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.