Shakespeare Behind Bars (International Film Circuit, NR)

The men involved with this program came across as your everyday, typical theater troupe—they had their divas, their hardships, and the usual hurdles of taking on Shakespeare.

 

Any theater company that accepts the challenge to put on one of Shakespeare’s plays is undertaking a huge task. To produce one of Shakespeare’s plays when you only have convicts to play the roles makes the challenge doubly hard. In the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, filmmaker Hank Rogerson highlights the theatrical “therapy” program that has flourished at the Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in La Grange, Ky.

The program, designed to educate the inmates, gives the prisoners an outlet for their creative passions while they serve out their sentences. Rather than confront the audience with the prisoner and the crime they committed, Rogerson first humanizes each participant by allowing the audience to see the kinder, gentler side of their personalities. This technique allows the viewer to see the man rather than immediately judge him for his crime. And it worked: The men involved with this program came across as your everyday, typical theater troupe—they had their divas, their hardships, and the usual hurdles of taking on Shakespeare.

This year, volunteer director Kurt Tofteland has chosen The Tempest for the men to act out on stage. While several of the men try to make parallels between the play and their own incarceration, Rogerson profiles each of the men. As they all tell their stories in great detail, the viewer becomes emotionally involved with each prisoner. Relayed the events of each of their crimes, they choked up, appearing to be remorseful for their actions. It is only when they reveal their actual crimes that the emotional sledgehammer drops and their animalistic natures are exposed. It was gut-wrenching to become somewhat sympathetic to each man only to be informed that they were guilty of committing murder, sexual abuse, or violent crimes.

The beauty of this film is how Rogerson focuses on the positives rather than the negatives. He allows the direction of the film turn toward how hard the men are working on their production rather than judge the severity of their crimes. Instead of beating the audience over the head with the men’s atrocities, Rogerson highlights the unique challenges these men face while putting on the production. They have to worry about cast members being sent to the hole (solitary confinement), dealing with possible parole, and, most of all, learning the tongue-twisting speak of the legendary writer.

As rehearsals become more intense, Rogerson takes great pains to show how much each man both gives and receives from the prison’s program. As their families fill the seats in the tiny theater, each troupe member is profoundly affected by a deep sense of accomplishment. The heartwarming ending may be too much for some to swallow, but the overall production is an honest, introspective look at prison life and the effects of positive mentoring in the midst of a harsh environment.

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