The lobby of San Quentin’s Garden Chapel was filled with Shakespearean costumes. The actors were from San Quentin’s Shakespeare program and the Marin Shakespeare Company.
“This is therapy, this is humanity — in prison, people, we wear masks. In this program, I take it off and exercise hidden talents I didn’t know I have,” said incarcerated actor Derry Brown.
On October 21, 2022, the actors performed an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” a famous play about the King of England who struggled and fought to keep his crown away from his adversaries.
San Quentin resident Steve Drowns played Richard III — a towering role that has the third-most lines of any of Shakespeare’s many characters.
“King Richard was Steve Drowns and Steve Drowns was King Richard. I had to review my old criminal self and in doing so, I saw how much I have changed,” he said.
Marin Shakespeare’s Company Executive Director Suraya Keating said the “performance is reason to celebrate the spirit of resiliency because the human journey is not easy. But you have grown stronger.”
Keating returned to San Quentin with Bob and Lesley Currier, who are the outside originators of San Quentin Shakespeare, along with 32 volunteers and outside guests who attended.
Bob Currier said, “It’s incredible to be in a show with the men-in-blue.
San Quentin actor Kunta Rigmaden, who played King Richard’s ally Hastings, said, “I learned my lines on Thursday for the first time. I procrastinated, but I won’t let anybody down. This is a family.”
Attendees watching a San Quentin Shakespeare program quickly saw the rehabilitative benefits of the program. A local high school teacher who came in for the first time said, “Meeting the men gives me sadness, when I see how long they have been here and how much time they have to do, because they have so much to offer humanity.”
“Richard III” tells the story of a leader struggling with his humanity and character flaws that control his state of mind and actions. Drowns said he could relate to King Richard’s fragilities.
“The program allowed me to take off my mask to find the true Steve,” said Drown.
The incarcerated actors gained insight and developed camaraderie. They shared their experiences with the audience after the play.
“As a LBGTQ person in prison, I was never accepted, not even by my family,” said a tearful Adriel Ramirez who played King Richard’s wife, Lady Anne. She said that through personal development, she can now feel confident while interacting with others.
“These incarcerated actors should be out helping the nex“These incarcerated actors should be out helping the next generation to stop intergenerational violence; they have weathered through so many obstacles,” said Alejandra Wahl, assistant director to Keating.
“I’ve been locked up since I was 16. I turned 28 this year. My character, Lord Hastings, had full integrity, which teaches me what I try to carry every day,” said Kunta Rigmaden.
Ryan Manetta talked about how substance abuse led him to prison. “This program allowed me to come out of my shell without abusing any substances,” he said.
Other incarcerated actors said acting in a Shakespeare production inspired them and transformed them.
“I thought I was supposed to watch; now I’m performing,” said Darwin “Talls” Billingsley, now a veteran actor. “I’m shy; I was frightened to be on stage as a participant. Now it’s like part of an addiction. People laughed at me when I started readings, but Janice and Kate taught me memorization, etc. and the veteran [actors] embraced me too. Being a part of something for real makes me feel free!”
Despite the program’s success, San Quentin is at risk of losing its long-running Shakespeare program due to lack of funds. Lesley Currier addressed this issue after the production of “Richard III,” telling attendees that the California Arts Program is terminating funding for San Quentin Shakespeare. She noted that the program started at San Quentin in 2003 and has since grown to offer theater at 14 prisons.
“Do not worry, this program will not end,” said assistant director Alejandra Wahl. “It will get funded.”
Wahl said that the outside guests in attendance and the vibrant community committed to rehabilitation in Marin County would help raise the money needed.
Currier estimated the San Quentin Shakespeare program costs somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 a year to cover all expenses. According to the Curriers, during an uninterrupted, quarantine-free year, San Quentin Shakespeare and the Marin Shakespearean group collaborate on five plays.
“It’s a sanctuary to be with people who promote positivity in a negative environment,” said Braydon “Ten” Tennison, who played young Prince Richmond.
Since 2003, the Marin Shakespeare Company has worked at 14 California prisons and with system-impacted youth. They also sponsor the Returned Citizens Theatre Troupe, a group of actors who have survived incarceration to tell stories of importance through theater. You can see videos of past Shakespeare for Social Justice performances on the Marin Shakespeare Company YouTube page. They welcome donations in support of their work in social rehabilitation. Please contact Lesley Currier at 415-499-4485 or Lesley@ marinshakespeare.org to lend your support.