Shakespeare in Prison program offers far more than an escape

“Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

So says the lover, Helena, in the third act of Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream", of her petite friend Hermia’s determination and inner strength. In similar awe, Gabriel Odlum, 36, a returning citizen living on Michigan's west side, describes the driving force behind Detroit Public Theatre's signature community program, Frannie Shepherd-Bates.

Frannie Shepherd-Bates stands in the construction area that will become the new premises for the Detroit Public Theatre. Photo: Nick Hagen.

"She's an amazing woman. She is small, but she is fierce, and she does it very humbly," he says. "The way Frannie engages with you makes you want to open up to her. She never limits the possibilities, and never lets you get stuck [thinking there’s] only [one] way to be right.’"

Shepherd-Bates will tell you she's not a Shakespeare scholar, but rather a nerd, or a lover, who's been reading, watching, and performing The Bard's plays since she was a child. In 2012, she co-founded the Detroit Public Theater's Shakespeare In Prison (SIP) program with an ensemble at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV). Ten years later, SIP continues working, amid the pandemic, to enrich the lives of nearly 300 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women.

Odlum, a new dad, a poet, and a Shakespeare buff in his own right, is part of that circle. He spent over two years at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson during his seven-year incarceration. SIP expanded its program in 2018 to create a men's ensemble at the minimum security prison. Odlum's love for language, especially that of the "biggest gangster with a pen," drew him to participate. But it was Shepherd-Bates, and assistant director Matthew Van Meter, who made him feel his personality, experiences, and perspective would bring new meaning to the long-revered work.

"Honestly, at first, a guy like me would get teased doing something like that," he says. "But it was empowering to know, regardless of where you're at, that type of stuff is valued. Through it, we found out who we were, and what our strengths were."  

Odlum discovered he could step outside his wheelhouse and try something completely different. "I mean, I'm actually good at it," he says, about performing, and also about helping fellow actors explore their emotional responses to the script. "And people are actually interested in what a little mixed kid from the middle of nowhere has to say."

A scene from "King Lear" with the men's ensemble. Photo: Chuck Nowak.

That’s the voice Shepherd-Bates and her SIP colleagues are looking for, referring to themselves as facilitators, rather than teaching artists. When people have the power to interpret Shakespeare themselves and to understand what they bring is the expertise needed, the exclusivity disappears, she says. 

“Then, it’s, 'Wow, I never thought I was smart enough for Shakespeare,' or, 'I thought you needed to have graduated from high school, gone to college, been British, white, or old,’” she says. 

Prior to COVID-19, SIP participants met with facilitators twice a week, for three to four hours, over nine months. They collectively chose a play, and spent three months in a circle, reading it aloud, getting to know one another, and building trust. There’s no director, so the play is collaboratively cast. With equal voices, things can get a little messy, Shepherd-Bates says, but learning to communicate and collaborate is part of the value. The actors hold three or four performances for an audience of incarcerated people, prison staff, and DPT associates.

The self-confidence the program builds in participants is impressive, says Kyle Kaminski, Offender Success Administrator for the Michigan Department of Corrections. "The program does a great job promoting scholarship, communication, and group work," Kaminski writes in an email. "This pushes folks out of their comfort zones and ultimately gives them an opportunity to safely develop and display hidden talents. With that comes new confidence for many, which is why I believe so many want to get involved, and those that have been involved want to stay engaged in this work even after leaving prison."

Participants rehearse. Photo: Chuck Nowak.

Shakespeare, Reclaimed

Today, Odlum lives in Decatur, Mich., a small village in Van Buren County with less than 2,000 residents. He works as a router, part of a team of four, in the recreational vehicle manufacturing business. He's got less than seven months left on his parole. 

While incarcerated, Odlum earned two associate degrees, one in applied business science, and the other in arts. He dreams about creating a youth center, or a foundation that helps kids struggling with substance abuse. While they were in prison together, he and a buddy created a curriculum around these ideas. They envision transforming an old building in their hometown of Cassopolis, 20 miles away. 

"I want to try to help the kids that are like me, how I was growing up," Odlum says, "where you didn't have nowhere to go to do something fun or productive."

At Parnall, he was involved in three SIP productions. He caught the tail end of "The Tempest", soon after he arrived, and worked on "A Midsummer Night's Dream before he was transferred to a facility in St. Louis, Mich., where he was paroled. But for nine months in-between, Odlum was all in as the Edmund, the rather complex villain in "King Lear". It was fun to play the bad guy, he says, but also, the “bastard son” of the Earl of Gloucester struggled in ways he could relate to.

"He got none of the notoriety, none of the benefits of being the [earl’s] son, and he was fed up with it," he says, "It kind of mirrored a lot of my life because, where I come from, the guy I call my dad, he was the man. He adopted me and my little brother; he's not my real dad. I felt like I worked so hard all the time to just prove to people, and him, that I was worthy of being his son."

As a person of color growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, he also identified with Edmund’s struggle to find a place in society. But, embodying a character who meets a terrible end because of his own actions, he says, was like hindsight advice. “Don't let what you want most corrupt what you could possibly get. That’s another thing with Frannie, she taught me how to allow for other possibilities," he says. "It doesn’t have to look like how you see it in your mind.”

Odlum and Shepherd-Bates stop to discuss a point in the text. Photo: Chuck Nowak.

Odlum is a part of Shakespeare Reclaimed, SIP’s post-release program, open to anyone who’s done a season on the inside. The program works in partnership with MDOC to connect with newly-paroled individuals, and get approval from their officers for their participation. It centers around mentoring, skill-building, and personal and professional development. Whether it’s through structured programming, writing a letter of recommendation, connecting folks to resources, local acting opportunities, or just being a source of support, Shepherd-Bates says, she and her colleagues are here for it.

