Shakespeare in Prison

Detroit Public Theatre's Signature Community Program

 

Photo by Chuk Nowak

“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.” - SIP ensemble member

Shakespeare in Prison (SIP) empowers incarcerated and 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. SIP began at Michigan's only women's prison in 2012 and expanded in 2017 to include men and youth as well. SIP’s prison ensembles have included nearly 300 members, and approximately 1,200 incarcerated people have been in the audience for our plays.


So... Why Shakespeare? Why Shakespeare... in prison?

There are many perceived barriers to working with Shakespeare. People may feel that they're not smart or educated enough to touch it; that it’s only for trained actors; that it's a foreign language they can't possibly understand; that there's no way they can relate to these four hundred year old plays. On top of that, incarcerated people have been labeled by their crimes and prison ID numbers. Most have survived trauma and addiction. They have been disempowered; made to feel worthless, stupid; shells of who they once were or could have been. Most are disconnected from their own humanity and that of others.

Photo by Chuk Nowak

The SIP experience profoundly alters this. SIP’s ensemble members use Shakespeare (the archetypal characters, universal themes, and familiar situations of the plays) as a tool to radically alter their perspective, behavior—and their very identities. They identify with the universal themes in these plays: love and hate, revenge and forgiveness, manipulation and victimization, responsibility and abdication thereof, among many others. They find their own feelings and experiences articulated in Shakespeare’s words, and they gain paradigm-shifting insight of all kinds through group analysis and discussion.

In this way, they are able to connect with their own humanity—and all of humanity—in new and illuminating ways. They gain the empathy they need to alter the way they tell their own stories and understand those of others, as well as the confidence and skills that aid them in doing positive things for themselves and their communities. They stand up to, and knock down, the stereotypes that society puts on them. They gain the courage to leave those stereotypes behind. And they do.


But how does this happen? How could we define that process?

In 2016, SIP’s team of facilitators set out to explore and document measurable outcomes, focusing on accurately describing the actual work that goes on in the ensemble. We asked the question:

How does one season of Shakespeare in Prison impact the ensemble member’s sense of identity in the correctional context?

We found that participation in a season of Shakespeare in Prison has the potential to profoundly change an ensemble member’s narrative identity through two distinct but interrelated processes:

THE THEATRICAL PROCESS

Responses and experiences that come from or through the play itself.

THE OPERATIONAL PROCESS

Responses and experiences that come from working in an ensemble.

It’s very cool stuff! Click here to download our write-up of the study’s results.


When our least visible members of society are given opportunities to heal, grow, and gain empowerment, it benefits all of us. Those going home will no longer be invisible upon their release, at which time they will face many challenges; those with life sentences are equally challenged by the limitations of prison culture. Knowing that they have successfully worked as part of a team to put together a play by Shakespeare helps them take on these challenges; knowing they are not alone on the broad spectrum of humanity gives them hope. 


Photo by Chuk Nowak

Photo by Chuk Nowak

"That hope for a better future and a better life, in and of itself, is the single most amazing thing that I could have ever hoped for as more than just a prisoner, but as a human being who didn't have reason to have any hope at all."
- SIP ensemble member