From July 10-21, 2017, Assistant Director Kyle Grant, with frequent support from Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates, facilitated SIP's first-ever program with incarcerated men at Parnall Correctonal Facility in Jackson, Michigan. These are Frannie's reflections on the experience. Kyle's are in the entry below this one.
Following Kyle’s beautiful recap about our first ever program with men, I wanted to share some thoughts as well! I was not able to be present for every meeting, but I was there quite a bit. I felt completely folded into the ensemble, honored to be a part of the work, and deeply moved by the whole experience.
The conversations we had about the play were deep, enlightening, and, according to a number of the men, the first of that kind that they’d ever had in prison; for some, it was their first experience of such discussions in their lives. And they were totally on board with exploring scenes on their feet. It was not even slightly challenging to get people to read Lady Macbeth, which can sometimes be an issue in other men’s programs. They were all about it. All of it.
In week two, they worked with Kyle to put together a workshop performance of the play, using both original and adapted language to stage their favorite scenes, connected by narration. Every bit of work they did was heartfelt, committed, and creative, but we unanimously agreed that their “Double, double” scene was the best: they turned the incantation into a rap, with a bunch of guys (including Kyle) dancing around a trash can that stood in for a cauldron, another guy playing a drum, and three others (which eventually included me) reading/rapping the witches’ lines (complete with silly voices). Kyle describes the creative process in more detail below. It was so freaking cool, and so effective. And so fun!
I got to join them again on the last day of the intensive for final rehearsals and performance. The rehearsals were collaborative, supportive, good-humored, and fun.
The performance was incredible, and incredibly well-received. The audience of about 150 inmates was silent other than laughing at the funny parts and applauding between scenes. Most of them were riveted. During the bow, about 10 of them stood for an ovation. In the talk back, multiple people asked when we were doing it again and how they could join. Apparently a bunch of them went out on yard and told people who’d left before we started that they had missed something incredible.
Perhaps my favorite part of the talk back was when one man said (good naturedly) to our Lady Macbeth (who is extremely tall), “Hey, 6’8, you get ready by looking in the mirror at how pretty you are?” Amid laughter, our LM said, “Hey, I’m the only guy here who’s man enough to play a woman.” The whole crowd laughed, cheered, and applauded.
We went back to a classroom to debrief, and a few younger members of the audience just kind of followed us in and sat in on the conversation. One wrote down his thoughts for us before he left - he was so excited. Here are some select quotes from the time we took to reflect - tough to choose, given these 12 guys, in 20 minutes, hit every single one of our objectives without us even having told them what they were.
“I was shocked that this would happen at a men’s prison… They [the audience] were quiet, attentive… They were great. We changed their minds at the end - they were like, ‘Aw, man, Shakespeare weak.’ Now they all want to do it.”
“It really does bring you into another place… When you’re out there acting, you can’t think of prison… I started to feel like myself again.”
“It gives everyone a different vision of you. Gives them a new idea of who you are.”
“There’s something to be said about performing arts. When people lose the small-minded thinking and form a real group… It’s a very escaping form of art in that it allows you to get out of your head and where you are… The most fun part of the experience is not what I did on my own, but what we all did together.”
“Overall, this is something you shouldn’t take lightly. Kyle and Frannie grew up with this. But the diversity of this group - there’s no other way this group would’ve come together in here. I thought it would be horrible… But each of us clicked, and something sparked. The crowd saw the group’s diversity on the stage - they saw gangsters, drug dealers, Muslims, Christians, blacks, whites… They saw what we could do together. The crowd was with us ‘cause we was in it… It’s gonna transcend beyond this program… It’s a door opener that all inmates need to engage in. I got friends, and I definitely got comrades for life in Shakespeare Unchained.” (that’s what they named their ensemble)
“I been locked up for 13 months. This is the best part of my bit. I thought two people would have been timid to come into prison… That first day, playing silly games, we got out of our comfort zone… Watching people express themselves in a creative way, I want to express myself in a creative way. It was inspiring as hell.”
“I was on the way to a visit when [friend's name] stopped me and made me sign up… Doing the play - if we look deeper than the play, there’s a message. Challenges can be conquered. [Regarding prison:] We can conquer this.”
“This is larger than life to me. Look beyond. This is something I’m trying to stay involved in, not just here. It kept us focused on yard… This is something I want to teach my kids. I love it.”
“… What this program has done for everyone: It’s cultivated courage and nurtured it."
This was all after just two weeks of working with Shakespeare.
We learned a lot during this pilot, and most of the guys are writing reflections so we can learn even more - what worked, what needs to be adjusted, what their thoughts and feelings are. I told them that they have set the bar extremely high. They were an absolute dream to work with. I can’t tell you how floored I am.
We are eager to get back to Parnall and continue the work these men have begun, bringing more inmates into the program amid this initial buzz and excitement. We will keep you updated on our progress!