Session Five: Week 39



Tonight was our first performance. Everyone arrived with wonderful, positive energy. Several of them remarked that they were surprised not to feel very nervous, while others were buzzing with nerves. We all worked together to set up props, costumes, our set pieces, and the sound equipment.

As we gathered to bring down our ring, we all spoke aloud the energy that we were putting into it. Teamwork. Fun. Positivity. Confidence. Strength. And on.

Our audience stuck with us through the entire performance. In the past, audience members have sometimes left early, but not this year. Although the play didn’t always go exactly as we planned, our audience’s reactions were proof that they recognized the hard work being done; the challenge undertaken; the power of the ensemble to buoy each other through any mistake. We received a loud standing ovation at the play’s end.

The hiccups in performance were sometimes obvious, and sometimes not. The ensemble banded together to make it through, even when lines were skipped, or the audience laughed at a serious moment, or an entrance was missed, or a prop was off stage when it should have been on.

We have had challenges in the last few months with casting and attendance of those playing the lead characters, and so parts of our play are definitely under-rehearsed. That didn’t stop us from plowing through them, faking it when we had to, and feeding people lines and blocking from the wings.

Even with these challenges, or perhaps because of them, the performance is an important part of our process. If the performance had been perfect, there would have been fewer opportunities to “save” one another, which affirms the trust we’ve put into every member of the ensemble.




For the past few years, we’ve always performed in back to back meetings, with no opportunity to debrief in detail between performances. This year, though, due to scheduling conflicts in the auditorium, we are not able to perform on Fridays. The group decided to meet between performances, and tonight was one of those nights.

As people arrived, they shared the positive reactions we had gotten from our audience. One woman remarked how amazing it was that our audience stayed through to the end. Another shared that people to whom she spoke said that even when they didn’t understand it, they enjoyed it – and, she said, “It was the little mistakes that made it for them.” Someone had said to her, “At first I didn’t understand, but then I started to get it.”

Our Othello shared that although she had been so nervous the week before, prior to and during the performance she didn’t feel nervous at all. “I was totally mellow,” she said.

In private conversation before most people were there, a longtime ensemble memberhad shared with me and another longtime member that she felt the performance was “horrible,” and she felt that after nine months it should have been better. I asked her if maybe using a less inflammatory word would serve her better. I said that I didn’t feel it had been horrible – that it had been “messy,” and that that had its own value in terms of the many opportunities it provided for us to problem solve together. She agreed that perhaps another word would be better.

A third longtime ensemble member had overheard this conversation, and during our group discussion suggested that using words like “horrible” can be hurtful to people and perhaps disrespectful. The woman who had used that word jumped in, stating that she was entitled to her opinion and should be able to be honest about it.  “You can be honest and use different words,” the first woman said, but unfortunately things escalated very quickly and the two began snapping and yelling at each other. At a certain point I was able to make my voice heard, suggesting that this was not constructive and needed to stop.

The group then addressed the messiness of the performance. The bottom line, most people felt, is that we did our best, and our audience enjoyed it. “If you do your best and put the work in,” said one woman, “You’ll get better results each time.” Kyle reminded the group that the performance is the tip of a very big iceberg – that the nine-month process has been extremely meaningful, and that’s where our focus should be.

Another woman said, “It’s no secret that if we were in a Broadway show, we’d all be fired.” We all laughed. “But we’re not,” she continued, “And I consider it a successful disaster. There’s not much we get to enjoy, but we did that and can be proud of it.” She then shared with us that a particularly ornery woman who “enjoys nothing” told her that she had enjoyed the show. “We did that,” she said again. “It was our disaster.”

Another woman said jokingly, “All I know is I brought a sword to the sword fight this time.” Everyone laughed.

“You know,” said one woman who was new to the group this year, “Last year when I saw the show, I forgot I was in prison for awhile. You could have screwed up all day, and I would have felt like I wasn’t here. Don’t be hard on us or on each other.”

