Shakespeare Corrected: Opening Night In Decatur

Inmates at the Decatur Correctional Center give a standing ovation to the cast of Macbeth on opening night, Wednesday, April 22

Fellow inmates at the Decatur Correctional Center give a standing ovation to the cast of Macbeth on opening night, Wednesday, April 22

(Jeff Bossert/WILL)

Back in February, Illinois Public Media first visted with some of the women involved in the spring production of Macbeth at the Decatur Women’s Correctional Facility.  This past weekend, they wrapped up their 6-performance run at the prison, including one show for friends and family. 

The first performance a week ago Wednesday was a final dress rehearsal, but good enough to start performing in front of offenders.  About 65 other inmates filled the prison’s auditorium.

Teresa Wright was cast in the lead role as the Scottish general who conspires with Lady Macbeth to kill a king and take the throne.  Murder and betrayal ultimately destroys both characters. 

Wright said her own criminal background has allowed her to identify with the play, and helps her understand her character’s motivations.

 “I betrayed people that have trusted me- that have loved me – that have embraced me,” she said.  All for greed – my gain – my selfish gain.”

Wright said learning about Macbeth’s motivations has helped her identify with her own mistakes.

“Because somebody has somebody that influences them to that darker side sometime,” she said.  “He (Macbeth) never even thought about this until his wife plants this in his head.  And to have him go to a darker side, it’s kinda scary – it’s like the conclusion of it, where Macbeth gets killed, his wife loses his mind and dies because of all the blood they’ve shed.  It’s kind of like justice in a way for all the treachery and betrayal.”

(pictured - Macbeth (Teresa Wright) receives a visit from the witches - (Dawn Green, Yolanda Sibley, and Kimberly Span) - in Macbeth

It’s the second Shakespeare play at the prison for Wright, who is set for release in 2016 after doing time on residential burglary charges. 

She admitted to some jitters on opening night, and was looking forward to getting feedback from her peers.  She says the whole cast – no matter how they get along – came together for the sake of the performance.

“When one falls, everybody falls - you know?,” she said.  “So we all try to pull together and lift each other up – and if somebody’s doing something wrong, we (say) hey, like, hey, get it together, because we need you in this.  It’s basically about not tearing each other down, it’s building each other up, in a positive way.”

This was the vision of Millikin University Theater professor Alex Miller.

After seeing performances at prisons in Indiana and Kentucky, he adapted ‘Shakespeare Corrected’ for the women in Decatur, with the first play in 2012. 

Macbeth is his fourth show at the prison.  Miller said it’s not only about escaping the daily routine for the offenders, but gaining confidence by accomplishing something they didn’t think they could.

“I always tell the ladies if you can overcome these obstacles, there’s very little you can’t overcome when you go outside,” he said.

Miller takes the same approach at the correctional center as he does for his productions at Millikin – and he expects a lot from the performers.

As opening night approached, Miller said he blew up at the cast.

"I thought that we were going to put up a subpar production, that wasn’t going to be what their families would deserve to see,” he said.  “And to their credit, they responded.  They responded really well – and since then, they’ve really become a close-knit, supportive ensemble.”

(Director Alex Miller visits with cast members in a final rehearsal in the prison auditorium, on Monday, April 20.)

Miller said one of his strongest attributes is his ability to go with the flow, and adjust in the moment.  That’s served him well in this production.

One of the actors, Tiphany Travet -  who was in the pivotal role of Lady Macbeth, was granted early release from prison after doing time for identity theft. 

That meant shifting the performances up a week, rather than recasting her role. Tiffany calls the play a ‘humbling’ experience, before getting back home to Chicago and her four kids.

“You know, it helps me to get back into the role of what I have to do when I get back home,” she said.  “It’s been a great experience for me – especially having them move the play up a week – so I could be in the play – that was so heartfelt.  I cried.”

Miller brought in costumes from Millkin, and he played guitar as part of a small ensemble featured between scenes that included keyboard and drums – both instruments played by offenders. 

Inmate Veronica Reyes has been involved in all four Shakespeare Corrected productions.

“I kind of tend to root for the underdog, and there’s people who give us flack – Shakespeare Corrected, yeah, ok sure...They look at the program with sarcasm, and when (it) succeeds, and the opening day comes along, and the girls do marvelous, and you get that bow at the end of the show and there’s certain people that see that, it’s just such a phenomenal feeling of accomplishment.”

In Macbeth, expected to be Reyes’ last show at the prison, she had a few lines as Sergeant, and stepped into the familiar role as stage manager, saying she prefers to work behind the scenes.

“You have to pretty much make something out of nothing,” she said.  It’s not like here, you could go to Wal-Mart if you need a prop, or you could go to Target.  I mean a lot of the props this year, the girls started making (paper) mache props with just paint and newspaper.  Innovation goes hand in hand with necessity, and we just pretty much create things out of nothing.”

Reyes, who’s served time for her role in an armed robbery, expects to be released later this year and return to her former job as a paralegal.  She also hopes to be involved in community theater, and in particular, working with kids whose parents are behind bars.

But Shakespeare Corrected is producing more than amateur actors and directors.

“If I’m not doing it for someone else, I’m just sitting and doodling,” said inmate and play set designer Autumn Taylor.  She got involved after winning an art contest held by the warden at Decatur. 

(Pictured:  Inmate Nicole Cert puts finishing touches on the set, two days before the opening of Macbeth.)

With mostly cardboard and chalk, she spent 10 to 12 hours a day in recent weeks working on the set for Macbeth, one with mid-rise building that was described as old Detroit.

“It’s something that I look forward to – spring comes, I start talking to the warden, ‘hey are we going to do this?," she said.  "I catch Alex in the hall every chance I get, ‘hey I’m still here.  If you would have told me 5-6 years ago that I would have laughed at you, and didn’t think it would be possible.  It just kind of blows me away.”

When the king’s son Malcolm, played by inmate Jennifer Pauley, recited the final lines from Macbeth, the inmates watching the first performance give a long standing ovation.

Decatur Warden Shelith Hansbro said the shows get better every year.

“We want them to realize how amazing they are,” she said.  And all they have to do is give themselves a chance to do something that’s outside their comfort zone.”

Decatur’s Shakespeare Corrected did six shows, enough so 550 offenders from the prison’s housing units could attend a performance in the prison auditorium.

Miller said there were “many tears” during the family performance last Saturday.  “Lots of pride from children to parents,” he said.

Autumn Taylor – the set designer – has two years left to serve on a burglary conviction.

After creating set pieces for several performances she says when she gets out, she hopes do art therapy for kids – and give them the kind of opportunity she never had. 

“And if I could show some kid, hey, instead of running around with those kids, you could do this,” she said.  “And teach them how to do this.  If I could do this when I was younger I might not be here right now.”

Alex Miller plans to take a sabbatical for the performance next spring.  He says he wants to do King Lear, but that some of the women are ready for a comedy in 2016.

Story source: WILL