The alumni program also provides formerly incarcerated people with paid work, such as co-presenting at virtual and in-person conferences, making collaborative videos, contributing to research, and other opportunities for sharing. Beyond interviews, Odlum participated in a Shakespeare performance on Zoom, earning $250, and says that SIP staff “goes above and beyond,” even sending him various opportunities to submit his poetry.

Performing through the pandemic

It’s been a challenge for even alumni who are local to gather much during COVID-19, but at least there are virtual options. Since March of 2020, SIP has not been able to enter either Southeast Michigan prison facility. However, the men’s and women’s ensembles behind bars are not forgotten. Weekly, SIP sends participants letters and a Shakespeare activity pack featuring a text, a modern translation or phrase definitions, fun graphics, and a variety of prompts. For some, it's the only mail they get.

“We know the people we're sending them to, and so we try to appeal to a whole spectrum of interests, and ways of being creative these folks have,” says Shepherd-Bates. “We really want to help folks stay engaged, not just with Shakespeare In Prison, but in having something to think about, and do if they're bored, or missing the program. It really is about that connection.”

Ensemble participants who’ve been paroled during COVID-19, like Odlum, have said they enjoyed still being able to get creative and dig into the material during isolation, but it was knowing they weren’t forgotten that meant the most. 

Photo: Chuck Nowak.Throughout the pandemic, SIP has also been working with alumnae to create a radical new book. When published, "Richard III — In Prison" will be the first critical edition of a Shakespeare play written by incarcerated people.

In 2016-2017, the women at WHV spent 45 weeks with Richard III, from first reading to performance. During that time, SIP conducted a case study that generated thousands of pages of notes. In 2019, facilitators regrouped virtually with eight of the paroled women to re-read and discuss the play over ten months. All the women were compensated for their work, which has produced analysis and commentary on the text, reflective essays, poetry, and Q & As. Shepherd-Bates and her team have spent over two years generating, compiling, and editing this manuscript, paired with original artwork, for which they are now avidly seeking a publisher.

“These women are taking the cultural capital of Shakespeare for their own empowerment,” she says. “When we talk about Shakespeare, we talk about having universal themes, and encompassing the human experience, And if we are looking at Shakespeare as something that connects all of humanity, then we need to be listening to all humans. And these are voices that have not been part of the conversation.”

Is this working?

It’s getting increasingly difficult to find funding for programs that are not evidence-based, particularly when it comes to measuring the benefits of prison arts, says Shepherd-Bates.

“Covid-19 has given us a lot of time for strategic planning," she shares in a follow-up email. "It takes more staff than we currently have to facilitate two ensembles. We don’t have a date yet [for returning in-person], but when we start back up we’ll just be at WHV. We’re hoping to expand to more facilities in the future.” SIP will continue to support and engage the men from Parnell who are currently in its post-release program, she says.

It was over 10 years ago, that watching a documentary about Shakespeare Behind Bars inspired Shepherd-Bates. Launched in 1995, it's one of the longest-running, continuously operating Shakespeare art programs in the U.S. When she first got approval from the women’s facility, Curt L. Tofteland, its founder, got on Skype to answer her questions and give advice. Although a very different model from SIP, the University of Michigan's Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), launched in 1990, was also a source of ideas and guidance.

But, early on especially, programs like these were also challenged to show more than anecdotal evidence of their benefits.

“So how do you measure outcomes when you don't want to impose an idea of success on any individual?” she asks. “Success is a loaded word for many people, and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what we're working on. We're looking for development.”

In 2016, SIP’s team of facilitators set out to explore that development, with the women’s ensemble reading, discussing, and performing "Richard III". Through copious notes, SIP described the work, and considered the question: "How does one season of SIP impact the ensemble member’s sense of identity in the correctional context?" 

They found that as members had new experiences, in both the theatrical and operational process of the program, that helped them gain perspective on their past, they developed the ability to see their former selves, and previous choices, did not define them now. It’s a process of moving from, ‘I can’t, to I can,’ she says, and from disempowerment to empowerment. 

Photo: Chuck Nowak.

To understand how SIP involvement affects participants over time, in the spring and summer of 2020, staff conducted formal interviews with 11 formerly incarcerated alumnae. The questions explored the women’s narrative identities in terms of their past, present, and future selves. They found the SIP experience has three long-lasting effects on participants: self-efficacy, increased empathy for others and for oneself, and a positive sense of community. 

All of these qualities are helping people develop positive outcomes in work and life, SIP’s website explains, especially as people who’ve been formerly incarcerated, and face substantial challenges in securing employment, housing and community support. SIP is working to share its methods of analysis, including a coding system that visually represents people’s experiences, with others. They’re asking groups to try it out, adapt it, build on it, and let them know how they can make it better.

“Many programs don’t really measure formally,” says Shepherd-Bates. “That’s part of why this was important, not only for us, but, hopefully, it's a way we can contribute.”

As for Odlum, he’s using what he’s gained to better relationships with family, friends, and co-workers. There were a lot of people in the program who he never would have engaged with otherwise, he says, and they may have seen him differently beforehand, also.

“But in that space, it wasn’t about judging. It was just us and the literature, us and Shakespeare,” he says, “And that levels the playing field. When you can finally grasp this perspective, you can take that anywhere you go. I don't underestimate anybody anymore." 

Photo: Nick Hagen.
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Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller