Shakespeare Behind Bars is Offering Prisoners Redemption

Since 1995, the Shakespeare Behind Bars program has quietly transformed the culture in one Kentucky prison.
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Photograph courtesy Shakespeare Behind Bars/by Holly Stone

“Convicts make good actors.”

It’s a running joke at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, where for 23 seasons prisoners have performed an entire Shakespeare play for both the public and their fellow all-male prisoners through an educational program called Shakespeare Behind Bars. But the joke is that it’s not true. “I’ve often thought that a bunch of convicts would make good actors because they’re used to lying or playing a role,” says Jerry Guenther—“Big G” to his friends—a 32-year Luther Luckett inmate and 20-year SBB cast member. “But it’s the exact opposite, because it’s telling the truth to inhabit a character.”

Indeed, for two-plus decades, the inmates have inhabited Shakespeare’s most famous characters, from Hamlet to Macbeth to Julius Caesar to Romeo and Juliet (the men play the women’s parts, just as The Bard intended). “That’s so scary for me and for the rest of the guys in the group,” says Big G, “to connect themselves—their inner heart—to one of these characters. And to bare themselves in front of the yard for everyone to see.”

Any outsiders aware of SBB’s mission and impact probably came to it through the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, which premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival to wide acclaim. In it, the SBB ensemble at Luther Luckett rehearsed and staged The Tempest, Shakespeare’s story of betrayal, forgiveness, isolation, and freedom. The film shows founder Curt Tofteland living out his vision to bring humanity and hope to a population of prisoners in long-term lockup. And it’s where Big G—a physically imposing man at 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds, with bravado to spare—portrays Caliban, Prospero’s rebellious slave, and confesses his fears about being a man in prison serving out a 65-year sentence for robbery and murder.

Big G as Caesar in Julius Caesar

Photograph courtesy Shakespeare Behind Bars/by Holly Stone

Tofteland, a professional director and Equity actor who spent 20 years as Producing Artistic Director of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, established Shakespeare Behind Bars to expand an existing prison educational program called Books Behind Bars, founded by Bellarmine University. The not-for-profit program is funded entirely through donations and operates at the discretion of prison leadership. In 1995, Tofteland brought his Shakespeare-specific program to Luther Luckett, where he served as the main facilitator until retiring in 2008.

But why Shakespeare? Refer back to the source material: Prison is as ripe a setting for Shakespearean themes as any. And there’s a lot about Shakespeare that makes him an ideal literary linchpin for this program. The sheer scale of his work provides endless thematic entry points for any theater company to explore, particularly one engaged in a therapeutic social project. Shakespeare’s plays are little literary bio-domes with their own ecosystems; prison is a cloistered place with its own norms and power structures. It’s a place of extremes, and Shakespeare’s work places humanity’s extremes—life and death—at center stage.

These themes are appropriately weighty, too. “Shakespeare is the only writer I know that addresses every trauma that every human being has ever suffered in any epoch, past or present,” says Tofteland. The men of SBB literally act out rage, love, shame, euphoria, madness, pride, and fear, sometimes all in one play. These are essential human experiences, and to explore them in a creative setting is to get at them in a controlled way. It’s a test environment for emotion: An inmate can experience the full extent of a violent sentiment without the risk of actually harming someone. It’s a safe way to learn about his own humanity, which is something any violent offender sorely needs to do, for his own sake and the sake of those around him.

“I believe from personal experience that the arts can heal,” says Tofteland. “The arts are an exploration and expression of our deepest selves. And there is trauma and darkness there. Every human being has the capacity to do the greatest good—and evil.”

In May of last year, my two sisters and I drove the 90 minutes from Cincinnati to La Grange, Kentucky, to watch Luther Luckett’s SBB cast perform Julius Caesar. The audience was a sympathetic one, comprised mostly of inmates’ friends and family members as well as a few random drop-ins like us. Despite the slightly intimidating setting, the tone of the night was largely festive, even celebratory—almost like a graduation. Many in the audience seemed pleasantly surprised at this show of positive creative energy from the men who’d brought them there. There was a kind of sweet optimism, too: In the question-and-answer session that followed the performance, one woman called out that “parole boards should see these shows” before making decisions about a cast member’s release.

