By Christopher Zoukis
Prison might be the last place you would expect to see a great performance of Shakespeare. But for more than a decade, Marin Shakespeare Company in California has taught Shakespeare in several prisons, and to rave reviews.
In 1989, the company launched to reinvigorate Shakespeare in Northern California, but has expanded its scope over the years, teaching a variety of workshops and programs, including outreach through the Shakespeare for Social Justice Program, started in San Quentin Prison in 2003, and expanding it to several other facilities. Their mission is “to achieve excellence in the staging and study of Shakespearean plays, to celebrate Shakespeare and to serve as a cultural and educational resource for the people of Marin, the San Francisco Bay Area, and beyond.”
Shakespeare might seem like an odd choice, stereotypically relegated to the fodder of English classes and the efforts of British actors, but program proponents espouse its benefits. Studying Shakespeare teaches complex language and literacy skills, critical thinking about human emotions and the consequences of choices, emotional intelligence, empathy, self-reflection and gives rise to the exploration of new ways of thinking.
The atmosphere and exercises of theater and performance also teaches cooperation, interpersonal interaction, communication and problem-solving. It assists in breaking down barriers, building bridges, and helps people recreate themselves as their best selves.
Lesley Currier, the managing director of the company, notes that inmates delve into complex themes while exploring Shakespeare. “Macbeth and Julius Caesar are about committing murder and the psychology behind that: Why they do what they do, how they feel after they do it,” he said in an interview with the Marin Independent Journal.
Heavy and emotional topics can arise through studying Shakespeare, and working through these via a fictitious character can be immensely helpful for the participants when reflecting on their own situations and past decisions. The “soft skills” they learn in navigating their emotions and pasts are immensely valuable, both in prison, and as they move into their communities after they are released.
At San Quentin every year, two plays are performed — one of Shakespeare’s works, and a Parallel Play of original pieces that are written and performed by inmates, inspired by the Shakespearean work they performed. Plays are also performed at Solano State Prison. The inmates involved don’t just memorize lines and perform; they have weekly meetings where they complete drama exercises, and learn the variety of skills that can be applied to their daily lives.
Dameion Brown is just one example of the success of the program. He played Macduff in Solano’s performance of Macbeth in 2015. He has since been released, and uses the skills he learned in the program to improve his life and those of others. In 2016 he played the starring role in Othello with Marin Shakespeare Company, and has spoken about his role with students in schools. He is now a youth case manager at Community Works West, working with young men who have been recently released from jail and others referred as part of a diversion program. Brown says he identified with the character of Othello, and had hoped to play the character long before ending up in prison. He was cast as Othello for a school play, but it was canceled after outcry from his community over the interracial romance in the story.
Beyond prison walls, Marin Shakespeare Company launched the Theater Group for Returned Citizens in 2015, to allow former inmates to continue to learn about Shakespeare and theater, and to tell their stories.
Shakespeare for Social Justice isn’t the only program teaching Shakespeare and theater skills to inmates. Other successful programs include the Michigan-based Shakespeare Behind Bars, Rehabilitation Through the Arts in New York, and the Shakespeare Prison Project at Racine Correctional Institution, in partnership with University of Wisconsin-Parkside. The Mission of Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB), as one example, “is to offer theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.” There are 10 core values to the program, including developing literacy, empathy and problem-solving skills. The recidivism rate of SBB participants is an impressive 5.1 percent, compared to a national average of more than 50 percent. These programs clearly make an impact in the lives of participants, who learn a wide variety of necessary life skills and re-enter their communities as better citizens. Weaving arts into the rehabilitative tapestry offered inmates is a worthwhile endeavor.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.