Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 5 and 6

Tuesday, February 20

When we checked in today, one of the guys told us he’d been working on a scene, and one of the others had told him (good naturedly) that he shouldn’t “walk gangster.” I asked him, why not? It could be appropriate for the scene! The rest of the ensemble started ribbing him about performing it for all of us, and finally one of them offered to work with him on the side till he was comfortable.

I’ve been trying to come up with some kind of “bridge” program for this summer, before we begin our 30-week season in the fall. Time and resources are issues, but I thought I’d come up with a good solution. I asked the group if I could share my idea and welcomed them to reject or build on it. I proposed that we meet for 8-10 weeks over the summer to read, discuss, and explore a play without building to a performance at the end. I asked if they would be okay with King Lear for that, since my spring is incredibly packed, and I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to prep, and I’m already very familiar with the play.

The guys liked that idea, but then one of them said, “Hold on a sec. Why can’t we read King Lear this summer, take a break for a few weeks, and then keep going with it in the fall?” That’s when I felt it—that old, familiar sensation of the ensemble taking my decent idea and running with it. “So… you mean… You’d have a full 40-week season like Huron Valley, but with breaks on either side of the summer?” He nodded. I asked the rest of the group what they thought, and they said they liked it. It was at this point that I threw my things to the ground (I don’t know why I do this when I’m excited, but it is what it is!) and cheered, “YES! Let’s do it! Once again, the best ideas in this program are NEVER MINE! Yes!!!!”

This led to a conversation in which many of the men asked for more acting and vocal training, and we agreed to have a voice-centered workshop soon. They also shared that they want more of an emotional challenge next time. They want to explore heightened emotions. The Tempest is a lot of fun, but it doesn’t lend itself so well to that.

We went back to Act IV Scene i, which was so confusing when we tried to stage it without first reading it as a group. We worked our way slowly through, beginning after the masque (because we know we’re cutting it). We paused at Prospero’s “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves…” soliloquy. I asked them what they got out of it. One man said he got that Prospero is breaking a spell; another said it’s his thank you to the elves, et al; and another mused, “Everything’s come full circle.”

“He’s ready to give up his hateful side,” said one man. Another agreed but used the word “surrender.” A third man nodded, saying, “He almost seems tired… You can almost see this—If you’re tired of a journey, you recount what’s going on, but I’m ready to move on to the next stage… But this is what brought him here… It seems like this anger; this vengeance is eating him from the inside, and he was wasting away.” Another said, “When he sent those spirits after him, it’s like that was his last gasp of anger.” The man who’d spoken of giving up the “hateful side” added, “I’m going to make sure no one else can do what I was doing,” referencing all the trouble Prospero caused for others.

Our youngest ensemble member, who is proving to be incredibly wise, said, “All this stuff is like a chapter. He’s turning the page.” Another man agreed, saying, “If I wouldn’t have had this shit [magic] to begin with, I wouldn’t be here. I’m ready to move on.”

The interpretation of this piece that has stuck with me the most over the years is one that a woman at Huron Valley shared when we worked on The Tempest there. “I’ve heard this about a million times in AA,” she said. She spoke of Prospero’s magic being a crutch like alcohol or drugs; that he had to give up that crutch in order to heal and move forward. I shared her perspective with this ensemble, and they thought it over. We agreed that this doesn’t only apply to substances—anything at all could hold you hostage till you’re ready to let it go.

One man said, “It’s this thing, and until he buries it, he’s never going to grow. Everyone’s in their own prison.” He likened this to the challenge of young guys being locked up and then leaving prison with the same mentality they had when they arrived. Before he could say much, another man said, “Too close to home, man. Let’s stop it there.” With barely a pause, the first man changed gears, finding another way of wording his thoughts to avoid causing any pain. It was skillful and impressive. I’m not sure he knows what a challenging thing he did so effortlessly.

We read through to the end of the play, and that famous epilogue. “All this was kinda for him to be set free,” said that young ensemble member. “Everything revolved around him… He breaks his staff. At the end, he has something to say to everybody.” All agreed that this would be a good place for Prospero to break that staff, rather than when he talks about it earlier.

At this point, the man who was being prodded into doing a scene asked if he could perform on Friday instead. I said that was fine by me, the rest of the guys took me to task for letting him off the hook, and I regrouped and told him that, YES, he could put this off till Friday, but then his scene would be the first thing we did after check in. A lot of heads were still shaking, and there was still some teasing (of both him and me), but I really don’t like to push people too hard. It may already be too much. We’ll see.

Friday, February 23

Our check in today was a little subdued. One of the men opened up a bit, and it gave the others the freedom to share about something they all experience but may not always feel safe talking about. “It’s one of those days when you really realize you’re here,” he said, saying that he’s been having dreams that have nothing to do with this setting. And it’s not only dreams; all sorts of mundane fantasies can pop up and drive home the reality of where you are. Many of them (all of them?) shared that they’ve smelled food as they passed the chow hall that they know very well isn’t being cooked in there. “Mostly you just go along, but sometimes it hits you,” one man said.

We moved on to a conversation about how we are going to approach and cast the play. Several of the men have been developing an idea about Ariel being played by three people who would wear masks and share lines. “Would that confuse the audience?” asked one person. Two said that they didn’t think it would if it were done right, and they demonstrated the way they’d broken down one short speech. It was pretty cool.

One man advised the ensemble that everyone should “try to find something comical in their part.” The conversation got pretty detailed, and then I took a closer look at his script. I’d brought in one copy of a cut of this play that I directed in 2016; it ran about 80 minutes, and I wanted the guys to take a look to see if they liked it for our purposes. This seven-person group made photocopies—some of them also bound theirs—and worked together to figure a lot of this out, using highlighters to note and code things (including the breakdown of Ariel’s lines between three people).

This shows a remarkable level of seriousness and discipline. None of these folks are just sitting around; in fact, a few of them are so busy that I don’t know how they made time to do this. But this is the culture they’ve already built around their program. It is very much like what happens in SIP at the women’s prison, but it’s happened much more quickly here. I believe that that’s due not only to the drive of these particular men, but to the commitment of so many women over the past six years to figuring out what SIP is and how it works best. It’s thrilling to see all of that work providing such a strong foundation for this new ensemble.

Then the man who was supposed to perform today was reminded by all of us that that was the plan. He asked me to choose some lines for him to read, which confused me because I knew he’d been practicing something, but I humored him since he was clearly nervous. He began reading those for the group, but then stopped and shook his head, consulted with some others, and decided to do Gonzalo instead. “Do the one we’ve been practicing on!” shouted one man. He was unsure of the material and of himself—he laughed a lot—but he made it through!

We began the casting process, writing down each person who was interested in each character. Two of the men began to write on a dry erase board, but one of the markers was nearly dry. Still, the man with that marker kept trying to write. The other man kept telling him to just take his marker, but he wouldn’t do it. I’m not sure what the deal was, but he kept trying to get that marker to write, making himself (and all of us) increasingly frustrated. Finally, one of our “leaders” quietly took both markers, gestured to the first man to sit down, and calmly began the conversation over, regaining everyone’s focus and moving us forward.

When we got to Miranda, only one person volunteered. We had known that he would—he’s taking a liking to the character—but he also just found out that he may be eligible for a program that could take him out of the group prior to our performances. So we needed an understudy ready to go. “You do it, Frannie,” a few of the guys said. I reminded them that the facilitators’ role is to reserve ourselves as emergency understudies for last minute situations, not for cases when other ensemble members could compensate with planning. Still, no one volunteered.

One of the things I’ve found (so far) that is a bit different working with men from with women is that it’s sometimes more effective for me to be a bit harsh rather than gentle; I’m never mean or anything, but sometimes I can take the gloves off with this ensemble in a way that would not be helpful with the women’s. “Come on, you guys,” I said. “It’s a character in a play. She’s not a bad character.” No one volunteered. “Dude, is this because she’s a woman?” I asked. “Because that’s bullshit.” Lots of eye contact now. “It’s acting. It’s storytelling. Who cares if the gender is different from yours? Is it seriously that scary to play a woman? Why is this a problem?”

The man who’d performed earlier said, “Fuck it. I’ll do it.” I smiled and nodded. “Awesome,” I said, “Write his name down!” Then another man, who takes acting very seriously and is the definition of a team player, said, “Yeah, put me down for Miranda, too.” I thanked them for volunteering. It really did take some guts—that’s why I had to challenge them a bit. It was an opportunity for them to rise to the occasion. And they did!

We decided to hold auditions next week, but our session wasn’t yet over The plan for today had actually been to do that voice workshop, but since we got started late, we didn’t have enough time. I realized, though, that with the time we had left, we could at least look at using the iambic pentameter, scansion, and some basic projection and emphasis work. We went straight from John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare, using the first couple of lines of Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach…” monologue. Some of the men have been exploring a photocopy of the “Using the Verse” chapter, but I think only a few of them had read it in depth. After we’d scanned those lines as a group and were discussing how that would translate to performance, one of those men came over to me, copy in hand. “Do you know what we just did?” he asked. I looked down at the page and saw that the ensemble had scanned the lines exactly the way the RSC group did in that workshop. Pretty freaking cool for a group of people who, by and large, had no exposure to Shakespeare as recently as July—or, for some, January.

We were in the gym, so we propped the dry erase board up with a chair, and the guys took turns performing while being able to read the lines with the scansion we’d arrived at—and not having to hold a book. This is an AWESOME way to do this kind of work, and I’m keeping it forever!

The toughest part of this seemed to be remembering to breathe on punctuation and allow thoughts to change organically rather than rushing. There is also a tendency to back off midway through or toward the end of a phrase. We’re getting there, though. One of the men turned out to have a very powerful voice, which became even more so when others encouraged him to deliver the lines as he would if he were saying, “Mira!” out on the yard. That’s a great way to start off this monologue. I recommend it.

As more of the men took their turns, the ensemble became more and more involved, to the point where I really wasn’t! One man kept looking down, and another encouraged him, yelling, “Look at us! You gotta look at us!”

This was a lot of fun and provided a preview of the workshop we’ll be doing on Tuesday. I asked everyone to please arrive on time ready to take things seriously. The voice stuff can be uncomfortable for folks because it requires vulnerability, and obviously prison is not a place where that generally feels safe. I told everyone that there would be no hard feelings if they didn’t want to do it and left early, but that that would be the only option in order to keep the space safe for everyone else.

Tuesday, February 27

We checked in and immediately dove into our voice workshop. I guided everyone through a series of exercises from Patsy Rodenburg’s The Right to Speak: Working With the Voice, focusing on relaxation and centering. We then moved on to connecting with our breath and voices. This took a little more than half of our time. I asked everyone how they felt. Honestly, I didn’t take too many notes because leading a workshop like this requires a lot of focus, but here’s some of what was said:

How do you feel? How did that feel?

