It can be tempting to dismiss violent criminals, to simply lock them up and write them off. The details of their crimes justify it for us, allowing us to make them into monsters, to dehumanize and judge them.
Shakespeare Behind Bars, opening today (Friday) at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley, doesn’t offer that luxury. This award-winning documentary goes behind the scenes at Kentucky’s Luther Luckett Correctional Complex to remind us that the world is not so black and white, that men are not merely one thing or another but are complex and ever-evolving.
Every year, volunteer director Curt Tofteland stages a Shakespeare play at Luckett, visiting the prison twice a week for nine months to work with his cast of convicts. The picture this film presents is disarming, for the movie is not just moving and entertaining, it is genuinely funny; prison would seem an unlikely setting for a movie of such warmth and compassion, humanity and joy.
For this season, Tofteland has chosen The Tempest. He has selected this play for its themes of forgiveness and redemption, knowing these concepts will resonate with his cast, especially with the veterans who will be up for parole within months of the season’s conclusion. This may sound a bit heavy-handed at first, but we soon see that Tofteland’s relationship with these men is anything but patronizing; there is no condescension in his direction. Indeed, it is readily apparent that the men of Luckett not only enjoy these plays, but might have selected The Tempest themselves, given the choice, and for precisely the same reasons.
The prisoners we meet are articulate and intelligent and often charismatic. They seem to come from all walks of life. Some are educated, some are not, but all are intellectually curious. Granted, this group is self-selecting; there are hundreds of prisoners at Luckett who have opted not to spend their time rehearsing Shakespeare, so we’re not exactly getting a representative sample. But the men presented here challenge many stereotypes.
The troupe’s rehearsals are essentially group therapy sessions, with Tofteland in the role of facilitator. The men encourage and critique each other, each offering his own interpretation of character and motivation. And through this process each man gets closer to his own particular truth, gaining a greater understanding of his own character and motivation. It is fascinating to watch. And because it’s Shakespeare, and the dense language is not always easily understood, it gives them occasion to painstakingly deconstruct the play line by line, discovering the ways in which gesture and inflection can alter a scene’s meaning. Eventually the play will settle into something resembling a final form, but what matters to these actors is the process, the collaborative and cathartic act of creating a truthful ensemble performance.
The insights often come indirectly and the men are often surprised by them. The roles in the play were cast deliberately by the actors themselves, so most of them start off with a certain level of awareness of the parallels between themselves and their characters. But gradually they peel away layers of meaning in Shakespeare’s lines, simultaneously delving deeper into their own thoughts and emotions. And through these revelations they develop greater sympathy and understanding for one another. There is growth here as well as catharsis.
Big G, a bear of a man who looks more like a linebacker than a Shakespearian actor, offers key insights into the process: “I’ve often thought that a bunch of convicts would make great actors, because they’re used to lying and playing a role, but it’s the opposite of that. Because you have to tell the truth and inhabit a character. And that’s so scary for me and the guys in the group because we’re opening up our inner selves for everyone to see.”
It is possible that these men would be averse to conventional therapy, that bravado and machismo would not allow such a frank discussion of self. But by staging these plays they are doing something more difficult and brave, opening themselves up and examining their own lives before an audience.
We are witness to great camaraderie, moral support, friendship and compassion. They yearn for redemption. Some seek to forgive themselves; others find self-forgiveness hollow and instead seek forgiveness from friends and family, as well as from the society which has spurned them.
Just as it is can be easy to dismiss the incarcerated, it is likewise easy to sentimentalize them, to believe that these men who strut across a prison stage have put their violent impulses behind them. But Shakespeare Behind Bars will not allow us that luxury either. In wracking one-on-one interviews the prisoners open up to the filmmakers, revealing the crimes for which they have been imprisoned as well as their hopes for some kind of closure.
It can be difficult to rationalize the vibrant, passionate Shakespearians with the images they describe of violence and crime, but we cannot allow ourselves to believe that their sins are in the past merely because they are discussed in the past tense. The path to redemption is a long and arduous one and rehabilitation does not come easily.
But as much as these men may look forward to the performances for which they are rehearsing, they are really in it for the process, not the final result. For each of these men, like the play itself, is a work in progress, and the act of creation is far more rewarding that any curtain call.
Photo Courtesy Philomath Films
Inmates at Kentucky’s Luther Luckett Correctional Complex perform The Tempest in Shakespeare Behind Bars.