Shakespeare behind bars: An Interview with Curt Tofteland, contributor to ‘Performing New Lives’

Here, Jonathan Shailor interviews Curt Tofteland, one of the contributing authors to his book, Performing New Lives: Prison Theatre, which draws together some of the most original and innovative programs in contemporary prison theatre.

Curt is the founder and producing director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, an educational program that has been serving incarcerated adults and youth in Kentucky (USA) for over 16 years. He is the author of Chapter 13: The Keeper of the Keys.

Jonathan: Shakespeare Behind Bars has received widespread attention, most notably through the award-winning documentary that premiered at Sundance in 2005. I should also mention that when I began my own program in Wisconsin, The Shakespeare Prison Project, you were my mentor, and you continue to serve in that role for me, as I know you do for many others. What brought you to this work initially? And why have you stuck with it for all these years?

Curt: Thank you for your generosity in assigning the title of mentor to me. I am honored.

The role of mentor is an important ingredient in the Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) transformational process. Long-standing SBB members evolve into our circle elders. They embody the role of mentor, not only for the newest members of our SBB circle, but also for the general population of the prison yard who come in contact with our circle elders.

I came to my work with the incarcerated via a program called Books Behind Bars (BBB) founded by Dr. Curtis Bergstrand, a sociology professor at Bellarmine University. In 1993, I partnered with Dr. Bergstrand to bring the works of William Shakespeare into the reading list of the BBB program. My partner in the institution was Dr. Julie Barto, a psychologist with the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Dr. Barto worked at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, KY. It was through Dr. Barto that I found my way into prison to embark upon my journey into the work of a prison arts practioner.

In 1995, Dr. Barto became my correctional staff supervisor in order to allow me consistent access into the prison and the opportunity to work with a group of eleven BBB participants who wanted to develop a deeper relationship with the Shakespeare component of the BBB program. These eleven explorers developed such an insatiable passion for Shakespeare, that we spun off the BBB program to become our own entity – Shakespeare Behind Bars. The new SBB members didn’t abandon the BBB program. They continued their participation with the program until it departed Luther Luckett for a new host institution, the Kentucky State Reformatory.

The Shakespeare Behind Bars program is a restorative circle of reconciliation. We believe deeply in the power of a human being to transform themselves from who they were when they committed their crime to who they wish to become. Each participant takes responsibility for the well-being of all who sit in our circle.

My personal passion for continuing this work with the incarcerated is driven by my bearing witness to the transformational awakening of the empathic humanity within inmates who were unaware of the innate goodness that dwelt within them, awaiting discovery.

Jonathan: What is your chapter about, and why did you choose this focus?

Curt: When I was invited to participate with prison arts practioner colleagues writing about their work with participants, I decided to take a different approach to my chapter. I chose to write about the relationship the prison arts practioner must have with the administration, particularly the warden, of the correctional institution. With the appointment of a new warden – or for that matter, a new commissioner of the department of corrections or a new justice and public safety cabinet secretary or a new governor – comes the increased threat of extinction for certain programs that do not fit into the new official’s view of what the word ‘corrections’ means. Those of us who are prison arts practioners believe in the power of programs to change human behavior. But not everyone in the corrections industry holds that same belief. Witness your own successful The Shakespeare Prison Project, nothing but rave reviews and success, yet when you lost your correctional advocate, the warden removed your program.

Since founding our program in 1995, Shakespeare Behind Bars has survived five wardens and two interim wardens, three commissioners of the department of corrections, five justice and public safety cabinet secretaries, and five governors. For my chapter, I decided to interview three of our previous wardens to document their view of our SBB program and to offer advice to other prison arts practioners who wanted their program to survive the slings and arrows of changes within the correctional personnel.

Jonathan: The word is out that you are now beginning a new chapter of Shakespeare Behind Bars at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon Heights, Michigan (USA). In what ways is this facility similar to Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in LaGrange, Kentucky? In what ways is it different? Will your approach to the work follow the same model that you have used in the past–or will you be doing something different?

Curt: I haven’t worked at Brooks long enough to make a detailed comparison. The two facilities are similar in that both correctional institutions house approximately 1200 medium security adult male inmates.

When I created the Shakespeare Behind Bars program in 1995, I viewed the opportunity as a laboratory where I could explore the transformational power of art, theatre, and the works of William Shakespeare with incarcerated human beings. Other than making my personal commitment to give ten years of my life to this work – if the correctional institution allowed me – I did not have a master plan. As we moved forward in time, I developed and adapted the SBB program to the needs of the participants. Although well developed today, SBB was and continues to be a process driven rather than a product driven program.

Fifteen years after founding the Shakespeare Behind Bars program in Kentucky, we have developed a solid model that can and has been replicated at other correctional institutions throughout the country – San Quentin State Prison in California, Great Meadows Correctional Facility in New York, Two Rivers Correctional Complex in Oregon, and Jonathan, as you attest to, your own program in the Racine Correctional Institution in Wisconsin.

My plan for the new Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Michigan is to follow the same developmental process I did when I created the SBB program in Kentucky. I do not want to burden the new SBB program with the past success of our original SBB program. Our first steps will include the establishment of a circle of trust with the inmates, followed by the beginning of our journey inward to discover our authentic selves. We will use theatre as our vehicle for this explorative journey. We will begin with the works of William Shakespeare. At some point, I would like to add Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. I have always been enamored of that play and fascinated by the historical success it had in the 1957 San Francisco Actors Workshop production in San Quentin State Prison that inspired a group of inmates to start the still-active San Quentin Drama Workshop.

Jonathan: What have been some of the more recent developments in the rest of the SBB organization?

Curt: In September 2008, I retired after 20 years of service as the producing artistic director of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival and moved to Western Michigan where my wife is Director of Theatre and a theatre professor at Hope College. I wanted to concentrate my full-time creative energies on my work with the incarcerated. I have used my time for writing and publishing essays about the transformational power of art, theatre, and Shakespeare within correctional institutions; conducting mini-residencies at college campuses around the country – where I screen the Shakespeare Behind Bars Documentary, facilitate a post screening talk-back with the audience, teach master classes, and visit classrooms; speaking engagements; consulting work with artists & correctional administrators who are interested in establishing prison arts programs within correctional facilities; and consulting work with organizations interested in working with both pre-incarceration and post-incarceration programs.

Following my departure from Kentucky, the Shakespeare Behind Bars program continued under the artistic leadership of my colleague Matt Wallace. I continued my involvement as the founder and producing director of the organization.

In September, 2010, Shakespeare Behind Bars received a 501c3 not-for-profit corporate status thus making it an independent organization approved to raise funds from corporations, businesses, foundations, government agencies, and individuals to support the work with the incarcerated. With more funding, we are seeking to expand our work in more correctional facilities, including juveniles, males, and females. We are creating programming for post-incarcerated inmates. And we are creating programming to help stem the flow of juveniles into the labyrinth of incarceration.

Additionally, I am incorporating my fifteen years of work with the incarcerated into reconciliation and restorative circle work with victims and offenders.

Jonathan: Who do you hope will read this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

Curt: I think the primary readers of our book include artists who have a passion for the work of a prison arts practioner and the administration and staff of correctional institutions who are interested in establishing arts programming in their facilities. I think the secondary readers of our book include academics in the disciplines of Theatre, Communication, English, Religion, Sociology, Psychology, and Criminal Justice who are teaching about the power of the arts to transform human behavior.

Jonathan: Where can people go to find more information about your work?

For more info about Curt and the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, visit www.shakespearebehindbars.org or find us on Facebook.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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