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Co-Directing a Classic: An Interview with Charles Newell and Gabrielle-Randle Bent

Gabrielle Randle-Bent and Charles Newell walking outside Court Theatre.

Dramaturg Jocelyn Prince interviewed co-directors Charles Newell, Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director, and Gabrielle Randle-Bent, about Court’s staging of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice prior to the start of rehearsals. To learn about how this production has evolved in-process, read on.

The production’s world is an amalgam of periods and locations. Where did this choice originate?

Gabrielle Randle-Bent: The more this piece came into focus as something about the text of Othello and the narrative that Shakespeare wrote but also about theatre, theatre histories, performance histories, actor experience, and everything that has to do with the world we live in from war to race to gender, it stopped making sense to land on a when and where. This production is not about why. The why never has one answer, so living in the multiplicity of that has been a challenge, but it’s the best way to be truthful in this inquiry. 

Charles Newell: The production is an amalgam of our current thinking as we interrogate this text for right now. 

In the wake of the reckoning around race in this country, why stage Othello now?

CN: There were conversations amongst Court staff about whether we should do the play. At one point, we were at a place where we were going to choose not to. But we kept talking. I cannot remember another artistic journey in which we were invested in doing a text and then, as a result of what was going on in our world, we almost canceled it. That was a critical moment of reckoning for Court. The movement forward, the way we change the artistic process, and the way the work is represented came out of that question. But if not Court Theatre, who? If not now, when?

GRB: Being a theatermaker is about facing my fears. It’s not about cow-towing to them, it’s not about knowing what’s right and wrong. It’s believing that being a storyteller helps people navigate the complicated truths of life. In a way, Othello has been a gift because it’s full of many of the things we’re afraid of at this moment in our culture, and that’s never not been true about this work. To run away isn’t reckoning with it, it’s not believing in what we do.

Why center Othello’s perspective? 

GRB: Centering Black identity, Black interiority, and Black tragedy makes more room for humanity. What happens when we make assumptions about who gets to tell a story is we take shortcuts about who gets access to full humanity and who is just a character in the narrative. By going in earnest pursuit of who Othello was and how he felt, it opened up avenues for how everyone else in the play could feel. We stopped calling them characters, we started calling them people, because Bianca has feelings, Cassio has dreams, Montano is conflicted, Desdemona is passionate, and Iago is just a man, he’s not good, but he’s not the personification of evil, either, and that’s a liberation for him because when Black people get free, when Black women get free, we all get free. I’m not here to center Othello because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you contend with Black stories, I’m here to center Othello because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you contend with human liberation.

CN: Amen. 

You’ve made significant cuts to the script, and you plan to continue. How did you decide what to take out?

GRB: When you make edits, there are things you sacrifice, and some of that is the racist language, the blatant sexism, the comedy at lesser characters’ expense. We’re shooting for 90 minutes for the sake of people’s air quality and to distill the story we want to tell. It’s an artistic exercise in starting with practical needs by thinking about what is central in our mission to center Othello, to learn about these people, to go on a tragic journey with each of them, and convey ideas through speech, movement, and design.

CN: The cutting reflects the multiple generations of thinking about what story we’re telling. The primary aspect now is exploring who the specific actor’s character is, who is Kelvin’s Othello? Who is Sean Fortunato’s Barbantio?

The pandemic drawdown of operations at Court allowed for extra development time. What’s the result?

GRB: It’s fun to talk about something that has this many pitfalls and moments of beauty. At various turns, I’ve fallen in love with Bianca and Roderigo, and I felt twelve hundred ways about Othello. You don’t get that opportunity to go through that cycle of emotional investment when you work on a show for a short time. In theatre, each production has different artists and creative impulses. Everything is new at once. Nothing is more exciting than sitting with something that you feel like you know and getting surprised.

CN: We iterate during artistic processes. The quality of what we achieve depends on how often we iterate because every idea builds off the previous one. To have a production that has two to three times our normal time for iteration has been a joy. One critical moment was when we invited Kelvin Roston, Jr. to join the design team when ideas were being developed. Typically, the design team makes the decisions and the actors show up at the first rehearsal. Here, the actor playing Othello was present to tell us who he wanted to be and to create. Kelvin’s influence was significant to the project’s evolution. 

What have been your influences throughout this process?

CN: Simply reading the text. It was one of the few Shakespeare texts I had never worked on, but when I saw Kelvin Roston, Jr. and Tim Kane’s partnership in Oedipus Rex, I asked if they would want to do Othello. They said yes, so I read it. The play feels malleable, which was inspiring when thinking about how the team could work with a text that could mean so many different things.

GRB: Professor Ayanna Thomspon’s analysis of performances of Othello as a palimpsest, meaning that there are stepped-on ideas, stepped-on experiences. That has been a driving image. Following the historical trajectory of this text has been following the trajectory of portrayals of Blackness, of understanding race, and of the ways that texts, theatre, and culture don’t just mirror who we are but help dictate it.

What are your favorite design elements?

GRB: We’ve been working with the designers from the beginning, and there’s something magical about abstract ideas manifesting in the texture of the lapel on Iago’s suit, the weight of the cape from Bianca’s boudoir. These manifestations are possible because we work together. So, it’s hard to tease out individual moments of design. Everything is a conversation.

CN: A key moment was when the word scaffolding came out of John Culbert’s mouth. Another critical moment was when Erin Kilmurray, our movement director, talked about how we approach intimacy and violence. We know it’s not the traditional ways that you might think a stage production of Othello would use to represent violence.

What are you excited about going into rehearsals?

GRB: It’s magical being in the room. You plan for it, but you don’t know until you throw out the first pitch and the ball gets tossed into the air. That’s what rehearsal is—all the people there, ready. It’s the best feeling.

CN: Our world has changed since the last time any of us were in a rehearsal room together. Our thinking of this play has changed. We would’ve never made this production we’re rehearsing now if we started rehearsal in April 2020. The fact we get to be in person together in a way we don’t know yet how to be feels unique to this moment.

Performances of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice begin October 8. Learn more and get tickets→

Posted on September 27, 2021 in Uncategorized

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