Session Five: Week 24


Written by Gaia and Clearie


This past Tuesday evening, we had a bit of a smaller group, as only six ensemble members were able to attend. This provided for an intimate discussion, and the ensemble members playing Othello, Cassio, Iago, and Bianca were able to take a deeper look at Act 4 Scenes 1 and 2 . But at the same time the smaller number of ensemble members drew my attention to the fact that the number of facilitators outnumbered the ensemble.  In this moment, I felt like the difference between the outsiders of the prison institution and the insiders became physically evident.

Considering that we are the first student-facilitators in the program, we are still searching for our voice in the ensemble. For now, we think it is best to simply be observant, present and supportive.

As Othello stood up on her feet and brought this incredible work of art to life, the distance between myself as an outside, student facilitator and the incarcerated woman playing Othello seemed to dissipate.  It was in this magical, theatrical rehearsal time that the ensemble and facilitators were able to dismiss, at least momentarily, this omnipresent power dynamic and dive into the play.

Working on two beautiful scenes from Act 4 with Iago and Othello and Cassio and Bianca, both ensemble members and facilitators began jumping up, offering suggestions, diving further and further into the text, making discoveries, laughing, and creating constructively. I think a fantastic part about having a smaller group was that it allowed for the members that were there to really focus in on one scene at a time. The ensemble members were all completely invested and worked to make bold choices and direct one another from the audience.

We had fun working these scenes and doing some character development. We discussed why Iago feels the need to rush Cassio out of the room, and how well Iago has mastered the art of lying. We also explored what these characters wanted and how to find a proper build up for extreme moments like Othello’s rage bringing him into an epileptic trance (a challenging state to get to even for supremely-trained actors).

Act 4 Scene 2 was particularly fun to dive into. One of the facilitators, Kyle, remarked at how universally applicable the concepts in this scene are. The universal idea that for centuries and centuries, men have failed to understand what truly makes a woman happy. One run-through of the scene was particularly well-done and entertaining to watch. When the actors playing Cassio and Bianca were asked afterwards how they felt, they remarked lightheartedly that it brought back memories from their own past.

Despite the brief uncertainties at the beginning of the session, as soon as the script was open, it was clear that the only hegemon in the room was Shakespeare.



Written by Frannie


Tonight we began with our usual check in, a circle game, and our lowering of the ring. After this, someone asked if we could do an exercise in which we count, one person at a time, as high as we can go. It’s a very challenging exercise – the group needs to be really in sync to make it work. This group did phenomenally well, counting as high as 27 and 39 in two different attempts. One ensemble member remarked that the silence is the most important part – coming together and listening to one another. Others remarked how calming it was to do this, and how much better it made some of them feel after a stressful day.

One of our ensemble members is organizing a performance to take place soon at the prison. She has been feeling overwhelmed by the needs of the performers and asked the group for advice to help her deal with it. One of the other ensemble members remarked that she had watched this person interacting with staff during a stressful time. “I was so proud of you,” she said. “I was watching you, and you were calm.” The other woman said, “But I was burning on the inside.” We talked then about how just because you are feeling something negative, it doesn’t mean you need to express it – I reminded the group of a phrase I learned at the recent Shakespeare in Prisons conference: “I am master of my mind, not a victim of my thinking.” We can appear calm and collected if it best suits the situation, even if we are not feeling that way on the inside.

We noted that attendance has been slipping lately, and we’ve lost a few members of the ensemble. This has been a regular occurrence during the winter for the past four years, and February has always been the time when we’ve added new participants to bolster our numbers. Some in the group have trepidations about doing this, but everyone understands that it’s necessary. We talked through exactly how we should go about doing this and have come up with a solid plan, part of which needs to be approved by prison staff since it’s a bit of a change from last year. We want to be welcoming but realistic about what our group expectations are, and we want to be sure to extend the powerful, positive dynamic we have now to encircle new participants as well.

Someone then asked at what point we’ll run through the entire play. “We’ll be lucky if we can do it three times before we perform,” said a woman who was in the group last year. “That doesn’t seem like enough!” said the first woman. “Don’t panic,” said the second woman. “I panicked. It was a waste of panicking. It never seems like there is enough time, but there’s enough time.”

