—from The Tempest
n last week's issue, Back Stage featured the innovative theatre program Rehabilitation Through the Arts, which helps prepare inmates of New York's Sing Sing prison for re-entering life on the outside. As we reported, studying theatre and performing has proved enormously beneficial to a number of inmates; RTS graduate David Wayne Britton and Yale drama grad Charles S. Dutton (The L Word, Gothika) even became professional actors after leaving prison.
This week we feature another theatre education program making tremendous differences in the lives of prisoners, many of whom will never get the opportunity to study acting formally, audition for a role, or even leave prison.
Actor, writer, and documentary filmmaker Hank Rogerson followed the members of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the medium-security Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Ky., throughout their rehearsals of The Tempest, from the first day when the prisoners cast themselves in their roles to the final performance complete with costumes, masks, and a rapt audience of family and friends. Rogerson said filming the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars took more than a year, following program founder and director Curt Tofteland as he rehearsed with the inmates twice per week.
Rogerson, who studied with the classical repertory company A Noise Within and performs at Bang Improv Studios in Hollywood, chronicled life on a Native American reservation in his documentary Homeland but was eager to tackle theatre as a nonfiction subject. "I wanted to make a documentary, and I'm always on the lookout for a film about acting," he said. When he came across an article about Shakespeare Behind Bars in American Theatre magazine, he knew he'd found his subject. "As an actor, I was drawn to the idea of putting on a production against all odds," he explained. He and the inmates encountered many of the same challenges and stumbling blocks professional productions face, such as an actor dropping out (by landing in solitary confinement), personalities clashing during rehearsals, fits of stage fright, and opening-night anxiety.
Determined to let the prisoners' humanity come through in the documentary, Rogerson introduced their personalities, pasts, and thoughts about Shakespeare before revealing their crimes. "I wanted to throw away judgment. Let's find out who they are first," he said. Just as the men of Sing Sing related to King Lear, the Luther Lucket company found the Tempest's themes of violence, isolation, tragedy, and fleeting forgiveness all too easy to understand. Even Red, the inmate unwillingly cast as Miranda, finds similarities between himself and Prospero's cherished, virtuous daughter.
Meditations on the similarities between criminals and actors in general abounded as the group of inmates naturally took to the play. Tofteland notes in the documentary that Shakespeare would have thought it a natural fit: "Actors back in the Elizabethan period were thought of as pickpockets and thieves, rapists, and murders." Big G, who tackles the role of Caliban, later comments, "I've often thought a group of convicts would make good actors because they're used to lying or playing a role. But it's the exact opposite of that, because [acting is] to tell the truth and to inhabit a character."
Rogerson agrees wholeheartedly. "Who's acting and who's telling the truth?" he queried. "The best acting is truth; you're not trying to be somebody else. You bring your own true self to it."
The actor-director has been on the road with Shakespeare since it premiered and was nominated for the documentary grand jury prize at Sundance in 2005, and it still serves as his reminder of how art can be possible even under the direst circumstances. "It's an incredible effort to create art, to be creative," he concluded. "This really shows that you can create anywhere."