Jonathan Shailor is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in the U.S., and is the founder and director of The Shakespeare Prison Project.

Here he answers some questions about his new book, Performing New Lives, which draws together some of the most original and innovative programs in contemporary prison theatre.

This is an amazing collection of ideas and practice. How did this book come together?

Theatre has always been a lifeline for me – a place where it’s safe to roam wildly, to explore new avenues of self-expression, to connect with other people, to learn more about the world, and to create something meaningful. Theatre is a refuge that restores and animates the individual soul, and the community. When I became a college professor and had the opportunity to teach at a local prison, I chose to teach theatre, so that I could offer that lifeline to men who were sorely in need of one. I worked (mostly as a volunteer) at Racine Correctional Institution, a men’s medium security prison in Sturtevant, Wisconsin (USA), from 1995 to 2008. For most of that time, I facilitated classes in the Theatre of Empowerment: performance as a vehicle for personal development. Then, in 2003, my lifelong interest in Shakespeare was revitalized by some new acting opportunities. I also became aware of a prison production of Hamlet, directed by Agnes Wilcox in Missouri. After some encouragement from Agnes, I decided to produce King Lear at the prison, using the nine-month rehearsal and production model established by Curt Tofteland with his Shakespeare Behind Bars program in Kentucky. Curt was a great supporter and advisor for me that first year. The year of Lear marked the beginning of my Shakespeare Prison Project, which continued in subsequent years with productions of Othello, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar.

In 2007, I attended the first-ever national conference on Arts in Corrections in Philadelphia, and it was there that I put out my call for book chapters on prison theatre. Several of the contributors are people who were supporters or collaborators during my years with The Shakespeare Prison Project, and others were people I had never heard of, but who were doing amazing work. My intention has been to create a community of prison theatre facilitators, including (but certainly not limited to) those who contributed to the book.

Read interviews with contributors Curt Tofteland, Brent Buell and Laura Bates.

What is prison theatre, what are its goals, and why does it work?

Prison theatre is any kind of performance work done by incarcerated individuals, whether on their own initiative, or with the help of an outside facilitator. Prisoners can be involved in some or all aspects of production (acting, directing, music and sound, scene and costume design, properties, publicity, programs), although mainly they are involved as actors. The material they perform ranges from classical works to contemporary pieces, and to original works developed from their own life experiences.

While there is some variation in the principles and practices followed by prison theatre artists, all seem to agree that the primary value of their work is in creating opportunities for prisoners to develop greater empathy, social responsibility, self-awareness, self-discipline, self-esteem – and what is sometimes referred to as “moral imagination.”

Prison theatre works because it provides a sanctuary apart from the harsh prison environment, where it is safer to be vulnerable, to self-disclose, and to experiment with new ways of expressing oneself and relating to other people. There is both support, and structure. We have a play to perform. We are accountable to one another. In programs that culminate with performances for prison audiences, and (especially) public audiences, there is an opportunity for prisoners to display and celebrate the culmination of their weeks or months of hard work. They can show themselves to themselves in the mirror of the audience, as people of value, as people who can make a contribution.

One young man in my program, Peter (not his real name) robbed a pizza parlor when he was 19. Because he wielded a knife and duct-taped two employees to chairs, he was convicted on multiple counts. When I met him he was in the seventh year of his 30-year sentence for those convictions. When he committed his crime, one might say that Peter had acted the role of the “angry young man.” In prison, he seemed to me and to the staff that knew him, like a sensitive, intelligent and even promising young man who was in danger of becoming a lost soul. The Shakespeare Prison Project gave him an opportunity to perform in a play for the first time in his life. He played the role of Ferdinand in The Tempest, and he helped to compose and perform original music for the play. At the public performance, his mother and sisters wept openly. His seven-year-old daughter, who had never seen him before without his prison uniform, now saw him dressed like royalty. She gave her father a big hug at the end of the performance, and exclaimed, “My Daddy is a prince!”

What challenges do you face in implementing prison theatre programs? Are inmates generally receptive to the idea? What about correctional professionals and the wider world?

There are challenges in gaining access to a prison, in developing relationships with prison staff and administrators, in negotiating the prison culture, and in building a sustainable program that is responsive to the needs of the institution. There are challenges in maintaining appropriate boundaries between facilitators and inmates. There are challenges in responding to conflicts that can develop between inmates, and between prisoners and staff. All of the contributors to the book address at least some challenges, showing us what worked and what didn’t work in their particular setting.

There is always a group of inmates that shows immediate interest, and then as a program becomes established, that interest generally grows. When I introduced my Shakespeare program, 80 prisoners came to the initial presentation, 40 asked for more information about the program, and 20 were deemed eligible to participate. About 100 inmates attended each of our performances that first year, and in the years that followed, they kept coming. And there was always a fresh crop of actors wanting to join the program.

Many prison educators (though not all) understand the value of a theatre program, and when they hear of already established programs, they often look for ways to start something where they are. Prison officers (guards) have a range of responses, from indifference to interest, bemusement, and disgust. Wardens vary widely in their responses, and for obvious reasons, their support (or lack of support) can have a tremendous effect on a program. My last warden told me that quite frankly, he didn’t “get” Shakespeare. He claimed that his only exposure to Shakespeare’s works prior to the inmate performances was an episode of the TV comedy Gilligan’s Island, in which the castaways attempted a performance of Hamlet.

As for the wider world, there are generally three responses: people either immediately see the value of prison theatre, and are genuinely moved by the efforts of facilitators and inmates, or they are skeptical of the benefits, or they are angry, believing that prisoners are somehow being pampered.

How does prison theatre benefit ex-inmates once they have been released from prison?

Prison theatre can help inmates to develop self-confidence, empathy, and a greater sense of responsibility and accountability to others. The anecdotal and statistical evidence is overwhelming: prisoners who participate in theatre and in other educational programming always show a lower rate of recidivism than the general prison population. Since 95% of all prison inmates return to society, we all benefit when they have opportunities to preserve and cultivate their own humanity during their time behind bars.

Find out more about the ‘Performing New Lives’ U.S. Book Tour!

Visit for ongoing postings from the book tour, updates on contributors to the book, and information on prison arts more generally.

Learn more about Jonathan’s Shakespeare Prison Project.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

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