“Like it’s cleaning my chest out.”

“I didn’t want to do it. Too vulnerable.” (It really is remarkable that this man stayed and participated to the extent that he did. In order not to identify him or break confidentiality, I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that there’s no “good” reason for him to expose himself like this unless he really, truly trusted us, believed that it might be helpful, and stuck with it out of his love for the program.)


“It’s like my whole body vibrates.”


“Like it’s my real voice.”

“In actor mode… like… SHAKESPEARE!”

“I feel more confident,” one man said. Then he talked about people in his past who spoke very loudly. “In the ’hood, everybody’s voice is free.” I asked, “Really?” Another man smiled and said, “No, not really…”

One of the men asked if someone’s physical size had anything to do with the way they used their voice, and of course that answer is often yes, but it’s complicated. I shared that we’re socialized in all kinds of ways that impact our use of our own voices, and whether we own them or not. “This is why the book is called The Right to Speak,” I said. “Too many of us have been told to shut up or be quiet. But we don’t want that on the stage.”

We then spent some time with exercises for using the iambic pentameter, meshing them with the preceding voice/breath exercises. We used Prospero’s “Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves...” One man, who is a musician, said, “You know, I hate to bring it back to music again, but…” He likened the meter to parts of a scale—guideposts to help you know what you’re aiming for. Pondering the content of the monologue, one man said, “You know, he’s more powerful now [giving up power] than he was before.”

Then I asked if anyone wanted to try this out on their feet. The man who’d spoken of music volunteered. His first read was very good, and I asked him to do it again; to take his time, breathe deeply, and not back off of the build in the piece. “Say goodbye,” I said. He gave it another go, and it was much better. “It was that sense of finality… But appreciation for what was given and what allowed him to do what he did… He kind of toots his own horn.” That’s definitely a big part of it.

A couple of the others then asked a man who’d been sitting a little apart if he would try it. He rose to his feet, read, and said he felt that it hadn’t been good. “I still felt like I was just reading… I was being too technical.” I suggested that he let that go and focus just on his breath and voice, and he said, “I just… I don’t know. I think my voice is kind of broke. It’s a mixture of yelling too loud at the wrong time and smoking, I guess.” I hadn’t had much of a voice in a couple of weeks (worst laryngitis ever), and I teased him, “Oh, excuse me, your voice is broke?” He laughed. I continued, “If I’m filling the space, you can, too! Your voice is powerful!” He shook his head again. “It is!” I said. “It’s just too high in your throat right now. Bring it back down to your diaphragm and speak from there. Come on! Ho ho ho…” He did the exercise, and, BOOM, out came that voice we all knew was in there. “Listen to how powerful you are!” I said. “I feel like I’m shouting,” he replied sheepishly. Multiple people reassured him that he wasn’t. “If your throat doesn’t hurt, you’re doing it right,” I said.

And he tried it again. Now that he had the projection piece of it, I tried out an exercise to help him with emphasis, but I’d forgotten to warn him about it, and it didn’t work as well as we would have liked. At least we got that breath and projection, though. I asked him how he felt, and he said it had been weird—that he stays quiet most of the time. I grabbed the book, held it up, and said, “YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPEAK!” We all laughed, he relaxed, and we moved on to the next person.

The man who earlier had shared about how challenging this work is for him because of his (understandable) discomfort with vulnerability had been gazing intently at his script for some time, and it didn’t surprise me when one of his friends gently nudged him into giving it a try. His first performance was pretty good, but we all knew he could do better. I asked him how it had felt, and he said, “Intimidating.” I asked him why, and he replied, “You!”. We laughed, and he continued to say that it was the language as well. “We only know you messed up because you told us you messed up,” said one man, and the rest of us agreed. “We all screw up these words,” I said. “Just stick with it.” He shook his head wryly. “No, really!” I continued. “This is just like your poetry. You already know how to do this.” He said that it wasn’t the same, and I replied, “Dude, we all saw you perform that poem. Some of us saw it twice. You can’t tell us you don’t know how to do this.”

As he prepared to try it again, I asked if I could side coach a bit. He smiled and said he was scared of me, but I brushed that off and told him I was on his side. He launched into it again, but his delivery was still timid—and this man has an amazing voice. I pushed him on the language: What kind of war? How does that feel? Make us feel your power! He built and built, and then he got to the transition to, “But this rough magic I here abjure.” “Pause! Breathe!” I said from over his shoulder. He did, said, “Oh, that’s an emotional change,” and took it back to try that shift again. He ended powerfully, beautifully. We were all fired up! He said he’d felt “a surge of energy; a surge of power.” He continued, “The different ranges—the buildup… That felt good.”

“This monologue is almost like a tempest—it rises up and comes back down,” said one man.  As we parted for the day, the man who’d thought his voice was broken came up to me and shared that he might want to give this another try now that he’d seen that final man perform. He said that he hadn’t realized that the piece has three separate units, and I said that that actually was great because that is how we’re meant to learn about these plays: performing them and seeing them performed.

March 2

Check in began today with one person sharing his disappointment about something school-related. Then another man, who frequently goofs off and distracts the group, shared that the reason he left the voice workshop on Tuesday was that he’d gotten some bad news, was having an awful day, and just couldn’t do it. This was the first instance of him sharing like this, and it opened the door for others to do the same. It turned out that nearly everyone was having a rough time for various reasons. Some shared in more detail than others. One man was particularly forthright, saying that, after receiving some very bad news, he was extremely upset. “I actually sat on my bunk and cried,” he said. “I’ma deal with it, you know? But I’m a man, and I’m gonna cry.” That reminded those of us who worked on Macbeth over the summer of Macduff’s response when, after he's having that his entire family was killed, Malcolm urges him to use his grief to fight. “I will do so,” says Macduff, “But I must also feel it as a man.”

This went on for some time. At one point, a couple of people were having a quiet side conversation, and the man who had more or less given the group permission to share in this way gently called those people out and asked them to be respectful. It’s probably the most serious I’ve seen him.

There was a bit of a lull, at which point a core member said, “Because so many of us are having a bad day—I’m gonna open up. I love y’all.” No one used that word in response, but it was clear from what they said and from their body language that the sentiment was both welcome and reciprocated. They then told this man how much they admire him; that he’s “a ninja” and their inspiration. He was mildly embarrassed, but it also made him feel very good.

One man asked Patrick and me if we ever use SIP (or theatre in general) to get away from the dark parts of our lives. We shared that we sometimes do. These activities require so much focus that they give you a breather from anything else that might be going on. And that’s generally a good thing. That said, I told the ensemble that if anyone wasn’t feeling up to auditions that day, it would be fine to wait until Tuesday when they might be feeling better.

We moved over to the gym (we begin in a classroom on Fridays), where I chatted with a few of the guys while most of the others played their most focused game of tape ball yet. They even set a new high score! Then several of them asked to do The Ring, which is another first. We circled up, and one man had the idea for each of us to put the energy and/or objects we needed into the ring, which is an optional part of the exercise anyway—but we hadn’t done it yet, and he came up with this idea spontaneously. We incorporated it, taking our time and putting all sorts of things in that ring: confidence, safety, teamwork… Shakespeare, talent, discipline… glitter, barbecue, violins…

As we got ourselves organized for auditions, the sharing just kept going. I sat with the newly-serious man and another with whom I’ve definitely been bonding and looked over some pieces they might want to audition with. Nearly unprompted, that first man shared a bit more detail about what he was upset about and then talked a bit about his past. He said that, as a result of things that happened when he was young, he now doesn’t trust or believe anyone—even with things like staying in touch—because that way no one can let him down. I’m grateful that he trusted us enough to share that. It helps me understand him better.

Auditions went well, with everyone building up and encouraging everyone else. There was some brave experimentation and clever ad libbing. One man in particular, who performed Caliban’s soliloquy, made huge strides when we encouraged him to talk directly to the audience. The piece grew by leaps and bounds. “You did it, man!” said the man who’s often been a distraction. Today was so different for him.

It was a really remarkable session, particularly because of this one man's changed approach. The vibe shifted in a big way as people opened up, and, while this has felt like a strong team up till now, today it felt like a true ensemble. It’s always possible that that will change, but, based on my experience, I don’t think that’s likely. I hope that this level of honesty and trust can be maintained. All it can do is strengthen the work and the men’s ability to achieve their goals—together.

Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 3 and 4

February 6

We began today’s session by checking in again, and we still seemed to be okay with it. We decided to give The Ring a whirl, though some of the guys clearly felt a little uncomfortable about it. One of our undisputed leaders went around the circle, miming as if he were holding a basket, and asked each of us to throw our piece of the ring in. That loosened us up a bit, and we finished out the exercise.

Several of the men, who live in the same unit, asked if they could show us the work they’d been doing on Act II Scene i. That proved to be an interesting way of taking on the scene—watching people give it a try rather than reading it first. I’m not generally a fan of this approach with Shakespeare—it tends to be challenging to figure out what one should be doing without having first puzzled through the language—but I always roll with the punches when the ensemble wants to try something out.

It was clear that this group had done a lot of work on the scene, but it’s a tough one to stage—it’s a lot of talking—and I wasn’t sure what the others had gotten out of it. We generally start with feedback from the people on stage, though, so I checked in with them first. “I like Prospero,” said one of the men. “He plays the bad guy, but he’s not really the bad guy.” As we talked more about the scene, he added, “I like the bullshitters—Sebastian and Antonio are total bullshitters.” It turned out that it was his first time performing for a group, which was shocking because he’s got such a knack for this, and we gave him a hand for taking that risk.

A man who’d been watching said that he liked the back-and-forth of the scene. “It’s like normal conversations,” he said, commending the men who’d read for doing a good job of conveying that.

Most of the men were pretty quiet, though. I asked them if any had drifted while watching—that if they had, it probably wasn’t the fault of the actors, and they shouldn’t feel bad about saying so. It turned out that many of us had. I reassured the men who’d read, again, that it wasn’t anything they’d done or hadn’t done—that this scene is just a LOT of talking with very little action, and it’s tough for contemporary audiences to stay focused on scenes like that.

One of the men, who was in the Othello ensemble, talked about how they need to really commit to their acting when performing in front of other inmates. That’s a very tough thing for many of them to do. “If you’re doing something and you don’t have no fear, it’s not even worth doing it,” said one man. The first man continued, “These guys [audience], they come from the streets—they have street smarts. They know when someone’s not being real. They know when that laugh is fake or that thing you said wasn’t for real.”

