Shakespeare Behind Bars and Improvisation

One would expect a prison theatre group to make many compromises and improvisations in order to stage Shakespearian theatre. On the contrary, Shakespeare Behind Bars raises the bar quite high; their method and results presents a challenge for most any theatre group to achieve either outside or inside the prison system.

Most movie and stage actors who are considered talented by today’s standards usually have their audiences captivated and unable to tell the difference between what is improvised and what is scripted. In 1995, Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air interviewed actor [amazon_link id=”B001G8WFAS” target=”_blank” ]Peter Falk[/amazon_link], who addressed improvisation and method acting.

Falk, who was known for his portrayal of the “rumpled” detective [amazon_link id=”1932009949″ target=”_blank” ]Columbo[/amazon_link], died at 83-years old on June 23, 2011 and Gross re-aired his interview on June 27, 2011. She asked Falk about the long association that he had with the actor and director [amazon_link id=”0571201571″ target=”_blank” ]John Cassavetes[/amazon_link] (1929 – 1989) which began with the film [amazon_link id=”B0024FAG2Q” target=”_blank” ]Husbands[/amazon_link] released in 1970. Falk told this story about Cassavetes’ expectations of method acting:

[Cassavetes] didn’t want you thinking, and if you start talking about what the character is feeling, you do have that danger of saying: Oh, I understand now. This is how you play embarrassment. And you play it the way you’ve seen somebody else play it, or you have some idea of how to play it. And what usually happens is that the behavior lacks the ambiguity that most behavior has … there are different kinds of anger. There are different kinds of charm … they’re not all the same, and there’s mixtures involved at any given moment in time.

Evidently, Cassavetes wanted his actors to live in the moment and feel their characters without the influence of others – a raw, natural state of being improvising and experiencing their emotional state as they went along. Falk states that Cassavetes expected him to do so without wavering from the script and literally without direction. Cassavetes “…was afraid that those words [words of his direction] would then be re-translated into some cliché” of stereotypical emotions and ruin the spontaneity of the moment.

Cassavetes’ directing style is mirrored in Shakespeare Behind Bars director Matt Wallace’s expectation that the actors will not watch a video production of the play that they are rehearsing for the program. One of the most striking observations about the actors in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program is that because they usually have never actually seen the play staged that they are rehearsing, their emotions are pure and unaffected by others’ performances, which gives their interpretation a nuance rarely seen or attempted in this Twenty-first Century world of You Tube, mp3, Netflix, and Internet television channels.

Another aspect that sets Shakespeare Behind Bars apart is where their plays are staged. Because the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex has no theatre, all of the Shakespeare Behind Bars productions are performed in the prison chapel with an improvised stage. The intimacy of a 60-seat chapel with a small simple stage challenges the physicality of scene changes and the timing between the scenes. This all works to the advantage because the audience sees Shakespeare in a manner which seems awfully close to how I envision that Shakespeare would have first staged [amazon_link id=”B0007WRT4Q” target=”_blank” ]The Merchant of Venice[/amazon_link] in 1597 the primary difference being the size of the audience; The Globe Theatre where Shakespeare staged his plays could accommodate thousands of theatre-goers for one performance.

Shakespeare Behind Bars is fresh and original in its portrayal of the final years of Sixteenth-century Italy. The simple backdrops used and costume designs also emulate Elizabethan theatre. This is also an important aspect because it seems that the more elaborate a stage production is the more artificial and stilted it has the potential of becoming. “Less is more” certainly applies here.

It is clear that the inmates trust Matt Wallace’s guidance as director because their performances are (in Peter Falk’s words as reported by Gross) “a new standard of spontaneity” that is, a new standard of spontaneous behavior in character acting: powerful, true emotions that rise up from a relative isolation from society. Shakespeare Behind Bars gleans so much from such a simple production mining the human condition from its very depths.

Want to know more? Shakespeare Behind Bars, Inc. is a not-for-profit, tax-exempt, charitable organization, under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code. Donations are tax-deductible as provided by law. (Shakespeare Behind Bars’ cost to the government, institutions, participants, and taxpayers is $0.00! Consider making a donation today to help them continue this important work.)

Check out the Shakespeare Behind Bars web site or their Facebook page which have fabulous photographs of The Merchant of Venice and previous productions.

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Attention Students: to cite this web article in the current MLA-style, please use the example below.

Dixon, Catherine Jo. “Shakespeare Behind Bars and Improvisation.” Feast Of Languages. Catherine Jo Dixon, 30 June 2011. Web. [today’s date].

Note: The citation entry on the “Works Cited” or “Bibliography” page must have a “hanging indent.” The second line should be indented 5 spaces.

1. Name of Author. (Last Name, First Name.)
2. “Title of Work.”
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English literature students most commonly use the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) style to write their papers. This citation reflects the [amazon_link id=”1603290249″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition[/amazon_link] and/or the [amazon_link id=”0873522974″ target=”_blank” ]MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd edition[/amazon_link]. For additional information, I recommend a free online writing lab from Purdue University: “The Purdue OWL” https://owl.english.purdue.edu/ which has current, credible information and reliable examples.



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