Teaching Shakespeare in state prison

We find inspiration in surprising places. For me, the weekend of March 23 through 25 was life changing. Life-changing because I got to bare witness to transformations while in the midst of my own.

I attended the Shakespeare in Prisons Conference put on by the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. The conference was peppered with teaching artists, like myself, who teach creative writing and theater classes in prisons. I’ll be teaching theater in prison this fall.

A middle-aged man took one of the rehearsal stages and delivered a monologue about his abusive childhood, his wanton teenage years and the factors that lead to the strangling death of a girlfriend. He served 31 years in prison. He talked about how the arts slowly took over him and brought back his humanity to him. How he was finally able to own up to what he’d done. He owned his crime while playing the lead role in Othello. Strangling Desdemona on stage lead to him finding his way back to himself and his place in humanity. Shakespeare saved his soul.

He left his monologue of his own life and proceeded — before our eyes and hearts to launch himself into Othello’s scenes leading up to Desdemona’s death scene.

It may have been the most important piece of theater I’ve ever witnessed. Truly transforming. I flew back up north three days later with all sorts of renewed purpose and pondering the important question of just what it means to be rehabilitated.

What does it really mean to choose change? What does it mean to transform? Can we do it? And if we don’t do it what have we condemned ourselves to?

“A wretched soul, bruised with adversity, We bid be quiet when we hear it cry; But were we burdened with like weight of pain, As much or more we should ourselves complain,” wrote Shakespeare in Comedy of Errors.

We need to stop complaining about our circumstances and actually do something about them. Shakespeare is hard — but that doesn’t mean we can’t perform him. I love that my eighth grader’s teacher is doing “Romeo and Juliet” with them. I wish every teacher did Shakespeare. I taught “King Lear” in community college and was chastised by my department for me choosing something “too hard.”

We need to do the “too hard.” We also need to remember that people along our way will always try and stop us from trying something new.

On the way home from San Diego, I boasted on social media that I was inspired and couldn’t wait to try new things both in the prison and with Pachuca Productions — the micro-theater company I am part of. A few minutes later a man was explaining to me in the comment section that my goals were unrealistic and that I shouldn’t bother to try.

I’m learning to ignore comments that would rob me of experience and joy — to move beyond the judgments of other people.

We need to believe in ourselves and believe that we can change and change the communities around us for good. We need to believe we can tackle what’s hard for us intellectually and emotionally. We can be our own leaders. Like a murderer studying Shakespeare, anything is possible.

I’m back in Indian Valley now, Shakespeare on the brain for both my prison classes and theater troupe. It’s making me want to lead.

There is a certain elixir of discontent in our communities chiefly along the lines of three subjects: wolves, winters and education. The latter is something we can do something about.

If the country under Trump teaches us anything, it’s that those with minds and hearts and intellect sell ourselves short. If anyone, can be in charge, why not us? We have seen where taking the easy road leads for criminals, students and voters — why not master the difficult instead?

I hear and see so many parents in Plumas County dissatisfied with educational options and angry at the school board’s decisions — pointing out that those that sit on such boards are detached from the realities of parenting now and do not have children in area schools. Those parents complaining need to run for office. They need to do the difficult work, grapple with the difficult language and master it. Stop being Hamlet, and seize the day. Take back education.

As my prisoners and the returned citizens at the conference taught me, if anyone can own their crimes, their shortcomings, then we should, too. Why don’t we parents with so much to say run for office? Why don’t we change the way our students are shortchanged either by their buildings being yanked out from under them or from school cultures which have too little room for the arts and oddballs.

Our wretched souls need to spend more time screaming in the face of authority and less time muttering about on tiny screens.

Last month, Indian Valley Academy’s drama class performed the “Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged and Revised” — a comedy parody of Shakespeare, but still they had to grapple with the language and learn the stories. It was hard work but they are the better for it.

Last Monday, I did two sonnets with prisoners. They walked out of class confident and proud, as did I.

Let the bard’s words empower us and let’s go out there and lead.

“True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.”

2 thoughts on “Teaching Shakespeare in state prison

  • April 14, 2018 at 11:37 am
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    “My prisoners”????? Are they really?
    Do you realize how many times you say I, me, mine in your writings?
    And how you always have to bring your politics into every subject, like a good little progressive?
    Promoting division?
    You over intellectual wannabees are so lost from real truth and freedom for the people. Now you’ve crowned yourself a hero for participating in the prison industrial complex? Cudos, to a degree. But maybe you could write about that- the prison industrial complex. And how this machine sucks in many who don’t belong there.

  • April 15, 2018 at 5:02 pm
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    Prison industrial complex? Try that phrase with inmates and you’ll see who the self- obsessed one might be. My 40 plus years in inner-city community colleges with former and current inmates taught me that it’s inmates with the most time and need to think feel and speak out of the box during classes…best students often

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