Tonight was a special night, as we welcomed a journalist into the group for a feature she is writing. I won’t spoil her story by sharing details of our conversation, but I will say that the ensemble members who chose to share were strikingly honest and eloquent about their experiences. There were both laughter and tears, and while we spent a lot of time talking rather than rehearsing, the overwhelming sentiment was that it was time well spent.
Following our conversation, we launched into work on Act II Scene i, in which the main characters arrive in Cyprus at various times. The group worked smoothly together to flesh out the scene. After working out the blocking, which is complicated when so many people are involved, one of the women encouraged everyone to step it up a notch. “We all need more urgency,” she said. “We don’t know if our general is alive or dead.”
It’s worth noting that, with years of directing, teaching, and coaching actors under my belt, after four years of working with the prison ensemble, I find that I frequently do not have to give the kind of notes I normally would because ensemble members who’ve been part of the group for awhile give those notes themselves. It’s this kind of thing that is so empowering for the members – when someone gives a note on a scene, and someone else takes it, and it works, both of those people get a boost of confidence, and the ensemble as a whole take on that feeling. As a theatre artist, it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.
The evening ended with our Othello jokingly ending the scene by beckoning to Desdemona and saying, “Come, sweet cheeks,” and everyone in the room dissolving into laughter. We had also welcomed the Deputy Warden of Programs and a Communications Representative from MDOC, and it was wonderful to have them be part of such an uplifting evening.
After our check-in and warm up, we continued our work on Act Two. We began with our Herald, now played by the woman who used to play Othello. She has been feeling down about giving up the role, even though it was the right thing for her to do with her work schedule, and we encouraged her to give this brief speech her all. Her energy is infectious when she’s on a roll, and she brought such spirit and vigor to the Herald that it’s entirely possible she’s going to steal the show. The more enthusiastic she got, the more we loved it.
We began to revisit Act II Scene iii, in which Cassio gets drunk and assaults first Roderigo and then Montano, eventually being fired by Othello. Unfortunately, several of the main players had to leave early, and we were forced to stop work on the scene. This is frustrating even though it’s common, but we’re all hopeful that at some point we’re going to have everyone we need to work this scene. It’s been quite a long time.
We moved on to the Emilia/Iago section of Act III Scene iii, in which Emilia takes up Desdemona’s handkerchief and gives it to Iago. We helped our Emilia figure out how best to give her soliloquy to the audience, and she became more and more effective as she refined her approach.
Moving into Iago’s entrance and their back-and-forth, we asked our Emilia what she wants from him. She settled on “I want him to love me.” One of our ensemble members asked our Iago to pretend to give the affection that Emilia so desires until the handkerchief is handed over. “Yeah,” responded our Iago, “I’ve been starving her on purpose, so I’ll give her what she wants till I get what I want.”
We refined the blocking, with Iago actually embracing Emilia briefly in order to take the handkerchief, rather than having her hand it to him. This caused a great emotional fall for Emilia as she asked for it back and then was rejected and told to leave. The scene had become incredibly sad, which is what we all feel it should be. Truly beautiful work had been done.