As we were warming up tonight, a returning member remarked, “This play is so much better than Shrew.” I asked her to expand upon that comment. She responded that she feels it’s better written: the plot isn’t as confusing (both for the ensemble and the audience) and “the words are better.” Others in the ensemble agreed - as did I! She seemed tentative in her opinions, and I reassured her that she’s not off base - Othello was written years after The Taming of the Shrew, which was among Shakespeare’s first plays. “Isn’t that reassuring?” commented Sarah. “Even Shakespeare got better at what he did.”
Another returning member requested that we play a very physical game, which meant that some of us who weren’t feeling up to it sat out. But we were all still invested in the game, paying attention, and learning from each other. Those actively playing had a blast, beginning to learn how to maintain focus and listen to each other during a game that can get rather raucous.
We then continued our work on Act I Scene II, which we read last week. We cast it and put it on its feet, working together to figure out where entrances should be and letting it play out from there. When the scene had finished, the ensemble was very vocal and constructive, both about aspects that worked and those that didn’t.
We all were excited that the woman who played Iago felt the instinct to slink over to the side to watch things unfold without being actively involved until she had to be - we feel it’s consistent with the character. In this first go at the scene, everyone except Othello had swords drawn, and we had a lengthy discussion about whether or not this was appropriate and what evidence there might be in the text to guide us. We ended up deciding (at least for tonight) that if Brabantio and those with whom he enters come in “with pitchforks,” or at least with swords drawn, then it would be natural for Othello’s people to draw swords to protect him, and then it would be natural for him to remain calm and tell them to put their swords away.
At this point a returning member offered two points of constructive criticism for the ensemble (including herself). The first was that, in our excitement, we are frequently speaking over each other, and it can be frustrating. We need to make more of an effort to take turns speaking. This is an excellent point, and something we will work on. She also voiced her apprehension about moving through the material too slowly and suggested that ensemble members should be reading ahead on their own. A few members of our ensemble respectfully suggested that this isn’t an entirely reasonable expectation, as they find the language too challenging to read on their own and don’t understand it till they speak or hear it out loud with the group. I suggested a compromise in which I would provide a modern language synopsis of each scene so that the content could be covered individually ahead of time, even if the actual text was not. This was accepted enthusiastically.
We also decided that, rather than assuming we all remember a scene we read several days or a week ago, any time we put something on its feet we will read it together first to refresh it. Our ensemble is diverse in many ways, and some are prepared to move at a faster pace than others. It is a challenge to keep everyone engaged without moving so fast we lose some, or moving so slowly that we lose others. We are hopeful that we can find a good compromise with this “hybrid approach.”
We then played the scene on its feet again and found that the ensemble members on stage had really listened to and taken the notes of the audience. The scene worked so well - we saw stage pictures that clearly foreshadowed dynamics in future scenes, which was exciting so early in our season.
Tonight was pretty much the ideal of how Shakespeare in Prison functions: we worked together as a team, listening to one another, giving and taking criticism constructively, solving problems, bolstering one another’s confidence, and ending on a very positive note.
Sometimes we are delayed getting through security at the prison, and tonight was one of those nights. We have always encouraged the ensemble to begin working without us so that time isn’t wasted, but in years past it hasn’t been a surprise to walk into our room a bit late and find that warm ups haven’t yet begun. Tonight, however, we walked in to a circle that had already warmed up, checked in, and decided to hold the Ring when they saw us coming down the hall. I feel like a broken record in this blog, stating again and again how exciting it is that the ensemble is working together like this so early in the season, but it is truly a thrill, and the result of years of problem solving by the ensemble, as well as a testament to the energy of our new ensemble members.
True to what we decided on Tuesday, we began by re-reading the majority of Act I Scene III to make sure it was fresh in our minds. We then discussed how to stage it - we all agreed that we should use a table as is noted in the text, but there were varying opinions on whether there should be chairs at the table, who should sit at them, and what should be on/around the table. For tonight, we decided that there should be a map on a chalkboard that the Officer could write on as information came in, as well as letters and maps on the table.
Having set our physical scene, we discussed its atmosphere. Ensemble members threw out words like tired, contentious, chaotic, high stakes (“It’s a war room!”). We talked about how this beginning energy must stand in contrast to Othello’s energy, and, later, Desdemona’s. “What do they bring?” I asked. Othello brings a measure of calm and control, we decided. As far as Desdemona, one ensemble member said the energy at first should be masculine because she is so feminine. “She’s virtue; she’s love,” said one woman. “She’s gonna bring down the tension in there room because she smells good, she looks good - I mean, come on, she’s Desdemona,” said another. Another said, “Desdemona isn’t just the counterpart to Iago - she’s the counterpart to this whole scene.”
We began exploring the scene on its feet and found that we only got through the first part, in which various information comes in about the impending Turkish invasion of Cyprus, because so much is happening. We continued to work together to figure out where people come from and where they go. We are still talking over each other a bit, but there is clearly an effort being made to do better. Kyle mentioned to the group how unusual it is for people who are new to theatre to be so naturally able to create appropriate and effective stage pictures, and he’s right. It’s quite an exhilarating thing to be a part of.
One of our returning members quietly told me an idea she has for our set: we re-paint one side of our existing flats to be a giant map of the region in which our play takes place, and then, as the play becomes less and less about war and more and more about relationships, we flip the flats to a more intimate setting or image. I have to say that, as a professional director, this is an idea that resonates with me as one that I would love to have in any production of Othello. She chose not to present the idea to the ensemble yet - she didn’t want to interrupt the work that was being done on this scene - and it’s possible that, even if this idea is universally embraced, our ideas will evolve, but this is a wonderful place to begin our conversation about the set. It also shows very clearly how confident this woman has become in her analysis of Shakespeare and ability to express her opinion - we have not read through this play together as a group yet, but she’s read it on her own and clearly understands its themes very well. She did not have this level of confidence when I first met her - she was reticent to share opinions unless nudged - and it speaks volumes to me about her personal growth that after such a short time she has such a clearly defined concept for this play.
We closed with a game. When I was eliminated from the circle, I took the time to really observe the group. All of us - those still in the game and those who were “out” - were smiling and participating. There was a palpable feeling of camaraderie. Earlier in the evening, I asked a woman who is now in her fourth season of SIP if it’s just me, or if this group is actually different, and she agreed with me. “I think we did a better job welcoming the new people in,” she said, “It made them comfortable right away. And they’re just great.” Those who have been following this blog for awhile will know she’s right. The solutions developed by past ensembles to deal with the beginning of a session appear to have worked. We’ll see how our solutions for other challenges work as we go along.