Session Five: Week 31



Tonight was sort of a disjointed meeting, as most of our group had not yet been called to chow and needed to leave when it was called, or they wouldn’t have been able to eat.

Prior to many of our group members leaving, our Brabantio told me that she is feeling overwhelmed with learning her part due to factors outside of our group. I asked if she’d like to collaborate with the group on cutting as many of her lines as we could. This resulted in some wonderful teamwork, with everyone keeping in mind the goal: cut as much as possible to keep our ensemble member comfortable without losing important plot points. When this was done, our Brabantio was visibly relieved.

As some people departed to eat, we chatted about how the process is going at this point. Our Cassio lives in the same unit as our Iago. The latter has a good deal of her lines memorized at this point, and sometimes she will shout these lines at our Cassio, who responds by shouting back, “O, bloody period!” – a line of Lodovico’s that was cut for obvious reasons – or “Goats and monkeys!” This should give you readers a glimpse into the humor with which we’re approaching this deadly serious material in order not to be totally weighed down by it. We’re still having fun even as we’re doing very deep and sometimes painful work.

We worked with our Lodovico, who has memorized most of her lines but hasn’t thought much about the acting side of things. How does he feel after witnessing Othello’s beating of Desdemona? Is he angry? Uncomfortable? How much does he want to be involved? We went back to the text, with Sarah reminding us that Shakespeare’s characters usually say exactly what they mean. We continued to work the scene, trying to help our Lodovico become more comfortable. She told us that this was her first stage work ever, and we gave her lots of encouragement.

This scene has been worked before, but with an understudy Othello and a previous Desdemona. The woman who understudied that day jumped right in, guiding her fellow ensemble members through the scene with grace and compassion.

Our Desdemona questioned how, and if, Desdemona should deliver the line, “I have not deserved this.” She is torn – how much fight does Desdemona have? How shocked is she? This again is evidence of our ensemble taking ownership of the script. Our decisions are rooted in the text, but we also are looking for ways to perform our plays in 90 minutes or less, so we often use clues in the text to cut it. She decided to think some more rather than rushing her decision.

We departed feeling good about the work we had done with the few people who were able to stay. It’s not ideal when outside factors get in the way of our work, but we always manage to power through and get things done.




We were honored tonight to host a visit from Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars. We watch the documentary about this program (by which ours was inspired) each year, and so, while we were all excited for this evening, some of the women were glowing and immediately at ease, feeling like they already knew him.

Our Lodovico took me aside before we began, saying that she is so nervous about failing that she nearly quit. I encouraged her, reminding her that this nervousness means that she cares, and that’s a good thing. I also reminded her that theatre is all about failing over and over in order to learn, and that our group is a safe place to experiment and not get it right all the time. She said she is going to stick with Shakespeare because she has never fought through to complete anything like this in her life. She is firm that she is going to perform in this play, and that maybe she’ll be buoyed enough by this year’s experience to take on a larger role next year.

Curt initially settled in to watch our warm up and opening exercise, but he was soon drawn into the circle when one of our ensemble members read a letter addressed to him and the rest of the group from our Othello. She has two jobs, one of which sometimes conflicts with Shakespeare, and it conflicted this evening. She wrote to let Curt know how much she admires his work and how much she had wanted to meet him, and she wrote us to tell us that she is trying to quit this conflicting job, but the request is taking awhile to go through, and she fears she will have to leave the group in order not to let the rest of us down. The group was quiet and somber, processing her letter. I promised to check in with staff about if/how long it will take her request to go through. Our understudy Othello stated that she would not rejoice in taking on the role because we all love our current Othello’s interpretation, but she assured us that she will step in and step up if necessary.

Following this, we did our usual “check-in.” One member shared with us that she was feeling anxious because she has come to a point in her recovery where she knows she needs to let herself truly feel things, and part of her doesn’t want to. It was a beautiful expression of her comfort with the group, and immediately with Curt, that she was able to share this. Others in recovery encouraged her that although it’s painful, it’s worth it.

Our plan had been to do some Q&A with Curt and then work on our play, but the Q&A quickly evolved into a long and poignant conversation about Shakespeare, prison, life, what holds us back, what keeps us going, and how we can continue to keep our circle one of mutual respect, emotional safety, and good humor. Curt was open, honest, and compassionate right off the bat, and this made all of us feel safe enough to express whatever we needed to. The conversation was deep and personal, so I took no notes, wanting to preserve the intimacy. Many of the ensemble members opened up to Curt as they partook in the conversation, while others listened intently. Some women whom I’ve known for years shared things in detail that they haven’t ever before. Tears were shed, and we laughed as well.

At one point, Curt said that “success is built on a mountain of failures.” Our Lodovico, who had spoken so fearfully of failure at the beginning of our meeting, looked over at me, and we shared a smile.

It was a beautiful evening. Everyone encouraged Curt to come back to see one of our performances, and we’re hoping it’ll work out for that to happen. I can’t wait to see everyone again on Tuesday and reflect on the powerful experience we all had together.