Bounded in a Nutshell | O! What Learning Is!

By March 24, 2015 No Comments

Have you ever seen the musical The Producers? Remember the scene at the end when an imprisoned Max produces Prisoners of Love and we see the pre-Broadway stages of the play performed by his fellow inmates? Of course, Mel Brooks has injected his wit and slapstick humour in order to bring out the comedy of a group of prisoners dancing and singing, and yet…

Beyond the proscenium, in Solano prison (in California) inmates are rehearsing for their own performances. There is still laughter, but not from a removed audience.

Last month, Marin Shakespeare Company’s managing director, Lesley Currier, brought her arts therapy program to Solano, a program in which Level II and III inmates study acting and, more specifically, Shakespeare. Jessica Rogness’ article in the Times-Herald explores the program and the prisoners’ positive reaction to it.


Drama coach Lynn Baker of the Marin Shakespeare Company guides inmates through an exercise at Solano Prison, California (Courtesy of The Reporter)

But allow me to look at to look at this more broadly. What does it mean for inmates to perform a Shakespeare play?

Certainly, the inmates’ testimony speaks volumes. This program has allowed them to explore themselves, to be themselves, and to feel safe in an all too often unsafe environment. Studying Shakespeare not only allows them to explore the world of performing but the world of human experiences.

We live in a world in a world of labels: close your eyes and say the word “prisoner” and an image will come to your mind. An orange jumpsuit or striped shirt? A coarse-skinned man with stubble? Tattoos? Tough. Angry. Dangerous.

Now picture this woman sleepwalking, washing her hands of blood that will never come off. Now picture this man as a drunken porter, responding to incessant knocking. It may seem as odd, and thus comical, as the prisoners at the end of The Producers, but it’s not. Too often, inmates (like any group) allow themselves to become their label due to the treatment they receive. As Currier is well aware, Shakespeare is a great label remover. The actors are forced into the mindset of another character. They work not just to recite some foreign lines, but to internalize them. The inmates at Solano prison participate in physical and verbal exercises that break down the text in order to achieve understanding. Furthermore, they are given the opportunity to explore themselves…sans label.

As a teacher, I like to discourage the connection between prisons and schools, but schools are also efficient label makers. You are of ”this” age and ”that” sex and therefore you must act a certain way. You must participate in ”these” activities. You cannot stand out too much. Stay close to the crowd and you are safe. True, this is a generalization, but an accurate one in my experience. We desire students to discover “who they are” but provide insufficient tools.

But place them in a safe environment, one free of judgement and specific expectations, and watch out. Allow the introvert to act the Fool and the class clown to play the stoic Macbeth and watch out! Provide students with the tools to understand the lines they are saying, and give them the exercises to explore how Shakespeare’s characters represent every aspect of humanity. It doesn’t matter if they are an elementary school student, a high school student, an adult no longer in school, or an inmate; they will discover something about themselves. It will not be something they will all want to devote their lives to, but the skills learned will be taken out into the world.

Ronin Holmes is playing Macbeth in Solano’s production in May 2015. He will experience the inductiveness when confronted with a heinous act, the remorse that comes immediately after the act (“Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou could’st!”) and, finally, the resulting consequences. This journey might just help him strip away the label; the expected rashness that drives violent acts.

Alex Benarzi

Author Alex Benarzi

I am a teacher, actor, writer, and passionate about everything Shakespeare. I currently live in Toronto, Ontario, but that might be changing in the near future as I pack up my books and head off on a new adventure.

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