Session Six: Week 18


We spent tonight playing improv games, since our rehearsal script isn’t yet ready and some group members pointed out that it’s been awhile since we’ve done improv. It’s important for us to continue to sharpen those skills so that we can react constructively when things go “haywire” in performance. We had a lot of fun!

During one of the games, the woman playing Richard came over to me. “I tried not to do it, I really tried,” she said, “But Richard III was on TV, and I watched it. And… I don’t know if I can really say this… But I didn’t like the Richard in the movie. I think I can play him better. Can I say that?” I replied that of course she can! I asked her why she felt that way. “The guy in the movie played him with no feelings. Just evil. I don’t want to play a character like that. I think he has feelings.”

An inmate who is not in our group came in and handed me an ensemble member’s book, saying that she wanted me to be able to make the cuts even though she couldn’t be present because of another program. It was good to be able to make those cuts rather than waiting another few days!

We wrapped up by saying good bye to an ensemble member who is going home in a couple of days. We are excited for her and will be rooting her on as she makes her transition.


Tonight when I arrived, one of the women shared with me that she’s been referencing part of the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary lately – in one scene, a man admits to a particularly heinous crime and then expresses his wish that he be judged on the totality of his life, and not solely by the worst thing he’s ever done. This woman has been quoting that in order to stem judgment and bullying in her unit. It resonates for her – as someone who was heavily involved in drugs, there were things that she witnessed people doing upon which she sat in judgment… but later engaged in those activities herself. She said that it’s hard not to judge someone who’s done something that you consider to be the worst possible thing, until you’ve done it yourself. And then you must work on forgiving yourself. “I’m not that person anymore,” she said.

The energy in the room as we all gathered was extremely low. One of the lifers in our group shared during check in that the days have lost meaning for her – she forgot about Christmas Eve, and the change in the year isn’t hitting her at all. This negativity, which is completely understandable, hung heavy in the room. Since we still don’t have our rehearsal script, I suggested that we delve into the acting techniques that we’ve been dancing around – I’ve personally always felt healed and energized through work with Chekhov technique, and I hoped that we could arouse some of that tonight when it was so sorely needed.

After an energetic warm up, we began to work with something called “imaginary body.” In essence, the imaginary body can be imagined, shaped, and then “worn” like a costume, changing the way an actor moves and interacts with people and objects around them. We experimented with changing different parts of the body (i.e., you are extremely tall/short, you have an extremely long neck, you have hands made of glass), and then I welcomed everyone to “sculpt” an imaginary body for their characters out of the air, then stepping in and moving throughout the space. The group was game for this and the mood began to lighten considerably.

I then moved around the room asking, “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” with each person responding absolutely appropriately from her character’s perspective. We then came up with full body gestures expressing that want.

This took some time, and we gathered in a circle to reflect. The consensus was that these were useful exercises. A longtime ensemble member said, “It helped me get into my character more than in previous years, sooner.” She also shared that she loved the warm up exercise, as it activated her energy and made her feel more connected to her body. The woman playing the Duchess discovered that, “even though she’s eighty, she’s going to be a vibrant eighty.” The woman playing Richard said, “I got to put the traits I want him to have on him. He’s handsome. He’s gorgeous.”

The woman playing Anne then shared, “It made me realize I don’t feel comfortable with Anne… I don’t feel comfortable with her values. I don’t know what this woman wants – to maintain her lifestyle? Or does she want love…?” Another woman who had seen a version of our play on TV shared that, in that version, it was clear that Anne didn’t have a choice in her actions because Richard was the Lord Protector.

“I’m so excited about this year,” said another woman. “I know that when I go on stage I can be this Clarence who I’ve created.”

“It helped me look at her outside of the text, as a person, not just words on paper,” said one woman.

“Before today,” shared another woman, “I knew who I was playing but never really thought about it. When you asked what I wanted it really clicked for me: I do not want to die, and that’s what I want through the whole play.”

The woman playing the Duchess, said, “The Duchess might just want the bloodshed to stop, but in the meantime, I want my son to be cursed.”

