The Edges of Acceptance

DEC 17, 2018

Imagining Othello in a contemporary US context

A.R.T. Editor and Assistant Dramaturg Robert Duffley spoke with Othello director (and Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director) Bill Rauch and actor Chris Butler, who plays the title role in the OSF production arriving at the A.R.T. in January.

Bill, as a director, what drew you to Othello in this particular moment?

Bill Rauch: All of Shakespeare’s plays are “for all time,” as the adage goes, but I do feel that this play is particularly resonant with the United States of America in the twenty-first century: Othello illustrates society navigating difference and otherness in a way that is painfully relevant right now. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious bigotry, Islamophobia—Shakespeare has created a portrait of these societal constructs, and the ways that they hurt the individual psyche and the individual heart.

How has that resonance informed the setting of this production?

BR: We think of our Venice as a contemporary Venice located in the United States. Then, when the characters go to Cyprus, they are actually on the island of Cyprus. There’s not actually a US naval base on the island of Cyprus, but there are naval bases all over the world, so that change felt like a Shakespearean elision: Shakespeare collapses Elizabethan England—his own time and place—with wherever the play happens to be set. As a director, I felt inspired by that mixture.

Othello represents many different types of other: he is seen as a racial outsider, but also as a national and religious foreigner. How does that intersectional otherness appear in this production’s contemporary US setting?

Chris Butler: Othello’s position as a racial other is something that I’m always aware of, and something I was prepared to embrace when I got involved with the production. In addition to Othello’s status as a racial other, Bill also thought that it was very important to highlight that he is a foreigner in an adopted country. I was resistant at first, because I wanted to play Othello as an American Black guy. But given conversations about refugees and the closing of borders in the US (and the world) today, Bill felt that we really needed to not ignore that part of the story. Othello’s religion is also a factor in this production. He’s a convert, trying his best to be a Christian in America, but the fact that he is a convert keeps him on the edges of acceptance in society.

BR: When we started talking about Othello being an immigrant to the country that he serves,Chris made a connection to the Lost Boys of Sudan. And the more deeply I learned about them, the more I saw how their stories converge with Othello’s biography as written by Shakespeare. So we imagine that before he was pulled into military service in his home country, our Othello probably came from an animist tradition in a village. Then he was converted to Islam as a part of his enforced military service as a child, and then in his adopted homeland, he converted to Christianity. I think that Othello struggles powerfully with trying to stay true to who he is, because he’s suffered lifelong cultural whiplash beginning with his traumatic upbringing.

Chris Butler in Othello.

What can you tell us about who the other characters are within this production’s contemporary landscape?

CB: I am an admiral in the Navy, and Cassio is still a lieutenant. The senators are senators. But one interesting shift is that Emilia isn’t just a servingwoman in this production—she’s a petty officer in the Navy. I think that choice informs why she might not immediately be very close to Desdemona: it’s just a military assignment. Then she grows more loyal—it’s an interesting journey, and a strong arc.

BR: From the get-go, it was also really important to me that we not have eleven white people and the actor playing Othello. In order to reflect the complexity of the country and the world that we live in, we wanted a more multi-racial cast. Very specifically, Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio are all played by white actors, and there are many other actors of color—and therefore characters of color—in the play. For instance, Emilia is played by an Asian American woman, and Montano is played by a Middle Eastern actor as a Muslim Kurd.

In the rehearsal process, my directorial instinct was to keep pushing the otherness of the characters, while Chris was very thoughtful about the fact that if we highlighted that otherness too much, that approach might diminish the way that Othello himself is othered. I think the result of those conversations was a great collaboration, and I’m proud that we found a way to make the world of the play more complex in terms of both racial and cultural expressions while making sure that Othello’s unique blend of otherness really remains the dominant issue in the story.

Chris, given the possibly painful relevance of the play, what do you draw on to bring this role to life, and how do you take care of yourself while living this tragedy every night?

CB: This has been a surprisingly personal story to tell. The themes of the play really resonate with my life today, and having lived with the role for nine months now, it’s had a heavier personal effect on me than anything else I’ve done so far. The hardest part for me isn’t necessarily the racial aspect of it; it’s how I treat Desdemona—my wife, someone whom I love. I’m not a violent person, but I certainly know what it’s like to make a mess of things—to look down and realize you’re the one who made that mess. That’s a dark place to go at the end of a story, and it has been trying. However, in terms of handling that in the long term, we have a wonderful cast—a very warm, professional group of people. We treat each other with kindness and compassion, and that positive working experience has been nourishing.

