Session Five: Week 33



Tonight began with our Brabantio bowing out of her role. She wants to stay in the group, but due to outside factors isn’t confident she can memorize her lines and doesn’t want to let everyone down. She was met with support and understanding, and someone immediately volunteered to step into the role.

We broke out into groups to work on various things. My group began work on Act V Scene ii, in which everything comes to a head. We read through the first part of the scene, in which Desdemona is killed, and made sure we were all on the same page.

The first time moving through the scene wowed all of us. Our Othello and Desdemona committed fully to what they needed to do, and even though the staging was a bit messy, all of us who were watching were really excited by what they did. We then began to refine the scene. Someone asked whether Desdemona is truly asleep, or lying there waiting for Othello; this is something our Desdemona is going to think about. I also talked through with our Othello what he must be going through that explains his behavior – the rush of adrenaline, the lack of clear thinking.

We tried the scene again a couple of times, and each time we gained a clearer understanding of what needs to happen in the scene. We also moved into the second part of the scene, in which Emilia discovers Desdemona’s death and what led up to it. Our Emilia came in “guns blazing,” playing her role with exceptional vulnerability and bravery.

Our solution to the challenge of staging a smothering in a correctional facility – to draw the curtain as Othello attacks and open it again to reveal Desdemona dead – worked very well. “Could you add a muffled scream?” asked one woman of Desdemona. “Put your own hand over your mouth and yell.”

All in all, it was a very productive meeting, with everyone making strides in her own process. We are very close to being where we want to be, with six weeks until our first performance.




Tonight began with a discussion about next year. We decided as a group that next year’s play will be Richard III, in response to one ensemble member’s deep connection to the material (described in an earlier blog post). Everyone seems satisfied with and excited about the choice.

We also decided to try something new over the summer. This past summer, the prison generously ordered published copies of Othello for the ensemble to become familiar with before our official session began in September. This proved challenging, however, because Shakespeare is so difficult for most people to read on their own. One of our ensemble members proposed that we use a “No Fear” version of Richard III instead; she thought (and many agreed) that this would lead to people being more familiar with the play not only at the beginning of the session, but throughout. For those who are unfamiliar with the “No Fear” series, it provides a contemporary translation alongside Shakespeare’s text. A few of our members thought that having this crutch might dilute our process, but after some discussion, we decided to give it a try. We don’t think it will take away from our text analysis, because we’ll still need to understand and use Shakespeare’s language; rather, most of us feel that using this new tool will make it easier for everyone to keep up on the content of the play.

We made some more cuts to our script, which is getting leaner and leaner (a must since we need to perform it in about 90 minutes). We talked through the staging needs of the final part of the play and worked on translating some of the more obtuse passages. We then staged the end of the play, talking through issues such as where Othello’s fatal weapon comes from (we decided he steals it from Cassio) and how to work around the bed (which we symbolize with a blanket and two pillows on the floor).

I didn’t take many notes because I was in the thick of things, but everyone worked together beautifully and effectively. We can now all breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve staged the entire play, and our goal is to begin working through it in order at our next meeting, running scenes into each other and getting a better feel for what this will be like in performance.

Session Five: Week 31



Tonight was sort of a disjointed meeting, as most of our group had not yet been called to chow and needed to leave when it was called, or they wouldn’t have been able to eat.

Prior to many of our group members leaving, our Brabantio told me that she is feeling overwhelmed with learning her part due to factors outside of our group. I asked if she’d like to collaborate with the group on cutting as many of her lines as we could. This resulted in some wonderful teamwork, with everyone keeping in mind the goal: cut as much as possible to keep our ensemble member comfortable without losing important plot points. When this was done, our Brabantio was visibly relieved.

As some people departed to eat, we chatted about how the process is going at this point. Our Cassio lives in the same unit as our Iago. The latter has a good deal of her lines memorized at this point, and sometimes she will shout these lines at our Cassio, who responds by shouting back, “O, bloody period!” – a line of Lodovico’s that was cut for obvious reasons – or “Goats and monkeys!” This should give you readers a glimpse into the humor with which we’re approaching this deadly serious material in order not to be totally weighed down by it. We’re still having fun even as we’re doing very deep and sometimes painful work.

