Review of All The World's a Stage, sonnets and scenes by Shakespeare and original work by Hal Cobb, Leonard Ford, and Jerry Guenthner. Presented by Shakespeare Behind Bars at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex (R. Tom Dailey, Warden), LaGrange, Kentucky. December 13-16, 2004. Sponsored by the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. Directed by Curt L. Tofteland.

Amy Scott-Douglass
Denison University

Scott-Douglass, Amy. "Review of All The World's a Stage, sonnets and scenes by Shakespeare and original work by Hal Cobb, Leonard Ford, and Jerry Guenthner". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 14.1-11 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/revatwas.html>.

Directed by Curt L. Tofteland. Associate direction by Karen Heath. Assistant direction by Peter Clasen. Costume design by Michelle Bombe. Music by Hal Cobb. With Leonard Ford, Shane Williams, Hal Cobb, Sammie Byron, Jerry Guenthner, Floyd Vaughn, Ron Brown, Charlie Smith, Lonnie Clark, Louis Garr, and Vincent Ingabrand.

Photo by Curt L. Tofteland, copyright 2004. Reproduced by kind permission.

  1. Few things can induce me to drive ten hours through a series of treacherous snow storms. Evidently, the promise of a really good Shakespeare performance is one of them. These days, some of the best Shakespeare is being produced by a small theatre group in Kentucky: the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Facility, a medium-security, adult male prison near Louisville. Membership in Shakespeare Behind Bars (one of the outreach programs of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival) is voluntary and limited to those inmates who are willing to take responsibility for their crimes and who demonstrate a desire to change their lives and work toward becoming "contributing members of society." Participants must be trustworthy, committed to working within a diverse group, equal to the task of performing some of the most challenging theatre ever written, and dedicated to the betterment of themselves and others. Now in its tenth year, Shakespeare Behind Bars provides inmates with the opportunity to process psychological issues, learn conflict resolution and communication skills, and develop a passion for learning. It also offers audience members an extremely powerful theatre experience, as I know from having seen several performances of their summer 2004 production of Julius Caesar [see Shakespeare Bulletin 22.3 (Fall 2004): 66-70]. So when Founding Artistic Director Curt L. Tofteland invited me back to Luckett for three performances of their All the World's a Stage show in December 2004, I packed up my car and gladly returned to prison.

  2. A welcomed addition to the Shakespeare Behind Bars repertoire, which usually includes a full-length play every May, All the World's a Stage was a selection of scenes and sonnets from Shakespeare with the added bonus of several original pieces written by group members and inspired by the program. The evening began with Hamlet's "Advice to the Players," performed by the entire company, improvisation style. Though the actors took turns delivering various lines and phrases from Hamlet's speech, sometimes speaking in unison, sometimes speaking solo, their particular parts were not designated in advance. Each night a different cast member would begin the speech and another different cast member would take over. The acting ensemble formed a large circle around the audience (creating a metaphor for the "world" in their show's title, presumably), facing in toward each other so that they could watch for cues.

  3. Initially, Tofteland's staging of the speech seemed counter to Hamlet's message: the words weren't exactly tripping off of tongues, it was frustrating when the ends of important sections were covered by fake laughter or by the actors stepping on lines, and there was an emphasis on pronouns-"Speak the speech I pray you!"-that was slightly maddening. With such a talented company, I knew, the piece could have easily been perfectly choreographed and timed. I spent the first few minutes of the group monologue thinking how slick and impressive it could have been if each actor had been given a particular set of lines in advance of the performance. But then I realized that the point was never to produce a polished, mannered, well-wrought monologue. Tofteland and his group were staging an exercise in listening and communicating, the kind of exercise that might take place in one of their group meetings. The Shakespeare Behind Bars actors approached the Hamlet speech as a kind of puzzle or problem that they had to join together to solve, as a group, on the spot, every night. In effect, the audience was witnessing a brilliant demonstration of several of the program's objectives.

  4. In addition to providing a kind of object lesson, Hamlet's "Advice to the Players" served a second, practical purpose: lines from the speech functioned as bridges to connect an otherwise sometimes miscellaneous series of scenes and sonnets. As the show progressed, the men who were not performing in a scene sat in the back of the audience and called out Hamlet's directives to their fellow actors about to take the stage, often as in-jokes between castmates. "O'erstep not the modesty of nature," one actor warned Hal Cobb, who insists on playing all the female parts in his stocking feet, just before he took the stage as Mistress Quickly. "It out-herods Herod," another called out before scene-stealer Jerry Guenthner took the stage. But one phrase was always delivered with a kind of seriousness and gravity, a phrase that the actors repeated again and again: "speak the speech."

