"Statera Voices" is an op-ed series featured on the Statera Blog dedicated to reclaiming dominant cultural narratives as a means towards intersectional gender balance in the theatre and beyond. "Statera Voices" is where we tell our stories, expand our histories, and celebrate each other. It is here that we join in a circle of mutual trust and support to share our thoughts and self-reveal on our own term and in our own voices.
Shakespeare in Prison
by Frannie Shepherd-Bates
“I can’t tell you how much I love Shakespeare. It’s so accurate to our experience here – he uses the perfect words. I’m so glad I found this.”
February 7, 2012
Programs Building: Auditorium
Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility
I stand on the stage, smiling, shaking warm hand after warm hand — fifteen of them. I’m trying not to show it, but I’m terrified — not because all of these hands belong to people convicted of felonies, incarcerated at Michigan’s only women’s prison, but because I’ve never done anything like this before, and I’m not totally convinced that I can. Maybe half-convinced. Maybe.
What if I’m not as sensitive as I think I am? What if I say or do the wrong thing and alienate these women — or get shut down by the facility? What if this doesn’t work the way it has for other artists? This could last two weeks. Or it could last for years. Or today could be it.
I sit down on the steps that lead up to the stage so we’ll all be on the same level. I introduce myself.
I’m a theatre artist with a knack for directing, teaching, and working with Shakespeare. I’m not a scholar. I love it, I don’t fear the challenge, and I’m pretty good at breaking it down.
“What are we going to do?”
“How is this going to work?”
“What is Shakespeare?”
I tell them that I have some ideas — that I’ve researched other prison theatre programs, but most of those have been done with men, and, you know, I haven’t ever done the work myself. “So I don’t know what this looks like, really,” I say. “I’m hoping you’ll help me figure it out.”
I promise to show up consistently. I promise that I will never bullshit them. I promise to be patient, flexible, and enthusiastic. And realistic.
Then one of them asks what I’m doing here. In prison. Why am I not afraid of them?
“Because you’re people,” I reply. “And we all make mistakes. We all make bad decisions. It doesn't have to define us. It doesn’t define you. I’m here because I believe that theatre has the potential to effect huge change. And I’m hoping that that’s what’s going to happen for us.”
Shakespeare in Prison has evolved since those early days, but the spirit remains the same. Our work empowers incarcerated (and now formerly incarcerated) people to reconnect with their humanity and that of others; to reflect on their past, present, and future; and to gain the confidence, self-esteem, and crucial skills they need to heal and positively impact their communities. And we use Shakespeare to do it.
We work over the course of a nine-month season to explore, rehearse, and perform one play by Shakespeare. We begin with ensemble-building, reading, discussion, and dipping our toes into performance. We cast our play collaboratively. We rehearse and rehearse and rehearse until we perform. Then we analyze how it all went, take a break for a few months, and start back up with a new play.
The program’s structure is more or less set at this point, but it can still be messy; even rocky. That’s an understatement to describe that first year and a half, as we worked together to figure out what we wanted from this program and how we could get there. I quickly learned that this was going to be much harder than I’d thought — but that it could also be more breathtaking and inspiring than I’d anticipated.
I’d promised not to judge; to be patient and flexible. I learned what that takes in such a chaotic environment, working with so many people who hurt so badly, and I learned to keep my biases and frustrations at bay. Because they weren’t helpful.
I learned that people’s potential to radically alter their lives — their very identities — is innate; universal; nearly unfathomable. And I learned what a powerful tool Shakespeare can be in service of that.
“I feel liberated,” one woman said at the end of our very first meeting.
“Being on stage is a whole new high,” said a woman recovering from heroin addiction, less than two years into a four-year tenure in the ensemble.
The insight shared by these women — 141 in the last six years — was so striking and so frequent, right off the bat, that I began writing down as much of what they said, verbatim, as I could.
“Everybody needs something different, and we all get it. It’s hard to explain because it’s a feeling; sometimes there aren’t any words.”
“This whole process reminds me of the best part of who I used to be before I came to prison. The darkness can overwhelm… This is my light. Not only can I be that girl again, but I can be better. Whatever we’re feeling, it’s okay here.”
“This is my favorite thing that I do. I love the process... It’s nine months of something I never thought I could do. This is my family. You will bare your soul because Shakespeare is timeless. This is a safe place. These are my best friends.”
“I feel like I’ve changed so much in prison. I don’t like to meet new people – I’m still friendly, but I have my guard up. But I told my therapist when she asked that there is one place I feel safe: Shakespeare.”
“Prison didn’t help my self-esteem, but it did get me clean. After this, I have self-esteem, self-worth, accomplishment – I believe in myself on a lot of different levels. Hearing people say I’m good at something… I feel like I can live a different life and be the person I want to be. It seemed like a dream before – the last time I felt like that was when I was a kid.”
