The University of Iowa School of Music is being moved to the newly built Voxman Building. The building is located at 95 East Burlington Street. (The Daily Iowan/Karley FInkel)

Inmates performing Shakespeare gain valuable life skills

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“Shakespeare Behind Bars” is a program that allows prisoners to perform Shakespeare plays. On Thursday at Voxman, program founder, Curt Tofteland, screened the 2005 documentary, “Shakespeare Behind Bars.” The documentary follows a group of inmates who cast and perform Shakespeare’s, “The Tempest” over the course of a about a year.

By Natalie Betz
natalie-betz@uiowa.edu

Shakespeare isn’t only for English majors. Over the years, the Bard has become something for the public, as opposed to “high-brow” society. In fact, several prisoners have fallen in love with performing Shakespeare plays.

In 1995, Curt Tofteland created the “Shakespeare Behind Bars” program, which allows inmates at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Kentucky, to perform the plays.

“No other writer understands the human condition better than William Shakespeare,” Tofteland said.

On Sept. 7, he presented the 2005 documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars to the Iowa City community in Voxman. Tofteland said the documentary was viewed at 40 film festivals, including Sundance, and has won more than 11 awards.

Exposing the inmates to the arts helps them build the “soft skills” every human needs to have, such as listening skills, cooperation, leadership skills, and generosity, Tofteland said.

Jim McKinney, the warden at the Iowa Medical & Classification Center in Oakland, told the audience at the screening that punishment does not work.

He said inmates should be treated with human dignity; therefore, he is on first-name basis with the prisoners. There is accountability for their actions that they must face, he said, and there’s a balance between being a victim and prisoner.

Tofteland, who took part in the conversation at the screening, agreed with McKinney. Programming is the only way to change human behavior, he contended, and people’s backgrounds affect the way they believe the world operates.

“The program has reduced recidivism 6.1 percent over 22 years,” Tofteland said.

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The documentary showcased prisoners who cast themselves as roles in The Tempest. Most of the inmates acknowledged their mistakes, related to the characters, and wanted to be redeemed. Forgiveness was a theme many of them felt connected to.

“We follow the old Shakespeare way of doing it,” Tofteland said, noting that the men play the female characters. In the documentary, no man seemed to have a problem with playing a woman.

Tofteland said the majority of prisoners are different from the way media portray them. Although, he did admit that there are certain cases in which he has to try a little harder to ignore the crime committed, he always treats the men with respect and coaches them to reach their full acting potential.

“You don’t have to be the worst thing you ever did,” Tofteland said. “I believe there is goodness within them.”

At the end of the credits, there was an update on where the inmates shown in the documentary ended up. Tofteland said the majority featured in the documentary were later released.

RELATED: From prisoner to Ph.D.

Audience member Emily Johnson said it’s easy to ignore what happens in prisons if a person is not confronted with the issues. It’s not always an easy concept for a lot of people to accept, she said, but it’s important that people inform themselves in order to learn how to help those in confinement.

The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights helped sponsor the event. Caitlin Chenus, a center intern, said center program coordinator Kathrina Litchfield wanted to implement education programs for men in prisons in Iowa.

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