Fall 2017: Weeks 3 and 4 of 10

October 17 and 20, 2017
 

We kept plowing through the play, managing to get through all of Act III in just two days! The issue of trust keeps coming up: Othello trusts Iago but not Desdemona; Cassio trusts Desdemona but not Emilia; Roderigo is too trusting of Iago; Desdemona is too trusting of Othello.

As we proceeded through this act, particularly the lengthy scene in which Iago finally puts all of the wheels into motion, people frequently reacted vocally to what we were reading, even without pausing to “translate.” It’s a testament not only to how accessible this play is, but to how deeply the men in the ensemble relate to it.

“That Iago is something else, man,” said one person. Another man nodded, saying, “He’s smooth, man. He’s playing on [Othello’s] heart.” I asked the group why they thought this scene was so long. “It keeps piling on,” said one man. “The more we add to it, the more anticipation we have for what’s gonna happen next.”

We also noted that, in reacting to Iago’s story about Cassio’s dream, Othello cares more about killing Desdemona than killing him. Why? What Desdemona did cut deeper. “Betrayal is worse than death,” said one man.

Back to Iago. What is up with this guy? A couple of men said that they had compassion for him. “He’s so complicated. But he can’t be just a sociopath,” said one of them. Not everyone agreed, and I put it out there that a case can be made for either interpretation.

And what about what Iago does to Othello? His reactions are so intense. The first thing I asked the group was why Othello seems to speak so slowly with Desdemona. “It’s the emotion of it,” said one man. “Most of the time when something happens, I’ll play it off like nothing happened, but later when I’m with her…” He made a frustrated sound. “You really have to step outside of that emotion and look at the whole picture.”

And how is he so easily manipulated? “He doesn’t have confidence in himself,” said one person. “He doesn’t investigate anything… He doesn’t feel that he deserves love.” Another said, “Now he’s seeing it and having doubts… But he’s like, ‘I’m gonna kill you if it comes out that she’s not a whore… But Iago comes back and… he’s messing with his head.”

“The only reason this works is because he has absolutely no experience with this,” said one man. The last man to speak nodded. “You can be the smartest person in the world, but when love takes over it changes everything.” And that first man replied, “Love is the most powerful thing. It’s the key to the whole universe.”

The conversation shifted to focus on infidelity, particularly the feelings that come with being incarcerated while one’s partner moves on. Highlights of this intense and rewarding discussion:

“If you’re doing a decent bit, the hardest thing is if someone tells you your girl is stepping out with someone else or leaving you for someone else… It sucks.”

“I done seen too many of ‘em go through it. I just expected it.”

All agreed that going to prison is how you find out who your real friends are.

“The hardest criminal, if he gets that Dear John letter… He goes crazy. He wants to kill himself.”

“You gotta look at it from her perspective. If she needs some guy to lean on, what’s wrong with doing that?”

The conversation started moving so quickly that I was only able to jot down themes that kept coming up rather than direct quotes. Those were:

•    This could drive anyone crazy.
•    Don’t sleep with someone I know.
•    If you do me wrong, I don’t want nothing to do with you.
•    You can’t work to make things better.
•    If you can’t support them, they’ll find someone who will.

I was waiting for a lull in the conversation when I could put it out there that all of these themes are at the core of our play, but that lull never came. Instead, an ensemble member took the words right out of my mouth. “It’s a lot of Othellos in here,” said one man. “We’ve all been Othello,” said another, and everyone nodded.

One man heaved a huge sigh. “This is very good. This is therapeutic.” Several people agreed, beginning to joke about this being like group therapy and then acknowledging that that is, in fact, what it felt like right then – and that that was a really, really helpful thing. It seems that, while they’ve nearly all had this experience, most had never had a conversation about it with another man. And they felt that Shakespeare articulated it perfectly. “Somebody’s emotions was put into this book,” said one person.

But we weren’t done! One man mentioned that if he were to play Desdemona, he’d have to put on a voice. I challenged him on that, mentioning that altering his voice would put a barrier between him and the character. He replied that she’s a woman, though. I asked the group how much they thought gender mattered to understanding these characters. Aren’t men and women equally capable of being jealous, betrayed, and abusive? Our conclusion was that we can access all of these characters, no matter our genders.

We moved on to the scene in which Othello demands the handkerchief of Desdemona when she has lost it. She continues to plead for Cassio. “This is so horrible,” said one man. “She’s making it worse, and she doesn’t even know she’s making it worse.”

