Professor Discusses Intersection of Prison, Shakespeare, and the Humanities

Professor Beth Charlebois lectures on her time teaching Shakespeare to prison inmates and the changes it brought to her life and career. (Photo by Dave Chase)
Professor Beth Charlebois lectures on her time teaching Shakespeare to prison inmates and the changes it brought to her life and career. (Photo by Dave Chase)

In this year’s first English colloquium, Associate Professor of English Beth Charlebois talked about her time helping prisoners put on productions of some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and how it permanently changed the way she thought about the American prison system, Shakespeare, and the humanities.

According to Charlebois, what she would come to call her “odyssey” started in 2006, when she was first introduced to the idea of performing Shakespeare in prison when she walked into a discussion of “Bighouse Shakespeare” taking place adjacent to her own conference. It was there she met Agnes Wilcox, who introduced her to the idea and eventually took Charlebois as her colleague in the program when Charlesbois started her sabbatical in 2007. Charlesbois and Wilcox would eventually end up putting on productions of Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet at men’s, women’s and juvenile detention facilities throughout the state of Missouri.

Charlesbois and Wilcox had to deal with many problems in order to put on a production of Shakespeare in a prison setting. Charlesbois learned this very quickly when on the first day she waited in a prison lobby because, according to her, the warden “was not inclined to sign my paperwork.” She added, “There can be a lot of resentment for the program.”

Added to this background of resentment were the more mundane yet strict rules concerning the play’s mechanics: for example, costumes could not be black or have any sort of camouflage print, props could not be made of anything which could be turned into a weapon, and prisoners could only congregate for up to three hours at a time. Further added to this were the unpredictable “11th hour” changes, which often threatened to derail the plays. Charlesbois and her cast had to remain in “improv contexts at all times,” just in case an actor needed surgery (which for security reasons would always be unscheduled) or was out into solitary, as occurred to the prisoner playing Richmond in Richard III. Add to all of this a small program staff and a paltry operating budget of $250,000 per year, and you get what Charlesbois described as “amazing obstacles.”
Despite these obstacles, Charlesbois’s discussion was really about the impact the Prison Performing Arts (PPA) had on the prisoners who participated. Charlesbois shared with the lecture’s attendees many statements and stories from prisoners for whom their participation was a life-changing experience. One woman prisoner, for example, said, “I can’t tell you how much [performing Shakespeare] boosted my confidence and self-esteem.” Charlesbois also talked about how prisoners felt that, while they rehearsed their parts, they could tear down the facade of prison life they had worked so hard to build up in “the yard.” Charlesbois described how for prisoners being able to wear anything but their usual polyester uniforms was “like a whole new day” to them. Prisoners were so loyal to the program that Charlebois said that on multiple occasions prisoners would become very upset and even cry when they were unable to make a rehearsal. Another prisoner commented that “this is the only place where I feel that I’m not in prison.”

She said that, for her, this opportunity allowed her to first see just how colossal the modern prison system is. She noted that recently prison populations, especially the women’s prison population, has exploded to the point that, “the Department of Corrections is the biggest employer in the state of Missouri.” She put it simply: “We run an incarceration state in America.”
Through this “profound” experience, Charlebois also was able to affirm the “humanizing power of the humanities”, both for her and her cast. One prisoner, who wrote Charlesbois a letter about how he felt about the program, said that it ultimately was “the teaching of humanity to men who have lost theirs.” The program also worked to humanize Shakespeare itself, removing the poetic abstraction and getting at the plays’ core conflicts. Charlebois said that, “I’ve been teaching Shakespeare 20 years, but I never really experienced the language of Shakespeare so powerfully.”

Sophomore Mala Owings thought that the PPA also demonstrated the power of a small group of dedicated individuals to change people’s lives. She said, “[This lecture] reminds me how little people and little organization do the best work.”
For now, Charlesbois said she still feel very connected with many of her prison actors, and is still working to take the experiences she’s had and put them into a more academic contexts. She also plans to try and start a similar program within the state of Maryland, although she has yet to take any concrete action. Regardless of where she goes in the future with this experience, however, she said, “This has gotten under my skin in a big way.”

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