Here, Jonathan Shailor interviews Dr Laura Bates, one of the contributing authors to his book, Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, which draws together some of the most original and innovative programs in contemporary prison theatre.

Laura is founder of Shakespeare in Shackles, the first-ever Shakespeare program in solitary confinement, and is the author of Chapter 2: ‘”To Know My Deed”: Finding Salvation Through Shakespeare’.

Laura Bates sits among eight prisoners in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), four on each side of the hallway, each prisoner locked into a separate cell. Shakespearean discussions take place with prisoners speaking through the opened slots in their doors. © 2009 Jon Mac Media.


Jonathan: In Performing New Lives, you document some of your inspired (and inspiring) work as a prison theatre facilitator. How did you come to this work? And what keeps you coming back?

Laura: I was already an active theatre practitioner in Chicago, a playwright and theatre editor for Chicago Magazine, when I was introduced to John Bergman, founder of the Geese Theatre Company in London prisons. After observing his work, I was inspired to embark on my own theatre work in prison, beginning in Chicago’s Cook County Jail, through the PACE Institute. The program I created in Chicago was a drama group, in which prisoners wrote and performed their own plays. Some years later, when I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, specializing in Shakespeare studies, I returned to Cook County Jail to offer a workshop on Romeo and Juliet. That was when I discovered the impact that these 400-year-old texts could have with contemporary readers in prison of all places! Today, more than 25 years after my first prison workshop, I remain committed to the conviction that theatre in general, and Shakespeare in particular, can change the lives of incarcerated individuals. In so doing, it can have a tremendous impact on society in general.

Jonathan: What is your chapter about, and why did you choose this particular focus?

Laura: When I was invited to contribute a chapter to this important anthology, I knew that I wanted to focus on one prisoner whose life was not just changed but literally saved by Shakespeare. Additionally, I wanted to present his story in his own words. The first half of the chapter presents an overview of my work in prison, while the second half of the chapter is created from our conversations, edited in collaboration with Larry. It relates his transformational journey through the works of Shakespeare, using his analysis of the characters to provide a self-analysis that was truly life-altering. As one example, we focus on the character of Macbeth, examining some parallels between that character and Larry’s early criminal experiences. While some of those parallels are disturbing, the chapter concludes with the celebration of Larry’s “salvation through Shakespeare.”

Jonathan: Larry developed an impressive body of work under your tutelage. Can you give us an update on his progress?

Laura: Although he is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, with his request for permission to present an appeal having been recently denied, and although he has been transferred out of Wabash Valley and into another segregation unit, he is alive and well. Eight years after his initial introduction to Shakespeare, his enthusiasm for this work remains unabated. Indeed, it continues to be the rock that has kept him positive and focused through these setbacks. He has recently completed reading ALL of the 38 plays of Shakespeare, and has written an introduction and study guide to each play, which I am currently compiling into a “Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare.” I’d also like to emphasize that, although I did provide an introduction to Shakespeare to a prisoner who had no prior knowledge of the Bard, more credit is due to Larry’s own perseverance and hard work, than to my “tutelage.”

Jonathan: What are some of the most recent developments in your work? Where do you see it going in the future?

Laura: Although my program has two components, in segregation and in general population, the primary focus has always been in segregation. Currently, my main goal is to create a series of handbooks for incarcerated readers that can be disseminated statewide, and beyond. As mentioned above, I am currently compiling Larry’s writings on all of Shakespeare’s plays in a “Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare” that I believe can change lives inside and outside of prison, as it has changed Larry’s life. While the primary audience for this Guide is segregated prisoners, the thought-provoking questions that Larry raises are applicable to all readers, in and out of prison. In fact, I use Larry’s materials in my on-campus Shakespeare courses, undergraduate introductory courses as well as those at the graduate level, with great results. Students, in and out of prison, really appreciate the down-to-earth approach that Larry takes, making comparisons to popular culture, incorporating humor, all while raising some extraordinarily sophisticated questions.

In my own teaching, I find that students’ (and, especially, prisoners’) own assumption that Shakespeare is too difficult for them is the greatest hurdle to overcome, and Larry’s workbooks overcome that hurdle. Always, my primary audience is segregated prisoners, because they have no other educational opportunity precisely at the time that it is most needed. The long-term segregation unit at Wabash Valley houses 288 prisoners, most of whom will spend years in isolation. Each year, the Shakespeare program receives nearly 50 requests to participate in the program, but I can meet with no more than a maximum of 8 at a time due to the physical constraints of the segregated unit. Therefore, my goal this year is to try to facilitate individual work from as many segregated prisoners as possible, using the workbooks designed for them. If we can at least provide an introduction to Shakespeare to 50 isolated prisoners, I think we will have accomplished something meaningful.