So what could she have done differently? Some felt that Desdemona could have begun a conversation that would have resolved everything – possibly even to the point of blaming Emilia for the confusion because she picked up the handkerchief and didn’t return it.

One man shook his head. “There’s no way she can get back now. This was her last chance.” He further said that he didn’t think she could have begun that conversation. “It would never occur to her to cheat. And she can’t read any of the signs [of Othello thinking that].”

And what about Emilia? She is silent for most of the scene, watching, and then says a few lines to Desdemona about men eating women up and then belching them out. Some men thought that she might be jealous of the relationship between Desdemona and Othello. “But it’s falling apart,” I said as the conversation continued to dance around Emilia’s own abuse. “Could she be welcoming Desdemona into this sad sisterhood?” The group agreed that this was a possibility, but some felt that she personalizes this and takes it too far.

One man was focused on Emilia’s culpability in staying silent throughout this scene; he felt that she could have stopped the whole plot in its tracks by speaking up. I reminded him that eventually she does – but it takes seeing her friend dead to get her to that point. “But why does it take such a huge thing to make you make a change?” he asked. “Man, why did it take going to prison to get us to change?” asked another.

I gently pushed the group to delve deeper into Emilia’s motivations, reminding them that women stay in abusive relationships for all kinds of reasons. A few brought up that she could be staying silent to avoid being beaten up by Iago if she reveals him.

As the conversation drifted, one man stayed wrapped up in his book. Suddenly he interrupted us, saying, “I’ve got it. I think I’ve got it.” We all listened. “Maybe Emilia is messed up because Iago started beating on her when he accused her of cheating.” He said that this all might be so familiar to Emilia that it stops her dead in her tracks. Othello’s jealousy reminds her of her husband’s, and it immobilizes her.

There was so much wonderful insight this week. We’ve got more to do, but we’re sticking to our timeline so far without sacrificing the time we need to ponder and debate.
 

October 24, 2017
 

We took a lot of time with Act IV scene i – it is a monster, and many things unfold throughout.

We got kind of hung up on Othello’s descent into murderous rage. One man in particular was extremely frustrated and said that he thought Othello was stupid. Two other men countered by saying that he’s intelligent but not wise in the ways of the world and blinded by love.

But this man wasn’t convinced, saying that Othello doesn’t even question Iago’s integrity. This was all coming from his personal experience. “These are his most trusted people,” said one man. We all agreed that it’s easy to be set up by the people you truly trust. “There’s a beauty in trusting,” said one man. Another man added, “He has a weakness – everybody does. This is his first love.” The first man still held that Othello shouldn’t simply trust Iago. The others reminded him that Othello’s been at war since he was a child, and Iago has been his right hand man. “He always knew that Iago had his back,” said one person. “This is the first time Iago’s gone this route,” said another (John). “And he feels betrayed,” said another man. “Trust and friendship go both ways.”

Finally something clicked for the man who’d been so miffed. “Okay, I guess he’s intelligent. He’s not stupid,” he said. “It’s just when it comes to people and love, he’s weak-minded.”

The group decided then to try to put this scene on its feet to see what else we could learn. As Matt led that effort, I stepped aside to do some brainstorming and planning with two of the men. Both want to do a serious, straightforward performance – they want our audience to get everything we’ve gotten out of the play. They were concerned about the logistics of doing that, and I assured them that we would figure it out as an ensemble.

I also did some side-coaching as the scene played out, hovering nearby and encouraging the men to take their time, connect with each other, and dig deeper. I was excited by their willingness to try those things – and by one man in particular. He is a member of the “Original 12,” and when we met him at the beginning of that pilot, he was very reticent and hesitant to participate in the performance aspects of the program. With some gentle nudging, though, he ended up being an integral part of the performance. In this workshop, he has read out loud nearly every day and frequently gets on his feet to work through scenes. He’s at the point now where he is willing to take more calculated risks – stepping just outside his comfort zone to listen and take direction.

I’m really impressed by all of the work he’s done, and by how far he’s come in such a brief time. And he’s not the only one. This experience is wildly different from anything most of these men have known, and it’s inspiring to see how willing they are to dive in – to push themselves, however gently, to do something completely new.


October 27, 2017


We began today with a great improv game called “Freeze.” The guys were absolute naturals, and we had a lot of fun before settling in to work Act IV scene i on its feet again (which all of the men who participated last time felt was important).

