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!