“Shakespeare Behind Bars”
viewing of award-winning documentary
and talk-back with director Curt Tofteland
7pm Tuesday, Feb. 14
Rhea Miller Recital Hall, SVSU
by Janet Martineau
“Murderers. Fugitives. Thieves....Shakespeare would have loved these guys.”
That quote on the jacket of an unusual award-winning documentary says it all. And at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14, theater and film fans alike will witness it first hand when it is shown in the Rhea Miller Recital Hall at Saginaw Valley State University. Free and open to the public.
And sitting in the audience with them that night ... artistic director Curt L. Tofteland, who 17 years ago began in a Kentucky men’s prison the program from which the documentary takes its name, “Shakespeare Behind Bars.”
In that program, each year real-life murderers, child molesters and robbers rehearse and stage one of the Bard’s plays and, in some years, even “tour” it to other prisons.
Viewers of the documentary meet them the year they produced “The Tempest.”
|Scene from "The Tempest" in a Kentucky prison|
Big, burly, tattooed men. Black and white. Young and old. Having committed crimes, in some cases, that turn the stomach. Cast in both male and female roles, as they were in Shakespeare’s era when women were barred from the stage. Learning lines and speaking the difficult Elizabethan lingo with a side order of raw emotion.
“I have always believed that art, theater and the works of Shakespeare communicate what it means to be a human being,” says Tofteland in a phone call.
“Rehabilitation is impossible for inmates, because they got to where they are by acting out of the morals and ethics of what they knew in their lives.
“But habilitation ... it is possible.”
Tofteland, in an interview, likes to word play like that ... no surprise, since he has acted extensively himself, is a poet and a playwright, directs and was for 20 years the artistic director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, the nation’s oldest free Shakespeare festival.
“I am also a programming junkie, and every program I have created is to fill a need in the community. I never first create a program and then look for a need to present it. The United States has 6 million in correctional institutions; 1 in 50 Americans; more than any other nation. Even more than were jailed during Stalin’s reign.
“It is estimated 3 percent of the population in our prisons cannot be ‘healed.’ So you keep them safe in a humane setting. But what about the rest of them? We need to get them into programs like this, educate them.”
And before any naysayers get revved up to complain about tax dollars going for this "silly" Shakespeare program in prisons....it is fully paid for through private dollars Tofteland raises.
Tofteland is headed to SVSU for a three-day residency. In addition to the showing of “Shakespeare Behind Bars” and talking with the audience following it, he also will work with SVSU students during a play rehearsal, in an intermediate acting class and for a theater majors master class.
Richard B. Roberts, an associate professor of theater at SVSU, says he first saw “Shakespeare Beyond Bars” five years ago and then later met Tofteland during a theater festival.
|Curt L. Tofteland|
“I have been trying to get him to come to SVSU ever since,” says Roberts, “to have our students see how theater does matter, how it can make a difference, and get a chance to talk with him about it.
“And I wanted the public to see it too. This film also applies to social workers, the criminal justice people. I hope lots come. I was on the edge of my seat watching it.”
The documentary received its world premiere, in 1995, at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a grand jury prize.
Since then it has played more than 40 film festivals around the nation, Canada and Great Britain and has won 11 awards.
“I still get e-mails weekly from all over the world,” says Tofteland, “and I try to get to as many college campuses as I can. Churches are also picking up on it; churches with social justice agendas.
“I have also had screenwriters approach me about making a film about my life, but this project is not about me. It is about the guys you see in the documentary .... and about the women’s prisons and juvenile facilities were we also do the program.”
As Tofteland explains it, 20 to 25 carefully selected inmates rehearse each year’s chosen play for nine months. Besides “The Tempest,” over the years they’ve also worked on “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “Winter’s Tale,” “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Twelfth Night” and “Merchant of Venice.”
The schedule is rehearsal two days a week initially, for 90 minutes each day, then accelerated closer to show time.
“So what that adds up to is 225 hours of me working with them...and then they independently rehearse another 225 hours on their own wherever they can find a space at the prison (outside in the yard; in maintenance rooms). So each play is a 450 hour investment on their part.”
The filmmakers for the documentary shot 153 hours of footage, which was culled down into the 93 minutes on the DVD.
And what is most remarkable on that DVD is not just the rehearsal process, and the presentation of the play, but private moments during which the men reveal to the filmmakers (and viewers) their crimes. Those moments come well into the film; after we have gotten to know them as thespians, as human beings we like.
“Everything you see (their emotion) is genuine,” assures Tofteland. “Yes they also happen to be good actors, but I know these guys, they are like my brothers. And their grief is real.”
He knows it is real, he says, “because with this program I had the biggest epiphany of my life. I thought empathy was innately born in all of us and that people who did not have it chose to be jerks.
“Now I have learned it is not innate. It comes with your development, how you are raised, and these guys were not raised with it. The good thing is it can be learned.” And, he says, the words and situations in Shakespeare teach volumes about empathy as well as the rehearsal process filled with intense exploration of the characters. “It’s not presenting the play that is important; it’s the process.”
Tofteland left Kentucky and his work there three years ago and lives in Michigan, in Holland, where his wife is teaching in a college. In 2010, Shakespeare Behind Bars became a 501 (c) 3 non-profit and continues to spread its mission into prisons around the nation.
Tofteland is now working at a correctional facility in Muskegon Heights and on Feb. 12 a new program he developed there will celebrate its first anniversary.
“It’s a leadership training program -- still using art and theater but to teach these guys to be leaders and create circles, and step back in society and work with gangs, youths, to give them the right direction.
“They focus on answering four questions about themselves: who am I, what do I love, how will I live my life knowing I will die, and what is my gift to humankind.”
And he also is penning a book about Shakespeare Behind Bars, with 12 of his Kentucky actors each writing a chapter. In his 13 years there, Tofteland says, he worked with 200 men. And long-time studies of those who were eventually released, he says, found only 3.5 percent were repeat offenders -- a statistic far below the average.
Over the years, Tofteland says, his presentations about the program have brought in the doors family members of crime victims. He has even received threats.
“My heart breaks for the victims of these crimes even though I believe in redemption and .the power of good for the people who committed them. For me it’s love the man, hate the crime.”
He then recounts a person telling him “my two sisters were murdered...and thank you, thank you for doing this. It has begun my journey towards healing.” And a reporter “who wrote an amazing article” despite the fact a theater-loving friend had been murdered.
“I love doing this work because I see the miracles.”