“Well, I never see you being discriminated against,” I told him.
“Of course you don’t,” he said. “You only see me when I’m with you.”
Then Barrack Obama was elected, and I started hearing certain words and coded phrases coming out of more mouths (particularly in my hometown) than I had previously been accustomed to. Then there was Trayvon Martin. Then Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, and all of a sudden the media seemed interested in a murderous phenomenon that had apparently been going on the whole time, and that my white ass, impoverished and marginalized though I am, was still privileged enough to have had hidden from me. Now Donald Trump, a filthy-rich white child of extreme privilege is all-but openly disparaging Hispanics in a presidential campaign, and in so doing has gathered a shocking amount of support. I’ve also noticed a trend of white douchey frat boy types making horrifyingly racist jokes in mixed company because they somehow assume that humor is to be found in the fact that they dare to. My friend was right, but not right enough; racism doesn’t just still exist in America – America is overflowing with racism. It’s the major societal issue of our time. It’s the thing we need to crack before we can truly make real progress. So it was only a matter of time before somebody did Shakespeare’s Othello, and TCC, in partnership with CORE Theatre Ensemble, have taken the initiative.
It’s a fascinating play. Willy Shakes isn’t thought to be the greatest playwright of all time for no reason (nor should he be referred to as “Willy Shakes” for any reason. Please accept my apologies). And among his best-known works, Othello is second only to Hamlet in its complexity and the depth of thought it demands of its audience. Except whereas Hamlet allows you to ruminate on the motivations of one specific guy from the comfort of your armchair, Othello puts your skin in the game by confronting you with a situation in which you yourself are a participant. It’s all the more incredible that this play is still so resoundingly relevant to our society when you consider it was first performed over four hundred years ago in another country.
And lest the preceding paragraph lead you to think that the play is a dry academic thought-piece, it’s also got THE best villain of all time. In fact, it’s got two in Iago and his lackey Roderigo. And any play that inspired Professor Ratigan and Fidget has got to be good for an evening’s entertainment.
I recently watched a rehearsal of CORE’s production, which typifies their inventive and evocative style, and afterward I sat down for an interview with director and CORE co-founder Edwin Castillo, Costume and Scenic Designer and CORE other co-founder Emel Ertugrul, as well as Dramaturg and Assistant Stage Manager Steffani Dambruch and TCC Roper Performing Arts Center Executive Director Paul Lasakow.
AltDaily: So Paul told me over the phone a couple days ago that he commissioned this piece. Have you guys been commissioned to create pieces in the past?
Ertugrul: We’ve done residencies, but this is the first time we’ve been commissioned.
Paul, what gave you the idea to commission CORE to do Othello at the Roper?
Lasakow: Well, the Roper’s primary mission is to involve TCC students in the performing arts and to create curricular tie-ins to what we do here. This can be done via the events that come here through our partners like Virginia Arts Festival, Todd Rosenlieb Dance, and myriad others. But I also try to either program off-the-shelf shows, or in this case try to partner with a group of artists who create something that matches with our curricular goals. I’d kicked the idea around with some of the other college administrators and Othello kept coming up. We have a college-wide theme of learning every year. This year the main theme is Changing America, and there’s a sub-theme of Diversity and Inclusion. I think Eddie and Emel and I kicked around some ideas for more American works but never really found anything that resonated, so I decided that Othello worked for everybody. And these guys have done a brilliant job of making it universal.
Castillo: When we updated and modernized this I wanted it to have a feel that we all relate to, like being in a military town. The show is all about the military, but they never see a fight. Actually, the first ten minutes are like “Yeah! We don’t have to fight anymore!” So it’s just people partying and hanging out, like you see around here sometimes.
Lasakow: That sort of subordinates the Changing America theme for the Diversity and Inclusion theme, which is a lot easier from a programming stance.
Edwin, you made some really interesting remarks in you director’s note. There’s always a question of race that is addressed by this play in some way, and I wonder if you could expand on the racial issue a little bit.
Castillo: Well, as everyone knows the play is always about Othello the one minority against everyone else. He’s “the Moore”. He’s the outsider.