We worked with our Lodovico, who has memorized most of her lines but hasn’t thought much about the acting side of things. How does he feel after witnessing Othello’s beating of Desdemona? Is he angry? Uncomfortable? How much does he want to be involved? We went back to the text, with Sarah reminding us that Shakespeare’s characters usually say exactly what they mean. We continued to work the scene, trying to help our Lodovico become more comfortable. She told us that this was her first stage work ever, and we gave her lots of encouragement.

This scene has been worked before, but with an understudy Othello and a previous Desdemona. The woman who understudied that day jumped right in, guiding her fellow ensemble members through the scene with grace and compassion.

Our Desdemona questioned how, and if, Desdemona should deliver the line, “I have not deserved this.” She is torn – how much fight does Desdemona have? How shocked is she? This again is evidence of our ensemble taking ownership of the script. Our decisions are rooted in the text, but we also are looking for ways to perform our plays in 90 minutes or less, so we often use clues in the text to cut it. She decided to think some more rather than rushing her decision.

We departed feeling good about the work we had done with the few people who were able to stay. It’s not ideal when outside factors get in the way of our work, but we always manage to power through and get things done.




We were honored tonight to host a visit from Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars. We watch the documentary about this program (by which ours was inspired) each year, and so, while we were all excited for this evening, some of the women were glowing and immediately at ease, feeling like they already knew him.

Our Lodovico took me aside before we began, saying that she is so nervous about failing that she nearly quit. I encouraged her, reminding her that this nervousness means that she cares, and that’s a good thing. I also reminded her that theatre is all about failing over and over in order to learn, and that our group is a safe place to experiment and not get it right all the time. She said she is going to stick with Shakespeare because she has never fought through to complete anything like this in her life. She is firm that she is going to perform in this play, and that maybe she’ll be buoyed enough by this year’s experience to take on a larger role next year.

Curt initially settled in to watch our warm up and opening exercise, but he was soon drawn into the circle when one of our ensemble members read a letter addressed to him and the rest of the group from our Othello. She has two jobs, one of which sometimes conflicts with Shakespeare, and it conflicted this evening. She wrote to let Curt know how much she admires his work and how much she had wanted to meet him, and she wrote us to tell us that she is trying to quit this conflicting job, but the request is taking awhile to go through, and she fears she will have to leave the group in order not to let the rest of us down. The group was quiet and somber, processing her letter. I promised to check in with staff about if/how long it will take her request to go through. Our understudy Othello stated that she would not rejoice in taking on the role because we all love our current Othello’s interpretation, but she assured us that she will step in and step up if necessary.

Following this, we did our usual “check-in.” One member shared with us that she was feeling anxious because she has come to a point in her recovery where she knows she needs to let herself truly feel things, and part of her doesn’t want to. It was a beautiful expression of her comfort with the group, and immediately with Curt, that she was able to share this. Others in recovery encouraged her that although it’s painful, it’s worth it.

Our plan had been to do some Q&A with Curt and then work on our play, but the Q&A quickly evolved into a long and poignant conversation about Shakespeare, prison, life, what holds us back, what keeps us going, and how we can continue to keep our circle one of mutual respect, emotional safety, and good humor. Curt was open, honest, and compassionate right off the bat, and this made all of us feel safe enough to express whatever we needed to. The conversation was deep and personal, so I took no notes, wanting to preserve the intimacy. Many of the ensemble members opened up to Curt as they partook in the conversation, while others listened intently. Some women whom I’ve known for years shared things in detail that they haven’t ever before. Tears were shed, and we laughed as well.

At one point, Curt said that “success is built on a mountain of failures.” Our Lodovico, who had spoken so fearfully of failure at the beginning of our meeting, looked over at me, and we shared a smile.

It was a beautiful evening. Everyone encouraged Curt to come back to see one of our performances, and we’re hoping it’ll work out for that to happen. I can’t wait to see everyone again on Tuesday and reflect on the powerful experience we all had together.

Session Five: Week 30



Tonight after our check in and warm up, we launched into Desdemona auditions. The two women auditioning were quite nervous and had clearly put a lot of work into their monologues, working them quietly from the moment they walked in the door. The group was very kind and encouraging to both women.

