Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System

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At the recent panel discussion on “Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System,” Haisan T. Williams described the patience and self-reflection critical to his experience as a participant in the Shakespeare Prison Project at Racine Correctional Institution. If something in a play strikes a chord—or opens a wound—in an inmate, the company takes time to talk about it. After all, he said, “We’ll get to the script. The book’s been written.” Williams’s comment distilled my experience of the discussion, which I left with a renewed sense of the book—of Shakespeare, written and waiting and richly rewarding. More important, though, was the reminder of just how much the arts can do, and how tragically restricted access to the arts is in this country. The men and women on the panel discussion are working to improve that access in the most restrictive of places: prisons.

As was probably the case for most of the audience, I was familiar
with some of the panelists’ work through the film Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005), which focuses on Curt L. Tofteland’s Kentucky- and Michigan-based program, and through “Act V” (2002), an episode of This American Life that follows Agnes Wilcox’s production of Hamlet in a Missouri prison. Both the film and the podcast are deeply human explorations of theater; the This American Life episode, which I first heard years ago but has never lost its impact, includes the most understated yet powerful performance of Claudius’s speech in 3.3 (“O, my offence is rank…”) that I’ve ever heard. I was thrilled to see both Tofteland and Wilcox on the panel, but was surprised—and then intrigued—by the difference between their approaches. That difference centered on the emotions of the participants. Tofteland, explaining why he directs Shakespeare in particular, said that Shakespeare identifies traumas and speaks eloquently about them. Inmates, who are often struggling to work through violence in their past and present, can use Shakespeare’s language to aestheticize and analyze their trauma. In contrast, Wilcox remarked that she encourages participants to put their angst on hold, to leave it at the door. This creates a space devoted to the individual’s artistic life, separate from their incarceration.

The conversation moved on from this discussion more quickly than I would have liked, but it reminded me obliquely of debates about trigger warnings and the place of emotion in the classroom. Williams’s descriptions of the effects of Shakespearean characters and situations—his matter-of-fact assertion of their relevance to inmates’ lives—highlighted how emotionally demanding an encounter with a play can be. This reminder of the plays’ visceral power was exciting; for a scholar, it’s always nice when someone recognizes the relevance of one’s object of study. But as an educator, I found his descriptions also illustrated the complexity of channeling that power, of respecting the emotional difficulty (in addition to the intellectual complexity) of both text and performance. Williams spoke of expanding horizons but also near fistfights among participants. In classrooms as well as correctional facilities, lively discussion, subtle violence and emotional truth are jumbled together. How are we to respond?

Tofteland’s focus on trust and self-analysis gives participants freedom to reflect on their personal histories. But is the academically rigorous opportunity lost? At the same time, Wilcox’s process shores up participants’ confidence, discipline and focus. But can one really leave one’s angst at the door, even when inhabiting another character? Ultimately, both programs turn out performances and performers that are deeply engaged with the text. And where comparison to the classroom is concerned, both approaches share an inspirational emphasis on care. Describing the group’s response to performers who cannot read polysyllabic words, Wilcox stressed the generosity and patience extended by the other inmates who orally guide their colleagues through the script. The consideration for others’ fears and struggles, integral to the programs, was especially evident in Williams’s description of the cast as an organism, caring for its component parts. The panelists’ Shakespeare productions, facilitated with attention to the needs of cast members, thus create some measure of safety in an uncaring environment.

Other panelists, including Itari Marta of the Penitentiary Theater Company in Mexico and Kate Powers of Rehabilitation Through the Arts at Sing Sing, dove into the practical side of Shakespeare in the justice system. Describing her efforts to organize and provide for performance as a process of constant improvisation, Marta spoke eloquently about the lack of resources, despite which she manages to pay actors with the remainder of hard-won ticket sales. Powers also evoked the need for adaptability, anecdotally recounting her attempt to secure some kind of swords or even sword-adjacent props to stage Twelfth Night’s fight scene in a maximum-security prison. She also testified to the tangible results of arts programs in the justice system, pointing to the drastically reduced recidivism for participants in her program and the high rate of former members who go on to pursue college degrees.

Discussion of how to defend inmates’ access to the arts sparked some of the most applauded conversation on the panel. Powers described the pragmatic, humanist argument for the arts, which, she pointed out, are wrongly treated like a luxury. To those who question her work, she said, she responds with her own question: “Who do you want coming home?” Williams concurred, reflecting that the most formative experience during his participation in the Shakespeare Prison Project came in his first role, when he was cast as an ancillary character. Although he went on to play Othello and Kent in Lear (whom he quoted with more facility than most professors), he said that his bit part helped him grow out of self-absorption and into leadership roles in real life.

“Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System” was among the most powerful and I think important events hosted by Shakespeare 400 Chicago thus far. After all, as we reflect on Shakespeare’s cultural impact throughout 2016, we have to ask who owns Shakespeare. It’s easy to assert that the works we celebrate belong to everyone, but as we know that is far from the case. The panelists not only demonstrated that Shakespeare should be made accessible, but also illustrated the literal and figurative bars to widespread access. And yet they work to open at least a few doors. As Powers said when explaining “Why Shakespeare?,” inmates’ response to culture at large can shift, once “Shakespeare belongs to them.”


Katie Blankenau is a doctoral student in English literature at Northwestern University. She special­izes in early modern drama and theater history, with a particular interest in hospitality and privacy on the early modern stage. She received her MA from Southern Methodist University, her BA in English and a BS in journalism from the University of Kansas.