Our Desdemona reminded us all that, with all of the mistakes, there had been moments of undeniable power. “The slap brought people almost to tears,” she said, stating that a woman to whom she spoke said she “felt like she really had been there, as a woman.”

We distributed and took an end-of-year survey, following which the woman who had a problem with the use of the word “horrible” stood up and informed me that she wouldn’t be coming back. I asked her if I could speak with her in the hall. She agreed. I encouraged her to share everything that was on her mind. She and the woman with whom she’d had the spat have a history, and although they are both dedicated to the group, they rarely speak – and when they do, it tends to be contentious. I reminded her that none of us are perfect and all of us are growing; that I understood why she had a problem with that word, but that I had already spoken to the woman who said it about adjusting, and that that’s a learned skill.

They are both truly valuable to the ensemble, and I reminded her of that. I said that there are likely to be people whom one doesn’t like in any working environment, and while these two don’t have to be friends or even like each other, we need to find a way for them to be civil. She agreed, said she would be back Tuesday, and left for the evening.

I came back in to the group playing improv games, which was a great way to dispel the tension that the argument had brought on. The woman who felt the performance was “horrible” approached me at the end of the meeting. “Do you think I handled myself well?” she asked. “Come on,” I said, smiling, “You know you didn’t.” She asked me why I hadn’t stepped in earlier, and I told her that since the two of them were yelling and interrupting each other, they couldn’t hear Kyle and me at first. I had essentially the same conversation with her that I had had with the other woman. I also spoke more with her about semantics – that one doesn’t have to “sugarcoat” criticism, but can find ways to express honest opinions that aren’t hurtful.

“I’m going to think on this. I’m still learning,” she said. And she really is – she’s come a long way in four years, which I told her. But we all still having some growing to do.

Session Five: Week 36



We split up into groups again this evening, with people branching off in groups of two to work on lines, while a few of us continued scene work on stage. We began by reading the “give me the handkerchief” scene in chairs at a table, but soon our Othello was so moved that she had to get up out of her chair and hover over our Desdemona. “I couldn’t help it,” she laughed afterward.

We worked together on blocking the give and take of the scene, finding that our Desdemona has some fight in her, and trying to find the balance between that spunkiness and fear of this new side of her husband. When should she shy away, and when should she be bolder? “Follow her like it’s a dance,” advised a longtime ensemble member.

We continued our work, and as the scene began to make sense to our Othello in the context of the play’s arc, she began literally jumping up and down with enthusiasm. “It’s clicking – I get it,” she said excitedly. And, indeed, her work was so strong and powerful that it caused many of our group members who had been working on lines to fall silent, watch, and then applaud.




Tonight we took pause to try to figure out what to do now that our Lodovico has left the group. The conversation meandered into our Othello mentioning that it seems like the previous Othello has worked out the time conflict she had, and it might be a good idea to give her the role back. The Othello who had taken on the role has a lot going on outside of the group – she is in other groups and classes, and she writes on her own. She has been concerned that she will not be able to give the part her all due to these other commitments, but has also been very firm that she will do it if it’s what the group needs. She now was wondering, though, whether it might not be better to switch back.

The woman who previously played the role stated that she’d successfully changed her shift at work and would do anything to take the role on again. She has missed playing the part and believes she can do it justice with the time we have left.

A longtime ensemble member stated her disbelief that we are talking about switching up the main character three weeks out from our first performance. Unfortunately, this led to a verbal altercation between her and our Othello, who thought her commitment to the group was being called into question. Some hurtful things were said; it was not a constructive exchange. But another longtime ensemble member stepped in, acknowledging that we’re all under a lot of pressure, but it seems like the best solution is for the first Othello to step back into the role.

Things calmed a bit then. One of the women who’d had the argument left early, I presume to cool off. Kyle and I both spoke with the other, who agreed that she hadn’t handled things well and apologized to the group for it.

