Session Five: Week 36



We split up into groups again this evening, with people branching off in groups of two to work on lines, while a few of us continued scene work on stage. We began by reading the “give me the handkerchief” scene in chairs at a table, but soon our Othello was so moved that she had to get up out of her chair and hover over our Desdemona. “I couldn’t help it,” she laughed afterward.

We worked together on blocking the give and take of the scene, finding that our Desdemona has some fight in her, and trying to find the balance between that spunkiness and fear of this new side of her husband. When should she shy away, and when should she be bolder? “Follow her like it’s a dance,” advised a longtime ensemble member.

We continued our work, and as the scene began to make sense to our Othello in the context of the play’s arc, she began literally jumping up and down with enthusiasm. “It’s clicking – I get it,” she said excitedly. And, indeed, her work was so strong and powerful that it caused many of our group members who had been working on lines to fall silent, watch, and then applaud.




Tonight we took pause to try to figure out what to do now that our Lodovico has left the group. The conversation meandered into our Othello mentioning that it seems like the previous Othello has worked out the time conflict she had, and it might be a good idea to give her the role back. The Othello who had taken on the role has a lot going on outside of the group – she is in other groups and classes, and she writes on her own. She has been concerned that she will not be able to give the part her all due to these other commitments, but has also been very firm that she will do it if it’s what the group needs. She now was wondering, though, whether it might not be better to switch back.

The woman who previously played the role stated that she’d successfully changed her shift at work and would do anything to take the role on again. She has missed playing the part and believes she can do it justice with the time we have left.

A longtime ensemble member stated her disbelief that we are talking about switching up the main character three weeks out from our first performance. Unfortunately, this led to a verbal altercation between her and our Othello, who thought her commitment to the group was being called into question. Some hurtful things were said; it was not a constructive exchange. But another longtime ensemble member stepped in, acknowledging that we’re all under a lot of pressure, but it seems like the best solution is for the first Othello to step back into the role.

Things calmed a bit then. One of the women who’d had the argument left early, I presume to cool off. Kyle and I both spoke with the other, who agreed that she hadn’t handled things well and apologized to the group for it.

All that said, we got some really solid work done. We finally staged the “drunk” scene, and our Cassio’s work was truly beautiful. She has dealt with the loss of her reputation and feels the scene poignantly, and she’s doing very well drawing on her own experience without re-traumatizing herself.

We also got started on Act III Scene I, but ran out of time to finish it. It’s where we’ll pick up on Tuesday.

We are thrilled to have been given permission to rehearse together on our final two Thursdays before the first performance. I think we’re all breathing a sigh of relief to have five extra hours of rehearsal. Even though there was a confrontation tonight, and I hope it will have a better resolution on Tuesday, the group quickly moved on from it and did not waste time continuing their invigorating work on the play. It’s always an honor to be a part of this process.

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 14



Today before we began, the woman who was so upset that she left last week came in to talk with me one on one. I told her that if she chose to quit, that was her right, but I wanted her to have context for what she was told last week. When she had heard the full story, her concern changed to what the rest of the group must think of her now – how they reacted to her leaving. I reassured her that we all understood why she got so upset, and that everyone’s desire is for her to stay in the group. Although she had to leave early this particular night, she decided to stick with Shakespeare longterm.

We checked in, and the group expressed a need to play some ensemble-strengthening games. I chose three Theatre of the Oppressed exercises, which not only gave us a chance to loosen up and laugh, but were relatable in the context of our group, Othello, and our lives in general.

We sat down in a circle to play Freeze with a scene. Before doing this, one ensemble member asked if everyone could share the roles in which they are interested. This led us to talk about casting, which we decided to delay one week since we got derailed for several sessions. It’s possible that we will be able to return to our group discussion model of casting (with an anonymous written vote) rather than the more formal process we had discussed. It will depend on how well we can re-establish our safe space this week and next.

