Session Five: Week 23



Tonight we decided to review the work that’s been done on Act I Scene iii and keep going with it. After our review, we again pondered Roderigo’s situation in this play.

Why doesn’t Roderigo suspect Iago of taking advantage of him? “He’s super focused on Desdemona,” said one woman. “He’s not thinking about anything else – he’s obsessed.”

“I fight against my own emotions and intelligence with this,” said the woman playing Roderigo.

“Even if there was a solution, you’d still be a little gloomy,” said another woman about Roderigo’s state of mind. “But sometimes false hope is the best thing,” said another.

“Well, I feel silly,” said the woman playing Roderigo. “Then you’re doing it right!” said someone else.

After going through the scene again, one woman asked if maybe we should set the whole thing in front of our curtain so that, when the scene is over, we can open it on Cyprus. The whole group was enthusiastic about this idea.

We spent some time playing a game, and then some people had to leave. We decided to work on one of Othello’s monologues with the remaining time, a monologue in which he denies feeling jealous. After one read, we all chipped in to guide our Othello to find greater truth in the piece. Her second read was much more effective, and when she finished I asked her how she had accomplished that. “You’re not gonna like it,” she said, and whispered to me, “I used the Method.”

I asked her, “Do you mean you were re-living a past experience, or were you recalling and using that past?” She answered that she had not re-lived anything, but, rather, had thought about when she felt a similar way and used that in her performance. The facilitators then clarified that this is an effective tool to use in rehearsal (often called “the magic as if”), and is not the Method and nothing to be worried about.

Readers may recall that we have had a few intense discussions about safe approaches to the material, and it’s good that this ensemble member got clarification about the tool she was using. In our program, we can’t avoid looking at our play through the lens of our own experience; it’s using that experience safely and effectively to tell a story that needs to be our focus. If we maintain that, no one should have to re-live past trauma.





Tonight began with a discussion about costumes, set, and props. We are not allowed to use military uniforms, so we had to work together to come up with something that would signify military without going against prison policy. We believe we have come up with a good solution, but that, too, will need to be approved by the prison.

Most of the ensemble members have a very clear idea of what their characters should be wearing. The woman playing Bianca emphatically stated that she should wear red even though in everyday life she doesn’t like the color – she feels that Bianca would. Our Othello had suggestions for how she could look slightly different from the other military characters.

We also talked through some problem solving about Desdemona’s smothering. I haven’t asked specific questions yet of prison staff, but I anticipate that this will be a challenge to stage while staying within the rules of the prison. We’ve come up with several solutions that I will present to staff soon.

We then continued with our blocking, beginning with Act II Scene i, in which we arrive at Cyprus in the wake of a storm. Two ensemble members whose characters don’t appear until the second act gamely took on the roles of the two gentlemen in the scene. Our Cassio seemed unsure of what she should be doing, but she knew she felt the need to move. “Well,” said a longtime ensemble member, “What do you do when you’re nervous and anxious?” Cassio answered that she paces. We decided as a group that it would be appropriate to pace and look out to sea for Othello’s ship. One person suggested that Cassio grab a telescope from Montano as well.

We have a backdrop of an ocean that was painted for our Tempest, and this same longtime ensemble member suggested that we put it at the back of the house. This suggestion was met with enthusiasm and praise for her consistently wonderful design/concept ideas over the years.

We also decided to revisit this when we’re back in the auditorium (we sometimes meet in a classroom on Fridays) so that we can explore different levels in the scene.

It was a very positive evening, and we are chugging along, figuring out how to stage our story. 

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 Four: Week 6


Written by Jamie

This week we had a movie night at rehearsal, and watched Shakespeare Behind Bars, a Hank Rogerson documentary following Curt Tofteland - founder of the program- during a nine month rehearsal period for The Tempest in Luther Luckett Correction Center, Lagrange Kentucky.

Some of the women had viewed the documentary a few years earlier during our program. Veterans were energized, however, at the repeated viewing. I believe it gave the newcomers a more solidified idea of what they can expect in the coming months.

My first impressions of the documentary were of envy over the level of talent demonstrated by the inmates at Luther Luckett. Their commitment is evident, and their dedication is obvious as scenes depict prisoners folding laundry, murmuring memorized lines. I have no doubt in my mind that the women in our program are just as dedicated - so it was insightful to see the other side of the page, as I of course cannot watch the women as they go about their lives in the prison, reciting lines and running scenes. I was also impressed with Curt’s direction - he seemed more like a strict theatre performance professor than any drama therapist I’ve ever seen - no kid gloves, he shouted his dissatisfaction from off-stage whilst inmates rehearsed scenes. “Not good enough! I don’t believe you!” In reaction, the inmates pushed themselves, delivering some of the more committed and intensely personal performances I’ve ever seen.

Most of the men in the documentary had been involved in it for years, developing a solid brotherhood. It wasn’t without its share of negative dynamic, as you would find in any community, but it was obvious that the program had really helped the inmates bond in an environment that other programs offered in this Correction Center may not have been able to provide.

Overall, the film implemented camaraderie in the act of showing us how programs such as ours have been so successful in the past. Curt’s achievement within his program, the dedication of the men he worked with - sparked ambition within the women that I hadn’t seen since our first Romeo and Juliet performance. I have a feeling we are going to have a very impressive year.


Written by Frannie

Before we began today, one of the newer members of our group excitedly shared that she has brought our Ring exercise – the creation of ensemble and safe environment – into another group. She said that, while some of the women in that group thought it was weird (and, I mean, it is a little weird), by and large they loved it and will continue doing it each time they meet. This is one of those “ripple effect” moments we talk about when we list the benefits of a program like SIP – for this woman, the Ring is not a Shakespeare or theatre specific exercise, and now there is whole other group of women at WHV who have embraced and are benefiting from the use of something we’ve explored in our group.

We delved further into our discussion about the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary that the group viewed on Tuesday. Reactions to it were mixed, and I was touched by the level of honesty with which people voiced their opinions. The veterans in the group who performed The Tempest in 2013 seemed somewhat focused on how many of their lines they remembered, and they had a lot of fun “speaking along” with the men in the documentary. Most of them viewed the film in 2012 and had a new perspective on it – they are still hoping that our group will rise to the level of commitment evident in SBB, and they are still working on ways to help that happen. Other women in the group were inspired by the men in the film, saying, “If they can do it, so can we.” Everyone was impressed by the caliber of the performances and excited that we do some of the same exercises in our group that they do in theirs.

At least one woman in our group, however, found the film sad. She focused in on Rick, a young man in the film with a long sentence, as someone very much like her friends growing up. She was saddened that he went to the hole during filming rather than completing the program.

After talking for awhile, we played a couple of games and started our work on Act I Scene ii. And then, I don’t remember exactly how, but somehow our work led us into a deeply honest conversation in which several of the women bravely shared of their past, present, and trepidations about the future, and the rest of us gave them whatever support we could. There is a moment in the SBB documentary in which one of the men says (paraphrased) that he doesn’t want to be judged only on the worst thing he’s ever done. Our pasts are part of who we are, but they don’t need to define us. We must find ways of moving forward.

It was an intense conversation, but the women who shared seemed at least somewhat relieved to have shared so honestly and to have received not judgment, but support from our circle. We ended with an exercise intended to “uplift” each other, to leave that negative energy behind and go on with our days feeling at least a little better. It’s days like these that, while we may not do as much with the text, we strengthen each other and our ensemble through openness and unequivocal support. This may be the most raw it’s ever gotten in our group, perhaps encouraged by the uncompromising honesty of the men in the film. I am personally very appreciative of and humbled by the strength that the women in our group showed today.