Session Five: Week 41



Everyone arrived tonight ready and calm for our final show. Again, the ensemble worked together as a team to help each other through the rough spots and gave it their all. The woman who had been very upset last week nailed her scenes this week and clearly felt much better.

Once again, our audience gave us a standing ovation. It was well-earned, and put a nice stop on the performance part of our process. I distributed completion certificates and urged everyone to attend our final meeting on Friday, when we’ll discuss the program in general – what’s going well, and what needs improvement.




A good number of our ensemble members were present tonight to assess this year’s program, and those who weren’t present sent along their greetings and intentions to continue the program next year.

One of the issues brought up by the group was the “messiness” of our performances. Everyone agrees that this is due to inadequate rehearsal, caused mainly by absences and early departures. Some feel that there is also not enough structure. Our solution to this is to come up with a stricter attendance policy in the fall, to bump up our casting date to November (which we are hoping will be aided by next year’s use of the “No Feare” Richard III), and to have a rehearsal schedule of sorts so that people can make sure they are present when their scenes are being worked.

Due to those absences, we were not able to spend very much time on ensemble building during the rehearsal phase of our process. The group feels that we need to bring that back, and we hope that the solutions outlined above will make it so we have more time for group activities.

I then asked the group for an honest appraisal of the facilitators’ work. I anticipated constructive criticism, but the ensemble had nothing but praise to heap on us. They are incredibly grateful for our enthusiasm and commitment, and for the respect that we show them. “You made me feel like a human being,” said one woman.

One of the ensemble members, who had a very rough time this year, expressed her thanks to the group for sticking with her and helping her through. “It was an honor that you shared all of that with us,” said one woman. “You helped us, too.”

I asked the group how our pilot program with student facilitators worked. They expressed enthusiasm for this new aspect of our program. “New people on our side are unusual,” said one ensemble member. “It’s part of our escape.” Another woman said, “We’re helping them more than they’re helping us. That makes me feel better.”

The group then launched into an open discussion about the program, which wound its way back to facilitator feedback. A woman who has been in the group for four years got very emotional, saying, “I think everyone has a ‘better person.’” She looked at me. “You are my better person… I feel like you’re raising me. No one raised me at home. I’ve changed because of you.” I expressed what an honor it is for me to be that person for her, and my deep appreciation of everything she brings to the group.

Another woman said that she appreciates the way we model the handling of conflict and criticism. “We deal with real life situations in real life ways.”

Another woman specifically spoke about having Kyle in the group. “Guys are nice,” she said, becoming tearful. “They’re not all sleaze balls. They’re not all tricks… I used to think, am I ever going to be able to look at men and not see something sick inside of them? But Kyle’s just a normal guy, and it gives me hope for my future. If I hadn’t had you as a male around me, I wouldn’t have been able to grow like I have, for my life on the outside. I’m gonna be normal again, and it’s gonna be okay.”

We left feeling positive and excited to come back together after our summer break. I can’t wait.


Session Five: Week 40



Our second performance showed incredible progress for the ensemble. People had clearly been reviewing their lines, and the result was a more “accurate” and smoother performance.

The ensemble received another standing ovation, which was well deserved! Nearly everyone left feeling very good about what we had accomplished.

One member of the ensemble was very upset because her scenes hadn’t gone as well as others. After some encouragement from facilitators and one of our guests, she appeared to feel a bit better.




After an extended check in, we launched into a discussion about our second performance and the group in general.

One ensemble member shared that she had been upset following the first performance – lines were so all over the place that she hadn’t felt safe on stage. She then shared that she had not felt safe to share how upset she was with the group because we seemed opposed to any negative feedback. Everyone agreed that we need to do a better job of welcoming every viewpoint, and that people who do have negative feedback simply need to choose words that are respectful rather than inflammatory.

