Dominique's Reflections

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!

Wrapping up Session Three

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.

Personal reflections:

  • 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.

Group mechanics:

  • 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.

Session Three: Weeks 34 and 35

These two weeks were spent gaining confidence in ourselves and the ensemble, firming up the way we want to stage our play, and overcoming challenges. Week 34 saw us running our play with costumes and props for the first time on Tuesday, which provided new challenges as we figured out costume changes and where our props need to live off stage. We also used music for the first time. We worked out a lot of kinks. The costumes, many on loan to us from local theatres and artists, are wonderful and truly enhance what the ensemble is doing.

We did scene work that Thursday, including figuring out our prologue. This was supposed to be an ensemble piece, but spotty attendance meant that we were never able to give it adequate rehearsal. In a compromise between what we all wanted and what we actually had time to do, Romeo and Juliet will enter from either side, in front of the curtain, splitting the lines, meeting in the middle, and exiting separately. It is simple, elegant and foreshadows the rest of the play very well.

Week 35 began with a run of the play without costumes and props, since we were not able to access them. This run was a bit “off,” as some members of the ensemble have not been working on their lines and some are not getting along. In our final few minutes, one person generously apologized for her part in “throwing us off,” and we decided to stop stressing and focus on lines next time without the staging.

That is precisely what we did, although we first had to address a conflict between our Nurse and Juliet. They are having a difficult time in their scenes together because of discomfort stemming from a disagreement outside of the group. After some guidance from Sarah, I took each of them aside and asked that they focus on their goals: to get the most out of their experience, have their best possible performance, and keep the group going in the long term (this is the second session for both, and they are very dedicated to the group). At the end of the meeting, these two asked for a few minutes to talk, and it seemed like they were beginning to work things out. “I swear, you’re like my therapist,” one said to me, referring, I think, to all of the work we’ve done in the group on constructive conflict resolution. While I didn’t eavesdrop on their conversation, of course, it seemed from a distance to be calm and reasoned, though they are both angry. They’ve come a long way in this regard since I first met them.

Many of the women are nervous, some stating they’ve been having some nausea when thinking about performing. Sarah said some very wise things, including, “Nerves are the respect you give your audience,” and “Without fear, there is no courage.” She affirmed that what they are doing DOES take bravery – they have taken on an enormous challenge and are making themselves vulnerable in a place that doesn’t lend itself to vulnerability. Sarah went on to say, "Your nerves mean you care! It's your body's way of telling you that you are doing something you care about. Something important. Something that you want to do well. Embrace the nerves. They give you the energy and clarity you need to perform and perform well."

The ensemble, though nervous, is determined and confident. They have been working so hard, and they are ready to share their work with the other inmates. I am thrilled, honored, and eager to be on stage with them when that happens.

Session Three: Week 33

I was thrilled to sit down with Craig Fahle on WDET 101.9 FM to chat about Shakespeare in Prison! Take a listen here.  


Tonight was our first run-through of our play.

It went beautifully.

We began about 20 minutes into our meeting, and people who were running late jumped in as they arrived. To all of our delight, we found that our ensemble is very close to being off book for the entire play – a feat that we did not even come close to achieving last year, and something about which they had all expressed doubt. Lines were, of course, shakier in scenes that haven’t received as much rehearsal, but for the most part, this ensemble is solid on lines. This is an enormous confidence boost, as opposed to the previous two sessions when no one knew how performances would go because lines were either very shaky or being read from scripts.

Even scenes that are under-rehearsed went reasonably well. We made our to-do list and found that the majority of our work lies in figuring out transitions between scenes. In the interest of efficiency (so we can focus on storytelling, acting, and line memorization in our time together), I will be putting together a chart with all of our scene change and sound cue duties.

Many of these transitions were discussed briefly and on the fly. For instance, we have decided to use the curtain to help with scene changes, and one of these decisions took place after we ended the scene in which Tybalt and Mercutio die. The women quickly determined that the scene needs to be re-blocked so that the deaths occur upstage of the curtain line, and this will smooth the transition.

The group also came up with a beautiful idea for the end of the play (A glooming peace this morning with it brings…): to have each dead character say one line, and then have the entire ensemble bow. We need to work out the specifics of this, but it’s a fabulous idea, and we’re sticking with it.

