Session Five: Week 9



Written by Kyle


Today was my first session back after having been out of town. The ensemble members were all quick to ask about the trip, eager to hear about what I had done, and just about everyone welcomed me back.

After a warm-up and some theatre games, the group had a discussion about where we thought we might set our production of Othello. We wanted to get an idea of what was on their minds so we could take advantage of the post-Halloween sales and get some costumes if at all possible. The discussion was slow to start but, like most discussions with our group, became involved and impassioned once we got going. The conversation at first was focused on the possibilities prompted by the question: what could be? Everything from cavemen, Scotland, in a prison, disco and outer space were suggested, and we were having fun linking Othello’s characters into a Star Wars parody.

Then the conversation evolved into more about what should be? What is the story that we are trying to tell? What is a better demonstration of Shakespeare’s timelessness: our ability to set his text in any time period, or the ability of the audience to relate to an Elizabethan text set in the period assigned by Shakespeare? It’s a toss up, and certainly a conversation that the professional theatre has had for years. I noted that keeping it in period can be difficult to source authentic looking costumes and props; whereas updating can be difficult because things like sword fighting and monarchies have a difficult translation in a more modern era.

However, a gauntlet was thrown early, with one of the newer ensemble members stating very directly that she thought that updating the setting “took the focus off the story… [keeping it as is] simplifies the message and we shouldn’t mess with it.” Many agreed, and it seemed like it was almost unanimous. I brought up that we could make our own world and set it in the world of ‘our play,’ and not set it anywhere specific. We could make up our own world, or keep it nondescript.

Many found this interesting, although we didn’t discuss it too long before moving on to the last stage of any conceptual consideration: what can we realistically do? It was kind of amazing the shape that the discussion took. Very similar to how I would approach it myself with any other production I’ve directed. The point was raised that we should think about who our audience was going to be and what would be the most effective for them; furthermore, consideration should be given to what would most likely be approved to by the facility’s administration. All these were valid concerns and foundational to the creation of a conceptual framework for our piece.

I concluded by saying that no decision needed to be made right then and there, that we needed to decide what story we wanted to tell before we could really decide just how it would be told. I am always impressed, though, by how deliberately the group wrestles with the questions of what makes art, and just how in step the ensemble is with my own process.

We only read one scene tonight, Act IV Scene ii; granted, it is longer scene, but it prompted such a rich debate that we couldn’t move on. Although Othello’s words towards Desdemona were powerful, the first discussion centered on Emilia and whether she knows Iago’s plan or not. Why would she be complicit with his plan if she does? Why would she give him the handkerchief? What about Iago’s emotional manipulation of her? Many said they were married to or had been involved with a man like Iago, and that many of Iago’s lines were not very nice until she gave him the handkerchief, when he showered her with praise. This kind of deliberate withholding of praise and affection was a potent dynamic in many of the ensemble’s past relationships, and many said they could understand her wanting to make him happy despite it betraying her own values.

As usual, though, the conversation was clouded by the impending murder: was Othello insane at this point? Had he reached his breaking point? Had he turned a corner from which he could not return? The quote that stuck out to me was, “We didn’t get here by being saints. How many of us are here from a 10-second crime?” Is he going to be defined by that decision? Someone brought up that after Othello’s seizure, he had passed a point of no return. I asked what the last sane decision that we saw Othello make might be. One member responded that the promotion of Iago to his lieutenant was the last decision he made, and that every decision since has been made for him.

The same ensemble member refuted herself, though, and brought up that the murder is premeditated. He is thinking about it, talking about it, and going to do it. There is no way around the fact that he kills Desdemona, that he kills her intentionally, and that he’s guilty. This was a very resonant remark, and one that just about everyone in the ensemble seemed to weigh in on. Is he a bad person, then? Many said that it a show of remorse means that Othello is not a bad person; some said that one’s previous actions are not what define them, people can change, etc.

