Thursday, May 7, 2015

Breaking My Neck Each Night

When I was in college I did a paper on the Shakespeare tragedy, OTHELLO. In it, I talked about the play itself but also talked about modern adaptations (including the Kenneth Branaugh film) and how it related to current society. Little did I know that in 2015 I would get the chance to play one of my favorite written characters - Desdemona, with The Seeing Place Theater.

My love of Shakespeare goes back to middle school. I was in the school concert choir in 7th grade, and for one of our concerts we decided to put on a condensed version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, with just the mechanicals & fairy stories punctuated with the music of Mendelssohn (music which was set to the lyrics of Shakespeare’s songs in the play.) In that performance I got to play Bottom (one of many gender-bending roles in my early years as an actor.) I was fascinated by the language and the stories, and I had a heck of a lot of fun playing an ass.

In high school I gave myself the challenge of taking 4 full years of every subject possible rather than just the required minimum - math, science, English, foreign languages, etc. This meant that, to complete my English challenge, I got to take Honors level Shakespeare from our school’s expert, Mr. Parker. In that class we must have read 10-12 of Shakespeare’s plays, and at the end of the year each of us were assigned to study one play and present it to the class, either in book report form or as a presentation I was assigned, “ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL” and I opted for a mix of the two. I ended up writing a 30 page modern play adaptation which set the events of the play in current times. For my presentation, I set up each scene and assigned roles to my classmates, who read the play in front of the class.

So it comes as no surprise that I would be running a theater company that always produces plays with the intention of shining a light on modern times, exploring how the themes are relevant today. Our OTHELLO explored modern tensions between Arabs and Americans, especially Black Arabs who find themselves discriminated against both by black Christians, non-black Arabs, and Americans. As the co-director of the play, I got to influence much of the storytelling with my particular passion for equality. We opted to start the play with a beautiful pre-show ritual, where Othello gives Desdemona a traditional Muslim prayer shawl to be worn during their wedding, while Othello wore a suit similar to those worn by Christian grooms. In this brief pre-show (set to intoxicating tribal music), we wanted to show the audience what it’s like to have two very different people embrace and accept one another’s differences and blend them together to create a new life.

Desdemona and Othello, united

I also had traditional Mehndi on my hands - the henna tattoos that Muslim women put on their hands and feet when getting married. We chose to do this so that, to detractors, I would always seem “marked” by Othello, no matter how happy we seemed. And when Othello (spoiler alert) prepares to kill Desdemona and calls it an honor killing, he says the traditional Muslim prayer for peace. (Scholars generally agree that Othello converted to Christianity after being baptized - in our telling of the story this was the case but he reverts back to his roots when Christianity fails him.) The Muslim prayer was particularly upsetting for many audience members on both sides of the issue. Some thought that this proved that all Arabs wanted to kill Christians, and some of the Muslims that saw the show were worried that this peaceful prayer would continue to be connected erroneously to violence. What was so exciting about this directorial choice is that IT GOT PEOPLE TALKING. In our “advanced” society we all know it is taboo to express racism against blacks. But for some reason racism is alive and well against Arabs and many Americans have been conditioned to think that way. Focusing on this part of the storytelling allowed our audience to experience the downfall of Othello in a whole new way, and they got to explore their own attitudes about race and religion in America.

Aside from the community impact of the play, it was pure joy to be able to perform with this talented group of actors each night. And our theater was small and intimate - just 70 seats - which means that audience members were very close to the action. So in my final scene where Othello tells Desdemona to say her last prayers, I was no more than 2 frets away from the first row of seats, so they got a palpable sense of what it was like to witness a marital spat gone horribly wrong. My co-star, Ian Moses Eaton, was terrifying. We had a carefully choreographed fight scene which involved him lurching at me, almost hunting me as his prey, when he finally grabs me and I plead for my life, he says, “It is too late” and he grabs for my throat to choke the life out of me. My servant Emilia comes in and find me barely alive, but it is indeed too late and after a few words absolving my husband, I die.

I’ve seen a number of productions where the death was highly unbelievable. Desdemona gets strangled for 2 minutes and seems to be dead, but then she somehow resurrects enough to says her 3 lines clearly right before she dies. Both I and my co-director wanted to make the death as realistic as possible, but were stumped - how can Desdemona be left for dead and still be able to talk before she dies?

Othello strangles Desdemona

That’s when we came up with an idea - maybe she doesn’t die from strangulation in particular. Maybe his strangling her sets something in motion that takes some time to complete. What if Othello, in a fit of rage, snaps her windpipe? This would immediately change things in the fight and allow Othello to step away from Desdemona, knowing that her demise is near, and it would allow me to continue to gasp for air and do everything I can to communicate when Emilia enters the room.

It was brilliant. Once the neck was snapped, I put out this pitiful squeaking sound and intermittently gurgled, which gave the audience a gruesome look at what death by strangulation might look like. It was so much fun to do that scene each night, knowing what was in store for the audience.

Desdemona in happier times...

To see more photos from the show and to read many of the incredible reviews from both critics and audiences, visit:

Erin Cronican's career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit

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