Frannie Shepherd-Bates is one of those local theatre professionals everyone seems to know – or wants to know. An experienced director, teacher, choreographer, voice coach and actress, she has been listed in the credits for productions all over the Detroit area even while serving as the artistic director of Magenta Giraffe Theatre. Almost three years ago, she began working with the inmates of the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility to create the Shakespeare in Prison Program. More recently, she launched a successful crowdfunding effort to help keep the program running.
Now her work is being documented as part of a series of six mini-documentaries undertaken by Never Say Die Media (NSD), an alternative news magazine that serves as a voice for creative women in the metro-Detroit area.
With a new “season” underway, we wanted to catch up with Frannie to understand more about this program and why it matters.
Q.) Tell us about your work with the inmates of the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility as part of the Shakespeare in Prison program. Was “Romeo and Juliet” your first full production?
FSB) I began going to the prison in February 2012. Romeo and Juliet was what we worked on during our third session – for the first, we worked on a variety of scenes and monologues, and we explored “The Tempest” for our second. I hesitate to call these “productions” because it implies that the last phase of our work is the goal and/or the most important. We tend to call them “shows” or “performances” in our ensemble. “Sharing” is another good way to look at it. We have sometimes been off book with costumes, set pieces, props, sound… But this is just the final phase of a long process – the cherry on top, if you will. I’ve always presented it to the women as an option, and they like having that challenge to work toward. Important things happen in performance, but it’s possible that much more important things happen leading up to it.
Q.) What did you learn from your previous experience that you are applying to this year’s effort?
FSB) The way the group operates is really determined by the ensemble, with input from me, and adhering to prison policy. I don’t make decisions solely based on my experiences, and, honestly, the best ideas have always come from the women in the group rather than from me. We are getting a better handle on what makes things go smoothly in our program, and we’ve honed our guidelines and expectations to that end. This year there is even more emphasis on commitment and ensemble – the women must be more accountable for their level of participation in the group, and we have a new “policy” that any conflict that is brought into the group will be resolved by the ensemble as a whole rather than smaller groups with mediators. We’ll also be implementing more short-term deadlines to help keep us on track. The goals of the group remain the same as they were initially, but we’re always working to find better ways of achieving them.
Q.) Do you have members of the “Romeo and Juliet” company returning to this year’s Shakespeare production?
FSB) Yes – seven of the women from that ensemble have returned this session.
Q.) What did this experience teach you as a director and theatre professional that you will apply to professional theatrical productions?
FSB) It’s a privilege to be able to do this kind of work, and it’s impacted every area of my life in a positive way. I’ve gained insight into myself as a person and as an artist; I’ve become more patient, flexible, and less judgmental. I’ve learned about people in general – especially people who do not come from the same background as me. I’ve learned about Shakespeare by approaching it in a completely open way with people who have never learned how it “should” be done or interpreted. I’m inspired every day I visit the prison by the hard work and tenacity of the women in the ensemble – they volunteer for this; they don’t have to be there; they give it their all every day and make themselves vulnerable in a place where all of those things are incredibly difficult to do. They push through challenges most of us can’t imagine, and their accomplishments in the group go far beyond putting on a play. I’m honored that they let me be a part of that, and I’m grateful that the facility has been so supportive of our program.
All of this comes through in whatever I’m doing in any area of my life, theatre or otherwise. In terms of theatre, though, my increased empathy and insight into people who are not like me make me a better theatre artist – for example, I can look at “criminal” characters like those in “Love is Strange” (which I directed last spring) and “King Lear “(which I’m directing this spring) and not jump to conclusions about them – I am more open to plumbing their depths with committed actors and bringing out what makes them human and three dimensional. I’m not willing to say that those characters are evil because they do heinous things; I’m interested in why they do those things; what circumstances brought them to that point.
Q.) How did you choose which Shakespeare play to perform next? (“Taming of the Shrew.”) Did you choose it because of its themes of women asserting their rights… and did you point that out, or just let the women discover it for themselves?
