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.