Monday, December 8, 2008

About the Project

“Hello humanity! Welcome back! I know first hand for certain we definitely left an overwhelmingly positive impression on both the staff and inmate population. It’s been over a week now and I’m still hearing compliments and congratulations. And the impression on my daughter’s face is forever etched in my heart, my mind and my soul. The whole nine month process was worth that smile from my daughter and my wife.”  (inmate actor)


For nine months, 15-20 prison inmates read, study, and rehearse a Shakespeare play.

Professional educators and theatre artists work with the inmates on everything from improvisation to textual analysis, stage combat and interpersonal conflict resolution.

The purpose of the project is to provide prisoners with opportunities for developing greater literacy, confidence, competence, empathy, and a sense of belonging/accountability.

The process culminates with three performances: two for other prisoners, and one for the community (family members of the incarcerated and other interested members of the public).


To learn more about our process, and our production history.


Please contact founder/director Jonathan Shailor at

Julius Caesar: Public Performance (May 2008)

Photos by Christopher Shailor (2008)

Julius Caesar (2007-2008)

On Monday, May 19, we met to reflect on our performances of "Julius Caesar," and on our 9-month process.

I asked the men to sum up what was most important about this experience in a word or two. Here's what they came up with:

empowerment (ability, confidence)
freedom (no longer feeling imprisoned)
conflict resolution
exposure (being seen as someone of value)

The next theme I asked the men to consider was how this project had helped them to take a step forward in their own development.

Drew talked about his big conflict with Teddy--the one that had simmered for weeks, and that had come to the surface when Teddy confronted Drew in the kitchen with questions about his ability and his work ethic. We spent 1-2 hours working through the issues in one of our late rehearsals, and although Drew had formally apologized to Teddy for his part in the conflict, it was still not clear to me where things stood between them.

Drew said that he had been thinking of possibly not coming to tonight's debriefing session, when he ran into Teddy in the gym. When Teddy told Drew how much he was looking forward to tonight's meeting, Drew understood that it was important, and that he needed to be here.

He then tried to explain what he learned by working through his conflict with Teddy: "I learned that just because I want it in a certain way--it doesn't mean it's going to be that way. When I get into a conflict, I can step back and say, "Let's see. What can *I* do to help address this situation?" I can see now that conflict stifles creativity. So I don't need him to be my enemy. I want him to be my friend."

(I looked over to see that Teddy was leaning forward and listening intently. His face was calm, and at moments the hint of a smile appeared.)

Drew continued: "You know, I see a parallel with all this and the controversy over Obama saying he's willing to talk to Hamas. I mean, what's the big deal? Of course you've gotta talk to your enemies. On the street, we call fighting "funkin'". And talking to each other instead of fighting is called "squashing the funk."

"Ever since I squashed the funk with Teddy good things have been happening to me. I got some money in the mail. My daughter came to visit me."

George told us that the project helped him to look past other people's differences. He stood up, and came to the front of the room as if to underline the importance of what he was about to say. "As many of you know, I had a very hard time accepting Lewis this year. [Lewis is gay.]  I mean, I was a mean motherf**ker to him, and I'm not proud of that fact. In fact, I feel like a piece of shit for having treated him that way. Because of my background, it's very difficult to accept someone like Lewis, but I have learned to accept him. I've learned to see him not for *what* he is, but for *who* he is. I consider him my friend."

Then George walked over to Lewis and put his arms around him. The rest of the men applauded. I heard someone say, "You'll never see that on the yard."

The Tempest (2006-2007)

I think it was the best Shakespeare I have ever seen. Please tell the men I was so moved by their eloquence and dignified presence onstage. Most of all I was touched by their interaction with their families, and the deep emotional commitment they gave to the show. You don't find that in regular theatre very often.

Alyssa Sorresso, Graduate, Prison Creative Arts Project, University of Michigan; Program Manager, Music Theatre Workshop, Chicago

Othello (2005-2006)

Wednesday of this week I had the opportunity to travel with a group of colleagues down to Racine to see a live performance of "Othello" in the Racine Correctional Institute. It was stunning - Shakespeare as Shakespeare was meant to be - real, raw, and electrifying. The actor who played the lead had a powerful on-stage presence and emoted real anguish. Iago was positively machiavellian. And Desdemona made me cry. It was by far the most memorable performance of the play I have ever seen - truly transformative.

