In case you were undecided about which of the last four Othello performances to attend....
A very special presentation and discussion with Queens College Professor of English, Dr. Miles Parks Grier, will be following Thursday's performance.
And he very well may be the perfect scholar to discuss Titan's take on Othello!
Uniquely qualified to lead a fascinating discussion on race and gender in Shakespeare --
Dr. Miles Parker Grier teaches classes at Queens College within and across: Shakespeare Studies, Early American Studies, African-American Studies.
His is also currently working on a book manuscript entitled “Reading Black Characters: Atlantic Encounters with Othello 1604-1855.”
Of his manuscript, Reading Black Characters, Parker Grier states: " I follow Shakespeare’s blackamoor across two and a half centuries of print and stage iterations, showing the play’s implication in a British-American project of producing legible gendered and racialized characters out of the strangers in a far-flung Atlantic economy."
Delving further into Reading Black Characters: Atlantic Encounters with Othello 1604-1855, Parker Grier explores the influence of professional writers such as Aphra Behn and Herman Melville who rewrite Shakespeare’s plot–and the relationship between white writers and enslaved bodies–in attempts to overcome disadvantages of gender and postcolonial positioning.
Also according to the Queens Faculty page, he has begun work on:
"a second project that uses Joni Mitchell’s insistence that she is a black man trapped in a white woman’s body to consider the (changed and unchanged) relationship to authority and prestige white artists achieved in the wake of the black protests of the 1960s."
All in all, pretty much the perfect person to end an evening of Titan's All-Female Othello with!
THIS THURDAY, MAY 30th
Additional Publications by Dr. Miles Parker Grier
“Inkface: Britons and the Slave Stigma in Antiquity and the Renaissance,” forthcoming.
“’The Base Indian’ Attends Othello: The Theatre of Racial Value in Late Colonial Virginia.” Forthcoming.
“Said the Hooker to the Thief: ‘Some Kind of Way Out’ of Rockism,” in The Journal of Popular Music Studies, March 2013
“The Only Black Man at the Party: Joni Mitchell Enters the Rock Canon,” in Genders, Fall 2012
“Having Their Cake… and Outlawing It, Too: How the War on Terror Expands Racial Profiling by Pretending to Erase It,” in Politics and Culture, February 2006
Titan's Othello opened this past weekend at the Queens Theatre to standing ovations and great response. A significant part of those ovations were, of course, due to the exceptional portrayal of the title character: Othello.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Othello herself, Leah Dutchin, about her background and what has lead to her nuanced, compelling and powerful portrayal of Othello.
Check out the interview below!
Where was home for you growing up, and where do you call home now?
I grew up in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minnesota and I currently live in Los Angeles, California with my husband and our two dogs.
Are your parents also from Minnesota?
My Mom is from Minnesota and has lived in either Wisconsin or Minnesota her entire life. Her side of the family is German, Swedish, Norwegian, and possibly a little Irish. My Dad is from Guyana – which is a tiny country on the North side of South American, next to French Guiana, Surinam and bordering Brazil. And his parents' genealogy is Indian, by way of Portugal – in fact, we recently got more specifics about our family lineage from a DNA test.
What was your first introduction to the Theatre and Shakespeare?
The first play I read was Romeo and Juliet in High School – we all traded off reading the parts in class. I loved it. And I remember not being intimidated at all!
Also, my Dad was raised in Guyana, which use to be an English sovereignty, so he actually grew up with Shakespeare. He can quote Shakespeare like [snaps her fingers]. All of the schools were Catholic with English teachers – literally teachers from England – and they used Shakespeare to teach the kids English.
And what was your introduction to Acting?
I joined a troupe called S.O.S. Players. We toured the Midwest doing skits for kids from kindergarten to 18, about teen issues: sex, drugs, violence, peer pressure, depression – things that kids were, most likely, unable to really talk about with other people. That really really changed my life: to realize I could do something I was passionate about and change lives.
How did you develop your passion for acting? How did you “train.”
My real introduction to it all - acting, public speaking, the technique of it - was through my speech teacher in High School, Mr. Estenson. He is the reason I became an actor. He saw something in me that I didn’t even know was there, something he called a “spark.” He trained me how to get your voice across an auditorium and how to approach classical texts – specifically Medea- and make them human.
Then after High School, I went to the University of Utah and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts there.
Did you study a lot of classical theatre at The University of Utah?