The woman playing Buckingham said, “Thinking about what my character wants helps me think about why he wants the things that he wants. He wants stuff, reputation, power… He wants reputation, validation, recognition. He has a lot, but he wants more. He’s calculating and greedy.” A woman who was in the group last year jokingly quoted from Othello, saying, “Reputation, reputation, reputation!” We talked about all of our different interpretations of Buckingham – what she expressed is very different from the views of some of the women who view him as true and loyal, just having chosen the one person to whom to be loyal.

The room felt much lighter as we departed. As usual, this acting technique had served to buoy the entire group. I am very glad that we’ve chosen to delve in like this.

Session Six: Week 9



We began our session by reflecting on the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary that we watched last week. The first thing that was noted was how amazing it was for the men to be able to perform for friends and family, which is something that we are not allowed to do. There was also an extremely positive reaction to one man’s journey to healing through a character who had many similarities to his own experiences. The women were also impressed by the honesty in the men’s acting.

One question was whether it is harder for men to play women than for women to play men. “It’s harder for men to put down their guard and be vulnerable. Women are strong when they toughen up,” said one woman. “Where else could I play Lord Capulet?” said a longtime member. “You get used to it. But women are more accepting.”

We talked a bit about the changes in physicality that are necessary when playing a different gender. We talked about how women are socialized to be quiet, take up little space with their bodies, and make themselves appear to be weak. We contrasted that with men’s physicality and talked about working together to become physically more powerful as we work with our play.

Several men in the film share the crimes that they committed. One woman said, “It was depressing, hearing what they did. The guy who killed his wife… I killed someone, but it was an accident. But I still get labeled.” Another woman said, “To watch them and to hear what they did but to still have this sense of liking them because of who they are… It’s a journey of learning about myself.”

“They weren’t who they used to be when they committed the crime,” said one person. We talked about balancing the scales – as one man in the film says, looking at the totality of a person’s life rather than simply the worst thing they’ve ever done.

Another woman remarked that she finds most crimes forgivable, but that it is hard to forgive crimes against children. She said it in a way that sounded judgmental, and another woman jumped in, gently but firmly reminding her not to judge people who’ve committed crimes against children because there may be people who’ve committed those crimes in our group, and we don’t want them to feel alienated. “Consider what you say,” said another woman, “But don’t censor anyone.”

Another woman said she is looking forward to getting feedback on her acting the way the men in the documentary provide it for one another. Several people commented on how inspiring it was to see how invested in each other the men were.

“It’s nice to see other people living the way that we are,” said someone. “It makes me feel better to know that other people are just as miserable as I am.” We talked about the changes the men undergo, despite their circumstances. “I want to be better than I was before,” said one woman. “Shakespeare keeps me out of trouble,” said another woman in her third year of the program. “You learn how to care about yourself and other people.”

We then returned to our play, reading and discussing Act Four, scene three, in which Tyrrel tells the audience of the killing of the princes and the killers’ remorse, and Richard has no such feelings as he prepares for a larger conflict.

“In Othello, the death was more shocking. It’s expected in this play,” said one woman. “We barely know these characters, too,” said another person. “I felt bad for Desdemona.” I posed the question: Why do we really only get to know Richard? Is he isolated on purpose? “He’s isolated from the first soliloquy,” said one woman. “The power causes you to isolate yourself,” said another.

As people left, I pulled aside one member of the group who has been pretty caustic and argumentative so far this season. I asked her if she realized how prickly she’s been, and she sheepishly said she did. I told her that I know she doesn’t want to be censored, but there are ways of expressing her opinions without being hostile. “You want to play Richard, right?” I asked. She nodded. “Then you have to give everyone a reason to cast you in that role,” I continued. She agreed that she need to start “playing nice.” I encouraged her to treat it like an acting exercise when it gets tough: her goal is to play Richard, and she needs to use tactics to get what she wants, the same way an actor does in a play. She was in total agreement and said she felt better having talked about it, and that she is confident she can adjust her behavior going forward.




Tonight we worked on Act Four, scene four, in which the women of the play mourn the loss of the princes, the Duchess reproves Richard for his actions, Richard pursues a marriage with his niece through Elizabeth, and Richard prepares for battle with Richmond. It’s quite a long scene!

