Queensland prisoners walk in Shakespeare’s shoes

27 May 2014

“Prisoners often think in black and white but Shakespeare gets them thinking in different ways and walking in someone else’s shoes,” says Rob Pensalfini, Artistic Director of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble in Brisbane.

Rob Pensalfini speaks at a performance of Comedy of Errors in a prison Photo: Benjamin Prindable“There are all sorts of benefits that result when prisoners take part in our Shakespeare project, particularly around communication, confidence and collaboration.

“But the really big one is learning to understand and empathise with others. I remember one guy saying that he could actually feel the hurt he had caused.”

The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble has run its three-month Shakespeare Prison Project six times since its first project in 2006. A seventh project is set to begin this September in the Southern Queensland Correction Centre, which is managed by private company Serco.

Performing The Comedy of Errors

This year’s project culminated in two 60-minute performances of The Comedy of Errors – the first for fellow prisoners, family and friends; the second for a group of 60 invited members of the public.

A set built and painted by prisoners who were not directly participating in the Shakespeare project. The women performing are facilitators, who play many of the female roles or minor roles. Photo: Benjamin Prindable“Prisoners always talk about how valuable it is for them to be seen doing something positive – performing to an audience, mingling with them after the performance and opening up conversation. It takes away the label of prisoner and they’re seen first as people.”

After the performances, one of the prisoner actors wrote: “When the audience stood up and applauded … At that moment, I felt like an actual GOOD person … I was actually PROUD of myself.”

Scott McNairn, Director of Operations at Serco, says that in his previous role as Prison Director at Borallon Correctional Centre in Queensland, he worked with Rob and his team to set up, support and promote the project.

“This project was an integral part of the rehabilitation framework and hugely important for us. Rob’s passion to educate and change the lives of offenders through drama was overwhelming,” Scott says.

Developed learning

“Many of the offenders who participated had low levels of literacy. However, Rob’s work developed their learning, and gave them self-confidence and the ability to deliver difficult scripts in a powerful and seamless manner.

“Watching offenders present plays such as Macbeth was unbelievable and the confidence shown remarkable. I endorse Rob’s work and this project to the wider global correctional environment.”

The Shakespeare Prison Project Photo: Benjamin PrindableThe use of Shakespeare as an effective rehabilitative tool for prisoners has been around since the 1980s. The movement is growing internationally with programmes in the United States, Britain, Italy and South Africa.

The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s project is the only one in Australia. Unlike most international projects, however, the Queensland project also makes extensive use of Theatre of the Oppressed techniques.

Developed by Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, the techniques create an atmosphere of trust and emotional safety for the participants; connect their personal experiences to their acting; and examine themes the prisoners want to explore.

Each project is led by two to four facilitators who are all professional actors trained in Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. There are drama games and exercises, group work, speech preparation and presentation, and text analysis. Finally, a play is chosen and the rehearsal period begins.

A global phenomenon

Rob, who is also a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and Drama at the University of Queensland, is writing a book due for publication in 2015. Although there are many books about Shakespeare in prisons, he says, his will be the first to look at the “global phenomenon” of Prison Shakespeare: its history, why it’s happening and what it achieves.

Jacqui Moyes, Prison Arts Advisor, Arts Access Aotearoa met Rob in February this year at a Brisbane conference examining the role of performing arts in prisons.

“Listening to Rob was like discovering the encyclopaedia of all things Shakespeare in prison,” Jacqui says. “His global knowledge and documentation of the subject is incredibly valuable.

“I loved his presentation and his honesty in addressing the complex issues surrounding the delivery of performing arts in prison.”

Good relationship with prison staff

Working in a prison environment is unpredictable and can be challenging, Rob says. A good relationship with prison staff, therefore, is vital. As for the actual process, he says there are several key ingredients needed to ensure the success of a project. They are:

  • creating an atmosphere of mutual respect
  • ensuring it’s a democratic process where everyone’s voice is valued and listened to
  • making it enjoyable for both the facilitators and participants
  • building mutual support, with no divisions between prisoner and performer
  • developing community and camaraderie, and a sense of belonging to a bigger community – something that will hopefully continue when the prisoners are released. 

The culture in men’s prisons is very macho, Rob says. “The men are often closed off and inexpressive. How do you do Shakespeare with these cold-faced men, arms folded across their chests?

“We get through that barrier in the first few days by being open and funny with them and playing a lot of theatre games. Pretty soon they start opening up.”

In the past two years, most of the prisoners volunteering to do the Shakespeare project have been Maori or Pacific Island men, Rob says. “In these cultures, performance is not at odds with masculinity.”

Rob Pensalfini founded the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble in 2001. It is committed to taking Shakespeare to non-traditional audiences.






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