We talked a bit about how to keep ourselves emotionally safe during these scenes. I returned to the “magic as if” that allows us to draw on elements of our past experiences without re-living them and re-traumatizing ourselves. There was a bit of hesitation. I asked if they wanted me to give it a go to sort of break the ice, and they liked that idea.

It’s a long scene, and one that I’ve never before explored as Othello. For as much time as I’ve spent with this play, I’ve never understood the character the way I do now – his emotional and physical disorientation that allows him to be taken in by the Cassio/Bianca trap, the absolute horror of seeing the handkerchief handled by a prostitute and thrown on the ground, and the rage resulting from all of that. By the time Desdemona entered, I knew for certain that there was no coming back, and I felt Othello’s impulses get the better of him as I listened to her plead for Cassio, and I didn’t need to reach for any motivation to strike her. It was unnerving, but it wasn’t dangerous. And I wasn’t the only one who made discoveries about the scene.

The man who’d previously been so frustrated by Othello’s gullibility said, “Now I see Othello’s not weak-minded – Iago’s just a master manipulator.” He paused. “I was caught up in what I would do. This is not me at all… But had that been me, I probably would have done the same exact thing in these circumstances.”

We returned to the theme of how implicitly people trust the friends who’ve been through any kind of war with them – military or not. And this is part of Iago’s anger over being betrayed by Othello. He loves Othello.

And he wanted that promotion. One man began, “It’s not just a position –" “It’s his life,” finished another. “It’s just like Cassio,” said a third. “It’s reputation.”

Things are rolling along, and the men are becoming more and more attached to and excited by the play. They’ve brought what they have to the process, and while they frequently surprise themselves, I’m simply thrilled. Every time a discovery is made – every time a parallel is drawn – I fall more in love with the process. The men count themselves lucky to be a part of this program, and so do I.

Fall 2017: Weeks 1 and 2 of 10

October 3, 2017

 

It was so, so good to be back at Parnall after a two-month hiatus! Even though I wasn’t there for all of our two-week pilot in July (links to reflections below!), I was present enough to be totally enthralled with the work of that group – “Shakespeare Unchained” or “The Original 12” – and was eager to work with them again, and, of course, to welcome in some new folks! Unfortunately, scheduling hasn’t allowed Kyle to join us this time around, but I’m accompanied by two other wonderful facilitators, Matt Van Meter and Patrick Hanley.

From the moment people started coming into the chapel today, the excitement was palpable. Those of us who’d worked together over the summer were ecstatic to see each other again, and before too long we’d infected everyone else! We spent some time goofing around with theatre games and getting to know each other using the Three Questions that have become a ritual at the women’s prison whenever new people join the ensemble:

What brings you to Shakespeare?
What do you hope to get out of this experience?
What is the gift that you bring to the ensemble?

There was some good-natured ribbing as we went around the circle answering, including some inside jokes among the Shakespeare Unchained guys. Again, all of this humor spilled over to the new members, and before we knew it no one was holding back.

We jumped into the first scene of the play we’ll explore for the next 10 weeks: Othello. Already, we’ve identified some key themes:

Treachery (people acting one way while feeling another)
Betrayal
Deception
Sex (yep, we’re totally going to go there in a professional manner – we have to with this play)
Jealousy
Opportunism
Ambition
Manipulation
Rhetoric (the art of persuasion!)
Racism/prejudice
Disgrace
Otherness

Some of the men in the ensemble brought detailed knowledge of history, and empire collapse in particular, to bear on the conversation. They have clearly done a LOT of reading, and it was exciting to learn from the parallels they drew. And it didn’t stop with history – they found parallels to their own lives. “It’s like the politics in prison,” said one of them. “This transcends time – the prejudice, the fears… [regarding foreigners; others; etc.] The thing that’s keeping your empire up, you start to fear.”

A new member of the group who is quite young beamed, saying, “I’m hooked in. I’m not gonna lie.” And we left even more pumped up than we were when we arrived.

 

October 6, 2017

 

Some new people joined the group today, and Patrick joined us for the first time, so we played another name game. And then – no nonsense: the ensemble wanted to sit down and get back to the play.

But a fair number of people had either not been present or had had to leave early from our first meeting. We decided to catch them up by putting Act I scene i on its feet. Two guys from the pilot jumped in, as did one of the new guys, who pulled two others to their feet to act in non-speaking roles. It was a great reading. No one hesitated over the language, even when stumbling a bit, which I’m sure provided some relief to new members intimidated by it (this is a normal component of SIP’s work).