All that said, we got some really solid work done. We finally staged the “drunk” scene, and our Cassio’s work was truly beautiful. She has dealt with the loss of her reputation and feels the scene poignantly, and she’s doing very well drawing on her own experience without re-traumatizing herself.

We also got started on Act III Scene I, but ran out of time to finish it. It’s where we’ll pick up on Tuesday.

We are thrilled to have been given permission to rehearse together on our final two Thursdays before the first performance. I think we’re all breathing a sigh of relief to have five extra hours of rehearsal. Even though there was a confrontation tonight, and I hope it will have a better resolution on Tuesday, the group quickly moved on from it and did not waste time continuing their invigorating work on the play. It’s always an honor to be a part of this process.

Session Five: Week 13



We began tonight by watching the Go Further video that was made about our program. We watched it several times (it’s brief!). I asked the group what they thought about it and how it made them feel.

“I think it conveyed a powerful message about this group and what we do here… I think it really humanized us as prisoners and it de-stigmatized prison as just ‘corrections,’” said one woman.

“I felt overall it was pretty cool – there are very few people out there who take a moment to find out what we’re really about,” said another.

“I get a lot of woman empowering from it. It made me want to stay in this class. I get a lot of doubt… I get that fear of performing, but watching that was empowering,” was another comment.

“It gives our moms and people at home some hope, knowing that their children can get help and find something they like when they’re here,” said another ensemble member.

At this point, we circled up to check in with each other. A few ensemble members shared some personal difficulties they are having, and some tears were shed. We made sure to be supportive, and thanked them for being honest with us, as it helps us to be more sensitive. One person mentioned that she had been having a bad day during our last session, much of which was a group discussion, and she wished she’d told us so that she could have been a more constructive part of the conversation.

After we lowered the ring, in the midst of determining what to do with the rest of our time, a member of the group threw down her book and left, extremely upset. After our initial confusion, we determined that there had been a miscommunication between her and someone else in the group that led her to believe that we were talking about her in a negative way when she wasn’t there to “defend herself.” This is not at all what happened, but the way it was phrased to her, with no context or further explanation, led to her feeling unsafe and upset. We all could understand that, and we spent a good deal of time trying to help the person who made the comment to understand what her alternatives might have been. The conversation got quite heated, and a number of ensemble members left to “cool off,” stating that they would be back on Friday.

In the end, I hope that the person who was upset will be open to an explanation of what actually occurred when she was absent and the unfortunate phrasing that the other group member used to tell her about it. I also hope that the latter person will reflect on what happened and learn from it. We can certainly make our space safe again, but it’s going to take work on each ensemble member’s part to get there. 





Meeting on the day after Thanksgiving was something we knew would present challenges, as it coincides with a visiting day. We were expecting facilitators to get through security a little late, and for a number of group members to be absent due to visits. Both of these things were true, so it was a smaller, shorter meeting than usual, but it was productive nonetheless.

During our check-in, we revisited the issue of how long this part of our routine sometimes takes. We decided to further emphasize that this is a time to share important personal updates (both positive and negative), and not a time for small talk or goofing around.

The woman whose comment caused an ensemble member to leave last time, leading to a discussion that made many people upset, apologized to the group. I asked her if she wanted to say anything else, and she said no. No one wants to keep discussing this, but we decided that we’re going to have to revisit it once more when more people are present to be sure we’ve all learned from the experience. I reiterated to all that, while being defensive in prison is natural, in our group we must trust each other and believe that we are all inherently good – we need not read things into people’s comments and actions, but take what we’re told at face value.

We decided to play a bit to loosen up and start the process of re-establishing our safe space. We played a couple of games, the second of which led us to do some pretty silly and outrageous physical actions. It didn’t totally work, though, because one ensemble member didn’t fully commit. I asked her why, and she said that she’s uncomfortable being silly – more uncomfortable than dealing with the vulnerability that comes with some of the darker themes in our play. We talked about pros and cons of being uncomfortable in a theatre game – what’s the worst that could happen, and what’s the best? I mentioned a quote from John Patrick Shanley that Kyle shared with us a few weeks ago: Theatre is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done. We all assured her that she can let loose with us – we’re doing the same.

