Session Five: Week 6, Part 1


We spent a lot of time checking in within our circle tonight, as there is a lot going on with some members of the group, and we all wanted to listen as they shared. The support and strength coming from the circle were heartening – the willingness to listen, to offer condolences and gentle advice, and to segue into group jokes and more lighthearted talk that enabled us to move on… I was very glad that we took the time that we did.

We then finished reading Act II Scene III, intending to get it on its feet. But the group discussion surrounding the scene and characters was so intense, enlightening, and constructive that we never quite got there – and no one seemed to mind.

We talked a lot about Iago and our varying “takes” on him. Some think that he’s arrogant and out to prove something – either he doesn’t think he’s that bad or he doesn’t care. One woman believes strongly that his intent is to prove how smart he is. Then someone mentioned that perhaps he is “evil,” and the conversation took a turn toward the stuff that is at the heart of the work that we do.

“He’s NOT evil,” said one woman. “Just imagine if you’d worked your whole life toward something, only to be passed over and have nothing to show for it. I’d break down, too.”

“It must be exhausting, carrying around all those resentments,” said another. “This is me six years ago – I know how this feels.”

“How many of us have dated Iago?” asked one woman, and at least five others raised their hands. “I relate to Iago,” said another. “I dealt drugs, and I did them – I was always stealing from Peter to pay Paul.”

“Frannie always reminds us not to judge characters,” said a longtime member of the group. “Remember how a month ago I said I hated Cassio? Now I might like him. I might even want to play him… and I think you knew, Frannie.”

We all laughed. “Well, at first he can come off as kind of smug – he’s the Golden Boy, and nobody likes the Golden Boy,” I said, “But now that you’ve seen him take this fall, you can empathize with him more because it’s obvious that he’s not perfect… This is what we want to do - find our way in so we can understand and empathize with the characters – and sometimes that way in is through our personal experience.”

Sarah then said that she had gained new insight into Iago through what our ensemble was sharing. “Sometimes it just takes a person who’s walked a different path,” said a woman who’s been in the group for two years. “It is so strange, what you learn about yourself here. If you ever want to really learn about yourself, get locked up for a little while,” said another.

Another woman, who’d been rather quiet up to this point, said, “I don’t know… I really click with Iago. But, you know… I love like Othello, and I hate like Iago.” Many ensemble members nodded. “That’s the thing about this group,” she continued, “At so many points, it just shows me myself. I never thought I would be using this… but I use it in real life.” She elaborated a bit, speaking about using traits of the character she played in Shrew to guide her in one of her current pursuits.

We then branched off into a conversation about the influence of Othello’s military experience on his behavior in the play. Soldiers need to take their “fight-or-flight” responses and react properly, which often means staying calm while being on high alert. “It’s like being here,” said one woman. Another pointed out that it is selfless to serve one’s country as a soldier, and Kyle reminded all of us that, while that may be true, this isn’t Othello’s country – which other characters point out constantly – and that may give us more insight into him.

We briefly talked about Roderigo, too, as we ended our reading of the scene. Again he is ready to give up, and again he lets Iago pull him back into the plot. What’s going on with him? “Maybe he just has nothing to lose,” said one woman. This made a light bulb go off for me – when you truly have nothing, you often cling to some crazy hope. Maybe that’s the way in for whomever plays this character.

We are not even halfway through the play, and already the group’s insight is staggering to me. They are teaching me so much about this play, and I am so honored to be with them through this process. 

Session Five: Week 4


Tonight as we waited for people to arrive, a long-time member of the group gathered those of us who were there for a “creative minds meeting.” She shared that she’s been getting ideas for how the characters in our play would behave from watching TV shows and movies set in similar time periods. She also floated an idea of recording some of the characters’ “thought” monologues as MP3s and playing them during our performance while the actors on stage do whatever we feel is physically appropriate. This is definitely an idea we’ll be exploring with the rest of the group as we go.

We played a couple of games and then continued our work on Act I Scene III (it’s a long one!). We are still working on the idea of reining in our enthusiasm so that people can be heard when they speak – there is still a lot of talking over each other. This is going to become increasingly irritating to those with quieter voices if it continues unabated, so we need to keep reminding each other to take turns.

We read the “middle” of the scene and then put it on its feet. Some aspects of it worked, and others didn’t. After a lot of discussion, I noticed that the group had organically done something that many directors are trained to do – they adjusted the set (a table and chalkboard) and our blocking to create two distinct zones – one for the personal drama, and one for the war talk. They did this without stating outright that that was their intention, I pointed it out to them because I wasn’t sure they realized they had done it – and these are moments that are important to note because of how much they boost the ensemble’s confidence and ability to take ownership of the material.

