Shakespeare Behind Bars
The characters in SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS are not your ordinary, stereotypical prisoners.  Luther Luckett is one of the most rehabilitatively focused prison in the Kentucky system.  It has numerous educational and therapeutic programs, and prisoners here are expected to partake, or they get transferred to a prison with less to offer.  And within this general population at Luther Luckett, one has to have a clean record to join the Shakespeare group.  As a result, at first glance, most of the men in this program do not seem to be hardened criminals.  But their past actions all have a deep darkness that haunts them. 

 

Leonard (Antonio) says that he and the group are “ready to go” with the new season after their summer hiatus.  He underscores that this is no ordinary acting troupe—that they will likely have to deal with someone getting sent to solitary confinement or getting transferred, and will have to recast roles midstream.  

In 1995, Leonard was married with four kids and working as a computer programmer.  He was highly respected within his church community and even ran for political office.  Today, he is serving a 50-year sentence for sexual abuse of minors.  Leonard says he looks forward to working on The Tempest and its theme of forgiveness and playing the role of the villain, Antonio:  “He’s a villain who does not get what he deserves, and that’s unique.”

Sammie (Triculo) is a leader and mentor in the group, and has been in the Shakespeare program for seven years.  This year, as he prepares for possible parole in August, he will take the small role of Trinculo--the Jesterin the play--and will help coach less experienced members of the troupe. 

Sammie is a survivor of physical and sexual abuse who had created a seemingly stable adult life with a wife and a successful business.  He threw it all away, however, when he strangled his mistress almost 20 years ago.  He is now serving his 20th year of a life sentence. 

As one of the original members of the program, Sammie feels Shakespeare has been a vehicle for him and the guys. The Tempest provides Sammie with an opportunity to further explore forgiving himself, as he works towards his parole hearing a few months after the performance of the play. 

Hal (Prospero) is hoping for insight and forgiveness regarding his crime, and he lobbied hard to play the lead role:  “There is a part of me that wants to play Prospero, and there is a part of me that wants to run.” 

He speaks about knowing only numbness while growing up, and never being allowed to communicate his real feelings.  Hal grew up in a fundamentalist family, went to Bible college, became a preacher, got married and had a daughter.  But he felt he was living a lie and going to hell because he was a closeted homosexual. 

One morning he electrocuted his pregnant wife in the bathtub by knocking a hair dryer into the water.  He hopes that playing Prospero will bring him closer to gaining forgiveness from his own family.  “Resolution can’t come without communication, and not talking is what got me here… my hope is for one day to find forgiveness, and I hope this play will help me do that.”

Red (Miranda) will play Prospero’s naïve and virginal daughter. Red is currently at Luther Luckett for armed robbery and burglary.  This year, he is stepping up to play the large part of Miranda, the 15-year-old female ingenue.  But it is not a role he chose willingly.  He feels that Hal and others “put the role on him” because of his size and looks. 

One day in rehearsal he connects deeply with his character when he realizes that, like Miranda, he was told at age 15 of his true lineage–that the father he had never known was white.  The parallel with his chosen character shocks him, and opens him to exploring his own pain, confusion and anger regarding his past.  “It’s hard to explain.  This part here is just perfectly, truly for me… these virtues, and these feelings I’m having.” 

Red struggles to articulate in front of the other men who at once support him and tease him for identifying with a young woman’s pain.

Big G (Caliban) is a veteran of the program who has chosen the part of the monster in The Tempest.  “Caliban is such a savage.  I feel like I have to regress to play him.”

But he says the character is very relevant to the prison population, and to himself at one time.  Big G is in prison for murdering a cop in a drug deal that went wrong.  He was only 21 at the time, and has basically grown up in prison.  He knows all the tricks of prison life-getting into drugs, hustling- because he used to do that himself.

“I’ve often thought that a bunch of convicts would make great actors, because they’re used to lying and playing a role. But really it’s the exact opposite of that, because you have to tell the truth and inhabit a character.  And that’s so scary for me and the guys in the group because we’re opening up our inner selves for everyone to see.”

Curt Tofteland is the Producing Artistic Director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival: www.kyshakes.org.

He is a lifetime Shakespearean actor and director who has been coming to Luther Luckett to work with adult male inmates in the Shakespeare Behind Bars Program since 1995.  The film touches upon Curt’s journey as a person coming in from the outside, who tries to help repair lives devastated by acts of self-destruction.

Curt thinks Shakespeare would have appreciated this motley acting company of convicts:  “People in the theater back in Elizabethan times were thought of as pickpockets, thieves, rapists and murderers.”  He believes in seeing these men for who they are today, not for who they were, and not defining them solely by the crime they have committed.

Curt L. Tofteland
Founder & Artistic Director
Shakespeare Behind Bars
tofter@aol.com

 

 

 

 

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