A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Success Stories: Life Skills Through Literature, January 1997

Why Literature?

The Dramatic Text

by Jean Trounstine

While literature opens us up to our imaginations and thus to our possibilities — theatre puts imagination into action. We move from picturing a character whose world may be unlike our own, to identifying, understanding, and trying on new behaviors. Thus, a woman who sees herself on dead-end roads can lead a nation by playing a powerful figure like Joan of Arc. A man who yearns to have a better relationship with his brother uncovers a solution through Biff's words in Death of a Salesman.

Being another character also brings us out of ourselves. Our preoccupations with personal issues diminish as we learn to see the world through someone else's eyes. For inmates, known for intense involvement with their own problems and stark low self-worth, this is a meaningful end in itself.

In addition, theatre exercises, which use voice as well as body, allow self-expression. In the theatre classroom, students get permission to reveal parts of themselves that may be hidden, bottled up, or unknown. Embarrassment fades quickly as classroom norms lead to opening up, a sense of play, and creative action. Improvisation, where some elements of a situation are unknown, furthers these goals and adds to experimentation of behaviors. Inmates learn to cooperate, to take chances with positive results, and to be heard.

Researchers have found that inmates need to be humanized before they can rediscover values and reconsider morality. Though they are not the only ends of a drama program, socialization, discipline, and the time to think are all important effects of theatre training. The student who picks fights with others has to cooperate on stage. Lines must be learned. Often, research into plays and characterization affords thoughtfulness and a critical approach to history, music, art, and language studies. The theatre classroom becomes a place where relaxation rather than stress is rewarded, where self-esteem improves, where students feel safe to engage in both thought and action.

There is another benefit to theatre in prison programs: Proponents say such programs give offenders a positive way of doing time and add to a less dangerous environment behind bars.

Program Profile

Ten years ago, I began to teach theatre at Framingham Women's Prison, the most secure facility for females in Massachusetts. I gradually developed a method which helps women bring plays to life, piecing together their experiences and classic texts to create new scripts. First aided by grants from the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities and then developed in collaboration with Middlesex and Mt. Wachusett Community Colleges, my drama program utilizes literature as its foundation.

In the Beginning

Danny was convicted of armed robbery and second-degree murder, but she hoped on good days for a better life. She was a mother and grandmother who brought her knitting to classes. She had written poetry, performed in plays outside, and was keeping a journal.

Rumor had it that Mamie had committed arson. I knew Mamie as the gardener who took flowers to people's rooms, pressed petals and turned them into cards. She had been unsuccessful at getting a compassionate release, so she battled cancer alone. When we sat around the table discussing Night, she wanted to know how author Elie Wiesel got back his faith in God and if she ever would.

Bertie, too, wanted to regain her faith in God. She was 22. Without any family to support her, she expressed her rage through writing. I knew she had killed someone; she knew she was guilty.

Gloria was a battered woman who had murdered her husband. She told me she lived in a red room in prison, haunted by memories of her past. Her son came to her in dreams, saying, "Mama, I wish I could have done it for you."

These women connected me with the ideas and feelings that Shakespeare's plays express. Like Lady Macbeth, the prisoners felt their hands would ne'er be clean." They seemed, like Shakespere's characters, larger than life, and I imagined his work might lead me into their world, and, on occasion, lead them out.

At our first gathering ten years ago, I announced to the women, all of whom had volunteered, that we were going to do The Merchant of Venice. Although they already knew me as their college English teacher, they still picked up their scripts tentatively. They insisted the play was too long and made wisecracks about words like "thou" and "hast." I decided then and there that we would read the play aloud; I'd tell them bits of the story as we went along, enabling them to feel successful. Then, back in their units they would reread, although many had difficulty focusing because of personal problems or the prison environment itself. Reading aloud in class was always optional, since some struggled with language; still, most wanted to try.

In the classroom, the prisoners felt liberated enough to immerse themselves in the play. They understood the text on an intuitive level, laughing at Shakespeare's jokes and elbowing each other at his bawdy lines. They 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 period costumes, and comparing great performances of the past. I also put the women on their feet with acting exercises. Standing on stools on opposite sides of a room, they whispered or shouted lines of a scene to one another. I wanted them to learn that Shakespeare's language was tied to action. Then one woman said to me, "If we're going to do Shakespeare in here, we have to do Shakespeare so that everyone gets it, even the Latina women who don't speak English." That means, said Rhonda, "we have to translate the script."