We continued to adjust what we were doing to give the right emphasis to the most important lines and characters. We discussed taking this further in the future, although we also decided to move forward because we are at risk of becoming bogged down in this scene. Our exploration at this point is so valuable in terms of getting us oriented to the play, its characters, and its themes, but if we get hung up on things like detailed blocking, we begin to get impatient to get through to the end, and we have lost members in the past who felt we were moving too slowly. Our goal is still to cast the play before the December holidays, and in order to do that, we need to keep pushing forward.


Kyle and I arrived just in time for check-in tonight. The ensemble shared news good and bad, and then we lowered our ring together and got to work.

We honed in on the last part of Act I Scene III, in which Iago and Roderigo have so much back and forth… and Iago’s language is so evocative and complex. Although some members of our ensemble were visibly intimidated by the language, we worked together to eke out its meaning. This led to a lot of animated discussion – what is Iago really talking about? What are his objectives? Why does he talk to Roderigo this way? “It’s like a chess game,” said one woman, “You use all the pieces to your advantage – even the little ones. People learn a lot about you from the way you play chess.”

We then turned our attention to Roderigo. It’s so easy to fixate on the main three characters, but in this play the “minor” characters are potentially just as interesting.

A woman who has been in the group since we worked on The Tempest posed the question, “Is Roderigo like Caliban?” Others who were also in that ensemble were perplexed – what did she mean? She stated that she sees Caliban as misunderstood, seeking attention, and savage, and she thinks there’s a touch of all that in Roderigo. “He’s not on the same intellectual level as everyone else, so he’s easy to manipulate,” she said.

“I don’t think so,” said another long-time ensemble member. “I think he’s just naïve – not dumb.” Another woman said she relates to Roderigo and thinks he’s more like her interpretation of Gremio (in The Taming of the Shrew) – “blotted out right away,” with no one giving him a real chance.

Another woman said, “He’s really in love – look at how much he sacrifices for Desdemona.” In the end, he gives all of his possessions and money in his pursuit – and ultimately his life. “But is that love?” asked Kyle. “What does he hope is actually going to happen?” This led others to postulate that what Roderigo feels is not love, but obsession. Still others came back with the idea that it could be obsessive, but could also be unrequited love. We eventually agreed to table the conversation for now, as Roderigo’s words and actions in subsequent scenes are likely to continue to shape our ideas.

We closed by playing our first improv game, and the game was “Yes, and…” In this game, every line must begin with “Yes, and…” in order to get us used to the ground rules of improvisation, which help us so much throughout the year. This proved to be a lot of fun, with some scenes working better than others, and some people who were clearly very nervous getting through their scenes without giving up – a huge accomplishment.

We all agree it’s time to start doing more of this, and we’ll continue with it next week. We also agreed that our plan for Tuesday is to put the end of Act I Scene III on its feet as many times as people wanted to (many of us are itching to play with this scene), then to run the entire scene, and then to move forward.

Session Five: Week 3


As we were warming up tonight, a returning member remarked, “This play is so much better than Shrew.” I asked her to expand upon that comment. She responded that she feels it’s better written: the plot isn’t as confusing (both for the ensemble and the audience) and “the words are better.” Others in the ensemble agreed - as did I! She seemed tentative in her opinions, and I reassured her that she’s not off base - Othello was written years after The Taming of the Shrew, which was among Shakespeare’s first plays. “Isn’t that reassuring?” commented Sarah. “Even Shakespeare got better at what he did.”

Another returning member requested that we play a very physical game, which meant that some of us who weren’t feeling up to it sat out. But we were all still invested in the game, paying attention, and learning from each other. Those actively playing had a blast, beginning to learn how to maintain focus and listen to each other during a game that can get rather raucous. 

We then continued our work on Act I Scene II, which we read last week. We cast it and put it on its feet, working together to figure out where entrances should be and letting it play out from there. When the scene had finished, the ensemble was very vocal and constructive, both about aspects that worked and those that didn’t.

We all were excited that the woman who played Iago felt the instinct to slink over to the side to watch things unfold without being actively involved until she had to be - we feel it’s consistent with the character. In this first go at the scene, everyone except Othello had swords drawn, and we had a lengthy discussion about whether or not this was appropriate and what evidence there might be in the text to guide us. We ended up deciding (at least for tonight) that if Brabantio and those with whom he enters come in “with pitchforks,” or at least with swords drawn, then it would be natural for Othello’s people to draw swords to protect him, and then it would be natural for him to remain calm and tell them to put their swords away.

