Chicago Shakespeare Theater – Shakespeare in the Criminal Justice System

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On Saturday, September 24, Chicago Shakespeare Theater hosted a panel discussion on the practice of teaching and producing Shakespeare with incarcerated populations. The audience, who filled the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare at its Navy Pier home, was an eclectic mix of academics, activists, and artists who were all eager to get out of the beautiful fall weather and into a windowless theater to hear what the panelists had to say.

The discussion ran for two hours, and then at least another hour informally in the lobby for those who chose to stay. Many aspects of this work were discussed, and my intent here is only to explore a few of them that have particular interest for me; other discussions that I overheard in the lobby went in completely other directions, which I feel is the hallmark of a very successful panel.

One of the first issues that moderator Lisa Wagner-Carollo raised was what the relevance of Shakespeare is to incarcerated individuals and to the criminal justice system itself. Both practitioners and participants in prison programs described how Shakespeare speaks to them specifically. Panelist Agnes Wilcox, the founder and former artistic director of Prison Performing Arts in St. Louis, explained that prisoners see themselves in many of the characters Shakespeare writes. Doing Julius Caesar, the cast recognized in Cassius a “con man”—conning Brutus into doing a job that he did not want to do: the murder of his close friend. Wilcox told of a guard who, watching a rehearsal, started pointing to the conspirators without knowing the characters’ names, but recognizing them nonetheless: “We have one of him, a couple of him…. definitely one of him…”[1]

That is, of course, a testament to the general applicability of Shakespeare—the fact that he writes characters which everyone can see themselves in is one of the most commonly cited reasons for his enduring appeal. But Shakespeare also writes a surprising amount about justice and law. Even in his comedies, incarceration and legal action are constant elements. Kate Powers, who directs the Rehabilitation through the Arts program, discussed her recent production of Twelfth Night at Sing Sing maximum security prison. When I expressed surprise to her in the lobby after the panel, she elaborated on the choice. In that play, Malvolio is imprisoned in a tiny, dark room and tortured by characters with whom we have generally sympathized. Presumably that scene was funny for an early modern audience, but contemporary audiences often find it uncomfortable. According to Powers, however, her cast and audience loved it. They, more than anyone, understand what it is to be put in solitary, and to be abused by guards.

The prisoners take their work on the plays very seriously. Powers related a story about a rehearsal game where the ensemble working on Hamlet had put Claudius on trial. The rules were that the actors could only introduce evidence from the text. The actor playing Horatio was being cross-examined and answered every question about the ghost and about Hamlet with the same answer: “I don’t know anything about that.” Kate finally asked him why he was not relating what he knew, and he looked at her in mystification. “I swore to Hamlet I wouldn’t say anything!” Panelist Haisan T. Williams, a past participant in the Shakespeare Prison Project at Racine Correctional Institute, told of a fellow prisoner who turned down parole because he would have been paroled before the performance for which he had been rehearsing.

This work is clearly important to the participants, but one of the most compelling issues raised at the panel is what the value of these programs is to society. It is worth, I think, interrogating the instinct that makes us think of these two questions as if they were different; that is, why do we think that something could have value to prisoners but not to society? Itari Marta, founder of the Penitentiary Theater Company, at Santa Martha Acatitla penitentiary in Mexico, made an observation that begins to offer an answer. “Prison” says Marta, “is a reflection of outside society.” She said this in the context of a discussion of the particular challenges that she faces in her work; in this case, the corruption that is endemic to Mexican government and that has become normalized by Mexican society, which makes resource management very difficult for her. But this idea of prison as a reflection of society has remarkable explanatory power in several arenas. At the simplest level, if Shakespeare and prisons can both function as ways for a society to better understand itself, then the appeal of one within the other is not surprising.