At first I balked. Change Shakespeare's words? Use modern American speech? But they wanted to do a play for their community. And thus began what now has evolved into our method of working with text. Together, after much discussion and several read-throughs of the play, we paraphrase the text, allowing the prisoners to internalize the language. By bringing their lives to the play, this new script reflects both the text and the prison community. In the original text, Shylock tells Bassanio, best friend to the merchant, that he distrusts Antonio: "What, wouldst thou have a serpent sting thee twice?" In our version, he says, "Oh, I suppose you'd have a pit bull attack you twice?" In the end, we always keep parts of the original, adapting the rest.

We decided to perform the trial scene, setting it in New York's 1920 gangster era, with Antonio, the wealthy and powerful merchant, as a Mafia boss. Portia was to be undisguised, the only woman in a man's world, something women in prison 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?"

By casting Danny, an older woman and leader in the prison, as Antonio, the prisoners related not only to the play but also to the specific woman and her role in the prison. This double level of casting let the audience gain more access into Shakespeare's play. The literature then took on a life of its own. We weathered actors missing rehearsals for coveted doctors' appointments, visits, or disciplinary reports. I rented costumes, had the inmates help in painting a backdrop and creating a set, and got permission to bring in props and makeup.

As women piled noisily into the gym the evening of our first production, I worried. We were stacking the deck against Shylock throughout the play, hoping for the turnaround that Shakespere'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 leapt forward, spitting of Shylock, our judge took away Shylock's yarmulke, 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 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.

Out Of Darkness

By stepping into the shoes of another, prisoners begin to see their lives more clearly. By adapting a play, they learn language and history, and gain access to classic texts. Performing for their peers brings self-esteem. To those who are uneducated and who describe themselves as "dumb," "unimportant," or "unheard," Shakespeare seems out of reach. To put what is considered most difficult within reach is perhaps the greatest lesson. Life again offers possibilities.

Each of the nine plays I have created with the women have offered them a way back. They all have characters who intrigue, plots that the prisoners can relate to, ideas that cause discussion, and endings that are ultimately hopeful.

We have also adapted and performed Josefina Lopez' modern play, Simply Maria, about a young Mexican-American woman finding her way in a new culture, and the old chestnut, Arsenic and Old Lace, which was uproariously funny. However, I emphasize classic texts because they both give distance and offer universal issues. Some students like Gloria need to overcome their belief that "Shakespeare is white man's theatre" and discover that great texts belong to all of us.

Certainly, the constraints of prison present challenges. Women get transferred, sent to Maximum Security, locked in their units; they have visits, give up and drop out. Space to perform can be an issue. Hauling costumes and props through security is tedious; one year it took two hours for clearance. We skip lights and use minimal sets, and inmate artists always volunteer to make posters.

However, even small productions or scenes produced in a classroom engender excitement. Adapting a piece of literature for the stage teaches prisoners to put feet under their dreams, give wings to action.

Sample Lesson Plan

The Merchant of Venice

Organizing Principles

Using this text with 8 to 12 students allows all of the participants to have parts and a few students to drop out during the course. Make sure all can read reasonably well, although some may be uncomfortable reading aloud. Since students eventually help each other understand the story and you will be assisting with pronunciation and meaning, I encourage students of all levels to join the class. Usually, there is a mix of strong readers and those who call barely handle the language. The important point here is to encourage diversity, which usually broadens discussion.

Pre-Text Activities

Before giving students the text, bring Shakespeare into the classroom. I borrow costumes and have women try on articles of period clothing as we discuss the Elizabethan world. The costumes offer them a chance to dress up, and for women who have lost much of their childhood and now must wear blue or black, this is a treat. Costumes also allow students to sink into a different culture in a non-threatening way. Everyone looks silly in pantaloons and hoop skirts, and the experience enlightens them as to how different our world is from Elizabethan England.

Music and film clips can also set the tone, as can picture books and anecdotes. For example, I tell them how even wealthy people didn't take baths for health reasons, often wore one set of clothing (changing only the armholes), didn't brush their teeth, and used mint leaves for sweet-smelling breath. The idea is to grab the students' attention and interest them in a subject many have rejected or felt rejected by them. In order to let students' imaginations take hold, I resist showing Merchant films until after we have read and discussed the text, but a film that gives inmates visual images of the period works well. Allow one to three classes of background.

The Text

When introducing Merchant, I begin in a circle, by telling the story of the play, embellishing the plot, and describing the characters with flourish. Unlike in a reading group, where I expect students to read the play first, with a piece of dramatic literature, I find starting with the story grabs attention and facilitates the reading process.