Jean Feraca, Wisconsin Public Radio (June 2006)

King Lear (2004-2005)

Photos by Racine Journal Times (2005)

When Muddy Flowers Bloom:  
The Shakespeare Project at Racine Correctional Institution

by Jonathan Shailor
Published in PMLA (May 2008).  Vol. 123, No. 3, pp. 632-641

About 100 inmates are seated in the prison gym, waiting for the performance of King Lear to begin. Then Jamal, as Edmund, steps out from behind the makeshift set and paces across the stage, his sharply trimmed goatee pointing outward like an accusing finger, his burning gaze fixed on the audience. He raps: “Secret fears are brought to life on stage/ My life is in a rage, and to write my life/ One page is not enough./ But, if I had one mike I might be able to/ Escape this cage… bring Shakespeare to life through my high beams.” Appropriating Cordelia’s words, he declares that “I am not the first who have incurred the worst/ But I have concurred with those who oppose my life’s worth…”

They label me violent because I stay bottled up and silent
And although my life is like a raging sea
My heart sings… no life is quiet.

Stop complaining you say but I can’t because
I’m trapped on the stage of life’s lies
And I ask you

Why brand they us with base? With baseness?
Bastardy? Base? Base?

The inmate actors who performed King Lear in April 2005 at Racine Correctional Institution (RCI), a medium-maximum security prison in Wisconsin, are, of course, men who have been branded base. But twice a week in the prison library they have found (in the words of another of our player/poets) “a safe haven to conquer our own defeat… a sanctuary… a place to rehearse/ With a dozen or so in Shakespearean verse… We have been given a chance and a means/ to release from confinement our thoughts and our dreams” (Damian (Regan)).

Beginning in 2004, when I initiated The Shakespeare Project at RCI, I have worked there on a volunteer basis as producer, director and occasional actor alongside 34 inmates, whose participation is also voluntary. With the ongoing support and supervision of the warden and his deputy, as well as the director of education, we have produced three full-length Shakespeare plays over the past three years: King Lear, Othello, and The Tempest. Inmates and staff provide production assistance, and so far approximately 500 inmates and 200 invited guests have attended the performances. This year we are continuing the tradition with Julius Caesar.

In the following paragraphs, I will take a closer look at the genesis and development of our initial production, King Lear—in particular, the meaning of the experience from my own perspective, and from the point of view of the inmates and the community.

The Theatre of Empowerment

The Shakespeare Project at RCI has emerged from my own long-term commitment to theatre as a tool for social change. For the past 12 years, I have taught courses in “The Theatre of Empowerment” at the prison. In these courses, inmates use performance as the primary means to explore and transform their habitual ways of dealing with conflict. In our examination of alternatives, we investigate archetypal male roles (positive and negative) as presented in classical literature and popular film. Four years ago, I was ready for a new challenge, and that’s when I met Agnes Wilcox. Agnes is founder and artistic director of Prison Performing Arts (PPA) in St. Louis, Missouri. At that time she was in the final phase of The Hamlet Project, a production of the Shakespeare play that was completed act-by-act over a two-and-a-half year period at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center.

I already had many years of experience in acting and directing (including Shakespeare), and would soon play Prospero in two productions of The Tempest later that year, but I had never before considered the possibility of staging a full-length play with inmate actors—and certainly not Shakespeare; but as Agnes and I shared our stories, and she spoke of the challenge and joy of introducing inmates to the performance of classical literature, I warmed to the idea. On the spot, I announced my intention: my next project at RCI would be King Lear! Agnes smiled like a fellow conspirator, and said: “Do it.” That was all the encouragement I needed, at least at the beginning.

I decided that the overarching values of The King Lear Project would be very close to the ones I had used to guide the Theatre of Empowerment: (1) the empowerment of the individual (an increased sense of dignity, discipline, creativity, and capability); (2) the development of relational responsibility (the practice of empathy and establishing good working relationships); and (3) the cultivation of one’s moral imagination (a critical and compassionate understanding of the psychological, historical, social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of our shared humanity). I presented specific goals that would help us to realize these values: cultural literacy (familiarity and facility with Shakespeare’s language, plots, characters and themes), performance (acting ability), empathy (appreciation, respect and concern for others), insight (the ability to reflect upon and critique patterns of perceiving—thinking—feeling—acting—responding), self-awareness (the ability to apply insight to oneself), teamwork (listening to and respecting one another), and playfulness (humor, gentleness, kindness, and creativity—the healthy exercise of imagination). These values and goals have proven to be very useful as points of orientation and evaluation throughout our process.