“We wear a mask every day,” said one man. Many of the men nodded, agreeing with him. The man who’d spoken of commitment continued, “Everybody wears a mask.” He gestured toward facilitator Matt and me, saying, “Sometimes I think these two do when they come in here.” He added, “When I used to sell drugs, when I’d talk to a skateboarder, I’d talk one way. With a homeboy, I’d talk a different way.” The first man chimed in, saying, “Every situation you jump into, you put on a uniform. That’s your mask.” A third man said, “It’s a set of skills,” and all agreed with him.

That first man brought it back around. “Doing Shakespeare, I’m nervous as hell. I’m sure we all were. But you gotta use that mask of confidence to get through that fear and nerves. Ain’t nothing wrong with that mask. It’s just how you use it.” Another man said, “Not to throw you all off, but I think everybody can do that—we all can do that.”

One man continued on that train of thought, saying he’s been impressed by the facilitators’ “professional actor prep.” I smiled wryly at him and said, “You’ve never done that in real life?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “It’s the same thing.”

Another man put it out there that you’re always playing a role; that it just depends on your environment. “It’s like when we get pulled over—or like when the C.O.s come—you literally role-playing.” A couple of the other men gave their own examples. “Are these masks or different aspects of who you are anyway?” I asked. The consensus was that it’s a combination, but usually whatever role you’re playing is a part of you. One man said that’s something he values about Shakespeare: his ability to see himself in and relate to the characters.

We shifted back to the scene itself. I asked what our takeaways should be, focusing first on the relationships between the characters. Antonio and Sebastian came up first—the way they make fun of Gonzalo. “They sound like pessimists, and he’s an optimist. You’re always gonna get friction there,” said one man. “Whenever Gonzalo says something positive, they have to bring him down.” One man added that he thought that Gonzalo seems like a “socialistic kind of Democrat,” while Sebastian and Antonio seem like “real reactionary Republicans.”

Another man asked why Ariel wouldn’t just leave Prospero, referring to his power as a spirit (we’re undecided on Ariel’s gender, but for simplicity’s sake, and because this is a group of men, I’m using male pronouns for now). It’s complicated. Some of the ideas that came up were that Prospero’s magic is stronger; that Ariel is intensely loyal; that he’s paying a debt; and that this is simply part of the play’s theme of incarceration: Ariel is not free to leave, period.

One man posited that Ariel can’t or won’t leave because he was there first and was “already bonded to the island itself.” Another man built on that, saying that Ariel and Caliban are natives, and Prospero has colonized the island—they shouldn’t have to think about leaving. Another mentioned that Caliban’s mother was an immigrant, and a second man jokingly said, “He’s an anchor baby!”

As the discussion continued, one man shook his head thoughtfully, saying, “It’s almost as if [Shakespeare] leaves you room to write a whole new play of your own.”

We decided to try out some improv, playing a game in which scene partners must begin each new line with the next letter of the alphabet. It is an extremely difficult game, and we had varying degrees of success. We tried to assess the reasons for that. “You get so focused on the letter, you lose the activity,” said one man, and he was absolutely right. We continued to play, reminding each other where our focus should be in each scene. One man came up with a scenario in which two others were supposed to be fighting off monstrous bugs, but they were fairly timid about it. I told them not to feel bad—that this is tough because, as adults, we’ve forgotten how to play and commit to something totally imaginary. Our instinct is to back off, and we have to unlearn that. It’s not easy.

There were a number of moments that really got us, even though the scenes overall didn’t work great. One of the men roped me into doing a scene with him, and somehow it turned into a series of taunts. When I said (my letter was J), “Just you wait till my boyfriend gets here,” my scene partner immediately came back with, “Kevin ain’t shit!” The whole ensemble burst out laughing and kind of couldn’t stop. Afterward we talked about why that had worked so well, and the answer was that he hadn’t thought about it—he’d just trusted his instinct, and that authenticity played really well.

February 13

We had to cancel our February 9 meeting due to a snowstorm, and when the guys arrived today, one of our leaders came right up to me with a plan he’d written out. He proposed breaking into four small groups that would each read and perform one of the next four scenes. He figured that if we did that and followed each scene with group discussions, we could get to the end of the play more quickly than with our usual method, which would be helpful since we’re a little behind.

I welcomed this man to lead the rest of the session, and he went about dividing people into groups and assigning roles. Some of the men were more hesitant than others, and all were extremely compassionate as they figured things out together, even switching roles to make each other more comfortable.

After about a half hour, we gathered to watch the scenes. The first was Act II, scene ii, the first scene between Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. These guys had great instincts, and, even with only a little bit of work, the scene was super funny. The man playing Stephano pretended to throw up at the end, which was a nice touch! I asked them how it had felt. “The more I do exercises like this, the more I understand it,” said the man who’d played Stephano. The man who’d played Caliban agreed, saying, “It makes it easier to relate to the characters when you can actually put movement behind the words.” A man who had not been in the scene remarked that he thought the casting was “destined,” and that these were the guys who should play these roles. We didn’t set anything in stone, though!

I asked for more feedback from the rest of the ensemble. One man mused, “It’s funny how they find this guy, and their first thought is how they can make money off him.” We talked about how typical that was in the era of colonization—how typical it still is in some ways. As we talked more about the scene, that same man said that the play shows the poor decisions people make under the influence of alcohol. We talked about who is taking advantage of whom in this scenario and decided that it’s mutual, and we’re going to keep an eye on the dynamic between these three.

We moved on to Act III Scene i, which is almost entirely between Ferdinand and Miranda. Ferdinand definitely begins the scene hauling logs, but I expected that the man playing him would come to stillness at some point. He didn’t, though. He just kept walking back and forth, miming as if carrying these logs. Meanwhile, the man playing Miranda stood still—it seemed like he couldn’t figure out how to do anything else with all of the back and forth.

Afterward, the man who’d played Ferdinand said, “I never wanna carry a log again!” We all laughed, and one man said, “That’s a big-ass fire!” I asked if the first man had felt an impulse to stop at any point, and he said that he had, but that he hadn’t been sure of what else he could be doing. I encouraged everyone to trust those instincts—if they’re not 100% right, they’ll lead us to where we need to go. Another man said he’d lost focus because the vocal delivery was fairly monotone, so we’ll want to work on that, too.

That brought us to Act III, scene ii, the next Caliban/Trinculo/Stephano scene. This scene, which is otherwise ridiculously funny and uncouth, is interrupted by an incredibly lyrical speech by Caliban about the island. I asked the ensemble what they thought about it. “He’s a poet and he doesn’t even know it,” said one man. “Yes!” I said. “What else?” Another man said, “He’s more intelligent than people give him credit for.” Right again. When no one else brought it up, I added that another feature of this speech is to convey how much Caliban loves the island. That’s important to remember.

We ended with Act III, scene iii, which was kind of confusing to watch without reading because there’s so much action that depends on staging and, probably, costumes. We got some of it, though, and the guy who played Ariel got a lot out of it. “Ariel’s a bad ass,” he said, adding that the spirit’s speech “almost had the feel of a condemning sermon… fire and brimstone… Almost a reckoning: remember your past sins… It’s almost as if she’s had enough of human nature—what we can visit on each other.”

February 16

During check-in, some of the men shared that they’ve been doing “deep improv” on their own time, exploring various characters and scenarios in an entirely open-ended way. They’re enjoying it and want to do it with the rest of the ensemble at some point. Several others shared, and then one man asked if we’d like to hear a poem he’d written. We eagerly agreed, and he launched into one of the most powerful spoken word performances I’ve ever been in the room with. He is incredibly skilled in his use of language and rhythm, and as a performer he’s simply breathtaking. He sat on the edge of a table, speaking his piece, connecting with us as a group and as individuals as he went. He’s been incarcerated for a very long time, and his piece explored the connections between people in (or in spite of) extreme circumstances. We were absolutely floored. I almost asked him to do it again when he’d finished but settled for thanking him as sincerely and emphatically as I could for sharing.

We played a couple of games and then divided up to read and stage the final two scenes of the play. We were short on actors, so facilitator Matt and I each ended up reading a couple of roles.

In my group, the man whose idea this approach was led us through our reading and discussion of the play’s final scene. “Like Frannie says, ‘What do we see?’” he asked. “I wanna say forgiveness,” said the man reading Prospero, “But it’s almost a half-assed forgiveness… It’s what everyone expects me to do.” He further explained that part of it is the “big picture” of getting Miranda and Ferdinand together. “It’s like political forgiveness, you know? It’s diplomacy.”

We tried out Act IV, scene i, on its feet, but that scene is just impossible to follow without an honest-to-goodness analytical reading. “Staging is gonna be important,” said one man. “This scene is really chaotic.” Everyone was really confused—even the people in the scene.

I said that, while I was truly glad we’ve tried this approach—and it has worked well in many ways—this is why our structure has always been to read each scene through and break it down as a group before we do anything else with it. This play is, for the most part, straightforward enough that watching unrehearsed staged readings conveys what we need, but with this scene in particular it just wasn’t possible. We need to go back and dig in.

And that’s fine. Part of SIP’s culture has always been that we try as a group, and we fail as a group, and then we figure out what we can do better—as a group. This wasn’t even a “failure,” per se. I wouldn’t call it that. We tried something new and identified what works and doesn’t work about it. It’s all good to know, and we wouldn’t know if we hadn’t tried.

The men who were still present at that point expressed their desire to explore the text in depth, particularly in regard to their vocal delivery. They are taken with the rhythm and musicality of the language, and they want to honor it. We decided that our plan for next week would be to finish reading and discussing the play on Tuesday, and to spend Friday on text and voice work. I’m excited about it. SIP isn’t focused on acting training, but when ensemble members are motivated and request it, I love sharing whatever techniques I can. I think it’s going to be really fun.

Winter/Spring 2018: Weeks 1 and 2

January 23, 2018

As we gathered for the first day of our winter/spring workshop, the energy was high and the work was clearly already underway. Returning ensemble members took attendance and conferenced with me about the possibility of using a backdrop in our next performance – enthusiasm for the program is such that people who aren’t even in the ensemble are putting the wheels in motion to make that happen!

After a rousing game of tape ball, we settled in for an orientation, talking over all aspects of the program, trying to cover of our bases. One of the men said, “We are here to prove that we are more than common criminals. We came, we saw, we conquered.” Another man said, “And you got to be a whore on stage.” This led to a bunch of the guys who were in Othello reminiscing about that process and quoting the play. That was so fun that we decided to do “demos” on Friday so we could show the new members what we work toward.

One man who recently went before the parole board encouraged everyone to stick with it and give it their all; he said that “like a quarter of my interview was about Shakespeare in Prison.” Another returning member, reflecting on his experience, said, “It’s home outside of prison. It gets you ready for the street mentally. Out there on the yard, something might get bad, serious, fast, but in here, you’re safe.” He continued, “It gave me a reflection of myself and brought me back to who I am. I’m a human being. I eat, I breathe, I sleep, I cry, I do everything the same as everybody else. We all human. So when somebody clowning on the yard, and people like, ‘look at this m-----r, man,’ I feel connected to them, like, we all human.”