We then played around with Act III Scene III, in which Iago and Roderigo cause Cassio to fight while drunk and lose his job. While we find some humor in it, it definitely takes a darker turn than some of the ensemble members initially thought – and this is why it’s important for us to put scenes on their feet rather than simply reading them.

“This is where everything begins – where it all begins to form,” said one woman. “You really get to see Iago in action – how he tricks people, how easy they are to fool. And you see Othello before his breakdown.”

Kyle said, “It makes me realize how little actually happens except for this scene and the last – it’s mostly just ‘what ifs.’”

We had mostly been talking about Iago when I asked what everyone thinks about Cassio in this scene. “Ruined,” one woman stated immediately. “For the rest of the play, too. He never really comes back from this.”

“He goes against his better judgment… And I wonder how much he thinks about that,” said another.

“He has dignity in his falling – he handles it well throughout the rest of the play. He takes responsibility for his actions,” said another. We briefly talked about how this is all well and good, but it doesn’t accomplish anything until Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, Iago, and Roderigo are all dead, leaving a vacuum into which Cassio is thrust as the new person in charge.

We then disbanded for the evening, and I pulled aside the woman who had made the comment last week that caused so much upset. We talked for several minutes and determined that this group is not the right fit for her right now, so she won’t be coming back this session. She knows that the door is open to her in the future if she changes her mind. At the end of the day, this program isn’t for everyone, and, while I’m sad to see her go, we have to keep the ensemble at the forefront. Maybe we’ll see her again next year.




Tonight after checking in, one of the ensemble members taught and led a circle game that she learned in another group. It was a lot of fun, and it was great to see her take charge and lead like that. This is someone who came into the group with a feeling that she should keep her mouth shut and stay in the back, not volunteering to do much. There has been a shift for her – while she has her quiet days, she is often outspoken, encouraging of others, and takes the lead now and then.

We then sat in a circle and decided to work Act IV Scene III without “freezing it” – it’s a fairly short and emotional scene, and we wanted people to have a chance to move all the way through it.

The first woman to read Desdemona felt uncomfortable using her own voice, but we encouraged her to do so anyway. The scene worked pretty well for us, but the women reading felt like they didn’t go far enough with it.

The second pair to read had a very quiet interpretation. The woman reading Emilia said she felt “bad” – like she wasn’t focusing on the right things. We reassured her that this is a completely normal “actor feeling,” and we encouraged her to read more in the future. She also said that she fed off the woman playing Desdemona – “I was in tune with her,” she said.

We talked a bit about Emilia. “Maybe she gets that strong personality from being beaten down by Iago,” said one woman. “Maybe she’s learned from experience.” Another said, “She isn’t nice. She’s outspoken and strong.”

Another woman asked if we could do the scene “with more emotion.” The rest of the group playfully challenged her to show us what she meant, and she obliged. She and her scene partner played nearly the entire show at a heightened level, which worked in some ways and not in others. Interestingly, the woman playing Emilia said she felt heartless, and that’s not what we got from her.

Then another pair read, in a very different way. This Desdemona went on a roller coaster of emotion, and she also sang the song (everyone else had spoken the words but hadn’t sung). “It felt intense,” she said, “I’ve been going through a lot, so I just kind of put my emotions in there.” We remarked on her beautiful singing voice – and the fact that she sang in character. “It helped me to, like… act,” said the woman who read Emilia. “The way you acted – you were so into what you were doing… You really sang and you were really sad… You made me angry at men. Your energy helped my energy.”

The ensemble then asked Kyle and me to read, and we obliged. I played Desdemona in college, and it was really interesting to step back into this scene. The group loved what we did with it, remarking on our commitment to the scene, the way we moved in it, how we connected to each other, and how they didn’t find it odd at all that Kyle read in his own voice – hearkening back to the conversation we had earlier about reading in our own voices. The group is at a point where they can take what they need from our interpretations and not think of them as definitive, so I’m comfortable reading when they ask us to or it seems appropriate.