Much of the work that was done tonight was incredibly truthful and moving. “Those wailing scenes,” remarked co-facilitator Jamie, “I don’t think I’ve ever believed the Nurse before, but tonight I believed her.” There were a few times when I was moved nearly to tears not only by the group’s willingness to commit emotionally to the material, but by their sheer commitment to the project itself. As I said, the previous two performances have been sources of anxiety and stress due to some ensemble members’ lack of commitment dragging the rest of us down. The energy in the room tonight, however, was inspired, rousing, optimistic, and determined. I am always delighted by the progress these groups have made, which has always been subjective. But this is the first time I am seeing an ensemble truly gel, 100%, and get the job done to their own satisfaction.

Due to our ruthless cutting of the text, our run-through took one hour and twenty minutes. This means that we have time, even if we run the play, to work some of the things on our to-do list each Tuesday night.

We are pumped up, working as a team, and ready to see this thing through to the end.


When we walked in today, one of the women told us that her uncle heard me being interviewed by Craig Fahle on 101.9 WDET FM. He told her that he’s proud she’s doing something productive and inspirational, and she in turn has been buoyed by that feedback. Community support is a beautiful thing. This radio interview and the support we’ve received from our Indiegogo campaign have meant the world to all of us.

Today we focused on under-rehearsed scenes as planned. We began with Act III Scene ii, in which the Nurse tells Juliet that Romeo has killed Tybalt. We spent some time working out exactly what the Nurse’s objectives are here, and how they change. The woman who is playing the character entered the scene with the objective of being the first to deliver the news to Juliet, and then worked toward letting anger toward Romeo move her to try to drive a wedge between him and Juliet, then letting that go when Juliet threatens suicide. This scene truly began to take off when objectives were clarified, and after the women ran it the final time, they moved co-facilitator Sarah to tears with their honesty. It is a very difficult scene, and their work on it is incredibly powerful.

We moved on to Act III Scene iii, in which the Friar delivers news to Romeo of his banishment. This scene was working for us intellectually, but the woman playing Romeo was finding it difficult to fully commit to what the text was instructing her to do: the Friar calls Romeo a “mad man,” and he and the Nurse implore him to get up off the ground multiple times. Sarah asked her to throw a tantrum – to pace, to increase her physical tension, and to act like a small child if necessary. When Romeo did this, it heightened the scene for the Nurse and me – in fact, her grief was so honest, so young, that it disarmed me, forcing me to play this scene differently from my initial interpretation. I found that I could not be angry with Romeo – that my overwhelming obstacle was my own guilt for my part in driving the events that made his life such a mess. This led me to try to comfort and uplift him rather than admonish him, and this in turn led Romeo to shift from her tension to a more relaxed state. Her commitment completely changed this scene for me. I will never look at it the same way, and that includes my take on Friar Laurence.

When we were satisfied with our work on this scene, we moved on to the balcony scene. It needed new staging, since the facility’s building trades department has been kind enough to build us a balcony, so we worked that – but more than that, we took a look at the characters. Juliet worked to make her dialogue fresh, like she’d never thought of these things before. She and Romeo both worked to have more “puppy-like” energy. They began connecting in new ways, losing their lines, but after we ran the scene several times with this fresh take, the lines were back and the scene began to flow.

With the little time we had left, we began to stage the final scene of the play, working out where the bodies should all be so that no one would be upstaged and our invisible tomb entrance would make sense. We need to spend more time on this, but the framework is there now.

I will be bringing costumes and props with me Tuesday. We have a few more things on our to-do list, but we are very close to being ready to share our work.

Session Three: Week 32


We were very productive today! Since most of the group members were delayed in arriving, we began with Act I Scene III, for which only the Nurse was present. Jamie and I stood in as Juliet and Lady Capulet until those participants arrived. The Nurse has memorized her lines in this scene, and by the time we had worked through it several times, her character began to take shape as well. Lady Capulet is mostly off book, too, as is Juliet. Between the work that Lady Capulet did last week, and the work the Nurse did today, plus Juliet finding creative ways to interact in the scene (like mouthing certain lines along with the Nurse like she’s heard them a million times), it’s really taking off.