On June 29, 2004, I presented a one-man promotion for the project in the prison gym in front of an audience of 80 inmates. Forty inmates signed up on the spot, 20 were eligible for the program (8th grade reading level, no major infractions within the past 90 days), and 17 ended up completing it almost a year later. The first class meeting and rehearsal was held in July, and for the next eight months we met every Tuesday and Thursday from 6:00-8:00 pm, in the prison library. During the ninth month of rehearsal, we met for longer periods, 4-6 times a week. Our process included theatre games and exercises, a careful line-by-line study of the play, lessons in how to perform Shakespeare, viewing and discussion of several films of Lear, training in stage combat, journal assignments, and discussions of key issues in the play.

The casting of roles was a complex process that involved a combination of professions of individual desire, group discussions, auditions, and executive decision-making by the director. Some of the initial members of the group left for various reasons: our original Fool was placed in segregation (solitary confinement) for laughing at an officer who tripped and fell down in the yard. Another man removed himself from the group upon learning that one of our members had been convicted of sexually assaulting a child. We also lost our original Lear (to a pre-release program) and Kent (to segregation). Short by several actors, we continued to recruit through much of the year. I took over the role of Lear. John, who became our Oswald, was “tricked” into participating when our assistant director (an older inmate) asked him to come to the library so they could “talk about his case.” When John arrived, he found himself at a Lear rehearsal. After some initial hesitation, he decided to stay. In a group discussion about halfway through the process, John explained why:

“I’m a vet, and I’m in here on a murder rap. I’ve only been good at bombing shit and killing people. But this play is giving me a chance to do something different—to socialize, to be with people, to go out on the streets. It’s given me a new look—not to be cold, like a dog, all the time.”

A few weeks before our performances, we talked about possible names for our fledgling theatre company. The inmates suggested names like “Free on the Inside,” “The American Prairie Players,” and “The Raising Consciousness Interplayers” (RCI). The name that generated the most interest was “The Lotus Troupe”—proposed by Russell (The Doctor). He explained that the lotus, a beautiful flower that emerges from the depths of muddy swamps, is a symbol of growth toward enlightenment. The men thought the metaphor was apt, but thought the language might be too esoteric. I suggested an earthy variation, which they enthusiastically endorsed: “The Muddy Flower Theatre Troupe.”

On April 25, 26 and 27, after nine months of study and rehearsal, we presented King Lear to two inmate audiences (about 100 men attending each performance), and one public audience (about 70 attended, including family members of the performers, prison staff and administrators, university representatives, and other members of the community). One of the cast members recalls the inmate response at the conclusion of the first performance:

“When we walked back out on stage for our curtain call I was expecting a round of applause out of courtesy. After all, there were a lot of staff and inmates in the institution who thought it was a joke. Boy I was in for a surprise. When Albany and Edgar left the stage after the last scene of the play everyone began applauding. But it did not sound like the half-hearted courtesy applause that I was expecting. Instead, it sounded like the gym was filled with rolling thunder. As we all filed back out on stage to take a bow, I saw that the whole audience was standing and clapping like they were all trying to throw their shoulders out of their sockets. They were putting their elbows into it as if they were playing crack-the-whip with their hands. I almost choked when I saw it. I felt that if what we did, was able to get that kind of reaction out of a group of our peers and staff members (some of which did not take us seriously from the start), then we had accomplished something great indeed.”

My brother Christopher, a high school drama teacher who was running his own summer Shakespeare theatre at the time, flew out from Massachusetts to observe our final rehearsals, offer encouragement and advice, and videotape our performances. (His visits have since become an annual tradition, eagerly anticipated by all of us.) Rashad (Burgundy) wrote that for him, the most engaging moment of King Lear occurred during a brush-up rehearsal the afternoon before our second performance. Someone brought a guitar, and Chris and I ended up singing a couple of songs that we had written years ago. Rashad wrote: “The interaction between adult brothers is emotional to me because my foster bro and I have those memories—but I’ve been incarcerated most of my adult life and my brother no longer wishes to hear from me… The brotherhood a cast can develop over the course of a project is something I’ve missed and wanted to be a part of for years.”

The inmates received a very warm response from the 90 guests who attended the public performance on the final evening. The cast formed a receiving line, and family, friends, and invited guests shook their hands and offered them congratulations. Damian, who played Regan, hugged and kissed his wife and his 13-year-old daughter. In his evaluation of the project, Damian wrote: “Hello humanity! Welcome back! I know first hand for certain we [definitely] left an overwhelmingly positive impression on both the staff and inmate population. It’s been over a week now and I’m still hearing compliments and congratulations. And the impression on my daughter’s face is [forever] etched in my heart, my mind and my soul. The whole nine month process was worth that smile from my daughter and my wife.”