Theoretically, I’d believed that we would all be able to see ourselves in Shakespeare’s archetypal characters and situations; that that would give us insight into ourselves, our lives, and the world around us. That was — and has been — true. What I didn’t realize was just how profound that could be—- and how little input it would take from me for people to go there. Themselves. Sometimes in as little as twenty minutes.
People with limited education. People who’ve sold their bodies. People who’ve struggled with addiction, or mental illness, or both. Who’ve committed acts of desperation, or who’ve just made really, really bad decisions. People who’ve killed other people. People who’ve suffered trauma so severe that I can’t even speak of it, let alone fathom it. Who’ve inflicted such trauma on others.
People of color. Indigenous people. People across all spectrums of gender identity and sexual preference. People who’ve lived their whole lives in economic hardship. People who’ve been told their whole lives that they’re stupid. That they’re worthless.
For whom being a woman usually means you’re “less than.” For whom being a woman can be dangerous. For whom being a woman often feels like the very reason you’ve made those terrible decisions; why you’ve been locked up. Why you identify with men. Or why you fear them.
And it all ends up having an enormous influence on the way our ensembles understand and stage Shakespeare. Which is often far different from how we on the outside understand and stage it.
These women have taught me that when the politics of representation are removed (because they live in a place where 98% of the people around them are of the same biological sex), there isn’t usually a reason to alter the genders of Shakespeare's characters. It’s always been an option, but we’ve literally never done it. Our ensemble members have always felt that doing so had the potential to alter the story to a point where it wouldn't have had the same meaning for them.
“I don’t know… I really click with Iago. But, you know… I love like Othello, and I hate like Iago. That’s the thing about this group. At so many points, it just shows me myself. I never thought I would be using this… but I use it in real life.”
Were you married to an Iago? Or have you been Iago — and does gender play into that? Realizing that you relate to such a character means that you are seriously analyzing parts of yourself that are far from pretty. On the flipside, realizing that such a character is within some of your ensemble members might give you insight into the Iagos in your life. It won’t absolve them — Shakespeare certainly doesn’t absolve Iago — but your new perspective might help you understand, process, and heal from your past. And it generally does.
When we talk about making theatre accessible, we’re usually talking about providing discounted or free tickets to see plays, or educational programs, or talk backs. There’s nothing wrong with any of that (far from it!). Our work is less traditional. It’s more Theatre of the Oppressed than Royal Shakespeare Company. But it isn’t really either. It’s kind of its own thing.
Plays have directors; classes have teaching artists. In Shakespeare in Prison, we who come in from “the world” are definitely artists, but we don’t direct or teach. It’s not a class. We’re not experts. We facilitate; we guide. There’s no hierarchy. It’s “painfully collaborative.” And that’s part of its value. All barriers are removed (that aren’t imposed on us by the facility). All bets are off. So we’ve got to really own this material. And, my goodness, we sure do.
Shakespeare is, hands down, some of the most accessible theatre there is, provided the guidance is compassionate, free of judgment, and open to interpretation — even to being wrong. I’m increasingly impatient with the notion that Shakespeare is a rarefied thing; that we should sideline it because it’s been around for a long time and was written by a white man. That, because of those things, “marginalized” or “at-risk” people won’t relate to or enjoy it. I don’t buy it.
“Shakespeare should be for everybody. It is for everybody. “
Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t seen and heard what I have. Our own bias and privilege can get in the way of seeing not just what theatre can do, but what Shakespeare can. The people I’ve worked with have found this not only frustrating, but exasperating, and even offensive. Why shouldn’t people like them (adults and children) have access to this simply because others assume they don’t need it or won’t like it? Or won’t understand it? These are phantom barriers. They aren’t real.
That’s not to say that it isn’t challenging. Doing Shakespeare is a point of pride. It gives you something to prove. It’s something you call home about. It’s something your kids can brag about; maybe it’s the first time they’ve ever been proud of you. It’s got caché. It’s a club. It’s a family.
It gives you the drive to pay it forward. To other prisoners. To your family on the outside. To others in recovery. To people serving life sentences who desperately need the new perspectives — the new worlds — that Shakespeare offers.
“It’s not that I want to be in Shakespeare. It’s that I need it. I can’t do this time without it.”
Sometimes the work leads our ensemble members to become theatre artists, but, more often, they gain confidence that propels them to do things that seem to have nothing to do with Shakespeare, or to pursue more education. Because they did this — which no one would have thought they could do — they believe they can do other things that seemed impossible. They develop new identities or reconnect with past ones. In doing so, they are not simply “rehabilitated.” They are activated.
