As dramaturg of Othello, I got to do a lot of fun and interesting things like writing up explanatory notes for the middle and high school classes who will see the play. But by far the most fun was working with the actors. Early on in the rehearsal period I spent a couple of hours with the cast, answering questions and providing background information on the play, Venice and race in the Italian Renaissance.
Even though it was the first week, the actors had all obviously spent a lot of time thinking about their characters and they had tons of questions. They wanted to know all kinds of things—we talked about whether Shakespeare thought of Othello as purely African or more Arabian (the word “Moor” was used about both in the time period), about the system of ranks in the army and whether or not Iago was right to expect promotion, about Bianca—prostitute or girlfriend and, either way, why she’s upset about Cassio’s request to copy the handkerchief pattern. I tried to provide modern day examples because I firmly believe that while the specifics of behavior have changed, Shakespeare is writing about universal feelings. With Bianca I said “Imagine you’re in love with a guy, but you aren’t quite sure how he feels. One day he hands you a cell phone. For a second you think it’s a gift and then he says “I really like this model and I think they sell it at your store. Could you pick one up for me?” And then he takes off. Imagine how crushed you’d feel.”
I love working with actors because they care passionately about the play—the language and the characters—in a different way than the scholars I usually work do. Instead of looking for symbols and themes, actors want to understand motivations and behaviors. They want to give the characters life and make them rich, three-dimensional people we all recognize. Being part of process of fleshing out the characters is one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had.