By Harry C. Goodall Jr.
Journalism Guild Writer
In the gymnasium of California State Prison-Solano, inmates donned costumes and recited lines of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in April.
The presentation was produced by Lesley Currier, managing director of Marin Shakespeare Company, a company that also arranges productions of Shakespeare at San Quentin prison once or twice a year.
The level II inmates rehearsed for more than six months, ironing out all the bugs that usually surface during plays. They were allowed to wear costumes while performing this play, which brought to the production the same kind of magic that theatrical plays can bring.
“Experiencing Shakespeare as a participant in a production has helped inmates release themselves from the cold and callous stigma that prison dons on its residents,” said inmate Cotton Jones.
“We put on a façade 24/7 here. We still have the façade on that we have to be tough,” Jones added. “Shakespeare allows us to peel away at that.”
“But itcan often take years before inmates are less worried about their image,” Jones said. Shane Goddard, who suffers from a fear of public speaking and is serving a 25-to-life sentence for first-degree murder, felt that Shakespeare brings a transformative experience for the inmates.
“To see guys I’ve known for 20 years come out of their comfort zone makes me want to participate,” Goddard said.
Part of the thrill, according to Jones, is the audience, which consists of visitors who came into the prison to see the show.
“We feel forgotten,” Jones said. “When we see people from the outside, it’s energizing.”
Ronin Holmes, who says he has read every Shakespeare book available, played a leading role. Holmes had participated in a Shakespeare project at San Quentin, before he was transferred to Solano.
Productions have been ongoing since 2003, when Currier first brought her prison transformation project to San Quentin. Currier was in part inspired by Director Curt Tofteland, who introduced Shakespeare to people incarcerated in Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky.
Currier said she owes the success of the program in part to the production’s ability to foster a therapeutic community, as many of these guys, who she said had truncated childhoods, are able to bond with each other.