ED GORDON, host:
Hardened criminals find themselves trapped on a desert island. They fight to survive, finding meaning in their lives and look for forgiveness from the person they've wronged. That's the plot of William Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest. It's also life for the men at Kentucky's Luther Luckett Correctional Complex.
There, Curt Tofteland has been using the bard to teach inmates about hope, redemption and themselves. For a year, cameras followed Tofteland, inmate Hal Cobb and his fellow thespians as they prepared to perform The Tempest. The documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars was recently released on DVD.
(Soundbite of film, Shakespeare Behind Bars)
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): If we...
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): No, you don't know that...
Unidentified Man #1: If we are marked to die...
Unidentified Man #2: Yes.
Unidentified Man #1: We are now to do our country's laws. And if to live...
Unidentified Man #2: What?
Unidentified Man #1: The few men have greater share of honor.
Unidentified Man #2: The what?
Unidentified Man #1: God's peace.
Unidentified Man #2: The what? The greater what?
Unidentified Man #1: The greater share of honor.
Unidentified Man #2: What is it that you want us to do? To be what...
Unidentified Man #1: Share the honor.
Unidentified Man #2: Honor.
GORDON: NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with Curt Tofteland about Shakespeare Behind Bars. Hal Cobb joined them by phone from prison, and he told Farai that theatre has always been an important part of his life.
Mr. HAL COBB (Performer, Shakespeare Behind Bars): When I was 12, it was a chance for me to escape. It was a chance to be somebody else, to not be me for a while. But then when you start working Shakespeare with Curt Tofteland, there's no escape. The things I thought I knew about myself were things that weren't necessarily valued at my family or within the really strict fundamentalist church that I was raised in.
Part of that was that I was gay, and that was something that was never valued in the world in which I lived, and it wasn't a possibility.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Curt, let me turn to you. How would you - I guess how would you describe your production compared to other versions that you might have seen?
Mr. CURT TOFTELAND (Founder, Shakespeare Behind Bars): When I began the program, it was as a laboratory and there was never really any intention on my part that the guys would end up performing for an audience. It was really the exploration of the characters and being in that environment of the circle, of being able to share, being able to create intimacies that allowed the inmates to be honest with themselves and to be honest with each other.
It was at the request of the guys that were participating, could we share this with our families and our friends? Because a number of the guys had really never had a success in which their family could be proud of them.
CHIDEYA: Tell us about The Tempest. Why did you choose this play?
Mr. TOFTELAND: We had been on an interesting journey of performing Titus Andronicus and performing Hamlet. Really characters that are not forgiving characters. And so it was really time, I thought, to explore the only play that he empowers a male - the character Prospero - to forgive. And Shakespeare empowers Prospero as a magician who creates this great storm that shipwrecks all of Prospero's enemies, including his brother, on this island to seek revenge.
And that's much of what it is that he does throughout the majority of the play until a character named Ariel tells him if he had the power, if this spirit had the power to forgive, he would because it's humane. And the light bulb goes on for Prospero and he then has the capacity to forgive his brother.
And I felt that forgiveness is a theme that's important really in all of our lives, whether you're behind the wire or outside the wire. In a larger scope, it has to do with the spiritual self too. If we believe in God, we hope that our God is a forgiving God for all of our things that we've done that haven't' been right, whether we've been incarcerated for them or not.
CHIDEYA: Hal, let me turn to you and ask about forgiveness on a different level. You recently met with the parole board. Tell us about what got you incarcerated, what the outcome of the parole board hearing is, and what the process of having to go and petition for your freedom has done for your sense of redemption and forgiveness.
Mr. COBB: Well, I am serving a life sentence for the murder of my wife more than 20 years ago. It was a point in my life where I had given up hope because of my religious beliefs about who I was during a time where it could've been suicide or a murder-suicide. You know, one morning I did the unthinkable.
I had eight years to serve before I saw the parole board for the first time. That was four years ago. And then I just saw them a few weeks ago. Once again, they gave me a four-year deferment.
My involvement with Shakespeare Behind Bars has never been about trying to show the parole board or anybody else that I'm a different or changed person, although my involvement in Shakespeare Behind Bars has made me a different and changed person. But a lot of those things just also come along with age.
CHIDEYA: Have you sought forgiveness for what you did or forgiven yourself for what you did?
Mr. COBB: I believe that I've forgiven myself. The one thing that's difficult for me is that there are many other people who are still hurting I would like to receive forgiveness from, but it is not my place to ask them for that forgiveness. That's a decision that people have to come to on their own.
In The Tempest, Prospero never has any intention of forgiving his brother. Though this isn't necessarily spelled out in the text, Prospero, you know, sees the effects of his actions if he seeks revenge are going to speak very loudly. Not only because it's a good thing to do, he decides to forgive for his daughter's sake.
CHIDEYA: Curt, Hal, thank you very much.
Mr. TOFTELAND: Thank you for having us.
Mr. COBB: Thank you for having us.
GORDON: Curt Tofteland is founder and artistic director for the Shakespeare Behind Bars Program at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky. Hal Cobb is an actor in the program and an inmate at Luther Luckett.
To hear an extended version of this interview and see clips from the new documentary, Shakespeare Behind Bars, log on to our Web site at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
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