From the November 2015 issue

Orange is the New Bard: Shakespeare in Prison Brings Theater to Inmates

Shakespeare didn’t pen plays only for kings’ men. Twice a week for nine months a year, director Frannie Shepherd- Bates brings Shakespeare in Prison to Michigan’s sole women’s prison. With SIP, this Huntington Woods mom aims to empower inmates – many also moms – through theater.

Stage movement

At Wayne State University in Detroit, Shepherd-Bates, an ’06 theater major, also fell in love with social justice. Then she saw Shakespeare Behind Bars, a documentary about U.S. inmates performing. “Something clicked. I feel like we do a lot of ignoring people who are made invisible by circumstances.”

Full production

SIP started at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in early 2012 (her family friend happened to run the Ypsilanti prison’s horticulture program). Actresses start out with improv games in fall. By late December, a show is cast. Shepherd-Bates’ home company, Detroit Public Theatre, provides costumes – and the prison’s building trades program makes sets. In June, they perform for fellow inmates and staff.

Finding Iago

This year’s play is Othello; it’s about a general deceived into believing his wife is unfaithful by archrival Iago. “He’s rough,” Shepherd-Bates says of the character. But he resonates. As one actress told her, “I really click with Iago. I feel like I identify with his anger, but I feel like I love like Othello. I trust like Othello.”

A common bond

“It’s not Orange is the New Black,” she says, speaking of the TV series’ over-the-top lady inmates. And the moms in SIP inspire Shepherd-Bates, whose own son, Miles, is 2. “I think that being a mother gives me greater empathy.”

Everywoman

From The Tempest to Romeo and Juliet, these women, many with no prior experience, find The Bard accessible. “It’s not this insurmountable, highfalutin thing.”

Building confidence

In the process, the women gain skills and strength. Some go on to join choir or college classes. One told Shepherd-Bates, “My daughter told me on the phone that she joined her drama club because she’s inspired by what I’m doing.”

They’re coming home

Why do this for criminals? “More than 90 percent of them are coming back to our communities. It is worth investing our time and energy in helping them to do better when they come home.”

Support SIP

Shakespeare in Prison shows aren’t public, but you can donate online – plus discover shows (for older teens/adults) at its parent company, Detroit Public Theatre.

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