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!