Why there's much ado about inmates doing Shakespeare behind bars.

The stage is set. The actors put the final touches on their costumes and wait nervously in the wings. The audience is ushered in by an armed guard or two. It's showtime.

This is not an ordinary production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."  This is Shakespeare at San Quentin State Prison.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.


Since 2003, actors and staff from the Marin Shakespeare Company have taught classes at San Quentin, the state prison just a few miles away.

The company has always boasted a rich social outreach program to get Shakespeare's work out to as many people as possible. The prison population was nearby, and managing director Lesley Currie said they seemed like a logical fit for courses. So she and her team decided to give it a try.

"At first it was very poorly attended, but after a few years, we had enough men in the class to actually put on a full-length Shakespeare play in the prison chapel," Currier said in a phone interview. "And since then, it's just taken off."

LeMar Harrison (C) and Carlos Flores (R) take the stage. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

After their first full-length production, interest in the classes skyrocketed. These days, Currier sometimes manages a waitlist or two.

The sessions don't just focus on Shakespeare. Through exercises and activities, they also cover conflict resolution and positive decision making.

The classes are team taught, and local actors and directors often volunteer their time too. In addition to acting, the courses include lessons in self-reflection and teamwork. With the help of drama therapy students, the classes can also go a little deeper, allowing the inmates to work on their social skills.

"In a typical two and a half hour class, we'll often spend an hour doing all kinds of different exercises that are designed to build acting skills but also designed to build human skills," Currier said.

John Windham (L) and Richie Morris (C) rehearse lines before their performance. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

She often ends each class with what she calls, "group decision-making exercises." These creative assignments might ask participants to work as a team to turn lines from a play into a song and dance or a poem; or have them rewrite certain scenes, forcing characters to make a different choice.

According to Currier: "One of our students said, 'I've done a lot of conflict resolution work since I've gone to prison, but that kind of exercise is the best conflict resolution work I've ever done.'"

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

But as with the bard himself said, the play's the thing.

Since the early days of the program, the participants have put on more than a dozen full-length Shakespeare plays at San Quentin. The inmate actors work for months putting each show together. Memorizing lines, building sets, and getting into character is tough work, and the actors take their roles very seriously.

Because, for them, it's not just something to do, it's a point of pride and a place for self-expression.

Azraal Ford gets ready to play Julius Caesar. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

"One man said, 'I've been in prison for 12 years, I have a 12-year-old daughter, and all she's ever known about me is that I'm in prison. And today she gets to know that I'm a Shakespeare star."

The inmates' families aren't allowed into the facility to see the productions (the audience is mostly made up of other inmates), but each performance is recorded and put online so families can see their stars in action whenever they want.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Support from the state has allowed the program to expand to two more correctional facilities too.

"Three years ago the state actually started funding arts in corrections, and we were one of the first seven organizations in the state of California to get a grant," Currier said.

The grant allowed the program to expand to inmates at Solano State Prison in Vacaville, where inmates are working on "Hamlet" and "King John." And the Folsom Women's Facility, about 25 miles east of Sacramento, where they're working on "Taming of the Shrew."

The expansion gives more inmates a chance to take advantage of this powerful program.

"When you hear the men talk about why they do it and why it's important to them [the men and the women now] it just makes you realize, just more deeply what it means to be a human being on this planet," Currier said.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But the best part? It's really having a positive effect on the participants.

Programs like this are a win for everyone involved, and that's why California and other states continue to make the investment.

"Research has shown that structured arts programs improve inmates' problem-solving skills and self-discipline and increase their patience and their ability to work with others," said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Jeff Beard in a written statement. "These programs also direct inmates' energy in a positive direction, promote positive social interaction and lower tension levels, resulting in a safer environment for inmates and staff."

An inmate watches the performance. The audience is limited to inmates and select outside guests. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Most importantly, for the actors and their teachers, these programs can be life-changing.

"Most California state prisons have versions of 12-step programs ... and most have some kind of education program where you can get your GED or do college coursework, and those are really important," Currier said. "But the arts are really important as well. Being able to engage with other people through the arts — that's a different kind of social learning than you can get writing an essay."

Anthony Passer (L) and Maurice Reed (R) rehearse lines before the big show. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Whether it's "Hamlet," "Julius Caesar," or "Taming of the Shrew," it turns out that some of the best shows in California are behind lock and key.

They're full of heart, passion, and pride. The actors' performances transport the audience to worlds previously unimagined, even if just for a few hours. And when you're living in a restrictive environment, that's a beautiful, life-changing gift.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

Keep Reading Show less

The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."