We discussed the scene a bit afterward, and one member raised his hand, still looking at his book. He brought up the following passage:

Brabantio:
Call up my brother. – O, would you had had her!
Some one way, some another. – Do you know
Where we may apprehend her and the Moor?

“I’m looking at the dashes, and I’m thinking he’s not just talking to one guy – he’s going from person to person. He’s turning and talking to them – he’s really upset.” That is seriously advanced analysis, and it’s coming from someone who has clear challenges reading the text aloud (although this does not stop him by any means). It shows – as we’ve seen over and over again – that there is nothing about this stuff that is inaccessible. We all bring what we’ve got to it. And our instincts are generally pretty good.

“So, what do we get out of this scene?” I asked. “They ain’t playing no games,” said one person. “Iago is a hothead,” said another. One man said he felt as if Roderigo is a “persuasive antagonist.” And then that new member who’d read in the scene mused that the whole thing reminded him of Hannibal the Conqueror and the downfall of empires – he believed that the prejudice against Othello has more to do with culture than with race. There was general agreement with that.

We moved on to Act I scene ii, in which Brabantio confronts Othello. This time, there was no interest in sitting and reading – some of the guys immediately leapt to their feet. It was a great read, followed by an insightful (albeit brief) conversation. “You coulda not done nothin’ wrong and still get burned,” observed one person. And, regarding Brabantio, another man said, “He has a public image, so any negative effect to his family is a negative effect to him.” We definitely know these people.

We were moving quickly and still had time to go over the next scene, in which Othello and Desdemona defend their marriage to Brabantio and the Senate, and we get a sense of the war that’s on. It was already clear that two guys in particular were drawn to Othello and Iago.

We made sure we’d gotten the information we needed out of the scene – Othello’s military background, the story of his and Desdemona’s wooing, and Brabantio’s reaction. We noted that Desdemona seems to have been more aggressive in the courtship than Othello. We know why she falls in love with him – the tales of his exploits excite her tremendously – but what draws him to her? “He’s been a solider since he was seven, right?” said one of the men. “So Desdemona’s nurturing brings him in because he’s never been nurtured.” Another man agreed, saying, “Opposites attract.”

Iago came up again (of course!). “I’ve came across a lot of Iagos in my life,” said one man. Everyone agreed. “I still know some now,” said one person.

One man drew attention to Brabantio’s final couplet:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see.
She has deceived her father, and may thee.

“That’s planting the seed for the rest of the play,” he said.

The conversation meandered to focus on the racism in these first scenes. Most characters seem fixated on Othello’s blackness, but not Desdemona or the Duke. “Why not the Duke?” I asked. We mused about how, in the military, it doesn’t matter what someone looks like if he’s saving your life. “The military do break racial tension,” said one man. “All you see is green – no black, white, Asian – none of that.”

But why not outside of the military, several of us pondered. “When you’re comfortable, you got think to think about all that,” said one man. Another added, “Until you get around ’em and get to know ’em, you won’t know how to act around ’em.”

And then one man shook his head and beamed at us. “This is amazing,” he said. “Six months ago I coulda never seen myself doing nothin’ with Shakespeare – or having it even pique my interest. Even though the language is so far from what we know, it’s still relevant. It hits on your life experiences.” We all agreed. He said he’d been eager to get outside what have been the norms for his entire life. “And from where I’m from,” he said, “This is outside the norm.”

“Life is life,” said another man. “I guarantee you, you done been some of the same stuff… Shakespeare was hitting on some issues that’s just a part of real life.”

Like manipulation, a few people said. It’s so real in this play. “Manipulation is something else,” said one person. “You would almost think it is magic… Manipulation is a powerful thing. It will make you kill somebody.”

 

October 10, 2017

 

I honestly was having so much fun today that I didn’t take nearly enough notes!

We proceeded to finish Act I, scene iii, in which Iago manipulates Roderigo to help him put his plan into action. “Why is he doing this?” I asked. “Misery loves company,” said one man. “He’s gotta keep his hands clean,” said another.

And we dug deeper: how is Iago manipulating Roderigo? This is key because he manipulates Othello in a similar way. Several of the men said that Iago was using Roderigo’s love for Desdemona to rile him up – that he was playing on his heart. “Is it his heart?” I asked. We all looked back over the scene. “Well, he’s talking about her having sex with Othello,” said one person. “That’s gonna hurt.”

