I’ve changed, maybe you have too.
It had been nearly ten years since I had been to prison, weird thing to say, but perhaps not what you’d think. In in the summer of 2007 I had my first unexpected and rare journey into a world I wouldn’t touch again for nearly ten years, a sector of the theatre world that lies on the far off fringe of the mind of some knowing theatre goes and a handful of artists. Theatre, more specifically, I was introduced to Shakespeare being produced inside a prison.
Let’s imagine blurry lines and a hazy focus becoming clear...The alarm goes off early, too early,
that dark outside morning fuels my rusty zipper body ache tired. I mean it’s Saturday for god's sake. I shuffle to the kitchen, the smell of brewing coffee helps my brain cope with this 5:00 AM rise and shine. I throw a few things into my bag, hit the shower with coffee in hand and actually wake up, a big shift looking back on the past. I’m holding a shower coffee, shower beers used to be the thing and yet things have changed. There’s some prominent crows feet forming next to my eyes, and this beard is starting to see it’s first few specks of salt as I catch a glimpse of myself before running out the door at six in the morning, I used to be going to bed at this time...things are different than ten years ago, I’ve changed.
This morning I’m driving out of Cincinnati Ohio, through the mist and fog of a cold and somehow humid Ohio river valley morning. “Make up your mind Ohio, maybe the weather across the river will be better” I think to myself as I pass Paul Brown Stadium and cross the river into Kentucky. I hit my stride with traffic, and flow from I-75 right into the I-71 south ramp towards Louisville, a drive that feels so familiar it’s like going home. You see, I’m headed about an hour and a half south of Cincy to an area of Kentucky called Lagrange, just outside this semi-forgotten small Kentucky town sits my destination for the day, Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. A medium security prison (as listed) seemingly turned maximum due to a few additions to screening security, that houses what most people would deem some of Kentucky’s most heinous criminals.
There she is. (image above) But to give you the nuts and bolts up front, let’s look at some figures. The following stats, and I’ll keep it short are pulled straight from the Complex’s website. Because you may be wondering...
What makes up this prison?
The physical plant consists of five living units
44-bed special management unit,
a 16-bed minimum-security unit,
numerous support buildings including academic and vocational schools and indoor recreation areas.
The living units are broken down into three different categories: general population, meritorious housing and one dormitory being utilized as a therapeutic community type setting for inmates enrolled in the Substance Abuse Program.
Perimeter security consists of 14-foot high fencing with electronic sensors topped by razor wire, monitored by four fixed security tower positions supplemented by a mobile perimeter patrol. (LLC- website)
How many “bad guys” does this place hold?
“The first inmates were received at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in March 1981. Although the institution was designed to house 486, with double bunking in 1990, the operational capacity was raised to 995. Day beds have been added to the general population unit wings. LLCC's current institutional capacity is 1097.” - LLC website
Wait, why are you headed there in this story Justin?
Great question, because I’m not 100% sure on this, but I’m willing to take the bet that I may be the only guy, or one of an intimately select group of individuals, who grew up in Springfield Ohio and actually wanted to go to prison (on a regular basis). I’m head to Luther Luckett to sit in on a rehearsal within the prison walls. I’ve been a working theatre artist for the past ten years, working from Cincy to West Palm Beach, Orlando to Chicago, but few theatrical or professional experiences have truly measured up to the experiences I took in ten years ago within prison walls, I’m headed to a Shakespeare Behind Bars rehearsal.
In 2007, I found myself short of a summer gig, there was poor communication between a summer show for a local company and myself, and nearly in the blink of an eye I found myself without a job doing theatre over the summer, and I refused to return home to work at my high school job for the hot summer months. For me, not only was it not an option, it wasn’t a thought I even entertained. I scrambled for any and every lead I could find on any openings for summer work, which at this point in the year, had all seemingly filled up. I emailed all the companies I knew or could find to the UPTA theatre auditions website, I asked acting professors, I tracked down my directing professors ll of which came up dry, then in what I perceived at the time as an odd turn of events, I found myself complaining in the hallway (as cocky college actos do) about my situation when our departments costume design professor passed by and over heard me. Lynn Conaway stopped and said “”You’re struggling to find a summer gig?, I know some people you should talk to.”
A week of fun filled panic later I was signed on with Curt Tofteland at Kentucky Shakespeare Festival for his summer production of Measure for Measure, a summer experience that would shift and shape my theatre career in more ways than one, but that’s a different story for another date...post, for another post. This one, is about how Shakespeare Behind Bars shifted how my brain works, and by virtue of that how my eyes see and I’m not an inmate.
