Tonight began with our Brabantio bowing out of her role. She wants to stay in the group, but due to outside factors isn’t confident she can memorize her lines and doesn’t want to let everyone down. She was met with support and understanding, and someone immediately volunteered to step into the role.
We broke out into groups to work on various things. My group began work on Act V Scene ii, in which everything comes to a head. We read through the first part of the scene, in which Desdemona is killed, and made sure we were all on the same page.
The first time moving through the scene wowed all of us. Our Othello and Desdemona committed fully to what they needed to do, and even though the staging was a bit messy, all of us who were watching were really excited by what they did. We then began to refine the scene. Someone asked whether Desdemona is truly asleep, or lying there waiting for Othello; this is something our Desdemona is going to think about. I also talked through with our Othello what he must be going through that explains his behavior – the rush of adrenaline, the lack of clear thinking.
We tried the scene again a couple of times, and each time we gained a clearer understanding of what needs to happen in the scene. We also moved into the second part of the scene, in which Emilia discovers Desdemona’s death and what led up to it. Our Emilia came in “guns blazing,” playing her role with exceptional vulnerability and bravery.
Our solution to the challenge of staging a smothering in a correctional facility – to draw the curtain as Othello attacks and open it again to reveal Desdemona dead – worked very well. “Could you add a muffled scream?” asked one woman of Desdemona. “Put your own hand over your mouth and yell.”
All in all, it was a very productive meeting, with everyone making strides in her own process. We are very close to being where we want to be, with six weeks until our first performance.
Tonight began with a discussion about next year. We decided as a group that next year’s play will be Richard III, in response to one ensemble member’s deep connection to the material (described in an earlier blog post). Everyone seems satisfied with and excited about the choice.
We also decided to try something new over the summer. This past summer, the prison generously ordered published copies of Othello for the ensemble to become familiar with before our official session began in September. This proved challenging, however, because Shakespeare is so difficult for most people to read on their own. One of our ensemble members proposed that we use a “No Fear” version of Richard III instead; she thought (and many agreed) that this would lead to people being more familiar with the play not only at the beginning of the session, but throughout. For those who are unfamiliar with the “No Fear” series, it provides a contemporary translation alongside Shakespeare’s text. A few of our members thought that having this crutch might dilute our process, but after some discussion, we decided to give it a try. We don’t think it will take away from our text analysis, because we’ll still need to understand and use Shakespeare’s language; rather, most of us feel that using this new tool will make it easier for everyone to keep up on the content of the play.
We made some more cuts to our script, which is getting leaner and leaner (a must since we need to perform it in about 90 minutes). We talked through the staging needs of the final part of the play and worked on translating some of the more obtuse passages. We then staged the end of the play, talking through issues such as where Othello’s fatal weapon comes from (we decided he steals it from Cassio) and how to work around the bed (which we symbolize with a blanket and two pillows on the floor).
I didn’t take many notes because I was in the thick of things, but everyone worked together beautifully and effectively. We can now all breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve staged the entire play, and our goal is to begin working through it in order at our next meeting, running scenes into each other and getting a better feel for what this will be like in performance.