We talked about Margaret’s speeches to Elizabeth in this scene and remarked how, despite being very harsh, she seems now to respect Elizabeth. “It’s a sisterhood of misery,” said one woman. “Margaret doesn’t gloat because Elizabeth talks about the curse being fulfilled,” said another. “She says to take your misery and sorrow and sharpen them like a sword… and kill Richard with it,” reflected someone else. “That’s what miserable people do anyway,” mused another participant. “They amplify their grief.”

We then discussed the way that the Duchess talks to Richard. “How can a child not entertain these things when a mother says them? Think about the impact this woman had on this child’s life. She made him the person that he is,” said one person. “Maybe he’s so heartless because he was treated so heartlessly.”

The woman sitting next to me said quietly that she relates to Elizabeth because she has two sons who were taken away from her. She said she is getting stronger, and is going to fight to get them back.

Regarding Richard, one woman said, “I wish you guys could all read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It’s so Richard. If you’re weak, you’re supposed to act strong.” She further reflected, “Doesn’t this happen to all gangsters? You do all this horrific shit, and then at the end you regret what you’ve done.”

Does Richard care about having killed children, we pondered? Several people agreed that he has an addict mentality – that he’s in pursuit of “pleasure, now,” and doesn’t think too far ahead.

“I don’t like the way some of these people react to Richard,” said one woman. “This play irritates me.”

There is a lot going on in this play, and many opinions being voiced. It is going to be a real challenge to work through all of these ideas as we begin to put the play on its feet, which is going to be soon. We may never all agree on everything, and many aspects of interpretation will ultimately be up to the people playing the roles. For now, though, all interpretations are on the table.

Session Five: Week 31



Tonight was sort of a disjointed meeting, as most of our group had not yet been called to chow and needed to leave when it was called, or they wouldn’t have been able to eat.

Prior to many of our group members leaving, our Brabantio told me that she is feeling overwhelmed with learning her part due to factors outside of our group. I asked if she’d like to collaborate with the group on cutting as many of her lines as we could. This resulted in some wonderful teamwork, with everyone keeping in mind the goal: cut as much as possible to keep our ensemble member comfortable without losing important plot points. When this was done, our Brabantio was visibly relieved.

As some people departed to eat, we chatted about how the process is going at this point. Our Cassio lives in the same unit as our Iago. The latter has a good deal of her lines memorized at this point, and sometimes she will shout these lines at our Cassio, who responds by shouting back, “O, bloody period!” – a line of Lodovico’s that was cut for obvious reasons – or “Goats and monkeys!” This should give you readers a glimpse into the humor with which we’re approaching this deadly serious material in order not to be totally weighed down by it. We’re still having fun even as we’re doing very deep and sometimes painful work.

We worked with our Lodovico, who has memorized most of her lines but hasn’t thought much about the acting side of things. How does he feel after witnessing Othello’s beating of Desdemona? Is he angry? Uncomfortable? How much does he want to be involved? We went back to the text, with Sarah reminding us that Shakespeare’s characters usually say exactly what they mean. We continued to work the scene, trying to help our Lodovico become more comfortable. She told us that this was her first stage work ever, and we gave her lots of encouragement.

This scene has been worked before, but with an understudy Othello and a previous Desdemona. The woman who understudied that day jumped right in, guiding her fellow ensemble members through the scene with grace and compassion.

Our Desdemona questioned how, and if, Desdemona should deliver the line, “I have not deserved this.” She is torn – how much fight does Desdemona have? How shocked is she? This again is evidence of our ensemble taking ownership of the script. Our decisions are rooted in the text, but we also are looking for ways to perform our plays in 90 minutes or less, so we often use clues in the text to cut it. She decided to think some more rather than rushing her decision.

We departed feeling good about the work we had done with the few people who were able to stay. It’s not ideal when outside factors get in the way of our work, but we always manage to power through and get things done.




We were honored tonight to host a visit from Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars. We watch the documentary about this program (by which ours was inspired) each year, and so, while we were all excited for this evening, some of the women were glowing and immediately at ease, feeling like they already knew him.

