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.