The first woman to audition needed help with some of her lines – being in front of an audience threw her a bit. An experienced ensemble member encouraged her to paraphrase if necessary: “As long as you know the gist, you can fake it. It gets easier the more you do it.” We coached her through three more runs at the monologue, and she became more grounded each time, taking in and using the notes she was being given. She said she had felt better doing the piece on her own, and several ensemble members and facilitators assured her that this was normal.

The second woman to audition was so nervous that the group encouraged her to do the piece once facing the back wall instead of us. “When you’re this nervous, take a moment for yourself. Don’t rush it for our sake,” one woman said. This seemed to steady her a bit. By the time she had gone through the piece three times, she was much more focused and relaxed.

We asked her to leave the room so we could decide on the casting. It was not an easy decision – we all enjoyed both interpretations – but in the end we cast the second woman who auditioned. When they came back into the room, we told them our decision. The first woman burst out laughing and said, “Thank god! Thank god it’s not me!” It speaks volumes about her that she put so much work into something that was so overwhelming to her. We asked her to understudy the part, and she agreed.

We then discussed our desire to have a system of understudies, since every year we’ve lost group members shortly before our performances. The debate the group began several weeks ago regarding whether Othello’s understudy should be a person of color has been resolved – after thinking it over, we were unanimous that it should. We then discussed the need for more understudies, but this was largely tabled for later discussion.

With the time we had left, we did some acting exercises that we haven’t done yet in this session. The first was “Two Stories at the Same Time,” in which two people sit facing each other and simultaneously tell stories. The challenge is to listen while talking. We asked the only one of us who was particularly “good” at this how she did it. “I talk a lot while people are talking. I have a big family,” she said.

We then tried out an exercise in which one person sits, completely neutral, in a chair facing the audience for one minute. This is harder than it seems. The first few women used strategies to distract themselves from their discomfort, and I challenged the next woman to stay present in the moment. Afterward, we asked her how that had gone. “That was a real long minute,” she said. “I felt like I was under the bed listening to the floor squeak.”




Tonight, first thing, one of our newer members volunteered to understudy Iago. It’s exciting that she’s willing to take on such a task when she’s only been in the group for a short while.

We dug into Act IV Scene iii, the haunting scene between Desdemona and Emilia. Does Desdemona know she’s about to die? “She’s definitely dying inside,” said one woman. Why does she stay? “When you’re in your first love, you think love can fix it all,” said one ensemble member, citing Desdemona’s line, “Heaven me such uses send/Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend.”

“Oh my god,” gasped one woman, “This happened to me.” She described a terribly abusive relationship she’d been in when she was very young. “When you’re young,” she said, “anything is okay if he loves you.”

“We think divorce is somehow bad… We start coming up with reasons to stay because society tells us we should,” said another woman.

We discussed that Emilia seems to have some guilt already in this scene. What is behind her speech to Desdemona? “She’s been accused of sleeping with other men and got through it just fine,” said one woman. “The option of leaving just doesn’t exist.”

“Typical man,” said one woman jokingly, “Always accusing you of sleeping with the wrong man.”

We then decided to focus on Emilia’s monologue. We tried a variety of approaches, all coming back to a place of sincerity in trying to make Desdemona feel better. We tried a direct approach, one loaded with humor, and several times trying to balance the two. “You’re trying to identify with her feelings,” said one woman. “Or maybe you’re making it about yourself,” said another.

As we pondered the scene, the question rose again about whether Desdemona might be suffering from PTSD after all of the sudden abuse. This is something we’ll need to continue to explore with our new Desdemona.

Session Five: Week 29



Tonight we focused on Act IV Scene ii, in which Othello verbally abuses Desdemona, she asks Iago for help, and Iago plots with Roderigo to kill Cassio. We took some time to read and discuss the scene before putting it on its feet.

We tried using a chair in the scene in a few ways, including Othello circling Emilia as she sat in the chair, which felt like an interrogation and was very interesting. We also decided to try the scene two different ways – one in which Emilia has no idea that Iago is to blame for what is happening, and one in which she does know. After we saw how it works when she doesn’t know, we had some discussion. “I think she has some idea,” said one ensemble member. “It’s like when you say something about someone to see how they react, to see if it’s true.”

