Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 166
Shakespeare Unlimited: Shakespeare in Solitary
Listen to our interview with Laura Bates, who spent ten years working on Shakespeare with men incarcerated in the solitary confinement unit at Indiana’s Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.
Read Shakespeare's play online with The Folger Shakespeare
MICHAEL WITMORE: We often like to say: “Shakespeare is for everyone.” And you know what? It really, really is.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Theater artists have been taking the plays of Shakespeare into prisons for many years now, so the transformative impact these plays can have, while inspiring and remarkable, isn’t new. What is new though—and potentially groundbreaking—is an initiative being launched by the Detroit Public Theatre.
Starting about two years ago, artists there began recording the thoughts and ideas—the singular and uncommon insights and perspectives—expressed by inmates whom they had worked with at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in Ypsilanti.
As we record this, those artists are in the process of taking all of that material and releasing it as a new critical edition of Richard III. Critical editions are those versions of Shakespeare with additional materials to give it context—things like essays and comments by scholars and writers.
In this edition, Shakespeare’s still there, of course, but the facing page has a fresh look at the play and all of its underlying meanings spoken in the voices of women who are rarely part of the analysis of Shakespeare. As you’ll hear, their thoughts can be startling, eye-opening and truly notable.
The co-founder of this project is actor, director, choreographer, and dialect coach Frannie Shepherd-Bates. She joined us from her home to talk about how the project got started and what it could add to our understanding of Shakespeare’s work.
We call this podcast: “Your Imprisonment Shall Not Be Long.” Frannie Shepherd-Bates is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Frannie, I’d love it if you could walk us back to the beginning of this critical edition. How did you get the idea?
FRANNIE SHEPHERD-BATES: Yeah. We had been working at Michigan’s only women’s prison since 2012. And we had also been working at Parnall Correctional Facility, which is a men’s facility in Jackson, Michigan.
We were coming in and sitting down with the men’s ensemble, actually, and one of them had this idea. He said for us to put out one of our versions of one of these plays, because we edit them down quite a bit. He said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could share the work that we’ve done to lessen the work for other people?” And that was kind of the germ of this idea, to put together a critical edition of one of the plays that we’ve worked on that would feature the analysis of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people that we’ve worked with.
BOGAEV: And just so everyone can picture what we’re talking about, what exactly is a critical edition? What does it look like and what does it contain?
SHEPHERD-BATES: So when we are thinking about a critical edition, we’re thinking about a book that has the text of Shakespeare’s play along with analysis, footnotes, historical notes, maybe word definitions or pronunciations and analysis from whomever is editing this critical edition. And it may also include essays.
So that is the material that we’ve been putting together with the notes that we took, verbatim, of ensemble member discussions when they were incarcerated and now in these discussions that we’ve recorded on Zoom, so that we make sure we’re capturing all of that analysis in the words of the participants. And then some of them have also been writing essays and poetry, and things like that to accompany the text. Original artwork as well.
BOGAEV: Right. You have the text on the left and what they call “the glossing,” all of what you just described, on the right to correspond to it.
SHEPHERD-BATES: Yes. Absolutely. That is the way that we have found can best sort of visualize what our goal is. It is the layout of something that, of course, we’d ultimately work on with a publisher. We have put together the sample layout that clearly demonstrates the goals of the project.
BOGAEV: Just to step back for some context of Shakespeare in prison, in general, how and why do your participants get involved in the Shakespeare program to begin with? Is it just one of the many offerings you have in a prison, like pottery or welding class? Or is it part of getting your GED program?
SHEPHERD-BATES: In Michigan’s prisons, it is a recreational program. We’re part of Detroit Public Theatre. We’re a nonprofit and we bring this program in that is not part of a GED or college curriculum. People don’t earn any kind of credit for it. They get more of a personal benefit and, often, a professional one too, as they’re learning different work skills and even just learning that they’re smart enough to work with Shakespeare.