Yes. We studied it of course. But I was always cast in contemporary plays. Not sure why. So I thought I was really only meant to be a contemporary actor when I left.
But then I did the internship at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre [where she first met and worked with Emily Trask - who plays Desdemona in Titan's Othello] right after graduating from Utah. I was in Richard III in a small role (which was originally a man’s role!) and Mary Stuart in rep, so I became immersed in classical theatre. I got to understudy Queen Margaret in Richard III – and watching the actress, Rose Pickering, do that role changed everything for me.
So after that, Shakespeare was all I did for awhile! Three seasons at Montana Shakespeare in the Parks [where she met and worked with Abbey Siegworth - who plays Cassio in Titan's Othello] and one at American Players Theatre.
After which, I decided I wanted more training and went to Grad School at The University of California – Irvine and got my MFA.
UC- Irvine is a great theatre school and also has a great movement program. You’re a very physical actor. When did you discover that?
That began in High School. I was in sports my whole life. So I felt pretty comfortable in my body.
As soon as I got to the University of Utah, I really connected with my movement teacher, Jerry Gardner. He taught me so much about movement. Focus. Physical Focus. So that started the ball rolling. And I realized that movement doesn’t have to be dance.
Then my first professional show, Skin Tight, was a heavily movement based piece of work and stage combat – mostly unarmed – and it was against one man. So I had to match him. Physically. And that was wonderful. No one in the audience doubted I could.
Then, when I got to California Irvine I got immersed in Contact Improv - which is an exchange of energy between one or more partners – it’s essentially call and response with your body. So I guess I've always been a "physical actor."
Has your movement background helped in your approach to Othello?
100%. I’m always in a fight stance in this show. I don’t do that in my real life at all but… that’s Othello. In fact, that was probably the one thing about playing Othello that I wasn’t worried about! I was ready to fight. It’s a language in my body that’s just inherent in me.
You mentioned your family “lineage” earlier and a DNA test?
Yes. I did something called 23 and Me which is, essentially a DNA test/ data base. You submit a DNA sample (your saliva for example), and 23 and Me collects all of this information and it helps you figure out where your family actually comes from and fills in the holes in your family tree.
And I found out that I’m actually very Indian. Very Indian. My family is from North and South and East and West India. And I’m African as well. Sub-Saharan.
So your father’s heritage is actually closer to what Shakespeare would have defined as a Moor? Which was“a Muslim of mixed Arab and North or West African descent. “
So how did your father’s family end up in Guyana?
My grandmother’s side came through Spain and Portugal and I found out that they actually came over to Guyana as indentured servants. And so my family hails from indentured servitude. Which... well, we know the story of indentured servitude.
I've always been asked the question - "what are you?" ... Those three words - over and over and over...
Growing up in the suburbs in Minnesota, what was it like to come of age in a primarily white community?
I’ve always been asked the question “what are you?” I don’t know why, but I would assume it's because all of us want to put each other in a box. Just to safely put each other some place to say “Oh. That’s what this person is” – ‘cause people are uncomfortable about things that are different. But it was hurtful to me after hearing those three words – “what are you?” – over and over and over again.
When was the first time you realized you were “different?”
I was leaving the school going to the bus (even thought I lived close, it went by my house so sometimes the bus driver would just let me get on and drop me off). So I was about to get on the bus when this kid, he was Caucasian, yelled out the window the N word. At me. He , he called me a nigger. And I looked around because – was that at me? But he was looking right at me and the guys with him were laughing at me. I didn’t know what that word was, but it felt bad. It felt wrong.
So I slowly turned around and went inside and went out the back door of the school and walked home. And so when my Mom came home I asked her “what does this mean?” And her face just got so red. And she was like “Why do you know that word!? What happened?” And so I got nervous and I told her the story. When she calmed herself down and I asked her again “what does that mean?” And she said “it’s not a good word but what they don’t understand is they want to put you down, they want to put you in a box because they don’t know 'what you are.' But that’s what makes you beautiful.”
But I still didn’t get it. What am I?! Why do I look so different from everyone else. So (God Bless her), good Midwestern woman, she goes to the freezer and pulls out the ice-cream. And she pulls out the chocolate ice-cream and the vanilla ice-cream and takes a scoop of each and mixes it together and say – that is what you are. You are sweet. And you are a wonderful girl. And it does not matter what the color of your skin looks like – you are beautiful. And every skin color is beautiful. So you go and tell them that!