Ertugrul: And in this modern day and age that is a bit of an oversimplification. Something that we wanted to look at in this modernization is that that’s very rarely the case. So in our staging, Othello is not the only minority in there, which makes it much more complex. It makes us as an audience look at it more like what we would see in real life.
Castillo: And the play is called Othello but I’ve always felt it’s really Iago. Iago really does drive the play. Iago points out to the audience that Moors are like this and that, and can be led about by the nose, and then he demonstrates that. It’s kind of a simplistic look at how a majority can lead around the minority. So by making Iago the same minority, we get this other dimension.
Ertugrul: Yes, so he’s saying this about his own race, but at the same time he’s demonstrating that it’s not the case, because he’s doing the leading. So when he says they have a propensity toward this type of behavior, his saying it already makes it untrue. It’s interesting to see that dichotomy.
That adds a whole ‘nother layer of villainy for him.
I also invited Stephanie to come down here as CORE’s Dramaturg. I understand you’ve been working with them for several years now.
Dambruch: Yes, but this is the first time in this capacity. I approached them because I’d heard about the angle they were taking, and I was fascinated by it. I teach this play regularly at ODU for the freshman- and sophomore-level literature course. And when we discuss it, we always structure it in the political and literary sense of binary oppositions, and that is kind of reductive in the way that Emel was talking about. White versus black, always. Or the Cypriots versus the Venetians. And the fact that they were dismantling that and flipping it on its head was, I thought, really interesting, especially since as a nation right now we are very racially conscious. The controversy of it is something that cannot be denied. So I approached them about coming on and making sure that it could be interestingly adapted into this modern environment.
So how from your point of view does the presentation of this play differ from the way it’s typically taught?
Dambruch: I teach it in terms of binary opposition: we show how there is a center that is built within this world that’s usually white upper-class male Venetian, and traditionally Othello is represented as a figure on the margin. Not even quite traditionally “black” – he’s totally marginalized. He has to perform any identity that’s given to him: adapting to the code of the military, having to mediate his own language. There’s a beautiful part that we ended up cutting where he talks about how he doesn’t have great speech. We did keep the part where he says “Haply for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation as chambers have…” The way he presents himself to the Venetian leaders is “I’m just a soldier, I’m rough” and then he delivers this beautiful soliloquy. He knows he has to exercise restraint because he doesn’t have a lot of power, yet he manages to insinuate himself.
Anyway, we show how he is marginalized and then brought back to the center with what happens. And I really liked how this kind of flipped that on its head. This production does feel much more about Iago and his influence telling people look here, look there, this is what you are, this is what you’re not.
What about Iago? What do each or any of you perceive as his motivation? Even at the end of the play he says “What you know you know.” He refuses to give us the comfort of knowing why he did what he did.
Castillo: Traditionally, and as it’s taught, people refer to Iago as a complete psychopath. He has no real reason to hate Othello so much. The one thing he does say is I heard people say he slept with my wife. And being passed over for promotion. But that’s it, and that doesn’t really give an audience much as to why Othello would trust him so much. So by making them both the same race, instantly they have a commonality. I always wanted Othello and Iago to have a good strong background. That’s how I’ve always thought it would work. Othello just takes to him, just listens to him. So if we start with the idea that they’ve been together through these wars and battles, and Othello still passes him over for someone that’s younger, someone who’s not the same race… that would instantly piss somebody off. That’s something that happens every day. It happens in today’s world. I’ve gotten that in my lifetime, in different jobs. Me being Filipino, I’ve been job situations where other Filipinos are like “can I take care of that for you,” and I’m like no, somebody else can probably take care of that. There’s this older mindset of being in a minority that you’ve got to take care of each other.
How does it feel when you’re in that situation?
Castillo: It’s very uncomfortable. It’s weird. In any sort of work environment it should always be the person that is qualified for the job that gets that job. There’s that line that Iago says: “Preferment goes by letter and affection, not by old gradation.” And I think that’s definitely an older mindset. Older Filipinos will always stick with other Filipinos and try to influence younger Filipinos – I’m just talking from my own background. There’s always that slight cultural pressure.
