Pilot intensive at Parnall Correctional Facility. Part 1 of 2.

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 Kyle's reflections on the experience.


It’s difficult to sum up the entirety of the experience over these past two weeks. I can only start by reiterating the same sentiment I and the other facilitators have rehashed a hundred times over the past couple years: I am completely humbled by the privilege of working with Shakespeare in Prison.

For the past two weeks, Frannie and I have gone to Parnall Correctional Facility for a SIP intensive; there were two sessions each day from eight in the morning until ten thirty, and again from twelve thirty to three fifteen. There were twelve ensemble members in addition to Frannie and me, although I think that all fourteen of us were not actually in the same room at the same time until the last day. We were contacted several months ago by Ms. Jamie Griffith, one of the instructors at the school who had read about us in the Detroit Free Press. Having no precedent at that facility, many of the men were a little unsure as to what to expect, and it was really her doing that piqued interest (and, in some cases, provided some friendly “arm-twisting”) to get our group together. We can’t thank her enough for the facilitation of the program, and the men at Parnall are truly lucky to be in her class. The intensive was, same as the nine month program, divided into two parts: 1) the reading and study of the play and 2) the creation of the performance.

When we arrived at the chapel (where we met most days) the mood was pleasant, but there was definitely an air of uncertainty. I tried not to let it show, but I was feeling a little uncertain myself - would it be different from working with the women? Would I find my place in the group? Would I dry out of material? Could I facilitate here, too? All these insecurities swirled around my brain as I shook hands with the men in the ensemble. I was really glad that Frannie was there, because she didn’t seem shaken at all - just her usual energetic self. We sat in a circle and went through the initial three questions we ask each ensemble: 1) What brings you to Shakespeare? 2) What do you hope to get out of Shakespeare? And 3) What is your your gift to the ensemble? Although not the unanimous response, the overwhelming response to what brought each person here today was some version of, “I’m not sure yet,” or, “I’m trying something new.” Despite the uncertainty (from both parties, apparently!), they seemed as a group to jump into the work. That first set of messenger speeches, as mundane as they are, jumped right off the page; they quickly took turns performing the, “Unseamed him from the knave to the chops,” section as dramatically as they could. It seemed as though they were hooked. By the end of the morning session, the men had recruited eleven more members - so many that we had to form a waiting list for next time. By the end of the afternoon session, we had several nods of agreement when one member said that for those few hours, he had forgotten that he was in prison.

The days went on like that with conversations that were rich, intimate, lively, and insightful - it frequently seemed too good to be true. Frannie and I couldn’t quite get over just how quickly the men in the ensemble had bought into the process. Part of me thinks that we, as facilitators, may be getting better at this, and part of me thinks that there was something very special about this cohort of men. One of the big responses we got from the post-workshop wrap was that it was the games that broke those barriers down quicker than anything. They didn’t seem to worry about the silliness quite like I thought they might; in fact, there was a certain amount of bravado that I hadn’t really expected. It seems kind of naive now that I didn’t expect it, but there was an unapologetic quality and a certainty to their silliness that was impossible to miss. They seemed to play off of each other’s strengths just right and make up for each other’s shortcomings in the same breath. It was exciting to be a part of, and humbling to facilitate. The major challenges that we faced most days were that the ensemble did not quite know what to expect, so they hadn’t really budgeted how much time or energy an intensive workshop like this would take. They frequently were exhausted at the end of the day or had to come and go for other call-outs with various groups in the facility. The other major challenge for the group was the heat. Many of the sessions got broken up because we were moving to a space with air conditioning, or had already moved and found out that another group had booked the space. As the weather heated up, there was a constant question as to where we were going to meet, or if we were going to stay. The ensemble members also said that many of them find it difficult to sleep in those conditions, so with our 8am start time, many of them were coming in with only a few hours of sleep.