At this point a returning member offered two points of constructive criticism for the ensemble (including herself). The first was that, in our excitement, we are frequently speaking over each other, and it can be frustrating. We need to make more of an effort to take turns speaking. This is an excellent point, and something we will work on. She also voiced her apprehension about moving through the material too slowly and suggested that ensemble members should be reading ahead on their own. A few members of our ensemble respectfully suggested that this isn’t an entirely reasonable expectation, as they find the language too challenging to read on their own and don’t understand it till they speak or hear it out loud with the group. I suggested a compromise in which I would provide a modern language synopsis of each scene so that the content could be covered individually ahead of time, even if the actual text was not. This was accepted enthusiastically. 

We also decided that, rather than assuming we all remember a scene we read several days or a week ago, any time we put something on its feet we will read it together first to refresh it. Our ensemble is diverse in many ways, and some are prepared to move at a faster pace than others. It is a challenge to keep everyone engaged without moving so fast we lose some, or moving so slowly that we lose others. We are hopeful that we can find a good compromise with this “hybrid approach.” 

We then played the scene on its feet again and found that the ensemble members on stage had really listened to and taken the notes of the audience. The scene worked so well - we saw stage pictures that clearly foreshadowed dynamics in future scenes, which was exciting so early in our season.

Tonight was pretty much the ideal of how Shakespeare in Prison functions: we worked together as a team, listening to one another, giving and taking criticism constructively, solving problems, bolstering one another’s confidence, and ending on a very positive note.



Sometimes we are delayed getting through security at the prison, and tonight was one of those nights. We have always encouraged the ensemble to begin working without us so that time isn’t wasted, but in years past it hasn’t been a surprise to walk into our room a bit late and find that warm ups haven’t yet begun. Tonight, however, we walked in to a circle that had already warmed up, checked in, and decided to hold the Ring when they saw us coming down the hall. I feel like a broken record in this blog, stating again and again how exciting it is that the ensemble is working together like this so early in the season, but it is truly a thrill, and the result of years of problem solving by the ensemble, as well as a testament to the energy of our new ensemble members.

True to what we decided on Tuesday, we began by re-reading the majority of Act I Scene III to make sure it was fresh in our minds. We then discussed how to stage it - we all agreed that we should use a table as is noted in the text, but there were varying opinions on whether there should be chairs at the table, who should sit at them, and what should be on/around the table. For tonight, we decided that there should be a map on a chalkboard that the Officer could write on as information came in, as well as letters and maps on the table. 

Having set our physical scene, we discussed its atmosphere. Ensemble members threw out words like tired, contentious, chaotic, high stakes (“It’s a war room!”). We talked about how this beginning energy must stand in contrast to Othello’s energy, and, later, Desdemona’s. “What do they bring?” I asked. Othello brings a measure of calm and control, we decided. As far as Desdemona, one ensemble member said the energy at first should be masculine because she is so feminine. “She’s virtue; she’s love,” said one woman. “She’s gonna bring down the tension in there room because she smells good, she looks good - I mean, come on, she’s Desdemona,” said another. Another said, “Desdemona isn’t just the counterpart to Iago - she’s the counterpart to this whole scene.”

We began exploring the scene on its feet and found that we only got through the first part, in which various information comes in about the impending Turkish invasion of Cyprus, because so much is happening. We continued to work together to figure out where people come from and where they go. We are still talking over each other a bit, but there is clearly an effort being made to do better. Kyle mentioned to the group how unusual it is for people who are new to theatre to be so naturally able to create appropriate and effective stage pictures, and he’s right. It’s quite an exhilarating thing to be a part of.

One of our returning members quietly told me an idea she has for our set: we re-paint one side of our existing flats to be a giant map of the region in which our play takes place, and then, as the play becomes less and less about war and more and more about relationships, we flip the flats to a more intimate setting or image. I have to say that, as a professional director, this is an idea that resonates with me as one that I would love to have in any production of Othello. She chose not to present the idea to the ensemble yet - she didn’t want to interrupt the work that was being done on this scene - and it’s possible that, even if this idea is universally embraced, our ideas will evolve, but this is a wonderful place to begin our conversation about the set. It also shows very clearly how confident this woman has become in her analysis of Shakespeare and ability to express her opinion - we have not read through this play together as a group yet, but she’s read it on her own and clearly understands its themes very well. She did not have this level of confidence when I first met her - she was reticent to share opinions unless nudged - and it speaks volumes to me about her personal growth that after such a short time she has such a clearly defined concept for this play.

