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Shakespeare at Pendleton

August 29, 2013

Three weeks ago, Huntington University’s upcoming Forester Lecturer Dr. Laura Bates challenged me to consider starting a Shakespeare program at the Pendleton Correctional Facility. I had earlier asked her if she knew of any such program at Pendleton which I could partner with. The answer was no, but why shouldn’t I be the one to start it? I did not reply to that right away.

I have pondered this idea for several years now, and earlier this summer I told my friend Curt Tofteland, the founder of Shakespeare Behind Bars, that I would like to do a Shakespeare program at Pendleton when I retire. Of course, my retirement is likely to be 16 years from now. After Laura’s challenge to me, I prayed about it, and it became an idea I could not put aside. The weekend afterwards I spent at Mammoth Cave National Park, wearing my Shakespeare Behind Bars t-shirts and thinking as I walked the trails and went through the caves.

The following Monday, August 12, I began my fourth annual summer seminar with the men at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. The men there are working on Much Ado about Nothing, my personal favorite play, and we had the best week together of all the times I’ve worked with them. (Several of the men said so as well.) On Tuesday of that week, I asked the men if they think I have what it would take to run a program similar to Shakespeare Behind Bars. They gave me the advice of approaching the program as an opportunity to learn from the inmates, and they affirmed that I should go for it. By the end of the week, with a lot of advice from Laura, Curt, and Matt Wallace (the current director of the Luckett program), I had written a letter to the officials at Pendleton, introducing myself and giving my experiences of what I have seen SBB do in Kentucky and Michigan. I sent the email on Monday the 19th.

I heard from the Pendleton officials on Wednesday. Yes, they are interested and would like to meet with me. With a little back and forth about schedules, we settled that I would visit Pendleton today. In the intervening week, I continued in communication with Laura, Matt, and Curt, preparing for what kinds of questions I should expect and what are the best ways to communicate what I would like to do at Pendleton. Last night, I put thinking about Pendleton aside for a few hours as I went to see the new movie version of Much Ado about Nothing for a second time. I found myself much more attentive to the way the movie told the story.

I left home at 6:50, getting to the city of Pendleton about 50 minutes too early, so I stopped for a coffee and reviewed all of the correspondence I’ve had for the past several weeks and settled upon my answers to the questions I was told to anticipate. A few minutes before 9, I was at the prison.

Pendleton is a maximum security prison near Indianapolis. Though I’ve been in prisons a number of times before, this was the most thorough security process I’ve ever gone through. But it did not put me off. I met with the officials, and they were both great guys to talk with, asking me exactly the kinds of questions I was advised to expect, and though to a degree I believe I was being tested, I also sensed very quickly that this meeting was going exceptionally well.

When the meeting concluded, I was given a tour of the prison, seeing an educational building mostly unused since some changes in the state’s penal policies. I saw a room I would love to use which it seems will be available. I saw the prison library and met an employee who loves the idea of adding Shakespeare materials to their collection. I saw the chapel building, which has a gymnasium converted for religious services. An inmate gospel choir was practicing.

Then my guide took a moment to introduce me to two inmates in the chapel office. I’ve forgotten one man’s name, but he told me about his high school experience performing in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He was interested.

Now, in my Christian faith, I come from the Presbyterian and Reformed perspective, so I am usually reluctant to identify events or occasions as signs from God. Call this a sign from God or call it whatever you want, but the other inmate quoted a few lines from Romeo and then introduced himself as Samuel L Jackson. That really is his real name. He told me he’s interested too, ready to get started as soon as we can. When Samuel L Jackson tells you that he wants to be in your Shakespeare program, I’m going to pay attention to that.

(Aside: I will avoid using inmates’ real or full names. However, Mr. Jackson talks about his crime using his own name in a youtube video currently online.)

My guide, who will also be the prison supervisor overseeing this program, has also had theatre experience, having performed the role of Walter Lee in A Raisin in the Sun while in high school.

This morning was one of the most remarkable of my life. On my drive back, I wept a while, to think I have passed a challenged I’ve unknowingly been long preparing for. I sang the doxology. I prayed some more. I pulled into a rest area and sent text messages. And I am still amazed and overwhelmed by this day.

Let me tell you what’s ahead: I will begin thinking about the beginnings of this program. The Pendleton officials have suggested that I send them some videos of Shakespeare for their closed circuit television system as a lead-in to their announcing the program. I think I will send them the documentary about Shakespeare Behind Bars and an Al Pacino documentary about performing Richard III. On Saturday, October 5, I will attend a volunteer training program in Indianapolis, and Pendleton would like for me to begin on Friday morning, October 11. My group will begin open to 10 inmate participants. The plans for the group will be developed in consultation with the inmates.

I thank everyone for the prayers and support of this effort so far, and for all of our previous interactions with Shakespeare Behind Bars. I will continue my association with them going forward, visiting their inmates and supporting their programs. I will welcome all of your prayers, best wishes, and positive energy in the months ahead. I will be seeking advice and maybe directly asking for some help from some of you who will read this. I’ll conclude with expressing my deepest gratitude to Curt, Laura, and Matt, the Luckett and Brooks inmates, and you who have been with me on this journey from the beginning. And on with a new beginning with what we are going to call Shakespeare at Pendleton.

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