They may come into the room for any one for a number of reasons. Either they’re very interested in Shakespeare, they want to explore it further, or theater. Or they’re just bored and looking for something to do. Or somebody convinced them to sign up. Or it showed up on their schedule one day and they show up and say, “Somebody tricked me. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
But, you know, in terms of the people who stay, there are reasons for being there in the first place, there are reasons for staying, that run the gamut, just as they do with their personalities and their backgrounds and such.
BOGAEV: Sure. And your participants, it sounds like, run the gamut in terms of how much familiarity they have with Shakespeare. So what do you do in class? What exactly is the work?
SHEPHERD-BATES: We have a few different models to accommodate whatever timeline works best for the facility. Generally speaking, we have about a 40-week long season during which we begin with reading the play together, seated in a circle, aloud and getting on our feet to get a feel for the text off the page. And discussing it from an analytical standpoint, artistic standpoint, things like that. We also do a lot of theatre exercises to build trust and a feeling of ensemble.
Then, everything we do is collaborative, so there’s no director, and we cast the play collaboratively. Then, we begin rehearsing it, also collaboratively, which includes making cuts to the text, again, to get down to about a 90-minute performance time. We’ll rehearse it for quite a long time and then we’ll perform it there at the prison.
BOGAEV: Like an extended table read experience.
SHEPHERD-BATES: Yeah. It can go on for anywhere from two to three months.
BOGAEV: Oh, so cool. There are so many things that are interesting about your edition, but what’s so fascinating to me is that it features these direct quotes from your participants about the text. It’s such a window into their lives, and their experience, and their thought process. Some of it, I mean… really a lot of it, is really intense.
Just as an example, one that really struck me, it refers to the scene in which Lady Anne is talking with Queen Elizabeth about Richard. And she says, “Within so small a time, my woman’s heart grossly grew captive to his honey words.” And one of the comments from a participant is, “Yeah, she could have been like, ‘I’ll marry him but then I’ll kill him.’ I mean, that’s what I would have been like. I’d get really close to him and then off that [expletive] for doing everything he did to my family. But that’s just me, though.” Wow.
Now you teach there all the time, but what is it like in your session when participants say really honest personal things like that?
SHEPHERD-BATES: Part of what we’re there to do is to facilitate an experience where folks are able to gain perspective on themselves, their lives, the people around them. You know, to connect with their own humanity and connect with all of humanity.
So what that means… because we come in and we say, “You know, here’s the play, let’s read it together.” We don’t try to teach them anything, it’s just, “Let’s read it. What did you get out of it?” Then, we’ll discuss and often debate from there.
With a scene like that one, you could interpret in so many different ways. If you’ve got 15 to 20 people in the room, you’re going to get 15 to 20 different interpretations. A lot of them are going to be very personal, but having been brought out of the text. You’ll get—yeah—comments like that and then somebody coming back and saying, “Well, how many options does she really have? She’s just a survivor.”
Getting so many different opinions and perspectives that that debate has been going on in our group since 2016. It doesn’t seem to have any kind of end in sight even as people get really tired of talking about this scene. It’s like, “Oh wait, no. I’m tired of it… but I do have one more thing to say about it.”
BOGAEV: Oh man. It must be just so invigorating, so inspiring.
SHEPHERD-BATES: It’s wonderful and it’s a great way for those of us who have been taught how to think about Shakespeare, how to analyze it and all that, to work on it with people who have not been taught that same thing. That we’re learning from them probably a lot more than they’re learning from us, because from my life experience, I probably would not even—it wouldn’t dawn on me to interpret the scene that way. But it’s not not in the text, so she’s just given me a brand-new perspective, even if she hasn’t changed my mind for that to be my definitive interpretation.
BOGAEV: Well, I know you have some of the comments right in front of you and I’d like to look at some more. For instance, there’s one referring to Richard’s lines: “I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass.” Can you read the comment about that for us?