SBB’s public shows take place in the prison’s small chapel, built by inmates years ago. The sets and costumes are spare but sufficiently evocative. In Caesar, for example, a drop cloth with a painted colonnade served as the background. The men wore colored sashes or tunics over prison-issue khakis and white sneakers, tattoos peeking out beneath white T-shirts. Caesar (played by Big G) wore a purple and gold-trimmed cloak and a gold wreath crown. The assassins carried wooden daggers. After the deed was done, Caesar’s cloak showed red slashes, and the men stood in a circle with their hands up, wearing red gloves.

Julius Caesar

Photograph courtesy Shakespeare Behind Bars/by Holly Stone

The irony—or whatever it was—of the play choice wasn’t lost on anyone in my group. Violent criminals acting out one of Shakespeare’s most murderous tragedies? Yikes. The title character is stabbed 23 times, after all. We could only muster nervous laughter. But the awkwardness didn’t last long before a kind of theater magic took hold, especially once the characters began their work exploring the play’s themes of ambition, camaraderie, and fate.

Act I, Scene 2, spoken by Cassius to his dear friend Brutus as they discussed their situation before the murder, seemed tailor-made for the setting:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride
the narrow world
Like a colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

It wasn’t hard to imagine the men rehearsing this scene, each cast member considering his own past, present, and future. For the performance, the audience was right there with them, thinking about decisions and destinies—how we make choices that ripple across our lives, and how our existence often seems to play out before us without our control. It was one of those rare moments in public performance where the whole room seemed momentarily on the same page.

Shakespeare Behind Bars isn’t only about the elevating power of the arts. It’s about basic life skills: conflict resolution, anger management, personal accountability. If the touchy-feely stuff doesn’t move you, consider the cold reality of recidivism. These skills are necessary for a prisoner’s successful reintegration back into society. Without them, parolees and fully released prisoners are more likely to re-offend and return to prison—more likely to hurt more people and end up back where they started.

Larry Chandler, the now-retired warden of Luther Luckett who was there during the filming of Shakespeare Behind Bars, saw education as an essential way to alter the course of prisoners’ lives. “Prison isn’t just locking people up and putting people away,” he says in the documentary. “Prison should make a difference. The day they walk in we should start preparing them for the day they leave.”

This might seem like a remarkable thing for any prison warden to say, but it’s consistent with other testimony from career corrections professionals who have interacted with Tofteland and his program. Retired warden Mary Berghuis knows first-hand the impact of SBB on prisoners. In the last few years of her four-decade career at West Shoreline Correctional Facility and Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Michigan, she watched Tofteland alter the culture of her prison populations. (The SBB program currently operates in six prisons in Michigan and Kentucky.)

Berghuis retired in 2015 after 16 years as warden, during which she leveraged her expertise to support inmate educational programs like SBB, which she brought on in 2010. “I feel permanently changed by Shakespeare Behind Bars,” says Berghuis. “It took me a long time to absorb this, but prison is a solemn place. When you see the men sit in their cells, day in and day out, you do see them deteriorate. Ninety to 95 percent are going to get out and live in our communities; we can’t afford for them to come back angry. This program made the difference.”

Production photo from Julius Caesar

Photograph courtesy Shakespeare Behind Bars/by Holly Stone

While observing SBB, Berghuis watched as the older prisoners in Tofteland’s group (those in their 30s and up) seized the opportunity to stabilize their lives. Cast members have to work to keep a clear conduct record so they can remain in the show. They began to take responsibility for safety inside the prison, relying less on the predictable top-down power dynamics they’d known their whole sentence. “They started seeing in themselves that they could make a difference. They took more ownership, they tried to prevent problems,” Berghuis says. “When you have that many people living close together, you have criminal activity, but they worked hard to change that environment.”

The difference was all Tofteland, whom Berghuis referred to as “a genius” more than once during our conversation. “They took him seriously,” she says. “He had that ability, and he held them very accountable. He was able to impact their criminal thinking, their attitudes, their mindset. When they started out, they’d be like typical prisoners. The more they worked with him, you would see them change. They could have healthy relationships. He may have been their first healthy relationship in their lives.”