  5. Even the visual aspects of All the World's a Stage drew the audience's attention back to the importance of the spoken word. To the inmates' requisite khaki uniforms, Costume Designer Michelle Bombe added light blue ties with the word "speak" painted in black calligraphy letters. The way in which the show was blocked privileged speech over sight, too. Many of the monologues and sonnets were delivered from behind the audience so that long before we actually saw the actors we could only hear their voices. Although there was a space set up as a stage at the front of the audience, complete with a backdrop and a backstage area, it was just as normal for a character to enter from the back of the audience rather than from behind the backdrop. Cobb began his musical rendition of "My Mistress' Eyes" (as a blues song) in the center back row of the audience and was well into the second quatrain before he made it to the stage. The effect of all this, I realized, after spending the first act craning my head to find out what was happening in the back and getting little more than a sore neck in the process, was to force the audience to stop twisting around to see what was going on behind us, to look straight ahead at the empty stage, and to listen. Here again, I thought, Tofteland and his company were staging one of their group's philosophies.

  6. Whether it was because "speaking the speech" was a prominent theme of the evening or because I noticed parts of the prison that I hadn't before-like the sign posted at the front of the Visitor's Room outlining how the inmates are not allowed to hold their children during visits-on this particular trip to Kentucky, I was especially mindful of just how important words are to the men in the Shakespeare program. The Shakespeare Behind Bars participants love words. They read voraciously, taking full advantage of educational and creative opportunities and seizing upon the opportunity to perform Shakespeare partly because they consider his words the ultimate challenge. The Shakespeare Behind Bars participants also have a particular understanding of the power of words to resolve conflict: these are men who have learned to talk about their problems rather than react with violent behavior. But while attending the performances of All the World's a Stage and watching the men interact with family members, friends, and mentors before and after the shows, I realized that another reason speech is so important to the members of Shakespeare Behind Bars is that, in their prison culture in which physical and material demonstrations of affection are strictly regulated and restricted, words are often the only things these men are allowed to give to their visitors.

  7. Taking into account the way that the Shakespeare Behind Bars members understand the value of words as gifts, it's no surprise that several pieces in this production were directed toward particular individuals in the audience as expressions of love and gratitude. Sammie Byron delivered Sonnet 17 to Tofteland's wife, Marcia, a fiercely loyal supporter of the program and a hero to its participants. Hal Cobb dedicated one of his three songs to Gaye Holman, Luckett's education coordinator. And even the comedians in the group directed their speeches to particular audience members. On the final night of the run, apprentice member Shane Williams delivered his best performance of Proteus' monologue from Two Gentlemen of Verona 2.6 by choosing two women in the audience to demonstrate how Sylvia was clearly superior to Julia. Williams' technique was extremely effective (although the woman he selected to represent Julia seemed slightly alarmed).

  8. Throughout the evening, there were several superb performances-Floyd Vaughn's Pistol was a masterpiece of comic timing and subtlety, and Ron Brown was perfect as Shylock-but one of the most powerful pieces was Leonard Ford's "I Am," a collection of monologues from his past Shakespeare roles, prefaced by a direct address to the audience in which Ford explained how the Shakespeare program has helped him to reconstruct his identity and reclaim a certain amount of personal dignity. "I am a prisoner," Ford told the audience, "I have lost my freedom. I have lost my career. I've lost my wife and children. I have lost my rights, and I have lost my religion. I've lost all this and much more, only to find that I am a Shakespearean actor. And when I can find time to be alone in my prison cell, I speak the most eloquent words ever written to my prison walls. You see, I want you all to understand that it matters not to me whether I am center stage in the spotlight at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC or whether I am alone in a dark prison cell in LaGrange, Kentucky: I am a Shakespearean actor." Ford's work was a carefully-crafted compilation, chosen from scenes in which characters were struggling with their consciences and searching for redemption, composed around the themes of repentance and mercy. One of his selections included Tamora's opening speech from Titus Andronicus in which she begs the title character not to kill her son and cautions, "Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? / Draw near them then in being merciful / Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge," a sentiment that was in dialogue with Ford's performance of Portia's "the quality of mercy is not strained" speech from Merchant of Venice. With its focus on loss and identity in prison, Ford's "I Am" also connected with Richard II's monologue "I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world," delivered by Sammie Byron in the second half of the show.

