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.