In November of 2010, The Public Theater expanded its Shakespeare Initiative to include a new platform for the production of Shakespeare's works: The Mobile Unit. Designed to bring the highest caliber professional productions of Shakespeare, free of charge, to audiences with little or no access to major New York City arts institutions, The Mobile Unit toured Measure for Measure to correctional facilities, homeless shelters, facilities for battered and abused women, drug rehab facilities, senior centers, centers for youth-at-risk, and other social service organizations that support the disadvantaged, underserved, and marginalized.
Here, Ian Hersey describes his experience of bringing Measure for Measure to one correctional facility. Ian Hersey is the Shakespeare Initiative Associate at The Public Theater. As such, he devises and runs educational programs for people of diverse ages and backgrounds. He works in various aspects of Shakespeare productions, administers the Shakespeare Lab and is the director of A Midsummer Day's Camp.
"Run towards the gas." That was Ed the Recreation Director's advice when I asked if there was anything else we should know before the ladies arrived. Though I didn't get it I laughed politely at what I assumed was a joke. When he didn't respond, I think I cocked my head like a puzzled dog. In my mind I was thinking Auschwitz and found the whole thing beyond non-sequitor. However, he went on to say, "If they have to throw teargas, run towards it. The inmates will all run away from it. Help is towards the gas." Good to know, I thought. Not information I ever thought I would need. I'm sure it's some sort of joke to play on newcomers to prison teaching.
As part of the Mobile Unit on Measure for Measure, it was my job to go out and run an hour-long workshop on the show several days before the show came to play. On this particular day, I was at a women's correctional facility on the West Side of Manhattan. I had already been to a battered women's shelter, a men's prison, and a center for the elderly and still had one more venue to go.
It took a while to check in, go through the metal detector, put our stuff in lockers, and be escorted up to the gymnasium where we would lead the workshop. This is where Ed was doling out his advice after my rundown of the workshop events.
The women arrived slowly and had to be frisked before entering the space. That left us with some time hanging out waiting. I said to the other teaching artists, "Let's go chat and mingle." Ed introduced me to Miss Morning, a shy, young, pretty, light-skinned African American woman with soft brown eyes and a bit of a crooked smile.
I asked her if she liked Shakespeare. She said, "Oh yes. I love Shakespeare."
"What's your favorite?"
"You know, Romeo and Juliet," she replied. "It's beautiful. But you know what I like is his poetry."
"You mean the sonnets?" one of the teaching artists piped in.
"I don't know about sonnets. But he wrote a lot of poetry besides the plays."
"Venus and Adonis. The Rape of Lucrece. The Passionate Pilgrim," I offered.
"The one I like is one where he talks about this woman. He goes on about her faults, but her likes her anyway."
"You mean, 'my mistress eyes are nothing like the sun.'"
Her eyes lit up. "Yes! That's the one. I love that. He talks about how she isn't all that pretty, but he loves her anyway."
"It's one of my favorites too," I added.
Other ladies arrived and I talked to them as well. When all the women arrived, we got in a circle and began the fun. Everyone participated in the games, and we got into some deep discussions about the play and its themes. What was more important: preserving personal integrity or saving someone's life? If your brother was sentenced to die, would you do ANYTHING to save his life?
On the latter, the ladies wanted to know, "What did he do to get sentenced?" "Was he guilty?" That would make a difference. "Are there children at home who need to be taken care of?"
At the end of the workshop, we go through a game called "story whoosh." We go through a summary of the play up to the prison scene where Isabella curses Claudio and starts to leave the prison. The question was then posed to the ladies, "If Isabella sleeps with the judge she can save her brother's life. If she doesn't he will not only die, but be put to torture. What will she do?"
A cacophony of possible endings filled the room. Answers ranged from "Isabella kills Angelo" to "Pompey is gonna put Isabella 'on the Stroll.'" One woman suggested something very close to Shakespeare's solution to the dilemma: "They're gonna send Mistress Overdone (the local prostitute) to take Isabella's place."
My boss strongly suggested that I return on Saurday night to witness the show. So, I dutifully got clearance from the deputy warden for another visit. I returned to witness a magnificent theatrical event take place between performers and audience.
When Angelo asks, "The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?" a woman seated on the left side of the gym called out, "You do!" When Isbaella asks, "To whom should I complain," someone on the other side of the room screamed out, "The Police!" When Isabella laments, "Did I tell this, who would believe me?" another woman cried out, "No one. Not a soul."
In the finale, Julietta brings out her newborn child, in this case a doll, to show her recently reprieved boyfriend and baby daddy, Claudio. As Julietta handed Claudio the baby, a woman stood up, with arms outstretched, and cried, "Let me see the baby." The actor walked the baby over and they both cooed at the doll for a moment.
In the end, no tear gas was needed. There wasn't a dry eye in the house at the end of the play. Women wept and sniffled and talked about the ambiguous ending of the show as they checked out of the gym in single file and were escorted back to their respective floors in the building.