Our Othello had played the scene in a quiet, sad way, and we asked her to bring some more anger and frustration to what she was doing, as this scene is the follow up to one in which Othello physically abuses Desdemona in front of others – he is really unraveling. Sarah suggested that Othello plant more and move less.

In our second go at the scene, Emilia and Iago ended up on either side of Desdemona, with Emilia shouting over her head. It was interesting to see what happens when Emilia knows that her husband is manipulating the situation, but the group was still torn. “If there was ever anyone who did things obviously in my face and I didn’t see it, it was my husband,” said one person. Our Emilia decided to try to split the difference next time we work on the scene.

We then talked a bit about Desdemona in this scene – why she comes in with hope and leaves with none. “I think any person would take a slap better than being called a whore,” said one woman. “Words hurt much worse.”

Another ensemble member agreed. “The sting from a slap goes away. The sting from words lasts a long time.”




When we arrived this evening, we were told that our Desdemona has gotten into a program that precludes her involvement in ours. We discussed what to do about replacing her, and since there were four people interested, all of whom are newer to the group, we decided to have them audition. We chose the scene we worked on at our last meeting, and made sure that everyone understood the material before they auditioned.

The group was very encouraging of all four women, who all gave intelligent and emotional readings. Our Othello, in the meantime, got to have a lot of rehearsal on the scene. She became more and more confident in expressing her character’s frustration, sadness, and rage. “I was afraid of her,” said one woman who was auditioning. “She makes it easy to play the part.”

Another woman who auditioned did so as her first time ever being on stage. She used her nerves to fuel Desdemona’s confusion, and it worked beautifully. The other two women auditioning likewise were wonderful to watch. “She acted like she’d been abused by him before,” said one woman.

We asked the four of them to leave the room so we could discuss. It proved difficult to make a decision; we truly enjoyed all four interpretations. We also asked our Othello with whom she had felt the most connected. The discussion was open, honest, and respectful. We narrowed it down to two women, choosing a short monologue of Desdemona’s for them to memorize and bring in on Tuesday, when we’ll make our final decision.

When the four came back into the room, we let them know all of this, and the two who were not chosen seemed to take it well, although they were obviously disappointed. This felt like casting sessions in previous years that had been open and respectful, and I hope we can bring that feeling back to our first casting session next year rather than voting anonymously, which we thought would be helpful but didn’t end up being a better option.

At the end of the session, our Montano announced to the group that she would rather be a director than perform, and that she wants one of the newer ensemble members to play her role. Everyone was open to that, and as soon as we settle on a Desdemona, we’ll plug everyone else in.

Session Five: Week 28


Written by Gaia and Clearie

We found the ensemble in good spirits today! During check-in, the ensemble member playing Roderigo let the ensemble know that she graduated from building trades.  Her positivity spread through the whole room as we went into check-in and lowered our ring. Afterwards, the ensemble collectively decided that they wanted to get right into Shakespeare and save the games for the end.

It took a few minutes for everyone to decide on which scene to start with. At the beginning of rehearsal we were missing our Cassio and Othello, which put limitations on which scenes we could run. Eventually the group decided to begin with a scene centered around Iago and Roderigo. The women began by simply reading the scene at the edge of the stage and then, after it was clear in their minds, they ran it a couple times on its feet.

Cuts were suggested by the ensemble member playing Iago, which brought up some necessary discussion. Considering the groups allotted time frame for the play, line-cuts are a crucial part of the process.  However, when dealing with such beautiful verse, it can be easy to become attached to certain lines. Gaia and I struggled letting lines infused with Shakespeare’s beautiful literary genius go.  Here, we found it to be difficult to take a back seat and let the women lead the process, but amidst the discussion and debate in the cast, it was decided that the women would try both versions in order to see what worked best. As Gaia and I took a step back, some of the debated lines were cut and some stayed but, most importantly, we discovered faith in our confidence in the ensemble’s ability to resolve conflict peacefully and democratically.  

