I'm reading
Shakespeare in prison
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Shakespeare in prison
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Shakespeare in prison
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
4 May 2018

Shakespeare in prison

Literature and performance have always maintained the ability to move us, shake our perspectives and inspire deeper thought. So what happens when you bring Shakespeare into a high security prison?

Written by TJ Wilkshire

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Inside a bare room in the Borallon Correctional Centre, a group of inmates gather once a week for theatre practice. For three months the inmates rehearse a Shakespeare play which they will perform to a roomful of 30 people. Last year it was Romeo and Juliet, performed on a makeshift stage alongside flats depicting Verona, painted by the inmates themselves.

My first time in a prison was seeing these inmates perform. Instead of audiences coming through a red-carpeted foyer and having our tickets checked by tuxedoed ushers, we were escorted through several security checkpoints in a high-security facility surrounded by razor wire and guards.

This is the Shakespeare Prison Project, the first of its kind in Australia, offering inmates who have volunteered themselves a chance to learn how to channel their experiences into performance using Shakespeare’s words.

Performed for over 400 years, Shakespeare’s plays have the ability to transform theatres into forums of conversation about violence, politics, social hierarchies, love and crime. Commonly shared among marginalised and incarcerated communities, the works have been used across the world to challenge the perspectives of both inmates and the public regarding the role of imprisonment.

This particular program was introduced in Australia by Artistic Director of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, Rob Pensalfini. When Rob started brainstorming the program, his first task was convincing a prison that they wanted to host it. The second was finding funding, which Rob tells me has lapsed at times. Yet the program continues.

The 60-minute performance of Romeo and Juliet I saw at Borallon was potent. Yes, the inmates were nervous. Sometimes they forgot their lines and Juliet’s handmaid was played by a stocky man in his thirties. But seeing these men excited about something so wholesome, and knowing that the lines they performed meant so much more to them than it might for other theatre folk, made it a profound thing to witness.

The experience immediately challenged the way we think about the function of prisons as places for moral punishment (“do the crime, pay the time”). While Australian prison systems say they’re correctional and rehabilitative, they tend not to function in this way. Often a heavy focus is put on inmates learning trade skills, which they can take with them in the outside world to find jobs and contribute back to society. There’s a focus on their outer world, rather than the inner.

That’s why the Prison Shakespeare Project is so important. Run by trained facilitators and performers, the exposure to Shakespeare’s words and the art of performance does something to these inmates that makes them feel empowered.

One inmate summed the experience up beautifully: “I now look to the future with courage and wonder, instead of dread and fatalism. I am no longer heavy as lead, I am light as air.”

At the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre, where the Shakespeare Prison Project is also run, the program’s mere presence prompted an internal study of the participating inmates’ behaviour. Figures from the study showed a 50 percent decrease in violent incidents by the inmates that participated in the program, suggesting that the development of empathy significantly affects these men’s social behaviour in ways that trade skills may not. Art is transformative, both individually and socially. In the landscape of theatre, Rob tells me that this is because art necessitates a questioning of oneself and of one’s social relationships and environment.

Shakespeare’s ability to express the complexities of life and a universality of themes is the reason why so many find their own experiences embedded in his plays. He develops our empathic side through his flawed characters and we are able to identify ourselves. Embodying these characters, connecting with them and understanding them—as well as the stories they inhabit—allows the inmates to build their empathy and sense of self, which they take with them back into the world.

Where inmates have previously felt isolation and been inclined to withdraw into themselves, they are now finding the encouragement to explore their inner worlds and reach their potential. Reinforced by theoretical philosophies like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed application and James Gilligan’s Theory of Violence, the program also enhances the literacy, communication and emotional transparency of its participants, offering them an opportunity to find ways to articulate their experiences and feel a sense of accomplishment. Self-reflective programs like the Shakespeare Prison Project allow inmates to move forward and learn from their past. Isn’t that what a rehabilitation and correction facility should be about?

Rob Pensalfini’s book Prison Shakespeare: for these deep shames and great indignities is available online. To learn more about the Shakespeare Prison Project, visit the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s website.

TJ Wilkshire

TJ Wilkshire is a Brisbane-based writer, editor, poet and artist with a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing from The University of Queensland.

Images courtesy of Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.