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UNH brings founder of ‘Shakespeare Behind Bars’ to MUB

For four centuries, the works of William Shakespeare have entertained audiences in venues ranging from royal courts to prison cells.

UNH hosted a man who brought Shakespeare’s plays to the latter on March 30 at 7 p.m. Curt Tofteland, founder and producing director of the program Shakespeare Behind Bars, spoke in MUB theatre II before what he described as “a great crowd with terrific questions.”

Shakespeare Behind Bars is a program that organizes prison inmates to perform Shakespeare plays. The program began in 1995 in Kentucky. Now Tofteland runs seven of these programs in two prisons. He works with over 100 prisoners a week.

The program was the subject of an award-winning documentary by Philomath Films called Shakespeare Behind Bars, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005. There was a screening of this documentary at UNH a week prior to Tofteland’s visit.

Tofteland, as seen in the documentary sporting a blonde goatee and ponytail, cuts a theatrical and literary figure. His actors, burly inmates in tan jumpsuits, (one of whom was dismissed from the cast when he had to serve solitary confinement after getting a prison tattoo), do not.

Yet in the film, Tofteland reminds us that in a sense, they are true to Shakespeare’s own company, who performed during a time period when actors were maligned as bawdy pickpockets, thieves and winos, and like the prison cast: were all male.

“I think (Shakespeare) would be proud,” Tofteland said. “I think he would learn a lot with these guys, who society would call the dregs, the lowest of the low.”

The inmates are identified by their first names in the documentary. There is Hal, who plays Prospero. Hal was in jail for killing his wife. 

Tofteland is aware of the violent pasts of his actors, but it doesn’t disturb him. “I have worked in houses of correction for 21 years, and never felt threatened or in danger,” Tofteland said.

As for what performing Shakespeare does for the prisoners, Tofteland described his experience as “bearing witness to the transformational change in human beings from who they were, and who they are, and who they wish to be.”

The prisoners in the documentary found this transformation when performing “The Tempest,” a major theme of which is forgiveness.

“I was drawn to Prospero not because he’s the title character or anything, but because he is the one who has to work through the forgiveness,” said Hal in the documentary.

One anecdote that stands out in Tofteland’s mind as an indication of what Shakespeare comes to mean for the prisoners was that of Billy Wheeler, an inmate who played Julia in a production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” One month before the performance, the board offered Wheeler parole.  But Wheeler did not want to disappoint his friends and cast mates, so he turned down the offer in order to perform the show, and was granted parole after that.

Shakespeare Behind Bars has been operating for 21 years. It is currently accepting requests for public performances of a production of Twelfth Night by the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex on the program’s website.

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