Ertugrul: Like we’re the same in a sea of white. It’s actually really interesting, because my dad’s Turkish. And while I may look white, I am half not. People notice my name is a little odd, but then they see me and forget all about it.
Tell me how to pronounce your name. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to ask for years.
Ertugrul: It’s (AIR-ter-al). The G is silent. Anyway, I would witness this with my dad because he is Turkish and we lived in a very small town in North Carolina, and in the eighties to find another Turkish person in North Carolina was kind of hit-or-miss sometimes, so if someone would come into town or search his name or anything, they would just knock on the door. And it would be a person that you don’t know at all other than that they are Turkish. And there would be a camaraderie that would immediately develop, or that they would expect. “You’re Turkish, I’m Turkish, we’re Turkish in a sea of Americans. What do you have? Can we share?” And my father was never very keen on that at all. He was always somewhat of a mistrustful person anyway, so when someone comes knocking on the door his first thought was always what do you want? And just because you were able to make it from that country into this country does not make you my cousin, my brother, or anything like that.
Did your father immigrate?
Do you think the experience of coming to America was part of why he was so mistrustful? It’s kind of a dog-eat-dog place in my assessment.
Ertugrul: It is. And his point of view was “I worked very hard for these things. And just because you are from the same culture or race does not make you welcome to have what is mine.”
Castillo: And it’s a tough balancing act. He built himself up to be where he is. “Why should I have to give anything to you?” But at the same time there is always going to be a bond there.
Ertugrul: Yeah, well we gave them dinner. But then anything further, like can you get me a job, or this or that, it sort of fizzled away. But you would see a person would expect a certain level of treatment merely because they were from the same country as my father.
That’s fascinating. I’ve never had any experience with anything like that, because as we all know this country’s full of white people and we don’t even trust each other. I’d like to jump to a different subject if can. Emel, you typically will perform in CORE productions, but this time you’re doing costumes and set. There are some very stark and distinct choices you’ve made with the set and I wonder if you’d care to comment on them.
Ertugrul: There are only six things. There are three clear chairs, two red chairs, and a broken sparrow painted on the floor. It’s intended to be abstract, so it could be broken stained glass – without the color – that’s where Jim [Lyden, Lighting Designer] comes in – it could also be an angel, or a bird. And I wanted clear chairs because there is no color obviously within this design, and whatever lights hit them would make them sort of sparkle. They’re actually called ghost chairs if you go to buy them online. But those red ones – you’re always saying this, Stephanie – look like they’ve been injected with blood. And I think that’s what happens: there is no color to people but there is anger, when your blood runs hot. So we have that always just on the edges. We tried placing them in different places, but they ended up where they are now for lighting. They also represent Iago and Othello, being two characters that have all this anger.
It’s a really interesting set-up here in the Roper too, with the audience seating onstage with the performers. Has this ever been done before here at the Roper?
Lasakow: Yeah, it’s something we do here sometimes when we just have too many seats for some shows, so we make a black box onstage. I think it’s easier to involve folks who might not normally come to see Shakespeare if it’s a more intimate environment. I’ve always enjoyed finding different ways to use the space. And I felt that rather than a big old 900 seat hall, this suited CORE’s aesthetic much better.
AltDaily: I agree. I was quite surprised at first to learn that Othello was going to be here. Have you guys ever done a show in a large proscenium space?
Castillo: Not in America.
Ertugrul: In Canada. 700 seats.
Castillo: That was a huge theatre.
Ertugrul: And Belgium was about 500. So we have done shows in bigger spaces.
Which do you prefer?
Ertugrul: Depends on the piece. Also whenever we’re travelling, we’re doing festivals, and you may not get your choice. They assign the venue to you, so we make it fit for where it’s at. And it makes a difference as to how you stage it. If we were using this entire hall, or if we were at the Little Theatre of Norfolk say, people would be looking up at us, as opposed to how we’ve staged this with people looking down on us. If people were looking up at us, I wouldn’t have painted that design on the floor. But I tend to prefer smaller venues because you can see all the subtleties on the actors’ faces. Beatty [Barnes, Iago] has these incredible facial expressions that we’d lose on a larger stage.