Our Lodovico took me aside before we began, saying that she is so nervous about failing that she nearly quit. I encouraged her, reminding her that this nervousness means that she cares, and that’s a good thing. I also reminded her that theatre is all about failing over and over in order to learn, and that our group is a safe place to experiment and not get it right all the time. She said she is going to stick with Shakespeare because she has never fought through to complete anything like this in her life. She is firm that she is going to perform in this play, and that maybe she’ll be buoyed enough by this year’s experience to take on a larger role next year.

Curt initially settled in to watch our warm up and opening exercise, but he was soon drawn into the circle when one of our ensemble members read a letter addressed to him and the rest of the group from our Othello. She has two jobs, one of which sometimes conflicts with Shakespeare, and it conflicted this evening. She wrote to let Curt know how much she admires his work and how much she had wanted to meet him, and she wrote us to tell us that she is trying to quit this conflicting job, but the request is taking awhile to go through, and she fears she will have to leave the group in order not to let the rest of us down. The group was quiet and somber, processing her letter. I promised to check in with staff about if/how long it will take her request to go through. Our understudy Othello stated that she would not rejoice in taking on the role because we all love our current Othello’s interpretation, but she assured us that she will step in and step up if necessary.

Following this, we did our usual “check-in.” One member shared with us that she was feeling anxious because she has come to a point in her recovery where she knows she needs to let herself truly feel things, and part of her doesn’t want to. It was a beautiful expression of her comfort with the group, and immediately with Curt, that she was able to share this. Others in recovery encouraged her that although it’s painful, it’s worth it.

Our plan had been to do some Q&A with Curt and then work on our play, but the Q&A quickly evolved into a long and poignant conversation about Shakespeare, prison, life, what holds us back, what keeps us going, and how we can continue to keep our circle one of mutual respect, emotional safety, and good humor. Curt was open, honest, and compassionate right off the bat, and this made all of us feel safe enough to express whatever we needed to. The conversation was deep and personal, so I took no notes, wanting to preserve the intimacy. Many of the ensemble members opened up to Curt as they partook in the conversation, while others listened intently. Some women whom I’ve known for years shared things in detail that they haven’t ever before. Tears were shed, and we laughed as well.

At one point, Curt said that “success is built on a mountain of failures.” Our Lodovico, who had spoken so fearfully of failure at the beginning of our meeting, looked over at me, and we shared a smile.

It was a beautiful evening. Everyone encouraged Curt to come back to see one of our performances, and we’re hoping it’ll work out for that to happen. I can’t wait to see everyone again on Tuesday and reflect on the powerful experience we all had together.

Session Five: Week 2


Last session’s ensemble suggested that we watch the Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary very early in this session, so that’s what we did tonight. This is at least the tenth time I’ve seen the film, and it never fails to move and inspire me. This proved to be true for our ensemble as well.

The past four times I’ve viewed the film with an SIP ensemble (membership has varied since 2012), the focus of our discussion afterward has been predominantly about the group’s mechanics – how they retain members, how often they meet, the differences between working with men and women, the willingness of the men in the film to go all out for their roles. But tonight’s discussion was very different.

When the film was over, I asked the group if anyone would like to share her thoughts. The first response was from a returning member who said, “Well, that’s never easy to watch.” When we asked her why, she responded, “Because… I’m a criminal. It’s just not easy to watch.” She said that people think things about her because of her offense, but they don’t know the whole story.

Another woman said, “Until I got in trouble and came to prison, I used to say things, too. Now I’ve learned that everything is not black and white.” We talked about how the way we judge and are judged is often based on very little information – we make assumptions based on the little we know and run with them. “I’m afraid of how I’m perceived by other people,” said one woman.

“It’s beautiful to see how the men have so much fun with this program,” said another woman. “There are so few opportunities for true rehabilitation in prison. This is one. They found something to fulfill their lives – even the ones serving life sentences. It was beautiful.”

