Session Five: Week 35



Tonight was a special night, as we welcomed a journalist into the group for a feature she is writing. I won’t spoil her story by sharing details of our conversation, but I will say that the ensemble members who chose to share were strikingly honest and eloquent about their experiences. There were both laughter and tears, and while we spent a lot of time talking rather than rehearsing, the overwhelming sentiment was that it was time well spent.

Following our conversation, we launched into work on Act II Scene i, in which the main characters arrive in Cyprus at various times. The group worked smoothly together to flesh out the scene. After working out the blocking, which is complicated when so many people are involved, one of the women encouraged everyone to step it up a notch. “We all need more urgency,” she said. “We don’t know if our general is alive or dead.”

It’s worth noting that, with years of directing, teaching, and coaching actors under my belt, after four years of working with the prison ensemble, I find that I frequently do not have to give the kind of notes I normally would because ensemble members who’ve been part of the group for awhile give those notes themselves. It’s this kind of thing that is so empowering for the members – when someone gives a note on a scene, and someone else takes it, and it works, both of those people get a boost of confidence, and the ensemble as a whole take on that feeling. As a theatre artist, it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.

The evening ended with our Othello jokingly ending the scene by beckoning to Desdemona and saying, “Come, sweet cheeks,” and everyone in the room dissolving into laughter. We had also welcomed the Deputy Warden of Programs and a Communications Representative from MDOC, and it was wonderful to have them be part of such an uplifting evening.




After our check-in and warm up, we continued our work on Act Two. We began with our Herald, now played by the woman who used to play Othello. She has been feeling down about giving up the role, even though it was the right thing for her to do with her work schedule, and we encouraged her to give this brief speech her all. Her energy is infectious when she’s on a roll, and she brought such spirit and vigor to the Herald that it’s entirely possible she’s going to steal the show. The more enthusiastic she got, the more we loved it.

We began to revisit Act II Scene iii, in which Cassio gets drunk and assaults first Roderigo and then Montano, eventually being fired by Othello. Unfortunately, several of the main players had to leave early, and we were forced to stop work on the scene. This is frustrating even though it’s common, but we’re all hopeful that at some point we’re going to have everyone we need to work this scene. It’s been quite a long time.

We moved on to the Emilia/Iago section of Act III Scene iii, in which Emilia takes up Desdemona’s handkerchief and gives it to Iago. We helped our Emilia figure out how best to give her soliloquy to the audience, and she became more and more effective as she refined her approach.

Moving into Iago’s entrance and their back-and-forth, we asked our Emilia what she wants from him. She settled on “I want him to love me.” One of our ensemble members asked our Iago to pretend to give the affection that Emilia so desires until the handkerchief is handed over. “Yeah,” responded our Iago, “I’ve been starving her on purpose, so I’ll give her what she wants till I get what I want.”

We refined the blocking, with Iago actually embracing Emilia briefly in order to take the handkerchief, rather than having her hand it to him. This caused a great emotional fall for Emilia as she asked for it back and then was rejected and told to leave. The scene had become incredibly sad, which is what we all feel it should be. Truly beautiful work had been done.

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 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 20


Written by Frannie

We had another night of making cuts to our script tonight, and although it’s tedious, we had some fun along the way, joking with each other about the process.

We got to a quintessential Iago monologue, and Kyle remarked, “I love this speech.” Our Iago, who is a ruthless cutter of Shakespeare, replied, “Well then, you’re gonna hate what I did to it.” Her cuts were good, though, and well thought out.

We kept to our resolution of not cutting anything belonging to people who weren’t present, although several members of the ensemble told us sincerely that they wanted us to go ahead and cut things. “Whatever’s best for the play,” said one.

One of our ensemble members found it intriguing that Othello talks about women’s appetites during his unraveling, and Emilia talks about men “eating” women later in the play. She was concerned about cutting those lines of Othello’s, but after talking about her discovery being more literary than performance-oriented, she felt better about it.

When people became hesitant about making large cuts, I encouraged them to be brave. I reminded them that we own this script; it doesn’t own us. “I can be brave,” said one woman. “I’m not brave, said another.

“I’ll be brave for you,” said a third member of the ensemble.

And that’s a really important aspect of this process.



Written by Lauren

Today we started out continuing to discuss possible cuts to the script. Many of the women admitted that they had not been doing cuts on their own when not in class, but those who had seemed fairly engaged in the process at first. During this portion of the session, we discussed how important it is to be familiar with any material that doesn't make the cut since that is still information that can shape how a person plays their character. During cuts, the focus seemed to start shifting and people started to get more and more distracted, so we stopped doing cuts and moved on. Everyone present agreed that, in the interest of time, Frannie should complete the first round of cuts, keeping each person’s preferences in mind.

Frannie took a couple of women aside to do more cuts while the rest of us started to play around with staging strategies. A couple of people at a time would go on stage while those of us in the audience would suggest blocking. We observed how stage positioning can completely change how a scene feels from an audience member's perspective. Discovering different planes of action shifts an audience member's focus and it can completely change the action. It was observed by some inmates that changing levels, such as having some folks kneel or sit on the floor while one character is standing and walking shows the standing actor's dominance over the rest of the actors. Some comparisons were teacher vs. students as well as prison guard vs. prisoners. One woman observed that the person standing looks like they're attentive and "ready to go."

We ended the session working on a specific scene with Iago, Emilia, and Desdemona. Desdemona is openly distraught. We ran through the scene a couple of times. At one point, it was suggested that the woman playing Iago should try playing the scene as if she feels sorry for what she has done to Desdemona. It changed how the scene felt for the actor, and she said she would explore this interpretation more in the future. It was observed that it's interesting how little changes can completely change how a scene is played out.