Session Six: Week 16



Tonight I distributed our cast list as people came into the room. Fortunately, everyone was cast in a role that was on her list, so we did not have any drama or tension.

One woman who auditioned for Richard and Buckingham breathed a sigh of relief as she saw that she had been cast as the latter. She sat next to me and said how glad she was not to have been cast as Richard. I asked her why she had volunteered for the role if she didn’t really want it. She said that she had raised her hand because there was only one other person who was interested in the role, and she felt it would mean more to her if she earned the role than if it was handed to her. But then she thought, “I have a 50% chance that I could get this. Oh, crap! I had ten lines last year. But I guess [the woman who played Othello] didn’t think she could do it last year, and she did. So I guess I could, too. But I really just wanted [the woman cast as Richard] to feel like it was something she’d worked for.” What an extraordinary gesture!

Another woman who had been quite vocal about wanting to play Margaret wound up cast as Elizabeth, her second choice. I was a bit concerned that this would be upsetting to her, but she told me that, after the audition, she realized that she actually preferred Elizabeth, and it would be a better role for her.

We gathered for check-in, and afterward we discussed our game plan for the next phase of the program. The first order of business is to do a first round of cuts to the play – we need to perform in 90 minutes or less, so we always end up cutting quite a bit. The woman playing Richard, who played Othello last year, said, “This year I’m gonna work super duper hard to be pro-cuts. ‘Cause I have way too many lines.” Last year she was very resistant to cuts because she loved the language so much, and it’s good to know that she’s gained perspective and will be more flexible this time around. Another woman, who is our resident cutting queen, offered some advice to the group: “Remember that you’re cutting for your audience. If we have trouble understanding it, they probably will, too.” We decided that everyone who is comfortable making cuts will bring them on Friday so that I can gather them and have a bound rehearsal script for us very soon.

We also discussed how we want to explain the history of the play to our audience – it’s very hard to understand the relationships and much of the plot without prior knowledge. Some of us favor a spoken prologue, while others think a visual guide would be better. We’ll keep discussing it – we always figure out how to overcome these challenges, and I know the ensemble will come up with a great solution.

The next topic of conversation was costumes. The group is mulling over how close to period we should go. Usually we do a hybrid modern/period mix of costumes, but there is potential this year to stick more to period pieces, with the prison’s approval. This is something we’ll continue to talk about over the next month or so until we need to make our decision.

One of the woman gave a little pep talk to the group, reminding everyone that, now that we’re in rehearsal, it’s important for everyone to behave well in order to remain in the group and have consistent attendance.  We wrapped up playing a few games and left feeling good about where we are in our process.


Session Six: Week 13



Tonight before we began, an ensemble member excitedly told me that she’d found a biography of Henry VIII and was excited about how much of the history she already knew from working on this play. She was fairly vocal about her excitement in the day room of her unit, and she said that another person in the room thought it was weird and put her down to the extent that she actually left the room crying. Another ensemble member and I reassured her that, yes, what we do and what we get excited about can seem odd to some people, but we need not let that get us down. We’re just interested in different things, and that’s okay!

During check in, one woman stated that even though we’d said we were going to try not to talk about politics, she just couldn’t keep in her fear and anger about the current political climate. The air in the room was one of trepidation – it seemed like no one quite knew what to say or do. I thanked her for her honesty and said that it’s impossible that she’s the only person in our group who feels that way. I reiterated that our group needs to be a safe space for the entire ensemble, which is why we try to eschew politics, but that some things will inevitably creep in, especially given current events. I encouraged everyone to continue to do the good work that they are doing on themselves – the goal of our program is for the people in it to become empowered, and when they do that, the positive outcomes that they experience as individuals ripple out to those around them – and that is an impact that they can all make in times that may make them feel powerless, especially being incarcerated.

We decided to continue working scenes in our circle, and the first person to volunteer asked to read the Richard/Anne scene with Kyle – but with her playing Anne, a major departure because she has a very hard time identifying with women. As this was her first time reading a female part, I asked everyone to make sure to be completely supportive – she was making herself very vulnerable and really trusting us. There were no snide comments and no giggling, and the group gave her a good amount of time in the scene before tagging her out.

We moved onto Act Four, scene four, which is long and great for this style of scene work. Nearly everyone tagged in to the scene at some point, and there was a lot of generosity in terms of the length of time each person was given in the scene. There were varying degrees of emotional commitment, but the participation was great. One hilarious moment was when a woman tagged in as Richard, then turned the page and realized the next line was the beginning of a huge monologue, turned to me and said, “No!” in mock horror. We had to pause to laugh.

That scene with Elizabeth is really something else – the group loves to work with it and discuss it. One woman who is rather quiet was particularly powerful as Elizabeth – there was something about her soft voice speaking so forcefully that was jarring and intense.

