The Great Barred

The Great Barred

Shakespeare survives in a Kentucky prison

Words by Jonathan Shipley

“This above all,” says Polonius, “to thine own self be true.” It is spoken in Act 1, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s beloved play, “Hamlet.” “And it must follow,” Polonius continues, “as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” 

Night follows day in La Grange, Kentucky, and day follows night, as the actor playing Polonius takes off his costume and returns to his khakis. The actor played Hamlet at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. The actor is one of the many men incarcerated there. He is a participant in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, now in its 26th year. The actor, with the help of the Bard, has found a bit more of his true self behind bars, as the night to day and the day to night in a Kentucky prison.

“They ask themselves questions,” Curt Tofteland, the founder and producing director of the nonprofit Shakespeare Behind Bars answers when asked what performing Shakespeare does for the inmates. “What does it mean to be human? Who am I, authentically? What do I love? How will I live my life knowing I will die? What is my gift to humankind?”

With all of Shakespeare’s works, Tofteland believes, it’s not the finding of answers but the asking of questions.

But, then again, finding truths is at the heart of the project. “We’ve worked with inmates and preschoolers, cancer patients and veterans and, no matter what, they find something in Shakespeare that resonates with them.” This from Matt Wallace, the director and facilitator of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange. It’s been his role since 2008. He is also the producing artistic director of Kentucky Shakespeare, and has been since 2013. “Shakespeare is life and death,” he says. “He brings up so much in us. He makes us feel the way we’re supposed to feel.” Working with inmates for many hours over the course of a year on a single Shakespearean production, Wallace believes performing Shakespeare “develops empathy, enriches emotional vocabulary, and teaches us all what it means to be human.” 

The humans performing Shakespeare in a Kentucky prison have done hard time for doing bad things. Performing for other prisoners and, from time to time, the general public on prison grounds, the actors have been thieves and rapists, child molestors and murderers. They’ve done heinous crimes. They’ve also played Titus Andronicus on stage, and Julius Caesar. They’ve played characters such as Ophelia and Juliet to great acclaim. “Punishment doesn’t change behavior,” notes Tofteland for those who think prisoners should be locked up and have the keys thrown away. “The only thing that can change it in prison is programming.” The Shakespeare Behind Bars program can change thinking. Thinking can change one’s actions. The actions, quite literally, of a man playing Hamlet on stage can profoundly change that man’s life.

Wallace agrees. “Ninety-seven percent of prisoners get out at some point. They’re going to be our neighbors. I want them to have empathy. I want them to be responsible. I want them to see themselves as contributors to our society. The arts can change lives. It is a powerful vehicle to prevent crime.” Statistics back his claims. The national average for prison recidivism is 77 percent. In Kentucky, it’s 41 percent. For inmates participating in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, it’s 6 percent.

The nonprofit, which has programs in Kentucky, Michigan, and Illinois, was founded by Tofteland on the belief that all human beings are inherently good. “Although some convicted criminals have committed heinous crimes against other human beings,” the organization’s vision statement reads, “the inherent goodness still lives deep within them and can be called forth by immersing participants in the safety of a circle-of-trust and the creative process.” That creative process can be a duel in “Hamlet,” or witches hovering over a cauldron in “Macbeth.” It can be a man turned into an ass in A Midsummer Night's Dream,” or the feisty independent Beatrice in “Much Ado about Nothing.”

Wallace likes doing Shakespeare’s comedies with the actors. “The men get an opportunity to laugh.” “Much Ado about Nothing” and “Twelfth Night are some of his favorite Shakespeare plays. “How often do they get to experience joy? That’s just as much a part of life as anything, or, at least, should be.” For Tofteland, he returns again and again to “Hamlet.” “I could teach it all my life and still learn truths from it.” “Hamlet,” he feels, can resonate deeply with the inmates.

“Those famous words,” he says, “ ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question.’ Who, truly, were they? Are they? Who do they want to be?” Hamlet is trying to understand himself. It’s something from which an inmate can take much.

And inmates have. When the program began in the facility in Kentucky, there were 11 inmates. Now, the typical ensemble has 20 to 30 members. Since its inception in 1995, over 110 inmates have completed at least one year in the program, and over 70 members are currently back in society.

One actor in the program, featured in the award-winning Philomath Films documentary, “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” is named Hal. In the documentary he played the role of Prospero in “The Tempest.” According to Tofteland, Hal has performed more Shakespeare characters than most any professional actor in the world. Hal has been in prison for over 30 years. He still is. His next parole hearing is in 2025. He murdered his pregnant wife. “No one wants to be remembered for their worst moments,” Tofteland says. “You came into this world naked and alone, and you will leave it naked and alone. In life, you take experiences and leave deeds. What will be your legacy?”

The COVID-19 pandemic kept the organization out of the prison for the last year, the organization’s 25th. They’re eager to bring it back to Luther Luckett once it’s safe to do so and create a new troupe of actors. “They blow me away,” Wallace says. “The way they nobly present truth.” It will prove challenging upon their return to prison grounds. In addition to COVID curtailing things, much of the administration at Luther Luckett has changed since the last performance. “There will be a lot of learning,” Wallace says, “and a lot of healing.”

An inmate steps forward. It’s “Hamlet,” Act 2, Scene 2. “Come, give us a taste of your quality. Come, a passionate speech. Welcome, welcome to all of you.” A welcome indeed, for inmates and audiences. A quality of life, from night to day.