Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining, NY 2016

Feste in Twelfth Night at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, 2016


In 2016, as our contribution to the celebration of Shakespeare’s 400 year legacy, the men of RTA and I staged Twelfth Night at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. It was my fifth time directing this play; it was my fifth full production behind the walls. It was the first experience of Shakespeare for many of the men involved with the production. It was my first time acting with the guys in addition to directing; it was a joy to get to play.

The men on the steering committee select the plays, and once we knew we were going to do Shakespeare, they were torn between Twelfth Night and Othello. While I understood the appeal of Othello for many of the men in the group, I advocated for Twelfth Night because I knew there was anxiety inside the group about doing Shakespeare; in my experience, laughter is a powerful way to welcome people to these plays, and Othello is just not that funny. I also said to the men, “Are we sure we want to start with a black man murdering a white woman in their marriage bed?” They chose Twelfth Night.

In the fall of 2015, I taught an intensive workshop that I called a Twelfth Night Cocktail Party at the prison; on our feet, working together, we met the characters, the major plot points, the ‘stuff that happens.’ We explored the language and the relationships together. One of the men asked, “Kate, Kate, if our families don’t have five months of rehearsal, how will they understand the play?” He was echoing a shared anxiety that the play would fall flat both with the incarcerated audience and with the men’s families, who would, in many cases, be seeing them perform for the first time. I said, “You are going to be so clear in your thought that you are going to take them with you on the journey.” He looked dubious and also curious, as if to say, “I trust you, but I am really deeply unsure about this.”

The week that we opened, that same man sat next to me in the visiting room at the facility as we ate a rushed dinner before the second performance for the general population of the prison. He said, “Kate, Kate, I just realized that Shakespeare is for everybody, and I almost missed him. I always thought he was just for white people, but everyone is in these plays.”

About the play

Sir Andrew, Maria, and Sir Toby Belch at Sing Sing

Twelfth Night is excess. Is gluttony. Is indulgence. Of every appetite. Of every desire. It is no accident that the play begins with Orsino’s “give me excess of it, that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” Twelfth Night shines both the playful, magical light of the moon and the cool, harsh sunlight of the ‘morning-after’ on our desires. Twelfth Night feasts us on longing, on love and foolishness, on revelry. Twelfth Night is a play about losing one’s family, about finding one’s self in a strange and possibly dangerous new place, about figuring out what is safe to reveal and what one needs to conceal. Every man in the production at Sing Sing, and every man in the audience there, has felt this loss, this uncertainty. The play also mocks self-righteousness and those who take themselves too seriously. In the world of the play, perhaps only Feste is safe from this mockery, because he sees himself as well as those around him with a brilliant, moonlit clarity. Twelfth Night also reprimands those who do not know when the party is over, when the joke has gone too far, when enough is enough. Again, every man at Sing Sing has learned very hard lessons about the steep cost of paying the consequences. Finally, Twelfth Night is about rediscovering what we thought we had lost, which is something I want for all the men who participate in Rehabilitation Through the Arts.

You can hear directly from some of the men in this news story from WABC-TV:

You can also read their words and see them both on and off-stage in this photo essay for The Marshall Project.


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You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i