This bled into a conversation about how our perspectives on art change over time. “When art makes you uncomfortable, it’s doing its job,” said one woman. One woman said she’s been having a hard time recently dealing with racist themes and language in movies she grew up watching – she sees all of that differently now. She sees herself as a representative of her people (she’s a woman of color), and that feeling puts a lot of pressure on her “not to make a mistake.”

I asked if she had ever considered whether Othello might feel the same way. How much would a similar feeling drive him, both in the play’s back story and in the play itself? He is written to be the only person of color in the play – maybe the only person of color some of these characters have ever seen. How intense must the pressure to perform, to find a way to be respected, be? One woman mentioned that we’ve all felt that way to a certain extent – even those of us who are not cultural minorities have felt pressure as the only woman in a group of men to somehow perform better than they expect us to.

With this new perspective, we put part of Act I Scene III on its feet with our “freeze” approach. We decided to focus on Othello’s monologues. When we got to Desdemona’s entrance, we stopped.

“Othello is smart,” said one woman. “He uses what they think of him to his advantage. When you approach something in the right way, you get what you want.” The rest of the group nodded – we agreed with this assessment. Considering Othello’s status as an outsider will almost certainly be of great concern moving forward.

We raised our ring back up with a feeling of having begun to move on from a very rocky time. There was still an undercurrent of tension, though, as the woman who apologized at the beginning of our meeting chose not to participate in anything we did, either physically or verbally. I’m not sure why she made that decision, but I’m hoping when we meet next week she’ll be more comfortable doing the work with the rest of us.

Session Five: Week 12



We continued on with our “Freeze” style of scene exploration tonight, beginning with Act IV Scene II. After our first time through, I asked what we had learned. “We’re getting better at it,” said one woman. “We’re giving each other more time to play, but we’re also taking the time to feel out each other’s energy. We’re slowly getting better.”

“I’m trying to read all the parts,” said another woman, “But I also want other people in there.” Sarah responded that that sentiment is both generous and brave – to know that, however much we as individuals want to get up every single time, it’s best for the ensemble if we encourage others to do so as well.

Kyle had gone in as Desdemona for part of the scene, and we asked him how that felt. We had all agreed that, since we all take each other seriously playing men, we shouldn’t have an issue taking Kyle seriously if he read a female character. “I felt vulnerable playing Desdemona,” he said. “I felt… embarrassed in front of you guys, which surprised me.” Everyone reassured him that he had no reason to be embarrassed – that we enjoyed his interpretation of Desdemona and welcomed him to continue to read the women in the play if he wants to.

“I know what you mean, though, about feeling embarrassed,” said one woman. “I haven’t read any female characters, and I don’t think I’m going to. I know I’m a woman and everything, but I feel more like a guy, and I know how you feel, Kyle. It’s hard to explain, but it’s hard for me, and I feel really vulnerable and embarrassed, too, when I play a woman. I know I can do anything I put my mind to, but…” The ensemble made sure she knew that we will never “make” her doing anything she’s uncomfortable with – if she only wants to read the male characters, no one has a problem with that.

We continued to talk about how Kyle being male changes the dynamic for us at times. “It changed things when I played the Bianca scene and was yelling at Kyle as Cassio,” said one woman. “When it’s all women, no matter what, I always know it’s all women. You can’t get much closer to a man than Kyle,” she joked, and we all laughed. “But it brought up different feelings from when I play scenes with other women.” Kyle mentioned that he’s been hesitant to read Othello in the abusive scenes, and, while many members of the group hadn’t thought about how it might change things for a man to read those lines in our group setting, they said that they appreciated his concern and agreed that it’s best that he continue not to (potentially) rock the boat in that way.