I had suggested that we work on some of the scenes that had been tripping us up, and an ensemble member shared that this was upsetting to her because we hadn’t worked on them last week. We then realized that the reason one of the scenes seemed more than a little messy to me was that everyone in the scene had met separately and made cuts which they’d forgotten to give to me. We made sure that everyone in the group had the cuts.

We then talked about the mixed reactions that the performances have been getting. Although both received enthusiastic applause at the end, some people have heard negative feedback; some people who saw last year’s show felt that this year’s wasn’t as good. Others thought it was our best yet. The ensemble feels that the second performance was definitely better, and, in the end, we are holding tight to the feeling that we’re doing good work together.

We then talked about our group dynamic. The messiness of these performances has a lot to do with absences and early departures from the group, and we concluded that we need to set a stricter attendance policy going forward. We also talked about how we handle confrontation – how we can learn from it even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Ultimately, everyone agreed that they are learning a lot and having a positive experience. We left things on a positive note, ready for our final performance next week. 

Session Five: Week 39



Tonight was our first performance. Everyone arrived with wonderful, positive energy. Several of them remarked that they were surprised not to feel very nervous, while others were buzzing with nerves. We all worked together to set up props, costumes, our set pieces, and the sound equipment.

As we gathered to bring down our ring, we all spoke aloud the energy that we were putting into it. Teamwork. Fun. Positivity. Confidence. Strength. And on.

Our audience stuck with us through the entire performance. In the past, audience members have sometimes left early, but not this year. Although the play didn’t always go exactly as we planned, our audience’s reactions were proof that they recognized the hard work being done; the challenge undertaken; the power of the ensemble to buoy each other through any mistake. We received a loud standing ovation at the play’s end.

The hiccups in performance were sometimes obvious, and sometimes not. The ensemble banded together to make it through, even when lines were skipped, or the audience laughed at a serious moment, or an entrance was missed, or a prop was off stage when it should have been on.

We have had challenges in the last few months with casting and attendance of those playing the lead characters, and so parts of our play are definitely under-rehearsed. That didn’t stop us from plowing through them, faking it when we had to, and feeding people lines and blocking from the wings.

Even with these challenges, or perhaps because of them, the performance is an important part of our process. If the performance had been perfect, there would have been fewer opportunities to “save” one another, which affirms the trust we’ve put into every member of the ensemble.




For the past few years, we’ve always performed in back to back meetings, with no opportunity to debrief in detail between performances. This year, though, due to scheduling conflicts in the auditorium, we are not able to perform on Fridays. The group decided to meet between performances, and tonight was one of those nights.

As people arrived, they shared the positive reactions we had gotten from our audience. One woman remarked how amazing it was that our audience stayed through to the end. Another shared that people to whom she spoke said that even when they didn’t understand it, they enjoyed it – and, she said, “It was the little mistakes that made it for them.” Someone had said to her, “At first I didn’t understand, but then I started to get it.”

Our Othello shared that although she had been so nervous the week before, prior to and during the performance she didn’t feel nervous at all. “I was totally mellow,” she said.

In private conversation before most people were there, a longtime ensemble memberhad shared with me and another longtime member that she felt the performance was “horrible,” and she felt that after nine months it should have been better. I asked her if maybe using a less inflammatory word would serve her better. I said that I didn’t feel it had been horrible – that it had been “messy,” and that that had its own value in terms of the many opportunities it provided for us to problem solve together. She agreed that perhaps another word would be better.

A third longtime ensemble member had overheard this conversation, and during our group discussion suggested that using words like “horrible” can be hurtful to people and perhaps disrespectful. The woman who had used that word jumped in, stating that she was entitled to her opinion and should be able to be honest about it.  “You can be honest and use different words,” the first woman said, but unfortunately things escalated very quickly and the two began snapping and yelling at each other. At a certain point I was able to make my voice heard, suggesting that this was not constructive and needed to stop.

