The Bard Behind Bars

IMG_2187There’s a false notion in our society that dictates that art – especially performance art – is merely diverting. The belief persists that there is little or no value or substance to it beyond what an audience member can enjoy during a weekend matinee. This idea not only limits the transcendental and transformative nature of good art for the audience, but it cheapens the power it holds for its participants as well.

At this point, Matt Wallace is well known for having served as the producing artistic director of Kentucky Shakespeare for nearly three years. What many don’t know is that he has been working with Shakespeare Behind Bars – a separate nonprofit organization that facilitates the education and production of Shakespeare plays for inmates in multiple prisons and rehabilitation centers across the state.

“When I took the position of artistic director at the Festival, I had to sort of take a step back at Shakespeare Behind Bars, but I remained as the volunteer director of the Luther Luckett program. Curt Tofteland, the founder of the program is the artistic director,” says Wallace. “I just couldn’t quit the work I was doing in the prison completely. I loved it too much.”

IMG_2186It’s easy to see why. Attaining access to the production is not an arduous process, but it is one that requires a lot of planning and patience. Prospective audience members must sign up for the production they wish to see at least two weeks in advance and submit to a background check. Once these hoops are jumped through, however, the sheer power of the work being done is on full display and its benefits are obvious.

Howard Ralston is a former inmate of the Luther Luckett Correctional Facility as well as a past SBB participant, and he is one of the program’s most vocal champions. “It’s not just about acting. It’s like a family of people. They keep you out of trouble and make you want to stay out of trouble,” says Ralston. He claims that the therapeutic nature of the process has led to his success outside of prison.

From the actor’s perspective, the production process is wholly unique and can take about a year. “I will hand them the scripts for ‘Julius Caesar,’ which is the play we’re doing next year. They take the summer to get to know the play, to read it or take some time off. They think about what role speaks to them, and they cast the play themselves over the summer,” informs Wallace.

Unlike in the professional acting world, those participating in the play are in charge of the casting. “We always want them to pick the role for personal reasons or a personal connection. Interestingly, we’ve had guys pick the role because they can’t connect to it. It’s not always literal. It’s a time for them to explore parts of themselves they haven’t explored before,” says Wallace. For example, Wallace reveals that many of the actors in the all-male prison choose to portray female characters for the challenge or to access emotions or experiences in unexpected, revelatory ways: “One of our guys playing Lady Macduff was able to make that connection of what his own mother must have experienced being a single mother and hearing tragic news. You look at where they are at the end of the year after something like that, and it’s astonishing. Getting to facilitate that is a real honor.”

Ralston attests that sometimes the healing doesn’t necessarily take place in performance, under the guise of character: “Sometimes instead of rehearsal, we had deep therapy sessions. My father passed away while I was in there, and that was the only place I wanted to be.” One of the recurrent themes of the program is choices and their consequences. Ralston admits that he and most in the prison have done something to place themselves there, but just because that’s the case doesn’t mean they are unable to make better choices in the future. “The program makes you think about your life. It shows you redemption for people. It shows punishment for people. It shows you choices. A lot of people who get out of there don’t return because it opens your eyes, and to show your family that you’re doing great positive things is a great feeling.”

Shakespeare Behind Bars’ process begins anew this summer, so it will be another year before a full-fledged production is accessible to the public. When “Julius Caesar” opens close to this time next year, however, make it a point to attend. The life that changes may be your own. VT

Photos courtesy of Shakespeare Behind Bars