I asked if we could extend the same redemption to Iago. What was Iago’s breaking point? When did he stop making decisions? Can he change with the right intentions? One woman said that Iago was the person in the play with whom she identified most. “Maybe I’m more evil than everyone else here, but I used to do this kind of stuff.” She went on to say that she thought she could change and was working on it. We could have talked all night. We sped through the last little part of the scene just for the sake of finishing; I for one felt, and hope, that we are far from finished with the discussion.


Session Five: Week 5

Written by Kyle  


Today we opened the session with a somewhat longer than usual check-in from the ensemble members.  In some ways it was a pretty typical check-in in that it ranged from the profoundly intimate to the mundane pretty seamlessly; every so often it happens that the ensemble is especially free with their thoughts from the week, and are unusually eager to let the group in.  To be perfectly honest, I forget how the story came up, but someone commented that attending drama school was like being committed to a mental institution.  The three of us facilitators, although we really wanted to disagree, knew in our heart-of-hearts that we couldn’t quite contradict the comparison.

The past couple weeks we have alternated the structure of the Tuesday and Friday night sessions.  Tuesdays we start with improv/theatre games and finish with Shakespeare, and Fridays are the reverse.  So after warmup we continued on with some of the improv games that we had been exploring previously.  Tonight we learned a new game, “Freeze Frame” as I had learned it in college, although I think we called it something different in the prison.  In the game two ensemble members create a scene based on a dynamic stance that one of the performers is in, someone in the house calls ‘Freeze!’ and then assumes one of the roles of the ‘frozen’ performers and starts a completely new and unrelated scene from the same dynamic pose.  It’s harder than it sounds, although some of the ensemble members make it look easy.  We did have to have a discussion about the very understandable temptation from the performers to try and make their scene funny.  They begin to hesitate calling ‘Freeze!’ when they feel like they are not going to be funny, or they begin playing for laughs instead of sticking to the rules-of-thumb that make for good improv.  It’s a difficult temptation, and certainly one that more advanced improvisers have fallen victim to themselves.  It is something that we have all committed to working on, and I’m excited to see how we all do in the future.  Of course now that I say that, my favorite part was when a company member created a scene about committing a loved one to a mental hospital by telling them they were going to drama school!

As far as working on the text, we spent the remainder of the session on the last third of Act 1 Scene 3 (the Roderigo/Iago two-hander for all the aficionados out there!).  This group seems to be very interested in the staging of the show.  It seems that there is a constant conversation about how the nuances of the text are going to read best in the movement and positioning of the major contributors of the scene.  It can be difficult for us to remind ourselves that we are not staging the play yet - that we haven’t even had auditions!  What we are doing is exploring possibilities, not writing anything in stone, but it gets tempting to slip into a pretty nuanced discussion about staging because it just seems to be where their heads are.  The director in me can talk about those aspects all day and all night, and it is tempting to not let the conversation go on and on; but I have to remember to continue to encourage discussion that explores the characters’ relationships - there will be plenty of time for staging when the time comes!  There was a lot to discuss, though. Many like the intimacy that comes out of the scene when the two men are sitting next to each other; others thought that Roderigo’s talk of suicide is a more literal cry for help, so Iago needs to span the stage, inspiring him to live on and ultimately do Iago’s bidding.  Either way, it was pretty unanimously agreed on that Iago was ‘in-charge’ of the scene - that the scene moved when he moved it.  A poignant comment was made by a member who said, “It’s like a cat and mouse game, except that the cat doesn’t just eat the mouse- he plays with it a bit!”  There was a lot to talk about, and three different couplings of women played the scene with criticism/comments in between.  In the end, there was discussion and revisiting from one of the ensemble members about how to give constructive criticism rather than being insensitive.  It was a fair point, and I hope it is something that sticks with the ensemble.


It was a very cold and rainy kind of day, and it was very clear how cold everyone was.  There was another group using the auditorium, so we were in a different group room.  The cold seemed to affect everyone. The warmups were slow, and the check-in was a little sparse.  We had yet to see the entirety of Act 1 Scene 3 on its feet from start to finish; there was a tentative plan to start with a full run of the scene, but we had been working on it for three straight weeks and there was a unanimous decision to move on to Act 2.  The ensemble was in the mood for table work, it seems, as we didn’t end up exploring the scene on its feet at all.  They just wanted to keep reading and move along with the discussion of the text.