There are also a lot of extremely simple yet ingenious things you guys have established a reputation for doing with props that play really well in a more intimate setting. The Yellow Wallpaper, one of your first productions, was a very good example of that. I think Desdemona’s bed in this is too. Speaking of your first productions, you guys started out in two-thousand… four? Five?
2006. You’re coming up on ten years. Do you have anything special planned for your tenth anniversary?
Castillo: Right now we’re thinking about taking a nap after this one opens.
Ertugrul: We’ve talked about it, and we do want something to happen next year, but we don’t know what yet. We’ve toyed around with it on the long drive home to Virginia Beach every night for the past two and a half months, saying “What can we plan?” And every time we pull into the driveway, we say “I plan to go to bed.”
Are you making a living off of this yet?
Ertugrul: No. We still have day jobs.
What are your long-term goals?
Ertugrul: We define it project-by-project. If you start to define what you’re making based on how much you get paid for it, then you start having to make choices that will change the art. Does that make sense?
Yeah, actually that’s a great answer. I’d like to ask one final question of each of you in turn. What sort of conversation do you hope this will start?
Lasakow: I hope to cause the kind of dialogue we’ve just been having: What does the play mean? How do the dynamics shift because of the casting choices? And other things, like how do you take a two-hour play and condense it into an hour and a half? Anything really that inspires our students to start picking things apart and thinking about not only the work but also the process in a critical manner. If we do any of that at all then my job’s done.
Ertugrul: I’m really interested in what the questions are going to be. After every performance we’re going to have a talk-back where anyone in the audience can ask anything they want. And this is the part where we get an opportunity to see the show through someone’s first eyes. We’ve watched it over and over and over again. And while our job is to look at it with new eyes every single time, it’s a relative impossibility. So what’s going to happen inevitably is someone in the audience will ask a question about something we never even saw! I’m fascinated when you throw something out there that’s different like this is, to have a chance to hear what people have to say about it.
Castillo: Every time we create a show, especially an adaptation, the one thing I want people do is go back to and question the source material. Especially people who know Othello, I can’t wait for them to see this and then go “Wait, did that happen in the text? I don’t remember that ever happening.” Our purpose for adapting literature or classics is to reinvent and reorganize it, and take a different approach that will make an audience want to go back to it and see it again with new eyes. That’s what I hope people will do. The worst thing that can happen is people see a show and then go “Well, I saw it. Let’s go get some drive-thru”.
I’m gonna have to re-read it myself because I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Roderigo’s letters done the way you have.
Castillo: That’s just something that we discovered through the process, and Matt Cole is such a phenomenal, brilliant, crazy actor that he pulled it off.
Dambruch: Since I’m an English instructor I keep trying to think of the most apt quote from the show. And they always talk in academia about how everything you need to know about being human you can learn from Shakespeare, so I want students and everyone, like Edwin said, to return to the show and find, as Iago says, “what bloody business ever”, and think about what it means to be human.
Lasakow: I’d like to jump in and say one more thing. I’ve been buying performing arts product on a national basis for two decades and from my perspective and that of my colleagues here at the college, it’s incredibly gratifying to be able to partner with a group like CORE and have a comfort level where we can say “I want you guys to do Othello, call me back in six months”. And not have to worry about it, knowing that these guys are going to do a spectacular job, and that the production is going to be carefully crafted with tender loving care. They come through every time.
And they’re local, too.
Lasakow: And they’re local.
I firmly believe that if we guide and support our artistic community properly, you guys will be the first of many.
I’ve been a fan of CORE for a long time. Their presentation is innovative and highly stylized, but still broadly accessible. This makes them particularly qualified to highlight the relevancy of classical works to casual audiences. If you’ve only ever seen Shakespeare performed by guys with ruffled collars and British accents, check this show out.
If I’ve piqued your interest, Othello runs tonight, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm, and Sunday at 3:00pm at the Roper Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Norfolk. A talkback with the artists will follow every performance. Tickets are $25.00 and can be purchased here. Advance purchase is strongly recommended as seating is limited. You can find more info about CORE at coretheatreensemble.com.