Shakespeare Behind Bars

March 27, 2011 at 11:53 pm (Film Adaptations, Shakespeare's Plays, The Tempest) (, , , , , )

The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.
(The Tempest, V.i.27-28)

Shakespeare Behind Bars is a documentary about Curt Tofteland’s work with inmates at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky.  He worked with groups of about 20-25 inmates each year to produce one of Shakespeare’s plays. The film focuses on the group’s practices during 2002, culminating in their 2003 production of The Tempest.

It’s amazing. I can’t get over how touched I am by this film. It is very complex emotionally. I felt like I really got to know some of the inmates involved. The film follows them as they discuss and rehearse the play, but it also takes time to let several of the inmates speak about themselves and their crimes and their time in prison.

T-I-M-E. The film gives you a glimpse into prison life. What I find most upsetting is the T-I-M-E involved. For me, and most people around me, there are not enough hours in the day to do everything we need and want to do. These men are serving long sentences and they have nothing but T-I-M-E on their hands. I found this a bit overwhelming to really consider. A man in his 20s, in prison on two life sentences with no possibility of parole, and he has nothing, absolutely nothing, but T-I-M-E on his hands. For the rest of his life.

Enter Curt Tofteland who volunteers his time to teach these men about Shakespeare (actually the warden speaks about the many educational programs at this institution and how his mission is to train the inmates to return to society, so I am sure this is just one of many worthwhile programs available to them). Tofteland is a mentor to these men who are sorely in need of mentoring. Tofteland says about Shakespeare, “He never ceases to teach me. He’s my mentor. His gift truly was insight into human behavior that is as true now as it was 400 years ago.”

You can feel the inmates coming to grips with the truths they find speaking through their characters as they work on the play. An inmate named Red was given the part of Miranda, and at first was quite upset about it, but as he got into the part, he realized there was a lot Miranda had to say to him personally. It seemed almost uncanny, karma, that he got this part that spoke so clearly to him and his own issues. He says, “Miranda helped me to deal with some of the things that was inside of me that needed to be developed, needed to come out.”

Sammie (who plays Trinculo), appears in the film as a sweet and thoughtful man, a hard worker, and someone you wouldn’t mind as a neighbor or co-worker. It’s hard to mesh that image with his description of his crime: he had already been in and out of prison twice and then he strangled his girlfriend in a fit of rage when she was threatening to expose their affair to his wife. You see, I say complex emotions. These are men who have done horrible things. Sammie admits tearfully that it is difficult for him to forgive himself, and find any goodness in himself knowing what he did.

Another inmate, Hal (he plays the part of Prospero), killed his pregnant wife by drawing her a bath, dropping a hairdryer into the water, and then making it look like an accident. He had much to get out of this play about forgiveness. He said, “Self-forgiveness doesn’t seem to be enough. It’s kind of hollow. I try to find deeper meaning in my life. This can’t be it. This can’t be what my life is all about and what my actions have caused.”

Tofteland says that these men have already been judged and sentenced by society, so he doesn’t feel the need to judge them himself. He simply goes in and works with them. The heart and soul that they put into their practice and their performance is amazing. This is a film that’s well worth watching.

I found out about it because Tofteland will be speaking at an event sponsored by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company at 7:30 PM on April 1 at Oliver’s Carriage House in Columbia, Maryland. If you are in the DC/Baltimore area and you can get in (space is very limited) you may want to catch this. The film is available on Netflix.

© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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  1. Tue Sorensen said,

    I have been meaning to watch this for a long time. I’m more excited about it now, after reading your account of it. 🙂

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      It’s upsetting, yet hopeful, if that makes any sense. You can see how these guys really attach themselves to the characters and the whole process of putting on the play. It gives them some meaning in what must just be a stagnant/mind-numbing life in prison. I couldn’t go to the event where the guy was speaking, but I bet he’s very interesting.

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