We closed with a game. When I was eliminated from the circle, I took the time to really observe the group. All of us - those still in the game and those who were “out” - were smiling and participating. There was a palpable feeling of camaraderie. Earlier in the evening, I asked a woman who is now in her fourth season of SIP if it’s just me, or if this group is actually different, and she agreed with me. “I think we did a better job welcoming the new people in,” she said, “It made them comfortable right away. And they’re just great.” Those who have been following this blog for awhile will know she’s right. The solutions developed by past ensembles to deal with the beginning of a session appear to have worked. We’ll see how our solutions for other challenges work as we go along.

Session Four: Weeks 23 and 24

Week 23: Tuesday  

We spent this entire session working on Act V Scene I, in which all of Lucentio’s and Tranio’s plotting is revealed. The going was on the slower side, with starts and stops as people needed to leave early for other programs and appointments. The ensemble stuck with it, though, bringing newer members into the mix and catching them up with a great deal of compassion for the challenge each of them was taking on. In the end, we managed to muddle through this very long and complicated scene, to take stock and realize that with so many of the players gone by the end, it would mostly need to be “redone” in the future.

Rather than getting bogged down in this, though, we focused on how well the women worked together to get through the scene. We applauded our “newbies” on diving in when they still don’t know the material very well and being willing to just go with it. The group as a whole worked well as a team, too, figuring out the placement of set pieces and some of the blocking that we need in order to make the scene make sense. These are all wonderful takeaways, even if the “work” will need to be done over.

One of the women brought up how uncomfortable it is to get a general framework for a scene and then leave it. We talked about how this is usually part of the process of rehearsing a play – we get an idea of the gist of it and how we want it to work on its feet, an then we revisit the scene to find more nuance. It’s a long-term process that requires participants to be comfortable making “mistakes” as we explore, and that is a huge challenge to many people, incarcerated or not.

Week 24: Tuesday

Written by Dominique

As the group began to collect, people began to tell me about last Thursday's challenges. As sometimes happens, the facilitators were delayed getting through the gate, so the women discussed what to do and decided to move forward with the reading of the entire script. There was a lot of pride in their problem solving and their ability to take control of the situation quickly. They jumped in when parts needed to be read that weren't there and watched out for their own parts overlapping something else they were reading (getting someone else to take over so they could focus on the part they were cast in). They read quite a bit before they dispersed. They were working together and working together well, there was pride in this, and there was a strong sense of camaraderie developed for most of the group.

After "ringing up" we discussed how to approach the evening - whether to continue reading the script as they had begun. It was mentioned that we still don't have new people cast with any finality. After some debate it was decided we would read scenes with Grumio, Tranio, and Biondello (the uncast parts) and give new members a chance to really try them on. We chose Act 1 scene 2 since it gave the most opportunity for these characters to work.

The reading was lackluster and didn't show much. Both new women began to ask questions about their characters. One woman, who joined the group in November, really took charge then. She explained their questions, and suggested they put the scene "on its feet." She gave them basic blocking that had been worked out and explained motivation as well as physical comedy that had already been worked. As the scene begins with Grumio, this woman started explaining her part in the scene, her entrance, action, the scenario etc… It was FABULOUS to see her work, and both newbies felt plugged in and comfortable with their new roles. All the actors contributed as they worked, gently reminding each other to turn out to the audience, not block each other, watch their spacing. Such wonderful ensemble spirit.

As people needed to leave early, the women asked that we play games for the remainder of the evening. As it turned out it was a good way to give the newbies a chance to feel comfortable. We played the place scenario, giving everyone a chance to work, and then Party Quirks, which was great fun.

I thought about how wonderful the camaraderie is among these core people. They really enjoy the work and working with each other. There was real joy there. Someone had mentioned at the beginning of the evening that it's important we remember to keep the drama on the stage. I told her there were professional actors that needed to be told that occasionally but she was absolutely right. It steals focus from the wonderful work at hand.

Week 24: Thursday

After a circle discussion to resolve some dynamic issues within the group, which seemed to have a good outcome, we decided to work Act III Scene ii, as we haven’t yet put the whole thing on its feet. Many of the players were absent, but luckily those who were present were game to fill in, so we were able to make some great discoveries.

The most important of these was what we determined is going on with Baptista in this scene. The woman playing him said she was torn about how he must feel. After some discussion and our active exploration of the scene, she settled on him being at first pretty miffed about Petruchio’s behavior, but understanding his strategy (giving Kate a taste of her own medicine) by the end and being okay with it.