Reactions to the scene vary – some people think Elizabeth is just going along with Richard about his marrying her daughter, while others think she’s being manipulated. Everyone, however, is disgusted by the way Richard talks to her – we were particularly revolted by the idea of replanting her dead sons in her daughter’s womb. The phrase “nest of spicery” appears to be the new “Twerks-berry,” and we riffed on that for a while. All in all, we are aghast at Richard’s choices in this scene – who talks like this? It will be interesting to continue to work on once we’re cast.

We took some time to talk about that casting process before we left. We’ve decided to try yet another method – this year, I will be pulling sides (short pieces of scenes) from the play and providing them to the ensemble in packets to study. Everyone will let us know how they prefer to be cast (at least three roles to try to avoid total disappointment), and then after two weeks or so, everyone will audition and vote anonymously.

I’m hopeful that this will work well. The first three seasons, we were able to cast just by discussing things as a group, but in season four that didn’t work well and led to some infighting and tension. Last year’s pseudo-auditions (really just more circle scene work) and anonymous voting were undermined by some behind-the-scenes politicking, which again led to problems. We’ve asked that no one campaign for themselves or anyone else this year to try to avoid that. We’ll see how it goes!



We took some time tonight to do the first written interview of our case study. No one refused to answer the questions, but several people commented on how challenging it was – the questions are very open ended. “I don’t usually share this stuff,” said one woman after being reassured that no one will see these except for SIP staff. “You’re lucky I’m in therapy – I’m able to answer these questions pretty quickly!”

We then went through the list of characters, and everyone interested in each role raised her hand. We didn’t have much time left, then, so we played Freeze till we ran out of time.

During this game, the officer at the desk came to observe us through the window in the door. When I glanced out at her, she was laughing. One woman was the last to leave with me, and when we got to the desk, the following exchange occurred:

Officer:    I had no idea you were such a performer!
Frannie:    She is SUCH a good actor.
Inmate:    I love Shakespeare!
Officer:    Well, good job in there.
Inmate:    Maybe you can come see the play this year.
Officer:    I’d love to!

This is one of the effects we hope to achieve through our work in this program – the positive changing of prison culture, one person at a time. This officer and inmate have a new way to connect on a human (and not at all inappropriate) level, and they both feel pride in the program, which is part of their shared community. We didn’t witness or hear about interactions like this for the first few years of the program, but now that it’s been around longer, we observe more and more of this. It’s really thrilling.

Session Five: Week 32



This evening began with our Othello letting us know that, due to her shift at work, she needs to relinquish her part and take on something smaller. She doesn’t want to let the group down, and she feels that she will have too many absences to carry the role without stressing everyone out. We all expressed that we understand, although we will miss her Othello. We asked her to understudy the role, which she accepted.

Our heretofore understudy Othello then requested that we immediately make more cuts to the play so that she can get going on line memorization. We settled on a “divide and conquer” approach to the evening, with Othello, Iago, and me working on cuts, some others working in pairs on their lines, and a number of ensemble members working with Sarah on the “senate scene.”

I checked in with our new Othello prior to beginning cuts, making sure we are on the same page about keeping her emotionally safe while playing the role. She acknowledged that it may be challenging, but she feels she has a lot of life experience to bring to the role, and she is confident that she can do so without further traumatizing herself. This is her fourth play with us, and all of her roles thus far have had comedic elements; she is excited to do something completely different this year.

Meanwhile, Sarah worked with the ensemble on that senate scene. From Sarah:

We sat down to work on a Duke, Senator, Messenger, Sailor, Officer section of a scene this evening that seemed a bit dry and impenetrable. We read it through once. While nobody seemed confused about the meaning of the scene, none of us really knew right off the bat why Shakespeare put it in the play and what we were going to do to make it live for us and our audience. Our ensemble member who has been acting as a director, led discussions and really delved into the meanings with us. As we discussed the text more and more, it became clear to me that I had not really understood the fun, the purpose, and the full meaning of the scene until we all read it several times and talked it through. Our whole ensemble agreed. We realized that with Shakespeare sometimes you think you understand, but it's not until you go deep into conversation and collaboration that you get to the meat and fun of a seemingly throw-away scene. This was an exciting revelation for everyone and inspiration to speak up when we don't FULLY understand and know what our characters WANT in a scene.

This was an extremely productive evening for the group. It’s time now to buckle down, as we perform our play at the end of May, and everyone is doing a great job not only doing her own work, but encouraging all members of the team to do their best.



Most of our time this evening was put toward staging Act V Scene I, in which Roderigo and Cassio fight, Iago kills Roderigo, and Bianca is swept up in the chaos. This proved to be a challenging scene to stage, especially since we were meeting in a classroom rather than the auditorium. It is difficult for many of our ensemble members to envision how their work in the classroom translates to the stage; as a result, we did only loose blocking with the intention of firming it up on Tuesday.

