Even before I had heard about the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, I was astonished at how powerful Shakespeare’s words are. Shakespeare has inspired many people I personally know. The plays have entertained and delighted audiences for centuries. But in my wildest dreams I would have never believed how life-changing being a part of a Shakespeare production could be. Matt Wallace, Director of the program says this about the inmates: “Their courage and character continue to inspire me.”
One may believe that there isn’t much room for “improv” in a Shakespeare production because the text that is, Shakespeare’s words are usually the star of the show. Directors have cut lines to modernize some of the plays to a manageable two-hour performance (Stratford is notorious for this method.) Purists argue that it just isn’t Shakespeare when artistic adjustments are made – whatever the reason. I admit that simultaneously I am intrigued by and repulsed by the thought of removing scenes or lines. Matt Wallace found a workable balance in his Shakespeare Behind Bar’s production of The Merchant of Venice.
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.
Because Shakespeare’s works reflect the humanity of individuals and show the singular events in life that can take one on a new and different path, who better to stage his works than Matt Wallace, director of Shakespeare Behind Bars, who works with inmates that interpret the events in life demonstrated by Shakespeare? This is in of itself a case of meta-theatricality; inmates are playing parts that encompass moral dilemmas and crime – perhaps even issues that they have directly faced – giving them the opportunity to explore their feelings unlike any typical therapy program could offer.