Tonight after our check in and warm up, we launched into Desdemona auditions. The two women auditioning were quite nervous and had clearly put a lot of work into their monologues, working them quietly from the moment they walked in the door. The group was very kind and encouraging to both women.
The first woman to audition needed help with some of her lines – being in front of an audience threw her a bit. An experienced ensemble member encouraged her to paraphrase if necessary: “As long as you know the gist, you can fake it. It gets easier the more you do it.” We coached her through three more runs at the monologue, and she became more grounded each time, taking in and using the notes she was being given. She said she had felt better doing the piece on her own, and several ensemble members and facilitators assured her that this was normal.
The second woman to audition was so nervous that the group encouraged her to do the piece once facing the back wall instead of us. “When you’re this nervous, take a moment for yourself. Don’t rush it for our sake,” one woman said. This seemed to steady her a bit. By the time she had gone through the piece three times, she was much more focused and relaxed.
We asked her to leave the room so we could decide on the casting. It was not an easy decision – we all enjoyed both interpretations – but in the end we cast the second woman who auditioned. When they came back into the room, we told them our decision. The first woman burst out laughing and said, “Thank god! Thank god it’s not me!” It speaks volumes about her that she put so much work into something that was so overwhelming to her. We asked her to understudy the part, and she agreed.
We then discussed our desire to have a system of understudies, since every year we’ve lost group members shortly before our performances. The debate the group began several weeks ago regarding whether Othello’s understudy should be a person of color has been resolved – after thinking it over, we were unanimous that it should. We then discussed the need for more understudies, but this was largely tabled for later discussion.
With the time we had left, we did some acting exercises that we haven’t done yet in this session. The first was “Two Stories at the Same Time,” in which two people sit facing each other and simultaneously tell stories. The challenge is to listen while talking. We asked the only one of us who was particularly “good” at this how she did it. “I talk a lot while people are talking. I have a big family,” she said.
We then tried out an exercise in which one person sits, completely neutral, in a chair facing the audience for one minute. This is harder than it seems. The first few women used strategies to distract themselves from their discomfort, and I challenged the next woman to stay present in the moment. Afterward, we asked her how that had gone. “That was a real long minute,” she said. “I felt like I was under the bed listening to the floor squeak.”
Tonight, first thing, one of our newer members volunteered to understudy Iago. It’s exciting that she’s willing to take on such a task when she’s only been in the group for a short while.
We dug into Act IV Scene iii, the haunting scene between Desdemona and Emilia. Does Desdemona know she’s about to die? “She’s definitely dying inside,” said one woman. Why does she stay? “When you’re in your first love, you think love can fix it all,” said one ensemble member, citing Desdemona’s line, “Heaven me such uses send/Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend.”
“Oh my god,” gasped one woman, “This happened to me.” She described a terribly abusive relationship she’d been in when she was very young. “When you’re young,” she said, “anything is okay if he loves you.”
“We think divorce is somehow bad… We start coming up with reasons to stay because society tells us we should,” said another woman.
We discussed that Emilia seems to have some guilt already in this scene. What is behind her speech to Desdemona? “She’s been accused of sleeping with other men and got through it just fine,” said one woman. “The option of leaving just doesn’t exist.”
“Typical man,” said one woman jokingly, “Always accusing you of sleeping with the wrong man.”
We then decided to focus on Emilia’s monologue. We tried a variety of approaches, all coming back to a place of sincerity in trying to make Desdemona feel better. We tried a direct approach, one loaded with humor, and several times trying to balance the two. “You’re trying to identify with her feelings,” said one woman. “Or maybe you’re making it about yourself,” said another.
As we pondered the scene, the question rose again about whether Desdemona might be suffering from PTSD after all of the sudden abuse. This is something we’ll need to continue to explore with our new Desdemona.