So that next time some asked “what I was” I said I’m chocolate and vanilla swirled together.
How has your own history and your own conversation with race affected your journey while playing Othello?
I never considered this play in my realm of possibility. So I never thought hard about the play for myself as an actress. But when I’d read it or seen it, I connected to him. To Othello. To trying to get people to see beyond my color.
I don’t deal with it that much any more in my life. I surround myself with good people – so I feel safe. But I still get it every once in awhile.
Do you “get it” in the theatre?
Mmm Hmm. It’s that look. “What do we do with her? She’s good but… where do we put her?” “Does that mean we’re saying something if we cast her in this role?” There aren’t very many Tennesse Williams plays that people are going to put me in [laughs]. Even though I love Tennesse Williams and connect very much to the women’s characters in his plays. And I’m also tall – so when I walk in the room – there I am.
I have tried to play that down or fight that in my life. Fight my height. Fight my coloring. Fight my big hair. But I’ve realized now that I have to embrace it! Yes. It does hurt my feelings when I suspect that might be a major factor in why I don’t get a role or work at certain theaters – but I’ve realized that’s not something I can do anything about. Just like Every. Other. Actor. There is that thing that they have to deal with and work around.
And so. Am I a little nervous that I’m “light skinned” Othello?? Sure. I’m worried that people won’t get it or will judge it. But I had to filter that voice and try to use it. Just like Othello does.
And really Othello is Muslim! North African Arab. He/she probably looked a lot more like me – than ebony necessarily.
But that’s the beauty of the world we live in now. People of all races fall in love - make babies. The babies look different. It’s not just white, black, brown, yellow. There are shades. A beautiful crayon box.
Women are often spoken of as the “weaker sex.” Titan’s production of Othello would beg to differ.
Othello’s Fight Director and Resident Company Member, Johnathan Hicks, weighs in about what it’s like to stage violence for a cast of fighting females in one of Shakespeare’s most physically brutal tragedies.
“Who wants to see a bunch of chicks fight?" Fight Director, Johnathan Hicks, asks.
"EVERYBODY." he answers himself. "I don’t need to get on a soapbox to let people know that women can get a negative rap for being the “weaker sex” – both in the world of stage combat and the world in general. But by now, this idea should be obvious bull honky. One of the best Fight Directors I know is a woman.”
Bull honky, indeed.
In fact, in Titan's production of Othello, when given the choice between a simulated slap and an actual slap that would make contact with her face– Cassio (Abbey Siegworth) and Othello (Leah Dutchin) immediately decided that, due to the proximity of the Queen's Studio Theater space and the importance of the moment in the two character's relationship, Siegworth would simply take Dutchin’s slap to the face.
Maybe not too terrible, if you have to do it just once but, unlike film, in the world of theatre repetition is key. A stage combat move like this requires much repetition and precision to get the physical contact to a “safe" and repeatable place in the adrenalin of performance. So Dutchin and Siegworth have to deliver and receive the slap over and over again in rehearsal and fight calls (fight calls are similar to a dance warm up, and they happen each time before the show is run), to ensure the actors are consistently making eye contact at the same moment (this is the unspoken, split-second, go-ahead to proceed with the violence), that Dutchin is striking Siegworth's cheek in the right spot (too high you make contact with cheek bone or eye socket- too low, the jaw takes the impact - both are potentially dangerous and more painful for both actors), making sure Dutchin's hand at the optimal level of tension and Siegworth's face is at the optimal angle and, lastly, that neither actor flinches or anticipates the strike - which, I needn't tell you, takes a greatly developed control of one's innate reflexes.
Yup. We're dealing with some pretty resilient and bad ass ladies here. So much so that, when Siegworth wasn’t present at rehearsal one day and Maggie Wetzel, Cassio’s understudy stepped in, she was given the option to “mark” the combat as the understudy. Instead, Wetzel took it on the cheek as well, without batting an eye.
When asked if he changed any of the combat choreography when he learned he would be working with all women, Hicks said No. “There really hasn’t been much thought about what I need to change in order for women to be able to combat instead of men. ”
Hicks approaches the combat from the point of view of story - not gender.
This goes hand in hand with what Lenny Banovez, the Director of Othello and Titan's founder and Artistic Director said when asked about the "concept" of an All-Female Othello.