FSB) When the women were ready to look at plays for this season, I provided synopses of several plays that have come up in discussion in the group, including “Shrew.” They read those synopses, and then we talked over what they wanted to do. Initially they wanted to explore “Hamlet,” but after some discussion, they decided on “Shrew” because it would be a less challenging piece to work with while we worked toward some of our “group mechanics” goals – retaining more members, establishing more intermittent goals, dealing as a group with conflict. This play is very straightforward compared to the last two, and I think returning members are enjoying the “break.” The talk is, though, that our next play will be a tragedy or a history.
Q.) What do you do to prepare untrained people to perform Shakespeare?
FSB) This varies by individual, depending on what each person’s challenges are. For many of the women, just getting up on stage and speaking so that everyone can hear is a challenge, and we remain focused on that. Others want to delve more into acting technique and fleshing out a character; the most like an acting class it gets, though, is working through very basic technique (i.e., Who am I? What are the relationships? What is my objective? What is the obstacle? How will I get what I want?), and exploring stage physicality in terms of storytelling. We play theatre games and do some improv to build individual and ensemble confidence and trust, but we don’t get too formal about it for the most part.
We mostly focus on simply getting at the truth of the play and the characters and telling the story however we interpret it. Sometimes this is very straightforward, and other times it isn’t. We are not scholarly about it – when, for example, our Romeo and Benvolio became unnerved by the number of lines they had, the rest of the group promised to minimize their load in order to keep the ensemble intact, and then we cut just about everything that can be cut from “Romeo and Juliet” with the play still making sense. Some of the cuts were tough to make because we lost a lot of the poetry and some of the humor – but our goal wasn’t to perform the be-all-end-all “Romeo and Juliet” – our goal was to work through our challenges and come out on the other end as a team. Our play was only 80 minutes long, but we told the story in an effective and powerful way – and we did it together.
If you were to attend a performance, you would see honest storytelling, incredible bravery, and solid team work. You would see that the women understand and have ownership of the material and are willing to get up on stage and share what they’ve learned with an audience of inmates and officers, no matter how nervous they may be beforehand. You would see them helping each other through rough transitions and beaming with pride as the shyest in the group finally “locks in” to her character.
Are we doing everything as Shakespeare intended? Would any of us win awards for our acting? Probably not, but that’s not our concern. When Romeo doesn’t get off stage fast enough and Juliet runs out of lines and yells, “GET OUT OF HERE!” while throwing clothes at him, that’s a huge victory because she’s improvised in the moment in a way that is completely consistent with the character as she interprets it.
Q.) Tell us about the film project with Never Say Die Media to produce a series that will give viewers a rare glimpse into Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility and the Shakespeare in Prison experience.
FSB) I was approached by Tifini Kamara about this project, and we are very grateful that the facility has allowed the NSD team to come with us to document what’s going on in the group. I’m thrilled that the general public is going to have this extended look into our program.
Editorial Note: Detroit Theatre Examiner followed up with Tifini Kamara of NSD who explained that, “We want to give people a rare glimpse inside the project but ultimately change the way society views these inmates. Prison has such a bad stigma – when you watch the footage we hope you’ll forget these women are even in prison and you see them just as human beings.” We’re happy to report that the first NSD video is available for viewing here. The project is scheduled to run through June, 2015, with a series of videos released through NSD across various social media outlets.
This story just gets better. Examiner will follow up with Frannie Shepherd-Bates and NSD once their exploration of “Taming of the Shrew” is underway to give you an update on the Shakespeare in Prison program and the NSD film series.
Statistics show that programs such as Shakespeare in Prison dramatically improve an inmate’s chances of not returning to prison once they are released. Perhaps this has to do with the confidence the get from performing. Maybe it has more to do with developing a fundamental sense of empathy. Either way — it works. With the gift-giving season approaching, it is worth noting that there is no state funding for this program – it is entirely dependent on grants and donations from generous organizations and individuals. If you’d like to be part of the good work happening with Shakespeare in Prison, consider making a donation here.