  9. But for the most part, the second half of All the World's a Stage put aside serious concerns in favor of laughter and ribaldry, and showcased the intelligence and heart of Shakespeare Behind Bars veteran Jerry Guenthner. Guenthner, or "Big G" as he's known, is about as bardolatrous as you'd want a person to be. He's been studying Shakespeare for years now, lining his dorm room with books about Shakespeare, breaking into spontaneous performances on the prison yard, trying to convert less enlightened friends, and driving some of them crazy in the process. When I donated a collection of new Shakespeare books to the program last fall, Guenthner had the sense to eschew the single play editions in favor of the crown jewel, a Norton Shakespeare, and later to whisper gleefully to me, "Amy, I nabbed the Greenblatt." Having tackled the challenges of playing Hamlet in 1999 and Caliban in 2002, it was only a matter of time before Guenthner set his talents to writing and producing his own work. The Orson Welles of Shakespeare Behind Bars, Guenthner chose the December show as an occasion to debut his thirty-minute play "Falstaff and His Luggage" and to cast himself in the title role. Guenthner's adaptation told the story of Falstaff after Hal's rejection and before Falstaff's death. The action began with Hal's coronation and public rejection of Falstaff, taken verbatim from the final act of 2 Henry 4 and delivered beautifully by Henry V look-alike Vincent Ingabrand. Rather than shake off Hal's rejection, Guenthner's Falstaff let out a sort of primal howl, and for the rest of the play, the action shifted back and forth from Henry at court to Falstaff and his cronies at the tavern as Falstaff continued to lament and try to justify Henry's rejection of him. What was brilliant about Guenthner's adaptation was not necessarily the plot (basically, Falstaff, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym take revenge on two authority figures, a justice and an archbishop) but Guenthner's ability to produce prose that sounded so Shakespearean I had to ask myself, "Now, Pistol never really said that ... did he?" Phrases and situations were taken from all of the Falstaff plays (even the dress trick from Merry Wives of Windsor was interpolated, this time as a means for ridiculing state and church officials), but most of the lines and many of the characters were Guenthner's own creation. "Falstaff and His Luggage" was a testimony to how completely members of the Shakespeare program understand and engage with Shakespeare. Guenther never would have been able to create such persuasive literary extensions of characters like Falstaff and Henry unless he knew them thoroughly-unless, over years of reading and conversing with them, they had become his friends.

  10. It was interesting, given the theme of speech that ran throughout the entire show, that the last piece of the evening should focus on the inadequacy of the spoken word. All the World's a Stage ended with an original song written by Cobb and performed by the whole company in which they sang to their mentors, families, and friends, "When 'thank-yous' just don't seem enough your gift to repay; / The best thing that I know to do is give your gift away. / I can't turn back the hands of time, undo the things I've done, / But I can be the best I can from this moment on." During the question-and-answer session following the show, several audience members said that they felt at a loss for words to describe their gratitude to the acting company. One of the many people who spoke up on behalf of the program's effectiveness was Peter Clasen, a recent graduate of Boston College who was so impressed with Tofteland's program that he volunteered for a year-long, unpaid internship as assistant director. "I think each of these guys could talk about how being in Shakespeare Behind Bars has changed him," Clasen told the audience during the talkback session, "and sometimes it might sound hokey or phony. But if you're not here every day you can't understand the sincerity behind that sentiment. These guys are brothers. It's so rare for this kind of community to exist at all, even on the outside."

  11. Those students, educators, and other interested parties who aren't able to see a Shakespeare Behind Bars performance will be glad to know that a documentary on the program is soon to be released. Produced by Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller of Philomath Films, the film (also entitled Shakespeare Behind Bars) follows the group over the course of a year, during their rehearsals of The Tempest, as the men struggle with their past actions and present lives. The documentary premiered to standing ovations at Sundance this January, winning a nomination for the coveted Grand Jury prize. Although Philomath Films is still looking for a distributor for theatrical release, Shakespeare Behind Bars is expected to run on PBS sometime in 2006. Special screenings are being arranged for MLA 2005 and SAA 2006.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).