“Okay,” I said, determined to go where we need to go to fully understand this play – no holding back. “So he’s using sex to manipulate him. He’s gonna do the same thing to Othello, right?” The men who’d read ahead nodded. “Why?” I asked. “Why is sex such an effective tool of manipulation?”

The group still danced around the issue. I kept pushing them – I wanted to assure them that me being the only woman in the room does not mean we need to shy away from some of the ugliness at the heart of this play. There’s no need for any of us to be uncomfortable if we keep it all in context. “Yes, and…?” I kept probing. Finally, someone said that if someone else were putting images in his head of his wife being with someone else, it would make him crazy.

“Right!” I said. “If you’re fully consumed by lust, can you think clearly?” They all shook their heads. “You can’t,” I said, “It’s disorienting, right? So if Iago can knock them off balance with these kinds of images and thoughts, how are they going to think clearly enough to see through what he’s doing?”

One man pondered what this means about Iago – how much it has to do with his suspicion that Emilia has been unfaithful to him. “Maybe it’s something about him,” he said. “He’s taking his worst fear and putting it in other people.”

Meanwhile, I noticed that the man sitting next to me was deeply engaged with his book. “It’s great, isn’t it?” I said aside to him. “I really love this,” he said. “I feel like I found my calling.” He said he’d told his wife and kids about it, and they’re also very excited. He is thinking about finding some acting classes when he goes home and is even interested in scansion (analyzing the text to find meter and other elements). It’s delightfully nerdy stuff, and we don’t usually get into it on a group level because many people who’ve had negative experiences with school shut down as soon as you say, “iambic pentameter.” Some folks, though, get really excited about it, and we work on it together separately. He wants to do that. I am all about it. It’s so thrilling to see someone who’s been isolated and shut down light up like a firework after working with Shakespeare for just a few days.

I’m not kidding when I say that Shakespeare is magic. Whatever you need it to be, that’s what it is. Most of us need some magic. Some more than others. When you see it spark for someone for the first time – that’s magic for everyone in the room.

 

October 13, 2017

 

We got a very silly start today, playing some intense tape ball (during which the group completely liberated themselves to make good-natured fun of how bad I am at the game), a gibberish rap circle that culminated in a gibberish rap battle, and a silly theatre game.

And then we settled in to read Act II Scene iii, in which Cassio gets in a fight (orchestrated by Iago and Roderigo), is stripped by Othello of his position, and is urged to get Desdemona to plead his case by Iago. Iago also lets the audience in on the next part of his plan.

Interestingly, we didn’t go too deep with our conversation about what’s at the center of this scene: Cassio’s anguish over the loss of his reputation. We pretty much couldn’t stop talking about this part of the story when we worked on the play at the women’s prison, which is why this surprised me, but I’m still learning the differences in dynamics between women’s and men’s ensembles. It’s possible that we’ll get back to this. We’ll see.

We worked the Cassio/Iago part of the scene on its feet several times, discussing visual storytelling in theatre. Those of us who’ve done this before urged everyone to take their time and connect with one another rather than focusing on the language (which we’re all going to mess up, anyway).

We talked for a while about Iago – what the plan is, and why he’s executing it in this way. “He allows the other person to dig their own grave,” said one man. This moved into a debate about whether Iago plans ahead or is just winging it. Some think he’s just an opportunist. Others think he’s got it figured out from the get-go.

“He’s surprised that it’s as easy as it is,” said one man as another pretty much finished his sentence. “He waits for the moments to appear,” said another.

The debate continued, covering many aspects of Iago as we know him right now. “I would consider him a mastermind,” said one man, “because all of us just said something different about him that was bad.”

 


… And that’s what I’ve got for our first two weeks exploring Othello at Parnall. This ensemble is vibrant, engaged, goofy, serious, enthusiastic, and increasingly willing to “go there.” We are loving it.

More soon!  

July 2017: Pilot Program

SIP's pilot program at Parnall Correctional Facility took place over two weeks in July 2017. The ensemble, calling themselves "Shakespeare Unchained," explored Macbeth and devised an original performance piece, which was enthusiastically received by a large audience of inmates.

The pilot was led by Assistant Director Kyle Grant. Read his reflections here.

Support was provided by Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates. Read her reflections here.

Following the success of July's program, we returned in October 2017 for a 10-week workshop. We'll update this blog every two weeks or so!