After sharing our play three times over the course of a week, I decided to wait to update this blog until I could do so with the reflections of the entire ensemble, not just myself. Here are my notes from our wrap up meeting.
- One woman said she got a lot out of the group and opened up out of her shell. She has had stage fright in the past, but by the end of the process, she was much more comfortable on stage. She had fun and is glad that she participated.
- One woman spoke with her mother, who enthusiastically said, “You did it!” Her sister said, “Shakespeare? No way – you did not!” She has had a terrible fear of speaking in front of groups, but she is more comfortable now. She is proud that she remembered her lines, spoke loudly enough to be heard, and didn’t drop out when she felt challenged. She enjoyed her time in the group. “Every week you get to not be here by being in it,” she said.
- One woman saw the first group’s performance in 2012 and has been in the group for two sessions. She feels the program has progressed immensely since it began. She shared that she has felt more comfortable and at home in the current group than in the last one. This group, she said, has been more cohesive and able to give and take criticism. She felt that she got to know everyone better, and that the women in the group are like sisters to her.
- One woman said the program helped her cross a barrier in her life. She believes the work she’s done here will help her break down walls in other areas of her life.
- One woman shared honestly that she found the process “incredibly frustrating.” She said that if the last few weeks hadn’t been as good as they were (and they were really, really good!), she wouldn’t come back. Her frustrations lay in the lack of dedication from some others. We addressed the issues she raised later in our conversation.
- One woman shared that she hadn’t enjoyed Shakespeare in high school, but now she does. “Just reading it is so boring,” she said. “When you attempt to act it out, you understand it.”
- One woman said that she’s never been shy (this is the understatement of the year!), but getting on stage was different for her, and it was a good experience.
- One woman has had quite a journey since we began in October. She actually did not sign up for the group on purpose, but when she found herself here, she decided to give it a go. Working in the group gave her a “break from prison,” so she kept coming back. When the “messy stuff” began to happen, it made her pull back, but the work of the ensemble in making so many cuts (and one woman’s particular efforts outside of our meetings to convince her) made her re-commit. She feels good about the work she has done and is glad she stuck with it.
- Attendance is our biggest challenge, and we addressed it head on. There is nothing we can do when participants have conflicting mandatory call outs (i.e., school, work, healthcare), and enough people now have proved that they can fully commit, contribute, and get what they need out of the group attending once per week if schedules don’t permit them to always attend twice. The challenge lies in absences that may or may not be mandatory, and the group’s feeling that some people have taken advantage of a trusting environment to pile on more absences than absolutely necessary. We arrived at a solution we that makes each person accountable for her own attendance. The “seasoned vets” will express on the first day that attendance and commitment are of the utmost importance. They feel that if they are strong in this and lead by example, new participants will be more motivated.
- We also have an attrition rate that we do not find acceptable. People join this group for all sorts of reasons, but over the past three sessions, we have found that there is often a pattern: a person joins the group just to have a good time, and/or isn’t an enthusiastic participant, and then when the “going gets tough,” she stops coming to the group. That being said, there have been some women who joined the group for such reasons and ended up being wonderful ensemble members. So how do we make sure that the group as a whole is well-served while still giving individuals the benefit of the doubt?
We decided as a group to hold interviews on the first day of the session and have a “trial period” for new members of three meetings. Between the interviews and the meetings, which will include warm ups, games, and Shakespeare, we should be able to assess which new members are likely to fully commit to the program. They will not be judged on talent, but rather on their immediate commitment and participation. Other programs of this kind have employed a process like this and are stronger for it; we believe we will be, too.
Our interviews will consist of the following questions:
Why did you sign up for the group? What do you want to get out of the group? What is the gift you bring to the group? (this is respectfully borrowed from Shakespeare Behind Bars)
- There were some interpersonal issues that held us back at times, and, unfortunately, one of these situations led to one person being removed from the group. We all feel that things were ultimately resolved constructively and fairly, but that the process took too long. The group’s decision about how to address this going forward is for everyone joining the group to be made aware at the beginning that any issue that arises in the group will be resolved openly by the entire ensemble, not in side discussions, and not allowed to stew and eventually boil over.
- We discussed the need for the ensemble to take more ownership of the “direction” of the play. I shared that, by the end of Session 1, I was barely speaking at all when feedback was being given – the group was truly “running the show.” That hasn’t quite been the case with Sessions 2 and 3. The women said that it can be difficult to give feedback because it “opens you up.” We’ll need to address that going forward, and our new policy of open group discussion should help.
- The group feels that things really started to come together when we began to set small goals and deadlines, i.e. “On Tuesday, we’re working this scene, so memorize your lines for it.” We all agreed that setting more intermittent goals will help to keep us on track, motivated, and believing that we can accomplish the more daunting goal of staging an entire play.
Finally, we debated which play to work on next session. Although the scales were at first tipped in favor of Hamlet, further discussion led the group to decide that it may be more of a challenge than we need or want as we try to better solidify the group’s mechanics. We settled on The Taming of the Shrew, about which we are excited because it’s a comedy that touches on issues very relevant to incarcerated women.
Before we disbanded, one woman shared that a poem of hers was recently published, and told us that she has been asked to write some short fiction for publication as well. She read us her poem, and we were all very enthusiastic about these accomplishments. “I’m proud of you,” said one.
We parted with hand shakes and thank yous, well wishes for one woman who will be paroled over the summer, and much anticipation to start back up in September.
Even with all of our challenges, this has been a transformational season for Shakespeare in Prison in all of the right ways. The ensemble came together and worked as a team to accomplish the goals they set for themselves. They are vocal about their increased confidence and empowerment, and they have creative solutions for challenges going forward. On the administrative side of things, we came close to fully funding the program for the first time, and I am confident that we will fully fund it next season. Our new model of a team of facilitators works beautifully, and I am so thankful to the team of volunteers for all of their hard work and passion.
I am inspired, energized, and ready to begin work for next season. We'll be back at the prison in September. Until then, I'll update this blog with reflections from co-facilitators who would like to share and any news about the program.
Please visit The Supporters and take a look at the long list of names of people who helped make Shakespeare in Prison possible this year, whether by physically helping out or with donations. And many thanks go out, as always, to the staff at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, who are so supportive of this program.