Season Seven: Week 12



We began tonight with a fairly long check-in. This is a particularly difficult time of year for incarcerated people, and we tend to relax our structure to make room for everyone to share and get as much support as she needs.

We’ve been so focused on reading the play that we haven’t done as much improv as we’d like, so we spent some time playing “Freeze,” which is a fantastic game for getting used to thinking on our feet. It’s also really fun. Even though some of the scenes were duds (… many of those were mine. I was the weakest link tonight, without question.), we had a good time and gave each other a ton of support. During one scene in which two women were running a marathon in Africa while being chased by wild animals, several women who were watching started making animal noises to give the actors more to work with. In one quiet moment, one woman made some… interesting… “animal sounds.” The woman next to her slowly turned to look at her, barely containing her hilarity, and said, “Dude, what kind of animal was THAT?” The woman who’d made the sound shrugged her shoulders – she didn’t know, either – and we all laughed.

As we reflected on the game, a new ensemble member shared that she was worried about making a mistake on stage – improv experience or not. Those of us who’ve been through the mill on this reassured her in our usual way: we’ll all have your back; the audience generally won’t even know you’ve screwed up; we’ll all do it; some of our favorite moments are our biggest mistakes. And then, of course, we had to spend a little time reminiscing about those screw-ups – how funny they were, how we dealt with them, and how much we treasure those memories – even more so than the “perfect” moments.

The first scene we explored was the first scene of the play. It’s so brief that we were able to go through it a number of times. We experimented with the rhythm of the language and finding physical movement. One woman suggested that perhaps the witches operate “like the Fates in Hercules – they already know what each other is thinking.” Some of us were into that idea, and we tried it out. It worked pretty well, and we’ll definitely continue to experiment!

We then moved on to Act II Scene iv, in which the characters mull over the night’s strange events and what’s happening with Macbeth. The women jumped into it pretty quickly, and then one of them stopped so they could take some time to look over the language and start over. After clarifying some of the more challenging passages, they tried it again, and we understood what they were talking about much better.

I guess I was really enjoying the conversation after that and not taking notes, so I’m not sure where this came from, but one of the women joked, “Angus. You know his daddy was the steak guy.” There was a pause. Then Kyle said, “It’s true. Angus is the Thane of Steak.” We all burst out laughing. The silliness of the improv game clearly had not worn off.

We reflected a bit more on the scene. One woman felt that when Macduff enters, he should be tired and worn out. “Like he’s coming in and just sitting down at the bar,” she said. We all liked that idea. Another woman, who is older than many of the others, resisted the idea that the Old Man needs to be played as extremely elderly. She reminded us that “old” would have meant something a bit different in Shakespeare’s time. “Just because he’s ‘old’ doesn’t mean he’s decrepit,” she said. Then she darted a sardonic look at a younger woman who frequently needles her for being an “old lady.” That woman jumped, laughed, and said, “What?! I didn’t say anything! YOU’RE A LOT OLDER THAN ME! That’s all I’m saying!”

We gave the Captain’s speeches a go, with a longtime ensemble member playing the Captain. She said she wasn’t sure if she could do it. “You’ve done this before!” I said, reminding her of a particularly tricky monologue in The Taming of the Shrew that she absolutely nailed. “Paint the pictures just like you did then.”

And she did. A few others stayed in the playing space with her to listen and react. One of the women took that quite literally, gasping, jumping, even grabbing her arm each time she shared new information. This, in turn, led the Captain to become more and more animated, which, again, fired up the woman reacting. We were loving it. They kept playing off of each other, gaining steam. The listener even began to react with words, albeit words that I probably shouldn’t write in this blog… They all came from her heart, and it was hilarious, but out of context some of it might seem offensive. It wasn’t, though. It was great.

“Yeah!” said one woman after they’d finished (and we’d finished laughing). “I could feel it. Even without following along… And the audience was giving back to her, too.” The two women agreed that they’d felt extremely connected. The listener said, “Everything she was giving me, I just had to give it back.”

“That’s acting!” I said excitedly. “You connect with your scene partner, and each time she gives you something, you build off of it. And then she builds off of that. You feed each other. That’s what it’s all about!”

We gathered, then, to raise our ring of energy back up. We knelt together, slowly lifting the ring, and as we let it go and I thanked them for their work, the young woman said to the older woman, “Oh, man. That was a heavy one. I was worried about you for a sec. I didn’t know if you were gonna make it, old lady.”