"We aren't doing an All-Female Othello. We're doing Othello. With a female cast." -
When it comes to physical fighting in real life, there are some things that work in women's advantage as fighters:
- The male center of gravity is in the shoulders. The female center of gravity is in their hips - which is closer to the ground. Making them harder to knock over.
- Women have a higher pain tolerance
- Females, on average, have a larger Limbic system than males. This area of the brain is referred to as “the reptilian brain” because it houses instincts. This area, which is home to the mothering instinct and innate primitive fighting instincts, is larger in women than men. It has been observed that, when threatened, women actually display a primitive killer instinct far greater than the male.
Just think Momma Bear.
These things also aid them as stage fighters. Because of these reasons, as well as artistic choices, Hicks and Banovez have decided to stick to a specific “fight vocabulary” for this Othello
“Our Othello is contemporary world. What is cool about this is that it allows for more options as far as styles of violence. This modern setting gives us a broader choice from any fighting style and any weapon - past or present.
So everyone should just have guns then right? Ha!
We have used guns in Titan productions in the past and they immediately take the violence into the present [which is cool]. But guns are a tricky business for the theater. They are expensive. They must either be functional or be accompanied with some other technical element. They lead to questions: Does everyone have a gun? If not, who has one and why?
For Othello, we have decided to use a combination of daggers and unarmed combat. Since the idea of the human as a martial instrument has been around since Cain met Abel, and since here at Titan we like to keep it simple and raw, it works for us. There is an inherent brutality to the play. Therefore, the up close and personal quality of these weapons help to highlight the gruesome, intimate nature of the violence in the world of Othello”
A world you are invited into at The Queen's Theatre this month.
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Good Madam, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons. - Act 1, Scene ii
The first day of TITAN Theatre Company's Othello is here!
Everyone is eager to get into rehearsals and sink our collective teeth into this delicious, heartbreaking, mind-bending tragedy. But, don't be fooled, the work has long since begun. The cast and creative team have been preparing for this day for quite awhile. And everyone readies themselves a little differently. So we thought we'd get this blog rolling by asking some members of this fiercely female cast: How in the ot-hell-o do you get ready to tackle a play like Othello?
or - in other words
"How do you memorize all those lines!?!" - asked someone at every talkback ever.
Check out what the Bard's broads have to say in response.
"If I have to memorize quickly, I record the lines and listen while strolling or jogging. In this instance...
...I wound up across from Shakespeare's Globe."
Deanna Gibson - Emilia
"I like to memorize lines by recording my cues into my phone with little pauses where my lines are and then play the tape back and say my lines to it. I also like to do an activity, like cleaning the dishes or folding the laundry, because if you move while you memorize something you work both the left and right sides of your brain and the material sticks better."
Erica Knight - Lodovico
"I memorize the lines in many different ways, but my one top method is to write the lines over and over again. I have notebooks filled with lines from every show I have been in."
Laura Frye - Iago
"In the warmth of sunny Austin, Texas, I've been reading the text, re-reading the text, looking up the roots of words, reading the text again, and scanning. Lots of focus on departures from the iambic pentameter and going into imagination-land for the potential reasoning for it. I've also been eating a lot of tacos while doing this, as seen in the picture. Ah my two loves: Shakespeare and breakfast tacos. :)" Sierra Thothero - Desdemona u/s
"When I memorize a script, I start at the beginning. I memorize and say out loud little chunks of text at a time, adding another line, paragraph, scene until I know it all. I like to spend this time in quieter places (talking to oneself in public can be a bit distracting to others I've found) like my home or a patch of grass at a park."
Leah Dutchin - Othello
"In terms of preparation for three characters, 'No Fear Shakespeare' and multicolor post-its are definitely my friends." Molly Densmore - Montano
Osmosis. - Alyssa VanGorder- Gratiano
"Snow day! I've got Thai food on the way, I've got my complete works and my Othello script in hand, I've got coffee and the OED!" - Kate Gunther – Bianca
"A good Folio. A good Rye. And a good study partner."
- Emily Trask - Desdemona
"I'm a huge nerd. I gather every book, read every article, look up every word. With our current cutting, I'm looking for information about what version of Cassio will most help propel my fellow actors, and therefore the play, forward. They have harder journeys than mine; I'm seeking ways to make their jobs (as characters) harder, and their jobs (as actors) easier."
Abbey Siegworth – Cassio