Shakespeare in Prison

Video credit:
Ford Motor Company

Detroit Public Theatre's Frannie Shepherd-Bates takes Shakespeare to a whole new level — maximum security. As the founder of Shakespeare in Prison, Frannie uses her work to help prisoners become empowered at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

What is Shakespeare in Prison?

Credit: Chris Adams/Never Say Die Media

Credit: Chris Adams/Never Say Die Media

Shakespeare in Prison empowers inmates through theatre exercises and Shakespearean text to think creatively, reflect on their pasts, gain insight into themselves and others, and develop crucial life skills to be used both in and out of prison.

There are many perceived barriers to working with Shakespeare. People may feel that they're not smart enough; that they're not educated enough; that they need to be trained actors; that it's a foreign language they can't possibly understand; that there's no way they can relate to these four hundred year old plays. All of that is false.

Incarcerated people are disconnected from their humanity and that of others. Labeled by their crimes and prison ID numbers, most have survived trauma and addiction. They have been disempowered; made to feel worthless, stupid; shells of who they once were or could have been.

The SIP experience profoundly alters this. We see people in their totality--not as defined by their worst mistakes. In our ensembles, people find comradeship and a safe space; their ideas are valued; they improve communication; they develop as leaders and teammates; and they accomplish something truly radical. In SIP, inmates gain new perspectives on themselves and others, increase empathy and confidence, and learn to see their places on the broad spectrum of humanity, all through the lens of Shakespeare.

When our least visible members of society are given opportunities to heal, grow, and become empowered, it benefits all of us. Those going home will no longer be invisible upon their release, at which time they will face many challenges; those with life sentences are equally challenged by the limitations of prison culture. Knowing that they have successfully worked as part of a team to put together a play by Shakespeare will help them to take on these challenges. As one woman said, “If I can do this, what else can I do that I never thought I could do?”

How do we know it works?

Shakespeare in Prison is modeled after Shakespeare Behind Bars, the oldest program of its kind in North America. The founder and artistic director of SBB, Curt Tofteland, has been advising SIP's founder and lead facilitator, Frannie Shepherd-Bates, since the program began in 2012. Alumni of Shakespeare Behind Bars have had only a 5.1% recidivism rate, as contrasted with the national rate of 67%.

Shakespeare in Prison is continuing that trend. Participants who have completed at least one season of Shakespeare in Prison at WHV and have been paroled or discharged (33 women) currently have a recidivism rate of 6% (2 have re-offended).

Recidivism is only one measure of success, and it can be a problematic one. We have gathered a mountain of anecdotal evidence from ensemble members about the impact their work has had on their lives in prison - and we hear this from staff as well. We have also begun to hear from alumni about the success they've been having on the outside. SIP facilitators conducted and are analyzing a case study of the 2016-17 season at WHV to measure identity development of the participants. We will post the results of the study here when they are ready.

Ensemble members and facilitators describe the process and outcomes of Shakespeare in Prison.

Video credit:
Chuk Nowak

The Women's Ensemble

The ensemble at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti works for nine months each year that culminate in performances of a fully staged work by Shakespeare. After profoundly successful seasons exploring Scenes and Monologues, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and Richard III, the ensemble has chosen to explore Macbeth with the goal of performing it in June 2018. The program has been developed with constant feedback from ensemble members, some of whom have been in the group for more than five years.

Click here to follow the weekly blog from WHV.

The Men's Ensemble

Our extended pilot program at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson is being developed by SIP’s director and participating inmates. Thus far, there have been one two-week intensive exploring Macbeth and one 12-week workshop exploring Othello, both extremely successful. Those workshops have culminated in performances of selected scenes, with the ensemble collaborating to tell the story as they interpret it. The men’s program will be even more impactful in a 30-week format similar to the women’s program; that is our goal in the 2018-19 season.

Click here to follow the biweekly blog from Parnall.

Your support ensures that this program continues to grow and expand. Please consider a tax deductible donation!

Youth Programming

The Shakespeare Workshop

Shakespeare in Prison is proud to partner with Youth Arts Alliance! to offer The Shakespeare Workshop. This 12-week model takes into account the needs of youth in the juvenile justice system, which differ from adults, and the facility in which each workshop takes place. We hope this will be a long-lasting and impactful partnership.

Youth Arts Alliance! (YAA!) provides creative arts workshops inside juvenile detention and residential treatment facilities in Southeast Michigan. YAA! believes involvement in the arts facilitates personal growth and increased connections to the community. We offer youth impacted by the juvenile justice system creative workshop opportunities to encourage, support, and celebrate their artistic talents and social development.

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For more information about Shakespeare in Prison or The Shakespeare Workshop, please fill out this form:

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