We then proceeded to ask and answer our traditional three questions:

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

After that, we got into some improv. I was pulled aside before long by one of our returning members to talk over some interpersonal and logistical issues. There are a few things to look out for, but we’re not really worried about of them.

Earlier, one of the guys had jokingly used a Nazi salute during a game of Energy Around, and I had taken the opportunity to use that as an example of something that doesn’t contribute to our “safe space.” I made it clear that I didn’t mean to call him out specifically and that I knew it was a joke, but that we need to avoid things like that. At one point, the guy who’d made the gesture went into another room for a while with a few guys whom I know are regarded as mentors. Now he came over to me and apologized profusely. He said that he hadn’t meant anything by it – that he’s not an anti-Semite or a racist. He’s Latino, actually, and he said that racist jokes fly around on the yard all the time, and they don’t bother him. One of the mentors, though, had made it clear that things are different in Shakespeare in Prison. I thanked him for the apology and again made sure he knew that I didn’t think he was a bigot; it just wasn’t a good joke. He said he absolutely wouldn’t do anything like that again.

One of the men who was in Othello was going home the next day and came just to get a little last bit of fun and say goodbye. We had a good chat about his plans for when he goes home – including bringing his kids to see plays. He told me how much he’s appreciated SIP. He said that prison was a wakeup call, and SIP opened his eyes.

And then that  mentor walked over to me with the guy who’d made the offensive gesture. “[Name] has something to say to you,” he said grimly. I looked at the younger man and back at the mentor and said, “Um… He already said it.” We all laughed – somehow that had escaped the mentor’s notice. “He’s young, you know?” he said to me. “He’s working on his insensitive thuggishness, and he didn’t think it through.” I said I got it, and that we all step in it sometimes. I reminded him of when I said something pretty insensitive last fall, and he constructively called me on it. “I needed that,” I said, “And now I won’t do it again.”

I returned to the group, who were playing “Freeze.” As I watched, I realized that they weren’t exactly playing by the rules. I checked in with a returning member to ask how the game had been explained, and he said that another returning member had walked everyone through it, but he wasn’t sure they’d understood.

I didn’t stop the game, though. The scenes were pretty safe at first, but everyone was engaged, and there has often been a lot of value in sitting back and just seeing where things have gone in our program. This time proved to be no different. As the game progressed, people became more creative. Suddenly a third person tagged himself into a scene, and then, after a few rounds with three people, another guy ran in, set up four chairs, and started a four-person scene in a car. Then a fifth person tagged in as a panhandler. And then the guy who’d set up the car called a freeze, grabbed another guy and two chairs, set them up behind the car, sat down, and started making police siren sounds. Everyone yelled and scattered. It was absolutely hilarious.

When our laughter and applause had died down a bit, the man who’d explained the game said, “That was great, but… We didn’t really do it right.” I said, “No, we weren’t playing it exactly by the rules, but that’s not a bad thing. People who know the rules would probably not have played it the way you just did, and that was SO much fun!” I also explained that, even when we know the rules, we’ll often find creative ways to break them in order to get more impact out of what we’re doing. I used the re-imagining of Othello’s first scene by two ensemble members (described earlier in this blog) as an example.

I went over the actual rules of the game, and we did another round. Even then, the group proved to be incredibly creative. We still wound up with more than two people in the scenes at times, and the scenes became more dynamic.

It was a great first day back! Everyone seemed happy and excited to pick it back up on Friday.

Friday, January 26

We began today with our usual game of tape ball and a name game. We talked a little more about our plans for the workshop, and then we began our demos. The three men who were in the first scene of Othello revisited that, and one of our Othellos performed a monologue.

Unfortunately, there was then a facility-wide call for inmates to return to their units, and we were required to leave as well. This happens sometimes, and we just roll with the punches. We’ve got plenty of time to catch up!

Tuesday, January 30

We finally got started on reading our play today! We began, as you might suspect, with the first scene – the storm and the shipwreck. I asked the group what they got out of it after one reading. The answers came back: it’s chaotic, the wind is blowing, there’s a lot of shouting, etc. I asked if we could read it again, this time shouting over the din (created by those of us who weren’t reading). That was definitely more effective.

One of the guys asked, “Who’s steering the ship?” People started throwing ideas around, and I suggested that we put the scene on its feet to see what might work. We stayed in our circle of chairs, with one man bringing over an oscillating fan to use as the wheel. We ran through the scene – I mean, I literally ran through the scene as one of the mariners, trying to up the ante on all the chaos – and it was a lot of fun.

The ideas started to flow after that. Many of us liked using the fan as the wheel, and one man suggested that we could fasten crepe paper to it to symbolize water. Another man said, “We need a guy throwing buckets of water on people!” I replied, “Are you gonna clean that up? I’m not gonna clean that up!” Another man suggested that we use two waist-high flats to symbolize the ship, pulling them apart when it splits. Another guy burst in, “Yeah, and people can sink behind them!” We talked about the need to make it apparent that Prospero has whipped up the storm. One man said, “The scene needs lots of choreography. It’s gonna be a lot of work.” And one gentleman insisted that everyone should be outfitted with tri-corner hats, preferably with feathers in them.

We decided to pick back up with demos. A man in his third workshop performed the “Is this a dagger…” piece from Macbeth that he performed last summer. I stayed on book for him, but he hardly needed any help. “That was some deep stuff right there,” said one new member. It was great, although he wasn’t totally satisfied – he hadn’t been able to go as far as he had before. I said that that’s what happens when you take some time away from a piece, and then I asked him when he’d picked it back up. “Today,” he said. “You mean you hadn’t looked at this at all before you walked in this room?” I asked. He had not. Since July. “It comes right back,” he said. Pretty impressive, especially for our new members!

A pair of our Iagos and Othellos then performed one of their scenes. Afterward, one of the men summarized the whole thing and asked if the others had gotten it. Most of them had. He said that that’s why he prefers doing the scenes on their feet – because sitting “takes a lot away from it.” Another man said, “Yeah, it doesn’t work sitting down. You need the pauses. It need the theatrics. You gotta move. Without the theatrics, it sound like fumbling, like mumbling, like you don’t know what you saying.” The other man added, “And you gotta match your scene partner, whatever he’s doing… If it’s touching you emotionally or if you’ve got a picture in your mind, go with that picture.” The first man agreed, saying, “The way Shakespeare writes, he directs you. There’s some things that just come naturally.” He mentioned that some of what we did in our performances was the same as what he saw in a film version of Othello.

Another man brought back his interpretation of “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” which was quite affecting, but was not at the level he’d attained last summer. He shared with the group that the way he’d accessed those feelings was by imagining the death of his mother, and we talked about using that “magic as if” as a crutch till we’re ready to just ride the wave of the language.

They asked me to go next, and I did my current favorite: Richard III’s opening soliloquy. I learned it last fall as part of a “monologue-off” at the women’s prison, but I’ve never formally worked on it, so I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen. I took my time so I could play with the character’s anger, pain, and humor. I made eye contact with as many of the men as I could.

I had a good time with it, but what was most exciting was that the ensemble completely understood the piece as I interpreted it – even though none of them were familiar with the play. “He’s not a bad person,” said one of the men, “He’s just fed up… You’re gonna use your mind now ’cause that’s all you got.” Another nodded his head and said, “I’ve honestly had those same thoughts.”

“Was Shakespeare, like, a psychopath?” asked one man, alluding to all the personalities the playwright painted so vividly. Another man said, “Naw, man. Shakespeare just, like, really understood people.” A third man added, “Each character is in its own world, so we gotta remember that every time we act.”

Facilitator Matt then performed a monologue from Hamlet that he hasn’t worked on in years, and yet it came right back for the most part! We were all excited and impressed. “The focus is real,” said one man.

We got off on a tangent about using the language – the clues that Shakespeare gives us about our characters’ feelings and actions. “I wanna do more comedic scenes. The angry scenes are too easy,” said one man. I asked him why that was. Another man jumped in, saying, “That’s just what we do all the time. I don’t know about the women, but here we go to anger right away.” Another man then introduced the idea that there are different kinds of anger: he said that “emotional anger” simmers, and “aggressive anger” attacks.

The conversation moved to center around Caliban. One man said that “in weakness, there is power,” and that Caliban plays the people around him. Another said that he has multiple personalities like Gollum. The first man replied, “We all got that other half to us, but that half doesn’t control everything.”

Somehow we got onto the topic of performances. A man who has now performed twice shared that he felt that the first performance of Othello had been a mess, but that had been a wakeup call that enabled the second to go more smoothly and the third to be our best. All agreed. This same man stressed the importance of rehearsal; that it strengthens chemistry and overall performances. Another likened this to playing music, saying that a performance is only as strong as its weakest participant.

So how are we going to do this? A returning member who often takes on the role of mentor quietly stated that we are going to do the entire play with cuts, rather than selected scenes with narration. He also said that he thought it would be best for one person to play a role straight through the play, and that perhaps we could work with double casting to give everyone a shot at a “major” role. That would eliminate the need for facilitators to step in. “No offense, you did great,” he said. “But this is our collective.” Another returning member built on that, suggesting that the men who’ve performed before role-share with new members and mentor them as they rehearse and perform.

That last idea is incredible. We have often seen ensemble members at the women’s prison step into smaller roles to give new members an opportunity to work more, but we have just as often given those large roles to our “veterans.” This is a completely new idea in SIP, and I absolutely love it. What generosity – what ownership. There is just no ego there. None at all. That’s true commitment to an ensemble. I just love it.

Friday, February 2

As we gathered today, I asked the group if they’d be down with beginning to use a couple of the rituals we’ve developed in the women’s ensemble. I first described our check in process: when we arrive, we gather in a circle, and anyone who wants to gives kind of a status update. It could be good or bad news, or information that needs to be shared, or just to say, “I’m having a lousy day, so if I’m being quiet and staying to myself, don’t take it personally.” It helps us not only to stay on the same page, but to be sensitive to what’s going on with everyone. The guys liked that idea.

The other ritual I asked about was The Ring, which is a Michael Chekhov exercise in which the ensemble visualizes and then lowers to the ground a ring of light/energy, steps into it, and then spreads it around the room. There was some hesitation about this one; one man asked if there was a way to “make it more masculine,” and I understood those qualms. It’s definitely a weird-sounding exercise and takes a minute to get used to. We decided to start with a check in today and leave The Ring for next week.

Though at WHV checking in as an individual isn’t required, the guys immediately took ownership and decided that in their ensemble it is. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but by the time everyone had shared, I began to think that maybe this is one of those points where men and women diverge in our program: where women have tended to react negatively when pushed to share, to some of these men it seemed like they had just been waiting for someone to give them an opening. A few of the ensemble members were goofy, of course, and most shared honestly but factually – but then there really were a few who seemed relieved to be able to share even the most mundane update. I’m really interested to see where this leads.

