CATALYST v24n2 - Redefining Education: Theatre Behind Bars

Volume XXIV, Number 2
Spring 1994

Redefining Education: Theatre Behind Bars

Jean Trounstine

Portions of this article appeared earlier this year in The Community College Times

Eight years ago I began to teach drama at the state prison in Framingham, the most secure facility for women in Massachusetts. I left what prisoners call "the free world" to become part of a darker reality, one which most of us never think about, and one which may soon be even bleaker because of a call to remove programs that offer hope.

In this dark world, I help women create plays, piecing together their lives and classic texts to form new scripts. First aided by grants from the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities, and then developed in collaboration with Middlesex and Mount Wachusett community colleges, my drama program has been duplicated in Massachusetts at Billerica House of Correction for men and is the subject of news articles and conferences nationally.

Yet my program and others like it teeter on the edge of extinction. As I write, Congress has already passed the Crime Bill, which removes Pell grants for prisoners next year. The public, fed up with crime, does not understand that under 1% of Pell grants go to finance prison education, i.e., about 27,000 prisoners in all. Even more importantly, the public does not realize that arts programs can help reduce crime, both in and out of prison.

For years, the community college has been at the forefront of prison education. All across the country, outreach programs have offered associate degrees, believing that education reduced recividism and that our duty was to the disenfranchised. However, without funding from Pells, will community colleges abandon this mission, turning to more lucrative endeavors? Perhaps we need to reconsider what such education provides before we close our doors.

In the Beginning

Danny, a grandmother, brought her knitting to my classes. Convicted of armed robbery and second degree murder, she played Antonio in Shakespeare's Merchant Of Venice, our first production. Danny was also the second woman in the prison's history to earn her associate's degree behind bars.

Bertie, a 22-year-old Jamaican woman, had no family to help her through her prison stay and turned to theatre as a way out of her pain. She performed in five plays before she earned parole, most notably as Pearl in our adaptation of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. She, too, earned her degree in prison.

Rumor had it that Mamie had committed arson. I knew Mamie as the prison gardener who took flowers to people's rooms, pressed petals, and turned them into cards. Mamie would have been in a play, but she died of cancer, alone and without the compassionate release she sought. Mamie did not teach me to excuse her crimes. What she taught me was how I could fit into her life. "This is my drama teacher," she told her doctor. "She's helping me."

At our first gathering eight years ago, I announced to these women, all of whom had volunteered for the drama program, that we were going to do The Merchant of Venice. They knew me as their college English teacher but, still, they tentatively picked up scripts. They told me the play was too long and made wisecracks about words like "thou" and "hast." I got them on their feet, and through improvisation they began to realize that Shakespeare's language was tied to action, that they could understand and even enjoy it.

I met with them once a week, later twice. They were asked to read the text on their own, but many could not focus because of personal problems or the environment of prison itself. It was not until they came to the classroom that they felt liberated enough to immerse themselves in the play. As we read Merchant aloud, I realized that they understood the text on an intuitive level. In some ways they were more in tune than my students outside prison. They laughed at Shakespeare's jokes, elbowed each other at his bawdy lines, and argued about Shylock's intentions. Was he just a rotten guy with a lot of money who would stop at nothing when crossed? Or was he driven to revenge because his daughter had betrayed him?

We studied the play for three months, watching videos, learning about Elizabethan customs, trying on costumes, and comparing great performances of the past. Finally, the women decided they wanted to "translate the script," to make a play for "their" community. And thus was begun what has now evolved into my method of working with text. By bringing their lives to the play, the women create a new script, a script that reflects the prison community as well as the author's world. For example, in the original text, Shylock tells Bassanio that he distrusts Antonio: "What wouldst thou have a serpent sting thee twice? ()Shakespeare, 111)" In our production, he said, "Oh, I suppose you'd have a pit bull attack you twice?"

Improvisation also aided in changing the text. Shakespeare's Duke of Venice, akin to a governor, is sympathetic to the wealthy and powerful. We saw him as part of an old-boy network. Trying to be faithful to Shakespeare's intent led our Duke, a court judge, to sexually harass Portia; but Portia has to keep her cool to keep her job as a lawyer. The cast applauded the improvisation, and thus our script evolved. The original Duke of Venice says; "You hear the learn'd Bellario,/ what he writes / And here, I take it, is the doctor come./ Give me your hand. Came you from old Bellario? (Shakespeare, 115)."

Our Duke says: "You heard what Bellario has written. I take it you're the famous lawyer? Times certainly have changed, women in the courtroom. Are you any good, honey?"

We decided to perform the trial scene, setting it in New York's 1920 gangster era with Antonio as a Mafia boss. Portia was to be undisguised, the only woman in a man's world, something women in prison can relate to. We saw Shylock as a recent Jewish immigrant to America, an outsider. As the tensions mounted between Shylock and Antonio, we hoped to ask the question, "What is justice?"

Six months after our first meeting, women piled noisily into the gym, our theatre, for our production for the compound, 150 prisoners and 10 invited guests. We were stacking the deck against Shylock throughout the play, encouraging the audience to cheer against him, hoping for the turnaround that Shakespeare's script promises. The audience proved to be as involved as the performers and we were not disappointed. When Antonio forced Shylock to convert to Christianity, and when Gratiano leaped forward, spitting on Shylock, our judge took away Shylock's yarmulke, a symbol of his religion. It was more than the audience could bear. "That's cold," cried out one woman. "You can't take away a man's faith," called out another. They had understood: There are some things that you cannot do in the name of justice. For these women, sympathy for Shylock meant sympathy for themselves, for they, too, are outsiders; they, too, are redeemable.

