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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.