Thursday, December 13, 2012

Nick embraces his daughter after his performance in The Tempest, 
 at Racine Correctional Institution, Sturtevant, Wisconsin

The Voyage Home:

The Shakespeare Prison Project Beyond Bars

Starring Nick Leair 
Alumnus of The Shakespeare Prison Project 

Hosted by Jonathan Shailor
Founder and Director, The Shakespeare Prison Project

with special guests
 Kelley Ristow of The Back Room Shakespeare Project
and Alex Metalsky, Theatre Arts Major, University of Wisconsin-Parkside  
JANUARY 13, 2013, 2:00 PM




for more information: email

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Theatre of Empowerment

Left to right:  Inmates who played the roles of Mark Anthony, Julius Caesar, and Caius Cassius,
in the Racine Correctional Institution production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (2007-2008)

Below:  an excerpt from "Slaying Shakespeare," a new feature article about The Shakespeare Prison Project by Heather Laing.  Published 12-5-12 in Curb: Where Identities Intersect (an online and print magazine produced by students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).  To see the full article, click here.
The Theatre of Empowerment

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. Ninety-five percent of these individuals will ultimately be released back into society. Prison programs such as The Shakespeare Prison Project are aimed at increasing empathy, self-discovery and conflict resolution among those facing time behind bars. The hope is that inmates will gain valuable skills that will help them weave back into the fabric of their communities once they are released.

Jonathan Shailor, associate professor of communication at UW-Parkside and founder and director of The Shakespeare Prison Project, has been facilitating “theatre of empowerment” classes in prisons and other settings for more than 15 years. His goal with the classes and The Shakespeare Prison Project was to use performance techniques to explore how people cope with conflict.
Inmates worked as a team over a nine-month period to study and rehearse all aspects of one of Shakespeare’s plays. With twice-a-week rehearsals, the program provided structure, a creative outlet and a valuable support system within the prison network. It also offered inmates the chance to publicly display their hard work during three performances, two for inmate audiences and one for family and other invited guests. During the project’s four-year run, Shailor, 55, led groups in performing King Lear, Othello, The Tempest and Julius Caesar. 

“I think Shakespeare is fantastic in terms of teaching us about what it means to be human, exploring the full range of human emotion,” says Shailor, referring to his belief that connecting with Shakespearean characters can develop a greater self-awareness, discipline and moral reasoning.
And among inmates, this seemed to ring true. [Ex-offender Nicholas Leair] approached his role as Ferdinand, prince of Naples, with a hunger to learn and a desire to succeed.

“I completely just immersed myself in my character, and I dedicated my soul to that performance the three times that we did it and every time that we rehearsed. It was just who I was,” Leair says, passion resonating in his voice.

After experiencing a sincere connection to his character, Leair confidently felt he could have taken on any role and been able to relate. During rehearsals Leair and other participants would write journal entries juxtaposing their experiences with the play and real life scenarios, detailing their own crimes and the resulting impact on their families and victims. Through these introspective writing assignments and participation in group discussions, Leair acquired essential skills, universally valuable both behind and beyond bars.

He learned perspective. He learned to consider consequences. He learned to consider how all parties felt in relationships and situations. And most importantly, he learned how this related to the outside world.

“With my daughter or with my neighbor or with my victims, just to be able to really dig down deep and try to get a better understanding of myself and of them and being able to make that connection,” Leair says.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hopeful news...

In August of this year, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections cancelled the Shakespeare Prison Project (TSP) at Racine Correctional Institution, a medium-security correctional facility in Sturtevant, Wisconsin.  TSP was scheduled to begin rehearsals for Hamlet on September 4, but the plan screeched to a halt when the DOC rejected a Wisconsin Humanities Council grant proposal that claimed the project was a valuable resource in inmate education, rehabilitation and reintegration.  I learned that those claims obliged the DOC to evaluate my proposal using the same rigorous standards applied to "evidence-based" programs that are already in place in corrections. 

Over the past several months, I have been in conversation with the DOC, pleading for a reconsideration of the decision.  The movement to "Save The Shakespeare Prison Project" has also received considerable media attention, and a good deal of public support (over 800 people have signed a petition in support of the project).  

When the new Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Edward Wall, took office in early November 2012, I asked him to review the decision to cancel The Shakespeare Prison Project.

After holding conversations with his administrators, Secretary Wall sent me an email that (1) supported the original decision to cancel, (2) expressed appreciation for my devotion to the project, and (3) invited me to submit a revised proposal that would address outstanding concerns.*  Yesterday, Racine Correctional Institution Warden John Paquin acknowledged receipt of the new proposal, for HAMLET.  It is now under review, with a decision expected in early 2013.

*The revised proposal explicitly addresses concerns about the scale of the project, which in the past required shutting down the prison gym for several days, and other major accommodations at the correctional facility.  The revised proposal also addresses long-standing security concerns associated with bringing in large numbers of guests, props, and costumes.  Finally, the proposal addresses the one issue that prompted this year's cancellation:  it does not include any implications that The Shakespeare Project is an officially sanctioned DOC "program" that holds the status of other "evidence-based" programs.

Stay tuned...