The Tempest is a short play, relatively speaking, but we’re behind already on reading, so we decided to spend the bulk of our time today powering through Act I scene ii, which is incredibly long. As we began, one of our returning members took a moment to explain shared lines and the effect they have on pacing, and then a mix of returning and new members volunteered to read.

When we paused to make sure everyone was following Prospero’s story, particularly what happened between him and his brother, the new member who was reading Prospero (on his first day!) shook his head and said, “That happened to me once, too.” A couple of others chimed in, and then this ensemble member said, “I know how that is.” He described how his brother had betrayed him, continuing, “… and that’s how I got 5-10. That’s a true story.”

We continued, and I asked if we could pause after Prospero tells Miranda that she’s what kept him going after their banishment and she abruptly changes the subject. “I’ve always wondered about that,” I said. “Anyone have any ideas about why she does that?” Someone suggested that perhaps if she wasn’t used to hearing her father say things like that, she didn’t know how to respond.

“I mean, she’s been essentially incarcerated since she was three,” said one man. “Anybody who comes to prison becomes detached from their emotions… When you hear something bad…” Another man broke in, “You get desensitized.”

A third man said, doubtfully, “You’re saying Miranda doesn’t have emotions?” The first man explained, “She has emotions, but she’s detached from them.” He said that it can be dangerous to give into one’s feelings. The third man nodded, saying, “Prospero hides his till certain moments.” And the first man agreed: that “family feeling” is what got him betrayed.

We had to move to another room at that point, and I took the opportunity to address what I knew was causing frustration for many: there were a few people who just could not seem to focus. It was distracting and was beginning to be detrimental to our work. I put it out there that, while this play is much shorter than Othello, it could potentially take us longer to get through if we can’t buckle down and do it. “You literally do not have to be here,” I said. “So if you don’t want to be, no hard feelings, don’t stay. I’m not saying that to be mean. Do I seem like I’m being mean?” One of the guys smiled and said, “Well, it’s maybe a little mean, but you’re right.”

We continued reading, talking through all of the “usurpations” that happen: Antonio/Prospero; Sycorax/Ariel; Prospero/Caliban. We talked a bit about Caliban, too – what makes him a “savage?” What was the relationship between these three before? And then we needed to talk about what caused the rift.

It’s brief, but Prospero accuses Caliban of having raped Miranda, Caliban responds that he wishes that he had, and Miranda unloads on Caliban without specifically addressing the alleged assault. This is a really loaded beat in any environment or process, but in prison it takes on even more weight. It did at the women’s prison, too, but I knew as soon as we’d landed on this as our winter/spring play that the line was going to be much tougher to walk in an ensemble including multiple men convicted of sexual assault. No shying away from it, though – this is what we do. If it’s in the play, we talk about it without judgment, from an analytical place. We can do that without necessarily talking about ourselves.

So, as we began this part of the discussion, I reminded everyone to look at the play with a bird’s eye view, and not through the lens of just one character. I asked them what we actually know from what’s in the text. The answers came pretty quickly: Prospero believes that Caliban assaulted Miranda. Caliban says he wishes that he had. Miranda is clearly very angry with Caliban. And that’s literally it. We couldn’t find anything else concrete – beyond that, it’s all interpretation and conjecture.

“We’ve got this conversation, but we’ve got no context,” I said, and carefully continued, “We don’t know for certain that the assault happened, and we don’t know exactly why Prospero believes that it did, because none of it happened on stage.” One of the guys chimed in, “Maybe he saw something.” I said, “Maybe. But we didn’t, right?” They nodded. “Shakespeare left this open-ended, and he didn’t do anything by accident. So… why did he do that?” One man said, “Because… it’s not important?” I replied, “For the actors playing these characters, there needs to be a decision – that’s important. But the most important thing for us as objective storytellers is not what actually happened, but the impact that the event had on these relationships. Because these were loving relationships before. This is a flashpoint. Let’s keep an eye on these three as we keep reading.”

We finished reading the scene and talked about Prospero’s approach to the immediately-budding relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand. One of the men gave us historical context, saying that there’s strategy in encouraging his daughter to marry the son of the king, and that marriage didn’t necessarily have to do with love at the time. When the question of Ferdinand’s emphasis on Miranda’s virginity came up, one of the men asked when the importance of sexual purity became culturally dominant. “Did it start with Jesus?” he asked. The man who’d already given us some background responded that the idea of virtue predates Jesus, beginning with the Greeks and maybe even before. I added that the emphasis on virginity in particular coincides with male-dominated societies edging out matriarchal ones; that policing women’s bodies is a really effective way to control them. It seemed like that might have blown a few minds, and I wish I weren’t so rusty on that history so I could have gone into more detail.

As long as we keep it professional, sensitive, and even-handed, we don’t need to shy away from any of the content in these plays. Today was a prime example of that.

Fall 2017: Wrap up.

Most of our ensemble members were able to come today to provide feedback and reflections. It was lovely to be able to just sit, relax, and talk with them. They had a lot of good constructive criticism and ideas of how to enhance what we’re doing next time around.

It was a wide-ranging conversation. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“This time there was more adversity than any of us planned for, but we kept it rollin’, we kept it pushin’… We worked together and made it happen.”

“After 18 years of being locked up… I’m appreciative of your time. It makes us feel wanted, needed, and like we have a purpose… [Prison] has been my reality so long. It’s been an escape. For those hours I wasn’t in prison. We have very few avenues that give us release… For me, it’s changed the conversation. I can talk to my professors about Macbeth, Othello, and appreciate that everyone else is lost. This program has given me a gift that I never expected I would actually receive. Being comfortable in my own skin is something this program has given me as well… [They got made fun of at first] I guess I made fun of the drama club and glee club, and now, I guess, I’m in the glee club… Except here, we the cool kids on the block. Thank you for making me a cool kid.”

“I got from it… I sat back and thought about everything – I don’t want to take anything out of prison except the knowledge I gained and confidence I gained in this program… It gives you a sense of pride, like, ‘We did that.’”

“It made my time go fast, that’s for sure.”

“Theatre can be used to break all sorts of barriers – race, gender, sexual orientation. Because when we come together, we don’t see any of that. All we see is an individual… Part of a team. It makes you look past the outside of a person and makes you see the inside of a person.”

“I think the opportunities is boundless… This could actually help guys when we make the transition. It could help keep us off the streets.”

“The acting gets us out of our comfort zone. In prison you can be anything you want to be, but here we’ve learned all the potential we’ve got. Then we get out, and we’ve got the same cousins out there doing drugs, selling drugs – we get put back in that same box. We need the positive people back in our lives because it’s not always easy to find those back where you come from.”

“I can almost see this as – this is a small group of people, but it affects the whole population that saw it. I’ve heard people in the dayroom say, “Oh, that’s gay…” A couple days later, they were watching. Later that day, that same person [who didn’t know I had overheard him] came up to me and said, “Good job today. That was actually pretty cool. [It made me think] maybe I don’t have to put a front on all the time – those guys were up there just doing them.’”

“When it’s over, that would shine a positive light on it – [people] would see that this does actually change people’s lives.”

“When I fail, I get so fearful. I was nervous about being in front of all them people... Even just reading and bringing myself out of my element. It brought more positivity and confidence to myself.”

“It’s almost like a support group. We’re able to support each other and keep each other out of trouble.”

“I got out of it, the creativity that it gives you, and the learning… This the type of stuff you need to move on past trauma or any negative thing you’ve done. It pushes you to the limit. I might not amount to anything in the world, but I was able to do this thing. This proves you can amount to anything. All you need is that hope – that ambition. Once you understand yourself, you can understand others and do better things out there.”

“I was at a higher level for [a very long time]. I had horrible social anxiety… This broke me out of it. It gives me a tool to push through it.”

“What we do here affects much more than prisoners… The possibilities are pretty much boundless.” He said that the staff saw the show and talk to each other about it. “It changes their minds about who prisoners are.”

“I’ve got a [young] son out there, and doing this will help me connect with him in school, maybe, because they do plays in school… Being through something like this, I could volunteer and help my kid through the play. It makes me feel more positive. Talking to the mother of my kid, I got to say, ‘I’m in Shakespeare.’” Another man said, “I told my significant other the same thing.”

“It helped me relieve some stress… I could be that [other] person just for that moment… Not having to be us and deal with the stresses of prison – You’re free to be yourself. You’re weightless. It’s like… I can breathe. Through being someone else, you get to finally be yourself.” Another man said, “The whole time you’ve been you. It just took this to bring it out.”

“My wife made me read lines for her on the phone.” Another man said, “I read lines to my daughter over the phone. She’s all excited now, and she wants to do it.”

“I like when I call home… [And I said I’m] acting in a Shakespeare play, they’re like, ‘What?! You’re doing more in there than people are doing out here in the streets!’”

“When I talk to my mom about what I’m doing, she says, ‘I’ve never seen you so excited about something.’ And that makes me think that I have something to give.”

“This has strengthened my drive that this isn’t it for me. When I walk out those doors, it’s like a fresh, clean slate.”

We decided that we’ll work on The Tempest when we start back up in January. We are all very pumped up. I can’t wait to dig in with them!

Fall 2017: Weeks 10 and 11 of 11


December 5

We divided and conquered again today; this seems to be the best way for us to cover all of the material we chose for our performance. I began by working with one of our Othellos on the monologue that begins the play’s final scene. We talked through the character’s conflict—he truly loves this woman, but he feels compelled to kill her even though he doesn’t truly want to. We puzzled through some of the language as well, and after only about 15 minutes the piece was incredibly strong. This man feels the character very deeply and is an excellent actor, unafraid to be vulnerable. It’s remarkable.

We also worked the part of Act III scene iii in which Desdemona approaches Othello to advocate for Cassio. Our work here mostly entailed exploring the visual storytelling aspect of theatre; how can we show the relationship between these two beyond the words they speak? At first the two men were standing pretty far apart. I asked them what tactics Desdemona uses here, and they responded that she is using flirtation and the love she knows he has for her. I suggested, then, that they move closer together. Then they started spit balling ideas, leading the man playing Othello to take Desdemona gently by the wrist. The latter flinched slightly, and Othello said, “Is this cool, man? I don’t mean nothing by it—it’s just for the play.” The first man replied, “No, yeah, I know. It’s cool. I think that’ll actually work to show the relationship really well.”

