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The Bard behind bars: Shakespeare acting class aims to show prisoners a path forward

By: AMANDA GRAY

October 16, 2016

Scott Jackson, executive director of Shakespeare at Notre Dame, attended the Center for Social Concerns Community Engagement Faculty Institute in 2014 and has returned as a presenter to discuss his teaching at the Westville Correctional Facility and his role in the Shakespeare in Prisons international work.

Photo credit: Becky Malewitz, South Bend Tribune

 

​WESTVILLE — A student stands on a chair. He points to two other actors, who begin drumming on plastic chairs to imitate rain. He gestures across his body toward another student who flickers the light switch, mimicking a lightning bolt. A wild swing of his arm and another man slaps the metal radiator cover with a thunderous boom.

A handful of others hold scripts and sway or stumble, pretending they are Milanese upper-class citizens on board a sinking ship, thrashed and marooned on a remote island at the hands of a vengeful wizard.

A sergeant enters the classroom.

The students and instructor are momentarily unsettled, jolted from their reverie by her entrance.

What’s going on? Why is someone dancing on a chair near the window, she asks the teacher, Scott Jackson.

Oh, we’re making a storm. It’s “The Tempest,” he says, all smiles on his expressive face. He holds up the script as evidence.

The sergeant, perhaps not completely satisfied and not fully understanding, leaves the classroom. Everyone bursts into laughter, the glee stronger than the overbearing prison atmosphere and summer humidity.

No stage. No costumes. No sets to be had, beyond a few plastic chairs. The men all wear khaki jumpsuits, prison identification badges and aren’t off-book. They take turns with each role. They have no audience but their fellow actors.

But it’s Shakespeare, here at Westville Correctional Facility.

The story is old — more than 400 years old, in fact — but these prisoners are finding contemporary meanings in Prospero’s tale, as well as how acting affects them out of the classroom. The Westville program is part of the larger Shakespeare in Prisons Network, a loose affiliation of programs in prisons across the globe that teach inmates how to act, interpret and learn from the classic works.

Omar Reyes, a former cocaine dealer with tattoos on his hands and arms, now practices deep breathing exercises early in the morning to center himself. In school, he was most likely tagging the walls with graffiti instead of sitting at a desk.

“We had drama and theater in school,” he says. “We hung outside the door and made fun of them.”

But earlier this evening, he played Ariel, prancing and flitting about as a fairy that does Prospero’s bidding. It's a role that requires any actor to have extreme confidence, let alone someone in a hypermasculine prison setting. He embraced the performance and acting with gusto.

Josh Rutledge skipped class in high school. He’s got a record, mostly for burglary charges, and he’s back in prison for possession of a handgun as a convicted felon. Now he frequently plays Prospero.

He’s a stoic, lanky guy who can touch the ceiling when the class does warm-up exercises, something that almost always makes Jackson laugh out loud.

“For two hours, I don’t see, you know, the rest of the inmates,” Rutledge says one day after class. “I see actual actors.”

 

Going behind bars

It's not an instant change, the shedding of the walls that the students build in prison. If there’s a pervasive theme to Westville, it’s beige. Everything in the building is beige, from the cinder-block walls to the khaki uniforms, even to some of the personalities.

The program by Jackson, who is also executive director for Shakespeare at Notre Dame, seems like one of the few things that brings color to the prison. Each section lasts about 10 weeks, during which he teaches Shakespeare and acting techniques. The primary aim: using the arts to help reduce the number of men who return to prison after they leave.

The inmates don't open up immediately when Jackson walks into the room. The atmosphere can change week to week — on hot days, the men can seem tired, the whole floor heavy with a damp layer of humidity. Sometimes the energy is frenetic, and Jackson finds out the floor lost certain privileges because of bad behavior.

Or they can be downright giddy, like the class after Jackson assigned homework — the viewing the 2010 film adaptation of "The Tempest," starring Helen Mirren as a gender-bent Prospera. The class couldn't wait to talk to Jackson about some of their favorite parts of the film, specifically Russell Brand as the drunkard Trinculo.

A typical two-hour class starts with warm-ups, once Jackson takes attendance. Stretches and deep breathing, adopted from yoga, help center the students before Jackson turns to vocal exercises, where the men seem to enjoy shouting, "Oh yeah!" in their deepest, manliest voices.

After that, it's on to games. Sometimes, they play the game of opposites, where the class receives a series of commands where the words don't match what you're supposed to do. Jackson will say "Jump," and the class squats to the floor. It could be the chair game, where one person attempts to sit down and the rest of the group tries their hardest to keep the open chair away from him by sitting in it just before he sits down.

After warm-ups and games, the students are more cohesive, thinking as an ensemble. For the first few weeks, the students work in pairs on “contentless scenes,” straight dialogue between two people that can be applied to different situations through interpretation. It could be a mom and teenager fighting, a lover's quarrel or two strangers meeting in a park — it’s up to the actors what they present to the class.

