Frequently asked questions about Shakespeare in Prison

(… and their answers!)

+ What is SIP's relationship with Detroit Public Theatre?

Shakespeare in Prison is Detroit Public Theatre’s signature community program. SIP began in 2012 as part of Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company, which was co-founded by program director Frannie Shepherd-Bates (details below). In 2015, faced with MGT’s closure, Shepherd-Bates shared with co-facilitator Sarah Winkler that she did not know what to do about the program: she knew she couldn’t found and run another 501(c)3, and she was wary of seeking a new home in a theatre or university unfamiliar with this kind of work. This was during the time when Winkler was in the process of co-founding Detroit Public Theatre with Courtney Burkett and Sarah Clare Corporandy, and they welcomed Frannie and SIP into the company as its signature community program, core to its mission, with all the organizational support necessary to sustain and grow the program.

+ Where did the idea for SIP come from? How did it get started?

While working toward a BFA in Acting at Wayne State University, SIP’s founder Frannie Shepherd-Batse learned about nontraditional theatre movements such as El Teatro Campesino and Theatre of the Oppressed, which, by engaging community members rather than simply performing for them, empowered participants to assertively tell their own stories and make radical, positive changes in their communities. Inspired by theatre’s potential to transcend entertainment and be a catalyst for social change, Shepherd-Bates co-founded Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company in 2008, hoping not only to produce plays, but to provide such programming. After viewing Shakespeare Behind Bars, the documentary about the long-running program of the same name, she began to think that that kind of work might be her “in.”

The first meeting of the Shakespeare in Prison program was on February 7, 2012, at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV). Introducing herself to a wary but excited group of incarcerated women, she shared that, as this work was new to her and she'd never been incarcerated, she would need their help to learn how to make it work. SIP has grown and thrived under this collective ownership every since, becoming a respected, beloved part of this prison's community. In 2017, SIP expanded to include a men's ensemble at Parnall Correctional Facility. As of this writing, nearly 250 incarcerated people have spent time in SIP's ensembles, and many have participated in two or more seasons. The group has performed for more than 1,300 incarcerated audience members, many of whom have returned year after year.

SIP's post-release extension, Shakespeare Reclaimed, was founded in 2018. This program allows SIP alumni to maintain the healthy relationships they forged with facilitators while incarcerated, as they pursue personal and professional development opportunities on the outside.

+ What are the “nuts and bolts” of SIP?

Rather than having a group of professional artists perform plays for a prison audience, our performances are developed and performed by an ensemble comprised mostly of incarcerated people. Facilitators are held in reserve as understudies, should casting change in the home stretch (as it often does, due to the environment in which we work). Directorial and design concepts are developed collectively by the ensemble; facilitators do their best to fulfill those visions with props and costumes. Set pieces are often built and/or provided by inmates, with guidance and support from facility staff.

The group’s goals and timeline are established at the beginning of each season; however, due to the nature of prison work, it’s impossible to adhere to detailed lesson plans or rehearsal schedules. Instead, the group utilizes a long term plan (i.e., Phases I-I II), and intermittent deadlines (i.e., once a scene is blocked, it’s memorized within one week). Each adult ensemble follows the same arc through the 9-month process:

PHASE I: Months 1-2
Read, discuss, and begin to explore the play on its feet. Build ensemble through theatre games and exercises.

PHASE II: Months 3-4
Read or walk through the play with new ensemble members, continuing to build ensemble and explore staging.

PHASE III: Months 5-9
Cast, rehearse, design, build, and perform the play.

Individuals’ milestones vary depending on their backgrounds and goals, but may include reading aloud in a group, openly expressing opinions, getting on stage, memorizing lines, and taking on new responsibilities. Lastly, staying involved in a long-term project through its conclusion is a milestone for all participants. As the value of the process crystallizes during performances, they are able to see the result of their collaborative work over the better part of a year, proving to themselves and others that they are fully capable of doing something so daunting—and finishing something, period. These feelings of accomplishment and confidence translate into other areas of their lives; even a departure from the group may be seen as a milestone if it’s due to enrollment in further education, vocational training, and/or other edifying experiences.

+ What is your approach to Shakespeare?

Shakespeare in Prison is, very explicitly, neither a class nor a traditional theatrical process. SIP staff are not teachers or directors; they’re not even defined as teaching artists. They are facilitators: equal participants in the ensemble, contributing ideas and guidance that come from experience, but with no more say in final decisions than anyone else. Every effort is made to avoid hierarchy in the creative process and the development of the program itself. Every voice carries equal weight.

We interpret Shakespeare through our own experiences. We own these plays. We value theatrical, literary, and cultural traditions, but our ensembles’ interpretations (often wildly nontraditional, but always text-based) take precedence. In staging, our objectives are simply to tell the story as we understand it (in under 90 minutes!) and to keep the ensemble together; this leads to breathtaking problem-solving and improvisation.

+ What are SIP's objectives?

Programmatic objectives include:

  • Positively altering each prison’s culture by making this program, and the arts in general, a key factor in inmates’ success in avoiding negative behavior (and encouraging others to do the same), being more prepared for re-entry to society, and staying out of prison once they have left.
  • Cultivating relationships with each facility’s staff and the Michigan Department of Corrections in order to make Shakespeare in Prison a valued program with the potential for continued expansion.
  • Reaching increasing numbers of incarcerated people and youth in corrections.
  • Providing as many professional development opportunities (and, eventually, employment) for SIP alumni as possible.

