Written by Kyle
Today was my first session back after having been out of town. The ensemble members were all quick to ask about the trip, eager to hear about what I had done, and just about everyone welcomed me back.
After a warm-up and some theatre games, the group had a discussion about where we thought we might set our production of Othello. We wanted to get an idea of what was on their minds so we could take advantage of the post-Halloween sales and get some costumes if at all possible. The discussion was slow to start but, like most discussions with our group, became involved and impassioned once we got going. The conversation at first was focused on the possibilities prompted by the question: what could be? Everything from cavemen, Scotland, in a prison, disco and outer space were suggested, and we were having fun linking Othello’s characters into a Star Wars parody.
Then the conversation evolved into more about what should be? What is the story that we are trying to tell? What is a better demonstration of Shakespeare’s timelessness: our ability to set his text in any time period, or the ability of the audience to relate to an Elizabethan text set in the period assigned by Shakespeare? It’s a toss up, and certainly a conversation that the professional theatre has had for years. I noted that keeping it in period can be difficult to source authentic looking costumes and props; whereas updating can be difficult because things like sword fighting and monarchies have a difficult translation in a more modern era.
However, a gauntlet was thrown early, with one of the newer ensemble members stating very directly that she thought that updating the setting “took the focus off the story… [keeping it as is] simplifies the message and we shouldn’t mess with it.” Many agreed, and it seemed like it was almost unanimous. I brought up that we could make our own world and set it in the world of ‘our play,’ and not set it anywhere specific. We could make up our own world, or keep it nondescript.
Many found this interesting, although we didn’t discuss it too long before moving on to the last stage of any conceptual consideration: what can we realistically do? It was kind of amazing the shape that the discussion took. Very similar to how I would approach it myself with any other production I’ve directed. The point was raised that we should think about who our audience was going to be and what would be the most effective for them; furthermore, consideration should be given to what would most likely be approved to by the facility’s administration. All these were valid concerns and foundational to the creation of a conceptual framework for our piece.
I concluded by saying that no decision needed to be made right then and there, that we needed to decide what story we wanted to tell before we could really decide just how it would be told. I am always impressed, though, by how deliberately the group wrestles with the questions of what makes art, and just how in step the ensemble is with my own process.
We only read one scene tonight, Act IV Scene ii; granted, it is longer scene, but it prompted such a rich debate that we couldn’t move on. Although Othello’s words towards Desdemona were powerful, the first discussion centered on Emilia and whether she knows Iago’s plan or not. Why would she be complicit with his plan if she does? Why would she give him the handkerchief? What about Iago’s emotional manipulation of her? Many said they were married to or had been involved with a man like Iago, and that many of Iago’s lines were not very nice until she gave him the handkerchief, when he showered her with praise. This kind of deliberate withholding of praise and affection was a potent dynamic in many of the ensemble’s past relationships, and many said they could understand her wanting to make him happy despite it betraying her own values.
As usual, though, the conversation was clouded by the impending murder: was Othello insane at this point? Had he reached his breaking point? Had he turned a corner from which he could not return? The quote that stuck out to me was, “We didn’t get here by being saints. How many of us are here from a 10-second crime?” Is he going to be defined by that decision? Someone brought up that after Othello’s seizure, he had passed a point of no return. I asked what the last sane decision that we saw Othello make might be. One member responded that the promotion of Iago to his lieutenant was the last decision he made, and that every decision since has been made for him.
The same ensemble member refuted herself, though, and brought up that the murder is premeditated. He is thinking about it, talking about it, and going to do it. There is no way around the fact that he kills Desdemona, that he kills her intentionally, and that he’s guilty. This was a very resonant remark, and one that just about everyone in the ensemble seemed to weigh in on. Is he a bad person, then? Many said that it a show of remorse means that Othello is not a bad person; some said that one’s previous actions are not what define them, people can change, etc.
I asked if we could extend the same redemption to Iago. What was Iago’s breaking point? When did he stop making decisions? Can he change with the right intentions? One woman said that Iago was the person in the play with whom she identified most. “Maybe I’m more evil than everyone else here, but I used to do this kind of stuff.” She went on to say that she thought she could change and was working on it. We could have talked all night. We sped through the last little part of the scene just for the sake of finishing; I for one felt, and hope, that we are far from finished with the discussion.