Session Five: Week 32



This evening began with our Othello letting us know that, due to her shift at work, she needs to relinquish her part and take on something smaller. She doesn’t want to let the group down, and she feels that she will have too many absences to carry the role without stressing everyone out. We all expressed that we understand, although we will miss her Othello. We asked her to understudy the role, which she accepted.

Our heretofore understudy Othello then requested that we immediately make more cuts to the play so that she can get going on line memorization. We settled on a “divide and conquer” approach to the evening, with Othello, Iago, and me working on cuts, some others working in pairs on their lines, and a number of ensemble members working with Sarah on the “senate scene.”

I checked in with our new Othello prior to beginning cuts, making sure we are on the same page about keeping her emotionally safe while playing the role. She acknowledged that it may be challenging, but she feels she has a lot of life experience to bring to the role, and she is confident that she can do so without further traumatizing herself. This is her fourth play with us, and all of her roles thus far have had comedic elements; she is excited to do something completely different this year.

Meanwhile, Sarah worked with the ensemble on that senate scene. From Sarah:

We sat down to work on a Duke, Senator, Messenger, Sailor, Officer section of a scene this evening that seemed a bit dry and impenetrable. We read it through once. While nobody seemed confused about the meaning of the scene, none of us really knew right off the bat why Shakespeare put it in the play and what we were going to do to make it live for us and our audience. Our ensemble member who has been acting as a director, led discussions and really delved into the meanings with us. As we discussed the text more and more, it became clear to me that I had not really understood the fun, the purpose, and the full meaning of the scene until we all read it several times and talked it through. Our whole ensemble agreed. We realized that with Shakespeare sometimes you think you understand, but it's not until you go deep into conversation and collaboration that you get to the meat and fun of a seemingly throw-away scene. This was an exciting revelation for everyone and inspiration to speak up when we don't FULLY understand and know what our characters WANT in a scene.

This was an extremely productive evening for the group. It’s time now to buckle down, as we perform our play at the end of May, and everyone is doing a great job not only doing her own work, but encouraging all members of the team to do their best.



Most of our time this evening was put toward staging Act V Scene I, in which Roderigo and Cassio fight, Iago kills Roderigo, and Bianca is swept up in the chaos. This proved to be a challenging scene to stage, especially since we were meeting in a classroom rather than the auditorium. It is difficult for many of our ensemble members to envision how their work in the classroom translates to the stage; as a result, we did only loose blocking with the intention of firming it up on Tuesday.

As we began work on the scene, our main director asked the actors to envision the scene as Shakespeare intended: “It’s pitch black. You can’t see anything. It’s a bloody mess.” We initially staged the scene so that Roderigo and Cassio injure each other at the same time (since we don’t have much rehearsal time for intense fight choreography), but some ensemble members want to see how it works for Iago to wound Cassio instead, as many people interpret the scene. We worked together to try to keep everyone on the same page, which worked a bit better after I drew a rough floor plan of our performance space to clarify things. Eventually, though, as noted above, we decided to leave the finessing until Tuesday.

Our Desdemona was absent, so we decided to jump to the part of Act V Scene ii with just Othello and Emilia, after Desdemona’s murder. There are still varying interpretations of Emilia here, and the ensemble member playing the character tried to take it all in.

Why, I asked, does the scene move so quickly, with shared lines? Why does Shakespeare leave so little room for Emilia to silently process what’s happening? “You’ve figured it out, it’s running through your head, but you still don’t believe it,” said one woman.

We then talked about how Othello threatens Emilia toward the end of this section, and she’s seemingly fearless. Why doesn’t she cave to his threats? And why doesn’t Othello immediately take her out? “Othello’s not a murderer,” said one ensemble member. “He murdered his wife, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna murder everyone.”

Our Emilia has a tendency to rush her lines, but when she moved quickly through this scene (not just picking up on cues, but rushing her lines internally), it didn’t work too well. “Shakespeare gives you lots of punctuation when he wants you to slow down and breathe,” I reminded her. “So if your instinct is to rush, but the playwright is telling you not to, you need to figure out why that is and how to make it work for you.” She is going to work on this.

We are in a good place to finish our blocking of the play next week, following which, our plan is to start over at the beginning, smoothing things out and plugging in our new Othello.

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.