Petruchio has a very interesting monologue in this scene, too, regarding his “ownership” of Kate. Without the woman who plays Petruchio there, of course we didn’t settle on an interpretation, but we talked about the variety of ways in which it could be played. This is something that we have all come to appreciate about The Taming of the Shrew – we always seem to have several reasonable ways of interpreting whatever it is we’re discussing, but we also always seem to be able to land on something that makes everyone happy.

We’re already in discussions about next year’s play. The group is definitely interested in a tragedy or a history, so we’ll be looking at some of those over the next couple of months as we continue our work on Shrew. The general consensus is that we would like to alter our process so that the play for next year is chosen prior to this year’s performance, and those who are staying in the group will be able to study it over the summer. Our thought is that, in this way, we can better accomplish the mentor/mentee relationship we desire between returning and new members of the group right from the get-go. This may not work, but we’ve learned that even if we try something new and it “fails,” we learn something valuable moving forward. And that’s really what it’s about.

Session Four: Week 22


Tonight found us exploring Act IV Scene V, in which Katharina and Petruchio come to an understanding on the way to Baptista’s house. We began to get the humor in the scene just from its first walk through, and we decided to hone in on more details of what’s going on, beginning with movement.

I asked Petruchio to try stopping when he verbally “puts his foot down” about Katharina needing to agree with whatever he says, no matter how ridiculous, and to make her come to him. This was beginning to work, although our Katharina has a tendency to move very quickly that we needed to find a way to alleviate – the scene was not doing what we wanted it to do yet. The lines here are:


Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,

And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:

An if you please to call it a rush-candle,

Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.



I say it is the moon.



I know it is the moon.



Nay, then you lie: it is the blessèd sun.



Then, God be bless'd, it is the blessèd sun:

But sun it is not, when you say it is not;

And the moon changes even as your mind.

What you will have it named, even that it is;

And so it shall be so for Katharina.


Since both of these women have been committed to the idea that Kate and Petruchio truly love each other and are not awful people, and since we all realized that this might be the most important scene in the play because it’s where they can establish this very firmly, I asked them to try this scene as if the lines were wedding vows – as if this were the real wedding, as opposed to the one in which Petruchio acted out.

This approach proved to be one that the entire ensemble loved. “I like it because Kate has a choice,” said one woman. “It’s the real-est acting there’s been in this group yet,” said another. What this comes down to is that in order to tell this story honestly in the way that they’ve interpreted it, Petruchio and Kate needed to make themselves very vulnerable here. Even with a stand-in Petruchio (the woman playing the role had to go to another group midway through ours), this is paying off.

The ensemble worked together beautifully to stage the rest of the scene, discussing ideas, objectives, obstacles, and the overall effect they want to get out of the interaction with Vincentio. When one woman had an idea for staging that seemed too difficult to some of us, the women in the scene tried it anyway to see if it would work. The majority thought it really didn’t after all, but the whole situation was handled with such respect that it didn’t become a conflict.

It was a really productive night, and we all left feeling good about the work that was done. Those sessions are the ones that help us get through the more challenging ones.


Although we were missing our Katharina and Hortensio, we decided to ride our momentum from the other night and plug in our Petruchio and Vincentio (who had had to leave early) to Act IV Scene iii.

Our first challenge was in repeating the blocking we had come up with the other night, but we found that when we focused on the characters’ objectives rather than the exact staging, it happened organically. That was a relief! We worked through the interaction with Vincentio and determined that it is a game that Kate and Petruchio are playing now that they have come to an understanding – their relationship has changed, and so has everything else for them.

After we ran through the scene with our new understanding of it, one woman had an epiphany: “I don’t think the taming of the shrew is a bad thing,” she said, “It’s about calming down and working as a team.” She explained that there is give and take in any relationship, and that is now what she sees in Kate and Petruchio rather than the breaking of a woman’s spirit. We are all inclined to agree with her.

We began reading Act V Scene I and looking to clarify anything that is confusing, but we decided not to put it on its feet because we were missing too many people who are in the scene.

We set a goal to read through the entire play in order as a group by the end of February and see where the holes are – which scenes haven’t been staged or have been recast since we staged them – and a nice byproduct of this will be that our new members will be nicely caught up. We did this last year and liked the way it worked, although we weren’t ready to do it until March or April last year. Even when we feel like we’re spinning our wheels, we have to remind ourselves that it’s part of the process, and we still have plenty of time left to accomplish our goals.