It’s the same at Luther Luckett, where Producing Artistic Director Matt Wallace observed inmates taking a kind of refuge in their rehearsal sessions. Wallace took over leadership of the Kentucky program 10 years ago, and he’s deftly carried on Tofteland’s legacy of growth and development through creative expression. “This is the safest place for them in the prison,” Wallace says. “I saw that the moment we had one of our guys’s sister suddenly pass away. And he couldn’t let that emotion out. This was the first place he was able to even shed a tear about it.”

Inmates don’t get “good behavior” credit for participating in SBB either; it’s on them to show up, do the work, and be a dependable part of the team for their fellow castmates.

“Being a part of Shakespeare helps me get out of that prison way of thinking,” says Charles Young, an eight-year SBB participant serving out a 30-year sentence for first-degree counts of robbery, theft, rape, and sodomy. Up for parole in 2019, he played Cinna, one of the conspirators, in Julius Caesar. “I finally realized that I had 20 years until the parole board, and that I could do it the hard way or the easy way. Shakespeare Behind Bars is the most constructive thing I’ve found to do.”

SBB injects a kind of mutual accountability into the lives of many inmates who have never experienced it before. And the ties go deeper still for long-standing cast members like Hal Cobb, serving a life sentence for murder. Cobb has been with SBB since the very first year at Luther Luckett. “This group has been my lifeblood,” he says. “Because of my crime, I’m estranged from much of my family. This is my family. It gives me purpose.” He looks forward each year to the rehearsal process, which begins in the fall and continues through the springtime performances. They offer a break from the monotony of prison life, but also a shot of intellectual exercise and camaraderie. “This is my winter solstice,” he says.

Thinking about these violent offenders enjoying artistic fulfillment—or even therapeutic success—does require some suspension of judgment. For many active and law-abiding members of society, the thought of these prisoners living at all can be outrageous. They aren’t merely downtrodden men from rotten circumstances, though it’s important to remember that most of them are also that. As children, many were victims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect; as men, many are abusers themselves. But their crimes can’t be wiped away with good intentions and changed hearts. Most are heinous: An execution-style gunshot to the head. A butcher knife to the throat. A hair dryer in a bathtub. And almost all against women—women they knew, women who thought they knew them.

Discovering these things, even after I attended the performance last spring, was scary. It isn’t mortal fear, exactly, but an existential dread that comes with being a woman in a world of men and a mother to a young girl. It’s the kind of disquiet that makes you inventory the sorts of men in your own life.

To follow the progress of Shakespeare Behind Bars is to live in a forced state of ambivalence. After all, the victims can’t speak. These men left chasms of grief in their paths. I can’t say with confidence that if I were personally affected by violent crime I’d be willing or able to champion these prisoners’ happiness. And yet I can’t ignore their humanity. To deny them that would chip away at my hopes for my own goodness. Vengeance and virtue are mutually exclusive.

“Prison is where we collect the people who have done the worst things imaginable,” Tofteland says. And then what? “There have to be programs in prisons to work on human transformation, that help them understand why they did what they did, to take responsibility, to own it. You cannot understand who you are until you go back and unpack where you came from with clear eyes. You understand where you were, what made you, who you are, and who you wish to become. That’s where hope lives.”

If any part of you believes that true redemption is possible—that people are not lost to us when they commit monstrous acts—then Shakespeare Behind Bars should lift your soul.

Production photo from Julius Caesar

Photograph courtesy Shakespeare Behind Bars/by Holly Stone

After witnessing the final product of Julius Caesar last May, I visited an early rehearsal session for the 2018 performance in late October. The rehearsal space is a borrowed classroom inside the prison gate, where the perimeter fences are wrapped with bundles of barbed wire and an armed guard tower has a 360-degree view of the yard, the buildings, and the fields beyond. Luther Luckett is a medium-security facility, but it’s still a prison, and the circle of men seated inside feels out of place. They are calm, friendly, and ready to work. Each holds a paperback copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, some right up to their noses, scanning pages as they shift their weight on plastic chairs. I recognize a handful from last May’s performance. Their uniforms blend into a tan row, but their faces peer out, each man there for his own reasons, with his own past, and with his own immediate goal: to learn his part. They will give seven performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream May 1–10, 2018, three for other inmates and four for the public.

