Shakespeare helps prisoners change

Apr 28, 2013

Frannie Shepherd-Bates (standing) directs actor Molly McMahon in a project outside of prison. Shepherd-Bates is executive artistic director of the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company in Detroit.
Frannie Shepherd-Bates (standing) directs actor Molly McMahon in a project outside of prison. Shepherd-Bates is executive artistic director of the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company in Detroit.

Frannie Shepherd-Bates is a Shakespeare geek. She is also executive artistic director of the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company in Detroit.

Twice a week, Shepherd-Bates drives from metro Detroit to the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, which is about 10 miles south of Ann Arbor, to share her love of Shakespeare.

She makes her way through a thorough security check (where a security official checks the soles of her feet and shoes, as well as under her tongue), into the educational part of the building where prisoners can enroll in a variety of classes.

Shepherd-Bates teaches “Shakespeare in Prison,” and she blogs about the experience here. There are similar programs all over the country (like "Shakespeare Behind Bars" in Kentucky), and this program at the Huron Valley facility is going on its second year.

Today a dozen women show up for class in the prison’s small auditorium. Later this summer they will perform “The Tempest” for the staff and prisoners (family members will not be permitted to attend). Today’s rehearsal is pretty much like any rehearsal at any local theater company.

The women gather in a circle for stretches and vocal warm-ups. They play a few improv games to get their creative juices flowing and then they begin rehearsing a scene from the play. At first, they recite their lines tentatively and move sheepishly across the stage. But Shepherd-Bates instructs them to be louder, and bolder, and soon the scene starts to really take shape.

“Give me thy hand. I do begin to have bloody thoughts.”

The prisoner actors will wear masks made by Nina Barlow & Holly Conroy for Water Works Theatre Company
The prisoner actors will wear masks made by Nina Barlow & Holly Conroy for Water Works Theatre Company
Credit Shakespeare in Prison blog

The women are enthusiastic, curious and engaged.

Lisa plays the lead, Prospero. (Prison policy would only allow us to identify the women by their first name.)

She says Shakespeare’s characters are flawed yet good. “My particular character starts off very angry and very vengeful, and then by end of the play he realizes he needs to give up the anger and the thoughts of revenge and move towards love.” She says her character’s transformation is similar to what many of the inmates go through.

“We have to give up anger and forgive ourselves and other people. We have to learn and focus and try and move on, and that’s not easy in a place like this.”

The students also have to learn how to work together as a team, communicate effectively, and how to resolve creative differences as actors.

The facility’s Deputy Warden of Programs, Karri Osterhout, says she’s seen personal growth in these students. “I’ve seen a change in their confidence and communication styles.” Osterhout says this “small but effective” program offers a lot of opportunity for change. “And that’s what we’re looking for. We don’t want them to come out the same way they came in.”

She also points out that the program does not cost the state, nor tax payers, any money. (Shepherd-Bates volunteers her services but she is looking for grants that would help pay her a salary.)

Several inmates said that this class offers them an escape from their stressful lives behind bars, and it gives them a chance to be creative for several hours a week.

One woman put it this way, saying, “Shakespeare takes these flawed characters and makes poetry from their stories.” She says she’s made mistakes, but she’s starting to see that she can make something beautiful out of her life.