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Anne Arundel 100
Shakespeare in Prison
All the World’s a Stage
by Beth Charlebois
Associate Professor of English
The unwieldy pile of book catalogues, calls for papers, and glossy alumni magazines cascaded down the steps, revealing a plain white envelope stamped “This correspondence is from an inmate in the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections. The Department is not responsible for the contents of this correspondence.” It was from my former student “Sue”: “I have checked out The Complete Works of William Shakespeare....I frankly don’t think I will read all 37 plays before I get out [in May 2009] but who knows? I can check it out two weeks at a time and there isn’t a great demand for it, so I can probably keep up with it until then.”
Sue enclosed four meticulously hand-printed essays on what she had read so far, The Tempest (her favorite), Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, and Venus and Adonis (which she loved so much that she copied out a racy passage from the poem to send to her boyfriend “to show him that Shakespeare rules”). Sue was writing from her prison cell; I had just returned from teaching Shakespeare in prison.
I spent my sabbatical year as the scholar-in-residence for Prison Performing Arts (PPA), a non-profit organization based in St. Louis, Missouri, that provides inmates with opportunities to study and perform plays by Shakespeare. I had wanted to do something with my sabbatical that would take me well out of my comfort zone; so when I heard Agnes Wilcox, the founder of PPA, at a conference, I asked her if I could teach with her. A Ph.D. might have prepared me to teach Renaissance literature, but it didn’t do a thing to prepare me for prison.
The official requirements were straightforward enough: After a background check, a TB test, a drug test, and a day-long training session in Jefferson City (which, among other things, taught me that the Department of Corrections is the biggest employer in the State of Missouri), I was approved to teach at the three institutions where Prison Performing Arts had Shakespeare programs, including the Women’s Eastern Reception and Diagnostics Correctional Center, a level 1-5 maximum security women’s prison in Vandalia, Missouri. I was told the women were studying and rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a text I knew well and had taught often.
I got my first lesson the first day: Things don’t always go as planned in prison. I sat in the lobby all day because the associate warden told Agnes that he just wasn’t inclined to sign my paperwork. It was clear who was in charge. But as I stewed in the lobby, I had a chance to watch the curious parade that is Visiting Day at a prison. I watched elderly folks shuffle in, many leaning on walkers or canes, with young children by their sides, who had come to visit their daughters, sisters, mothers, wives, friends. It was a diverse group. A young white Amish woman in somber hues held the hand of a sassy, little African-American girl who jumped up and down in a bright pink coat.
I stepped outside to get some fresh air. Just inside the razor wire, I saw a small collection of weathered playground equipment, including a bright green plastic dinosaur slide, reminding me that the vast majority of women in prison have children.
A week later, I finally met the women inmates of Vandalia. Entering the yard is a production with its own theatricality. You are given a two-way radio and a tiny piece of body armor colloquially referred to as a “screamer.” Pull the pin on the square of black plastic and a deafening alarm brings guards, guns drawn. The airlock consists of two enormous steel doors that are electronically operated from within the Control Center. Once the first door slowly closes behind you, you must show your photo ID to staff on the other side of a bullet-proof glass barrier before they let you through the second door. The prison itself, built in 1998, consists of several large, deep red buildings that look like barns. The population has grown to about 1,900 but was built for only 1,000. Women are housed dormitory-style. A room designed for four inmates now holds six or eight women in bunk beds.
There were about 25 women in the theater class and it was as diverse as the prison population itself. What they had in common was they all volunteered to take a three-hour class that requires them to learn and perform a Shakespearean play. The 65-yearold stage manager had been incarcerated for 30 years for killing her abusive husband. A few of the younger women, in their late teens or early 20s, new actors, had only been here a few months. They were here for “failure to protect” their young children who were killed or severely injured by their husbands or boyfriends. Other women were there for drugrelated crimes or gang violence. A few of our students had college degrees and were adept readers and writers; others had yet to earn their GEDs and struggled to read the text aloud, let alone master it, memorize it, and bring it to life on stage. Very few had any acting experience, but they did amazingly well at taking Agnes’ instruction and worked at their blocking and stage movement. It was fun and hard work. Some of those not in the scene followed along in their books; others took a nap. Agnes didn’t mind; she knew how relentless the noise was in the housing units and how hard it was to get a good night’s sleep.