The ensemble seems to have really embraced the careful study of the text for which the process calls.  It’s nice to not have to prompt them for questions of comprehension very often; they will just stop and ask, “Is Roderigo stupid?”  We debated that very question for almost ten minutes, followed by a completely separate conversation about what a person is willing to do for love, and at what point romanticism becomes obsession.  We were all, myself included, encouraged by one of the senior members not to make judgements about the characters and to keep reading and see what happens.  It begged the question though: what would need to happen in me that Roderigo’s behavior would make sense?

In the following scene with Iago and Cassio, the ensemble were really dissecting the scene - almost too much!  There is an attention to every single detail that is really inspiring.  In the scene, we talked about whether Cassio was shutting down Iago’s provocative comments about Desdemona, or whether Cassio was so much of a boy scout that he didn’t understand Iago’s provocation.  The group seemed pretty split on the matter in a really wonderful way; each faction citing their own experience and the text to make their case.  It became a very good theatre teaching moment; I was able to point out that it was a decision that was up to the actor playing Cassio to decide for themselves how they think the scene should go.

Following the discussion, we continued with Act 2 Scene 3 - Cassio’s famous drunk scene.  The room was alive with chatter, and several times I had to remind them to listen to each other and wait for people to finish before they offered their opinions.  By this point everyone was pretty cold, and despite the amount of text we covered, we still managed to finish up early.

My favorite part of the evening, though, had nothing to do with Othello; there was a moment when we were reading, and we all stopped to admire the sunset.  Usually we are in the windowless auditorium and don’t see the sunset.  It was a magnificent magenta that seemed to soften into lavender, and the later it got, the more the sky turned to gold. One by one we put our books down and looked; until someone abruptly stood up and opened the blinds to see.  We all stopped reading, and many stood up and went to the window to look. A few jokes were made about what went for entertainment in prison, and then everyone sat down again and we picked up right where we left off.  It seemed to just come and go and didn’t seem all that noteworthy at the time, and didn’t have anything to do with Shakespeare, but is definitely my favorite memory of the night.

Session Four: Week 38

First and Second Performances: Reflections… Having been a part of four plays at the prison now, I was struck somewhat by the similarities between seasons, but more so by the differences. I asked several of our “vets” how they felt. One, who was physically ill from nerves last year, commented before our opening that she felt nervous, but not sick, and she was excited to perform. She said that during that performance, she discovered that if she pretended the audience wasn’t there (“I put a wall around them”), she felt much more confident. That’s a common actor’s trick that no one had to teach her. Another woman, who struggled last year with her own perfectionism and expectations for others, said that she felt that the session had gone much better this year, and she felt more relaxed. I agreed with her that we’ve worked out many of the “kinks” we wanted to, and she said, “Well, yeah, but what I mean is that I feel better. I feel like I’ve grown a lot.”

One woman, who joined in September and has had wavering confidence this entire time, remarked to Sarah that she wouldn’t be able to go to another call out, but that, “I won’t let down my ensemble. We’ve been together since September, and we’ve all worked too hard for me to let anyone down.” Another, who had severe stage fright in September (she’d actually been goaded into joining by her room mate), said joyfully, “I want to do Shakespeare forever! When I get out, I want to do Shakespeare all the time. I need to find somewhere to do that.”

We worked together as an incredibly cohesive team to whiz through our play, having a ton of fun and clearly entertaining our audience as we went the first night. Coming into the second night, the entire group seemed more relaxed and confident – they’d done it once successfully, received overwhelmingly positive feedback from their peers, and were revved up to do it again. The show totally gelled during its second performance, as we improvised through mistakes on the fly with great ease and humor; at one point in the penultimate scene, I don’t even remember what happened, but between line flubs and our general sense of hilarity, several of the women cut the scene off, and we left the stage laughing hysterically. Our audience was laughing, too.