Jackson moves to the meat of the course within a few weeks, whether it be running the whole play or working on specific scenes. Shakespeare's last solo-written work, "The Tempest" tells the story of Prospero, a wizard of sorts who is marooned on a speck of an island with his daughter, Miranda.

The play begins with a storm concocted by Prospero to get back at the men who sent him to the island. It's a story of revenge — and, ultimately, redemption — that reverberates well with the students, who know all too well about imprisonment, anger and revenge.

Jackson is electric in the classroom. He bounces, arms wide and passion in his facial expressions. He taps the script, emphasizing a part. He shouts direction during rehearsal — "Give me more!" "That's it, keep digging!" The men are just as invested as Jackson, evidenced by them asking Jackson to return in a few weeks so they can perform the play once more, after rehearsing on their own time, to show him what they are capable of.

The class learns a shortened, "30-minute" version of "The Tempest," one that has removed some of the more superfluous aspects of the play. Jackson treats the actors just like any other class he teaches. He makes them redo scenes, try different approaches and he frequently pauses the play to ask deep questions about what's motivating a character in the scene. He brings the prisoners to a place where they're willing to play a flouncing fairy or curious maiden.

And he calls for action just as he does with any other class:

"Actors, go!"

 

Why teach in a prison?

“Shakespeare is Shakespeare.” That’s the simple way Jackson explains it.

“There’s something about Shakespeare that ‘holds,’ to quote Hamlet, ‘the mirror up to nature,’” he says. “We all see a reflection of ourselves in his works. That is the universality and timelessness of his works.”

So why does he spend most of his free Friday evenings in a prison classroom?

He sits back in a seat in his office. The walls are covered in Shakespeare posters of play runs from the past. He’s got Shakespeare baubles and books everywhere. He pauses a moment before answering. These men have worked hard to insulate themselves in order to survive in the hard prison setting, he says. They’ve built concrete walls, figuratively, to protect themselves, but that isolation can cause issues later in life.

“There’s something that Shakespeare does, and I equate it to a certain emotional calculus, that you have to open yourself up to engage with these works,” Jackson says. “The other added benefit of this is that it’s within the realm of theater, and when you’re acting and part of a large group, putting on a play and rehearsing together, there’s a certain intimacy that is demanded as being part of an ensemble.”

The class takes place within the Purposeful Living Units Serve, known as the PLUS Unit, a voluntary 16-month program where inmates work toward re-entry through faith-based and character-based initiatives. Consider it the best of the best of those in prison. The men go to classes, do volunteer work around the prison campus and even raise money for charity through Relay for Life. There are usually between 130 to 150 inmates on the unit at any one time, with graduations from the unit taking place every three to four months, according to PLUS Unit Manager Jessica Rain.

The unit focuses on personal responsibility. It seems to be a one-strike policy, and it wasn’t unheard of to walk into Shakespeare class and see one less face from the week before, gone because of some infraction. One week, the men were complaining before class about losing some entertainment privileges on the floor because of one unit member’s behavior.

“We are trying to teach them to be neighbors someday, so the decisions you make affect everyone else,” Rain says.

PLUS Unit members take 13 core classes and need to perform 320 hours of community service while in the program. The Shakespeare and acting class Jackson teaches fills an elective slot, and has about 20 men in it per section. The course costs taxpayers nothing; Jackson volunteers his time, like many others do.

“I’m sure in some ways that Shakespeare is a hard sell, with the fact that they have to do memorization and study,” Rain says. “Here they are, rehearsing these lines in a day room with 50 other offenders around them. They have to be doing it for (Jackson).”

 

'Be a blank canvas'

The inmates are doing it for themselves, too.

There's Heath Burgess, an enthusiastic member of the class who’s always first to make a joke. He's got a ginger beard and tattoos. He’s in prison for a handgun violation and receiving stolen property, set to be released in 2022. The class lights the world up in Technicolor, he says.

“This class takes you away from every preconceived notion you have before you walk through that door. When you sit down, Scott tells us to be a blank canvas. You’ve got to open yourself up to those words that you’re reading, so you drop all the tough guy stuff, or that you’ve had a bad day, or that it’s hot in here, or that there’s girls in the class,” Burgess says and points to a Tribune reporter and photographer.

“You’ve got to drop all that stuff and get into the character you’re trying to do. And then it’s fun, because you’re interacting with people on a different level. Even guys that you see every day, you’re interacting with them on a different level."

To many of the 20 or so guys in the class, it’s two hours of freedom from their pasts, their obligations and the personae they put on when out on the floor.

Rutledge, for example, was quiet in the early classes. Most of the guys are, especially those who haven’t gone through the course before — the material changes with each session, and the men may take it more than once. But Rutledge slowly opened up over the weeks, first with smiles and sarcastic jokes with Jackson, and then with some stellar practice scenes before tackling the hardest role in the play.

“It really takes you out of this element. You can drop your guard. You don’t have to be that tough guy. You can be someone else for a while, and I think that’s the beauty in the whole thing,” Rutledge says. “When we first started, Scott asked us what we think the biggest part of acting is, and my answer was that you have to be open, you have to be willing to adapt and create a role for yourself to be someone else. I think it takes a lot for someone to do that.”