The group then addressed the messiness of the performance. The bottom line, most people felt, is that we did our best, and our audience enjoyed it. “If you do your best and put the work in,” said one woman, “You’ll get better results each time.” Kyle reminded the group that the performance is the tip of a very big iceberg – that the nine-month process has been extremely meaningful, and that’s where our focus should be.

Another woman said, “It’s no secret that if we were in a Broadway show, we’d all be fired.” We all laughed. “But we’re not,” she continued, “And I consider it a successful disaster. There’s not much we get to enjoy, but we did that and can be proud of it.” She then shared with us that a particularly ornery woman who “enjoys nothing” told her that she had enjoyed the show. “We did that,” she said again. “It was our disaster.”

Another woman said jokingly, “All I know is I brought a sword to the sword fight this time.” Everyone laughed.

“You know,” said one woman who was new to the group this year, “Last year when I saw the show, I forgot I was in prison for awhile. You could have screwed up all day, and I would have felt like I wasn’t here. Don’t be hard on us or on each other.”

Our Desdemona reminded us all that, with all of the mistakes, there had been moments of undeniable power. “The slap brought people almost to tears,” she said, stating that a woman to whom she spoke said she “felt like she really had been there, as a woman.”

We distributed and took an end-of-year survey, following which the woman who had a problem with the use of the word “horrible” stood up and informed me that she wouldn’t be coming back. I asked her if I could speak with her in the hall. She agreed. I encouraged her to share everything that was on her mind. She and the woman with whom she’d had the spat have a history, and although they are both dedicated to the group, they rarely speak – and when they do, it tends to be contentious. I reminded her that none of us are perfect and all of us are growing; that I understood why she had a problem with that word, but that I had already spoken to the woman who said it about adjusting, and that that’s a learned skill.

They are both truly valuable to the ensemble, and I reminded her of that. I said that there are likely to be people whom one doesn’t like in any working environment, and while these two don’t have to be friends or even like each other, we need to find a way for them to be civil. She agreed, said she would be back Tuesday, and left for the evening.

I came back in to the group playing improv games, which was a great way to dispel the tension that the argument had brought on. The woman who felt the performance was “horrible” approached me at the end of the meeting. “Do you think I handled myself well?” she asked. “Come on,” I said, smiling, “You know you didn’t.” She asked me why I hadn’t stepped in earlier, and I told her that since the two of them were yelling and interrupting each other, they couldn’t hear Kyle and me at first. I had essentially the same conversation with her that I had had with the other woman. I also spoke more with her about semantics – that one doesn’t have to “sugarcoat” criticism, but can find ways to express honest opinions that aren’t hurtful.

“I’m going to think on this. I’m still learning,” she said. And she really is – she’s come a long way in four years, which I told her. But we all still having some growing to do.

Session Five: Week 38



Tonight we ran the first 2/3 or so of our play. The group really buckled down, getting through as much of the material as we could. Although there were hiccups along the way, we helped each other through and got a lot done. Because I was running around so much, I wasn’t able to take detailed notes, but it was a really great rehearsal. While some people are feeling a bit overwhelmed, they are being extremely well supported by the rest of the ensemble.




As we worked through the last scenes of the play today, our Othello became extremely frustrated by how much trouble she was having remembering lines that she thought she had cold. No one in the group was impatient or angry with her; rather, everyone encouraged her to do whatever she had to do to get through the play – paraphrasing, ending a scene, leaning on the rest of us.

“We know this play so well, we can muddle through it no matter what happens,” I reminded the ensemble. And it’s true – even when people wound up paraphrasing, they got out the necessary information to move the story forward.

We finished our run and decided to use the rest of the time for our Othello to work on the scenes with which she was most frustrated. The level of support she is receiving is beautiful – the ensemble is really rallying around her and lifting her up, even as she’s being so hard on herself.



Tonight we attempted to run the entire play, and we got within about 5 minutes of doing so! This is very encouraging for all of us, as it means that with the weekend to become more sure of lines and cues, we should be able to get all the way through it in performance.