SHEPHERD-BATES: “I really like to think that Richard was just a normal boy, a good kid, and all these people would shun him and say evil things to him. After a while, that would cause a lot of pain and anger, and hatred. And then he was taught how to fight and kill so he got a lot out of that, but still those whispers never ceased. That eroded him.”
BOGAEV: I mean, that is so to the point and shows so much compassion and seems to come straight out of that participant’s experience. Is that where the conversation went after that, or does it continue to talk about Richard?
SHEPHERD-BATES: You know, the conversations about Richard—there were several women, but one in particular who really identified with him as someone who had been made to define himself by what others thought of him: this negative viewpoint they have of him for his deformity. What is he good for, to them?
You know, they would say, from personal experience, “If you’ve been called a villain over and over and over again. If you’ve been told that your only value is as a warrior. If your mother clearly doesn’t love you or doesn’t treat you well and nobody treats you well, maybe, well then maybe this is how you turn out to treat other people. If other people treat you heartlessly, maybe you become heartless.”
There was never any suggestion of excusing the vile actions that this character takes, but there is a very firm stance that we needed to have empathy for him and that a lot of that did come from personal experience. “Let me tell you what it was like when my mother spoke to me, kind of the way that the duchess speaks to her son in this play. Do you really think that’s the first time she’s said things like that to him?” So the conversation we’ll always try to bring back to the text, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be intensely personal for people.
BOGAEV: And then there’s the one for the line, “I, that am rudely stamped.”
SHEPHERD-BATES: Mm-hmm. “When I was little, people would say mean things about my skin color, and that’s why I know how to fight. I started amplifying it 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, I would attack you. That’s how Richard is. I see him holding in things that have hurt him and amplifying it out to everyone else. He doesn’t tell anyone.”
BOGAEV: They’re standing right in Richard’s shoes, it sounds like.
SHEPHERD-BATES: Yes. And this is one of the things that we believe is going to be so valuable for readers of this critical edition, is that coming at the play from this place of, sort of, radical empathy means that you can have a comment like this coming from a woman who is Black and has very dark skin. That she’s identifying with this character from centuries ago, this white European king, and coming from her own experience as an incarcerated Black woman today. That she could identify with him so deeply, was really striking. And that’s part of why she kind of brought us along with her into this interpretation of the play that is rooted in empathy for the villain.
BOGAEV: Okay. So these comments and these thoughts are coming from people in a women’s prison so it shouldn’t be a surprise that their perspectives that are strongly and particularly female. But some of them are really surprising. Could you talk about the comment that goes along with, “Oh my accursed womb, the bed of death, whose unavoided eye is murderous.”
SHEPHERD-BATES: Yes. “As a mother, you want to believe the best of your child until you’re backed into a corner and it becomes evident that they’re not the person you thought you were raising because that’s part of you, whether or not that’s our fault.
“I know for me it wasn’t my parent’s fault I made the choices that I made, but they generally had my back even in my addiction. I don’t think they knew a lot of it, but also that’s what you do when you’re a parent until it comes to a point where it’s very clear that that’s not the best cause of action. He had bloodshed on his hands. It’s not like she could deny that.”
BOGAEV: Pick that apart for us. What was your reaction to that comment? Can you even imagine if an English professors at a university somewhere were annotating or glossing a critical edition that you would ever get a take like that?
SHEPHERD-BATES: Yeah. I don’t know that you would. This is part of where having the kind of freeform discussion that we do have after we’ll read a scene or a part of a scene and then, you know, “What did you get out of that?”
The conversation got to a point where we’re talking about the duchess, her relationship with Richard and all of that. It went to a place where we were talking about when parents do back up their kids, stick up for their kids, even when they do terrible things. At what point can you not do that anymore?
Looking at the text, seeing the way that the duchess talks to Richard and about Richard, led us to a point in our conversation where this woman was reflecting, based on our understanding of the text. Then coming back to the text and saying, “Okay, so how does your perspective inform the way we understand these characters?”
BOGAEV: So, it’s not just this academic experience, but it’s a personal and an intellectual experience.