This is the largest ensemble yet to complete the program and probably the most cohesive. They truly take care of each other, no matter what their differences – minor tiffs evaporate for the good of the team, and they have pulled off an energetic and inspiring play. Our final performance is on June 9, followed by a wrap up session. Then we’ll be “on break” for the summer – but those of us returning to the program all acknowledge that we’ll actually be spending a lot of time preparing for Othello – we’re all just so excited to do it again.

Reflections from co-facilitators…

Lauren: Leading up to the performances was so exciting to me. These women have come so far over the past nine months. All of the actors were on edge until the show started. Forgetting lines was probably the most common fear. Once the curtain opened, everyone was so energized and on top of it. When lines were dropped, the recovery was quick and efficient, which I think gave confidence to the women. I sat in the house for the second show, and was told a number of times by audience members how awesome the performance was. One woman told me she use to study British literature, and she really loved the performance. This has been a great experience, and I'm so proud of everyone who was involved.

Dominique: These women have a firm grasp on the physical comedy of the play - the choice the group made to welcome any improve-based, physical, and slapstick big actions serve the play so well. Often Shakespeare's comedies get lost in translation - jokes that were funny 450 years ago don't always play as well now. But the physicality they gave it - and the fact that they know what the comedy is - made them able to convey it to their audience with amazing deftness. They knew what they were saying and doing and it showed, even if the audience wasn't always able to key into the language. The strong physical choices made the meaning clear and brought clarity to the language as well. And they were funny. Just plain ol’ funny - performances blossomed out of women who were mortified to speak out loud last fall. Each performance was its own miracle for its own reason - and more what the program is about than interpretation of Shakespeare. But at the root of the variety of achievements met by this group of women is the conquering of Shakespearean text in a theatrical performance done for a live audience. There is some kind of magic in that, and it is truly amazing to watch happen.

Vanessa: Opening nights are my favorite kind of days. And this was no exception. As soon as we all met up in the theatre to set up, you could feel the energy and joy for what was about to happen. I was blown away throughout the performance. The women were prepared and excited to show their work, and it was so much fun to be in the wings with them as they came on and off stage. They treated this as if they had been acting for years and made me feel like I was the newbie! Cuz I am. And I am grateful I was a part of this group. I was so proud. I cried at curtain call. It was magical. And it wasn't just luck- because they made it all happen again for the second show. The audience response was just as amazing. I think we all had moments of transcending where we were and giving in to the communal healing power of theatre. Ah. This is why we do it.

Sarah: When our ensemble arrived at the auditorium, we immediately came together to work. We set up the set, the actors dove into their costumes and make-up, we all circled up for a brief vocal warm up and in less that 20 minutes the women were ready to perform! They were more professional than most professionals. Many of the women shared that they were terrified to perform in front of their first audience and all offered each other support and encouragement. They were a wonder on stage - funny and brave and taking care of each other through every moment! I have come to expect this cast to be patient with each other and to respect each other and to share themselves with each other but to see them share their courage, humor, and patience in front of their audience too was moving betting belief! I could not be more honored that this group of women welcomes me into their midst!

Kyle: I feel like a bit of a broken record, but my reflections are right in line with what always comes to me when working in the prison: it sometimes doesn’t feel like I’m in a prison, it just feels like I am doing a show. It’s hard to describe really, but there were the same buzz and butterflies that come with the opening night of any show. The women come off the stage and ask how they think the show is going so far, how they think they did in that last scene, put hands to heads at a flubbed line or prop malfunction. Not all that dissimilar from any other show in which I have been. Having the costumes was a game changer. It is something special when someone thinks about what clothing would work just for you, or that would fit just right for your character; I really underestimated the impact of that exchange, and wouldn’t have thought it would go as far as it did to make it feel like a “real show.” I think the most important lesson for the women was to keep having fun no matter what - if the actors are having fun, then the audience is going to have fun, too. Sure, things went wrong; sure, lines were forgotten - that’s life, and that’s theatre. It contains a powerful lesson, though: no matter what goes wrong, you keep going and you keep smiling. As I said above, that goes for life and theatre. When we left, there was still light outside, and sun was setting, which was strange because most of the year we would leave in darkness. It seemed a fitting way to finish the process. I was beaming with pride for the women’s achievement and feel so grateful to have been a part of the program.