We talked a bit about the end of this scene, in which Iago convinces Roderigo (with ease) to kill Cassio. We’re interested in how this relationship evolves, and how Roderigo gets to this point. “If someone you know is going further than you normally would, you’re likely to go further, too. What seemed outrageous now isn’t,” said one woman. “Roderigo has now invested so much that he can’t walk away from this plot,” said another woman. “He’s in too deep.”

We did the scene this way again, this time challenging ourselves to stay in a “ready” posture while seated, trying to breath with each other and sustain the emotional energy of the scene. We were very successful at this, and it was invigorating. “It’s so entertaining,” said one woman, “I love how everyone has a different perspective on these characters, but it still flows.” We talked specifically about the different takes on Desdemona we saw – one woman focusing on her sweetness, her innocence, and another taking a more earthy, aggressive approach. “I see Desdemona as a strong woman,” that ensemble member said. “She’s loving, but she has a voice.”

We moved on to Act IV Scene III, most of which is an intimate scene between Desdemona and Emilia. It took quite awhile for anyone to tag out the two women who were up first – we were quite taken with what they were doing, and no one wanted to interrupt. I asked, afterward, how they felt. “I felt helpless,” said the woman who read Emilia. “I would be really uncomfortable if this was real. I’m just not that nurturing, I guess. I’d want to make her leave – I’d want tie her up and drag her away, but I can’t… I couldn’t do enough. I wasn’t doing enough.” Interestingly, though she felt so intensely uncomfortable, the way she played the scene was totally believable to all of us – we loved her take on it and thought that perhaps Emilia is extremely uncomfortable in the scene.

The woman who read Desdemona said that she felt helpless in the scene – that all she wanted was for Othello to believe her, and she couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t. “I’m in my own little world,” she said, “They’re in the scene together… but they’re not in the scene together.”

“It’s really uncomfortable as an audience member,” said one woman. “You just want to make it stop.”

We talked more about the two women, alone in this scene. Is Emilia venting; projecting her own experiences onto Desdemona? And what about Desdemona? Is she capitulating here? Is she weak? Or is it more complicated than that?

“She’s preparing to finish this out with her husband,” one woman said adamantly. “She knows that in the end there will only be truth… And that her dying is how that truth will come out. She’s preparing herself for death. If you know you’re about to die and you prepare yourself in an honorable way, that’s strong. In her ‘weakness,’ she is strong.”

Others feel Desdemona is dying for love, or sacrificing herself to free Othello from his jealous “madness.” Still others feel that she’s just completely broken at this point and can’t fight anymore. As with so many meetings of our group, we ended acknowledging that all of these differing interpretations hold truth, and no matter where we land, we are not likely to be unanimous in our interpretation. But that’s something we all value about what we do, and, of course, about these plays.




At the beginning of tonight’s session, an ensemble member shared with me that she and a few others were having some challenges in the group – things they perceived to be going on that undermined our feeling of ensemble. I asked her to consider an open circle conversation rather than continuing to let any ill feeling fester – these are always challenging conversations to have, but we do better when we “air grievances” in a constructive way than when we try to ignore them.

This led to a very long conversation, which was constructive at some times and not so much at others. There are some members of the group who have more experience with peaceful conflict resolution than others, and we kept coming back to our core values: listening, respect, and open communication. Things that had been done or said by some were revealed to have had different intentions than what came through, and we agreed as a group that we need to work toward taking people at their word when they tell us that we misinterpreted their words or actions. We also agreed to continue to work on the words we choose to use with one another in moments of heightened emotion, to try very hard not to interrupt, to be conscious of ways in which our behavior (down to posture and facial expressions) might be misinterpreted, and to be open to constructive criticism from the ensemble.