One woman shared how impressed she was by the level of empathy and support the men had for each other. Several of the men in the film share what their offenses were, and she asked if the entire group knew about one crime in particular. I responded (having heard this information from Curt Tofteland) that they did. “Wow,” she said. That crime resonated for her due to her own experience, and she talked about how conflicted she felt that, on the one hand, everyone has the right to seek to do better – to attain some sort of redemption, as the man in the film says – but she doesn’t know if she personally could see past the crime and have empathy for him, no matter how much she wants to.

Another woman brought up how interesting it was to see Red learn about himself and his life through playing Miranda. We talked about how this is one of the key reasons that we work with Shakespeare, and that it is likely to happen for a number (if not all) of us as well.

The discussion was open, honest, and emotional. Several of the women shed tears as we talked. It was an honor to be a part of such a frank conversation about issues that can be difficult to articulate, let alone to openly discuss in a very new group setting. We have had such discussions before in SIP, but it has always taken much longer for the ensemble to be so open to each other. It makes me even more excited to continue the process with this ensemble.


Tonight during check-in, we discussed the challenge of people needing to leave early fairly often to go to work or to take medication. We decided that we’ll switch up the format of our meetings to accommodate that as best we can – sometimes we’ll begin with games and end with Shakespeare, and sometimes we’ll do the opposite. Since last Friday was games-first, we began tonight with Shakespeare and had such interesting conversation about it that we never got to the games!

We continued our text work by reading Act I Scene II aloud. “I’d be pissed if I were Brabantio,” said one woman. We talked about this father’s unwillingness to see his daughter’s culpability in her “crime” – she’s gone, so it must be that Othello put spells on her. We also discussed how very much in control Othello is in this scene, and what an important person he obviously is – everyone is looking for him and everyone except Brabantio treats him with a lot of respect. We also talked about the class issue at play here – Othello and Desdemona are not in the same class, regardless of their skin colors, and this seems to be very important.

Since this scene doesn’t really resolve anything – it leads into the following one – we continued reading so we could see how things play out. It’s a long scene, and we stopped every now and then to make sure everyone was keeping up and that we understood what was going on.

One of our takeaways was that, although Othello says he speaks roughly, his language is quite evocative and compelling. He gets his meaning across. We also paid attention to the fact that Brabantio gives essentially the same speech four times, hammering home the point that the only way Desdemona could have done this is if Othello literally enchanted her, but the moment she states that she was a willing participant and loves Othello, he seems to completely deflate. “This breaks him. He’s broken now,” said one woman. His anger is gone, and he expresses hurt and disappointment.

Beyond his parental dismay at Desdemona going behind his back, the ensemble brought up the idea that this loss of control injures Brabantio’s reputation as a senator. “What do your actions say about me?” Several of us have had personal experiences that make us relate to this. One woman also volunteered that the “wealthy, curléd darlings,” – the suitors whom he wanted her to marry – would have enhanced his status and reputation, but the marriage to Othello does not.

This led Kyle to mention the “lace curtains” metaphor – a house may look beautiful from the outside, with lace curtains, but if the occupants have spent all of their money on those curtains, the inside is likely a mess. I remarked that the metaphor can work two ways. “Yeah,” said one woman ruefully, remarking that part of her family will have nothing to do with her because she’s in prison – they’ve written her off because of that label. “But that’s the thing about lace curtains,” said another woman, “If you get close enough, you can see through ‘em.” This, too, works two ways.

There was a strong reaction to Desdemona’s assertion of her love for Othello and desire to go to war with him. “I wish I could feel that way about a man at some point in my life,” said one woman. Her sentiments for her husband are truly beautiful. We talked about how, despite him being an admittedly hard man, Desdemona’s empathy for Othello and his struggles softened him emotionally toward her. There’s so much set up here for what follows.

We then branched off into a discussion of the term “Moor” – both its denotation and connotations. We are working toward viewing this play both through our own experiences and with the knowledge that Elizabethans had a very different worldview and use of language. It’s a difficult balance to strike. We noted that sometimes when people refer to Othello as “the Moor,” they are being obviously disrespectful, but sometimes they are not, as when Desdemona says, “… I do love the Moor…” We know she thinks the world of him. “Hey, you can say ‘white girl’ and have it be either a good thing or a bad thing,” one woman pointed out. We talked about what Othello might look like, and how much it matters – not exactly what shade his skin is, but the fact that he’s different and foreign – he’s not really part of this society and can never hope to blend in.

