Othello, night after night: a House Manager’s perspective

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.

Ive been coming here for 20 years and Ive 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 daringthe 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 thatto 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.

Posted in 2016 Season, Othello | Leave a comment

2017 Season Announcement letter from Eric

Greetings, friends,

As we look forward to 2017, I want to share with you my thoughts on our next season’s plays, one I’m confident you’ll find as dynamic and exhilarating a theatrical ride as this summer has been.

We’ll begin our season with As You Like It,that most classic of Shakespearean journeys; from city to forest, director Desdemona Chiang (who most recently directed A Winter’s Tale in Ashland) invites us into her Arden—a place both familiar and wildly unexpected, where everyone is so much more than they seem. We continue our celebration of modern American classics with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie—a play you think you know, but in the dynamic hands of Chicago-based director Lisa Portes, a comedy of family that’s sure to feel gloriously new. I’m honored to be directing the West Coast premiere of black odyssey, Oakland-native Marcus Gardley’s adaptation of one of Western civilization’s earliest epics, a vividly theatrical tale of homecoming set right here in the East Bay. And finally, Measure for Measure completes our summer with that indelibly funny and simultaneously chilling examination of the body politic and the body personal.

These four plays will form the core of a season rich with opportunities to dive deeply into the issues of our moment, continuing our efforts to build bridges between our art and our communities, between our past and our present, as we forge a classical theater for our 21st century. By subscribing, you’ll be showing your support for this vision, and joining a community of theater-makers committed to celebrating the transformational power of this art, here under the sky and stars, in our classrooms, and in our communities. Won’t you join us next summer? And always feel free to drop me a note—ting@calshakes.org—I’d love to hear from you.

Eric Ting, Artistic Director

Posted in 2017 Season, Announcements | Leave a comment

The Unexpected Othello

Othello set, photo by Eric TingI’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.


Posted in Othello | 2 Comments

Ask Philippa: Othello Edition

ask-philippa-othelloAs Othello opens, the story of the great General’s marriage is quickly spat out to Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, as a scandalous piece of news. ‘An old black ram is tapping your white ewe,’ says Iago, Othello’s subordinate. But why is the story of Othello’s marriage delivered in this way? Who is Othello–the great General so esteemed for saving Venice, or the scandalous over-reacher who has “reached” into a senator’s home and stolen away his daughter?
And who does he become? As the play progresses, jealousy is awakened as a sleeping monster in Othello’s breast, eroding his marriage, his confidence, his belief system, and his very identity. And for this great war machine, Othello, a new and shocking question emerges that he has no tools to deal with: what is the price of a life in a world away from warfare?

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

Posted in Ask Philippa, Othello | 47 Comments

Othello in Rehearsal

by dramaturg Philippa Kelly
Today is my first blog posting for the rehearsal process of Othello, our first show with our new Artistic Director, Eric Ting, at the helm. I’d describe the rehearsal period so far as fast, furious, and focused. But Eric is also encouraging us, at every point, to be deeply thoughtful and self-questioning as we tackle this hugely dense text in the tiny 3 and a half weeks’ rehearsal period we have. 
The world he’s creating is one where Othello is a Muslim, likely converted to Christianity, the textual suggestions for which might live in lines like: ‘“For Christian shame put by this barbarous brawl!” “Are we turned Turks?” And then of course there’s the final soliloquy in which, in the devastation of his deed, Othello depicts himself as both the Christian punisher and the “malignant and…turbann’d Turk” who must be punished.
Yesterday Eric asked our Assistant Director, Denmo Ibrahim, to tease out some of her thoughts and questions. Denmo is wondering about Othello’s striking of, and eventual strangulation of, Desdemona—if we suggest a Muslim background to his life (and still perhaps a private Muslim practice in the play?), are we helping to imprint stereotyped media images of Muslim men and violence? Denmo also asked: “Does Othello bring his faith to bear through the killing? Or does he leave behind his faith in order to do the killing? Is the strangulation a liberation or a hate crime?”
Denmo’s words moved me to contemplate Othello’s conversion to Christianity as perhaps both his “real” identity (the identity of the “Othello now”) and the palimpsest—you scrape it away and there is the convert who is always, by virtue of conversion, “other.” Aldo (playing Othello) also talked about otherness as his own lived identity: he has, for instance, been pulled over by the police 37 times with no viable cause other than the color of his skin.
Our culture today is in many public aspects one of “seeming”—we’re bombarded by images from all kinds of media. We post on Facebook quick messages that we admire each other on so many levels (what levels?). We become electronic “friends” with people we’ll never meet, but to whom we treat images of a lunch or a dinner or an event that was awesome or in some way inspiring. Who are we really, behind these images? 400 years ago, things both were and were not similar. In a society moving out of feudalism, clothes literally made the man: the more you wrapped yourself in the attributes of your role, the more “true” you were to your self. There were even laws against nurturing private ambitions that might lead you to comport yourself beyond your station. Today’s familiar division between outward and inward selves is a modern phenomenon born largely of capitalism, and Shakespeare was at the cusp of the change, where “seeming” began to spell “public,” and “who we really are” had a private ring to it. 
In Othello Shakespeare has created a play that echoes with that change. The play is full of images of “being” and “seeming”—“I think my wife is honest.” “Long live she so, and long live you to think so.” “Men should be what they seem.” And images of Othello’s being happy if the whole army had tasted Desdemona’s sweet body “So had I nothing known”… It’s not until the image is punctured, in other words, that the truth is a problem. And in the end, the whirl of being and seeming collapse Othello’s reason and judgment: he just wants proof as his truth, and, sadly, will do anything to get it. 
And here’s another question: today, as then, do we set up our human killing machines at the expense of their humanity and personal relationships, however much we plaster the noble warrior, the Westpoint officer images, across it?
Finally, I dedicate this to Larry Smith, my friend across the Pacific, who died yesterday while rehearsal was in process. Larry was a professor of Business and Management, but loved theater. (Why is there a “but” there?!)  Death is an end-point: though in Shakespeare’s Othello, it’s not. Many characters speak quite lengthily after they’re stabbed and even strangulated. Why is this? Perhaps because death is so final; and theater gives us the chance to think that perhaps it need not be: that there can BE a last word, instead of the unknown, never-fully-prepared for, eclipse.
Posted in By Philippa Kelly (dramaturg) | 3 Comments