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 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 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. 

Session Five: Week 19



We got right down to the business of cutting our play tonight. We reviewed our cutting “policy” – essentially, if we don’t need it (and if the person playing the part isn’t really attached to it), we cut it. We need to be able to perform our play in about an hour and a half, and that necessitates some pretty ruthless cutting.

One woman, who is in her third year and has grown to love this process, has already made many cuts to her own lines. We applauded her for this and encouraged others to do the same. We decided also to table any cuts that affected people who were absent.

Although some group members were hesitant about this at first, by the time we left everyone was working together to stay involved in the decision-making. This has always been how it goes – we move slowly as new members get acclimated to the process, and then we begin to cut rather gleefully. It’s an important part of our process even if it’s a bit lengthy and repetitive because it is so empowering – we own the script; it doesn’t own us.

This is our story, and we’re making decisions together about how to tell it.




Tonight when we circled up, one of our ensemble members shared with the group that she had had a very bad day and was upset and anxious about something that is happening in her personal life. Nearly everyone in the group had had an experience like the one she spoke of, and we took some time to offer words of comfort and suggestions of how to manage her anxiety, such as breathing and meditating on a “safe place.”

When she had calmed a bit and said she was ready to work, we did, continuing with our cuts. When she began to seem anxious later, another ensemble member sat beside her and quietly talked to her while the rest of us kept working, respecting the comforting that was happening in our circle.

We continued to work together to sort out the necessary text from text that is repetitive, unnecessary, and/or potentially confusing to the audience. This meant that nearly all of the scene in which Iago jokes with the people waiting for Othello was cut – the word play is complex and will most likely be lost on our audience (perhaps on any audience), and we weren’t comfortable with it, so most of it was cut. “It’s not about us,” said the woman who is playing Iago, “It’s about the audience, and I don’t want to lose them… I want to say what I’m doing, how and why, and I don’t want to give more words than I have to.”

Most of the women are now eager to lighten their workload by cutting their own lines. Nearly everyone is taking the suggestions of the group, while the group is being respectful when people stand their ground about keeping certain lines. A debate broke out about whether or not we need the Herald’s speech that leads into the “party scene,” and we tabled it for the time being so we could move forward. Certain things don’t crystallize until we get on our feet, so we feel all right about making this first round of cuts, knowing that more will likely be cut as we go.

A few members of the group are frustrated by how long this is taking. It’s a very dense play, so it makes sense that it’s taking longer to do these cuts than it has in the past, but I suggested that everyone take a look at her own lines between meetings and make cuts so we can move a bit faster. This suggestion was well taken.

We did a bit of improv, then, returning to an old game with a new twist – playing what is normally a two-person game with three people. This was a lot of fun. We moved on to a really great game that Kyle taught us at the beginning of the year, and it was great to see how comfortable everyone is with it now, and how good we’ve gotten at it.

Session Five: Week 18

We decided to stick to our plan of playing games through the new year. I introduced a new game, with the caveat that it might lead to potential triggers, and I asked if that was okay with the group. First off, we decided that if something came up, we’d let each other know. Then one ensemble member said she was okay with triggers because she feels safe in the group again. Many ensemble members vocally agreed with her.


The first game we played was very silly and allowed everyone to have a good laugh during a very tough time of year. Then a few ensemble members said they’d like to try a game that wasn’t necessarily funny. I then led “Real to Ideal,” a Theatre of the Oppressed exercise in which we look at a real situation, then what it would ideally be, and the possible transitions between the two. Our first situation was a hostile workplace in which a tyrannical boss was lording it over co-workers. An ideal version of this showed the co-workers pointing out their good work to the boss, and the boss smiling and encouraging them. We determined that, in order for the situation to change, the workers needed to stand up for themselves and have empathy for the boss, who wants productivity above all. The boss needs to also have empathy for the workers.


We then decided to try this in relation to Othello (since some ensemble members were itching to get back to Shakespeare). They chose Iago’s “put money in thy purse” monologue, in which Roderigo is won over and thoroughly cowed. What would it take to change this dynamic?


“It would take a change in conscious thought,” said one woman. “This guy is just full of crap, and I’m gonna do what I think is right.” This, she reasoned, would decrease Iago’s confidence.


In the play, we wondered, why can’t Roderigo advocate for himself? Some think it’s because he’s naturally a follower, although others lay the blame on his naiveté. By and large, we don’t think he’s stupid. “He wants something, and Iago can get him what he wants,” said one woman. Some called this a “deal with the devil,” and we drew parallels between this and Emilia’s thought that she would cuckold her husband for the world. The play seems to be full of such bargains.


Then the conversation expanded. “Don’t you think that this setting, with NA and AA, makes you more empathetic to these characters?” said one woman. “The prison journey helps you understand people better – you become self aware.”


There was general agreement. “I’ve been the manipulator and the manipulated. When I was the manipulator, I never thought people were stupid – I just thought I was really good,” said one ensemble member. “This is why I wanted to do Othello,” said a member who was in the group last year, “So people can learn from its messages.”


“Do you guys ever feel bad when you admit you were the bad points of these characters?” said another woman.


“Absolutely,” replied a longtime ensemble member. “I feel so close to Roderigo because he’s ruled by his heart. I’ve been that person, and it’s sad.”


“It makes me aware of how I used to behave, how I behave now, and how I’m gonna be in the future,” said the woman who had posed the question.


“Iago is a sick person,” said another woman. “Maybe he’ll go on a journey of self discovery in prison.”


Another woman had doubts. “This kind of sickness is like TB – you can go get better, but it can hide out and come back, like addiction.”


This led us to wonder about what happens after the play’s end. “You could do a whole play on Iago in prison,” said one woman excitedly. “If Iago went to prison, he’d never change because he’d be like everyone there,” said another.


Our plan for next week is to make the first round of cuts to the play. Some people are eager to do this, and others are nervous. This usually starts out awkwardly and quickly becomes a lot of fun, so I’m looking forward to it. It will be good to get back to work on the play!