As we began work on the scene, our main director asked the actors to envision the scene as Shakespeare intended: “It’s pitch black. You can’t see anything. It’s a bloody mess.” We initially staged the scene so that Roderigo and Cassio injure each other at the same time (since we don’t have much rehearsal time for intense fight choreography), but some ensemble members want to see how it works for Iago to wound Cassio instead, as many people interpret the scene. We worked together to try to keep everyone on the same page, which worked a bit better after I drew a rough floor plan of our performance space to clarify things. Eventually, though, as noted above, we decided to leave the finessing until Tuesday.

Our Desdemona was absent, so we decided to jump to the part of Act V Scene ii with just Othello and Emilia, after Desdemona’s murder. There are still varying interpretations of Emilia here, and the ensemble member playing the character tried to take it all in.

Why, I asked, does the scene move so quickly, with shared lines? Why does Shakespeare leave so little room for Emilia to silently process what’s happening? “You’ve figured it out, it’s running through your head, but you still don’t believe it,” said one woman.

We then talked about how Othello threatens Emilia toward the end of this section, and she’s seemingly fearless. Why doesn’t she cave to his threats? And why doesn’t Othello immediately take her out? “Othello’s not a murderer,” said one ensemble member. “He murdered his wife, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna murder everyone.”

Our Emilia has a tendency to rush her lines, but when she moved quickly through this scene (not just picking up on cues, but rushing her lines internally), it didn’t work too well. “Shakespeare gives you lots of punctuation when he wants you to slow down and breathe,” I reminded her. “So if your instinct is to rush, but the playwright is telling you not to, you need to figure out why that is and how to make it work for you.” She is going to work on this.

We are in a good place to finish our blocking of the play next week, following which, our plan is to start over at the beginning, smoothing things out and plugging in our new Othello.

Session Five: Week 29



Tonight we focused on Act IV Scene ii, in which Othello verbally abuses Desdemona, she asks Iago for help, and Iago plots with Roderigo to kill Cassio. We took some time to read and discuss the scene before putting it on its feet.

We tried using a chair in the scene in a few ways, including Othello circling Emilia as she sat in the chair, which felt like an interrogation and was very interesting. We also decided to try the scene two different ways – one in which Emilia has no idea that Iago is to blame for what is happening, and one in which she does know. After we saw how it works when she doesn’t know, we had some discussion. “I think she has some idea,” said one ensemble member. “It’s like when you say something about someone to see how they react, to see if it’s true.”

Our Othello had played the scene in a quiet, sad way, and we asked her to bring some more anger and frustration to what she was doing, as this scene is the follow up to one in which Othello physically abuses Desdemona in front of others – he is really unraveling. Sarah suggested that Othello plant more and move less.

In our second go at the scene, Emilia and Iago ended up on either side of Desdemona, with Emilia shouting over her head. It was interesting to see what happens when Emilia knows that her husband is manipulating the situation, but the group was still torn. “If there was ever anyone who did things obviously in my face and I didn’t see it, it was my husband,” said one person. Our Emilia decided to try to split the difference next time we work on the scene.

We then talked a bit about Desdemona in this scene – why she comes in with hope and leaves with none. “I think any person would take a slap better than being called a whore,” said one woman. “Words hurt much worse.”

Another ensemble member agreed. “The sting from a slap goes away. The sting from words lasts a long time.”




When we arrived this evening, we were told that our Desdemona has gotten into a program that precludes her involvement in ours. We discussed what to do about replacing her, and since there were four people interested, all of whom are newer to the group, we decided to have them audition. We chose the scene we worked on at our last meeting, and made sure that everyone understood the material before they auditioned.

The group was very encouraging of all four women, who all gave intelligent and emotional readings. Our Othello, in the meantime, got to have a lot of rehearsal on the scene. She became more and more confident in expressing her character’s frustration, sadness, and rage. “I was afraid of her,” said one woman who was auditioning. “She makes it easy to play the part.”

Another woman who auditioned did so as her first time ever being on stage. She used her nerves to fuel Desdemona’s confusion, and it worked beautifully. The other two women auditioning likewise were wonderful to watch. “She acted like she’d been abused by him before,” said one woman.

We asked the four of them to leave the room so we could discuss. It proved difficult to make a decision; we truly enjoyed all four interpretations. We also asked our Othello with whom she had felt the most connected. The discussion was open, honest, and respectful. We narrowed it down to two women, choosing a short monologue of Desdemona’s for them to memorize and bring in on Tuesday, when we’ll make our final decision.

When the four came back into the room, we let them know all of this, and the two who were not chosen seemed to take it well, although they were obviously disappointed. This felt like casting sessions in previous years that had been open and respectful, and I hope we can bring that feeling back to our first casting session next year rather than voting anonymously, which we thought would be helpful but didn’t end up being a better option.

At the end of the session, our Montano announced to the group that she would rather be a director than perform, and that she wants one of the newer ensemble members to play her role. Everyone was open to that, and as soon as we settle on a Desdemona, we’ll plug everyone else in.

Session Five: Week 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.