Speaking of Othello’s treatment of Desdemona, this production is coming in the midst of a widespread conversation about sexual violence and violence against women. As artists looking at classic texts with painful topics, how do you responsibly bring those texts to life in a way that adds to the wider conversation?

BR: As a director, you try to cast the strongest possible actors in every role. There are four women in our cast. They’re all powerhouses, and they have fought—in the best sense of the word—for the integrity of their characters. Alejandra Escalante, who plays Desdemona, is a strong artist who portrays a strong woman. There’s nothing wispy or generic about her performance.

I wrestle with this question a lot as the head of a Shakespeare festival. When Shakespeare has a passage that is misogynist, or racist, or homophobic, is he endorsing those things, or is he exposing them? I’ve learned that you can’t make excuses for the man in terms of his being a product of a time and a place, and you can’t diminish the ugliness of what he brings forward, but at the same time, his humanity as a writer is so exceptional, as is his ability to have empathy, understanding, and love for every character he creates.

CB: From the very beginning of rehearsals, Bill didn’t want us to gloss over the ugliness in this play. People have asked, “Did you add some of those adjectives and epithets directed at Othello?” No. All of that is there. We wanted you to hear it, because we didn’t want to apologize for it. We wanted to make sure you could hear it in order to have a deeper understanding of the play.

BR: I think the question I’m hearing beneath your question is, “Is it worth putting this ugliness onstage? Is it worth bringing more ugliness into the world?” And I think Shakespeare’s humanity as an artist, and the humanity of the artists interpreting these roles, do make it worth our time. There’s a cost—Chris talked about the cost of having to go there emotionally. There’s a cost to the artist, and to the audience, too, who go on the emotional ride that is the play.

But in some ways, the question is “Why do we do tragedies at all? Why show the ugliest things that human beings are capable of doing to one another? Do we learn from those immersions in the ugliest parts of our nature?” And I believe that we do, but it has to be done with unbelievable care, thoughtfulness, emotional risk-taking, and integrity.

CB: This production asks a lot of the audience: it goes to an emotionally intense and unrelenting place. And people come away from the production with different feelings. People have left thinking about how to find the Iagos in their own lives, and also with a greater love and respect for the women in their lives. I want this play to be an impetus for kindness, because of the ugliness. It’s clear in the images that Bill creates that everyone in society is responsible for its ugliness. We all have a hand in it, and at some point, we all have an opportunity to do something about it.

BR: There’s one moment in particular that relates to what Chris is describing. As we enter the scene before Othello approaches the bedroom in the final act, everybody in the ensemble rotates the bed—it’s a moment of ritual movement. It was very important to me to highlight that these tragedies are not simply stories of individual pathology. These are societal tragedies—and that is something I believe very strongly. That’s not to take away responsibility from each of us as individuals for how we deal with those social constructs, but nevertheless, the social constructs are real and are part of what we’re all grappling with as individuals. I think Shakespeare understands that dynamic and creates it in his work, and we wanted to be able to underscore that aspect of the play in our production.

I think those reflections are very useful for audience members seeing the show. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

BR: On a personal note, I will just add that I was an undergrad at Harvard and had the absolute privilege of directing a couple of plays on the Loeb mainstage as a student when I was just becoming a director. Now this is my third professional production at the A.R.T., so the space, the institution, the audience, and the Greater Boston community hold great meaning for me personally—it’s a great honor to come back and to be able to share this work. It’s also the first Shakespeare production that OSF has toured to another city in many decades. So it’s a big deal for OSF to be invited to bring one of our Shakespeare productions to an institution like the A.R.T.

CB: And I have never been to Boston, so I am tremendously looking forward to it.

Chris Butler, Alejandra Escalante, and the ensemble of Othello.


Interview by Robert Duffley, A.R.T. Editor & Assistant Dramaturg.


Image Credits
Chris Butler in Othello. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Amy Kim Waschke and Danforth Comins in Othello. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Chris Butler, Alejandra Escalante, and the ensemble of Othello. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

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