Putting drama into prison's stark life
Dolly left prison with a lot of baggage. But she also left with something special, something that has helped transform her life: Shakespeare.Skip to next paragraph
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Dolly and several other inmates met the Bard in 1987 at MCI-Framingham, the main women's prison in Massachusetts. The introduction came through an energetic humanities professor named Jean Trounstine. Ms. Trounstine firmly believed two things: that literature can change lives and that drama can mean freedom.
Trounstine knows about both. She began her career as an actress, earning a master of fine arts in acting from Brandeis University. She pursued films and theater in California and has performed in 30 plays. She also taught high school English in Duxbury and Westford, Mass., before joining the faculty at Middlesex Community College and teaching at MCIF.
The petite, dark-haired dynamo laughs now about what she initially thought the inmates would be like: "I expected them to be big, mean, and scary. I thought eight giant women with tattoos would attack me."
What she found were women who had a "rawness and vulnerability." "I saw such a duality of narcissism and low self-esteem," she says.
The inmates ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s. Less than half of them had finished high school. Most were mothers, most had drug or alcohol addictions, and most had experienced physical and/or sexual abuse.
But where some might have seen the inmates as victims, Trounstine saw lives filled with dramatic turns, ironic endings, and comedy. Where some would have seen damaged goods, she saw Portias, Lady MacBeths, and Desdemonas. "They were victims of their own bad choices," she notes, and through literature they could learn to make better ones.
Literature, she explains, gives people "a chance to rethink, reconsider, try on the shoes of someone else." But Shakespeare could give the women something more. Namely, it would give them access to an education they had missed. And, if the inmates could see that they could handle Shakespeare, they might develop the confidence to tackle whatever was most difficult in their lives.
In 1987, Dolly, who was serving a life sentence, suggested that their class perform a play for the other prisoners. Trounstine got permission to do so in 1988. And soon after rehearsals began, Trounstine's troupe had a suggestion: Rework the text, "The Merchant of Venice," so that their streetwise audience would sit through it.
Trounstine quickly understood their point: Some of Shakespeare's language was too difficult and antiquated for a prison environment. Besides, changing a play to suit an audience is exactly what Shakespeare himself did, Trounstine says.
For the next few months, "The Merchant of Venice" actresses simplified and updated their script and practiced their acting. Trounstine's goals were to give the women a deeper sense of connection with themselves and a way of expressing themselves through someone else's words. Acting, she says, "is also a way of developing social skills: the ability to speak, understand, and listen."