Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre Screens Documentary

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The “Shakespeare Behind Bars” documentary showed in Stanley Russ on Nov. 17 and showed the audience the power of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Behind Bars is a program that teaches Shakespeare plays to prisoners who’ve committed the worst of crimes; the plays offer a place of healing for the inmates because they offer an opportunity for empathy.

“Literature does one thing very powerfully, and that is that it creates empathy because you live vicariously through the protagonists and antagonists,” Founder and Producing Director of Shakespeare Behind Bars Curt Tofteland said. “You get to see the world in a different way, in a different light and through different eyes; so it creates humanity.”

Tofteland said, by reading Shakespeare and working in the plays, the inmates find a means of healing.

“Trauma can’t heal until the person who’s suffered the trauma has language,” Tofteland said “Shakespeare has language for trauma. Any trauma that any human being has ever had, I can find it in Shakespeare.”

According to the documentary, certain inmates were chosen to play specific characters because that character could relate to that particular inmate’s trauma in one way or another.

“What the guys discovered is this character is speaking about the trauma that they themselves have gone through,” Tofteland said. “Pretty soon they gain the courage to begin to speak their trauma in their language. And if they’re artists, they begin to write about it.”

Through Shakespeare Behind Bars, Tofteland said he has discovered four human truths. The first is that people need a tribe. The second is that people need to tell their story. The third is that human behavior can change through reflection and the fourth is that human beings need meaning.

Producing Artistic Director for Arkansas Shakespeare Theater Rebekah Scallet said she saw Tofteland at a theater conference, had a conversation with him, and decided she wanted him at UCA. She applied for the Artist and Residence program grant to bring Tofteland to UCA.

“When I was a grad student and saw ‘Shakespeare behind bars’ for the first time, I was really inspired by it,” Scallet said, “I loved Shakespeare … and to see the power that Shakespeare had in these populations that were so different than the actors I was working with – and to see how much it resonated with them and how much it meant to them – was really exciting. So, I wanted to be able to share that kind of experience with our students.”

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