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The Setting And The Scene: Inside 'Shakespeare Behind Bars'

Hal Cobb as Malvolio.
Hal Cobb as Malvolio.

Most theaters are merely spaces. Sometimes they're fancy, with expensive lights, a grand drape, cushy seats. Sometimes they're sparse, black boxes with minimal technical support. Sometimes they're simple blank rooms.

But usually the theater, however grand or humble, is only a space. It’s what happens inside that matters. To quote the Bard: “The play’s the thing.”

When you drive out to LaGrange, Kentucky, and enter Luther Luckett Correctional Facility to see the inmates of Shakespeare Behind Bars perform, it’s impossible to separate the action of the play from the environment of the theater. Luther Luckett is one of seven sites that offers the program to inmates, youth offenders or at-risk youth. This week, they’ve had public performances of their production of "Twelfth Night."

To get into a performance of Shakespeare Behind Bars, you have to submit an application weeks in advance, fill out a form and submit to a criminal background check. When you arrive at the prison, you go through a metal detector, and you aren’t allowed to bring much of anything inside. You hand over your photo ID to a guard, who gives you a yellow bracelet with a number.

Then you go through a series of heavy doors, made of thick tempered glass, and walk back outside, only now you are inside. The fences are 20 feet tall and topped with razor wire. You walk between the fences and stare down a long interior road, with short barracks-style buildings on each side. There are guard towers. In the daylight you can see inmates walking around, off down the lane. But after only a few feet, you turn turn right and enter the chapel, where you sit down and watch a play.

'The Guys'

Matt Wallace, better known for the last two and a half years as the artistic director of The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, has been working with SBB as its facilitator since 2008, though he’s been watching shows and volunteering since he first joined Kentucky Shakes as an actor back in 2001.

He calls the members of SBB “the guys,” and when you talk to him about the program, there is a palpable love in his voice. You might think that because he’s Shakespearing full-time in Central Park, he’d have stopped his work at Luther Luckett. You’d be wrong.

“When I got the job at Kentucky Shakespeare in 2013, one of my first thoughts was, oh my gosh, what am I gonna do about the guys,” Wallace said in an interview with WFPL.

He’s shared the work a bit with Keith McGill, the youth facilitator for SBB, and he brought in director and educator Kathi Ellis (an occasional WFPL contributor) to help lighten the load. But Wallace still makes the drive out to LaGrange most Saturdays.

“It would kill me to not be a part of this work,” he said.

Wallace said a few of “the guys” have worked with SBB since the beginning, 21 years ago, and that many more have been there for more than a decade. This isn’t a random collection of prisoners who just happen to be bored. This is a group of men dedicated to the Bard.

“If someone is interested, the first thing they have to do is have one year clear conduct,” said Wallace. “That’s a tricky thing in prison.”

After an inmate has a full year of good behavior, he has to find a sponsor within the group. Then he'll spends a year as an apprentice before becoming a full member of SBB. In this year’s company, there is one apprentice, Timothy Falk.

Wallace said the rehabilitative power of theater is enormous.

“It’s so incredibly strong, but particularly with Shakespeare Behind Bars, we see that we’re rehabilitating these guys," he said. "We’re teaching skills, modeling skills, and some of those skills they never had.”

Wallace isn’t talking about the acting skills, per se. “They’re  getting more tools in their emotional toolbox, they’re being able to express their emotions in a safe place, so hopefully they don’t act out in other ways," he said.

Each member reads the chosen play and submits his choice for a part. If an inmate wants a role no one else requests, he gets that part. But if more than one person wants the same role, the inmates sit down and talk it out, sharing why that role speaks to them. They decide together who plays the part.

The men often have deeply personal reasons for choosing their parts.

“When I read she’d lost her brother in a shipwreck, it made me think of the relationship with my brother, in the shipwreck of my life," said William Whitehouse, who played Lady Viola.

'Twelfth Night'

This year SBB produced "Twelfth Night," a comedy with all the familiar elements. There’s love, bawdy humor, mistaken identity, disguises, a pompous man being played for the fool, and a happy ending with multiple love matches made.

The chapel in which SBB performs is one of those more humble theater spaces. There is no theatrical lighting, and the sets are a single row of flats that create a backdrop and a small backstage area. Costumes must be worn over the men’s tan prison uniforms, and the telltale khaki peeks out from under every robe and tunic. Of course, Luther Luckett is a men’s prison, so men play all the roles, even the ladies like Olivia and Violet.

Despite these elements, which could be seen as detrimental to creating a complete illusion, "Twelfth Night" worked. It was funny, hilarious even. But it also had more pathos than your typical production. Moments took on extra layers of meaning. When the pompous Malvolio is locked in a prison cell as part of a joke gone too far, it’s impossible to miss that the art is mirroring the lives of the inmates performing it.

The Playbill

During the brief intermission, when many of the company members came out to spend a few moments with their family members or friends who made up a large portion of the audience, I thumbed through the program.

It’s a full oversized document, 32 pages long, all content save a single page of ads. It’s full of artistic statements from Matt Wallace and SBB founder Curt Tofteland, quotes from Shakespeare and information about the company. In lieu of traditional actors bios, each member of SBB has written a personal statement. There are even full sonnets, like Sonnet 29, which begins with the lines: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I alone beweep my outcast state…”

Like many of the moments in "Twelfth Night" itself, the lines take on additional meaning given the setting.

The layout of the program, and much of the material, was generated or chosen by the men. Even the printing is done in-house. There's a print shop in the facility that produces magazines, letterhead for local businesses and stickers for Kentucky licenses plates.

The personal essays are revealing. Some of the men, like Hal Cobb, a longtime company member who has won awards for his writing, are a little more polished and philosophical. Others delve into their authors’ personal lives, and how SBB has affected them. Some are shorter and offer a simpler explanation of their passion for SBB.

Stephen Riddle writes: “I love being in SBB. It gives me the chance to feel like I’m out of prison for just a little while.”

After a performance this week, during a talk back with the audience, a returning member of SBB introduced as “Vince” spoke up. Vince had served his full time and finished parole, making him eligible to visit Luther Luckett.

“This is the first time in awhile we’ve been able to have somebody back” said Wallace.

He added that seeing a person succeed outside of Luther Luckett gives the members of SBB an extra burst of hope.

And for the guys, he said, "hope is an amazing thing.”


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