Jamie Cheatham, an assistant professor of theatre arts at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, wrote a review of the show, which he found to be “surprisingly strong… The players embraced the language as their own… In execution, it was clear how the inmates had grown to love their lines, their new language and their characters. It was clear how much it meant for them to have an audience with which to share this new found love. The play was treated with respect and passion. As a result, despite the blue covered surroundings, the occasional blip of a security device, despite the odd fitting costumes and the necessity of full light scene changes the story was utterly engrossing. Because the players cared so much for it, so did the audience.” We also received reviews from a Shakespeare scholar (“The cast members really “got” what Lear is all about”), and the Education Director from the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre (“lovely… a performance marked by their tenacity of spirit”).

We were surprised—and thrilled—by the deluge of media coverage: Two days after the final performance, we were the lead national story in The New York Times (augmented by a slide show on the NYT web site). The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel gave us the front page. The Associated Press picked up the story, as did The Chicago Sun-Times. Local newspapers ran multiple front page stories, with dozens of photos. The Fox TV News affiliate in Milwaukee taped their story and interviews on location, and gave King Lear feature status on the 10:00 pm report. A month later, The Racine Journal-Times ran a two-page spread that documented our process from beginning to end.

Thanks to the press, we received responses and correspondence from across the country, including a class of Wisconsin high school students who shared their essays on the transformative potential of King Lear, a lawyer from Arizona who praised our efforts and donated generously, a teacher from upstate New York who felt inspired to begin her own Shakespeare production behind bars, and the Shakespeare Society from Green Bay: a group of 15 women who now travel three hours each year to attend our production and make a donation of books and funds.

The men had successfully performed one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays. They had been effective in bringing it to multiple audiences made up of inmates, family, prison staff and community. Of even greater significance is the meaning that the men made of their experiences. In the passages that follow, I will share a few of the inmates’ stories.

Gary (Cordelia)

Gary tells me that he has been in trouble with the law since he was five years old. He was taken into the care of the state at age seven and a half. “My mother has said so many times that my life is a waste, I should have never been born, I should have been the for sure abortion.” His crimes, which have “ranged in severity,” have included a fair amount of drug abuse. At the time I met him he was nearing the end of his fourth incarceration.

As was true for the other members of the cast, one of Gary’s opportunities for growth came in his developing relationship to his character (Cordelia). Early in the rehearsal process, I worked with Gary to help him access feelings appropriate to Cordelia’s emotional confrontation with her father in Act 1, Scene 1: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth…”) I asked Gary to think of an important relationship and situation in his own life where he did not feel properly seen, heard, or understood. Then I asked him to physically re-arrange myself (Lear) and the other actors in the scene so that our positions would better express his feelings about that real-life relationship/situation. Gary did this, and then we ran the scene several times. He remembered that “It felt like a 50/50 roll of the dice. But given a moment and a few run-throughs I just let what I feel daily inside edge the surface… tears of pain that swamp me from knowing that things are all messed up with my life…” Speaking as Cordelia, Gary’s shoulders heaved as he took in more oxygen, and his eyes, riveted on mine, filled with tears. Later he would reflect on this experience as “…the purest of emotional therapy… I am Cordelia in so many ways and in being her I am learning me [emphasis added].” As if to demonstrate this symbiotic relationship between himself and his character, Gary appropriated Cordelia’s voice in order to proclaim a new intention: “I beseech you prison, with wash’d eyes I see you for what you are, let this man change, let this I.D. number fall. Gary has come, and will not bow any longer.”

Guy (Cornwall)

Guy (Cornwall) is one of the older members of the cast—tall, severe, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and gaunt eyes. At a rehearsal about two months before our scheduled performance dates, we worked on cleaning up the blocking in which Cornwall orders the guards to bind Gloucester to a chair. When I interrupted the scene in order to make some changes in the blocking, Guy exploded with anger, throwing up his arms and shouting, “What! It’s different now? That’s not how we had it before. We practiced this, and now you’re changing it? It’s all out the window?!” He paced frantically. In a clear, calm voice I explained that we needed to do this, it was a small change that would solve a problem for us. The other men stood stock till while Guy continued to vent: “Oh, sure! Yeah, a small change. Whatever.” I continued: “Guy, this is something that all directors do. We’ve only rehearsed this scene a few times, so we’re still figuring things out. And in the professional theatre directors often make changes in scenes up to the last minute…” Guy got quiet. A moment later, his voice considerably calmer, he said, “Yeah. O.K.” A little while after we began to work the scene again, he took the opportunity during a pause to call out to me from his position on stage: “Hey, look. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about that.” I told him that I appreciated the apology, and that it was O.K.—I understood that I had thrown him off.

