I’ve seen my share of “circle-ups.” You know the circle-up: actors and crew and anyone else in the green room or rehearsal room stand in a circle before the show. Sometimes holding hands, they offer up intentions, prayers, dedications, thoughts, vibes, and energy for the coming performance. It usually culminates in something climactic, something similar to, but not generally the clichéd hands-in/low-to-high “gooooo TEAM!” that you see in movies (sure, sometimes—it’s fun). It’s visceral, it’s magical, it’s meaningful. Not every ensemble does it, of course, but those who do find the ritual as important a part of the process as learning their lines.
Last Wednesday when I went to a run of Othello, I participated in a circle-up that was just the first of many unexpected experiences that day.
Eric opened the rehearsal asking everyone in the room to join the circle. All of us: box office staff, production assistants, marketing and development folks, everyone, circled up with the actors, and Eric began by leading us all in a series of movements: simplified gestures of wudhu (ablution, or cleansing of the body in preparation for prayer), and simplified gestures of prayer.
We stood together, those who knew the movements focusing on their own thoughts, those of us joining in for the first time eagle-eyed on someone more practiced. We entered their emotional and mental rehearsal space with them. Eric and the cast murmured one-word prompts: “mouth,” “nose,” “face,” etc. while we followed as best we could.
Scoop your hand to your mouth and turn to spit: three times. Sniff imaginary water, turn to blow it out: three times. Scoop your hand up and over your face, behind your ears and down: three times. Each hand brushes the other arm, hand to elbow: three times. Scoop up and over your head, hairline to nape: once only. Run fingers up the wrinkles in the ears, bottom to top with your fingers: once only. Pass your hands from toes to ankle, each foot: three times.
Hands up to ears. Arms crossed over your chest, right hand over left. Bend in a forward fold, 90 degrees. Stand up. Kneel. Forehead to ground. Kneel. Head right. Head left.
There was no climactic event, but the care taken by those who were practiced at the ritual made it clear this was a serious entry point to the production. The actors would revisit these gestures individually throughout the show.
After wudhu, the actors and audience both took their seats—actors onstage in a small circle of chairs, and audience surrounding them on three sides, just steps away. (For this production, for the first time ever, we have reconfigured the seats into a ¾ thrust.) The actors began. Their circle rippled, broke, moved, but always reformed.
This Othello blurs the moments between when actors are themselves and when they are characters. We see the sublime gestures of prayer juxtaposed with the profanity of jokes that move beyond tasteless into potentially harmful. The actors constantly interrupt the action for a nerdy dramaturgical aside or a personal anecdote, making it hard to get too caught up in the dramatic emotion of it all—which makes the moment that you realize you’ve felt Emilia’s betrayal or Othello’s pride all the more exciting because of it.
This Othello will play like a love letter to Shakespeare and the theatrical form itself. If that all sounds a bit grand, I think that is because I’m trying to describe an experience that cannot be constructed using any other medium—it has to be seen on a stage. I feel like the best theater is like that; it shouldn’t be a story better told through song, or a TED talk, or a Netflix binge. It has to be a piece of theater.
Before I joined the team at Cal Shakes, I worked for two different experimental theater companies; I’m definitely on board for reimagined and even deconstructed classics. I’m so looking forward to seeing the fruits of the hard work that this ensemble has created. When we say “investigation” of Othello, it truly is an investigation: curiosity is sewn into every stitch of this production. What if? What’s that like? What do you mean? Why do you want to see that? Why do you hate to hear that?
This Othello wants you to ask those questions and will encourage you to ask more. It is, as Eric has repeated many times elsewhere, not a museum piece. This is like no other Othello you’ve seen—and I’m here for it.
Alicia Coombes is the Publications Project Manager at Cal Shakes. She’s worked in many capacities throughout the Bay Area theater scene, from dramaturgy to marketing, directing, and crew.
Othello begins performances September 14.