Putting drama into prison's stark life

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Dolly left prison with a lot of baggage. But she also left with something special, something that has helped transform her life: Shakespeare.

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.

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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."

As rehearsals continued, Trounstine watched dramas unfold for her students. There was Bertie, a stunning Jamaican who was ostracized because she had killed her baby. There was Rose, a prostitute and drug addict who was stigmatized because she had HIV. There was Dolly, who started a support group for inmates who had been battered.

The group had to overcome racial tensions and cast members who would suddenly end up in "max." But, says Trounstine, "We connected with and supported one another. We had this wonderful sense of being women together."

Trounstine had done some writing in her pre-prison days, but she didn't consider herself a writer. That changed once she met the inmates and felt compelled to tell their stories.

Her book, "Shakespeare Behind Bars," was recently published by St. Martins Press. The book, which compresses 10 years into two, does not aim to tell people what Trounstine learned. Rather, it lets readers meet and follow the six women she worked with most closely.

Trounstine, not surprisingly, is an outspoken advocate for prison education programs. Taking Pell grants away from prisoners in 1995, she says, was a big mistake - education is the most effective form of crime prevention. Trounstine quotes a statistic from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that shows inmates who have two years of college education have a rearrest rate of 10 percent. The overall recidivism rate is 41 to 60 percent.

Trounstine believes that prison education is needed now more than ever, since nearly 2 million Americans are incarcerated. But she isn't hopeful that drama classes will ever be a common offering.

"It's a miracle that I lasted 10 years in such an oppressive environment," she says. Many prison officials were not supportive, she says, and twice a captain almost threw her out because she unknowingly broke prison rules.

"Theater is threatening" to the Department of Corrections, she says. "It gives inmates a greater consciousness of what their needs are. The prison wants conformists, but theater makes people less likely to be followers."

If Trounstine had her way, both officers and inmates would be able to take college classes. She acknowledges that the public doesn't like to give "good opportunities" to "bad people." But, she says, "Americans need to decide what kind of people we want living next to us, since most inmates will eventually be released."

Prisons are full of people at the lowest point in their lives, but Trounstine has seen drama take some women to new peaks. Dolly, who was released after 15 years, says acting gave her a way to deal with the fear and self-doubt prison reinforces.

"[Acting] makes you get back all the things that were stolen away in your life," she says. "[Acting] gives you another look at a different kind of life ... a wholesome way of life. That life in there [prison] isn't real."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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