As scholar-in-residence, I was there to help with the textual work and historical and literary background. As the weeks went by, I gave mini-lectures on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and helped Agnes and the actors interpret the language on the page, but the most important work I did was bear witness to a group of prison actors transcend the realities of their lives and enter the liberating world of literature and theater in a way I had never seen before.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream lovingly lampoons a group of common workmen for having the courage to put on a play without any formal training or education. Prison-actors similarly defy what is expected of them and dare to imagine a world beyond their current circumstances.
When I asked “Maxine,” who played Macbeth in a previous PPA production and was currently playing Theseus in Midsummer, to describe what it was like for her to perform Shakespeare, she said, “I’ll try to make this quick: My mother’s a crack head, my father’s a crack head, step-parents all crack heads, grandmother a gambling addict, grandfather got kicked out of the military because he was in possession of cocaine; so statistically, I felt like, Shakespeare? What?! … It has really boosted my self-esteem and my confidence….It has really helped me feel like, ok, if I can grasp this and I can understand this, then I can grasp and I can understand anything.”
In Shakespeare’s time, plays were performed without elaborate props or scenery, let alone the special lighting and sound effects that are standard features of modern theaters. Our prison actors similarly did not perform in a fully-equipped modern theater but in the visiting room and gym of a prison. A backdrop of milk crates was the only set allowed. There were other prohibitions. Prop flashlights posed an “escape risk.” Plastic swords were banned as potential weapons. At first, prisoners were told they must wear their “offender uniforms” under their costumes.
As everybody who has been part of any play knows, there are always lastminute changes, and the prison context made the variables even more plentiful. Actors were put in the “hole” (solitary confinement), placed on room restriction, whisked away for surgery without warning or notification, or transferred to other institutions, right in the middle of production or even on the day of a performance. But there were surprising successes and triumphs of invention. The actors made magnificent contributions: Patty crocheted her own openfaced ass’s head for Bottom, her character, to wear (she found a pattern for the donkey Eeyore from Winnie- the-Pooh!) and created a spectacular lion’s headdress and claws for Snug the Joiner to play the Lion. We created a soundtrack of sorts to conjure up the spirit of our Midsummer Night, which included Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and New Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight.”
After six months of intense preparation, the actors put on five performances, three for fellow inmates in the prison gym and two for friends, family and other guests in the visiting room. In front of a live audience, the actors bristled with excitement. In order for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to come true, the audience needs to believe it, and they did. Patty describes it: “You see people in the audience who are so into it and you get closer to them. You see their faces and say your line straight to them because they’re loving it; they’re eating it up, so you’re right there with them. They glow. It’s like lights in the audience.”
The magic and excitement only lasted a fleeting instant in “real time.” Although I watched the women exchange their brilliantly-colored costumes for prison grays and go through the doors to be strip-searched back into the yard, I knew that they were, in the language of the play, “translated,” or transformed by the power of theater, language, and community.
I didn’t enter the magic world of the forest like the mortals in Shakespeare’s play, but the strange world on the other side of the airlock where I saw two dozen women commit to and create another reality, a shared reality, the world of the play. This fall, I returned to my world of college teaching and know, in a way I never knew before, over the course of nearly 20 years of teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of the saving and sustaining power of a play – and of this play, in particular. I witnessed how the expansive, lush language of Shakespeare, animated by powerfully determined imaginations, can be a means of achieving a type of transcendence that dissolves differences of class, age, and education and even for a moment surmounts the razor-wire fences, iron bars, and steel locks that hem in these women on a daily basis. Rather than a group of prisoners under florescent lights, I saw actors create for themselves and for their audiences a beautiful moonlit, midsummer night.