We continued working the scene, finally reaching the moment when Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes. After a grotesque and convincing simulation of the first eye gouge (by thumb), Guy dropped a small white object on the floor. It rolled about 15 feet, all the way up to my chair. I picked it up and saw that it was a plastic sphere that was carefully painted to resemble a human eye. There was some nervous appreciative laughter from some of the other men. I smiled, returned the “eyeball,” and the scene continued. A few moments later, a second eyeball dropped and rolled. After some additional laughter, I asked Guy how he had made the eyes. With guilty pleasure, he told me that he had pried the balls from roll-on deodorants. When I suggested that the image of eyeballs rolling across the stage might elicit laughter from the audience, Guy assured me that he would be able to make them drop in place.

At the end of rehearsal, Guy asked to speak with me. Looking me directly in the eyes, he said, “I just wanted to say again that I’m sorry. It’s the PTSD thing, you know. I’m a vet, Vietnam, and I’m disabled, 100%--now they call it “medically retired”—but that’s my issue. So, you know, when I think I know what’s going on, you know, down to the last detail, and then boom!—somebody switches something on me”—he demonstrated physically by reeling in front of me—“Aaargh! I really get thrown for a loop. So that’s why. Maybe I should write to you about this in my journal, what this is all about.” Bill (Gloucester), who was standing next to us, thought that was a good idea. “That’s what this class is all about—learning to work through things like this.”

Bill (Gloucester)

After the final performance of Lear, I asked the men to recall the one moment in the entire process that had been most vivid and engaging for them. Bill told this story:

“During the final performance after Gloucester’s eyes had been gouged out and I was about to throw myself over the cliffs of Dover. I had my blindfold on and as I was on my knees, hands raised into the air and I spoke these first words “O you mighty gods! This world I do renounce!” I heard my voice fill the room and echo back into my ears and I suddenly had a spiritual experience. Even though I couldn’t see, I could “feel” all the people in the audience. Each and every loved one, family and friend. I could feel them “lean” forward as it were to hear what I was going to say next. I could feel the PAIN of each one of them for those of us incarcerated. The pain of their separation of being away from their loved-one (us—the cast members) and then I felt the pain of all of us cast members (us inmates). The pain we have of being away from them---our loved ones. It was so overwhelming I could not handle it and I broke down and began to really cry! It was REAL. I was no longer acting. If it wasn’t for the music getting screwed up and snapping me out of it, I would have been there for the next 5-10 minutes blubbering. We would’ve had to probably stop the play momentarily. But it really shook me, and after I went backstage I was still bewildered by it and ever since then every time I’ve tried to talk about it—to my wife, the chaplain, other actors, friends, co-workers—I still break down—I can’t help it. I don’t understand what all happened out there, even yet. After talking to the Lord about it in prayer times all I know is that I either “broke through or into something or it broke through or into me! But I believe God is going to use it in my life as part of His plan for my life in future/present ministry. It’s like I touched the tip of the surface of the pain He has for us as His creation and the desire for everyone to be reconciled with Him and us to be with one another.”

Concluding thoughts: Shakespeare, Emotion, and Personal Transformation

In the closing speech of King Lear, Edgar proclaims: “The weight of this sad time we must obey/ Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” (V,iii, 325-6).

The “sad time” served in prison severely circumscribes emotional expression. Pain and frustration expressed in the form of anger are threats and are dealt with accordingly. “Natural responses to imprisonment” such as grief, fear and insecurity “are deemed as weaknesses and will not be tolerated”; and even the finer emotions such as pity, love and friendship are discouraged, if not derided (White, 1998).

In this repressive context, prison theatre “provides something of a refuge” where men can engage in a wide range of self-expression, where they can allow themselves to be vulnerable, and where they can forge relationships based on openness and compassion.

Too often, prison is a place where men learn fear, submission, dependence and despair; new forms of physical and emotional violence; and narrow, egocentric pathways to “success.” Arts programming in general, theatre more specifically, and Shakespeare in particular can teach something else: individual empowerment, relational responsibility, and moral imagination. Shakespeare’s plays provide a structure, a safe vehicle for this most daring journey. The strangeness, difficulty and excellence of the plays are precisely the stimulus and the container that is needed for men whose emotional lives are troubled, chaotic, and volcanic. While Shakespeare’s language at first seems formidably complex and alien, in time, the men make it their own, and through making it their own, they find a new voice. Those of us who witness their performance can no longer see them as base. We see fathers, sons, and brothers. We see members of our community, many who will soon be returning to us. Who will they be to us, and who will we be to them?

Works Cited

White, Joe. "The Prisoner’s Voice." in Prison Theatre, 183-96. Ed. James Thompson.
London: Jessica Kingsely, 1998.