Objectives for individuals include:

  • Supporting people in awakening parts of themselves that were forgotten or entirely unknown—and in activating themselves to develop previously unimaginable skills and confidence.
  • Encouraging people to push themselves to pursue new and positive goals, often unrelated to the arts, with that newfound confidence.
  • Fostering a feeling of connection and community in a place where that is often difficult—or impossible—to find.
  • Providing a safe space in which people can be themselves and learn to express feelings and ideas that they would otherwise have kept to themselves.
  • Providing an opportunity for participants to enhance relationships with friends and family on the outside by giving them a sense of pride in their accomplishments.
  • Offering the support needed to face challenges on the inside and out, knowing that those who have seen one in a positive light will always be invested in one’s success.

+ How do you define “recidivism”, and how do you track it?

We define “recidivism” simply as a person’s return to prison, without regard to the length of time since their release, and we check each alum’s status on a weekly basis through public records. We track only ensemble members who participated long enough to perform in a show; this is because of the large number of people who’ve told us that the process, while valuable at all times, crystallizes for them during performances. SIP’s full impact, then, encompasses those performances; thus, the most accurate and consistent way to track this particular outcome is to measure it only for people who’ve had that full experience.

+ Why don’t you like recidivism as the primary measurable outcome for SIP? How do you measure success?

Experiences such as SIP lead to new ways of thinking and new skills, increasing the odds that returning citizens will approach life "on the outside" with a degree of confidence and optimism that they otherwise would not have had. This provides a better chance for formerly incarcerated people to have a positive impact on the world around them, make better choices than they have in the past, and avoid criminal activity.

But the factors determining whether or not a person will return to prison are too complex to be addressed by a single arts program. Many returning citizens face a lifelong battle with addiction; they may reenter society without a solid support system; they may face barriers to employment and education. And these are just a few examples. If an SIP alum relapses on drugs and commits a crime as a result, is that a failing of SIP? Possibly, but there’s no way to know for sure. The arts are not a panacea for the many challenges formerly incarcerated people face. They simply bolster their efforts to overcome them.

We measure SIP’s success on an individual basis, but our core outcome lies in the development of each participant’s narrative identity: essentially, the way in which they understand and tell their own life stories, past, present, and future. A simple example of this kind of development is one woman’s response to the question, “What is the gift you bring to the ensemble?” at the beginning of each season in which she’s participated:

Season 1: “I don’t know… me.”
Season 2: “I am… good at… Frannie’s staring at me and willing me to say it… directing. I try not to take charge and just give people good advice.”
Season 3: “My awesome directing skills, of course. And a positive attitude.”_

A near-complete case study of the 2016-17 season at WHV will provide substantial evidence of this outcome, as well as an explanation of the processes at work.

+ How did you get permission to stay in touch with alumni, let alone to work directly with them?

In December 2017, Frannie was invited by MDOC staff to submit a proposal for a structured post-release program for SIP alumni. The proposed program would have multiple purposes: to sustain healthy connections, provide continuing support and mentoring, connect alumni to professional skill-building opportunities; and, in doing all of this, provide long term outcomes that were impossible to measure without contact after participants’ release.

Frannie and Assistant Director Matthew Van Meter held focus groups with both adult ensembles, conducted interviews with several alumni, and distilled their input and ideas into a proposal written in alignment with MDOC’s mission and Offender Success Model. In February 2018, that proposal was approved, and the work began in earnest. As it gains steam, updates will be posted here.

+ What plays have you performed?

Women’s ensemble:
Season 1: Scenes and Monologues (2012; 6-month pilot)
Season 2: The Tempest (2012-13)
Season 3: Romeo and Juliet (2013-14)
Season 4: The Taming of the Shrew (2014-15)
Season 5: Othello (2015-16)
Season 6: Richard III (2016-17)
Season 7: Macbeth (2017-18)
Season 8: Twelfth Night (2018-19)

Men’s ensemble:
Pilot workshop 1: Macbeth (2017; two-week workshop)
Pilot workshop 2: Othello (2017; 12-week workshop)
Pilot workshop 3: The Tempest (2018; 14-week workshop)
Season 2: King Lear (2018-19; 40-week season)

+ How do I get involved?

Depends on what you’d like to do!

If you’re interested in becoming a facilitator, please feel free to email Frannie! We’ve recently started an apprenticeship program to train new facilitators, and, while we don’t have a definite date for when we’ll be taking applications, if we’ve got your contact info we’ll let you know right away when we do.

If you’re interested in providing another type of support, let’s talk! We’ve been fortunate to have had a number of supporters and advisors on the outside who’ve helped out with making/gathering costumes and props, program evaluation, research, fundraising, and more.

It can be frustrating to want to help an organization you’re excited about, and not to have the time or types of skills needed to do that “on the ground.” Perhaps it goes without saying, but there is another MUCH-appreciated way for you to be a part of SIP...

+ Where does your funding come from?

We’re glad you asked! Shakespeare in Prison has been supported over the years by a number of foundation and corporate funders, as well as a host of passionate individual donors.

What’s that you say? You’d like to be one of those passionate donors? Well, have we ever got a hyperlink for you. Click right here to make a much-appreciated tax deductible donation!

Got more questions? We’ve got answers! Click through the links below, or click here to email Frannie.

About S.I.P.
An overview of the program.
Inside S.I.P.
Photos, blogs, and more.
Support S.I.P.
Photos, quotes, and your credit card’s favorite hyperlinks.
S.I.P. Alumni
Info about Shakespeare Reclaimed, our post-release extension for alumni.

Women’s Ensemble Blog
Updated weekly, September-June.
Men’s Ensemble Blog
Updated weekly, July-March.
S.I.P. Press
All sorts of media features about our program.
S.I.P. Team
Info about the program’s staff, advisors, and other supporters.