. . . I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 24:36)
I used to be the walking definition of stage fright. I dropped out of a high school public speaking class, convincing my parents and guidance counselor it was because I couldn’t manage all the classes I’d signed on for that semester. The real reason was I got physically sick every time it was my turn to present a speech. I suppose it’s not smart to admit this in a website where I offer to come talk to your group. But, hey – that was many years ago. I was cured of microphone phobia when my passion to promote various causes exceeded my fear of public speaking. The thought of acting on stage though still terrifies me.
Much to my amazement one daughter and several grandchildren have been active on and behind the stage. One of them, Sarah, will soon graduate with a degree in theatre. She recently introduced me to Curt Tofteland and the Shakespeare Behind Bars program he launched 22 years ago.
Curt Tofteland and William Shakespeare Join Forces
Tofteland, founder of this unique prison ministry was visiting Sarah’s Texas Lutheran campus to show his award-winning film about SBB. Sarah was working that evening to ensure things ran smoothly for the showing and conversation following the film. I was passing through town and wanted to see my granddaughter at work.
What I saw was amazing. Tofteland is on to something. Shakespeare Behind Bars has men, women and youth performing plays by the Bard while incarcerated. The program is the oldest of its kind in North America. The Shakespeare Behind Bars film, which premiered in 2005 at the Sundance Film Festival, captures the story of how imprisoned participants experience theatrical encounters with personal and social issues. They learn and perform scripts penned by Shakespeare over four centuries ago. In doing so, they develop life skills that pave the road to success when they are released to rejoin society.
Reform Does Make a Difference
The national recidivism rate is over 76 percent. In Kentucky, where the program was first introduced, the rate is just over 40 percent. Among participants in SBB the rate is an impressive 6 percent.
Tofteland is convinced every human being is born inherently good. Though some criminals have done horrific things to other humans, there is still an inherent goodness living deep within them. That goodness is called forth when SBB participants meet life in a new way through the characters and circumstances created by the master playwright.
They learn their parts in the safety of a circle-of-trust. The process or rehearsing and performing one of Shakespeare’s plays transforms participants from who they were when they committed their crimes to who they are now and who they want to be in the future. They discover hope and courage to act in spite of their fears and the odds against them. I am impressed. They accomplish in prison what I was too afraid to do within the freedom of a public high school.
Changing Society One Play at a Time
Established as a nonprofit organization, Shakespeare Behind Bars is changing society for the better one imprisoned person at a time. Program participants tap into the personal power, passion and goodness that’s been part of their nature all along. Tofteland started the program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, KY. There he produced and directed 14 Shakespeare productions over a period of 13 years. The program has expanded now to additional prisons in Michigan, reaching over 100 prisoners each week.
He taught others how to implement the program at the International School of Lausanne in Switzerland. He was the featured presenter at “Marking Time: A Prison Arts and Activism” Conference at Rutgers University in 2014. To promote SBB Tofteland has visited over 50 college campuses all across the United States. I’m grateful Texas Lutheran was one of his visits. I’m grateful I was there that evening.
To learn more about this remarkable approach to prison ministry or to support Shakespeare Behind Bars go to: https://www.shakespearebehindbars.org