On the day of my rehearsal visit, Wallace was accompanied by co-faciliator Keith McGill. Wallace presides over the group while McGill works with the men individually until each knows his lines inside-out—Wallace the doting mentor to McGill’s wry observer. They’re both kind, quick to smile, and clearly appreciative of the company they’ve found themselves in. McGill frequently stands up to meet the men where they are, literally, and walk them through a scene before they can become overwhelmed or discouraged. They’re both pros, too, recognizing strengths and weaknesses well before the men do and guiding them to realize their own potential. “I love to watch them get out of their own heads,” Wallace says after working with one cast member who finally gained control over a difficult scene.

Entering his 10th season with this production of Midsummer, Wallace has spent enough time with this group to register real progress. “I see it every day,” he says. “I see guys’ hearts change. I see audience members’ perceptions change, just like mine did. I see these guys become more empathetic, figure out ways to deal with people in life that aren’t just anger. No one is disputing that they have done heinous, horrible things. That’s a fact. But what do we do with them? Because statistics show that most incarcerated inmates are going to get out at some point. They’re going to be our neighbors. If we treat them like animals, that’s how they’re going to behave. If you work on these human beings when they’re inside, they can give back to the community.”

Production photo from Twelfth Night

Photograph courtesy Shakespeare Behind Bars/by Holly Stone

Wallace and McGill set the tone for the group, but before long, the men begin to lead themselves, taking the posture of scholars wading into deep ideas. They have collected decades of instruction from Tofteland and crew, and they pass it down to each other like a kind of oral history. Their feedback for each other is thoughtful, sympathetic, and well-informed—I learned a good deal about the work of acting during my brief visit.

The rehearsal circle is one part study group, one part therapy session, one part pseudo-AA meeting. Even more than the performance itself, rehearsal is the locus of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program. The men are almost required to take stock of their own behavior and responsibilities through the filter of learning a part. The play’s the thing, as it were, but in terms of personal impact on the participants it’s more of a happy by-product. “Every day the work of the circle is to fix themselves,” explains Tofteland.

The unusual casting process for SBB is a good example of this approach. Unlike traditional productions, the director doesn’t hand down a casting decision based on auditions or seniority. Rather, the men themselves read the play, think about what role they’d like to take, and pitch it to the group. There’s discussion, give-and-take, lots of cooperation, and ultimately a cast is formed. It’s the kind of thing that’s unheard of in the conventional theater community: the idea of actors humbling themselves to each other’s opinions and feedback rather than deferring to a single authority figure. And it’s no place for ego. But year after year, the men revel in it and seem to value opportunities to challenge themselves and change up their own perspectives.

Production photo from Julius Caesar

Photograph courtesy Shakespeare Behind Bars/by Holly Stone

Production photo from Twelfth Night

Photograph courtesy Shakespeare Behind Bars/by Holly Stone

Charles Young experienced a version of this tension in the time between his role as a conspirator in Julius Caesar and his latest role as Hippolyta in Midsummer. The intervening months had been difficult for Young and his family on the outside in the lead-up to his 2019 parole board hearing. He’d even considered taking a hiatus from Shakespeare Behind Bars; the stress had sapped his resolve and distracted him from the program.

Before the day’s rehearsal on Midsummer began, Young asked to address the cast and started with an apology. “I’m sorry for missing practices,” he said. They nodded along. “I don’t want to disappoint anyone, and I need to be a man of my word.” The men then thanked him for speaking and began their work.

As Young spoke to the rehearsal group, I immediately thought of what he’d told me back in May, during what seemed a more hopeful moment of his life—one that he was now trying to reclaim. “Doing Shakespeare, it’s so different than what anyone has ever known of me. It’s exhilarating,” he said. This was just before the Julius Caesar performance began. The heavy lifting of rehearsal was behind him, and he was looking beyond the performance to a future outside Luther Luckett’s walls, perhaps to when he could indeed be seen as a man of his word. “My plans are to go back into society and be a positive beacon to young people,” he said. “I have a story to tell. I want readers of this playbill to know that I’m a decent man.”


See the show
When: May 7–10, 2018
Where: Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, La Grange, Kentucky
Ticket Information: Reservation requests will be available April 1 at shakespearebehindbars.org; seating is limited. All audience members must be cleared by the Department of Corrections through a secure online form. Contact SBB Director/Facilitator Matt Wallace at matt@kyshakespeare.com with questions.

 

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