Once the woman playing Cassio arrived, the group moved on to play out Act 3, Scene 4 and Act 4, Scene 1. The woman playing Bianca in 3.4 has been able to get off-book for the scene, which gave her a wonderful amount of freedom to play with! It was clear that she and her scene partner have really found joy in acting out this scene and the extra work Bianca had put into memorization really paid off.  The scene flowed organically and all of the ensemble members involved with the scene stepped away feeling confident and comfortable.  

For 4.1 we had a new group member volunteer to play Othello, and the group worked as a cohesive ensemble to figure out the difficult staging.  The new ensemble member was an extremely powerful presence onstage.  Her delivery was impeccable and all of the other ensemble members noticed her talent right away, complimenting her and supporting her from the moment she stood up to the moment she exited the theatre space.  

It was during this scene that the woman playing Roderigo, who was having a particularly good day, expressed to Gaia and me just how high her spirits were: “If I could have days like this, I would be able to make it through the rest of my sentence so easily.” It made me think of how important having a positive psyche and outlook is. I know many people who struggle with this even outside of prison.  Her positivity alone had a strong ripple effect on the ensemble throughout the night.  

We finished off the night by playing a fun improv game led by some of the seasoned ensemble members. We lifted our ring and everyone left a little sleepy, but smiling nonetheless and headed out into one of the first warm nights we’ve had in a couple months.  


Written by Kyle

Right off the bat tonight, we entered into an extremely important debate; after the warm up we talked about understudies for the main roles.  We had started with our discussion of the Desdemona part; our current actor said that she was eligible for another program that would positively affect her release date.  She said they may call her at any time, including the possibility of them not calling during the run of the show.  One of the newer members immediately volunteered unchallenged; she had been in a production of Othello in high school and played Desdemona.  So the question of Othello’s understudy came up, and again a newer member was nominated.  The question of whether or not Othello needed to be played by an actor of color was revisited.  I was surprised because I didn’t feel as though we really exhausted the conversation during the casting.  The actor chosen was everyone’s first pick; she had expressed how desperately she wanted to play the role, and we never really had to revisit the issue.  So it felt a little out of place to have such an existential question of our story so late in the process.  Some women felt that having an actor of color playing the role of Othello was essential to the story that they we’re trying to tell, and other members did not.  I think that everyone thought that it was ideal, but in the spirit of ‘the show must go on,’ were willing to part with the ideal casting should occasion arise.  It started to get heated, and I challenged the ensemble to take the weekend and we would revisit it again after we all had some time to give it some thought.  Seeing as we already had an Othello who fully intended to finish the process, there was not exactly a rush to find an answer.  

There was also some discomfort about how long it was taking to block the show.  We counted the weeks and we felt a little uncomfortable about the number of weeks to crunch time and how much more of the show still yet to stage.  Another ensemble member said she was having trouble visualizing the show since we have not gone back and run the scenes we have staged.  It was a kind of a rock and hard place to some extent, since we had just finished a conversation about how much more we had to stage in a limited time.  We decided to press on; we also decided that we would have to start staging scenes whether the actors were present or not, a practice which up until now we had avoided.

We started staging the infamous ‘slap scene’ where Othello hits Desdemona in front of Lodovico.  This scene has the potential to run to extremes but no one really took it there.  We ran it several times and worked different ways to block the scene.  One break through we had was when one of the ensemble suggested that it was the letter from Lodovico that set him over the edge; Othello’s paranoia was such that suddenly everyone was against him, including the Duke from thousands of miles away.  This made a lot of sense to the actors, and then immediately the ensemble set to restage to have Othello reading more of a focal point of the staging.  We had lots of our newer members reading in for absent members, so for some of them it was their first time reading Shakespeare in front of anyone.  It was so wonderful to see the ensemble unconditionally rally around them in their time of need.  The actor playing Desdemona, who at the outset of the season bewailed the thought of ever really breaking out of her shell, was ushering in the newer members and has emerged as a leader in the group.  It’s a really special transformation to see, and I think has happened so subtly that I didn’t even really give its due credit; yet here she was, taking the lead role and serving as a support to those less experienced.  I left filled with gratitude and was amazed by the work of which I get to take part.