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Help Magenta Giraffe Theatre send Shakespeare to prison

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My late mother believed in the Victor Hugo premise that “he who opens a school door, closes a prison.” She started out as a volunteer at the White Lake Work Camp and ended up getting her teaching certificate so that she could help inmates at Oakland County Jail earn their GED diplomas. Until the day she died, she received letters and cards from former students who told her that she was the only person who ever believed in them.

Perhaps that’s why I enthusiastically believe in the Shakespeare in Prison program. It ignores any prejudice about who can fully appreciate Shakespeare and embraces the simpler truth that Shakespeare’s stories still speak to all of us. Anyone can perform, relate to and learn from Shakespeare. Inmates who volunteer for Shakespeare in Prison form a tight ensemble and work for nine months with the option of performing a fully staged work by Shakespeare at the culmination of the session.

Forget “Orange is the New Black;” this is the real deal. Inmate performances of Shakespeare have been proven successful in many different parts of the country and we can all be proud that Detroit’s own Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company, under the helm of Executive Artistic Director Frannie Shepherd-Bates, has been facilitating a Shakespeare in Prison program at Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti. The program empowers inmates through theatre exercises and Shakespearean text to think creatively, re-examine decisions they’ve made, become more in touch with their emotions, and develop crucial life skills to be used both in and out of prison.

Now the program needs help from the community it serves. That's us. And they need our help right away. Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company has only a few days to raise the remaining money it needs to complete its crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo.com. The last day of the campaign is May 24, 2014. The link to the campaign is http://igg.me/at/shakespeareinprison/x/6404277 .

Right now, the 2013-14 ensemble is rehearsing “Romeo and Juliet” with the goal of performing it this June. Participants are gaining practical skills – such as the ability to speak confidently in front of an audience and improve their reading skills. But many are also experiencing something that most of us take for granted: they learn to work as a team toward a common goal; they attain that goal; they express their opinions, which are heard and valued; they learn to trust the group enough to express deep emotion; they find comradeship and sisterhood in a place where it is severely lacking. They develop as leaders and learn to give constructive criticism, becoming able to argue a point without verbally attacking people with whom they disagree. Working specifically with Shakespeare gives them an opportunity to take on what seems like an enormous challenge and prove to themselves and others in their lives that they are very capable of doing this seemingly impossible task.

With the development of these skills comes increased confidence in all areas of the participants' lives. Several of the women who completed the program and moved on did so with eagerness to try new things while incarcerated and with greater confidence in what they will be able to accomplish when they are released into the community. All of this means that participants are less likely to reoffend, and more likely to become constructive members of society.

Many of you believe in the power of theatre to change lives with powerful stories. Many of you know that by seeing the potential in people you sometimes help them see it in themselves. That’s what the Shakespeare in Prison program does, but right now it lacks the necessary funding to sustain itself and grow. Magenta Giraffe hopes that being bolstered by grassroots support now will attract more attention and confidence from traditional funding sources in the future. It’s easy for you to support this cause – every $5 helps. For more information about Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company, visit their website or call 313-408-7269.

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