After we had finished the play, chock full of the all rich points and counterpoints about Lady Macbeth, predetermination, moral ambiguity, etc., that Macbeth demands, we began working on the performance. The original idea was that the ensemble would write a sequel to Macbeth about how Fleance comes back to kill Donalbain and Malcolm; however, we abandoned the idea because we thought that writing a whole new text would take the entire week and give us a 5-10 minute final performance. So we as a group started to generate a list of what we thought the audience would need to know about Macbeth to get a basic understanding of the play. We narrowed it down to eight scenes and divided them up from there, the main caveat being that if anyone decided they wanted to work a specific section, that would trump whatever distillation of the play we had rendered. One member immediately said he only wanted to be the narrator, our most enthusiastic member said he wanted to do the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow…” monologue, and another said he wanted to do the “Porter” scene. We took out a few sections and ran with our program. Some updated the language in their pieces, some memorized, some read from a script, some engaged in heated debates over the editing of a scene, some took leading roles, and some took supporting roles; all in all, the performance ran the gamut and managed to capture the oddly cohesive spirit of our group.

Now, I’m not exactly sure how the following happened or when, but it’s one of my favorite experiences with the theatrical process. Anyone who has ever been in a play knows the scenario well: someone does something funny, goofs a line, breaks a prop, makes fun of the script, loses their mind for a moment...  Whatever the case may be, someone else watches and utters those immortal words we all know: “We should do that in the show.” And that is how the ensemble at Parnall Correctional Facility came to perform an interpretive dance to the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble...” scene. As I said, I’m not sure who had the idea or quite how it came about - it just sort of happened. I think someone started reading it, and someone else decided they weren’t reading it with enough chutzpah, someone demonstrated by reading to the beat, so someone else provided the beat, then someone started dancing to the beat, then everyone was dancing, then we all laughed till our faces hurt, then someone said, “So that’s how we’re doing it, right?” and I said “Oh, hell yeah.” That’s the story and, indeed, how it was done in the performance. They turned the scene into a song, with a dance in which everyone dabbed, and there were no fewer than six dance solos, (including mine) in which we popped-and-locked to, “Eye of newt and toe of frog…” It was a thing of beauty - true artistry, and some of the most organic collaboration in which I have ever participated. Another such moment came with naming of the ensemble. Frannie suggested that we name our ensemble, so we set out to find a name that suited us. Some of the ideas were, “The Shakespeare Thugs,” “The Pilots,”  and “The O.G. Shakespeareans,” but there was never a real consensus. The day came when the program needed to be printed, and suddenly we had five minutes to decide. Then someone just said it: “Shakespeare Unchained.”  Everyone stopped discussing and started nodding their heads, and we knew that we didn’t need to discuss it further. As organically as the “Double Double…” dance had come about, so came our name, and it stuck.  

One of my favorite moments in the two weeks happened right before the show, when I asked two of the members if they were scared to perform. One immediately said no. The other struggled to say what he was feeling since he wasn’t feeling scared but was feeling something like being scared. I said that it’s okay to be nervous, and there is a difference between being afraid and being nervous. Being afraid is when you might bail on the task at hand; being nervous is when you know you’re not going to quit no matter what, but you don’t know how it’s going to go, and you want it to go well. It’s just nerves. They both immediately said that they nervous as hell - they weren’t quitting, but they were both very nervous. It was a rare moment of vulnerability from them, and for me it was emblematic of the week. One of those men later told me that he struggles with depression, and that he writes in his journal every night to help him deal with the complicated feelings with which he struggles. He told me that during the two weeks, he hadn’t written in his journal once. There were plenty of such stories. One of the members told me that he had lost his son a few days before starting the program; his friend knew of his loss and convinced him to join the group. He didn’t tell me, or anyone in the ensemble, till the one-on-one interviews after the wrap. He said he had just wanted to focus on something positive. He said that prison life was difficult, and that he was touched that we believed in him (and the group) the way we did. “It’s like you saw the potential in us before we did…” and that gives him hope to bring back to his family when he gets out.

It’s taken me almost a month to get my thoughts together from this experience. There were so many more discoveries and powerful moments that I could have talked at length about. The days were exhausting for me; they were full of discoveries, walls of prejudice breaking down, and nuanced moments in which I saw the best of these men over and over again. The answer that I give for the “What brings me to Shakespeare?” question is always the same: Shakespeare in Prison brings out the best me. It takes all best parts of me to do it right; I have to be my most patient, collaborative, giving, creative, flexible, and humble self. I like myself best while I’m doing Shakespeare in Prison - it’s my favorite version of myself that I see all week. Sometimes I feel like I spend the rest of my week trying to be the guy who shows up to SIP - because when I’m there, it just seems come out of me effortlessly. I can’t help but feel like the guys from Shakespeare Unchained would share that same sentiment.