As the conversation appeared to run out of steam, and we began trying to figure out how to transition, one woman nudged another and said, “Do it.” The second woman said, “Oh, no, I don’t know.” Well, that intrigued all of us – what was going on here? “She memorized Emilia’s monologue,” the first woman said. “I want her to do it for the group.” We all cheered this on, but the second woman blushed and said she was too nervous. “I’ll do it if you will!” I volunteered. This helped motivate her to get up and do the monologue. As she did, the energy in the room shifted. We were all with her, 100%, as she struggled to find lines and land intentions. When she finished, we burst into applause. “I messed up so much!” she said. “It doesn’t matter!” we replied. We loved what she had done – learning the piece just for the sake of doing it, and then sharing it with us at a moment when we really needed a jolt of positive energy.

“Your turn,” she said, turning to me. I then did an Iago piece that I had learned for my visit several weeks ago to Shakespeare Behind Bars in western Michigan. The group gave me a lot of support for it, even though I rushed it a bit and skipped over some lines.

And this led us into what I guess I’d call a “jam,” as ensemble members encouraged each other to pop up and share whatever they wanted. One ensemble member has begun learning an Othello monologue, which she shared with us, and we loved. Kyle shared his “go-to” Shakespeare soliloquy, while others shared pieces they’ve done in the past, and one woman shared a poem that inspires her. Still others got up and did one-person versions of scenes from movies, and others did scenes from Othello with scripts in their hands.

We checked in before we left, and some members of the group still felt uncomfortable from our conversation, but they understood why it was important to have. Kyle and I agreed as we walked out that, while the conversation itself could have been more constructive and less heated, leaving people less “put off” at the end, in the scheme of things it was beneficial simply to have the conversation. We can only get better at these skills by practicing them, and sometimes that means we fail a bit. It won’t be the last contentious discussion we need to have as a group; the hope is that the next one will go a little better.

Session Four: Weeks 39 and 40

The ensemble arrived for the final performance relaxed and completely ready to bring the process to a close. They were confident and steady, even when we became crunched for time; no one panicked because they have proved how well they work as a team to overcome such challenges. We also worked efficiently as a team to pack up all of our materials at the end and agreed to reflect in depth on the process at our wrap up meeting the next week. When Kyle and I walked into the auditorium, several women were seated around a table, ready to begin discussion. One was standing on the stage, and when she saw us, she exclaimed, “I’m sad!” She is not looking forward to taking a break this summer, but those of us who’ve been doing this for awhile assured her that taking time to rest and let our energy build back up works better than not.

While everyone said again how much they enjoyed the performances and what great feedback they’ve gotten around the prison, they were much more eager to have a constructive discussion about the program in general: what’s working well, and where we need to improve. This was a lengthy conversation, and here are a couple of highlights that particularly illustrate the dedication to and ownership of the program that this ensemble has developed:

  • Although the group is still reluctant to have a formal audition at the beginning of the session, the three-day “trial period” we introduced this fall proved problematic for several reasons. The group decided not only to prolong this phase of the program, but to put themselves “on probation” (although we are not going to call it that!) to ensure that there’s no double standard and that everyone’s in it together. We are also going to develop community expectations as a group during our first meeting so that every single person knows how she is being assessed during the trial period. With these changes, we hope that we can avoid some of the “drama” that we dealt with in the fall.
  • We all agreed that we must at least read through the entire play, even if we don’t put every scene on its feet, before we cast it – we rushed this part of the process this year because some of us were impatient to move faster, and it hurt us. We decided to cast our play in a new way – instead of a group discussion with a “blind” vote by raised hand (which has worked in the past, but not this year), we are going to figure out who will audition for each role with “sides” (like professional callbacks), and then everyone will submit a cast list by anonymous ballot, which I will tally up.

All in all, the ensemble is satisfied with the work we’ve done this season. Most of them plan on returning in the fall, and they are going to try to work on Othello in pairs and small groups as much as possible over the summer to prepare. Those who have been in the group for two or three years feel that it is growing in a positive direction, and we are all optimistic that, while we will always face challenges together, the changes we’re making going into next year will strengthen us and allow the process to go more smoothly.

Normally, this would be the final post for the season, but stay tuned for a special post tomorrow and an exciting announcement about the program very soon.

Thank you for all of your support of Shakespeare in Prison this season!