With that, we explored Act III Scene I on its feet. In this scene, Cassio implores Iago and then Emilia to help him get access to Desdemona, hoping she can sway Othello to give him back his job. “This is a really intense scene,” said one woman to our Cassio after the first, rather casual, run. “You want something and you’re depending on everyone else to give it to you.”

“You’ve been up all night to devise a plan… And here you are at the crack of dawn to put it in action,” said another. We then clarified the timeline for our Cassio, who hadn’t realized how quickly this scene comes after the drunken fight. “You’re grasping at straws here,” said one woman.

We ran through the scene a second time with this new input. Afterward, I asked how the actors felt. “I felt more connected. I felt more like Cassio – jittery and anxious,” said our Cassio. We talked, too about how when our Emilia lingered on and relished the word “love,” in the phrase, “he protests he loves you,” it connected with us more. We are all going to work on that as we move forward – not rushing, enjoying the language.

We then moved on to Act II Scene III, when Iago tries to get Cassio to talk dirty about Desdemona and convinces him to drink more alcohol. Why won’t Cassio talk about Desdemona in this way, we wondered after the first go. “’Cause I wouldn’t want someone talking about my woman like that,” said our Cassio, having a light bulb go off. “Let’s do it again, now,” she said eagerly, and we did. This time, Cassio tried to physically separate herself from Iago, to great effect.

One of our ensemble members told us then that she likes to sometimes close her eyes and just listen to a scene to see if it still makes sense. She said that this scene was totally clear, which is a great testament to the connection the performers felt to the language.

“I liked it,” said another ensemble member, “but it almost puts Cassio at a higher… I don’t know how to say it… He gets duped, but he seems way too smart for that to happen.” We talked then about how no one in this play lacks intelligence; Iago is just very good at manipulating people. Kyle also pointed out that perhaps what Shakespeare wants us to take away from this scene is that Cassio would never have an affair with Desdemona – it’s outlandish to think so.

We keep plugging away, making progress and working together. It will be interesting to see how adding new members to the ensemble will impact the group.

Session Five: Week 23



Tonight we decided to review the work that’s been done on Act I Scene iii and keep going with it. After our review, we again pondered Roderigo’s situation in this play.

Why doesn’t Roderigo suspect Iago of taking advantage of him? “He’s super focused on Desdemona,” said one woman. “He’s not thinking about anything else – he’s obsessed.”

“I fight against my own emotions and intelligence with this,” said the woman playing Roderigo.

“Even if there was a solution, you’d still be a little gloomy,” said another woman about Roderigo’s state of mind. “But sometimes false hope is the best thing,” said another.

“Well, I feel silly,” said the woman playing Roderigo. “Then you’re doing it right!” said someone else.

After going through the scene again, one woman asked if maybe we should set the whole thing in front of our curtain so that, when the scene is over, we can open it on Cyprus. The whole group was enthusiastic about this idea.

We spent some time playing a game, and then some people had to leave. We decided to work on one of Othello’s monologues with the remaining time, a monologue in which he denies feeling jealous. After one read, we all chipped in to guide our Othello to find greater truth in the piece. Her second read was much more effective, and when she finished I asked her how she had accomplished that. “You’re not gonna like it,” she said, and whispered to me, “I used the Method.”

I asked her, “Do you mean you were re-living a past experience, or were you recalling and using that past?” She answered that she had not re-lived anything, but, rather, had thought about when she felt a similar way and used that in her performance. The facilitators then clarified that this is an effective tool to use in rehearsal (often called “the magic as if”), and is not the Method and nothing to be worried about.

Readers may recall that we have had a few intense discussions about safe approaches to the material, and it’s good that this ensemble member got clarification about the tool she was using. In our program, we can’t avoid looking at our play through the lens of our own experience; it’s using that experience safely and effectively to tell a story that needs to be our focus. If we maintain that, no one should have to re-live past trauma.





Tonight began with a discussion about costumes, set, and props. We are not allowed to use military uniforms, so we had to work together to come up with something that would signify military without going against prison policy. We believe we have come up with a good solution, but that, too, will need to be approved by the prison.

