Performing Shakespeare in Prison

2019-06-14T11:47:53+00:00May 17th, 2019|

At Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility, a company of incarcerated men is finalizing its latest show.

By Ryan Schnurr

On Tuesday and Friday afternoons, a group of incarcerated men at the Pendleton Correctional Facility in Pendleton, Indiana, get together and read Shakespeare. The men—and they are all men; Pendleton is an all-male facility—sometimes cover the parts in turn, embodying the roles. They talk about the play’s language and intent. Sometimes, they discuss revising or adapting scenes. Every year or so, they give a couple of performances: one for an audience of their peers at the prison, and one for a public audience.

Shakespeare at Pendleton began five years ago, under the direction of Dr. Jack Heller. Heller is an Associate Professor of English at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, about an hour and a half from Pendleton. Since then, a rotating cast of men has performed three shows—Coriolanus; scenes from Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Timon of Athens. The current group is finalizing its latest project, to be performed May 30: monologues and scenes from around a dozen plays, mostly (but not exclusively) Shakespeare, including Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest.

The program has always been a volunteer project for Heller, who holds a PhD in English and teaches courses on Shakespeare for his day job. Morgan Morton, a theater professional in nearby Indianapolis, began volunteering on a regular basis in 2015, and eventually became co-director. Now, she facilitates the Friday sessions; Heller leads on Tuesdays. Morton told me they often take more of a facilitating role. The men have a say in many of the decisions around what plays the group will work on, and how they will be performed.

A typical rehearsal lasts two hours. It may include: a quick check-in, to gauge how each man is doing; an acting exercise, maybe improvisational; then some focused work rehearsing whatever scenes are up that day. In other sessions, the men may work through the text in detail with Heller. At the end, the men reflect on the day’s work, and consider how they might bring its positive aspects into their daily lives. Morton said a common misconception is that prison theater is frivolous activity. “It’s hard work they do,” she told me. “They’re doing a lot of outer work with blocking and overall presentation, but there’s also a lot of inner work that’s going on.”

There are limitations to what one can do, performance-wise, in a prison. The group has to be resourceful. Take costuming—for one recent show, Heller purchased a boxload of Goodwill sport coats, which some of the men wore over their state-issued outfits. The lead actor had a large black top hat. A man playing a soldier wore a camouflage jacket. But in other ways, it’s exactly the same as a more traditional theater performance. “Everyone actor in the world has to learn their lines,” Morton said. “It’s no different in prison.”

 

Shakespeare at Pendleton operates in the tradition of Shakespeare Behind Bars, which began at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky, in the 1990s, and became a stand-alone entity in 2010. Over the years, prison Shakespeare troupes have collected in other states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and California. The basic idea behind these projects is that people in prison do not cease to be people, and therefore can benefit as much as anybody else from the arts and humanities.

Before founding Shakespeare at Pendleton, Heller traveled several times to Kentucky, visiting the original Shakespeare Behind Bars program and leading discussions in a semi-professorial role. In 2013, he asked the men in Kentucky if they thought he could run a similar program in Indiana; they said yes, so he went ahead with the idea. Shakespeare at Pendleton’s first meeting was October 18 of that year.

Last year, I attended, alongside a dozen other people, Shakespeare at Pendleton’s rendition of Timon of Athens—the first-ever performance of that play in a prison. The sign-in process was not unlike gaining entrance to an airport concourse. Each person presented identification, which was checked with a list of pre-approved attendees. Then we emptied our pockets, removed our shoes, and passed through a metal detector. The staffer made us walk, one socked foot in front of the other, along a straight line on the ground. After completing these steps, each person was given a visitor’s badge and a hand stamp.

Pendleton is a fortress of brick and wire. We were escorted by another guard through three sets of locks and across a long yard. On the other side, past a small vegetable garden, we entered a building that reminded me of storefront theaters in Chicago, with big warehouse windows and plastic-chair seating. Actors in tan jumpsuits wandered around. Sheets, painted with broad strokes of scenery, were strung between pillars on long cables. The men had painted and hung the backdrops since their last meeting; Heller and co-director Morgan Morton had not yet seen them.

Two weeks before Pendleton’s production of Timon was scheduled to take place, the prison went on lockdown. A man had stabbed another man in an area known as H Cell House. Several of the actors from Timon, including the lead, were located in that cell block, which remained on lockdown for days. (None were involved in the altercation.) The lockdown was lifted, and a fight broke out. An officer was attacked. The block went on lockdown again. The performance was postponed one week.

For three weeks, Heller and Morton were unable to contact the men in H Cell House. During this time, rehearsals continued. The part of Timon was read by another man, who had until this point held only a bit part. It was not a small undertaking; for this performance, the actor in the role of Timon would be onstage continuously for the entire second half of the play. But by the end of the third week, the understudy had learned the part well enough to perform.

