Perhaps it’s just the inner drama geek talking, but there’s something extremely compelling about seeing hardened felons preparing to put on a classic play with the enthusiasm of giddy schoolgirls. Like many of us, these violent men undoubtedly considered Shakespeare highbrow and stuffy in the outside world, but in attempting to find the truth of it all as incarcerated actors, they discover elements universal enough to apply to themselves, and open up to the troubles they’ve seen and caused.
If documentaries about the stage aren’t your thing, you may feel differently. But if you’ve previously appreciated the likes of OT: Our Town (Compton high-schoolers do Thornton Wilder) or This So-Called Disaster (famous actors directed by Sam Shepard in his own play), Shakespeare Behind Bars is another worthy addition to the “unusual drama department” subgenre of documentary.
Needless to say, a prison that would allow a drama program isn’t the sort of hardass chamber of horrors that some people might wish to inflict on society’s murderers and molesters; rather, the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky, is focused on education and rehabilitation above and beyond merely keeping dangerous people locked up. “The day they walk in, we should start preparing them for the day they walk out,” says the warden, noting that there are more than sixty educational programs in place, and he sees Shakespeare as part of that.
Director Hank Rogerson (Homeland) films the Shakespeare program in its eighth year as the group performs The Tempest, Shakespeare’s final play, as a sort of farewell to many of the members who are up for parole. It doesn’t hurt that the play’s setting — an island under the control of an all-powerful authority figure — is particularly easy to relate to. Or as troupe member Gene puts it: “There’s a lot of stuff to this play!”
Curt, the volunteer director of the program, thinks Shakespeare himself would be very happy with it, because actors and stagepeople in Elizabethan times were perceived as pickpockets and lowlifes, and he imagines a playwright would find solidarity among such people. While that’s perhaps debatable, one could make a case that the best possible Method actors for the Bard are convicts. Who better to understand, say, Othello, than a man who actually has strangled his wife? Prison also offers the authentically Shakespearean-era touch of forcing men to play women, and while the frail-looking bisexual actor Red initially protests being cast as Miranda (because he’d like the option of choosing), he does concede that he’s probably the best one for the job, and doesn’t object for too long.
You might think that one problem a prison troupe wouldn’t have to worry about is actor unavailability, but it happens when people misbehave and get sent to solitary, or behave well and get paroled early. But for those who are sent to the hole, there is at least plenty of reading time to bone up on the next production.
Most of those involved in the program — the ones we see interviewed, at least — committed crimes at a young age and have “grown up” behind bars. Many of their stories are similar, involving parental abuse that they reacted to by murdering argumentative wives who reminded them of Mom or Dad. It comes as a surprise to at least one of them that Antonio, the villain of The Tempest, “does not get what he deserves.” The play is about forgiveness, and by performing it some of the inmates begin to forgive themselves.
“Not talking is what got me here,” says Hal, the most vocal member of the group, and the one who most resembles a real-life drama teacher. Behind bars, he hosts an in-house TV show that reports on such breaking news as the fact that inmates in the yard are not using the correct ashtrays as much as they should. It’s hard to imagine he was ever a quiet type; more likely he just never truly communicated before. Now in the lead role of Prospero, he even gets to visit other prisons to perform. Thanks to this documentary, however, you don’t have to get arrested to watch him tap into his inner Stanislavski. It’s to everyone’s benefit that these men have gained a better understanding of themselves through art, and it’s to your benefit as a moviegoer that Rogerson has documented the discovery via his art.