‘Shakespeare Behind Bars’ kicked off the Obermann Center’s weekend reentry conference

Shakespeare Behind Bars founder Curt Tofteland speaks at TEDxBerkeley. — video still

On Thursday, the Obermann Center kicked off a weekend of workshops regarding education in prisons with a screening of the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars. The conference is entitled “The Role of Transformative Education for Successful Reentry” and brings together experts who are working with prison populations to create a more humane and effective system. It runs through 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 9; a full schedule of events can be found online. Curt Tofteland, the theatre artist who created the Shakespeare Behind Bars program featured in the documentary, was available at Thursday’s screening for a talkback.

Shakespeare Behind Bars is one of a number of programs using the arts to attempt to teach inmates social skills and help them deal with trauma. Tofteland came up with the idea when he was creating education programs as artistic director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, he told the crowd of about 80-100 people gathered for the screening and talkback. He noticed that at-risk youth were some of the most rewarding kids to work with and got involved with a program called Books Behind Bars.

The idea was a much more sane and humane version of Scared Straight, connecting students with inmates the context of a reading group, giving the students a greater understanding of the adult world and giving the adults a chance to give back to the community. The books were the glue holding the groups together, as literature inspires empathy and human understanding. Using Shakespeare and acting the literature out was the next logical leap. “When you have to inhabit a character, you get a much deeper experience,” Tofteland said.

The film Shakespeare Behind Bars does a wonderful job of demonstrating how education programs can change people’s lives. Tofteland worked with a group of inmates at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky to perform a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Speaking at the Q&A, Tofteland said the film gives “an insight into prison that’s not exploitative.”

He is critical of the justice system and the way prisoners are portrayed in the media.

“America,” he said, “you don’t really know who we lock away.” He applauded prisons that run educational programs to keep prisoners engaged and prepared for re-entry and reminded us that, after the police and courts are finished with an offender, they’re still human and deserving of compassion. “If I went through what they went through, I’d probably be there too,” he said.

It’s a lesson that’s second nature to an actor. I’ve seen it from the other side, as a student in acting programs. The question you have to ask yourself is: “What would have to happen to you to get you to behave this way?” The imagination that requires makes it easier to empathize with people, even people who have done awful things. And it seems to help those people to heal.

Prospero, the lead in Tofteland’s Tempest — essentially a tale of redemption — is played by Hal. Hal grew up in a fundamentalist family as a closeted homosexual and learned to hide his feelings and avoid communicating with his family — both his joy and his anger — in order to survive the culture. When the time came to get married and start a family of his own, he gave in to his rage, murdered his wife, and covered it up, living a lie for ten years. Hal doesn’t make excuses, merely explains his behavior with humility and deep regret. But still his behavior is shocking. Were I to play Hal, I’d have trouble finding the words to express the profound guilt he lives with every day.

Hal (L) as Prospero and Red as Miranda in Tofteland’s production of ‘The Tempest’ at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. — video still

Shakespeare, however, had the words, and they’re all there when we need them. In Prospero’s line “Oh, a cherubim thou wast that didst preserve me,” Hal sees his own daughter whom he loved but betrayed. Red, who plays Miranda, also sees his own history in this young girl who knows so little about her past. They find themselves in this four hundred-year-old play, and Tofteland has both the expertise and the compassion to facilitate this self-discovery.

He uses Shakespeare for this exact reason: His understanding of the human condition, his deep and broad catalog and his deft use of language beautifully set the stage for epiphanies of this sort. In addition, the modern association of Shakespeare as something that’s difficult and hard to understand gives the participants a feeling of accomplishment. Some have even taught each other to read to participate in the program. You see them giving back.

The arts are perfect for someone who wants to give back. Not only does the content deliver compassion and wisdom, but the process teaches the soft skills that are as necessary as academic preparation and vocational training. In order to successfully rehearse and perform a play, one needs to learn to become part of the group. To support his castmates selflessly. To disagree without coming to blows. To listen, to collaborate, to give without expecting anything in return. Even rehearsing a simple bit of physical clowning in one of these plays is a challenging cooperative undertaking, and these students tackle all five acts.

Programs like this make it easier for someone to re-incorporate successfully into society, or to simply make better use of their time. Even lifers can gain from an educational approach which asserts the power to be a positive influence. Tofteland emphasizes how the work pushes people to be in the moment and not stay trapped in past mistakes. “You’re living your life right now,” he said during the Q&A. “How do you want your community to be?”

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