Most of the ensemble members have a very clear idea of what their characters should be wearing. The woman playing Bianca emphatically stated that she should wear red even though in everyday life she doesn’t like the color – she feels that Bianca would. Our Othello had suggestions for how she could look slightly different from the other military characters.

We also talked through some problem solving about Desdemona’s smothering. I haven’t asked specific questions yet of prison staff, but I anticipate that this will be a challenge to stage while staying within the rules of the prison. We’ve come up with several solutions that I will present to staff soon.

We then continued with our blocking, beginning with Act II Scene i, in which we arrive at Cyprus in the wake of a storm. Two ensemble members whose characters don’t appear until the second act gamely took on the roles of the two gentlemen in the scene. Our Cassio seemed unsure of what she should be doing, but she knew she felt the need to move. “Well,” said a longtime ensemble member, “What do you do when you’re nervous and anxious?” Cassio answered that she paces. We decided as a group that it would be appropriate to pace and look out to sea for Othello’s ship. One person suggested that Cassio grab a telescope from Montano as well.

We have a backdrop of an ocean that was painted for our Tempest, and this same longtime ensemble member suggested that we put it at the back of the house. This suggestion was met with enthusiasm and praise for her consistently wonderful design/concept ideas over the years.

We also decided to revisit this when we’re back in the auditorium (we sometimes meet in a classroom on Fridays) so that we can explore different levels in the scene.

It was a very positive evening, and we are chugging along, figuring out how to stage our story. 

Session Five: Week 12



We continued on with our “Freeze” style of scene exploration tonight, beginning with Act IV Scene II. After our first time through, I asked what we had learned. “We’re getting better at it,” said one woman. “We’re giving each other more time to play, but we’re also taking the time to feel out each other’s energy. We’re slowly getting better.”

“I’m trying to read all the parts,” said another woman, “But I also want other people in there.” Sarah responded that that sentiment is both generous and brave – to know that, however much we as individuals want to get up every single time, it’s best for the ensemble if we encourage others to do so as well.

Kyle had gone in as Desdemona for part of the scene, and we asked him how that felt. We had all agreed that, since we all take each other seriously playing men, we shouldn’t have an issue taking Kyle seriously if he read a female character. “I felt vulnerable playing Desdemona,” he said. “I felt… embarrassed in front of you guys, which surprised me.” Everyone reassured him that he had no reason to be embarrassed – that we enjoyed his interpretation of Desdemona and welcomed him to continue to read the women in the play if he wants to.

“I know what you mean, though, about feeling embarrassed,” said one woman. “I haven’t read any female characters, and I don’t think I’m going to. I know I’m a woman and everything, but I feel more like a guy, and I know how you feel, Kyle. It’s hard to explain, but it’s hard for me, and I feel really vulnerable and embarrassed, too, when I play a woman. I know I can do anything I put my mind to, but…” The ensemble made sure she knew that we will never “make” her doing anything she’s uncomfortable with – if she only wants to read the male characters, no one has a problem with that.

We continued to talk about how Kyle being male changes the dynamic for us at times. “It changed things when I played the Bianca scene and was yelling at Kyle as Cassio,” said one woman. “When it’s all women, no matter what, I always know it’s all women. You can’t get much closer to a man than Kyle,” she joked, and we all laughed. “But it brought up different feelings from when I play scenes with other women.” Kyle mentioned that he’s been hesitant to read Othello in the abusive scenes, and, while many members of the group hadn’t thought about how it might change things for a man to read those lines in our group setting, they said that they appreciated his concern and agreed that it’s best that he continue not to (potentially) rock the boat in that way.

We talked a bit about the end of this scene, in which Iago convinces Roderigo (with ease) to kill Cassio. We’re interested in how this relationship evolves, and how Roderigo gets to this point. “If someone you know is going further than you normally would, you’re likely to go further, too. What seemed outrageous now isn’t,” said one woman. “Roderigo has now invested so much that he can’t walk away from this plot,” said another woman. “He’s in too deep.”