As always, the first play that we will be working with is Macbeth, a relatively short and highly dramatic text that addresses a number of important issues for prisoners, such as the role of external influences and personal responsibility. In addition to the workbooks created in collaboration with Larry, I have worked with several graduates of our program in segregation who now serve as group leaders, facilitating our introductory sessions with new readers. One of these is Leon Benson, also featured in my Performing New Lives chapter.

Jonathan: Who do you hope will read this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

Laura: The collection of essays on prison theatre that are assembled in this anthology should be of interest to a wide variety of readers: theatre practitioners, correctional educators, prison administrators, and prisoners themselves. I would hope that each of these diverse constituencies could take away from it the conviction that theatre can indeed change lives. As our title  “Performing New Lives” suggests, every one of the essays provides a powerful testimonial to that assertion.

Jonathan: Where can readers go to find further information about your work?

Laura: Indiana State University and Wabash Valley Correctional Facility recently collaborated to create an excellent five-minute video introduction to my program.

The program has also been featured in two episodes of MSNBC’s prison documentary series Lockup, and in the news broadcast, ‘Inmates use Shakespeare in a Unique Way’.

Laura Bates received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago (1998) specializing in Shakespeare studies. She is Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University and has taught Shakespeare courses in a number of correctional facilities through Indiana State University’s Correctional Education Program, for which she designed the four-year bachelor’s degree curriculum with an emphasis on humanities. In 2003, she created Shakespeare in Shackles, the first-ever Shakespeare program in solitary confinement, in the supermax segregation unit at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Working in collaboration with prisoner Larry Newton—who is currently serving his twelfth year in isolation—she has created a series of Shakespeare handbooks for segregated prisoners. The purpose of this program and these workbooks is to use the plays of Shakespeare to help prisoners examine, and change, their criminal behaviors.

Jonathan Shailor is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. He has been facilitating the “theatre of empowerment” in prisons, schools and other settings for over 15 years, and is the founder and director of The Shakespeare Prison Project, which originated at Racine Correctional Institution in 2004.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

5 Thoughts

  1. This is an amazing program, which I first learned about via Lockup: Raw. Dr. Bates is an inspiration!

  2. Hello!
    I heard about your program from the Prison Arts Coalition. I was part of a group called Shining Light Ministries this past summer. This group took a performance art piece including dance, song, and theatre, into detention facilities and prisons along the East Coast. The experience was life changing for me and since then I have felt very called to teach with in a juvenile detention facility. I am a music education and theatre double major at North Park University in Chicago. I am currently taking a class called Multicultural Education, in which we are learning how to use diversity as an enhancement to our classrooms. For our final project we are supposed to research and investigate how to differentiate and adapt our teaching for specific circumstances of our choosing. I have chosen teaching within detention centers as my topic.
    I would love to hear more about your program, and anything that you think is valuable knowledge regarding this subject. I figured the best place to get information would be at the source, which is why I have contacted you. If you need more specific questions let me know, but I really am most interested in hearing what you think is most important, and how you have adapted your teaching style for this environment.
    Thank you so much for your time!
    God Bless,
    Carri Stevens

    1. Hi Carri,
      Thanks for your comment. We have contacted the author to let her know and hopefully she will be able to reply.
      Best wishes – JKP Team.

      1. Thank you for your interest in my work with Shakespeare in prison. You may be interested in my book, ‘SHAKESPEARE SAVED MY LIFE”: TEN YEARS IN SOLITARY WITH THE BARD.
        I’d also be happy to talk with you about my on-going work at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

  3. Ms. Bates,

    I am on the board of Prison Performing Arts in St. Louis Missouri. I just completed your book SHAKESPEARE SAVED MY LIFE. So interesting! I am curious to know if your workbook The Prisoner’s Guide to the Complete Works of Shakespeare was published. I would be so interested. I am on my way to a performance at one of our Missouri prisons tomorrow. It is always a life-altering experience, no matter how many times I go. I hope this belated comment reaches you!

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