The Folger Spotlight

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Recording Othello

Hi from your pal Louis Butelli, aka Roderigo in Folger Theatre’s production of Othello. We’re heading into our final weekend of performances: the show must close this Sunday, December 4th. So if you’ve been thinking about picking up tickets to see us, now is the time.

A couple of weeks ago, the company learned that the Folger was going to attempt a bold new experiment, for which we were to be the guinea pigs.

As you may know, the Folger Shakespeare Library edits its very own editions of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Published by Simon & Schuster, and considered by academics and theater professionals everywhere to be among the very best, the Folger Editions have been a major part of my own work on Shakespeare for the whole of my career. Where ever you rehearse, there’s almost always a Folger Edition in the room.

It is with great excitement that I report to you that the Folger continues to explore various formats for the Folger Editions (which began with the DVD Edition of Macbeth), including new digital formats. That’s right! Shakespeare’s plays, edited and compiled utilizing the Folger’s extensive resources and world-class scholarship, released in digital format. That means even more ways to access the resources you have come to expect from the Folger, such as:

  • Freshly edited text based on the best early printed version of the play
  • Modern spelling and punctuation
  • Detailed explanatory notes
  • Scene-by-scene plot summaries
  • A key to famous lines and phrases
  • An introduction to reading Shakespeare’s language
  • An essay by an outstanding scholar providing a modern perspective on the play
  • Illustrations from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s vast holdings of rare books
  • Biographical and historical essays

Plus, an extra special treat—and that’s where the experimentation comes in.

Selected Folger Editions will be made available as an audio recording of the whole text of the play.

Louis Butelli with one of Charlie Pilzer's Grammy Awards

On Monday, then, the entire company of Othello made a trip to Airshow Mastering, a recording studio in Takoma Park, Maryland. There, under the supervision of director Robert Richmond and Grammy Award-winning engineer Charlie Pilzer, we set about the task of creating a complete audio recording of Othello.

With just one day in the studio, from 9am to 6pm, and working out of sequence, everyone had to move quickly and efficiently, keep their energy up, and stay on their toes. Grouped together by scene, actors would head into a large soundproof booth equipped with 6 highly sensitive Neumann microphones—the sound of footfalls, breathing, and rustling script pages are all highly audible—and put on headsets. Meanwhile, in the adjacent mixing room, through a thick pane of glass, our coaches Robert, Charlie, and the Folger management team kept an eye on sound levels, performances, and the text of the play.

“There’s more pressure than I thought there’d be because of the time constraints—plus, you can see their faces through the window,” said Ian Merrill Peakes (Iago). “Robert does not have a good poker face.”

Meanwhile, at the catering table in the waiting room, Owiso Odera (Othello) added, “It’s both wonderful and daunting to put something on tape that will possibly last forever. But I’m having a thrilling time. And these potatoes are yummy.”

As with working on a film set, the recording process is highly technical and completely unlike the experience of producing a live stage performance.

“It’s difficult because it feels like you’re acting with the mic more so than the other actor you’re playing the scene with, and I’m so used to looking at the other actor,” Owiso continued. “But it’s good because it helps you listen to the music of Shakespeare’s language, so that’s kind of nice.”

There’s also a lot of “hurry-up-and-wait,” with plenty of downtime for the actors not being used to record a given scene. “It’s kind of like an audition with people anxiously waiting around,” said Karen Peakes (Emilia) of the vibe out in the waiting room. Everyone processed the downtime in their own way—some looking at their lines for an upcoming scene, many people on laptops and iPads, one actor (certainly not me) outside smoking heavily. “I’m really enjoying this book on North Korea I’m reading,” said Zehra Fazal (Bianca).

One of the most striking parts of the experience has been working with the complete, uncut version of the play’s text. As with most stage productions, Robert directed us in his adaptation, or cutting, of the full text. At the studio, though, we were recording every single line of the play. This poses new challenges for the actors.

“The given circumstances for each of the scenes change drastically because of the differences in the script,” said Thomas Keegan (Cassio). “Add in the intimacy of the microphone and it’s a totally different experience from our stage production.”

Ian added, “Another thing that’s fun is hearing all the words we don’t say [in our show]—directly in your ear. It’s so present. In the headphones you can hear it so well, and it’s really great to hear these words.”

While breaking the habit of saying a particular set of lines in a particular way can be challenging—this group of actors has been working on our version of Othello for ten weeks now—the recording experience has also helped us all to look at the play with fresh eyes.