Meeting the day after Thanksgiving is always a little iffy, but, given how challenging the holidays are for our ensemble members, we always make sure at least one facilitator can attend so that whomever needs it can take a break with us and have some fun. Tonight Matt and I were both there.

The beautiful CBS Detroit piece about our program aired Thanksgiving morning, and most of our ensemble members got to see it. So did most of the prison, apparently – an announcement over the PA system let everyone know that the piece would be on about twenty minutes before it aired.

Everyone loved it, although there were some jokes about how “the camera really does add ten pounds.” One woman said, “Even [name] and Frannie looked like that, and they’re tiny!” “Hey!” I said, “I thought I looked good!”

Several of them shared that friends at the prison weren’t the only ones who saw the piece – friends and family at home did, too. Some of them got phone calls from loved ones right away saying how proud they were. Those women were absolutely beaming. What a gift.

We spent a long time playing goofy circle and improv games. We just really needed to have a good time together. The improv game we chose was a bit challenging, but it provided some great opportunities to learn more about each other. It was one woman’s first time ever being on stage, and we gave her a huge round of applause. Another woman had difficulty getting through the scene, and the others began shouting suggestions and encouragement to her. Afterward, she said she felt bad about her performance, and the others jumped in to tell her all of the things she’d done well. Another pair did a hilarious scene in which they were students on a field trip sneaking around the White House. It ended in chaos as they tried to hide from a teacher. “I mean, everyone knows that if you go to the Oval Office, you’re gonna get tackled,” said one of the women.

One of the women has been wanting to explore the scene in which Lady Macduff and her son are killed. She played Lady Macduff, and she found herself becoming extremely angry during the first part of the scene and staying in that heightened state. When the scene ended, she shook her head. She said she had realized that if she’s going to get that angry, she’s also going to have to calm it down. “I’m angry at his father for leaving me,” she said, “But that ‘What wilt thou do for a father…’ That’s not angry. That’s, like, she’s upset, and her son’s being a smart alec.” We ran the scene again with her new approach, and it worked much better for her.

We asked the woman who’d played the son how the scene had felt to her. She said that the hardest part was the beginning – she hadn’t been sure of what she should have been doing. After that, she felt that some of what she had done worked.

This led to a debate about how old this kid is. Several women’s instincts were that he is a preteen, while some of us thought of him as being younger. We looked at the text for clues and found evidence for both interpretations. So how should we do it? “It all depends on how you want to tell the story,” I reminded them.

One woman wondered if maybe this is a situation where a little kid overhears his mother’s conversation and she doesn’t realize it till he calls her on it. There’s evidence in the text to support that. We tried it, and it worked well. A couple of us then tried playing the son at different ages and decided that we’re going to have to see how anyone interested in that role feels – playing a little boy is not natural for all of us!

We ended on a good note, and I was really glad that we were able to have such a fun night together. It’s never easy getting through this time of year, but that doesn’t mean we back off. We never back off!

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!

Session Five: Week 17

Before we got going tonight, a couple of people spoke with me privately about their feelings after casting the play last week. Some of their feelings were echoed later in the circle by other ensemble members – that the way people made their decisions led to perceived unfairness, and that we need to take a hard look at our casting process to refine it moving forward. I suggested that we process this for awhile and see what solutions we come up with for our year-end wrap up – the rawness that some are feeling now would likely cloud our judgment and lead to conflict.


Before we gathered in a circle, the ensemble member who turned in her book last week appeared in the doorway of the auditorium and beckoned me over. “I’ve been feeling really, really bad,” she said. “I’ve been crying and sad ever since I quit.” She said that she’d called several of her friends and family on the outside to talk it out, and all of them suggested to her that she come back. A former group member who was released earlier this year was particularly strong worded with her, reminding her of another member’s history of not getting the part she wanted three years in a row, and staying with the group nonetheless. This ensemble member hadn’t realized that, and it made her think. “Really, what it is, is I’m a spoiled brat,” she said, smiling a little. She’s decided to stay with the group, believing that this new perspective of not getting exactly what she wanted will teach her something important and give her an opportunity to grow. “Shakespeare has been such an important part of my recovery,” she said. “I don’t think you even understand how much.”