Again, I was humbled to be a part of an incredibly supportive ensemble, as we pushed our way through all challenges that arose and worked together to remind people of cues and props needed. Our Othello, still being extremely hard on herself, did not give up and made it through.

Kyle and I encouraged her to take the rest of the night off from working lines. “There’s only so much you can do when your brain is spaghetti,” Kyle said, and he was right. She is putting a lot of pressure on herself to be perfect; she feels that the others will be angry or disappointed and let down if she’s not. We reminded her that no performance is ever perfect, that everyone knows how hard she’s been working (and only for a few weeks on memorization), and that there is nothing she can do that will cause that support to go away.

Another ensemble member overheard this conversation and shouted, “You’re doing a great job!” as she left. Another approached me quietly to assure me that she’ll work with our Othello over the weekend, keep her calm, and encourage her.

I am really hoping that the weekend will bring some relief, even as she continues to work on her lines. She is really doing incredible work, and I hope that she will absorb the support she is getting rather than continuing to beat herself up over every mistake.

Session Five: Week 37



Tonight we welcomed another journalist to our group, taking some time to talk about everyone’s experiences and the impact Shakespeare has had on them. I won’t get into specifics since I don’t want to spoil anything that might be in the final piece, but suffice to say that, again, the ensemble members who chose to share were eloquent, honest, and enthusiastic.

Following our discussion, we launched into scene work, continuing to plug our Othello into scenes for which she missed the blocking. Even with cameras present (which make all of us nervous), the ensemble did great work, whether on stage or in pairs working on lines. Although we are in the home stretch and the pressure is on, everyone is staying pretty calm.

Our casting appears to have at last been finalized, although there’s always a chance that someone will still leave the group. While it has been empowering and invigorating for the women in our group to stick with the project through performance – it gives them a sense of accomplishment they may never or rarely have had – in past years we have sometimes had to deal with an ensemble member dropping the group at the very end of the process. We always hope that everyone will stay through the end, but it doesn’t always happen.




We were fortunate enough to be given two Thursday afternoon meetings in addition to our regular Tuesdays and Fridays in the final two weeks leading up to our first performance, and today was one of those days.

We got to work right away, even while waiting for people to arrive, choreographing the fight between Cassio and Montano. We came up with a short fencing sequence that can be repeated until the fight is broken up by Othello. It’s looking good.

We then plowed through scene work aggressively and effectively, with our goal being to finish scene work this week and begin running the show next week. We banded together and got an incredible amount done on this extra day.

One moment that stuck out today was the arrival of our Bianca at exactly the moment she is supposed to enter the scene we were working on. Without missing a beat, she joined right in, seamlessly. Even with the limited number of times we’ve worked on her scenes, as a seasoned member of the ensemble she is on top of her lines and cues, always showing extreme dedication to the group and her work in it.




We spent some time at the beginning of today’s meeting trying on and working with props and costumes. I had initially hesitated to do this today, but as always when the ensemble’s opinion outweighs mine, we went with what the majority wanted and brought everything into the classroom we usually use on Fridays.

It turned out to be a good thing! “This just makes it seem real,” said one woman to me. “Now I’m even more excited.”

Once we had spent some time on props and costumes, we dove into the final scene of the play. After we reviewed the scene’s blocking, plugging in our Othello, we ran it. Our Othello set the tone by fully committing to the rage and sadness her character experiences, and the result was that everyone else bumped it up a notch to meet her. At one point I looked over at an ensemble member who is not in the scene, and she was weeping. “This is just so sad,” said another woman.

Our Brabantio then quietly asked if we could work her scenes, since she took over the role from someone else and hasn’t had any rehearsal time with it. “I know, and I’m so sorry,” I said. “It’s all right,” she said, “I’ll be fine as long as I can do it a couple of times.” We worked the first scene of the play, and, to our delight, she already has all of her lines memorized – she is totally prepared. It would have been great for her to have more rehearsal, but as it is, she’s making it work – and making it work well.