Session Four: Week 1


Tonight we began session four of Shakespeare in Prison, with a good number of returning “veterans” and some very enthusiastic “newbies.” The vibe was warm and welcoming from start to finish, led in large part by the women returning from session three, who are eager to solidify our ensemble early and achieve all of the goals we set out for ourselves when we wrapped up in July.

We began by sitting in a circle, introducing ourselves and answering the questions we decided on during our wrap up:

  • What brings you to Shakespeare in Prison? Why did you join the group (or why are you still in the group)?
  • What do you hope to get out of the group?
  • What is the gift you bring to the ensemble?

Answers ran the gamut, and none threw up potential “red flags.” Those who are returning (most for a third time) said that what they have gotten out of the group in the past has varied and has taken them by surprise, so they are open to getting anything they can out of it (and they know whatever it is will be good). Our new members are seeking anything from acting experience (some were in plays in school), to more insight into themselves, to “coming out of their shells”, to knowledge of Shakespeare and a new, interesting experience. Of course everyone wants to have a good time, and no one seemed to balk at the idea of working hard in order to enjoy the experience more fully.

We went through our group guidelines, with past participants giving specific examples of successes and challenges that we have experienced. They were very firm that participation and attendance are key, as was our plan. They mean to lead by example. They emphasized that the sense of accomplishment they get from the group outweighs all of the challenges they face, and that this is a rare opportunity to have that feeling in a prison setting.

My summary here may be brief, but this actually took up the bulk of our time, as people asked great questions and we made sure to cover all of our bases. With the time that we had left, we did the “ring” exercise that occurs at the top and bottom of each meeting (this creates a safe space and a feeling of ensemble), and then we played some fun theatre games. Everyone in the group let loose during these games; even one member who seems quite shy was much more comfortable by the time we ended.

I checked in with the vets at the end to see if they had any concerns, and we established that there are a couple of things to look out for. By and large, though we were all very happy with how our first meeting went.


At the top of today’s meeting, one of the vets asked me if I thought we should get started. I asked if perhaps she and the other returning participants would like to lead check-in, since we had discussed the need for the ensemble to take charge more and diminish the need for me to “direct” the group. Three of the women then began the group, led check-in, and reminded everyone about a couple of policies that they thought needed to be reinforced.

We had two new members today, as well as two new facilitators, so there were introductions again. Then, after warming up and playing a couple of games, the group decided to delve into one of the sample scenes I had chosen for us to work on until we’re ready to begin with Shrew.

The scene they chose was Macbeth: Act I, Scene vii. In this scene, Macbeth expresses doubts about killing Duncan, and Lady Macbeth goads him into doing it anyway. We read through the scene and then talked about anything we had gotten out of it. As usual, the group understood the basic dynamic of the scene, but not necessarily the specifics. We then started our “translation,” reading each line and discussing its meaning. When we broke it down like that, it became apparent that the women in this group are very insightful and sensitive to Shakespeare’s writing – for example:

The first line of the scene is Lady Macbeth’s, as she enters: “How now? What news?” We paused as a group, and one of the women said, “She’s whispering.” So already, she heard conspiracy – she sensed the setting and the atmosphere. This same level of emotional insight was apparent throughout our discussion, as well as great instincts about the language not only from the group’s professed “nerds,” but from others as well.

“I can’t understand this. I really have comprehension issues,” said one woman as we got toward the end of the scene. “You’ll get used to it,” one woman reassured her. “We’ll help you – sometimes I still don’t understand it to start, but eventually I get it,” said one returning participant. Then we got to the next line of the scene:

Macbeth: Away, and mock the time with fairest show:

False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

“So what is he saying?” I asked the group. Without missing a beat, the woman who had JUST said she couldn’t understand the language said, “We have to put on a show so no one knows what we’re going to do.” This was followed by various exclamations from the rest of us such as, “Exactly!” “Oh, right, you can’t comprehend Shakespeare.” “See? You can do it!” It was a great moment.

With the time we had left, we put the scene on its feet to see how it would work. The women who read committed fully to what they were doing, lending appropriate drama and emphasis to each line, even if they didn’t “get it exactly right.” Everyone was very excited about what they had done, and enthusiastic not only about continuing to explore this scene, but about taking on the next scene in the packet as well – the scene between the Macbeths after the crime has been committed.