Written by Gaia and Clearie
This past Tuesday evening, we had a bit of a smaller group, as only six ensemble members were able to attend. This provided for an intimate discussion, and the ensemble members playing Othello, Cassio, Iago, and Bianca were able to take a deeper look at Act 4 Scenes 1 and 2 . But at the same time the smaller number of ensemble members drew my attention to the fact that the number of facilitators outnumbered the ensemble. In this moment, I felt like the difference between the outsiders of the prison institution and the insiders became physically evident.
Considering that we are the first student-facilitators in the program, we are still searching for our voice in the ensemble. For now, we think it is best to simply be observant, present and supportive.
As Othello stood up on her feet and brought this incredible work of art to life, the distance between myself as an outside, student facilitator and the incarcerated woman playing Othello seemed to dissipate. It was in this magical, theatrical rehearsal time that the ensemble and facilitators were able to dismiss, at least momentarily, this omnipresent power dynamic and dive into the play.
Working on two beautiful scenes from Act 4 with Iago and Othello and Cassio and Bianca, both ensemble members and facilitators began jumping up, offering suggestions, diving further and further into the text, making discoveries, laughing, and creating constructively. I think a fantastic part about having a smaller group was that it allowed for the members that were there to really focus in on one scene at a time. The ensemble members were all completely invested and worked to make bold choices and direct one another from the audience.
We had fun working these scenes and doing some character development. We discussed why Iago feels the need to rush Cassio out of the room, and how well Iago has mastered the art of lying. We also explored what these characters wanted and how to find a proper build up for extreme moments like Othello’s rage bringing him into an epileptic trance (a challenging state to get to even for supremely-trained actors).
Act 4 Scene 2 was particularly fun to dive into. One of the facilitators, Kyle, remarked at how universally applicable the concepts in this scene are. The universal idea that for centuries and centuries, men have failed to understand what truly makes a woman happy. One run-through of the scene was particularly well-done and entertaining to watch. When the actors playing Cassio and Bianca were asked afterwards how they felt, they remarked lightheartedly that it brought back memories from their own past.
Despite the brief uncertainties at the beginning of the session, as soon as the script was open, it was clear that the only hegemon in the room was Shakespeare.
Written by Frannie
Tonight we began with our usual check in, a circle game, and our lowering of the ring. After this, someone asked if we could do an exercise in which we count, one person at a time, as high as we can go. It’s a very challenging exercise – the group needs to be really in sync to make it work. This group did phenomenally well, counting as high as 27 and 39 in two different attempts. One ensemble member remarked that the silence is the most important part – coming together and listening to one another. Others remarked how calming it was to do this, and how much better it made some of them feel after a stressful day.
One of our ensemble members is organizing a performance to take place soon at the prison. She has been feeling overwhelmed by the needs of the performers and asked the group for advice to help her deal with it. One of the other ensemble members remarked that she had watched this person interacting with staff during a stressful time. “I was so proud of you,” she said. “I was watching you, and you were calm.” The other woman said, “But I was burning on the inside.” We talked then about how just because you are feeling something negative, it doesn’t mean you need to express it – I reminded the group of a phrase I learned at the recent Shakespeare in Prisons conference: “I am master of my mind, not a victim of my thinking.” We can appear calm and collected if it best suits the situation, even if we are not feeling that way on the inside.
We noted that attendance has been slipping lately, and we’ve lost a few members of the ensemble. This has been a regular occurrence during the winter for the past four years, and February has always been the time when we’ve added new participants to bolster our numbers. Some in the group have trepidations about doing this, but everyone understands that it’s necessary. We talked through exactly how we should go about doing this and have come up with a solid plan, part of which needs to be approved by prison staff since it’s a bit of a change from last year. We want to be welcoming but realistic about what our group expectations are, and we want to be sure to extend the powerful, positive dynamic we have now to encircle new participants as well.
Someone then asked at what point we’ll run through the entire play. “We’ll be lucky if we can do it three times before we perform,” said a woman who was in the group last year. “That doesn’t seem like enough!” said the first woman. “Don’t panic,” said the second woman. “I panicked. It was a waste of panicking. It never seems like there is enough time, but there’s enough time.”
With that, we explored Act III Scene I on its feet. In this scene, Cassio implores Iago and then Emilia to help him get access to Desdemona, hoping she can sway Othello to give him back his job. “This is a really intense scene,” said one woman to our Cassio after the first, rather casual, run. “You want something and you’re depending on everyone else to give it to you.”
“You’ve been up all night to devise a plan… And here you are at the crack of dawn to put it in action,” said another. We then clarified the timeline for our Cassio, who hadn’t realized how quickly this scene comes after the drunken fight. “You’re grasping at straws here,” said one woman.
We ran through the scene a second time with this new input. Afterward, I asked how the actors felt. “I felt more connected. I felt more like Cassio – jittery and anxious,” said our Cassio. We talked, too about how when our Emilia lingered on and relished the word “love,” in the phrase, “he protests he loves you,” it connected with us more. We are all going to work on that as we move forward – not rushing, enjoying the language.
We then moved on to Act II Scene III, when Iago tries to get Cassio to talk dirty about Desdemona and convinces him to drink more alcohol. Why won’t Cassio talk about Desdemona in this way, we wondered after the first go. “’Cause I wouldn’t want someone talking about my woman like that,” said our Cassio, having a light bulb go off. “Let’s do it again, now,” she said eagerly, and we did. This time, Cassio tried to physically separate herself from Iago, to great effect.
One of our ensemble members told us then that she likes to sometimes close her eyes and just listen to a scene to see if it still makes sense. She said that this scene was totally clear, which is a great testament to the connection the performers felt to the language.
“I liked it,” said another ensemble member, “but it almost puts Cassio at a higher… I don’t know how to say it… He gets duped, but he seems way too smart for that to happen.” We talked then about how no one in this play lacks intelligence; Iago is just very good at manipulating people. Kyle also pointed out that perhaps what Shakespeare wants us to take away from this scene is that Cassio would never have an affair with Desdemona – it’s outlandish to think so.
We keep plugging away, making progress and working together. It will be interesting to see how adding new members to the ensemble will impact the group.