Finally, after all the negotiation, all the work and all the time, we had our first audience. A crowd of approximately forty inmates of Westville Correctional Facility. It is located some miles out of South Bend, in what feels very much like American heartland. Long flat prairie land, cornfields stretching to the horizon, the interstate carving through the countryside like a scar. As we arrived in the parking lot, the temperature dropped, a little bit of pathetic fallacy. Here we are, shivering with cold and anticipation.
We wore our costumes in, and brought nothing but the props we needed. No underwired bras, no money, no mobile phones. At the door there is a tight, if friendly, security post. We arrived during visiting hours, and saw many families, and too many small frightened children, waiting to be x-rayed. It started to come home to me how these kids were seeing their daddy, and maybe their first memories – their only memories – of daddy will be in that context. Some seemed afraid, or daunted. Others all too used to it. The guards that waved us through were almost overly jolly, grinning and cracking jokes. Prison is FUN. “It’s not so friendly on the inside.” someone remarked. We eventually made it into an airlock, where an unsmiling gargoyle wordlessly gestured for us to show our passes. Once through security the atmosphere changed. Electric fences and guard towers, and a large complex of low rise secure buildings. We weren’t allowed to walk anywhere unaccompanied of course, and our escort was a chirpy young (six months pregnant) volunteer. She got us onto the bus that took us the short journey to the low security block in which we would be performing.
In the block, lots of wooden panels. Prayers mounted on the walls and pictures of prison wardens through the ages. Empty corridors. Our escort led us to a flight of stairs, and up them to an unprepossessing looking door which she opened with a small key. She gestured us in. As I walked through the door it was like walking into a different world. Men all around, standing, staring. Some at nothing. Some at us. Some out of windows. Their body language was closed. Their eye contact limited and fleeting. Their movements nervous, strained, unfamiliar. Some were wiping down windows and floors, with an air of care bordering on the compulsive. Some were standing in groups, next to each other, staring. One or two attempted a wave, or a nod, of greeting. All were dressed in the prison uniform. White trainers, white T-Shirt, beige slacks. It was customisable to the extent that there was a beige collared shirt that could be worn on top of the T-shirt if cold. Those in just the T-shirt were pretty buff, and often covered in livid technicolor tattoos right up to the chin. One stern and practical looking woman served as guard in this unit. She took our names. We then rather coyly went to the room where we would be working and began to set up the stage.
As we were setting up the guys started to filter in. The front row filled first, and then row after row, with the back filling up last. We were nervous, and they were talking amongst themselves, their body language still quite closed. I was tentatively warming up, but not really wanting to make too much of a spectacle of myself. Once we filled up, the volunteer closed the door. There were still some people outside, watching through a window, curious. Extra chairs were carried in for them and once we were packed, Scott said we would start early. So we quite suddenly launched into the show. I was aware that my nerves were up. They didn’t last long.
The thing that was instantly evident in the room was the quality of attention. They were really listening, audibly listening. And they were unashamed to laugh when they thought something was even slightly funny. The next thing that became clear was the level of empathy. They were right on top of us, so it was easy to feel with them. And the changes and surprises were landing audibly, as were their opinions of the different characters. It very quickly became a revelation to us, having never done the play to an audience that doesn’t know the play and the company. The surprises, the twists and turns, the confusions, many things that we almost took for granted having known the play all our working lives, they really began to ping out for us because they pinged out for them. The show flew by. There were a couple of mistakes that were so enjoyed and supported by the crowd that they felt almost right. And we realised that we knew the show now, and began to have fun.
At the end they all stood to applaud, from the back to the front, like a wave. The questions afterwards were eager, curious, and to do with detail of character and craft and plot, rather than, as too often happens in theatre q&a, people showing off about what they know and not genuinely interested in getting an answer to anything really.
It was one of the most remarkably positive experiences of my working life. Most of them had never seen a play before, let alone a Shakespeare play. And despite the obsolescence of much of the language, the themes and motifs all landed on these initially intimidating looking people. It made me think about my prejudices, as much as it made me think of the things I take for granted. To quote the friar, “What we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost, why then we rack the value, then we find the virtue that possession could not show us whilst it was ours.”
As we walked back out of the prison into a warmer day, we all experienced a moment of knowledge that we were free. We could go wherever we wanted to. And the people we had shared that experience with could not. We all tasted our freedom fresh. And we all understood how truly lucky we are to be here, thousands of miles from home, travelling round this vast but welcoming country, and working with the words of a man who somehow cracked the fundamentals of the human condition, and had the eloquence to express them.
(By Al Barclay)