We did the scene this way again, this time challenging ourselves to stay in a “ready” posture while seated, trying to breath with each other and sustain the emotional energy of the scene. We were very successful at this, and it was invigorating. “It’s so entertaining,” said one woman, “I love how everyone has a different perspective on these characters, but it still flows.” We talked specifically about the different takes on Desdemona we saw – one woman focusing on her sweetness, her innocence, and another taking a more earthy, aggressive approach. “I see Desdemona as a strong woman,” that ensemble member said. “She’s loving, but she has a voice.”

We moved on to Act IV Scene III, most of which is an intimate scene between Desdemona and Emilia. It took quite awhile for anyone to tag out the two women who were up first – we were quite taken with what they were doing, and no one wanted to interrupt. I asked, afterward, how they felt. “I felt helpless,” said the woman who read Emilia. “I would be really uncomfortable if this was real. I’m just not that nurturing, I guess. I’d want to make her leave – I’d want tie her up and drag her away, but I can’t… I couldn’t do enough. I wasn’t doing enough.” Interestingly, though she felt so intensely uncomfortable, the way she played the scene was totally believable to all of us – we loved her take on it and thought that perhaps Emilia is extremely uncomfortable in the scene.

The woman who read Desdemona said that she felt helpless in the scene – that all she wanted was for Othello to believe her, and she couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t. “I’m in my own little world,” she said, “They’re in the scene together… but they’re not in the scene together.”

“It’s really uncomfortable as an audience member,” said one woman. “You just want to make it stop.”

We talked more about the two women, alone in this scene. Is Emilia venting; projecting her own experiences onto Desdemona? And what about Desdemona? Is she capitulating here? Is she weak? Or is it more complicated than that?

“She’s preparing to finish this out with her husband,” one woman said adamantly. “She knows that in the end there will only be truth… And that her dying is how that truth will come out. She’s preparing herself for death. If you know you’re about to die and you prepare yourself in an honorable way, that’s strong. In her ‘weakness,’ she is strong.”

Others feel Desdemona is dying for love, or sacrificing herself to free Othello from his jealous “madness.” Still others feel that she’s just completely broken at this point and can’t fight anymore. As with so many meetings of our group, we ended acknowledging that all of these differing interpretations hold truth, and no matter where we land, we are not likely to be unanimous in our interpretation. But that’s something we all value about what we do, and, of course, about these plays.




At the beginning of tonight’s session, an ensemble member shared with me that she and a few others were having some challenges in the group – things they perceived to be going on that undermined our feeling of ensemble. I asked her to consider an open circle conversation rather than continuing to let any ill feeling fester – these are always challenging conversations to have, but we do better when we “air grievances” in a constructive way than when we try to ignore them.

This led to a very long conversation, which was constructive at some times and not so much at others. There are some members of the group who have more experience with peaceful conflict resolution than others, and we kept coming back to our core values: listening, respect, and open communication. Things that had been done or said by some were revealed to have had different intentions than what came through, and we agreed as a group that we need to work toward taking people at their word when they tell us that we misinterpreted their words or actions. We also agreed to continue to work on the words we choose to use with one another in moments of heightened emotion, to try very hard not to interrupt, to be conscious of ways in which our behavior (down to posture and facial expressions) might be misinterpreted, and to be open to constructive criticism from the ensemble.

As the conversation appeared to run out of steam, and we began trying to figure out how to transition, one woman nudged another and said, “Do it.” The second woman said, “Oh, no, I don’t know.” Well, that intrigued all of us – what was going on here? “She memorized Emilia’s monologue,” the first woman said. “I want her to do it for the group.” We all cheered this on, but the second woman blushed and said she was too nervous. “I’ll do it if you will!” I volunteered. This helped motivate her to get up and do the monologue. As she did, the energy in the room shifted. We were all with her, 100%, as she struggled to find lines and land intentions. When she finished, we burst into applause. “I messed up so much!” she said. “It doesn’t matter!” we replied. We loved what she had done – learning the piece just for the sake of doing it, and then sharing it with us at a moment when we really needed a jolt of positive energy.