Here is how we might begin: "Antonio was a merchant, sort of a big-time gambler who had money to spare as long as his ships came in." Intrigue your students with references they can relate to: "Portia is a lawyer, but had to disguise herself as a man in order to succeed in the courtroom."

In that vein, I introduce each scene before the students read it aloud. In the beginning, I give them parts somewhat randomly, offering a woman who mostly speaks Spanish a one-liner; a better reader, a more difficult part. However, women also ask to read certain roles, so I try to give all a chance to read whatever appeals to them. In between scenes, we talk about the characters and what they have understood. They ask questions and often comment on what they like or don't like. I ask them to go over what we read in class between classes, but with Shakespeare, many don't. This process of reading aloud and getting a good grasp on the text takes four or five hour-long sessions.

Focus On A Scene

After we finish the whole play, I often try to choose a single scene to focus on, since this helps keep the students from feeling overwhelmed. Also, if you are going to eventually perform, whether in class or for a larger audience, a single scene running about 30 or 40 minutes is a good amount to tackle. Our longest-running play was one hour and fifteen minutes, and we all felt it was a bit much.

The Merchant of Venice is a particularly apt play to do with female prisoners because it explores issues of:

It also lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Finally, there are films available portraying Shylock, the classic outsider, as both revengeful and sympathetic.

With Merchant, the trial scene works well because it asks students to think about questions of justice. Try to look at the question of "what is justice" by getting students to talk about it from the points of view of different characters. For example:

Encourage students to try to examine the scene from different angles. At this point, film clips may be useful. Seeing different performances of a scene they have read allows students to grapple with contrasting interpretations.

Asking students to write about their reactions to the scene deepens engagement. Reactions to the reading or to different characters may serve as a springboard to discussion. When I produced Merchant, I also asked students to write interior monologues from different points of view.

These kinds of questions lead students into a variety of points of view. "I never imagined I could feel sympathy for Shylock," said an inmate, "but he really had it rough. Imagine, your wife is dead, and then a few years later, your daughter runs away."


An effective format for my two-hour classes was one hour of discussion and one hour of acting. However, other formats could be used. The basic idea is to get students on their feet. Improvisation, where situations are set but lines are made up, enables the student to try his or her hand at playing the character and exploring the character's reactions. Improvisation engages students in another dimension of the play. Before inmates memorized the scene, they acted out the basic conflicts, making up lines, in order to more deeply understand characters' motivations.

One example is this typical improv set-up taken from the script:

The magistrate (known to us as a judge) was visited by Bassanio and his friend Antonio to try to undo the bond made with Shylock. Before Portia enters, the judge is telling the two men that a new lawyer will arrive to handle their case.

Thus, an improv is set up for the students to act out: What will happen when Portia enters the room?

New understandings of the characters can he found through such improvisations. Our judge, when responding to an undisguised Portia entering the courtroom, looked over at her skeptically. He realized that Portia was a "she." Shakespeare's original line for the Duke of Venice was quite formal:

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?

Our actress, playing the male Duke as a court judge, says to Portia:

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 later used these lines in our final text. Improvisation is one way to help students find their language and adapt a text for a performance.

Creating a Text

Even without improv and theatre training, a literature teacher can help students get more deeply into the text. Have students settle on parts for an "adaptation session."

Beginning with the focus scene, go through the original script, having each actor paraphrase her lines. I suggest writing down the new lines as you go along (having an assistant is the easiest route), so that you can use this new text for any sort of performance you choose. The adaption, comprised of pieces of the original Shakespeare and the inmates' vernacular, often has its own truths that enliven the original text. When students get tongue-tied, I let other members of the class help them, so that everyone participates in creating dialogue.

Usually, these adaptation sessions happen after we have decided in what era we will set the play, since we often change time and place for performance. I still encourage women to use metaphors that come from their world; vernacular mixed with original text enables them to "own the language," as was the case with the "serpent sting" to "pit bull bite" change in The Merchant of Venice.

Students often volunteer to type the adapted scripts. But if this is not possible, I do it for them, adding any cuts we made in discussion, lines discovered through improv sessions, and stage directions from the original text that I feel are important. I put each new script, typed, in a folder for each inmate. The next step is the stage.

Sample Lesson Plan

The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is a difficult but rewarding text for students outside prison and certainly for groups of female inmate readers. Like The Merchant of Venice, it provides a way into their lives. However, unlike Merchant, The Bluest Eye is a novel, and I do not adapt it for the stage. Still, it requires innovative techniques to engage students.