I’m ecstatic that she’s back, and I’m particularly thrilled by her reasoning for returning. Since she joined the group four years ago, this woman has come a long way in terms of her communication and conflict resolution skills, and her openness to others’ feelings and ideas. Although I know she’s learned a lot already, her strength in coming back humbly and open to not having a named role (at least for now) is just worlds away from where she was in the beginning. She shared all of this with the group as well, and everyone seemed happy to welcome her back.


What with some group members feeling burned by casting, and the holiday season being incredibly hard on everyone, we decided to take a break from Othello and play games through the new year. This proved to be a great distraction and a movement toward bonding everyone together again. We laughed a lot, getting better and better at working together in the moment – which is precisely why we spend time learning to improvise. “My head hurts from laughing,” said one woman (Jessica). That’s a rare thing this time of year.


All in all, we seem to be on the road toward having a cohesive ensemble again. Those who, thus far, don’t have much stage time will take a heavy hand in directing, knowing that we generally lose 2-3 people before the performance and they are likely to have an opportunity to step into a named role down the line. 

Session Five: Week 8



Tonight we read and discussed Act III Scene IV, in which Desdemona and Emilia first witness the change in Othello, Cassio pleads with Desdemona, and Cassio gives the handkerchief he found to Bianca to copy.

As spectators, we cannot help but cringe as Desdemona unwittingly confirms the suspicions that Iago has planted in Othello’s mind. Why does she respond the way she does, by lying about having misplaced the handkerchief and continuing her quest to get Cassio’s job back? “If you haven’t done anything, you’re not even thinking about it,” said one woman. Why would she be anything but innocent at this point? She has no idea how loaded this handkerchief and the Cassio issue have become.

“She’s committed,” said another ensemble member. “She’s gone against her father, she’s gone with [Othello] to war… Once you’re so far in, you’re like, ‘I’ve put so much into it, I have to keep going.’”

There were audible reactions when we read Emilia’s comment after Othello’s exit:


‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man.

They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;

They eat us hungerly, and when they are full,

They belch us.


It’s a feeling with which many of us are familiar. “They use you, abuse you, and then lose you,” said one person.

We talked at length about Emilia’s culpability in what happens, abused wife or not. How much does she suspect about Iago’s plot? Many ensemble members concluded that it doesn’t matter how much she knows – she clearly feels remorse for stealing the handkerchief, and she witnesses that theft’s impact on Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship, even if she knows nothing else. “This is exactly like Romeo and Juliet,” said a longtime ensemble member. “All of those people – she can make things right at any moment and doesn’t.”

Since the next scene is quite lengthy, we spent the remainder of our time on an improv game. Although we’ve talked about the idea that improv doesn’t have to be funny, and often can be very serious, we do tend toward being silly in our games – working with such heavy material as Othello, we need some lightness. The game was going well – we were having a lot of fun – when some subject matter came up that seemed innocuous to most but deeply upset one of the women who was on stage. “No,” she said, knowing well the rule of saying yes in improv, “I have to say no to this.” We stopped that part of the game, and as she staying on stage, I watched her closely to see if I needed to stop the exercise. She finished, and then began gathering her things. “Are you okay?” I asked quietly. “Yes,” she said, “But I have to leave now.” Two of her friends who are in the group gave me reassuring looks and escorted her out, leaving the rest of the group puzzled and concerned.

“What just happened?” asked one woman. “Something came up in the exercise that upset her,” said another.

“Yes,” I said, “And I think we can take a couple of things out of this. One is that, if one of us says ‘no’ on stage or stops an exercise, we stop it right there, no questions asked. The other is that we all agreed weeks ago that if someone is upset and needs to leave the room, that’s okay, and we will respect her by allowing her to talk about it if she wants to and not asking questions if she doesn’t.”

The group still seemed uneasy. This is the first time this has happened this session, so it’s new territory for most of us. “Are we okay?” I asked. They responded that, yes, they were okay, just confused. We were out of time at that point, so we lifted our ring together and left for the day.

It was not an ideal way to end a meeting, but this is likely the first, not the only, time that someone needs a breather from whatever it is we’re doing. I think the shock of what happened is due to its occurring during a very silly game when we weren’t expecting any triggers, while we are all expecting to be upset (but safe and taking care of each other) while working on our play. It’s an important lesson that just about anything can be a trigger – we don’t know all of the circumstances of each others’ lives – and we need to take care of each other as an ensemble at all times.