It also gave us the opportunity to work together in a completely brand new way, as if we were performers on a radio show. As Joe Guzman (Lodevico) put it, “There’s a great shorthand in the ensemble and we were able to do some complex group scenes, adding sound effects and slaps and laughter. We all know each other so well, this late in the run, and that, I think, made it almost effortless.”

As the day wore on, the coffee flowed, and a slight giddiness started to set in. We found our groove, learned our way around the studio, and ideas and laughs were abundant. By the time 6pm rolled around, we had an amazing recording of the entire Folger Edition of Othello in the can. As Stage Manager Che Wernsman put it, “It’s an amazing experience, and I’m so glad to be a part of it. Please don’t mention that my eyes are crossed.”

I won’t mention it, Che.

And keep your eyes and ears peeled for this incredible recording, coming soon!!!


  • Along with the great Folger Library paperback books on each of Shakespeare’s plays, the addition of a ‘play-on-tape’ version is a great idea!

    As retirees without kids or cats, we enjoy subscribing to the Folger along with volunteering as ‘ushers’. We’ve already seen “Othello” twice & are looking forward to ‘working’ the final 2 shows this coming Sunday. We always see/hear something ‘new’ each time we see ANY play, and watching the show from different seats also gives us a different perspective each time!

    The chance to see … and now hear “Othello” in a ‘less-than-traditional’ manner should be a real treat.

    Another compelling version of “Othello” was Synetic Theater’s recent remounting of its ‘silent’ “Othello” – in which the company’s physical/dance movement performance included 3 actors playing Iago – helping to highlight his truly sociopathic and perhaps schizophrenic personality.

    And in the ’97-’98 season, The Shakespeare Theatre produced a ‘photo-negative’ version of “Othello” starring Patrick Stewart as Othello, with all the other roles played by a distinguished cast of African American actors!


    One ‘thank you’ & question for you, Mr. Butelli:

    We’ve seen you a number of times before (also with Ian Merrill Peakes) here in the DC area … but also had the great & unexpected pleasure to see you earlier this summer performing in “The Lost Colony” in Manteo, NC. As that wonderful production is both ‘out doors’ and includes a far larger cast, comprised mostly of ‘local actors’, many who do not have the extensive training you have, we wondered if you also take on the role of ‘teacher’ and ‘mentor’ … or perhaps do you just like getting paid to perform while enjoying the Outer Banks in the summer?!

    s/Dana & Ray K
    Folger subscribers & volunteers

  • Hi, Dana & Ray!

    Thanks so much for your comment and question. I apologize for delay in responding – it’s been crazy closing the show and traveling back out to Los Angeles.

    Meanwhile, I’m so happy you guys get such pleasure from being patrons and volunteers at the Folger. I can tell you for a fact, they are grateful to have you. And, considering the volunteers I’ve had the luck to meet during the run, y’all are a fun bunch. Thank you for what you do.

    I didn’t get to see Synetic’s “Othello,” but I did see their “Macbeth,” and I thought it was brilliant. I’m a huge fan of physical theater, and they are at the top of their game.

    Glad you got to see “Lost Colony.” What an amazing phenomenon. They are heading into their 75th Season this summer. The thing I heard down there that pleased me most is that FDR came to see the show and proclaimed: “It’s a hit!” I certainly did interact with some of the younger cast members and some of the local actors. All I can say is that I don’t think I’ve ever met a more exuberant, hard-working, and passionate group of artists. They certainly don’t need any help from me.

    OK. If I had a regret here, it would be that I didn’t respond with enough time for us to chat during the two shows you guys worked. If I’m lucky enough to be back at the Folger, I hope we’ll have a chance to fix that.

    All the very best, and thank you for what you do.


  • For Louis B:

    Thanks for taking the time out of your busy sked to reply. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that we’ll see you again either here in the DC area or down at the OBX, perhaps in next summer’s production of the “The Lost Colony”.

    Two other items of note re. “The Lost Colony” production:

    1. Native North Carolinian Andy Griffith acted in the show at the start of his long career;

    2. The show’s ‘consecutive run streak’ was broken for 4 yrs during WWII because that part of the East Coast was under ‘black out conditions’ instituted to help reduce the heavy ship losses caused by German U-Boats!

    “FYI” re. Synetic Theater … its Founding Artistic Director & CEO, Paata Tsikurishvili sat in the front row of the balcony for Folger’s closing show of “Othello”. He was quite happy to learn that Zehra Fazal (Bianca) was in the cast as she’d previously performed with Synetic in its production of “Lysistrata”.

    Best of luck in your future endeavors … and now it’s time to check out:

    s/Dana & Ray K

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