Five years ago I went to Westville Penitentiary. It was at exactly this stage in the process. Scott brought us all into the prison, and we did Much Ado About Nothing with none of the props or chairs or gewgaws to a bunch of medium security American prisoners. It was our first performance and it was a remarkable experience and made it impossible for us to ever be nervous with the show again.
We were asked if we wanted to come in and do a workshop in the prison this time. Three of us could do it, and we did so despite a hectic schedule.
Ricky picked us up at 8.30 and drove us across the county line to the prison. We left all our bits and pieces in the car, and walked into the unit with only some printouts. Through the x-ray and a thorough patdown. Through the very solid iron airlock doors. Past bundles of razor wire and electric wire and into the dilapidated shuttle to spin us over the sunny concrete to the run down stone unit.
There, once again, the big men in beige prison smocks – some with gang tattoos some with visible old injuries. Men you might feel threatened by in other circumstances, but in this instance hungry to learn, curious, starved of input.
Much of the work brought to prisoners over here is on a voluntary basis. As a result, I’m told that a lot of what is available to these people exists in various fundamental religious spheres. The zealots want to have a go at redeeming them.
Shakespeare is a perfect example of something secular that works in this context both in theory and in practice. Morally complex and ambiguous, open to interpretation, responsive to the individual, dealing with basic human needs and desires but old enough and established enough for someone to rubber stamp it, people do Shakespeare in prisons all over the world.
“Since you were here five years ago, they’ve relaxed security for us a little,” Ricky tells me. “Students on our course have a 3% readmission rate. That’s down from over 30%” The power of education. They only take people with at least two years left inside, as they get a degree out of it if they have the time. We got to come in on pretty much the first day of their work on Twelfth Night. So we did a lot of ensemble building work. Stuff that we would do in the first week of rehearsal. We were getting these guys to relax, to breathe and stretch. Then to focus together as a group. Some basic theatre games including Grandmother’s Footsteps, which was electric. And then onto working with simple bits of text.
Towards the end I was pulled out of that class. There was another class going on across the way on romantic poetry. I got ferried in to do work with them on verse and heartbeat and intention and delivery pertaining to romantic poetry – specifically Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It’s a lovely way to come into any lesson – as a practitioner. “All I can do is teach you how we would approach this piece of work for performance.” I got them speaking sonnets to me. Typically they then asked me for a famous speech. I ended up doing requests in a room in an Illinois prison to a bunch of guys with teardrops tattooed on their cheeks. I had a few tears of my own by the end, but thankfully less ominous in meaning and less permanent.