Our Romeo and Benvolio returned today, assuring us that they are committed and will be present whenever work does not conflict from now on. We are all quite relieved!

We then moved on to Act I Scene V, the “party” scene. We needed to plug in Jamie, who is our Tybalt now. We also needed to do some detail work on blocking; for example, when should there be dancing, and when is it distracting? Should people stay on stage or exit? We talked through these decisions as a group and came up with some good solutions.

Finally, we decided to begin work on Act III Scene I, which we haven’t really touched since it involves so many people. But today we had everyone present except the Prince, so we went for it. After one read through, we got on our feet, and, with improvised sword play, the scene went beautifully. Matt and Jamie committed fully to their parts, (as did I when filling in for the Prince) which intensified things for everyone else on stage. We all played off of each other, and the scene was riveting and emotional. It was actually so exciting that, for the first time ever, none of us realized we were out of time until our program coordinator came to get us!

This is food for thought going forward: I have been resistant to casting facilitators in the play until absolutely necessary, but the women really enjoy having us on stage with them. Because we have more performance experience than most women in the group, we are able to give them more to play off of in a shorter amount of time. That being said, I’m a big proponent of process over product, and part of the process has been that the inmates are empowered by taking ownership of the process as well as the product. But it seems like that same level of ownership could be achieved with facilitators in the cast. I know that it works in other programs.

It’s something that I’ll definitely be discussing with the group, because this is a decision that needs to be made by the ensemble.


Our Paris was present today, and, since she is absent more than any of us would like due to mandatory conflicts, we decided to make sure we worked some of her scenes today! We began with Act I Scene II, and our work actually got pretty technical. The group decided that it would be best for Capulet and Paris to enter through the house, play the scene while walking downstage of the curtain (and even on the floor), and exiting through the door stage right. How to make this work became a sticking point. We knew that we wanted Capulet to go up a level or two so that he would be a head above Paris, but then that seemed to force Paris to upstage herself (turning her face completely away from the audience). We ran the scene a few times, identifying places for them to start and stop, both vocally and physically, and we found a way for Capulet to step up only one level to make things easier on Paris. We will need to keep working on it, but it’s getting there. The group effort was wonderful to be a part of.

We then worked the scene in which the Nurse finds Romeo in the street, since our Nurse has memorized those lines and wanted to work it on its feet. As we adjusted her blocking slightly and her character began to sink in a bit more, she found that the lines were leaving her head. She began to be frustrated, but I assured her that this is a very normal part of the process – of course the lines take a step back when the character takes a step forward. She decided to leave the scene alone for the day and come back to it later.

We then moved to Act IV Scene I, and we spent some time here debating what is going on with Juliet in the scene. How polite does she have to be? How surprised is she that Paris is there? It’s difficult, having cut so much from the scene, to truly know Shakespeare’s intent at this point, so our Juliet is going to experiment until something feels right. I’m also going to bring in an uncut version of the scene for her to look at. Ultimately, though, it will be her choice, and Paris and the Friar (that’s me!) will play off of whatever she decides.

From here, we kept going with the next couple of scenes to see how our transitions would work – would Juliet have time to do the exit from one scene and the entrance to the next that we wanted? We also found that we needed to make a few more minor cuts to combine the two scenes that follow – otherwise we would have a really strange transition.

This brought up a point – that we don’t have all of our entrances and exits set in stone, nor have we established all of the places in which we want to use the curtain. “We should run the whole play on Tuesday,” someone said, and she was met with unanimous agreement. So that’s the plan: everyone is going to make her best effort to arrive on time so that we can get through the whole play. Anything that isn’t figured out at this point will be improvised, and we will make a comprehensive to-do list to spur our work going forward.

I am incredibly thrilled that they not only had the idea to do a “work-through” three weeks from our first performance, but that we are in a place where we can actually do it. We were never able to run The Tempest all the way through prior to performing it – we ran each “half” of the play once, and that was it. It’s a testament to this ensemble’s dedication, enthusiasm, and desire not just to accomplish their goal, but to do it well. They are driven, they have ownership of what they are doing, and they are doing excellent work.