. Still others got up and did one-person versions of scenes from movies, and others did scenes from Othello with scripts in their hands.
We checked in before we left, and some members of the group still felt uncomfortable from our conversation, but they understood why it was important to have. Kyle and I agreed as we walked out that, while the conversation itself could have been more constructive and less heated, leaving people less “put off” at the end, in the scheme of things it was beneficial simply to have the conversation. We can only get better at these skills by practicing them, and sometimes that means we fail a bit. It won’t be the last contentious discussion we need to have as a group; the hope is that the next one will go a little better.