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The Globe Theatre Delivers Shakespeare Behind Bars

Two programs use the Bard to help rehabilitate prisoners

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Last November Globe for All performed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in side Centinela State Prison.

GUESTS:

Freedome Bradley-Ballentine, arts engagement director, Old Globe Theatre

Beth Accomando, arts and culture reporter, KPBS News

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The Old Globe Theatre is using a pair of programs highlighting William Shakespeare to help rehabilitate prisoners and show how theater matters. This month its Globe for All program returns to Centinela State Prison to perform the Bard for inmates.

Remember that scene in Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" where The Prince dispenses justice for Tybalt’s death? He proclaims that Romeo is banished. Now think about how those words might resonate to someone who's incarcerated.

"And they get it better actually than a lot of people that have not been in prisons, to be frank," said Freedome Bradley-Ballentine, arts engagement director at the Globe. "They understand the human condition that Shakespeare is talking about in 'Romeo and Juliet' when Romeo is talking about being banished."

ROMEO: Ha, banishment? Be merciful, say “death”;

For exile hath more terror in his look,

Much more than death. Do not say “banishment”!

There is no world without Verona walls,

But purgatory, torture, hell itself.

Hence “banished” is banish’d from the world,

And world’s exile is death; then “banished”

Is death misterm’d. Calling death “banished,”

Thou cut’st my head off with a golden axe,

And smilest upon the stroke that murders me.

"(There's) nothing like talking to a group of men and women that are out in the middle of the desert that have no family coming to visit them and them talking about what it means to be banished from society," Bradley-Ballentine added. "They can tell you exactly what it’s like to be banished and come in with different perspectives that you have never even thought about."

Last March, the Globe hosted a conference focused on Shakespeare in prisons. Curt Tofteland, founder of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program was there.

"The reason I use Shakespeare is because he writes about every story that any human being could ever encounter, whether it is now or 400 years ago and he writes about outsiders," Tofteland said.

It’s outsiders or those on the margins of society that Tofteland was drawn to. The Globe decided to do its own version of Shakespeare behind bars because one of its core values is to show that theater matters and can matter beyond its proscenium arch.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Miss Erika is one of the acting teachers involved in the Old Globe Theatre's Shakespeare in prison programs.

The Globe initiated two programs: Reflecting Shakespeare, which engages prisoners through classroom examination of the Bard’s text and leads to journal writing and performance, and Globe for All, which provides free performances of plays throughout San Diego, including in prisons. Miss Erika was one of the teaching artists at a performance in Centinela State Prison last November.

"We heard a participant today who was in the audience who talked about how in this environment something like this transports them and makes them feel human again, less institutionalized. And today theater mattered to a lot of people," Miss Erika said.

That includes inmate Sepheren Scorza, who had just enjoyed his first live performance of Shakespeare at the Globe for All production at Centinela.

"For me this was very important because it offers an opportunity of change. It offers an opportunity of hope to those who have lost hope in a place such as prison," Scorza said.

Some may question why we should care about enriching the lives of those who have committed crimes and are serving time. Shakespeare plays such as "The Tempest" and "Merchant of Venice" advocate for kindness, compassion and forgiveness. So perhaps Bradley-Ballentine takes his cue from the Bard when he said that those in prison are just people who have made mistakes and are paying for them, and we should do all we can to rehabilitate them.

"I really want people to know that these programs work, that these programs change people," Bradley-Ballentine said. "That these programs reduce the recidivism rates. It’s really impactful to me seeing how the currency that Shakespeare has within our culture and how it makes people feel so good when they get it, when they understand it. It validates them and it validates their experiences because they have seen so much of their own lives within Shakespeare’s work."

Globe for All returns to Centinela prison this month for six performances to once again show how a playwright who’s been dead four centuries can help teach inmates about empathy, introspection and perhaps even about how to find a way to succeed outside of prison. Through its programs the Globe is proving that theater matters even behind bars.

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