A few of the women seemed uncomfortable with the amount of time we spent talking about this, but others pointed out that, since it’s a theme in the play, we need to spend time on it. We don’t want to get bogged down, since it’s not the focus of the play, but we do need to continue to be able to have the open, respectful kinds of conversations we had tonight. 

Session Four: Weeks 10 and 11

Tomorrow is #GivingTuesday, folks! It's a great opportunity for you to hop on the giving bandwagon and get in a donation to Shakespeare in Prison before the year is over. We would be so appreciative of your support this holiday season. And if your wallet is already feeling the holiday pinch, please consider sharing this blog with a friend (... or several hundred on social media!). Many thanks, and enjoy the rest of the post!

Week 10

After welcoming and orienting two new members, the ensemble set about casting The Taming of the Shrew. Our process for the past two sessions has been to do this in an open group discussion and vote whenever need be.

Perhaps because the group decided to cast earlier than usual this session, with less exploration time than we usually have (and this was a vote by a large majority of the women), there was more discussion and voting than there usually is, and the process wasn’t quite as smooth. After some discussion amongst the facilitators, we believe the biggest reasons for this are, as stated, the earlier casting time (which didn’t allow for as much to “fall into place” organically), the new dynamic of having a larger number of women returning to the group (which is a really good thing!), and having a larger number of women in the group (which is also a really, really good thing!). These differences led to changes in the way our usual process worked that we didn’t anticipate, and we need to adapt for the future.

In any case, after a lengthy discussion and voting process amongst the ensemble, most of the roles are cast, and we are left with some open roles and some women who do not yet have roles. In order to make sure everyone is on the same page about what worked about our casting process and what needs to be improved, the facilitators have decided to invite the group to have an open, honest, constructive conversation about it when we meet next. I firmly believe in what Curt Tofteland, the founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars (our inspiration and model) has always said, which is that any issues can and should be solved by the circle. We facilitators are there to do just that – facilitate. The ensemble will work together to figure this out.

Week 11

We began tonight’s session with a really solid Ring exercise to prepare us to work as a team and be constructive during our discussion of the casting process.

It turned out that we facilitators were not the only ones who perceived that our process had some issues, although opinions were mixed on how “big” these issues truly were. Some people felt that their input had been misinterpreted and needed to be further explained. Others felt that that there were no true “problems,” and we should just move on. In short, this is how things were resolved (for the moment, anyway):

  • It needs to be clear from the get-go if there is going to be any kind of preference given to women who have been in the group longer (similar to most educational theatre programs), and, if past proof of commitment gives that kind of casting preference, there need to be more opportunities for new members to show their commitment before we cast. We’ve dealt many times with ensemble members leaving the group prior to performance, and returning members (and some new) are skittish about casting new members in roles like Katherina and Petruchio, for example (we went through three Calibans in 2012; in 2013 many roles ended up filled by facilitators). Most of the group wants to keep casting in November rather than December, so this means that we need to find a way to do both our ensemble building and get through our play exploration more quickly. This is something we need to explore.
  • If we feel the need to cast before the entire play has been explored on its feet (as we did this year; but I hope we can avoid this), we will have “auditions” of some kind so that we can see everyone who feels connected to a character exploring that character.
  • Rather than having a “blind vote” by show of hands with eyes closed, we will vote by anonymous written ballot, and a facilitator will tally the votes and report back on how the play has been cast.

We then decided to table the rest of casting for now and focus on ensemble building for the rest of the day. We played theatre games and did some improv, and it eased the tension that was in the room.

As always in this program, we are taking our “mistakes” in stride and learning from them rather than getting bogged down by them. Both the facilitators and the inmates made decisions that contributed to this process being rockier than usual, but I believe this is a growing pain as our program gets stronger – as stated above, we have more returning members than ever and our largest group yet, so we are bound to have to change some things as we go. We are all learning together.