“Your turn,” she said, turning to me. I then did an Iago piece that I had learned for my visit several weeks ago to Shakespeare Behind Bars in western Michigan. The group gave me a lot of support for it, even though I rushed it a bit and skipped over some lines.

And this led us into what I guess I’d call a “jam,” as ensemble members encouraged each other to pop up and share whatever they wanted. One ensemble member has begun learning an Othello monologue, which she shared with us, and we loved. Kyle shared his “go-to” Shakespeare soliloquy, while others shared pieces they’ve done in the past, and one woman shared a poem that inspires her. Still others got up and did one-person versions of scenes from movies, and others did scenes from Othello with scripts in their hands.

We checked in before we left, and some members of the group still felt uncomfortable from our conversation, but they understood why it was important to have. Kyle and I agreed as we walked out that, while the conversation itself could have been more constructive and less heated, leaving people less “put off” at the end, in the scheme of things it was beneficial simply to have the conversation. We can only get better at these skills by practicing them, and sometimes that means we fail a bit. It won’t be the last contentious discussion we need to have as a group; the hope is that the next one will go a little better.

Session Four: Week 18


We returned to Act II Scene I today, plugging in our Petruchio, who has missed the last couple of times we’ve worked on it. We found, though, that our focus shifted to Hortensio – she has been having a difficult time finding her way into the character, and Sarah suggested that she try a different approach. Instead of downplaying Kate’s flaws, as she has been doing, the woman playing Hortensio tried the scene with in a straightforward way. She found that this works better for her, and it makes sense, given how logical Hortensio is about so much in the play. She’s feeling a bit better about the character now.

We then read through Act III Scene I, in which Lucentio and Hortensio take turns surreptitiously wooing Bianca. The woman playing Bianca said that she was torn between the character being sweet and naïve or being a tease. She mentioned that one of the women in the group feels strongly that Bianca is “loose,” to put it mildly, and several of the others jumped in to caution her against trusting anyone’s instincts over her own. Sarah shared an anecdote, then, about a time when she listened to her cast-mates’ instincts about a character rather than her own, never felt good about the performance she gave, and only realized after the show had closed what truly clicked for her about the character. This story bolstered Bianca’s confidence in trusting herself here, and it’ll be interesting to see in what direction she ultimately goes.


One of the women in the group came in today bursting with excitement about some reading she’s been doing. She got a copy of Othello, which she loved and summarized for the group. The thing she loves most about Othello is how familiar she found Iago – she’s witnessed manipulation like his and feels that the play is very true to life, that it still has relevance for all of us. She’s also been reading a book called Shakespeare’s London, which has given her more insight into the plays we’re working with and the man who wrote them. She’s excited by what she’s learned and encouraged all of us to read this book.

After nerding out for awhile, since it was clearly a low-attendance day, we decided to give individual attention to a couple of women who had specific challenges they wanted to address. We began with the woman playing Gremio, who has a lot of questions about her character. We decided to focus on his speeches following Kate’s and Petruchio’s wedding to see what we could find out. We read through the scene to make sure we understood it, and then we tried it on its feet. She felt confident that he is appalled and shocked by what he witnessed, but she was frustrated by having to rely on her script and felt hampered by it. I volunteered to back her up in a drop-in exercise – I stood behind her and read her lines to her so she could have her hands free, not have to read, and maintain eye contact with her scene partner. When we did this, her approach changed a bit – it became more physical, and she used her hands a lot. The others found her interpretation funny, and her biggest discovery was that Gremio is direct – he says what he wants to say.

We then worked the end of Act IV Scene IV with Lucentio and Biondello. The big question became: what is Lucentio nervous about? He says he’s nervous, though he’s just gotten what he wanted – so why? The woman playing this character feels that, in this moment when it all becomes real and official, he is overwhelmed. We talked about this being a universal feeling, not just associated with getting married, although that is the experience upon which she is drawing. Another woman suggested that an additional layer could be the fear of what happens now that the deception is about to be exposed. There’s a lot going on here. We found that Lucentio’s interpretation works here – it’s a quiet moment in our play, a frustrating one for Biondello, who doesn’t understand, and something we’ve all experienced in our lives.