The man standing by as Iago stayed silent through this exchange, as did I. Though I’ve never been incarcerated (nor have I been male), I know that this dynamic can be fraught. But they navigated their way through it beautifully. The respect and trust that they showed each other resonated very deeply for me; and, I think, for them. Theatre offers all sorts of opportunities to break boundaries and defy expectations. Though there were only four of us to witness it, this was one of them.

December 6

An ensemble member whom we thought had dropped was back today. He apologized for having “flaked.” He said he was furious with himself about it, that this is what he had always done, and he didn’t want to do it anymore. “I gotta get better about this,” he said. “If I’m gonna commit to something, I gotta follow through with it. So I’m here, and I’m gonna really commit to it now.” He, another ensemble member, and I looked through our performance logistics and decided that he could take the role of Cassio in one scene and support in non-speaking roles in others. A couple of people approached me after. “He’s back for real?” one of them asked. “Yeah, I think it’s for real,” I replied. “Cool,” he said, and that was that. No resentment. No hard feelings.

An ensemble member who has a number of other commitments and cannot regularly attend was present to get a feeling for what is needed in terms of narration—that’s what the ensemble determined his role would be. He was part of the “Original 12,” and it was great to have him back in the room, giving his perspective.

I dove in to work on the final scene of the play with some of the guys, while others worked with Patrick, and still others went off by themselves to work. It took us a few minutes to get focused on that final scene. Once we locked in, though, we locked in. One of the men, who has great instincts but a lot of trouble buckling down, began to tentatively express some of his ideas. I got very excited about that and built on what he had said, and that part of the scene began to work much better. “You’re good at this,” he said to me. “So are you!” I replied. “Nah, man. You’re the director here.” I shook my head. “All I did was build off of what you gave me. This was totally your idea.”

After that, he got even more focused and began throwing out more and more ideas. He got so excited, in fact, that when our Desdemona was talking on the side to someone else instead of lying “dead” on the bed, he shouted out, “Come on, Desdemona! Get your dead ass over here!”

As Patrick took over to work on the scene’s combat, I stepped to the side to chat with a couple of the guys. They had been talking about what we need to do in the next workshop to build on this one, and it mostly had to do with accountability. They’ve been frustrated by others’ spotty attendance and tendency to arrive late and/or leave early. “I just don’t get it,” said one of them. “I want to use every second of this.”

“You gotta show them that next time,” said the other, who was in the group over the summer. “You’re gonna be a mentor, so you’ll be able model what needs to happen and explain why.” The younger man visibly brightened at that. It suggested to me that he’s never been in that position—maybe he’s never thought of himself that way. I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation, so I didn’t ask. But he was clearly affected.

The group that had been working independently of facilitators asked if they could show me their scene before we left, and they had made great headway. Another ensemble member sat beside me and watched. He began to shout out notes as they performed, and I asked him to write his thoughts down and tell them after so as not to interrupt. His notes had to do with more fully committing to the characters, and they were very apt. As the group ran the scene again, he shook his head and said, “Man, that Iago is just evil.”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I don’t think a person can be totally evil, or totally good. And Shakespeare wrote about real people.” He nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “But I don’t know if I can see him another way.” I said, “Well, yeah, that’s tough. But our job as actors and ensemble members is to try to approach these characters without judgment—to have empathy for them even if we hate what they’re doing. If we decide that Iago is just plain evil, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to figure out why he does the things he does.”

“Yeah, I don’t wanna miss out on that,” he said, and watched the rest of the scene deep in thought. When it ended, he nodded slowly and said, “Yeah, I’m gonna have to think about that.”

December 8

Our goal for today was to work through the whole performance. While the others set things up, I worked with our Othello, Emilia, and Desdemona to finish blocking Act V Scene ii. Though we worked quickly, we worked effectively, and then we all came together to give the show a try.

As one man explained to the new ensemble members what the mechanics of moving from scene to scene would be, another returning member politely interrupted to ask everyone what they thought about rehearsing every day next week to prepare for performances. They unanimously agreed that this was a great idea, with a few men even asking if they could rehearse over the weekend. Unfortunately, it was too late to organize that, but I was really excited about the willingness of every single person to commit more of their time to getting it right.

It’s a good thing we started this way because the rest of our time was rather frustrating. It was difficult to get people to maintain focus, the logistics proved challenging to explain, and I could see several people beginning to steam.

It really was a frustrating rehearsal. I noticed two of the men talking heatedly. I sat beside them and said, “What’s up, you guys? You look pissed.” They looked at each other and smiled wryly. “We just doing some plotting,” said one of them. “Oh, yeah?” I grinned. “Yeah,” said the other. “I just don’t get why these guys still messin’ around. Like, we got six days till we got an audience. We gotta focus, for real.” The other said, “We gonna have a talk out on yard. We gotta lay down the law.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think it’s a good idea to have that conversation. But do you think you can do it constructively? Like… Can you do it without making people defensive? ‘Cause if they get defensive, they’ll shut down, and that’s not gonna help anyone.” They agreed that they would try to keep it cool.

Another guy came up to me, frustrated that the man playing Emilia in one scene hadn’t yet rehearsed it—I’d been standing in for him. “If he’s not here tomorrow, can you just do it?” he said. “I just really need the consistency, and, like, if he’s not gonna rehearse it, we’re gonna look like idiots.” I agreed that I would do the scene if necessary but encouraged him to give that guy another shot. “I wouldn’t put it to him the way you just put it to me,” I said. “Try looking at it from his point of view—make this a solution for him, too. If he doesn’t take the time to try to plug in to this scene, he can focus on others. Or maybe he’ll buckle down and nail this scene.” He liked that idea and said he’d try it.

As we left, one of the men gave a brief pep talk. “It’s fourth down,” he said. “We need to take it up a lot.”

December 12

When we arrived today, I asked how their extra rehearsal the day before had gone. It turned out that not everyone had been able to get there, so they had focused on certain scenes and logistics rather than attempting a run. They were satisfied with how it had gone.

We then found out that the man playing Desdemona in all of her scenes had gotten into some kind of trouble and wouldn’t be allowed to perform. Before any panic could set in, I asked if I could make a suggestion. I reminded them that the facilitators serve as unofficial understudies in the women’s ensemble, and if a role is vacated late in the process, one of us takes it on to avoid causing undue stress for anyone else. I asked them if they’d like me to play Desdemona—I’d been present for every rehearsal and knew the blocking, and I played the role in college, so I understood the character and the scenes. They agreed that that would be best, so we took some time to rework the combat in a way that would be acceptable to the facility. We ran through a few others scenes as well, and then we began a work through.

There was a good deal more focus today, though it was still spotty at times. The scenes began to take on new life, which was exciting. And everyone helped me plug myself into scenes I’d seen but hadn’t walked. I felt completely supported and as much a part of the ensemble as anyone.

We made it through the whole thing, ending just as our time was up. It was a little rough and longer than we wanted, but getting from beginning to end was extremely encouraging.

December 14

There was an added rehearsal yesterday, but Patrick and I were unable to get there due to a snow storm. When we arrived, one of the guys said, “We heard you all was trying to get here in all of that!” I smiled and shrugged. “That woulda been dumb,” he said. “We was fine without you.”

I asked them how it had gone. They told me it had gone well—that “some of the guys needed to blow off steam at each other,” and that it had helped. They had run the whole performance other than the final scene. They had also discovered that they liked using music in scene changes.

As we set up in the gym, an inmate who is not in the ensemble approached me with an ensemble member who said, “This guy here has an awesome idea.” I introduced myself and asked him what it was. “I don’t wanna step out of bounds or nothin’,” he said, “But we got some things here that you could use for a set next time.” He suggested taking the hockey nets and a large roll of paper or piece of fabric to create a backdrop. “We got an air brush,” he said. “If y’all are gonna do this, y’all should do it for real.” I said I thought it was a great idea and thanked him for it. I asked him if he’d like to help us with it next time and got his name and ID number.

“I think it’s really good what you guys are going in here with these young men because it changes people’s mindset to something more positive—it makes them more optimistic about life,” he said, unprompted. “When you gotta tap into somebody’s life and become that person, it changes you… We don’t get a lot of opportunities to express ourselves, and when we do it’s in a negative way.”

We parted warmly, and I thanked him again for his ideas. That’s the kind of ripple we want—people who aren’t even directly involved in the program are taking ownership of it!

As we gathered, one of the men poked fun at another about his acting. The second man gestured to me and joked, “I told you not to berate me in public no more!” The first man gave him a look and said, “She ain’t public no more.” There was no disrespect there, nor was it at all inappropriate—this just shows the level of mutual respect and trust we have for each other. We’re equal members in the ensemble.

We managed to get through the whole play, adding music in transitions. I was surprised to find that they’d made a cast change in the first scene, or perhaps that I’d misunderstood who was playing Roderigo. The two actors played well off each other, and I encouraged them to continue to make it more “bro-y.”

They also had added a couple of elements to the scene in which Cassio gets drunk and then fired, with Roderigo throwing himself over a table during the fight and then grabbing an actual cowbell and running through the audience yelling, “MUTINY! IT’S A MUTINY! THEY’RE MUTINOUS” until Othello told him to “silence that dreadful bell.” It was absolutely hilarious and added to the chaos of an already raucous scene.

It was a rough run—still difficult to get everyone to focus, and our transitions were sluggish. Before we left, one of our returning members, who is one of our anchors for sure, gave a rousing pep talk. He told us to get there on time for our dress rehearsal in the morning and to focus from the get-go. “We gotta show the administration something great so the program can come back,” he said, and everyone nodded vigorously.

Dress rehearsal and performances: December 15, 16, and 17

Nearly everyone arrived on time for our (8:00am!) dress rehearsal. We set up quickly and began the run. Things mostly went smoothly, and we worked as a team to problem solve as we went.

There was only one thing that particularly frustrated me as a member of the ensemble, and that is that one of the men, who is completely fearless about playing women, was playing every scene for laughs. That worked for some of them, but it really didn’t for others, and it undercut the serious work that others were doing. That included me—it would be disrespectful to the ensemble for me to just go through the motions, so I always try to fully commit. But that’s difficult to do when others are goofing off.

This man wasn’t cast as Emilia in the final scene, but that actor was absent, so he filled in. When I began Desdemona’s final lines absolving Othello of guilt, this man continued to be silly. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “If you could take this seriously, that would really help me out.” He looked completely shocked. “It’s not even my part!” he said. “But still,” I said, and then we moved on in the scene.

When we ended the run, he’d already left. I felt bad about having snapped and asked a couple of the guys to apologize to him for me if they saw him. “Are you kidding?” one of them laughed, and the other did, too. “That was freaking awesome. Did you see his face? He needed that.” I said that I still felt bad. “We’re big boys, Frannie,” said the other person. “We can take someone being a little harsh.”