Two days before the new performance date, H Cell House went off lockdown, this time for good. It was a Wednesday, and the full cast got together for a rehearsal. Neither Heller nor Morton were able to attend. The men decided, as a group, that the original actor would perform the role of Timon. He and the rest of the cast, including the other actors who had been on lockdown, put on two full-length shows in spite of the setback.

Live theater productions regularly run into situations that force performers and organizers to audible. Morton explained that, given the context, Pendleton’s productions experience more than most. When we spoke on the phone recently, security issues had kept her from meeting with the men during the previous two weeks. Heller put it like this: “life happens in prisons in ways it doesn’t happen in the normal theater setting.”

 

As is the case with all creative projects, the men bring their own distinctive experiences to the conversation. “For the first play, I had the men in a circle, and I said…what kind of story do you want?” Heller said. “One of the things that stood out in that conversation was whether or not they had choices when they were in the prison. And Coriolanus is the only play where the characters go around talking about voting for something.” For this and other reasons, that became the first play the men performed.

Timon of Athens (pronounced “ty-mon”) was published in 1623, in Shakespeare’s First Folio. It is the story of a wealthy and generous Athenian who has attracted, because of his wealth and generosity, a following of citizens eager to take advantage. Timon enjoys the notoriety and attention; he comes to see himself as an important person, beloved by all. But in Act III, having ignored his steward’s warnings, Timon runs out of money. He directs his staff to go and ask this group of hangers-on to loan him enough to cover his debts. All refuse.

Timon, incensed, swears off civilization and retires to the forest, where he lives in a cave and eats roots. He discovers a store of gold, which he offers to Alcibiades, the soldier, if he will destroy the city of Athens. When Alcibiades enters the city, the senators of Athens visit Timon in the forest, asking him to help them. Timon tells them they can hang in the tree near his cave, for all he cares.

At the conclusion of Timon’s final act, Timon dies in his cave, alone and offstage. In Pendleton’s performance, Flavius, the steward—played by a man who, in a previous life, had been involved with a community theater group—comes upon him on a visit to the woods. Finding a note, he picked it up and read an epitaph, which began:

“…Here lie I, Timon; who, alive, all living men did hate:
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay
not here thy gait.”

In a conversation after the performance, many of the men said they could sympathize with Timon’s plight. Life as an incarcerated person can be isolating. Like Timon, many of them have felt estranged from society, neglected or disowned by those with whom they had once been close. One man explained that, before he was arrested, he, too, was generous with his money and had a large network of friends; in the decade he’d been incarcerated, none had come to visit.

 

No one who attends a performance of Shakespeare at Pendleton knows the crimes for which the actors have been convicted. Heller and Morton told me they do not ask. The men, for their part, do not often share. “The sentencing is over. The judgment is over,” Morton explained. “They’re serving time for whatever they did. And so it’s not relevant to me at all, to my group, the work that we do…I want to be able to see them for the man that they are, the human that they are.”

From a rehabilitation perspective, prison theater programs have a lot going for them. In many cases, the data suggests that participants are much less likely than their peers to return to prison after being released. Shakespeare Behind Bars advertises a six percent recidivism rate, compared to a national average of 76.6 percent, and an average of more than forty percent in Kentucky.

Heller told me he doesn’t think recidivism rates are a useful metric for understanding the effects of Shakespeare at Pendleton on the lives of the men involved; for one thing, because Pendleton is a maximum-security prison, participants may not ever leave. What he’s interested in, he said, is whether the men are enjoying themselves, and whether they have a chance to engage with the material in a significant way. “What we’re working on is something people forget to identify,” Heller told me. “You’re talking about the humanities—well, what’s the humanity in the humanities?”

Later this month, when the men of Pendleton take the stage to perform “Monologues and Scenes,” they will do so not only as men convicted of crimes, but as people exploring what it means to be human, and as performers sharing their work with an audience. “I’ve told the men: There isn’t anyone, anywhere, who will ever be able to change a historical fact, right? You, so-and-so, were the first ever to perform Timon of Athens in a prison,” Heller said. “I don’t know what the rest of your life will be, but that will always be true. You are a Shakespearean actor. You may also have been a convicted killer, but you are also a Shakespearean actor.” ■

 

To attend Shakespeare at Pendleton’s May 30 performance: contact jheller@huntington.edu, with your birth date and email address, by May 19, 2019. Also include whether you have ever been convicted of a felony or are on parole, and whether you have ever been a volunteer, visitor, or employee of an Indiana Department of Corrections facility. All attendees must be eighteen years of age or older, with a government-issued photo ID.

 

 

Ryan Schnurr is editor of Belt Magazine. His first book, In the Watershed, was published in 2017 by Belt Publishing.

Cover image by Ye Jinghan.

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