SHEPHERD-BATES: Absolutely. We will work with multiple editions of the play. We don’t, by any means, disregard or discount an academic perspective. But what we do is, we say, “That’s one perspective,” and in this room, in the work that we’re doing, the perspectives of the people in this room are our priority. That’s really what we want to talk about.
It really gives people permission to believe and to know that, “It’s not just that Shakespeare is for me,” it’s that, “Shakespeare is mine. I understand this material and I can do that, no matter what my background is or my level of education. No matter that I’m incarcerated or that I was incarcerated, Shakespeare truly is for everyone, and that includes me.”
BOGAEV: I want to pick up on that because in the critical edition—I just have a few pages of it—but what I’ve read, you represent remarks from people who are still incarcerated. Then there are also comments from former participants in this program who are now out of prison and commenting on the plays. In the edition, comments are flagged by white daggers and black daggers. It’s an interesting contrast.
What can you tell us about what you see as the difference between the women who are no longer in prison and the women who are still incarcerated and how they look at the text?
SHEPHERD-BATES: Well, yeah, it’s very interesting because what we have is our notes from when we worked on the play in prison in our 2016/17 season. Then to discuss it again now with some of those same women, for some of them—for instance, for one in particular, she found that while she still felt like she did not understand Lady Anne’s actions, she felt like she’d been too harsh on her when she was incarcerated. That, you know, living more life, having more experiences, had increased her empathy for a character that she really didn’t agree with her choices.
We found too that we were getting things out of scenes that we had… not dismissed, but really not lingered on. The scene in which the citizens get together and talk about what’s going on. Or, we had a two-hour long conversation about the 14-line scrivener speech. These pieces of the play were far more relevant to us now for a variety of reasons.
BOGAEV: Like what?
SHEPHERD-BATES: Well, in our current political climate, the scene in which citizens get together and talk about what’s going on, but also talk about the fact that they feel more or less powerless in the face of it, resonated: not only in terms of our political climate, but having been out of prison for several years, some of the women felt like they were able to discuss more the feeling of powerlessness that they had had when they were there.
The same, honestly, is true of the scrivener speech. Similar conversations. “What is power versus powerlessness, and what is my perspective on that? Now, out here in the free world, looking back on the way that I felt then when we didn’t linger on these scenes, and maybe that’s because they hit way too close to home at the time.”
BOGAEV: So did you find that people, once they were out of prison, were still reading Shakespeare?
SHEPHERD-BATES: You know, it all depends. For people coming out of prison, for returning citizens, the challenges are overwhelming to say the least, even in the best of circumstances. People come out and still absolutely have a love of Shakespeare, and they’ll be… as part of our post-release program, we’re able to do things like make Shakespeare references back and forth. “Oh, I just saw this movie and in it, somebody said, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent.’ And I had to tell you, Frannie, that I saw that and I remembered working on the play.” Or, you know, “I can answer Jeopardy questions and that was so cool.”
Some of them are—pre-COVID, were—going to see plays or working with groups of students that they took to see plays, to see Shakespeare. So they’ve created a community through Shakespeare and had a really positive experience where they have grown through their work with this material.
I don’t know that… anybody that I’ve been in touch with, I don’t know that they’ve left it behind entirely. But their continued engagement happens to different degrees, including, I guess at the most involved, working on this book with us.
BOGAEV: I am curious, what edition of Richard III did you work from?
SHEPHERD-BATES: Well, we worked actually with two different editions. We worked with an Arden critical edition, and we also worked with the SparkNotes No Fear Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: But I wonder what the thinking was for you personally because No Fear Shakespeare has such a bad rap in the Shakespeare world. Some people say it murders Shakespeare’s poetry and that it dumbs it down, or that it’s chickening out if you don’t force people to struggle with the original. Was that an issue for you? Or, where do you stand on that?