Still, when we came back in the afternoon for our performance, I pulled aside the aside. “I am so sorry I snapped at you,” I said. “Yeah, what the fuck?” he replied, still clearly thrown, but smiling. I explained how frustrated I’d been and why, and I made suggestions of how he could compromise between his desire to be funny and others’ desire to be more serious.

We ran our fights, and the guys had a pep talk without the facilitators. I went to one of the men playing Othello and asked him to run the slap in Act IV Scene i with me. He backed away, kind of silly but also with real concern. “I don’t wanna hit you!” he said. “We have a story to tell. It’s just a play,” I reassured him. “It’s a high five close to my face. That’s all.” We ran it a few times to get it solid, and, while he wasn’t totally comfortable, I knew he’d be able to commit in performance. After that, he went around to a bunch of the guys saying, “Ready, my dog?”

The music we used in scene changes is from a popular video game. One of the men pulled Matt aside and said, “You know, there are all sorts of things that remind you that you’re in prison. For me, it wasn’t the Christmas shit. Like, I’ll watch It’s a Wonderful Life and prepare myself for what that means. But I wasn’t ready for the Skyrim music. It’s been six years since I played that game, and I heard the game play music, and I was like, ‘Fuck. All I want to do is play that game.’”

That first performance had a lot of hiccups, but we rolled with the punches and had a great time. So did our audience. Our Iago and Roderigo in the first scene had worked out an approach in which they ad libbed between each other’s lines, repeating key words and phrases to amp up the comedy and crassness. It was amazing—I told them I’m totally stealing it if I ever direct the play!

We had a great talk back after the show, with audience members expressing how impressed they were and our ensemble encouraging them to try new things and to join the group.

Our second performance went more smoothly, even though one man was unexpectedly called away on a visit before the performance, and another was called in the middle. Patrick, Matt, and one of the guys jumped in to fill those holes, and all went off without much of a hitch. It was really amazing to see everyone adapt so quickly and so well. It says a lot about all of the team work they’ve done, how well they know each other, and how well they know the material. Our 5.2 Othello became very emotional. Even as I lay “dead,” I could feel how committed he was, to the point where, when we ended the play, I asked him if he was okay. Luckily he was—he’s just an amazing performer.

We all agreed that the third performance was our favorite. Matt stood in for one of our Iagos who had known ahead of time that he wouldn’t be able to perform, but otherwise things went more or less as planned. Patrick overheard one audience member explaining Iago’s set up to the guy next to him, saying, “Othello’s a fool.” Later, another man in the audience said, “Why can’t [Othello] see what [Iago is] doing?”

During our talk back, one audience member said, “That was very impressive.” Another said, “Yeah, pretty good for some convicts!” That got a big laugh. The audience really was very excited about what they’d seen.

One said, “Things that were taking place during that time in society, it was a sad case that she had to try to prove herself… The moral lessons need to be taken from this, that our relationships with the opposite gender need to be supported and worked, no matter what people on the outside say.”

Several audience members approached me afterward to let me know that they were of Moorish descent and deeply appreciated being able to see Othello. It gave them a sense of pride and connection.

We all felt good leaving after the show, and excited to come back and wrap things up on Tuesday.

Fall 2017: Weeks 7, 8, and 9 of 11.

November 21

Rehearsal scripts in hand, we refined some of our casting and got right to work.

I worked with part of the ensemble on Act IV Scene i while Matt worked on the other side of the room on Act IV Scene ii. The goal when we work toward staging in SIP is for the ensemble to do as much of the work as possible while facilitators act as guides when needed, but since these ensemble members are largely new to this, I asked if I could take a “heavy hand” at first and hand it over to them as soon as they felt ready. That’s what we did.

Really, all I ended up doing was demonstrating “visual storytelling” with Iago’s and Othello’s entrance and dialogue through Othello’s fit. And I did that mostly by asking questions. How can we establish their dynamic from the moment they walk in? How should Iago lead Othello through the scene, and what triggers Othello’s episode? I asked those questions, fielded some answers, and then built on those to stage this first part of the scene.

As soon as Cassio entered and knelt by Othello, though, one ensemble member spontaneously took over. “Don’t get up,” he said to Iago. Then he said to Cassio, “If you kneel while he’s kneeling, he can push you away easier. Then you can get up and leave.” They tried that, and it worked better, but something was still missing. The same man gave some more advice, and then the man sitting next to him chimed in. They rose to their feet, getting right up in the scene, demonstrating what they meant. And their instincts were fantastic.

We kept going with the scene, and those same two men realized that the whole thing would work better if Iago touched Othello more often – an arm around his shoulder while he’s got his hands on his knees, etc. “Oh, that’s awesome!” I said, inspired by what they were doing. “You know, I never thought about this before, but we’ve been talking a lot about how Othello never had any nurturing, and that’s what makes him so vulnerable with Desdemona… And that can work the same way with Iago. Touch is another means of manipulation for him. That’s amazing.” My excitement fed theirs, and they pretty much took over at that point.

The man playing Othello had to leave temporarily, and another man who arrived a few minutes later jumped right in to fill in for him. This was at the point in the scene when Othello hides to watch Iago and Cassio.

We puzzled through this interaction. There needs to be something visually “dirty” about the way Iago and Cassio interact while talking about Bianca so that Othello can be misled about the conversation. But how to do it? We tried several different ideas, but I could tell both men were holding back. I reminded them that it’s only a play – that I understood if they’d never behave that way in front of a woman, or at least in front of me, but we need to do what we need to do to tell the story. We brainstormed some options, but they proved difficult to execute. They’re going to get more comfortable with their lines, and then we’ll try again.

Meanwhile, the man filling in as Othello was hiding up stage. But one of the guys who’d pretty much taken over staging had the idea that Othello should hide as far down stage as possible so he could talk to the audience in a more immediate way. We tried that, and then Othello had the idea to actually sit or stand in the bleachers (we’ll perform in the gym) to bring the audience right into the scene. I was blown away by that – what an amazing idea. I told him I’m stealing it if I ever direct the play professionally!

The work on the other side of the room with Desdemona and Emilia proved to be equally insightful. Both men had very impassioned ideas about their characters – their motivations, their relationship, and how they could express both. They worked their scene with a great deal of sensitivity. I wasn’t able to see the result, but Matt was quite moved by all of it.

They did let me know that they’d decided to keep the song – but that they wanted me to sing it as sort of a voiceover. It’s a cool idea. I had a feeling they’d rope me into this somehow…

November 28

After having the day after Thanksgiving off, we plunged back into the work today. As soon as Matt and I walked in, we were greeted by one of the men, who is a musician. We’d challenged him to rewrite the play’s drinking songs, and he’d done it. His songs are amazing. Not only are the melodies completely consistent with drinking songs of that time, but the subject matter is right in line with Iago’s misogyny. The lyrics are great. Everything about these songs is incredible.

I worked on Act IV Scene ii on one side of the room, while Matt worked with the others on Act V Scene i.

The scene with which I worked can be a challenging one. It takes place just after Othello has slapped Desdemona in front of a number of men, and he calls her in to try to get her to confess. The scene becomes increasingly chaotic and ends with Desdemona disoriented and Emilia extremely concerned – or at least that’s where the part of the scene that we’re staging ends; the rest will be covered by narration.

We read through the scene and then talked a bit about it. We looked at the clues in the text – indications that Desdemona is hesitant to come close to Othello, that she kneels, and then that there is increasing fear prior to his leaving the room, followed by complete disorientation. We explored all of this on our feet.

Othello is extremely conflicted in this scene. He is at once tender, saddened, angry, and aggressive. “Yes, there is rage here,” I said. “But she also asks him why he’s crying. What’s going on there?”

“I feel like I can’t be facing her if I’m crying,” said the man playing Othello. “I wouldn’t want her to see that.” We continued to talk about this aspect of the character – this vulnerability. “I guess I don’t totally understand it,” said that same man. “He’s been a soldier so long. He’s been totally vulnerable on the battlefield.”

“That’s true,” I said. “But – and obviously I haven’t experienced this first hand, but this is what I understand from talking with the men in my life – it seems like there’s a huge difference between being physically vulnerable and being emotionally vulnerable.”

Both men nodded vigorously. It seemed like they might never have thought of it quite that way before. “Yeah, you’re right,” said one of them. “I’ve been in that kind of situation… It’s hard. You open yourself up to someone, you open yourself up to being made a fool. I understand where he’s coming from.”

“It’s interesting, too, because he can’t let himself be vulnerable, and she can’t be anything but vulnerable,” I said. The man playing Desdemona shook his head. “Opposites attract. It’s so sad,” he said.

We kept playing with this scene, focusing on connecting with each other rather than on getting the words right. And, even though that was our focus, the lines began to memorize themselves. “I think I could memorize this one,” said one of the men. “Me too,” said the other. “I agree,” I said. “I’ll bet this would take you all of a half hour.”

On the other side of the room, they had worked out all of the scene’s blocking other than the combat. It took a little while for the group to figure out everything that happens – it’s dark, it’s confusing, and things happen fast. The scene is in good shape, though.

Since we still had some time, but many of the actors from V.i had left, those of us who’d worked on IV.ii showed the others what we’d done. They loved it. Then the men who’d figured out IV.iii showed us that scene, asking me to sing the song as they’d requested. It was quite moving and effective.

November 29

We’ve scheduled some extra meetings as we gear up for performance, and this was the first of those!

As Patrick (who is a fight choreographer) worked on several of the combat sequences on one side of the room, I worked on Act I Scene i on the other. This scene is a lot of fun. We played around with the physical dynamic between Iago and Roderigo. We found ways of clearly indicating Iago’s dominance in the relationship and worked on the build between the two men that leads to their taunting of Brabantio.

Another man came and sat with us. As we dug into the language, he became extremely enthusiastic. The scene got very “bro-y” – the two men built on each other’s taunts, finding ways of being more and more offensive when talking about Desdemona and Othello. The more outrageous it got, the better it worked.

The guys seemed a little surprised that I could so enthusiastically access and freely discuss this relationship and these jokes. We really connected through this work – and that’s part of the value of being a female facilitator in an all-male group. For some (definitely not all, but some) this is their first time working with a woman in a way that is at once professional and relaxed. And having fun. They fed off of my excitement, too. “You know how I can tell how much you love this play?” said one of them to me. “Your eyes are changing color. Like, they’re dark brown, but then when you get really excited, they get lighter.” That’s a new one on me!

We got a lot done today. I’m so glad we were able to schedule this extra time together.

December 1

When Patrick and I arrived today, we were told that one of our ensemble members may not be able to join us for the performance. We may not see him again during this workshop at all. He’s in a number of scenes, and there was some concern about how to recast him. I asked if perhaps we wanted to do what we do at the women’s prison when this happens close to performance time – have a facilitator fill in so no one else needs to stress or take on more work. It was decided that I would take on most of the scenes and the other facilitators will take on the rest.

