by Jane Eisner
As the Cal Shakes House Manager, I’m at the Bruns for most performances. My job is to “host the party” for Cal Shakes—make sure people know where to go, where to sit, and that they have what they need to have a safe and enjoyable night at the theater. Therefore, I have the unusual experience of witnessing every single night of Othello. To some, this may sound like a nightmare (!); to others, a dream come true. For me, it tends to be the latter. Ultimately the best way I can describe my nightly experience at Othello is like being a tightrope walker: I carefully navigate each step of the line straddling two extremes: the lovers and the haters. Whichever way the wind blows, the House staff and I navigate the sea of polarizing opinions we’ve been cast into. No matter what happens during the show, one thing continuously stands true: no night is the same.
What sets Othello apart from any of our other shows this season is the involvement of the audience. The play is directed and designed with a Q&A, or “talkback,” between the audience and the actors during the show itself—in fact, right at a crucial moment. This allows, or rather, requires, the show to change each night. The audience responses are vital to the performance—arguably as important as the actors themselves. While many audience members at this point are already applauding or reeling from directorial choices, it is this factor in and of itself that seems to be the most major plot twist.
At every show I make a point to record the comments being said during the Q&A, as well as personal discussions I have with patrons, so I can report a few of them to staff. Each night, a slew of drastically different opinions creates a new dialogue between individuals in each audience and the actors:
“It was marvelous; like a string quartet of a symphony, sparse, clean, and beautiful.”
“I’ve been coming here for 20 years and I’ve never seen a worse play.”
“This transcends pretty much any production.”
“I have been coming to this theater for over 12 years and I have never been more uncomfortable in this predominately white space and I think it’s incredibly brave of you to take on this race issue.”
“I’m frustrated because I don’t want this interruption; I want to see the rest of the play.”
“The jokes were really inappropriate and distracting.”
“The jokes were chilling and daring—the audience reactions were maybe inappropriate.”
“To watch you interact as actors and then watch you sit and watch each other on the stage is something you never get and I loved seeing that—to see you as actors and as people.”
“This is a watershed moment for Cal Shakes.”
With each new insight that surfaces we, (as staff members, as theater-goers, as artists, and as people) see and hear a new perspective. We are challenged and put on the spot—there is no phone screen to hide behind to plot a reaction—we are in real time.
Just before the talkback, the audience experiences the climactic scene in which Othello strangles Desdemona. This scene in particular has been a topic of discussion for many audience members. Not only for the obvious reason—that a murder is performed on stage—but specifically because of the director’s portrayal of this violent act.
The onstage scene is shown concurrently through a video camera streaming live onto a screen in the background, while simultaneously the audience hears narration of a medical definition of strangulation. Audience members either love or hate this juxtaposition. Some state that the definition of strangulation is “too factual” while others comment that the definition makes the murder “more real.” To the same effect, patrons have adverse and complimentary reactions to the use of the video camera in this scene. Some find it distracting, while others believe it makes the murder “hard to ignore” and have compared it to videos of police shootings seen on social media. To that end, whatever the commentary may be, it is clear that the director’s choices are provoking thought. It is in these moments of truth, where our personal realities surface.
What the “naysayers” and “yaysayers” can’t convey in words is the palpable energy and emotion that lights them up, performance after performance. As a nightly observer, I’ve noticed that this work makes our audience feel vulnerable, challenged, and often, uncomfortable. It’s putting the personal into theater by forcing us to look at the hard stuff.
As a member of the frontline, I’ll take the good and the bad with a grain of salt and know that with each new night there is an opportunity to grow. #LoveHateOthello, and I’ll see you at the Bruns!
Jane Eisner has been Cal Shakes’ House Manager since the beginning of the 2016 Season. She joined us from The Playwrights Foundation where she was the Associate Producer. She is also a playwright and actor.