Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shakespeare in prison

“In nature there’s no blemish but the mind. None can be called deformed but the unkind. (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)

Saturday night we enjoyed a rare privilege. We watched a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. That alone would have been great fun, but it was the the venue of the event that added adventure and heightened awareness. We were at a medium-security state prison in northern Oregon, and inmates preformed the play. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
A close friend of ours, let’s call him Dave, is a prisoner there.  We keep in regular telephone contact, and have been able to visit about once a year. He continues to bless and encourage us with the realities of repentance and transformation. But he remains a prisoner. And we remain close friends, doing all we can to make the encouragement mutual.
As a participant in the production, Dave had secured our tickets and urged us to attend.
We arrived in the early afternoon, in time to take advantage of visiting hours before the evening performance. Two other friends had joined us, and we sat with Dave around a small table, in a room full of other such small groups of inmates and guests. Guards stood around the walls. Dave was in high spirits and our conversation lively. We ended in prayer and left to check into our motel, grab a bite to eat, and return in time for another lengthy check in process.
I didn’t know what to expect. This would clearly be an amateur performance, with minimum staging and props. I had seen Twelfth Night years ago, along with members of the high school freshman English class I was teaching at the time. To refresh my memory I consulted Wikipedia’s synopsis of the play. But I was basically here to support Dave, not to experience great drama.
We conversed with our friends in the hushed tones the prison atmosphere inspires as we again went through the identity check, got stamped, found our group, and were ushered through the series of locked rooms and corridors that finally ended up in the multi-purpose room. But as we arrived this time, I immediately noted a change in the atmosphere. Instead of being separated and strictly guarded, the inmates, in their colorful Elizabethan costumes, mingled with the crowd. People were laughing and talking. Dave was playing medieval music on a synthesizer up front.
At exactly 6:00, we found our seats and the play began. Time passed more quickly than I would have imagined as we laughed and applauded for two hours. I loved watching men take the role of the women in the play, just as it was done in Shakespeare’s time. The role of Viola was especially funny as a man played the part of a woman pretending to be a man. He gave a convincing portrayal. This was real theater.  It was really Shakespeare in one of best live performances I have seen. I was frankly surprised.
But it was what happened afterward that made the evening so unforgettable. The play ended, and we were invited to have refreshments and mingle with the cast.  They were all beaming, buoyed up not only by our response but by knowing they had actually pulled it off. After refreshments, we gathered again, took our seats, with the cast sitting in front (much like a Quaker facing bench!) and talked together.
Cast members came from varying backgrounds, some with minimal education, only a few having read Shakespeare before, and most with no theater experience. The genesis of the project came from the director of the play, Johnny Stallings, a professional in theater who volunteers his time in the prison. A few years ago Stallings began visiting the prison once a week just to facilitate conversation among a group of inmates who wanted talk about life and death, family, freedom, and so on.  For three hours a week these men forgot they were prisoners.
At one point one of the prisoners suggested they read a Shakespearean play together, and Stallings was more than glad to facilitate. This was a first for most of them, but with help they came to appreciate and enjoy Shakespeare. Then someone suggested they perform a play, an audacious idea, and one that took time to run through the system and secure the necessary permissions.
But it happened, and three years ago the prison troupe preformed Hamlet. Last year, it was A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. A change in this year’s performance was the addition of costumes, on loan from the Portland Opera.  The troupe gives three performances for the public, on an invitation only basis, mostly to friends and family members. They perform at other times for fellow inmates.
As the cast members spoke, it became clear that the process itself was transformative. The challenge of moving beyond themselves, of doing something new and totally out of their experience, of entering the world of great literature, and succeeding, well, who wouldn’t be changed?  One of the cast members said that the opportunity to make us laugh, to give us such a good gift made it worthwhile. Another testified that the surprise of knowing he could come to understand and like Shakespeare, let alone perform a play, has changed how he sees himself. Just seeing all of them beam with pride and pleasure as we again broke into applause brought tears.
And I realized these men were not the only ones to forget they were prisoners.
In my past visits to the prison, to this very room, while I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Dave, I had been reacting with suspicion to the others in the room. The whole experience of the careful check in process, the multitude of locked doors and guards, the prison garb itself had combined to make me afraid. It was through the lens of fear that I had been viewing the other men in the room, wondering what they had done, not daring to look directly at any of them. Another word for it would be prejudice. And I had not even recognized it.
Before Saturday night. What happened to me through the performance, through the time of visiting with the cast and then through hearing their stories was a transformational experience of my own. I saw men of talent and courage, men capable of great feats of memorization and performance, people with something to say and something to give, people I would like to have as friends. People worthy of respect. People.
I thank God for an experience that went beyond entertainment. I thank God for people like Johnny Stallings who continues to drive the three hours from Portland to the prison once a week. I thank God for hope in dark places. I thank God for Shakespeare in prison.
And I’m thankful that God can change even me.


  1. Shakespeare wrote well--so well that his portraits of us humans and the messes we get into are still totally riveting. Your description of this evening was riveting, too!