“The Mission of Shakespeare Behind Bars is to offer theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.” - SBB website.
(While he technically opened the doors though a long and arduous string of paperwork and phone calls and background checks for the entire company, for the sake of imagery I’m going to make it seem like he just opened the door with a quick turn of the handle for just me)
So Curt opens this door at the prison, I walk in. 21 years old, full of excitement and terror and curiosity and fear at what I’d find on the other side of the walls. I had no idea what to expect. What I saw, wasn’t a rehabilitation program, my eyes saw a fully functioning traditional Shakespeare company, all parts played by the men, housed within prison walls. Now look, you can look up the website and the amazing documentary and do a little more research yourself, which I encourage you to do, because the statistics back up the rehabilitative work being done through this program. But, to me...to my twenty-one year old unknowingly ignorant ass, I saw a Shakespeare Company. After the sliding doors locked shut, I was frisked, searched, metal detected, and approved... I still forgot where I was, and was immediately transported into the brutal world of Measure for Measure, by some of the most genuine, truth driven, and open performances I’ve seen (that statement stands and applies to this day).
I walked away shook, confused, dizzy even...all of these in a positive and curious sort of way. I had never thought theatre could be used in such a way… were they escaping their immediate reality of being in prison?? I personally had found a way to use theatre in college to escape the immediate reality that I was and had to remain (if I wanted a good job and career) in an institutionalized education setting that was draining me of my money, energy, creativity, and health (especially the health of my liver) as I jumped the hoops required to graduate. I can see how a person would be able to invest fully into a play to escape their real world, to hide for a while. But this production brought a different edge to the forefront of my mind, the simplicity of the performance held such a resonance that I’d never seen in any movie or on any stage, there wasn’t lines dripping with training, and pregnant pauses lingering for audience required appreciation of a well landed joke… they just were. They were Lucio, and they were Antonio...and He was Isabella. I walked out with my confusion and a slack jaw, and immediately following the trip to the prison came life.
Moves from Kentucky to Cincinnati, Cincinnati to Tallahassee, jobs in Orlando, West Palm Beach, New York City, Seaside, move to Chicago, Springfield Missouri, and back round to the place that’s been the most like home, Cincinnati again. Now that jumbled list comprises nearly six years of exploring what theatres there are in the aforementioned cities and regions, and now i find myself in this present tense story about a past event of driving my car up the outermost guard post and check in spot at a prison in BFE Kentucky. I’m a few minutes early in meeting Matt, the current Artistic Director of Shakespeare behind bars, and although we’ve not worked together his leadership and long time connections with Kentucky Shakespeare and my old school connections seem to bridge that gap. The first guard post is just a little too far away to see who’s up near the front doors.
The guard slides open his door in the chilly drizzle…
the guard says...
“Morning” I say “I’m here for Shakespeare behind bars..”
--- looks at me with a small question mark attached---
“Alright..give me a second, let me have your ID..”
“You know Mr. Baldwin…(well shit i'm def not 21 anymore if he’s calling me Mr.) there’s no Shakespeare listed on the sheet here for today.”
(I fumble and spout more info)
“Well this is awkward...oh, I’m sorry if i wasn’t clear, I’m here for the rehearsal, I’m supposed to meet Matt Wallace here shortly and go in together”
“Oh, well Matt in’t here yet, but I’m sure he will be, you been here before?”
“Ten...nine years ago? Does that count?”
“Not really, you got any weapons, drugs or dangerous materials in your car Mr. Baldwin?”
“What about cigarettes?. Any cigarettes in your car?”
“Alright pull forward and stop, lemme get your licence place number and then i’ll signal you on… head up to the green awning and go in from there.”
I ease down the cracked and aged driveway, find a parking spot, empty my pockets of all extraneous crap, I’ve got my car keys and my ID. I head into the prison. Now that it’s been ten years... I don’t have the nerves, I’m lacking the fear, or the anxiety I experienced in 2007. Maybe it’s my deeper knowledge of my art, my decade of experience, maybe it’s from two years of living in Chicago and getting off work at 3 or 4 am. No matter what the reason, I’m not scared or apprehensive to walk into this place, a space that outsider’s who’ve never stepped in view like Prison Break, OZ, or Shawshank and while it’s not Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood it’s a far far cry from a holiday inn express or a Conrad by Hilton. This place is bleak, clinical, and cold. Matt Wallace and I check in, get approved after solidifying my eligibility with background checks and searches and a stroll through the metal detector. We pass gate one, sliding doors two and three, and pass gate two out into “The Yard”. One of the most epic and scary places, according to Hollywood films, in prison. It’s odd, but for me it’s like walking down the streets of Chicago on a busy sidewalk, the picture featured above is the path we walked down towards the academic building. The only difference between my experiences walking down Division Street or North Ave. in Chicago versus that of walking “The Yard” inside a prison, is that more individuals said “Good Morning” or dropped a nod to me as we passed by.