When the ensemble member who left early on Tuesday arrived, I asked if I could speak with her privately. She smiled and said yes. I asked her first how she was doing, and she said that she was okay, it’s just a sensitive time for her, and it took her by surprise that the game took such a turn. I asked her if there was anything that I or the group could have done to handle the situation better, and she said no, she didn’t feel uncomfortable with what happened at all. I reiterated what I had said to the group after she left so she would know that she was returning to a safe space. She seemed at ease with things.

After our warm up, another ensemble member asked if we should consider making some topics “off limits” in improv to spare people’s feelings. She mentioned the specific topic that upset the woman who left early on Tuesday. The group seemed not to know how to respond, so I first thanked her for the concern and sensitivity that led her to make the suggestion, and then said that my opinion is that we should not censor what we’re doing beyond complying with prison policy – that we are working with a play that brings up all sorts of things that may upset us, and that we need to feel secure in taking care of one another and maintaining a safe space. “I’m just worried that people will get so upset they won’t want to come back,” she said. “I appreciate that,” I replied, “But I think we handled things well last time, and I believe we’ll continue to handle them well going forward.” I asked the group whether they agreed or wanted to discuss further, and they were in agreement with me, so we moved on.

We took some time to play a goofy game – we needed to lighten up! This proved to be a significant relief, and we were all refreshed when we circled up to read through Act IV Scene I - a very ugly scene in which Iago further manipulates Othello to the point that he beats Desdemona in front of others. It’s upsetting material no matter what your life experiences have been, and many in our ensemble have experienced similar situations firsthand.

One ensemble member, her voice trembling, said, “I really dislike the way Shakespeare has taken this put-together, articulate, respected man – and then he’s so easily taken in.” We revisited this idea that we all have at least one major weakness, and this play upsets us because we know how fragile we all are – we all have the potential to become Othello.

Another woman cannot get over how easily things go for Iago at this point in the play. “Iago does have this planned out very well, but he doesn’t have to work for it – it all just falls into place.” We talked about the things that Iago plans, and the things that happen by chance, providing him opportunities to take advantage. This is maddening to us as well.

Why, when Othello says that he will poison Desdemona, does Iago push him to strangle her instead? “It’s more personal,” said one woman. You can disconnect from poisoning, she said, “But when you’re strangling someone, you have to look them in the eye.” Another woman said that this is Iago’s way of driving Othello completely over the edge – he doesn’t just want him to suffer, he wants to destroy him.

“What does he have against Desdemona?” asked one woman. Several of our ensemble members have a theory that Iago is gay – that he may not even be conscious of being gay, but that his attachment to Othello results in overpowering jealousy of Desdemona. Others agree that he is jealous of Desdemona, but think it’s more of a “power thing” – he says, “The general’s wife is now the general,” and some of us think that he can’t stand the idea that anyone has more sway over Othello than him – so Cassio and Desdemona have to go, too.

“Once you hit a certain level of rage, it’s uncontrollable. You want everyone to feel the hurt you feel,” said one ensemble member, talking about both Iago and Othello.

After we read the part of the scene when Othello beats Desdemona, a few women expressed surprise that none of the other men on stage intervene to protect her. We discussed how sometimes when people are shocked, they freeze; I also mentioned that there have been studies showing that people are less likely to take action if there are a number of people witnessing the same crime. We also discussed the fact that there’s not much stage direction from Shakespeare here – it’s possible that we could stage this so that people do intervene.

Once we had read the whole scene, our discussion took an even more personal tone, as we brought our experiences to bear on our interpretation of this story. We find the play so terribly tragic because it rings so true.

“This play makes me not want to trust anyone,” said one person. “It makes me want to be celibate,” said another. “No,” said another woman, “Every relationship needs good communication. Othello never talks to Desdemona or Cassio about any of this.”

Does Othello have PTSD, we wondered? Is this the trauma that breaks him? “Every other area of your life can be going smoothly, and one little thing drives you crazy,” said one woman.

This, said another ensemble member, is how men are. “They hold themselves together so well when they think they’re in control, but when they lose control they’re a mess.” The ensemble responded strongly that this is not specific to men – “it’s a people thing.”

We all have the potential to be any of these characters, and as we progress further into the story, that is hitting home more and more. Our discussions get deeper and deeper. “I get why they [prison staff] want us to take this class,” remarked one woman, “I keep seeing myself in this play. I’m learning so much.”