Shakespeare for prisoners? Seattle's Engaged Theatre Program brings "Julius Caesar" and other classic works by Shakespeare into Washington State correctional facilities. It can be a rare, enriching experience for actors and inmates alike.
Larry Lloyd has never before seen or read a play by William Shakespeare. In fact, he’s never seen a live play of any kind.
Yet here he is, a uniform-clad guy in his 20s sitting on a gym floor, riveted, as a few feet away Seattle actor Sylvester Kamara, playing Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar,” delivers the famous oration at Caesar’s funeral in sonorous tones: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!”
This summer, Lloyd, an inmate in the medium-security unit of Monroe Correctional Complex, and hundreds of others at Snoqualmie’s Echo Glen Children’s Center, Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, and Monroe’s Twin Rivers unit (which houses sex offenders) have lent their ears to Shakespeare’s mellifluous verse.
Thanks to this touring version of “Julius Caesar” by Freehold Theatre’s Engaged Theatre Program, which stars professional actors, dancers and musicians, offenders like Lloyd have received a rare chance to commune with the greatest of playwrights.
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Founded in 2003 by teacher-director Robin Lynn Smith, who is the head of Seattle’s Freehold drama school, Engaged Theatre’s shows can be rare and meaningful experiences for performers and viewers.
“It’s a wonderful challenge to say to people who have no background in theater, ‘Hey, come listen to a great story!’ ” says Smith, an impassioned, dedicated mainstay of the local drama scene. “I remember this guy came up to me when we did ‘A Winter’s Tale’ at Monroe a few years ago and said, ‘Hey, this is cool! Has this guy written anything else?’ “
This is the fifth year Reginald Andre Jackson, who plays Brutus in the show, has worked with Engaged Theatre. He keeps taking the gig, with its modest pay and rustic conditions, for “the appreciation. These people are so amazed and happy we’ve come to perform for them. They’re really attentive and have an openness and honesty in their response I haven’t seen before.”
Somewhat under the radar, theater artists have been bringing drama and other cultural offerings into prisons for decades. Locally, respected choreographer Pat Graney instigates participatory dance programs in prisons. And Seattle’s Pongo Teen Writing Program, led by poet Richard Gold, encourages youths in detention to read and write poetry. Cultural events introduce offenders to a world of creation rather than destruction.
According to arts-in-prisons expert Grady Hillman, several states (California, Oklahoma and Massachusetts) have documented that beefing up arts programs in adult prisons can reduce a facility’s “incident rate” of violence and theft by 60 to 90 percent.
Marjorie Petersen, the Monroe complex’s community-partnership programs specialist, sees benefits that are less quantifiable but also positive.
“I’m thrilled they come here,” Petersen says. “The inmates get so much from it because it draws them out to talk about their own experiences and connects them to the larger society.”
But even Petersen had her doubts initially about the focus on Shakespeare.
“I thought: Really, are the guys going to get it? I wasn’t sure. But Smith adapts the plays to make them very understandable.”
Smith says she learns by trial and error what goes over in a prison exercise yard or gym, where the inmates usually attend by choice. “Julius Caesar” stays lively with music and dance in the experimental Japanese Butoh style.
The well-trained actors speak loud and clear, making the intent of the dialogue and action accessible. The play’s “Roman rabble” sometimes race through the crowd, chanting or waving flags, to the laughter and surprise of audience members.
And in a place where weapons are strictly verboten, duels with sticks rather than swords are excitingly enacted. And Caesar is killed by conspirators wielding invisible knives — to the loud interjection of one Monroe inmate, “They doing him dirty!”
Always, there is an after-show discussion. And always, the actors are a diverse crew.
“We cast all the way across ethnic, race and gender lines,” Smith notes. “It’s expected of us, to reflect the people we’re performing for.”
Smith may trim hefty scripts down to about 90 minutes, but she’s adamant every word spoken is Shakespeare’s. “His characters are so multilayered and so fully human. They give people from very different backgrounds a way to find our commonality.”
William Cleveland, head of the Bainbridge Island-based Center for Art and Community and a pioneer in bringing arts into prisons, sees another effect.
“With Shakespeare, you enter into this relationship with deep thinking about character, but through a side door, through the imagination,” he says. “One of the conditions you encounter in prison is that people often have a short-range or broken imagination. And having a strengthened imagination connects you to hope, to envision a future.”
Graney, who encouraged Smith and helped her cut through state red tape to tour to Monroe, adds that even if one can’t fully comprehend Shakespeare’s verse, “the language is so beautiful, and every human being recognizes the beauty and transformational power of that language. And Shakespeare was a hip dude, y’know?”
While some states provide funding for arts-in-prisons programs, Washington does not. To raise the $55,000 budget for “Julius Caesar,” which includes transporting large sets and 31 actors, dancers, musicians and technicians to facilities, Engaged Theatre sought gifts from individuals, private foundations, King County’s 4Culture agency and the National Endowment for the Arts.
After “Julius Caesar” is finished at Monroe, about 50 inmates cluster near the stage, eager to comment and ask questions. One wonders what it’s like to act a role. Another asks about the significance of dance in the piece. Others simply express gratitude. All are encouraged to sign up for a participatory workshop on “Julius Caesar” with the actors, to follow later.
Inmate Larry Lloyd has been attentive and enthused throughout. What he most enjoyed, he says, is “the creativeness in it. The way they had Caesar die onstage, it was unique. It was like, a spirit thing. And the way the Roman people were all around. A lot of people were so talented and creative, so well-spoken. It was great.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com