Going Behind Bars for Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’

Last night, I visited Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange to see this year’s Shakespeare Behind Bars production. I’ve followed the work of the company for years, but this was my first time visiting the prison for an actual production.

On one hand, it’s impossible to divorce this play-going experience from its context—the actors are wearing prison-issued khaki uniforms under their costumes, and audience members completed a pre-screening security check and a complex admission process before being led through the yard to the chapel for seating.

On the other hand, the company is a lean, well-oiled machine of Shakespearean theatre—if not for the men playing women’s roles, virtually indistinguishable from any other dedicated and talented group of actors mounting a show. The actors displayed a sophisticated understanding of Shakespeare’s dense diction, but they kept their ears tuned to the poetry and the emotion in the lines, too. 

Shakespeare Behind Bars is an 18-year-old inmate theater project that has now branched out to several programs in Kentucky and Michigan. Founder Curt Tofteland was on hand last night to celebrate the successes of the men who participate. It’s a collaborative process, built on mutual trust: the company chooses their own productions, casts themselves in roles, and offers a lot of the direction themselves, too. The affection and trust the company members have for each other is palpable, not only on stage but during the post-show talk-back, too. One of the veteran company members is preparing to leave, having served out his term, so it was an emotional production. 

As I reported earlier, the company of inmate actors (now in its 18th year) decided to tackle one of the Bard’s dense history plays for the first time, and they chose “Richard III.” They like a challenge, says artistic director Matt Wallace, which this particular play definitely presents. Shakespeare wrote Richard as a despicable villain, so he must be feared at court to be believable, and yet he must also be somewhat likable to the audience, or else the play is unbearable to watch. This production walked that line admirably. But what really struck me, having been in the audience of innumerable Shakespeare productions over the years, is how well the actors who played the female roles really understood and played women. I know veteran actors who couldn’t tackle Anne Neville, Margaret or Queen Elizabeth with the grace, vulnerability and empathy these men brought to their roles, and two of the actors are only in their second year with the company. 

To create and engage with literature and theater is an ongoing act of empathy. To imagine ourselves in the lives of others, to identify with their struggles, is one of the fundamental ways we stay in touch with our own humanity, with our intrinsic worth. That sense of our own humanity is transferable, and we become more invested in our communities and in our neighbors’ humanity as a result. This is transformative for the average person, let alone incarcerated men and, with the program’s recent expansions, at-risk youth in the Shakespeare Beyond Bars companies.

To date, 65 Shakespeare Behind Bars company members have served out their terms and re-entered society;  its 18-year recidivism rate is a mere 6.1 percent, compared to a national rate that’s hovering around 60 percent. These are important numbers, but their real power isn’t limited to re-offending rates. Across the board, art expands our understanding of the world and people around us and gives us a means and a vocabulary for exploring all of what it means to be human. And that can make the difference between terminal isolation (which can lead to dysfunction and alienation) and a full life. Art doesn’t just change lives. Art can save lives, too.  

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