We like to say, “You bring to it what you bring to it. And you get out of it what you get out of it.” It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. Empathy knows no class, color, education, or gender.
“I’m here for murder… Beforehand, my mind was saying, ‘It’s wrong! It’s wrong! You shouldn’t do it…’ In one half of my mind, I’m like Macbeth, seeing it’s wrong… But my dumb ass did it anyway. But the thoughts of guilt didn’t go away.”
“Richard feels his pain. I identify with him in that way because when I was little, people would say mean things [about her skin color; she is very dark skinned], and that’s why I know how to fight. After a while, I just took it. But then I started amplifying it majorly. And I would sit and think about how I could hurt you. If I felt not dominant, not number one, if you were stronger than me, then I would attack you physically. And that’s how I feel Richard is. I see him holding in things that have hurt him and amplifying it out onto everyone else. And he doesn’t tell anyone.”
“It sucks because [Buckingham] gets it, like, a minute too late… As an addict, I saw people who almost had it but missed it, and they died. I can relate to looking at that reflection and saying, ‘Damn, I did all that?’”
“It’s like going from the suburbs to the middle of Compton. [Anne] just took the other option. Now she feels guilty, but at least she didn’t go to jail. She had to do something so she didn’t end up in the slums.”
People are people. And people are complicated. When you remove the barriers between yourself and others; between yourself and Shakespeare — specifically Shakespeare — new ideas, worlds, and experiences open themselves to you.
“I feel like Shakespeare was in prison. All this is the same shit we go through all the time--the intrigue, the lies, the people, nobody taking responsibility for their actions…”
“Things I didn’t think were in me, I could see within myself and in the characters. Seeing things in different ways has helped me become a better woman. When I came here, I was really angry and didn’t care about anything but myself. Now I see things differently.”
“I never thought I’d be smart enough to sit and have this kind of discussion about a book like this.”
“[Sonnet #35 is] the best thing I’ve ever heard… Because, to me, I think the poem was written at a point when this person said, ‘No more’… Everybody makes mistakes, but it doesn’t define you.”
“Shakespeare is my mothafuckin’ NA. It’s my AA. It’s a place where I can be me. The theatre is my home.”
“It feels so cool when you can answer Jeopardy questions, and it’s because of this class.”
Augusto Boal said, “I think anyone can do theater. Even actors. And theater can be done everywhere. Even in a theater.”
When we theatre artists recognize that our way of making art is not the only way (even when radically altering its forms); that we who are privileged enough to do this work professionally do not have a monopoly on understanding it; that we may have prejudices that inform our work even as we strive toward equity, inclusion, and representation; then we can begin to see the incredible power that this material has, just as it is. Without anything on it. “Don’t. Add. Shit. To. Shakespeare,” one of our ensemble members recently said.
When we shake off the strictures that prevent us from seeing the power of Shakespeare — these four hundred year old words written by a white European man, but not belonging to him — to uplift and empower the most marginalized among us, we can be liberated as much as any prisoner.
April 3, 2018
Programs Building: Room 154
Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility
“Frannie, can I ask you a question?”
“Does this — when you come here, does this feel like work?”
I pause, letting the question sink in. “You know, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that.” I pause again. “I guess it depends on how you define ‘work’. If we’re talking about going to a job and punching the clock: no, it absolutely doesn’t feel like that.” Pause. “But this takes a lot out of me, for sure. I always want to bring all the energy, patience, and authenticity I can. I have to be fully present every single second. And that takes a lot of effort.”
I look at the woman sitting next to her, who’s watching me with that careful look I’ve seen so often on her face — measuring my words and affect, the beginnings of a smile just barely crinkling the skin around her eyes and lips.
“But no, this definitely doesn’t feel like a job. I never feel like I want to take a day off just for fun. I never think, ‘God, I really don’t want to be around these people today.’”
“You really love this.”
“I really do.”
ABOUT FRANNIE SHEPHERD-BATES
Frannie Shepherd-Bates is the founder, director, and lead facilitator of Shakespeare in Prison (SIP), a program of Detroit Public Theatre. She began SIP (under the auspices of Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company, which she led from 2008-2014) as its sole volunteer facilitator and administrator, personally handling every aspect of the program. Since those early days, Frannie has worked with the women’s ensemble — and now the men’s as well — to develop the structure, objectives, and pedagogy of the program; developing a culture of warmth, openness, professionalism, and dedication. In 2015, the program moved from Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company as it dissolved to Detroit Public Theatre as it was founded. As a freelance director, sound designer, and teaching artist, she has worked with more than a dozen southeast Michigan theaters and schools. Frannie has won numerous awards for her artistic and community work, and she has been featured in local, regional, national, and international media.