SHEPHERD-BATES: Well, it’s been an evolution. So in the early days of our program, we had literally a zero-dollar budget. People, a couple of them, had found No Fear editions in the prison library and found them really helpful. They felt, when they were making this case to get these books, that it would not dumb down our process. That it would actually allow us to go much deeper into these plays. So the ensemble was divided 50-50. I was in the “No” category. I didn’t think it was…
BOGAEV: Oh, really?
SHEPHERD-BATES: I didn’t think it was a great idea but I said, “You know what, if we’re evenly divided, let’s just try it.” And what we found was that when we had those books and then we had some other critical editions there to give us some more to work with, it did help folks. Especially because in prison people can’t always anticipate when they might need to be absent.
If they miss a session where we’re covering a scene that has some really important plot points and maybe the text there is really dense, having that No Fear means that they can catch up on the content of the scene and not get left behind: feel like, “Okay, I’m still right with my group. They’re going to fill me in on the detail, but we don’t have to spend 20 minutes going back over the plot points in this scene.”
BOGAEV: One of the comments that I heard from an alumna in the Q&A portion of a conference session that you had on this project was so great. So now I’m going to embarrass you because they said, “Frannie and Matt could have come in and taught us how to do face painting or how to build a box and it still would have been valuable.” So a point for you, zero for Shakespeare.
But I’m curious what your reaction to that is because one of the participants in that same conference said that it was that you all had a common mission. It wasn’t Shakespeare. It was this common mission that was so important.
SHEPHERD-BATES: Yeah. And, you know, I agree with both of them and I also, I will defend Shakespeare here in this conversation. So in terms of, you know, what they’re saying, I feel like for one thing, what the first person was speaking to is the really crucial role that the mentors, facilitators of programs and things like that, can play for people who are incarcerated. And for many different reasons; for whatever it is that they need it for. When they walk into a room where people are treating them with respect and smiling, and calling them by their first names, then yeah, I guess we could have been building boxes and face painting, and things like that.
However, there also—in putting on a play, something like that, having that common goal, it does bond people together. That’s another experience that is extremely important for people who are incarcerated: to learn how to trust others but also to learn that others can trust them, and, “What kind of skills do I have that can get us to this goal. This long process, working with this tough material that maybe I never thought I could do this, but oh my gosh, I can.” We could, we did.
Where Shakespeare comes in—because any experience that gives you those things is going to be valuable—where Shakespeare comes in is in a few different ways. One, is that as one of those alums you spoke of put it, Shakespeare seems impossible to many people. Once you learn that you can do the impossible, once you’ve conquered the impossible, then you start to think, “Well, maybe anything is possible.” So, there’s that. The barrier that we want to overcome between ourselves and Shakespeare turns out to be a really great reason to work with Shakespeare.
There’s also the fact that these plays can often act as, you know, sort of Rorschach tests. That what they are so open for interpretation for hundreds of years. The playwright’s not around anymore to tell us what he was going for. Again, because our approach is really, “What do you personally get out of this material?”—we find that folks are able to use it sort of like you would a screen on a window, so that you’re able to reflect and even to share experiences that you’ve had that are going to give you new perspective. And help you grow and develop, perhaps, entirely new identity, way of thinking about yourself, way of telling your own story. And learning to forgive yourself for mistakes that you’ve made, and, “How do I not make those same mistakes again?” That’s where Shakespeare really is incredibly valuable because it gives people some protection while they’re going through that process.
BOGAEV: Such a great case you’ve made. I’m going to steal the “Rorschach test” from you, if that’s okay. But all of that said, for decades, at least since the 1960s, there’s been a lot of criticism of using Shakespeare in settings like prisons. That there is so much racism and white supremacy, and colonialism, baked into the works, and why not teach the plays of August Wilson, for instance?
Does any of that kind of critic of the racism in Shakespeare’s plays make it into your critical edition? And—perhaps not, because you were doing Richard III—do you think you would have heard different things if you did Othello or Titus Andronicus?
