Why there's much ado about inmates doing Shakespeare behind bars.

Lights! Camera! Second chances!

The stage is set. The actors put the final touches on their costumes and wait nervously in the wings. The audience is ushered in by an armed guard or two. It's showtime.

This is not an ordinary production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."  This is Shakespeare at San Quentin State Prison.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.


Since 2003, actors and staff from the Marin Shakespeare Company have taught classes at San Quentin, the state prison just a few miles away.

The company has always boasted a rich social outreach program to get Shakespeare's work out to as many people as possible. The prison population was nearby, and managing director Lesley Currie said they seemed like a logical fit for courses. So she and her team decided to give it a try.

"At first it was very poorly attended, but after a few years, we had enough men in the class to actually put on a full-length Shakespeare play in the prison chapel," Currier said in a phone interview. "And since then, it's just taken off."

LeMar Harrison (C) and Carlos Flores (R) take the stage. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

After their first full-length production, interest in the classes skyrocketed. These days, Currier sometimes manages a waitlist or two.

The sessions don't just focus on Shakespeare. Through exercises and activities, they also cover conflict resolution and positive decision making.

The classes are team taught, and local actors and directors often volunteer their time too. In addition to acting, the courses include lessons in self-reflection and teamwork. With the help of drama therapy students, the classes can also go a little deeper, allowing the inmates to work on their social skills.

"In a typical two and a half hour class, we'll often spend an hour doing all kinds of different exercises that are designed to build acting skills but also designed to build human skills," Currier said.

John Windham (L) and Richie Morris (C) rehearse lines before their performance. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

She often ends each class with what she calls, "group decision-making exercises." These creative assignments might ask participants to work as a team to turn lines from a play into a song and dance or a poem; or have them rewrite certain scenes, forcing characters to make a different choice.

According to Currier: "One of our students said, 'I've done a lot of conflict resolution work since I've gone to prison, but that kind of exercise is the best conflict resolution work I've ever done.'"

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

But as with the bard himself said, the play's the thing.

Since the early days of the program, the participants have put on more than a dozen full-length Shakespeare plays at San Quentin. The inmate actors work for months putting each show together. Memorizing lines, building sets, and getting into character is tough work, and the actors take their roles very seriously.

Because, for them, it's not just something to do, it's a point of pride and a place for self-expression.

Azraal Ford gets ready to play Julius Caesar. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

"One man said, 'I've been in prison for 12 years, I have a 12-year-old daughter, and all she's ever known about me is that I'm in prison. And today she gets to know that I'm a Shakespeare star."

The inmates' families aren't allowed into the facility to see the productions (the audience is mostly made up of other inmates), but each performance is recorded and put online so families can see their stars in action whenever they want.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Support from the state has allowed the program to expand to two more correctional facilities too.

"Three years ago the state actually started funding arts in corrections, and we were one of the first seven organizations in the state of California to get a grant," Currier said.

The grant allowed the program to expand to inmates at Solano State Prison in Vacaville, where inmates are working on "Hamlet" and "King John." And the Folsom Women's Facility, about 25 miles east of Sacramento, where they're working on "Taming of the Shrew."

The expansion gives more inmates a chance to take advantage of this powerful program.

"When you hear the men talk about why they do it and why it's important to them [the men and the women now] it just makes you realize, just more deeply what it means to be a human being on this planet," Currier said.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But the best part? It's really having a positive effect on the participants.

Programs like this are a win for everyone involved, and that's why California and other states continue to make the investment.

"Research has shown that structured arts programs improve inmates' problem-solving skills and self-discipline and increase their patience and their ability to work with others," said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Jeff Beard in a written statement. "These programs also direct inmates' energy in a positive direction, promote positive social interaction and lower tension levels, resulting in a safer environment for inmates and staff."

An inmate watches the performance. The audience is limited to inmates and select outside guests. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Most importantly, for the actors and their teachers, these programs can be life-changing.

"Most California state prisons have versions of 12-step programs ... and most have some kind of education program where you can get your GED or do college coursework, and those are really important," Currier said. "But the arts are really important as well. Being able to engage with other people through the arts — that's a different kind of social learning than you can get writing an essay."

Anthony Passer (L) and Maurice Reed (R) rehearse lines before the big show. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Whether it's "Hamlet," "Julius Caesar," or "Taming of the Shrew," it turns out that some of the best shows in California are behind lock and key.

They're full of heart, passion, and pride. The actors' performances transport the audience to worlds previously unimagined, even if just for a few hours. And when you're living in a restrictive environment, that's a beautiful, life-changing gift.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Most Shared

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

RELATED: This fascinating comic explains why we shouldn't use some Native American designs.

Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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