No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage.
-- William Shakespeare, King Lear (Act 5, Scene 3)
On an unseasonably scorching Wednesday night in September, behind the fences, walls and barbed wire of the Northeast Reintegration Center (NERC) on East. 30th Street just south of Tri-C Metro, a group of women inmates sways to Shakespeare’s lyrical beat. Before their acting class, they piled all the chairs on a table shoved into one corner of a narrow room with a barred window inside Unit L, one of multiple pods on the NERC campus. They want as much room to move as possible.
After some fun, high-energy warm-ups and acting exercises, a young woman has volunteered to read Phoebe’s monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act 3, Scene 5), during which she wrestles with her sudden feelings for Ganymede by inventorying his pros and cons.
Olivia Scicolone, tonight’s instructor from the Artist Rehabilitation Coalition (ARC), has directed the other 13 students to split up and serve as figurative angels and devils on Phoebe’s shoulders. The left side of the room cheers when Phoebe cites Ganymede’s positive points, the right boos and hurls insults when she lists his downsides. The actor slides back and forth between the two groups, depending on her lines.
“I thought it would be fun to get everyone involved and collectively see how the rhythm changes, how the tone shifts constantly in that monologue,” Scicolone explains. “I like to do activities that involve the whole ensemble, so that we can all grow and get a sense of what it means to perform Shakespeare in this kind of setting.”
Lara Mielcarek directing inmates at Cleveland's Northeast Reintegration Center
ARC is the brainchild of Lara Mielcarek. As one of Cleveland’s classically trained and very popular Equity actors, Mielcarek adores Shakespeare. For the past ten summers, she’s played many of his famed roles for the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall in Akron and is fresh from her acclaimed take on Lady Macbeth this past summer. By day, she is an adjunct professor of acting at Cleveland State University, where she’s directing a workshop production of David Ives’ All in the Timing in November. By night, she tends bar at the Velvet Tango Room in Tremont.
Related reading: Inmates and CWRU students become colleagues in unique course
“I love teaching," says Mielcarek. She has tapped her hard-earned knowledge, including an MFA from Penn State and diverse experience 'on the boards,' with students from the Academy High School in the Bronx, New York, to the Hathaway Brown Theater Institute in Shaker Heights in the summer.
“I’ve taught in different climates,” she continues. “But school is always school, and you always have that percentage who are forced to be there for whatever reason, so to have this classroom of students who all want to be there, that’s a teacher’s dream.”
Last spring, Mielcarek launched ARC to put her beloved Bard in prison. The program’s initial focus is acting, but Mielcarek intends to add creative writing and other arts eventually. Scicolone serves as her assistant, but she occasionally invites other seasoned actors such as Tess Burgler and Geoff Knox as guest instructors. Mielcarek met Scicolone after performing in Love’s Labors Lost for Ohio Shakespeare in 2011. Scicolone was heading into her sophomore year at Yale University, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in Theater Studies in January 2015.
Mielcarek had dreamed of such an opportunity since 2003, when she had to pull her car over to the side of the road while listening to a “This American Life” broadcast on NPR about a prison program that prepared male inmates for a production of Hamlet.
Inmates perform Shakespeare production at Cleveland's Northeast Reintegration Center
“I was bawling my eyes out, because I had never been so moved by anything,” she recalls. “That got tucked into a drawer [of her mind], and I knew I wanted to do that some day.”
In October 2013, after a performance of Cock by Mike Bartlett at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, Phyllis Gorfain, an emeritus professor of English at Oberlin College, approached Mielcarek. She asked her to join the Oberlin Drama at Grafton team that teaches Shakespeare in Grafton Correctional Institution. Today, Gorfain characterizes her mentee as a “spectacular guest director” who was natural, respectful, funny and never dumbed anything down.
“She treats everyone as a potentially great actor and expects of them what she would of her best students,” she says. “The men responded with excellence.”
When the group took a production of Othello to the NERC, one inmate called out during a post-show Q&A: “Where’s our program?” Gorfain shot a glance at Mielcarek, who realized it was her turn to bring Shakespeare to these imprisoned women thirsting for physical activity and an artful challenge.
“I thought, ‘Hey, I’m not retired like you!’” Mielcarek recalls of seeing that expectant look in her mentor’s eye. “But I couldn’t say, ‘Yeah, let’s start something’ and have these women looking at me and just walk away, so I knew I had to do it.”
Lara MielcarekIn the spring, she only had eight weeks to teach the participants enough acting and Shakespeare to get them ready to perform a cabaret of monologues, scenes and parody songs she wrote to bridge the pieces. Gorfain, who attended the performance in June, felt Mielcarek was “particularly powerful with ‘the ladies.’”
“She knows how to tap their strengths and help them past their tensions and differences by nurturing an ethos of joy and professionalism,” she says. “They performed with clarity, confidence, depth, originality and enjoyment.”
Currently, Mielcarek and Scicolone are pursuing non-profit status for ARC. They also have 16 to 20 weeks this session, so they are aiming for a full production of either Julius Caesar, Macbeth or Midsummer Night’s Dream in the spring. The class is working through each script for the next few months to decide by December.
Both teachers are impressed by the insight and understanding the women bring to the class when they are breaking down monologues or scenes. The students, some of whom are serving long sentences, all enthusiastically participate and enjoy the two hours of Shakespearean shenanigans two nights a week.
“Ultimately, it gives them a feeling of worth that they ought to have, because they know how this stuff works,” Milecarek concludes. “They know an amazing speech when they hear it, whether it’s MLK or Michelle Obama or Shakespeare.”
Mielcarek is seeking donations of pencils, notebooks, binders, highlighters, etc., for ARC's eneavors as well as volunteer efforts from area artists and actors. Interested parties can contact her here.
Visit ARC's GoFundMe page for monetary donations.
Thanks to Newsnet5 Cleveland for permission to use photos from this story.
Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, Credit.com, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and Time.com. He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at