SHEPHERD-BATES: Well, we have done Othello, both with the men’s ensemble and the women’s ensemble. The women also took on Taming of the Shrew years ago. We don’t shy away from any of that. That is part of how working in a setting like a prison with material like Shakespeare, making sure that you are decolonizing, democratizing— however you want to put it—again, by giving ownership to the entire group to decide how we deal with those things.
There was resistance to working on Taming of the Shrew, but the woman who was really pushing for it was a survivor of domestic violence. She felt like, in a women’s prison, we needed to deal with that and we needed to find a way to deal with it that would keep people feeling safe staying in the room. And we did. But she was the one who really pushed for it.
There was debate about doing Othello as well. Where we ended up with that was really looking at the way that the play deals with race in the context of its own time. The way that we interpret that and what it means to us now. How we can understand it again based on our personal experiences? How people are othered?
In terms of almost anything, we can find that, from an acting standpoint, we find an “as if.” So there’s no need to shy away from that because all of us need to come to an understanding of what it means to all of us.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and I could see that the triggering issue would come up with a lot of the plays, especially with women.
SHEPHERD-BATES: Well, yeah. I mean, especially in prison with Richard III, one of the things that we had to look out for was these children being killed. It’s not only that there’s a lot of death and a lot of murder in this play—this clearly was something we had to look at with Macbeth as well—but that there were people in the room who had killed a child.
We needed to make sure that we were dealing with the material in a way that, again, was—we were not going to excuse an action like that clearly. But we needed to make sure that we were handling it in a way where the people who had personal experience with that or whose own children had been killed, were able to stay in the room and continue to be part of a discussion even if it was just listening, and be part of a rehearsal even if they were off stage.
That’s part of where that empathy for every single character in the play comes in, because it allows us to have empathy for every single person in the room with us working on that play.
BOGAEV: I’m thinking, as we’re talking, about all the people that we’ve had in your chair on the podcast. They were people of color, scholars of color, also scholars from other countries where Shakespeare had been used as a terrible tool of colonialism. And every time we talked to these guests, your analysis and your interpretation of the play can change very radically; it just broadens it out to encompass our entire experience. I feel the same—what you’re talking about, it’s the same kind of work.
I notice we’re avoiding calling the people who participate in your program inmates, because I don’t want to pigeonhole them, as if their whole identity is as people incarcerated. It’s really, they’re people looking at these plays talking about what it means to be human. And being human is making mistakes and paying for it as well. Is that how you see your mission? Because it feels that way, reading the edition.
SHEPHERD-BATES: Yeah, absolutely. If what we are wanting to gain from Shakespeare—and I think most of us are—is that deeper understanding of what it is to be human, then what we need is to have an understanding of it that comes from every human. You know, we need every human perspective on this material that we can get. And the perspectives that these folks have had—and keeping in mind that anyone can commit a crime and go to prison—and so what all these women have in common is their having been incarcerated.
Beyond that, it’s, well… what else do we have in common? And it turns out it’s quite a bit. But coming from so many different kinds of lives and not been given a prescriptive way of approaching the material. They’re able to really give a gift to themselves, to each other, and to everyone who is going to read this book by bringing their analysis and their experience to the forefront and saying, “We have just as much right to be part of this conversation as anyone else.”
BOGAEV: Well, Frannie, thank you so much for this work that you do. It’s so inspiring and it’s really great to talk with you about it. Thank you.
SHEPHERD-BATES: Thank you so much for having me. This was really a pleasure.
WITMORE: Frannie Shepherd-Bates is the Director of Shakespeare in Prison for the Detroit Public Theatre, where she’s also an actor, director, choreographer, and dialect coach. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Frannie and her collaborator Matt Van Meter have created the manuscript for their critical edition of Richard III, but right now they’re looking for a publisher. If you happen to be a publisher, and this strikes you as something you would like the world to see, please get in touch with them at detroitpublictheatre.org.
Our podcast episode, “Your Imprisonment Shall Not Be Long,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.