While Patrick continued to work on the combat, I huddled with some others and worked out the logistics of scene changes. We need to figure out what the narration between scenes needs to cover, what costume changes need to happen quickly, and what items need to be set between scenes. This took us awhile – it’s fairly complicated – but we’ve got a good framework now that we can modify as we go if need be.

The man who is playing Emilia in IV.ii arrived, and I filled him in on what he’d missed when I’d filled in for him in that scene. We walked it together, and then he asked me how Emilia should react at the end. I told him that he should feed off of whatever Desdemona gives him, and he said he had thought she would be angry, but that when I read the part so quietly, so out-of-it, he had begun to feel like maybe that wasn’t right.

We pondered this. I remarked that Emilia comes back with Iago clearly enraged, but perhaps it takes her a few minutes to get there. “Here’s an example of that ‘magic as if,’” I said. I explained that, while I’d never been in this exact situation, I’d been in a similar one. When a friend shared some horrible news with me that involved her being hurt by another person, the first thing I did was to listen quietly and make sure I understood what she was saying. Then I got angry. Really angry. “I think that might be what’s going on with Emilia here.” I said. “What do you think?”

“Yeah,” he said. “If Desdemona’s gonna be like that, I can’t do what I was doing. Now that I seen you do that, it changed my whole perspective.”

I also chatted with several ensemble members about how we can continue to develop our program at Parnall. I regard all of SIP as an ongoing experiment – I leave things completely open to ensemble input, as I always have, and expect very little to be set in stone – and we’re so new to working at Parnall that it feels especially experimental. That’s how it used to feel at the women’s prison, and I remind the men of that when they start to wonder where we go from here.

They’ve got some really great ideas about how to proceed after this workshop. Those, married with my experience, are definitely leading us toward a solid program. I’m thrilled that they’re willing to work on this with me and very excited to see where it all leads us.

Fall 2017: Weeks 5 and 6 of 11

October 31 and November 3

We did some great improv and finished reading our play this week!

We began to brainstorm as an ensemble about our performance piece. We knew for certain that we wanted to keep all of the most pivotal scenes and stitch them together with narration (as we did this summer with Macbeth). We wanted to stay true to the characters, make sure all of the themes are covered, and we definitely wanted to get creative with the “revels” prior to Cassio’s downfall.

We took some time to reflect on what Othello means to us – what about it we find meaningful and compelling. Here are some of the men’s thoughts.

“Everybody’s life has dark spots – it’s not just Shakespeare.”

“They was able to show the vast amount of emotions. It started on paper but made it visual.”

“The layers – how Shakespeare – so many different parts come together to make this whole. And then there’s the ‘what ifs.’ It draws our emotions in.”

“They’re dealing with the same bullshit back then that we deal with now. I relate to it.”

“Hearing it out loud gives you a different conveyance than just reading it. We constantly put on a mask – especially in here. Who I’m with in there isn’t the guy I’m gonna see on the yard. Even though I’m not Othello, I’m putting myself in his shoes. I can convey those emotions. Same with Iago.” Another man responded, “You live it through the play and gain some empathy for what that person’s going through.”

“You’re able to connect it to your own life. You can apply it to your own life.”

“The thoughts and characteristics of each person – back in the day or now – it’s all the same. We see it every day.”

“It shows how the mask we put on – when the stuff hits the fan – the ugly side comes out. I can relate to that ’cause I been like that... In the midst of evilness, there could be goodness. I don’t hate on it. I kind of respect that.”

“The misleading and jealousy. Going out of your way to try to get what you want, failing, but you keep trying anyway.”

“I just like the plot. Iago is my favorite character. It’s a love/hate situation. My situation – he made it an eye-opener for me. He made a lot more aspects noticeable to me... Someone you think is honorable and trustworthy stabs you in the back.”

November 7

We played a couple of new improv games today, getting more comfortable goofing around together and doing some really solid work. And then, of course, we returned to discussing and planning our performance piece.

A couple of guys who weren’t present for our reflections last week shared their thoughts.

“It has to do with everyday situations – it’s still relevant to today. What I like most is Iago – to be so manipulative and change character on a whim – it shows a lot of [Shakespeare’s] talent.”

“I like the end. You find out how naïve and serious he was about killing his wife… When he finds out she didn’t do nothing, it made the scene more interesting.”

One man shook his head in amazement and reflected on all of these reflections: “Everybody told a completely different point of view. It’s an eye-opener.”

I had previously suggested to the ensemble that we focus our planning around what we want our audience to get out of the performance. I shared now that, taking in all of their thoughts about the play, it seemed like the crux of the experience for them has been the undeniable relevance and familiarity of the themes, situations, and characters. I asked them if that’s what they wanted our audience to come away with. The answer was yes.

But there’s more to it than that, one man reminded us. He saw the performance of Macbeth this summer and was one of the guys who went back out on yard afterward and called out the men who’d left for missing something incredible. Speaking of our audience, he said, “I want them to leave thinking it’s interesting, dope – seeing this group come together and do that.” He had immediately signed up for the fall workshop after seeing the summer performance. Another man who saw Macbeth and signed up after agreed, saying, “It made me wanna come back for more.”

The first man continued, “It made me see the light at the end of the tunnel – that this is just a season in my life.” A man who was in the Original 12 said being in the group would continue to do that for him. “You’ll see way past this. Way past this,” he said. The first man needed us to know more of what that one performance made him feel, saying, “It made me think about what I want in life – things I hadn’t thought about in prison… Like, man, do I even know myself?”

The Original 12 member who’d spoken agreed and explained further what he meant about being in the group and the performance. He specifically attributed some of that to his experience with the facilitators. “For them to come in and do this,” he said, gesturing to Matt and me, “It’s sparking something inside you that you didn’t know was there.” The first man nodded and said, “You never know what you’re capable of until you try.”

We began to talk about how we would handle our performance and what we need to do. Some of the men are fairly nervous about it. Those who were in the summer’s ensemble and a few others with some performance experience boiled it down to three points:

Don’t be scared.
Lay it out there.
Give it our best.

One man said he was nervous because, although he’s been on stage plenty of times as a musician, he’s never looked up from his instrument. Another said he had apprehensions about being on stage alone.

Another man, who hasn’t done too much speaking, jumped in. “It’s nerve-wracking getting closer to being in front of people.” He’s been on stage before, but… “I was always drunk or high. Doing it sober is gonna be different… And doing Shakespeare… Man…”

As a number of other men nodded in agreement, I stopped taking notes and got fairly involved in the conversation. I likened being on stage under the influence to wearing a mask – it seems like it protects you from the audience in some way; keeps you from being too vulnerable. I pointed out that you’re actually in a much better position to protect yourself sober – if you’re more focused and alert, you’re less likely to screw up and more able to cover if you do.

I also reassured everyone that we would find ways of making sure we’re all pushed out of our comfort zones only as far as we’re willing to go – no one is going to be made to do something of which he is truly terrified. I pointed to men in the room as examples. Our narrator for Macbeth, who is still in the ensemble, is totally comfortable making eye contact with the audience, so that was a good role for him. Those of us who are not comfortable with that will not break the fourth wall!

I also shared one of my favorite stories from the women’s prison. Our Balthasar in Romeo and Juliet had fairly crippling stage fright but was determined to perform anyway. The ensemble helped by cutting her part down so that she hardly had any lines – only the lines in which the character tells Romeo that Juliet is dead. When we staged the scene, she couldn’t look up – she found that she could only stay on stage and say her lines if she looked at her feet. The rest of us realized that this was actually a great way to play the character – it made sense to us that she wouldn’t make eye contact while giving such bad news. And just doing that little bit in front of an audience gave her such a confidence boost that she quickly blossomed in a dramatic way – she became a self-proclaimed “Shakespeare Geek” and entered a skilled trades program to improve her chances of getting a good job on the outside.

The point is that we always find a way to include everyone in our performances, no matter what the challenges are. It was a great conversation. Several of the men expressed a vulnerability that they hadn’t yet, and they were met with unwavering support from the rest of us.

We began to brainstorm the scenes that we want to include in our performance piece. The group was unanimous that the final scene should be staged in its entirety, and we picked apart the rest of the play from there. We very much want to do this in a serious way, and we want as many bases covered as possible.

We came up with a list of eleven scenes to play with. We will definitely need to make a number of cuts, but, just based on past experience, I’m confident that we can do what we want to do in the time we have to do it. Our program at Parnall is new enough that, while the men who participated this summer can mentor new members on many fronts, things like rehearsal scheduling, script editing, and performance run time are still in the facilitators’ court. I keep bringing in my past experiences as examples and reassurance. The more we all work together, the more they’ll be able to do it instead of me.

November 14

We went back over our scene list today, added one, estimated how long each would run, and did some casting. We were missing some ensemble members but cast them anyway, leaving things open ended in case they disagreed.

I was at the dry erase board writing everything out, so I didn’t take notes. One of the men realized that I wasn’t copying anything down for myself, and he asked me if he could take notes for me. It was incredibly helpful – he wrote down everything from the board as we went, so I didn’t have to worry about it.

It may seem like a small thing, but an interchange like that can be a huge thing for someone who is incarcerated. He saw that I needed help; he politely offered to provide it; I accepted; he dutifully did what needed to be done; and I expressed my thanks – and my admiration of his handwriting. We joked that I can’t read my own writing, but I can read his just fine. This man is going home soon, and he’s previously shared with me that he’s nervous about interacting with women again on the outside – he’s not sure he remembers how to do it. He’s practicing with me. And he’s doing great. And that’s awesome.

November 17

We spent today revisiting and refining casting. The two men sharing the part of Iago solidified which of them is doing each scene, we shuffled some others around, filled in some blanks, and then moved on to making cuts.

After talking with a couple of the guys at our last meeting, I brought in our selected scenes with suggested cuts already crossed out. I had thought that we would divide into small groups to go over them, but the ensemble decided we should read them aloud together instead, and I backed off and rolled with it. This was more time consuming, and we didn’t finish reading all of the scenes, but it was engaging and enlightening.

There was one bit that Othello says to Brabantio – about his wisdom and age – that I thought we could cut, but one man shook his head and said, “You can’t cut that. It’s a jewel for the audience.” He reminded me that we won’t be in full costume and will need that information. He’s totally right.

As we ran out of time, I asked the ensemble if they wanted me to go ahead and make the rest of the cuts, bring in printed and bound scripts for everyone, and we can continue to debate if we feel like anything needs to be put back in. They agreed, so that’s what we’ll do!

Fall 2017: Weeks 3 and 4 of 11

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. “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 – the 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, 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 11

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)
Sex (yep, we’re totally going to go there in a professional manner – we have to with this play)
Rhetoric (the art of persuasion!)

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:

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!