Omar Reyes says he wanted to take the program "because I want to change everything that’s me."

Reyes wants to distance himself from his past, which includes convictions for dealing cocaine. He’s a barrel-chested man, easily intimidating if he wants to be, but after just a few minutes in class, he's laughing, cracking jokes and throwing himself into the coursework. He takes full advantage of the prison’s offerings through classes and work.

“When they offered this class, I took it. It got me out of myself,” he says. “It got me out of the norm. I’m able to associate myself with more people. It lets me see everything — I open up to talking to more people. I’m being myself, and not questioning it.”

He says people who take the class tell everyone on the unit to sign up, instead of just staring through the windows in the door from the hallway.

“I hate to admit it, but when no one is up at three o’clock in the morning, I do some deep breathing," Reyes says, referring to Jackson's warm-up exercises. "The silent yells.”

Many prisoners outside of the program seem "stuck" in their own minds, Reyes says. They do nothing to improve themselves while in prison.

“When I’m in this class, I’m not here — just like when I do my paintings, I’m not here."

 

Education reduces recidivism

Jackson had heard the argument that the men don't deserve the time and effort he devotes to the course. He’s wrestled with the idea himself.

“I don’t want the prison system to put a murderer back on the street, or someone who’s sexually assaulted someone,” Jackson says. “I want that person to have a sense of hope that will somehow transcend the crime that happened in the past, so that they can actually transcend that label they place on themselves. They are better than that."

In the most recent section of the class, most of the offenders were incarcerated because of drug, burglary or weapons charges, though one member of the class was in prison for failing to register as a sex offender. Many in the class were not first-time offenders, and recidivism is an issue not just in Indiana but nationwide. According to Indiana Department of Correction statistics, 38 percent of the inmates released in 2012 had returned to prison within three years, half returning because they committed a new crime and half because of a rules violation during post-release supervision.

The Shakespeare class also is unique in that it’s one of the few nonreligious offerings the prisoners can take.

“Right now, there’s a lot of religion in the prison; I respect that and those churches that go in week in and week out,” Jackson says. “There also needs to be something that’s an individual engagement, and I think Shakespeare and theater in general helps them engage and find purpose in the self, in a way that religion can’t do.”

In fact, the prison leadership wants to offer more secular courses, including job readiness and other skills-based learning, says Rod Kitchen, community services director for Westville. The prison intends to tap its current pool of volunteers, which hovers around 400, with about 150 active at any one time. The prison also offers a variety of education tracks, ranging from pre-GED courses all the way through college programs.

According to a study by the Department of Correction and Ball State University in 2005, inmates who had higher education levels and successfully got jobs after leaving prison were far less likely — up to 30 percent less likely — to reoffend and go back to jail.

“A lot of the guys that are here are going through some kind of stressful situation. The reason you need something fun or entertaining is that you need something to take your mind off of it, to stop future problems,” Rutledge explains. “It gives us a chance to relieve our stress. We can take our frustrations out in a character, rather than take our frustrations out on other individuals and put ourselves in a predicament where we both are in trouble now.”

Those frustrations can include disagreements with other inmates, threats of violence, the mind-numbing day-to-day behind bars or the long days spent working at on-campus factories. Burgess talks about chugging coffee before Jackson’s class so that they stay alert. It’s too important to them to slack off, he says.

“Not everyone can go to church, or has someone to talk to," Rutledge says. "Anyone can get into acting, just throw it all into a character, and if you’re bad, or if you suck at it, who cares? There’s no one here to see you, really. It’s just you and the people that are in the classroom. You get to see the people in here that are in prison not be someone. If you know someone is a bully all the time, you see him and he has to play a character like Ariel, you say, ‘Eh, you’re not as tough as you seem all the time. You’ve got a soft side, too. Don’t act like you don’t.’”

 

'Transformative experience'

When Jackson leaves class on Friday evenings, he doesn't drive away immediately. He pauses in the parking lot and reflects on the class he's just taught.

“This is where I can effect change,” Jackson says, driving home from class late one Friday. “Here is a place I can offer an alternative, transformative experience they won’t get anywhere else. I’m not trying to compromise the penitent nature of prison. This is one of the only times they can be present, and one of the only times they can look to the future, and not constantly look back.

“They can concentrate on the person they want to be, not the person they were when they came in,” he adds. “Theater has this particular ability to transcend barriers. It’s the great neutralizer.”

Rutledge says acting is something he never would've considered back in school. This class gives him new ways to communicate with the world — as an inmate, yes, but also as a man, as a father. He has two new twin daughters. He brings pictures to class one day, showing off his children. He's currently set to be released in 2021. He intends to keep acting.

“I really wish I would’ve got into acting a long time ago,” he says, reflecting on the class session.

He smiles, but then grows serious. “I think it will help me in the long run to be a better person.”

The Bard behind bars: Shakespeare acting class aims to show prisoners a path forward
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