Summary of Story

The story details the life of two young girls as they seek to understand their growing up and the community around them. It contrasts the worlds of rich white Ohioans with the poor blacks of rural Lorraine; the tough but normal childhoods of sisters Claudia and Frieda McTeer and the traumatic growth of their friend, Pecola; the trust and playfulness of youth in the face of adult alcoholism, racism and sexual abuse. Pecola yearns for blue eyes; that is, she yearns for what she, as a black girl, cannot have. Raped by her father and unprotected by her mother, Pecola eventually "gets" those blue eyes. It is Claudia and Frieda, and thus the readers, who learn from her sad tale. We are the ones who can change the cycle of despair.

Morrison's language, poetic and filled with a sense of place, draws students in, but also demands a focused reader. Because they are so drawn to Pecola's yearnings, women inmates often lose pieces of Claudia's story. I have found questions a way to broaden the book, allow students to reflect on their lives in connection to its themes, and engage the women in the idea that because of Pecola, there is hope for the community.

Pre-Reading Activity

When the book is assigned two weeks before we begin the discussion, I tell them a bit about Toni Morrison and some of the subjects of the book. It seems important to let students know that they will be reading about the roots of racism and abuse so that they might recognize the potential power of the book on their psyches. I also think it is important to establish a class community before introducing this text since it asks us to tackle issues about which the women have strong feelings. This endeavor requires trust and a certain degree of bonding.

Post-Reading Discussion

When the group has gathered, we begin by each taking a turn responding to the text. No one interrupts while each reader has a chance to say whatever she feels and thinks about whatever aspects of the text she chooses. The initial comments give students a chance to hate Cholly, the rapist father; pity Pecola; ignore the sisters; wonder why we read such a depressing book; or, occasionally, ask for what more they can read of Morrison's. This is where we really begin, with the intention to let them discover that there is more to the book through all our eyes. This pre-discussion response also sets a tone: we all have a right to our opinions; we all have responses that will be valued; we each need to listen as well as be heard.

Using a "Dick and Jane" reader from the 1950's, I read aloud, show-and-tell pictures, and then ask students to consider what Morrison is doing with the opening of her text. This opening, a sort of "Dick and Jane" run wild, repeats itself throughout the text. Morrison takes the idea of the American family and condenses it in order to show how most of us do not have "white picket fence" perfection. Most students have overlooked this because they don't understand it; the focus suggests looking closely is valuable. After looking again at the language, they begin to figure out how Morrison is setting us up to understand that, unlike in "Dick and Jane" readers, there is no perfect house, no white picket fence, and certainly no perfect family. They start to enjoy finding all the broken passages in the text that they overlooked first time around.

I ask them to think about who Claudia is and what the difference is between her background and Pecola's. They surprise themselves by remembering details: Claudia's mother took care of her when she was sick; her family took in Pecola; her father protected them when the boarder, Mr. Henry, "touched" Frieda. They begin to think about Claudia as more than teller of the tale.

Each character comes under scrutiny, as we attempt together to uncover the multitude of Morrison's truths.

As rapidly as the questions come, they begin to fill in the blanks with "mean neighbors like Maureen," or "parents that tell us we're worthless like Pauline." Often, I ask them to underline language that they like, phrases that stick out. Maureen Peal, the little girl who taunts Pecola, has "lynch rope' braids," someone will always say; and I ask them why Pecola is taunted by both the black and white community.

It would be easy if we could let our students rest with partial understandings of reality, but great literature does not afford that. Morrison allows us to understand the rapist. Asking the women what happened to Cholly forces them to look past their hate. As they begin to see him, too, as a troubled child, a black man beaten down by a white society, they open themselves to more than one way of looking at the world.

Pauline, too, presents them with a dilemma.

One woman was so furious at Pauline for staying with Cholly that she said she would have preferred her indentured servitude as a maid to the white missus. The class challenged her insistence on that way of seeing. Morrison makes us see that there are no easy answers.

As the women sort through their new understandings from our discussion, they begin to offer new responses. They comment on how hard it is for all these characters to survive. They talk about how even the bluest eyes don't bring happiness or ensure fitting in. They stop considering some characters "bad" and others "good." Even Soaphead Church, the minister-gone-wrong who provides Pecola with her prized eyes, has a story worth telling. And hating a character tells us something about the hater as well as the character.

"Where is the beauty in this book?" I ask them over and over, not with that question but with all the questions, finding that we are unsilencing the silenced for all of us. "Claudia is a tree, and all the rest of them are bamboo," one woman said at the end of a class. Another replied, "It may be too late for Pecola, but it is not too late for us."

[Why Literature? Critical Thinking] [Table of Contents] [Appendix A: Novels]