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Q&A: Actress Melanie Sheahan | "Othello"

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Melanie Sheahan is a senior theatre major in the Department of Theatre & Film Studies. She is playing Desdemona in UGA Theatre's upcoming production of Shakespeare's Othello, opening April 6. 

Who is Desdemona to you?
She is a brave, loyal, and stubborn young woman that fights for what she believes in and sees the good in everyone. I think Othello characterizes her best, when he calls her his “fair warrior”.

What are your favorite things about Desdemona? What are you least favorite things about her?
I love her playfulness, her wit, and her sense of adventure. Her greatest strength, though, is her determined loyalty and fierce empathy. Even in the face of violent accusations, she searches for reason and fights for reconciliation. She refuses to run from her circumstances. Instead, she is fighting to understand and empathize with those around her. She prioritizes her husband’s peace of mind over her life. To the very end, Desdemona only wants to comfort her tortured love.

However admirable and relatable, I get frustrated with her willingness to accept blame and her reluctance to recognize bad intentions.

As we become more and more aware on women and feminist issues, how is this production unique to that cause? Is this affecting your portrayal of her?
Desdemona could easily be a passive participant in this story. We’re finding the ways in which she is more than an obedient young bride and then motivating that obedience. She is a high-born natural leader and an incredible empath. She actively chooses to see the best in people and encourages everyone around her to do the same. She doesn’t misplace her trust in others; she commits herself to her relationships. For better or for worse. Everything Desdemona does is out of stubborn love for Othello. She refuses to believe that he is lost to her. She has a ton of strength and our production highlights that; that is the only way a modern audience will care about Desdemona.

Our production does a great job of clarifying what makes the relationship between Othello and Desdemona so stunning: their implicit partnership. That partnership is what Iago targets when he schemes. He recognizes Desdemona’s strength and the respect she garners within her marriage. She isn’t Othello’s weakness because she is his property. She is his partner, in all things.

What is it like to rehearse in an arena setting? Is it harder, challenging, or more fun than a proscenium style show?
I love being in the arena. It adds a level of intimacy and playfulness that is hard to achieve in a proscenium theatre. While it has its challenges, it’s an extraordinary opportunity for movement; the freedom to turn every which way allows the more intricate conflicts to feel like a game of chess.

How do you think Othello fits into the UGA Theatre season of “Balances of Power?”
Othello explores the lengths that people will go to attain power over co-workers, friends, and lovers. Desdemona in particular, is a young bride exploring her place in her marriage and the power that she wields with her much older, war general of a husband.

Why do you think this play is important to today? What makes it relevant?
It breaks down the divide that our country is experiencing. With the evolution of social media and information algorithms, we’ve been shoved into isolated news bubbles. We don’t take the time to clarify, fact-check, or discuss information, and we become targets for “fake news”. Othello shows how timeless an issue misinformation is and how dire the consequences can be. Gossip and lies will muck up our lives until we become savvy truth-seekers.

Lukas T. Woodyard