I joined the circle of men in the academic building, probably around twenty or so members of SBB were present as Matt and I arrived to the building, Matt introduced me to the guys as a friend and fellow Shakespeare theatre guy. I was greeted with handshakes from every man in the room, I was told how excited they were to have me be there with them, asked where I was from, we debated different neighborhoods in Cincinnati and what parts were still rough and which ones had malls and bars popping up in what used to be the “slums”.
I’m going to share less than a few details about the actual rehearsal, what happens in any good theatre company’s rehearsal process stays there as a token of trust amongst its members. But I’ll simply say that I was moved nearly beyond words (it’s taken me nearly a month to begin writing and processing the experience) and not in the way I was when I was a twenty-one year old Newb. We talk for nearly an hour in the circle, unpacking events taking place in the guys lives inside the prison and with their families and events outside of the walls. They discuss what it means to be open, to be honest, the difference between what “acting” truly is and what lying is and how those two things couldn’t be further apart. They speak of nobility and seeking forgiveness for their crimes, acts, moments, mistakes...all words that they use. And don’t mistake me or them, they know full well that the forgiveness they seek will most likely never arrive. With that they seek their form of nobility, “Nobility lies in the attempt”...
“Nobility isn’t being better than your fellow man, it’s being better than your former self”
-SBB Member, February ‘18
I’m not a spectator, I’m part of the crew. I’m in it, chiming in when I feel it important and vital to conversation and taking everything in. Sitting in the circle with these men, It’s like being on the inside of the most gentle and open testosterone soaked family gathering you could possibly imagine. Then Matt said “alright let’s start today from the top” and Two men stood up, met in the middle of the circle, and at the drop of a hat stood Theseus and Hippolyta (Midsummer Night’s dream).
This is familiar. I’m back in the rehearsal hall, no different than any other I’ve stood in in my life. In an instant, the men are all the old actors I know, and I know these guys for who they are more than ever. The confidant actor with age, the young actor still unsure of his movement, the actor whose got his lines solid but still checks his script after every sentence...they’re all here. I see men who’ve committed horrible acts, made awful mistakes, hurt others in irrevocable ways… working on a play, and by doing so to understand why and who they are through Shakespeare. We discuss what it must feel like to be Hermia, a young lady whose rights and ability to choose who she loves and what she can do with her live are stipped away What drives Puck to make choices that actively ruin and complicate other’s lives.. moments of silence come and go, deep discussion revolving around how feelings are magical, hard to navigate, and moments in the script that these men have never navigated in their real lives (pre- lockup).
My heart is full. These men are learning empathy through Shakespeare, through literacy, and intimate human connection in a safe and facilitated space. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to process the fact that I would one day in the future be sitting in a room, deep within the belly of Luther Luckett, rehearsing Demetrius and Helena, Peter Quince and Bottom with some of the same men I had met a decade before as a guest and contributor.
I leave after the rehearsal is cut short by half an hour. Apparently our time frame doesn't line up with the prison guards this time around, it should have but it’s all good, because we know that what’s best is to collaborate with them and find that working relationship.
I walk outside the doors of the prison.
I breathe in, and slide into my car.
I drive an hour and a half home.
I don’t think I even turn on the radio.
This day I’m writing about, changed me.
Now, well now I don’t know what I am, but I do know 31 year old Justin is a far cry from the 21 year old version. I know that the guys I met in prison back then, have grown and shifted and developed just as I have perhaps in a different way, but they’re not the same humans they were ten years ago. I believe that most artists find a way to tell stories, create work, visual, sculpture, theatre...photography or whatever it is, with a purpose. My hope is that this purpose drives them to put good into the world, whatever version of “good” that may be. I know that the men who I spent time with in that circle are becoming better people every time they pick up a script, I’ve seen it. I hope to see it again, and often.
Point is, when posed the question “do you really think people can change?”
My answer is yes, because of a myriad of reasons I have to believe this, but because I know that I’m not who I was ten years ago, and I’ll assume neither is anyone who's reading this... or at least I hope you're not.
The men inside, the men of Shakespeare Behind Bars, they’re seeking nobility. And while it’s perhaps not the same for me, I believe I’ll follow their lead, and do what I can to be better than my former self.