Dominique Lowell has been a co-facilitator with Shakespeare in Prison since October 2013, although she recently took a leave of absence from the group. She returned to help with a performance. Here are her reflections.
I have been trying to write this post since I saw the show a week or so ago. It's been difficult to approach. Having missed many of the last rehearsals due to work conflicts I felt somewhat disconnected from the project. I felt guilty, afraid the women had thought I had abandoned the work as a personal choice. I wish I hadn't bowed to the pressure I felt from my job at the time, a job I don't even work at any more, but it was real pressure and unavoidable. I think it's been difficult to try to write this post simply because it was such a moving experience. It is easy to write criticism, it is much more difficult to describe moments that transcend. I found myself looking through Peter Brook's The Empty Space and his descriptions of theatre as rough, holy, deadly, and immediate. As if I could "college essay" my way through this experience. There is definitely a Peter Brook college essay in there, but I don't think it's what I want to say. I was talking with another director about this project, and he asked me why there weren't more comedies done. His take was that it was all focused toward having prisoners delve into themes of forgiveness and repentance and reflecting on their societal wrongs; this was his take away from the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary. Why can't they just do a comedy, he asked, get some laughs, some relief? I was speechless. First of all, the women had chosen the play themselves. But I never once considered this a goal of the project, some angle we were trying to work. The only angle I knew was the belief that art is transformative. If you present time-proven, good art, like Shakespeare, try to create a safe environment in which to explore and eventually perform the work, whatever reflection or transformation happened was left to the individual. This Romeo & Juliet was transformative. These women knew what they were saying and what story they were telling. The memorization alone was a huge accomplishment, the communication of character was clear and direct. Their relationship to each other and to the audience was tangible. It was such a kick to hear an audience hoot and holler for a particular character (all kinds of laughter!), or to audibly gasp "Oh no!" when Juliet awoke in the tomb to find Romeo dead. When Lady Capulet mourned Tybalt those tears had real weight. Mercutio's death as well, the tragic moments overall seemed richer in their tragedy. I have seen deadly Shakespeare spoken beautifully by actors who didn't have a clue what they were saying or doing - all they had was technique and the love of hearing themselves talk. This Shakespeare didn't always "trip off the tongue," but it had real meaning. I have never seen an ensemble do a "zip zap zop" exercise with the intensity and commitment of this group, and this R & J had the same high stakes. It takes guts to do Shakespeare, especially in front of your peers and friends (and enemies) in bright light (no safety in darkness in prison performances). This R & J had guts. I can't measure whether this was a transformative experience for the women in the group. I know the growth I saw in them, and I know the issues I found myself confronting. Every session I attended, I gained some insight to the work that I hadn't had before and probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere else. It is challenging, gut-wrenching, and inspiring work. I wish I had been there for more of it. I wish more people could see it. I am honored to have been a part of it and I hope to join The Taming of The Shrew this fall. A comedy indeed!