Session Four: Week 28

Tuesday Written by Kyle

Tonight was my first night working as a facilitator; I went through the orientation and so missed the opening/warm-up aspect of the session. I wondered whether I was going to jump right in or hang back and observe. The former won out in short order! When I arrived the company was warm, welcoming and eager to know about me. We went through what I came to realize are the questions that all new company members are asked. What brings you to Shakespeare? Why do you want to do Shakespeare? What do you hope to get out of this experience? etc. Simple questions all, but questions I could talk about for hours. I was as eager to answer as they seemed to ask, and it felt like a nice sort of initiation to get the ball rolling.

The group set out working Act 1 scene 2; it’s a long scene with lots of entrances, exits, shtick, and lots of people on the stage. It can get a little messy with the staging and so the company had to stop and discuss many times just how we wanted to make it work. I suggested that we bring the most important elements of the scene downstage center. This prompted many more questions of the company that seemed to lead into one another: How were we going to use staging to highlight the important part of the scene? What was the important part of the scene? Why? All good critical questions that as they unravel can give the distinct impression that the scene is unraveling. They hung with it though, and took direction well. One of the newer members in the company who has a smaller part had the benefit of watching the whole scene, and she was able to voice some great ideas about staging. We were able to take those ideas and build on them in a really wonderful way. At one point they used the steps on the stage to express one character’s dominance over another; it was a really wonderful idea that utilized the space in a really organic way- it would have been a good idea in any playhouse! By the end everyone was tired, but morale seemed high for all who stayed to the end.

On a personal note, as it is my first time working with the company, and I wondered how the night would go… It was humbling, exciting and most importantly, I found the experience a little common place in the most wonderful way. Very quickly we become people doing theatre, the same as I have done my whole life. It not as if you can ever forget where you are, and frankly, it would be inappropriate to try. The point is however, that for most of the night the prison was not downstage center- it was the backdrop of the show at best. What was up front for me was the fact that there were the same hopes, fears, company archetypes, and the willingness to make something out of nothing that has been the spirit of all my experiences in the theatre- in short, I’m hooked.


Written by Frannie

Attendance was light today, but this enabled us to give a lot of attention to a couple of scenes that really needed it.

Most of our work was done on Act IV Scene I – just the first part of the scene when Grumio enters and has a conversation with Curtis. The woman playing Curtis has been patient as we’ve rotated through Grumios, but at a certain point she was not eager to continue working this scene with stand-ins, so we let it alone for awhile. Now that I’m in the role, we decided to really dig in to make it easier to for her to learn the lines.

We made a lot of discoveries together – she proved to be very flexible and a great improviser as we tried different things. We discovered that Curtis and Grumio are rivals of sorts – they needle each other throughout the scene. We found that the scene worked best when Curtis repeatedly interrupted Grumio, pushing him and getting under his skin.

Something else that has been very striking lately, but was especially in focus today, is the growing confidence of one of our ensemble members, who is playing Vincentio. She joined the group well after its start date last year, and, despite extreme stage fright and shyness, pushed through her one scene with lines as Balthasar and emerged with a new feeling that maybe speaking in front of people is something she can actually do – and do well. This year, she rolled with the punches on casting, ending up with Vincentio and deciding that it was meant to be – that she was meant to take on this role, which, for her, is quite “large.”

Since then, she has been a constant and constructive voice in the group. She’s become a self-professed “Shakespeare nerd,” reading about him outside of our group and bringing us pertinent ideas that she’s come across. She’s also emerged as an insightful and compassionate director, guiding scenes and actors to find better ways of working with our material. This has been a truly exciting change to witness, and I can’t wait to see where she is on the other side of our performances. She’s always been a great asset to the group, but her recent emergence in such a positive leadership role is remarkable and inspiring.