Behind Prison Walls: Shakespeare comes to Folsom Prison
Twenty-one inmates participated in the first Shakespeare program at Folsom State Prison on May 29, exploring themes of honor, betrayal, loyalty and power in “Julius Caesar.”
Brought to the prison by the Marin Shakespeare Company, this debut play was the result of months of hard work by inmates. The Marin Shakespeare Company’s teachers led the inmates in learning all aspects of theater arts, from learning lines and choosing costumes to exploring emotions and drawing parallels between Shakespeare’s work and modern experiences.
Marin Shakespeare Company, located in Marin, began the successful theater program at San Quentin State Prison in 2003. Now running programs at seven state prisons, Marin Shakespeare Company is dedicated to restorative justice, fostering nonviolent communication, positive self-expression and instilling a lifelong love of theater arts.
“The program combines drama therapy inspired exercise with a performance of a Shakespeare play,” said Lesley Currier, managing director of Marin Shakespeare Company. “We do a lot of hard work that requires self-reflection, self-expression, teamwork, creativity and creative problem solving. An example is figuring out how to kill Caesar on stage without really killing the actor.”
Currier said in prison, the inmates turn off their emotions in order to survive, but through the program, she has heard the men express how it changed their perspective on life.
“We believe that this kind of artistic expression helps men who sometimes had to turn off their emotions in order to survive in a prison environment. It helps them reconnect with their humanity and who they really are. It helps them remember that they can play different parts; they don’t have to play the part they have been cast in of a convict or a criminal,” she said. “We hear a lot of men say this is the one place they feel they can really be themselves. We hear a lot of men say it inspires them to try to live their lives the best they can and see what they can do to be the best person they can be. That is what we hope this program can do, and we see it every day.”
Director Lynn Baker said during the production’s practices, they don’t just work on the play, but each week, they bring in a new element or theme.
“Every week, we bring in a different element or theme of something that we want them to look at in themselves and their characters,” she said. “We ask them how their character would feel in a certain scene, as well as how they would feel themselves.”
During the day of the event, the inmates had jitters, but were excited to perform for the first and only time for their peers – other inmates. They had been working hard for the past eight months and were ready to show their skills.
Inmate Anthony Harmon, 24, has been with the program since they very beginning and has really learned and understood his character, Mark Antony.
“I am an introvert and kind of socially awkward,” he said. “This has helped a lot because before I had fears of speaking in public and stuff. This is something new, and it has brought me out of my shell.”
Before the performance, Harmon said he was excited about performing because his character had to deliver an emotional speech.
“I have a scene where I make a speech. It’s heartfelt with a lot of emotion. I am excited to convey that speech with as much emotion as I can,” he said. “I have always had an interest in acting, so I have loved this entire experience. I don’t regret anything.”
Harmon said working on the play during practices is different than being out in the courtyard.
“My favorite part about this experience is the fact that there are so many barriers that get broken down in here,” he said. “When you are outside, it’s not the same. When you come in here, all the troubles, all the worry, you leave it behind. It’s a way to take these suppressed emotions you have clotted up and use them in a healthy way.”
Inmate Melkean Huff, 42, said he had never performed Shakespeare before, but when he heard about it, he wanted to give it a shot. Huff played the role of Brutus.
“I have been interested in acting to a degree,” he said. “My favorite part of this performance has been losing myself in the character. The time I have spent in here for rehearsals with the rest of the group, it doesn’t feel like I am in prison – it’s like an escape, and it feels really good.”
Shakespeare at Folsom State Prison is part of Arts in Corrections, an initiative of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and California Arts Council to bring arts programming to all California prisons.