We are now partnering with Wayne State University to bring students in as facilitators. This is written by Gaia and Clearie, our very first partners.
To be greeted with applause simply for entering the prison’s theater space was the last thing that I expected. As a student of theater, it has been ingrained in me that a performer must work for applause. Applause is not given simply for showing up. Applause is earned.
Yet, after voluntarily driving forty-five minutes, turning in my ID, leaving my cell phone, crossing through a metal detector, being patted down by the prison guards, and walking across a prison yard into a world that is completely different from anything I’ve ever known, perhaps the other volunteer student-facilitator and I did earn some applause. However, the standing ovation of the evening is owed to the women who played and continue to juggle up to five different roles daily: as ensemble members, mothers, daughters, wives, and incarcerated persons.
We were both struck by the strength, passion, and creativity of these performers who are actively taking on the seemingly insurmountable challenge of putting on a Shakespeare production in a seemingly hopeless environment.
The women could not have been more welcoming. Everyone acknowledged and seemed to appreciate our presence. This was so important to both of us.
My fellow student facilitator expressed that her only reservations about coming into the incarcerated women’s production lay within her fear of intrusion. She and I shared the fear of the women perceiving us as outsiders attempting to impose on their ensemble. After such a warm welcome, it was revealed to both of us that that was a nonsensical fear. In fact, one woman made an effort to comfort us, by confessing that although she has been in prison for 13 years, she still hasn’t gotten used to the gates.
Before check-in we had official introductions and we were asked the two questions that are asked of everyone that joins the ensemble: “What will you be bringing to the group?” and “What would you like to take away from the group?” We both answered to the best of our abilities; although I have a good feeling each of our personal goals as a student-facilitators will become clearer as we continue.
We proceeded with check-in and the members opened up about their past few days. Again, the stark contrast between life outside of the gates of the prison and life inside of the gates became clear even through the most mundane question, “How are you today?”
One woman’s response to the question was extremely powerful, as she had had spent that day working as a mentor with troubled youth. Young girls came in with the Boys and Girls club to talk to prisoners in hopes that they might deviate from their current behavior. She assured the group that this scenario does not, in reality, mirror the Netflix show “Beyond Scared Straight.” The woman mentioned that she was still processing the experience but she seemed to really fear for the young girl that she talked to.
We then joined the group in raising the circle. It was at this point that I was struck by the beauty and power of theater to transform even the darkest spaces into spaces of light, warmth, and community. A theater exercise that I had performed countless times before left me speechless.
As the ensemble members envisioned a circle of light above their heads, one ensemble member led the group, and we all placed our hopes and worries for the session up there, in the nebulous space above our heads. To know that my own hopes and worries of passing exams, buying gas and groceries, were dancing next to the hopes and worries of some of these women did a great deal to put my world in perspective. We lowered the circle together, carefully balancing each other’s hopes, dreams, worries, and fears on the palms of our hands, to the floor. After the circle was lowered, we all took a step inside of the circle, our heads bowed. It was then that the directing ensemble member instructed us to spread the contents of this circle around the space.
It was in this space, filled with the hopes and fears of everyone in the room, that we began rehearsal.
The excitement to delve into the script was palpable. All of the women in the room jumped up with their scripts in hand, excitedly chatting and falling into place. Again, by simply being present in the room during this simple run through I was able to bear witness to the transformative power of theater.
Despite the fact that backs were given to the audience and some lines were skipped in the readings, the genuine quality of the performance was still visible. In fact, it wasn’t just visible, it was vibrant, and it continued straight into the ensemble’s work blocking Act I, Scene III.
There was a slight delay while the group decided who would stand-in as the officers, senators and messenger; as those had not yet been cast and we filled in the missing spaces. One of the members offered us her script and we hopped on stage. We stumbled through with books in hand, although many of the cast members have begun to memorize lines.
After this scene a woman announced that she would like to try her hand in directing during this process. Everyone was incredibly supportive and told her that she would make an excellent director, that she had a good eye for that sort of thing. This was lovely to see! It can be hard to find an ensemble that is free from making judgments or fear of one member being superior to another. There is clearly an attempt to create a non-hierarchal group, which I believe to be an extremely important aspect of a successful production.
We ended the meeting with a fun improv game and the raising of the ring. As we began to depart, a woman mentioned that sometimes she leaves rehearsal and still has to remind herself that she is in prison. Then, we each said our goodbyes and began our respective journeys back to our respective worlds.
Yet, the whole ride home we reflected. We found ourselves stupefied and amazed that through this nearly four hundred year old text, people normally separated by concrete walls, barbed wire fences, and security guards were able to truly, deeply connect. Isn’t this, we concluded, the true goal of all great works of art? To move, touch, transform, reach, resonate, and connect to the heartstrings and minds of all.
Written by Frannie
Tonight was our first meeting after Kyle and I attended the Shakespeare in Prisons: In Practice conference, and, after checking in and supporting a group member who is really struggling right now, the ensemble asked me to share. I learned a lot at the conference, and my sharing led to an emotional conversation about the work we’re doing. I’ll share some of the ensemble members’ words.
“This group has allowed me to associate with and care about people I normally wouldn’t, and learn about how people can be… It’s made me feel normal. The fact that we’re all different makes us all normal… It’s allowed me to be myself again, for the first time in 20 years. If someone were to ask me what got me through prison, I’d say God and Shakespeare.”
“Praise is important when you’re an outcast. We get that here.”
“Being here brought me out of my shell – I had lost myself for awhile.”
“Every aspect of prison is dominated by fear and intimidation. Every aspect of our lives is controlled. This is the only place where it’s okay to be goofy, have fun, smile, and laugh. It’s something artistic, too, which is smothered in an institution. This time when I’m here, I feel like I’m not here.”
“It’s like skateboarding. I get life lessons. In skateboarding, you fall, and you get back up. But that takes a lot of hard work. Shakespeare in Prison is similar. Without Shakespeare, I wouldn’t be open to letting myself be viewed in an imperfect way. This gets me motivated for when I’ll be working – I have a sense of worth – I have something in me that may be untapped. I have to work hard and give it my best, and I get how to function on an every day basis. I might make mistakes and not meet expectations, but it’s okay – It’s okay to fail.”
“Shakespeare in Prison gives consistency year after year. Without consistency, you can fall into the wrong things. To be given the opportunity to learn more and more… It’s more than acting, it helps you deal with people.”
“This whole process reminds me of the best part of who I used to be before I came to prison. The darkness can overwhelm… This is my light. Not only can I be that girl again, but I can be better. Whatever we’re feeling, it’s okay here.”
“Everybody needs something different, and we all get it. It’s hard to explain because it’s a feeling; sometimes there aren’t any words.”
“I was upset because I wanted more, but being here, I get it anyway. Just being here. I’m sorry for my outburst.” (This ensemble member was not cast as she hoped, and she let out her frustrations in the group. A constructive conversation was had in response, and everyone is communicating better now.)
“Shakespeare is like mining. It takes a lot of work, it’s ugly and dirty, but after awhile you get muscular, ripped, strong. You get so focused, and when you and that diamond finally get cleaned up, everything looks so good.”
“Shakespeare is like Cake Boss! You get flour and icing everywhere; it’s all messy, but when the cake is done, it’s so pretty.”
“Shakespeare is like puberty. It’s hard and confusing at first, then you get to the awkward stage, then finally there’s the end when you blossom.”
We closed our session with a fun circle game, coming together as an ensemble to get energized and have fun. While we didn’t do any Shakespeare tonight, sometimes that’s not the point. Sometimes that’s not the point at all.