Marta’s observation, however, is also a call to think about what we see reflected in our prison systems. By her account, her challenges as an artist stem from the way her society thinks about prisoners and about crime: “Our country is corrupt and our government wants it that way. As a people, like anyone would, we have become used to the way things are and so the worst thing is that we cannot imagine things differently, so we have become infected. So when there is a chance for change, we reject it, either because we don’t trust the authorities or because we don’t trust the possibility of change.” Participants in the Penitentiary Theater Company struggle for resources that often get diverted elsewhere. However, perhaps because of the way prisoners are considered, they have access to a source of income that is unavailable to American prisoners. Marta’s project puts on performances for the general prison population, but they also do performances that are open to the public, and for these they charge admission. The proceeds of the public performances pay for the production, and whatever is left over goes to pay the actors. That may seem innocuous, but it would never occur to American programs that the work of rehearsing and performing a play is work, or more to the point that prisoners might be entitled to reap the fruits of their labor. According to Powers, her program is not even allowed to bring cookies for the actors. I see in this startling difference (and it was startling to every one of the Americans on the panel, according to discussions I had with them after the event) an important reflection of the different views of incarceration. Where Marta’s challenges revolve around corruption, ours revolve around the perception of prisoners as sub-human.

In discussions of criminal justice system reform, the question we asked earlier about the value of these programs to society is usually asked in a way which implies that the questioner, intellectually concerned about limited resources, wants to make sure that those resources are being spent wisely. But hidden beneath the question, all too often, is the emotionally charged challenge: why do prisoners “deserve” Shakespeare? This is the issue that incarceration as a very concept struggles with. We talk about rehabilitation, but deep in our hearts many people look to the prison system for vengeance. Kate Powers gets asked at least once a week, “Why are these murderers getting free Shakespeare?” The question is indicative of the way Americans have been trained to think about the incarcerated. Why indeed should prisoners be treated like people at all?

But if the goal of incarceration were actually rehabilitation, that question should answer itself. Who needs Shakespeare more than prisoners? Powers argues that that the values that prisoners develop while working on Shakespeare’s plays are an important aspect of the programs. “These are human plays, and they teach us to be human.” Curt Tofteland, founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars (a twenty-two-year-old program with twelve active prison programs) adds that the themes and characters found in Shakespeare’s plays reflect the trauma that incarcerated men have experienced. For him, trauma and shame are part of the human experience, and he finds that the prisoners he works with find the characters whose particular traumas match their own, as a way to come to terms with their own lives. “As actors, they have to analyze and dissect the characters, building the actor’s tools for self-reflection.” Both Tofteland and Wilcox discussed the way such work trains the actors to develop empathy—that quality which is essential to play someone else on stage, but also, as Martha Nussbaum has argued in Not for Profit, essential to the role of citizen in a democratic society. Exactly the role that rehabilitation purposes for those who have served their time.

Put in terms of societal self-interest by Williams, the question becomes, “Who do you want coming home?” Because prisoners do come home. And when they do, the question of what happens to them is, or ought to be, of vital interest to civilians. Williams offers fairly stark options—either programs like these teach the values of our society, or men return to society with only the lessons that one might imagine are taught by being stuck in a box for seventeen years.

The effectiveness of the programs is unquestionable; recidivism rates amongst alumni of programs like those run by Tofteland and Powers are less than five percent, a tiny fraction of the fifty to sixty percent that is the national average. One can only hope that this is seen as a worthwhile goal by anything calling itself a justice system.

[1] Throughout this essay, I am using quotes from the speakers, but those reflect my own notes taken in real time, and so are not necessarily verbatim. Where I have italicized words within the quotes, those reflect my perception of emphasis put there by the speaker. A final complication is that Itari Marta spoke in Spanish, which I do not speak, through a translator who was performing consecutive translation, not simultaneous.

Richard Gilbert is a doctoral student in the English department at Loyola University Chicago. His research focuses on representations of violence in the theater, as well as adaptations and versionality. He holds an MA in humanities from University of Chicago, and a BA in theater from Brandeis University.