By stepping into the shoes of another, these women began to see their lives more clearly. By performing for 150 of their peers, the prisoners found their own voices. By finding that classic texts belong to everyone, many could no longer describe themselves as "dumb," "unimportant," and "unheard." To put what is considered most difficult within reach is perhaps the greatest lesson. Life again has possibilities.

"Shylock allowed me the dream of being another person if only for one night," said Kathie, a woman who had A.I.D.S.

Out of Darkness

Each of the seven plays I have created with the women have offered them a way back. With Scarlet Letter, we dealt with A.I.D.S. and with the idea of being branded. With Merchant, Shylock, Portia, and Antonio all represented worlds that women in prison know. There is always tension when Shylock wields his knife, but there is a different kind of tension when you watch one criminal about to exact a pound of flesh from another.

Lysistrata, which we set in Washington, DC, in 1918 during the Suffragist period, gave women a chance to learn history, to blend music and drama with conversations about creating peace. We rehearsed in the summer sun as women paraded by us. Prisoners and guards hovered in clusters, smiled around corners, wanting to share in our play.

With Rapshrew, our rap version of Taming of the Shrew, we blended dance and Shakespeare, allowing the women to choreograph, "translate" the text, and transform the play. As Gail Reimer, associate director of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities wrote, the women discovered that "Shakespeare was not only in Ben Johnson's Famous words 'Not of an Age, but for All Time' but also, 'Not of a Class, but for All People.'"

It is precisely this power of transformation that make the arts the ideal fare for prison education. Theatre, by its very nature, restores, heals, and transforms. "I feel free when I'm rehearsing a play," said Tracy, a single mother in her 40s who had lost custody of her children because of her drug habit. "There is a different way of living, other than the streets, and I want to learn more about that kind of life."

Randy Welch (1993), writing in Corrections Today, says most states have some kind of arts programming behind bars. He cites music, photography, painting, crafts, ceramics, sculpture, dance, and theatre as the most popular. Yet with current budget crunches, we see articles such as a current one in Prison Life, "Colorado Kills Creativity" where a prison writer grieves the death of a writing program (Amberchele, 1994).

Proponents say arts programs, like most education programs in prison, help reduce prison violence and give offenders a positive way to deal with serving time. Although little research has been done, there are, says Welch, "consistent reports showing that the arts do help change prisoners' lives." A study in California showed that inmates involved in arts programs had a 31% recidivism rate, compared with the state average of 58%.

As I stated in the Boston Globe Magazine last year (1993), theatre programs often blossom and fade because of limited resources or poor management. The Geese Theatre Company, founded in Iowa in 1980, performed all over the United States, creating programs in prisons, but now perform in England. Rhodessa Jones, working in California jails, and Renee Julian, in Oklahoma, are two women who have had success nationally. But still, funding remains scarce.

In spite of the fact that these programs produce results, the public is skeptical of offering opportunities to our criminals. Charles Ogletree, professor at Harvard University Law School and head of the Criminal Justice Institute in Massachusetts, says that as a society, we cannot make up our mind whether we want to rehabilitate or punish our offenders. I believe we cannot make up our mind what kind of society we want to be.

I remember how in the early days of my prison teaching, an inmate named Mickie had written a story about getting a bike for her seventh birthday. The only trick was she had to prove that she could ride the bike to keep it. Her birthday was in December. Riding over ice and snow, she took our class along her dangerous path, past dogs and through fears. She shocked us when she fell off her bike and made us feel her joy when her father said, "yes," she could keep it. Her father had put the bike on top of the car and Mickie inside. In the story, Mickie couldn't contain herself in the car. She jumped up and down, rocking the car with her joy. The women who listened cried with her. Mickie had made it in spite of all odds. Mickie had succeeded for all of us.

The world I want to live in does not lock up our prisoners and throw away the key. It does not, as many would have it, justify "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." But the world I want does not have a sugar coating. I want people to work hard. I believe in challenges. I believe in education. And I cannot see taking away what works.

One of the most moving moments for me during my past eight years came during Merchant at the "cast party" after the production, where we all sat around on the stage, amidst props and set, eating potato chips and drinking cokes. All of a sudden, Kathie said, "Do you really think the judge would have taken off Shylock's yarmulka?" A heated discussion followed where two women argued with others about the correctness of the choice. There we were, sitting together as I would with any class, in any context. I had come from the "free world" into their lives and brought what some would call the world of 'mere imagination' to the prison. It is this world that has the power to offer a new way of seeing. Like Shylock, prisoners understand that justice is not easily obtained. Like Portia, they can learn that education leads to empowerment.

Women who have left my program have gone on to pre-release. Some have started new lives outside prison. Many have earned self esteem as well as college credits. These are women who took poor risks in the past, but their willingness to take risks onstage helps them create character and use their energy in a positive way.

Without Pell grants, my program will have to bounce around looking for funding and women will no longer earn college credit. Without Pells, men and women all across the country will possibly remain poor and uneducated when they leave prison. I would hate to see women like Bertie silenced. "When the play started," she said, "I didn't think I could do it in front of all those people. When it was time to go onstage, I surprised myself by being so confident...'Look, I can do this....' I did it, and it paid off, and I was happy, because for once in my life I have self confidence. I am somebody, even though I am in jail."


Amberchele, J.C. (1994, June). Colorado Kills Creativity. Prison Life, 46-47, 86.

Shakespeare, W. (1987) The Merchant of Venice. Signet Classics.

Trounstine, J. (1993) Prison Drama. Boston Globe Magazine, 29.

Welch, R. (1993, March 14). CORRECTIONS TODAY qt. in Trounstine, Jean. "Prison Drama." BOSTON MAGAZINE: March 14, 1993. 29.

Tracy Gilmore